In Exile: A Review of The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You by Dina Nayeri

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Years ago, I had a pen pal, a man who wrote to me—in Tehran—sporadically for about a year, from a refugee camp in Turkey. We were Facebook friends—friends of friends—though sometimes I wondered about our connection on Facebook because all his posts were written in Kurdish, which I barely understood. My friend—Aras—was born and raised in Marivan—a city in Kurdistan province in Iran. He was a Sunni Muslim by birth, though he seemed very secular and also far left. I guess we were the same age; however, I never asked him. I don’t know precisely when and why, but something connected us, and we started exchanging long messages on Facebook—letters. 

I could feel from Aras’ letters that he was suffering from depression. He was very frustrated with his life in the refugee camp. He was tired of waiting. Sometimes he said that since he had become a refugee life had been showing him its cruel and bitter face. Sometimes he said that his entire life had been putting on hold. Aras felt hopeless.

Those days, I was different from who I am now. I was younger, my close friends were still residing in Iran, and there was a hope that those who were imprisoned in 2009 would be released one day very soon—as President Rouhani had promised us at a rally. Iran agreed to the JCPOA. Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif shook hands. Those days, Iranians hoped the country’s doors would be opened to the West. There was hope. I had hope.

I asked Aras, “Have you ever regretted fleeing from Iran? If yes, is there a way for you to come back home? Don’t you think that living in Iran under all those hardships was still better than the refugee camp in which you’ve been disrespected, humiliated, and tortured psychologically?”

“Shohreh, you would flee if you were in my situation,” Aras said. “But I’m sure there will be a time that no one wants to live there.”

“If I move, if you move, then who will remain to build our country, Aras? No, I don’t agree with you, I don’t like to flee from my country and reside in camps to find freedom. If one day I move from Iran, I will do it with respect. Iran is not heaven, but how could you assure me that those camps would be safe? How could you assure me that I would never feel disrespected for my thoughts of the U.S or Europe? I want to stay here. I want to build my dreams here in my own country. I won’t flee from my home.”

“Stay, but I see the day your own home will be your prison,” Aras said. “It will be your hell. I see that day, Shohreh.” 

That night, after a very poisonous argument, I unfriended Aras on Facebook, and I never contacted him again. Four years and a half passed from that night. Three months ago—November 2019—by accident, I found a filtered message from Aras.

“Shohreh, how are you?” 

*

In 1987, a year after Aras and I were born, a young Iranian doctor who converted to Christianity escaped the post-revolutionary Iran with her two children. Sima, 32, formerly “a devout Muslim” who took part in anti-Shah protests, found peace and meaning in Christianity in post-1979 Iran. She went through a lot of painful and bitter experiences and traveled a thousand miles, not to a “better life,” but at least to a safe life for herself and her children.

The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You is the first book of non-fiction by Dina Nayeri—Sima’s daughter. The book unravels the bitter truth and tear-jerking stories of the lives of refugees and asylum seekers. The book starts with a short but also a very informative sentence: “We became refugees.” The early pages depict Nayeri’s au revoir to Iran, to her beloved baba whose pockets were often full of pistachio nuts, to her loving grandmother in Isfahan, to those delicious dinners at the Hotel Kourosh, to her headscarf and Islamic school uniforms, to her first-grade teacher—Ms. Yadollahi—the only teacher Nayeri loved and still remembers, to ghormesabzi, to her comfortable and wealthy lifestyle in Isfahan, to Farsi, to her home. 

After the first part of the book, titled “Escape,” Nayeri shifts to the warzone Iran of the 1980s, to the bomb shelters at Isfahan where people took their tea, to their escape from Iran and new adventures as tourists and illegal immigrants in UAE, Dubai. At the time, Iran was being ruined by Saddam Hussein’s missiles. Residing in Dubai was a strange experience for Dina, but at the same time it was where she felt free. She describes how it felt to change how she looked,

“Maman and I threw away our headscarves like so much dirty tissue paper. I wore my hair in ponytails or loose, even in the streets, and she cycled through a tiny wardrobe of Western    staples. After three years sweating and itching under the Islamic school uniforms and the extra-tight academic hijab, the Emirati heat was nothing—I had never felt so free.”

The United Arab Emirates, an Arab country on the Persian Gulf with a Muslim majority population, has always been a paradise for Iranian tourists for its social freedom and its westernizations. Nayeri depicts what it was like to experience Dubai for the first time:

Dubai had supermarkets with long aisles, shopping carts on wheels, mountains of Western snacks. Nilla Wafers. Cornettos. The deceitful promises of a tin of Spam. Kentucky Fried Chicken with salty, minty yogurt soda (a magic pairing). And Corn Flakes: in a city that drew out your sweat within minutes of walking, crushed corn soaked in ice-cold milk was a revelation. It cooled your mouth like a summer dip in the Caspian. And yet, it wasn’t sweet enough to satisfy us.

Dubai seemed to Nayeri like a wonderland.  

Reading The Ungrateful Refugee, I found Nayeri’s mother—Sima—to be full of contradictions. Although Sima urged her children to lose their Iranian identity and become Western, she fought with her daughter over the length of her skirts. Having escaped from the Iranian morality police in wartime Iran, Sima became the one who was acting as the Iranian morality police. “Dina joon, you’re nine now,” Sima says. “Don’t lick ice cream in public again.”

Reflecting on this paradox, Nayeri writes: “I was confused for a long time, until a decade later when, after years of screaming fights about the length of my skirts and the right to shave my legs, I realized that something dark would forever separate my mother and me. She had been brought to adulthood believing that every disgusting male thing was her fault, and the fault of her daughter.”

Identity crisis, the conflict between the individual and its society, and feminism versus Christianity are the most essential sub-themes of The Ungrateful Refugee. Sima changed the Persian name of her son into Christian—Khosrow became Daniel. “This will be your brother’s name from now on because Westerners can’t pronounce Khosrow.” Obviously, Sima’s escape from Iran wasn’t only for war and religious persecution. Her escape from Iran was an Iran escape—from the Iranian and mostly Islamic culture. Sima’s efforts to cut the roots in her children and raise them like American kids worked for a long time—but somewhere in Nayeri’s adulthood, it stopped working

At first, Nayeri thought Christianity was feminism. Later, she began to understand the difference between the two. “I now know that I was searching for feminism, and along the way, I shed every doctrine and institution that failed to live up to it.”

As a secular feminist, I think Sima’s escape is from one religion to another, from Islam to Christianity, which has a long history of patriarchy, has nothing to do with feminism. What is interesting about The Ungrateful Refugee is that an Evangelical couple in the U.S helped Sima and her children to live in the states, but what is depressing today is that the American Evangelicals are the current U.S president’s supporters who has banned Muslims from entering the U.S. 

*

The summer of 2011 was a critical time in Dina Nayeri’s life. Though she has no idea it would be the last summer of her life with her husband—Philip, the couple traveled to—Hotel Barbara in Italy—the refugee hostel where she had once lived. Visiting Hotel Barbara and reviewing the old memories are the beginning of her journey. Her trip to Hotel Barbara is very symbolic, as once in her childhood, she had learned as a refugee there how to go on living without her father who stayed in Iran. In 2011, she comes to understand that she can go on even without Philip, who had been more father than husband. Traveling to refugee camps in Greece, Nayeri goes beyond her own life and tells us stories of many other refugees and Asylum seekers who are Middle Eastern and Muslims, including Amina and Mustafa—the Syrian refugees.

Amina from Aleppo opens the door. She is built like my mother, round and petite, with bottle-red hair and a neat blouse. Her intimate movements are like Iranian aunts; their welcome warms the limbs. She takes my shoulder and pulls me in, puts on tea without looking away. ‘Come in, come in. Sit. Have tea,’ she says in Arabic. When her daughters run in with her pleated skirt over tights, a fuzzy star on her shirt, it’s as if I’m sitting across my former self, my young mother.

Ultimately, The Ungrateful Refugee is an instruction book in how to be humane. As a Tehran-based daughter of an Iranian war veteran who fought against the MEK and the Ba’ath party during the Eight Years’ War with Iraq, as an Iranian woman who was born during the war, as an emerging writer publishing in the U.S. who is yet banned from entering the United States of America under Trump Muslim Ban, and as a Shia Muslim who is very secular and Liberal, I’ve witnessed the bitterness and unkindness of my own country toward the Afghan refugees living in Iran. It is not only Americans who need to hear Nayeri’s lesson on people treating one another with kindness and humanity—it is all of us.

*

The first time I watched videos of Nayeri reading her books or interviewing with Amanpour, it wasn’t easy for me to believe that she had been born and spent the first eight years of her life in Iran. I shared the link to her interview with an American friend and asked him to tell me about her accent.

“Yes, she sounds totally an American, like a cheerleader from South Dakota,” he said.

I took a closer look at her social media posts, her pictures. She was totally American to me. In her Salon article “Divorce from My Best Friend,” Nayeri confessed that Iran had become a pain since she’d fled. She hated it, and she has been trying hard to distance herself from it. But years later, when she became a successful and educated young American woman, she felt homeless, and Iran returned to her. 

What is home? Where is home? If the home is not the U.S, which gives Dina safety, peace, luck, power, and an American passport which lets her travel everywhere except her real home, then where is home?

In one of the letters Aras emailed me from the refugee camp in Turkey, he described home as something invisible you could take with yourself anywhere you move. He said,

You take home with yourself wherever you go, home is inside you, in your heart, in your mind, in the memories you have from childhood, you take the smells with you, the smell of Ghormesbzi, the smell of Sangak in the early hours of Friday mornings, the smell of Tabrizi cheese, the bitter taste of pomegranate in the gloomy evening of autumn on Fridays, the smell of natural dried rosebuds, the smell of Persian tea from Lehijan, you take home with you. 

Dina Nayeri is fluent in Farsi despite her strong American accent. I do not believe that she knows Christian Amanpour is not an icon of all Persian women, and that many Iranians hate NIAC. There is a lot about Iran of which Nayeri has no inkling, yet still, I find her to be very Iranian. She has been finding her roots. Home is home. Home can be ruined, but still it can be home. I think Nayeri has been in an unwanted exile all these years. 

In my response to Aras’ message— “Shohreh, how are you?”—I wrote, “Aras, I feel I’ve been in exile in my own home.”                                                 

Tehran, Jan 2020

Correction 2/18: An earlier version of this review published on 2/12, incorrectly stated that “Dina Nayeri doesn’t speak Farsi, and doesn’t have Isfahani accent either.” Dina Nayeri is fluent in Farsi.