Dear Passport Controller

by Leili Najmabadi


I fear what you’ll say at passport control, I fear what I say won’t be enough or that it’ll be too much. I’ll be standing in line in the airport in Tehran fidgeting with the hijab my mother had lent me, worried that its patterns are out of date compared to the young, glamorous Iranian women around me. Will they look at the fabric and somehow know it’s from the pile of headscarves my mother carried with her as she left her country and the chaos of a revolution, all those years ago? Will they hear an American accent through my Farsi and sneer, making it clear I will never be one of them?

When I go back to Iran, and I know that I will though perhaps not in the near future, I know that it will be man who will greet me at passport control. Will he find it difficult to make eye contact with me? He will say my name, loud and clear.  No stumbling, no apologizing. I will stand tall; this is the land of my name. Perhaps he will say he knows a relative of mine. Perhaps his father had gone to my grandfather’s pharmacy or his great-uncle was trained as an artist under my great-grandfather. Perhaps he walks his children to school and passes by the street of my ancestors, the one named after us. Where my great grandmother would sip her afternoon tea on the small rug outside her little, sweet house while playing her favorite card game, which I let my own grandmother teach me, so that I could feel some connection to the woman I was named after.

I wonder if this man, let’s call him Passport Controller, supported the Shah, supported the revolutionaries, or supported the revolutionaries and now dreams of a change in regime.  I wonder what he thinks of America, of its president, of me. Have I become this ideal, the child of Iranian immigrants after the 1979 revolution, where my parents receive degrees at American universities, where I as well receive an incredible education? How different and similar are we, me and the locals of Tehran?

If you and I eat the same foods, celebrate the same new year, listen to the same music, follow the same customs, I would get an extra point against the American tourist, right? If Iranian comes before a hyphen and American, would you see me in a different light, Passport Controller? Even if my opinions on the Iran deal are a bit…complicated?

And would you expect me to complain so much about which box to check off on a survey when there’s no Middle Eastern option? Would it leave you with an itchy feeling too, choosing between white and Asian when you feel like neither?

The day I go back, I know it will feel like home again. To be smothered in a mother tongue, to see your families’ stories come to life under apricot trees and inside saffron rice. To see yourself in the little girls licking their rosewater ice cream at the corner where the market ends and the mosque begins.

So if you give me a hard time, Passport Controller, because you cannot fully understand who I am and where I’ve come from, I ask you to send along a little message to the country that connects us.  It is through you that I have learned sacrifice, complexity, and appreciation for the only history and culture that I could ever call mine. It is your four letter country that I defend when I am the only one of our kind in a room, and your causes that I would like to fight for to see some positive  change. I am yours as you are mine, no matter what the rulers of the duality of my citizenships say. To have a place on the map and point to and say, hey sir, hey Passport Controller, this is the place I come from. There is no politician, religious leader, or travel ban that will change that. Its blood is in my veins and its warmth is in my soul, so won't you let me in? Let me come and stay for a little while, at least until the next time it's safe for me to be sent and received from here to you, like a letter with two addresses from opposite ends of the world-- who are you to tell me that only one can be home?

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leili najmabadi (she/hers): makes lists of good things, her favorites being: her childhood home in california, hand-picked dahlias, every audrey hepburn movie, boyband member she will never get over, a to do list with only book titles, running to “survivor” by destiny’s child-- people who make her heart happy! Will buy her 7-year-old cousin storybooks on intersectional feminism in exchange for free hairstyling, with a generous tip of unlimited hugs.