Zosh… zosh… er… af… atain? My name has always evoked a sense of eyebrow-raising intrigue, “foreignness,” and at times, suspicion. My full name, Zosherafatain, translates to “pride and honor” in Arabic, though most Iranians, including my family, speak Farsi.
Growing up, however, my name often made me feel everything other than “pride.” I was born in Massachusetts to an Iranian father and a Greek mother. My brother and I, with our tan complexions and dark brown hair, stood out in our small town, largely populated by Irish people who used to live in Boston. Our last name immediately stuck out in a sea of Smiths, Donnellys, and Connollys.
I remember feeling squeamish on the first day of school every year, waiting for the teacher to butcher my name, with the usual quick laughs of my classmates. Zosh, zosher, zosheraf… how do you pronounce that name? “Zosh-er-af-a-ten,” I would quickly state, hoping to avoid embarrassment, and saying it with a quick roll of the tongue so that it sounded easier to say.
There were other times when my status as a first-generation American was fraught with tension. Our house got egged twice, and on both occasions, it wasn’t even Halloween. In a neighbourhood where the only other family that somewhat resembled us was Indian, it was easy to find the reason why: we were outsiders.
Another time, our neighbour’s father called my dad “a camel back rider.” From a young age, I had internalised a sense of feeling foreign in my birth country. This is too often felt by youth of colour who learn early on about their “otherness” through prejudice, taunting, and often times, as a result of violence. These first memories were from elementary school, before 9/11, which brought a monumental shift in how America treated (and still treats) families like mine.
When 9/11 happened, I remember being glued to the TV, watching in shock as the World Trade Centres collapsed while monitoring the skies above my house to see if Boston was going to be attacked too.
Mamamia Out Loud on why it’s time to stop shouting and start trying to understand the people we don’t agree with. Post continues after audio.
I was in middle school, and like most students my age, I was scared. Unlike my white peers, however, I was also frightened for my family in the Middle East. That night, my dad came home and said in a near-prophetic manner: “Bush is going to invade Iraq.” Not even a week later, President Bush was officially announcing that exact action.
To my family, the threat of war spreading into Iran, which borders Iraq, felt imminent.
Unlike most people in our town, we didn’t just feel sadness about the lives lost in 9/11, but also gut-wrenching fear and anxiety. We soon noticed that we were kept for extra security checks at airports, and one of my hockey teammates subtly asked, “Are you a terrorist?” when I told her that my dad is from Iran.
When my Iranian grandmother visited us in 2002, I was anxious about bringing her out around town. Her chador (head covering worn by Muslim women) quickly outed her, and I will never forget the glaring, dismissive eyes of the shoppers when we took her with us to the grocery store. Though I remember this post-9/11 period being really bad for my family, it pales in comparison to living in Trump’s America.
When Trump won the election, I reacted like the progressive half of the country. I was shocked, dismayed, and kept asking myself, “How did this happen?” On top of that, I was readying myself mentally for what was surely going to be a roller coaster ride for all Middle Eastern-Americans. At age 29, I am now around the same age that my dad was when he proclaimed Bush’s plans to invade Iraq.