Maryam Ghadiri – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT
My story started on April 7, 2012 when my husband and I were all packed and ready to come to the US.
I was so happy, I was so excited, I heard a lot about this amazing country: land of opportunity, land of freedom and equality.
All we had was two suitcases. One suitcase full of hope, passion, and dream for a better future, and a second suitcase full of photos, books, souvenirs, anything that reminded us of our motherland.
We came to the U.S. from Iran, a country in the Middle East that seemed to be quite well-covered in Western media. And according to the same media I came from a country that is all desert. Nothing grows there, nothing. No precipitation, no rain; let alone snow. Modernity and technology do not make any sense, they do not exist, even their terminology.
There are good things about it, though. We have no traffic, as, of course, we go around on camels. And a woman like me, we have zero rights, covered from head to toes. No education, no social life, culturally and religiously oppressed.
All the pictures you just saw are photos from an exhibition called “Iran beyond Politics”, or (Farsi). A 12-day display that attracted more than 600 visitors.
And today, I’m here on this stage to share with you what motivated me to curate this work and what is the idea behind this exhibition.
We came to Purdue University to start our graduate studies, and I ended up working in one of the best labs. Everything seemed good and to be going according to plan.
But one day, I noticed that something was changing, actually something in me was changing. That moment, I started the first chapter of this story. I realized that when I introduced myself as an Iranian, I received three main reactions.
The first reaction goes like this: “So, where are you from?”
“Excuse me, where?”
End of the conversation. They had no clue about Iran. I think that was OK, at that time.
The second group, they would go like this: after I introduced myself and my nationality, they would pause, think and say, “Oh, you mean ‘Iran’, right?”
Again, it was the end of the conversation. I could see in their eyes the flashback to all the news out there. Maybe associating Iran with Iraq; maybe with war, I don’t know, there are a lot of stereotypes out there.
And we never get into deeper conversation because they already knew about Iran: they didn’t need another story.
And the third and my favorite group, they would react like this: “So, you’re Persian!? My grandpa has a Persian carpet. My aunt has this beautiful Persian cat. I have a new friend from Tehran, maybe you know her.”
Or, “Do you know how to cook? I love Persian food with saffron.”
And I learned it’s better to be Persian rather than Iranian. Although both of them are the same, Persian has a more positive connotation. And the reason I really liked the third group was because I could be myself, they would not doubt me when I was talking about my memories, when I was talking about my experiences back home.
About the same time, I made a new friend, Amandine from Paris. And she’s one of my best friends today. When she introduced herself as French, I found out, “Oh, my God, people love France.” Its wine, its cheese, whatever associated with France, it didn’t matter.
It was so interesting to see their effort in digging out the vocabulary they learned in high school. Just to start a conversation; so different from my experience.
Sometimes, when we were speaking French, after she introduced herself and her nationality, I’d keep silent. And by being silent I was taken as French too. And it felt good, it felt really good, to share the credit, the reflected glory, to see people’s excitement and shimmering light in their eyes. It happened several times.
And I found that, despite the fact that I really liked those moments, I’m carrying this feeling of guilt, embarrassment, disappointment. What was I doing and why me?
I became conscious of this hidden fear inside me, the hidden fear of being othered and not being accepted by people around me. I was asking this question: what am I doing?
I knew myself as a person in love with my culture, as a person in love with the national landscape, with the beauty of my country, with the culture of people, ethnicity, fruit, food, seasons. For God’s sake, I used to write about it.
I used to be a freelance environmental journalist, I used to write about it and remind people of who we are and what we have. And now I was denying my nationality.
Denying my nationality meant denying my identity, denying my family, my friends, my roots, anything and everything that made me who I am today, denying a land that raised me and its air I breathed for 26 years.
That epiphany has started the second chapter of my story. All of a sudden, I was so eager and enthusiastic to talk about my identity. By that time, I had several presentations about Iran, even its ancient, sustainable architecture, its culture, but it was not enough.
I was looking for something different, something more self-explanatory, that instead of me talking to people, people would come and would draw their own conclusion.
Then it struck me, “How about a photo exhibition?” A photo exhibition so that people would come, we provide a space, and we show things that they don’t see in the media: part of culture, part of nature, maybe everyday life of people.
Then in this space, visitors can create their own impression. I wrote this proposal and took it to the Rueff School of Visual and Performing Arts. The gallery coordinator was so excited, she asked me, “So, are you a photographer?”
“No,” I was not.
“Hmm, do you have any sample photo?”
“Have you ever had any experience of setting up a photo exhibition?”
“About that? No.”
But it wasn’t the end of the story. I was not a photographer, but I had a lot of photographer friends. So I contacted them.
And finally I located a friend, an editor of a well-regarded journal. The name of the journal was “My Motherland” or (Farsi).
I was amazed by their archive, more than 22,000 photos, over six years of their work. And the editor told me that, in their touring other countries, the journal has been called “National Geographic of Iran.”
For having everyday life of people, we needed street photography. We reached out to other photographers, and even bloggers who had good photos of Iran.
Lastly, we invited everyone who had a photo of Iran to share it in the social media, to hashtag “Iran beyond Politics.”
In my mind everything was simple. We had all these photos, they provide a photo, we are in charge of the rest. We needed a space. We have photos, we frame them, now we have a photo exhibition.
But the reality was totally different. So much work, so much collaboration, communication, and of course, miscommunication. I needed help, lots of help; I reached out to nearly all my friends.
And you know, in grad school nobody has time; but if you have a good story to tell, people like to help. I had lots of help. A group working on reception day preparing Persian snacks, of course, with saffron. A big group working on fundraising; another group working on publicity and advertisement; a big group of translators receiving everything in Farsi, translating it in English; an American friend who fact-checked and edited every single description, so the contents can convey to the audience clearly.