Iran from a Different Lens: Maryam Ghadiri at TEDxPurdueU (Transcript)

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?”

“From Irān.”

“Excuse me, where?”

“Iran.”

“Oh, cool!”

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.

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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?”

“No.”

“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.

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Finally, it was there, “Iran beyond Politics,” the photo exhibition; nearly 50 photos with descriptions in Farsi and English, and a small map that shows where the photo was taken. 600 people showed up, including individuals, groups, students of classes like history, political science, architecture.

This project took more than a year from the beginning to the end. And in showing “Iran beyond Politics”, we took our audience, we walked them through mountains, through deserts.

We took them on a journey to experience the hillside full of flowers, we showed them the richness of my history, through showing the historical monuments, the castle of Cyrus the Great, mesmerizing Islamic architecture, full of pattern, full of colors.

We took them to religious ceremonies, even to traditional dance. To taste the everyday life of people, we took them to big cities full of traffic and buildings. They give them a glimpse of everyday life by showing pictures of stores, corner shops, bakeries preparing fresh products every day, in every corner of my home, Iran.

“Iran beyond Politics” – this exhibition was not my voice. It was the voice of all those photographers and journalists who could not be here, who could not even share their photos earlier with other journals on international scales because of the sanctions and limitation in communication.

And the third chapter of this story goes beyond introducing a country in the Middle East. And this talk is not an inspirational talk to say that, “Oh, the political differences do not exist.” No. I do not want to deny that, definitely not.

I would like to share with you the power of media, the power of media in not showing the whole story, the power of media in not presenting the whole picture, and presenting one facet of the country, the political facet; and ignoring all those stories that are out there and shaping the culture; in this case, my culture.

Media can be so powerful to create ignorance and distort the view of a group of people, nationality, or a religion in the eyes of the rest of the world. And this ignorance and distortion can be so strong that those people prefer to hide their identity, to hide part of themselves.

Media can be so powerful. Today I’m using the same media to talk to young people out there and tell them: if you hide part of your identity, maybe you have a second thought of revealing who you are and embracing your identity fully, and completely, and proudly.

I would like to end my talk with a quote from Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian novelist.

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with the stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

The United States has one portrait of Iran in the media, and with this exhibition, we would like not to negate that portrait at all, but to supplement it with rich history, intelligent people, and magnificent geography of my home, Iran.

And today I’m here, on this stage, four years after my arrival in the US, and if you ask me who I am, I will say proudly, “I’m Maryam, from Iran.”

Thank you.

Resources for Further Reading:

The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Adichie (Transcript)

Julien S. Bourrelle: How Culture Drives Behaviours at TEDxTrondheim (Transcript)

Stereotypes: Funny Because They Are True by Katerina Vrana (Full Transcript)

What We Can Do About the Culture of Hate: Sally Kohn at TED (Full Transcript)

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