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FROM TEHRAN ( تهران )


8 | 10 |16

by Dominic Inouye

Last month, three days after Alton Sterling was killed and two days after Philando Castile was killed, at the end of a week of violence that would tear a hole in the summer of so many lives, I had a lunch interview at Cempazuchi on Brady Street with my friend Fereshteh (Azi) Bashiri, a fellow member of November Project Milwaukee.  This may seem too out of date to publish now, but Azi is still Azi (actually, she just ran her first 5K and 6K races in the same week!) and our country’s problem with gun violence has not been solved.

I couldn’t help but think it brave of her to not only visit the United States but to study here and immerse herself in the culture.  Whether it was discussing her PhD work or laughing about how strange it was that she all of a sudden had a credit card or commenting on the differences between her home country and the U.S., Azi mentioned problem-finding and problem-solving in regards to each of them.  

I couldn’t help but think that her simple story of getting out of her comfort zone is one that all of us need right now.

Azi has been in Milwaukee for three years, almost to the date, having moved here from Tehran, Iran ( تهران‎‎  ایران ) to study at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  She grew up in the heart of the city, near the picturesque Laleh Park ( لاله پارک ).

I didn’t come to the United States because I was insecure about Iran.  Some people liked the Revolution [of 1979], some disliked it, some were in the middle.  In the end, it’s my  country.  I may not like some of its history, it may have some imperfections, but I don’t want to introduce Iran as a horrible, unpleasant place.  Instead, I came for a new experience.  New experiences help you grow up.

I came to Milwaukee three years ago, on August 3, 2013, as a PhD student in electrical engineering.  My specialty is medical image processing, which is more computer science than biology.  It’s a lot about developing ideas and solving problems: someone has a bright idea about how something can be solved, and different groups collaborate to work on it.  For instance, for cancer treatments, doctors take periodic pictures (MRIs, CT scans, etc.).  It requires the laborious work of an expert to compare these pictures since the technology is still not capable of fulfilling it automatically.  So we look at ways to improve the technology so that a doctor can superimpose these different pictures better to compare differences in noise levels, shrinking, progressions, and so on.

Recently I was talking to a friend in Iran about differences between Iran and the U.S. Iran is a developing country; like other developing countries, lack of money and resources make it easier to imitate developed countries and to not pursue innovative ideas.  For example, they need new cars, so they bring Western companies in to manufacture them.  The U.S., on the other hand, is always about creativity, about creating something new, finding a problem or identifying a need, then solving or filling it.  For example, Uber solved the problem of having to stand on the street and shake your hands for a cab.  People in the U.S. ask lots of questions, and if something isn’t available to help answer that question, they find out how to make it.  That’s what I like about the U.S.

It’s true: I was living in a very bounded country.  There are some limitations due to Islamic customs.  My family isn’t very religious, but I still conformed to the culture: I wore a headscarf in public, covered my body, but not for religious reasons--to respect the law.  Even though it was hard sometimes.  Like having to play sports or go to the beach covered up--it get’s hot!  And coming out of the water with your clothes on!

So I wanted to face things in another country that I wouldn’t usually experience, like being a girl living alone before marriage.  I had to learn how to be responsible for every single task in my life, such as paying bills, cooking, and doing laundry while earning money and socializing.  There were things that were so different from Iran.  Like credit cards.  What’s a credit card? I wondered.  We don’t have those in Iran; you just use a debit card.  If you have the money, then you can buy things.  If you don’t, you don’t.  Another example is buying stuff online, even from China--and then returning them if they don’t work out!  It took me a long time just to get used to the common return policy.  It was interesting and new to me that I could do this.  But my friend said, “You can just buy three different sizes, try them on, and send the ones that don’t fit back.”  With so many things, it took me longer than usual, partly because of the language.  


It was just this fall when the weather was getting depressing (and it was more unpleasant than usual to me because I was working alone in my office at UWM with no window) that I told myself that I needed to make a community for myself.  Even with my Persian friends in Milwaukee, I was in need of joining a larger community.  In Iran, I had a huge extended family, but here, well, “I need to see people!”  And I need to see different people.


Azi found one of these communities in November Project Milwaukee, which offered her a different kind of extended family of people coming together to work out, have fun, get to know each other, support each other--even (or especially) newbies or strangers, people of different ages and body types, different abilities and experiences and goals.

Three things Azi told me ring true and essential right now: 


Seek new experiences because they help you grow up.  We have a lot of “growing up” to do as a city and a nation, don’t we, especially as we have critical conversations about how to stem neighborhood violence and the lack of scrutiny and justice regarding police brutality.  Especially as we enter into the next three months of election season.


Create new things, find problems, identify needs, then solve or fill them.  Azi sees in American culture these capacities, and it’s time everyone starts actualizing their potential.  Otherwise, nothing we want to change will change.


See people.  Not just because you’re alone in a windowless office in an engineering building, but because you are more alone when you don’t see other people, especially the “Other,” the stranger, the foreign, the person with a different experience than yours.  It’s easier to dismiss, ignore, become indifferent or prejudiced, even hate, when you exist only in your “Tehran,” whatever or wherever that is.  Azi’s Tehran, her Iran, is a complex and beautiful and controversial one with a long history include the cylinder of Cyrus the Great (or Kourosh, کوروش), generally considered to be the first declaration of human rights ever recorded.  She has not left it for good, but she did make the leap three years ago to open herself up to a whole new world.  It’s been hard--but how hard can it really be?

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