A Beginner’s Guide to America: For the Immigrant and the Curious is a real treat – witty, comedic, brimming with in-depth knowledge about America, and a literary gem to boot.
As she notes in the introduction, her early socialization was shaped by the persecution she suffered due to her religion, gender, and beliefs. She is also the product of war and revolution in the theocratic state that she left behind.
Yet she quickly observes that “America cares little about what you have done, only what you will do while you are here.” And that’s a key finding concerning much of American life.
Or, as former New York City Mayor Ed Koch put it bluntly, âHow am I? “
As a journalist covering Iranian Jews and Iran, Hakakian’s juxtaposition of the post-1979 clerical state with the United States is no shortage of stark contrasts.
âIf you come from a country where women have to wear the veil, you will be amazed to see women without a veil walking around,â she wrote.
It refers to how autocracies such as the Islamic Republic seek to protect your “virtue” by using intelligence agents. In contrast, the freedoms entrenched in the United States guarantee the right to be without a veil or to wear a veil, a coexistence intrinsic to the democratic way of life.
Hakakian cites the widespread use of seat belts and helmets for cyclists in the United States as a reminder “where human life is not as cheap as you once knew”.
There is no “morality police,” she writes of parks in America, in stark contrast to the orientation patrol squads in Iran who pursue women who do not wear the hijab properly. Morality police also exist in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia and other predominantly Muslim countries.
The book is not only about immigrants from Iran, but is kind of a how-to guide for immigrants from all nations.
It is extremely difficult to sort out the great anecdotes from Hakakian’s book, because it is overflowing with them. But let us quote the use of the question “Where do you come from?” which is often posed in America. Hakakian dives into this sentence with a razor sharp scalpel and writes, âTo avoid thinking of threatening Ayatollahs, you might not want to call yourself Iranian. You’d better pair up with lush rugs and purring cats and call yourself Persian instead. “
In his CV section, âYour Life on One Page,â Hakakian notes that the street intelligence and survival skills that helped you flee your autocratic homeland, âAll the feats you have done to escape and foiling all the dangers, which seemed to be major triumphs at the time, deserve no mention now.
Reading the section on ESL classes, I felt like I was transported to an American version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and the pronunciation issues that Eliza Doolittle had. Who hasn’t studied a foreign language and had articulation problems?
The challenges faced by speakers of Slavic languages, Spanish, Arabic and Farsi are delightfully presented in the book.
The dreams of immigrants are a recurring theme. Many migrants, especially those of the younger generation, do not wonder what a man or a woman is, but rather what a man or woman can become in the United States. Hakakian also captures the goals of immigrants in the most disadvantaged age group of over 40.
With her example of Vladimir the doctor, who was the head doctor of a large hospital in Russia and who will now have to be content with manual labor, she explores the rough contours of immigration.
His striking illustrations of the dreamlike world of new immigrants to America are reminiscent of TE Lawrence’s famous quote from Lawrence of Arabia: “All men dream: but not equally.” Those who dream at night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up during the day to find it was vanity, but day dreamers are dangerous men, for they can dream their dreams with their eyes open, to make it possible. .
In âOn Public Transportation, Getting Lost,â Hakakian displays a strange ability to draw hilarious parallels between Iran’s totalitarian regime and the United States. “No leader or Ayatollah name follows the word ‘Great’ here.”
She adds that it is “better to breathe on a mediocre elm tree without ambition than to walk under the banner of a Valiasr, the Shiite Messiah”.
The New York Times reported in 2009, amid protests over the fraudulent election victory of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that âat one point thousands of protesters were chanting ‘death to dictator’ as they marched through Valiasr Street, the broad avenue that runs through much of Tehran, collided with an equally large crowd of pro-government protesters chanting slogans against Israel, the United States and Britain.
Hakakian perfectly captures the contrast between the harmless names of American streets and Iranian avenues with theologically animated names.
At the same time, she notes that the existence of a Frederick Douglass Highway means “America’s mistakes are not uncommon, but they have the ability to correct themselves and change course.” His book is animated by the spirit of the commentary of the great American social and political philosopher Sidney Hook that “unlike totalitarianism, democracy can face and live with the truth about itself”.
A Beginner’s Guide to America is, in many ways, a celebration of the country, a tribute, but without ignoring its flaws and mistakes.
Hakakian dissects American consumer culture in a free but not pejorative way, noting, for example, the great diversity and abundance of grains that are presented to newcomers upon arrival.
âTyrants urge their citizens to loosen their ties with the material world. They want them ready to sacrifice themselves for a higher cause, to become martyrs. Some even promise paradise with all kinds of heavenly benefits, âshe writes.
His sections on love talk in the United States and how attraction develops could be a book in itself.
“Americans have created an industry to talk about the unspeakable,” she writes, presenting a sort of collection of “Seven Deadly Sins, Immigrant Edition”.
Hakakian’s use of dialogue in dialogue further engages the reader in the struggles of new immigrants. In âSerendipity for Two Lost Immigrants,â she captures the trials and tribulations of two Jewish Iranians who have recently arrived in sprawling New York City. In another dialogue section, she presents “A Car Ride with Two Dissenting Parents and Their Very Young Children,” where she explores the Chinese Communist Party.
His book is peppered with questions about things Americans take for granted: “How do free people live?” And “What is a fearless night?”
The highly repressive states that immigrants fled are places where “you just tiptoe around the edges of life, like it’s some dreaded beast not to be awakened,” notes Hakakian.
One of the strengths of the book is that Hakakian manages to overcome the common wisdom that good questions are better than good answers, excelling in both spheres.
Flawed and sometimes deeply misleading American diplomacy regarding totalitarian regimes surfaces in the book. The author’s section on the longevity of dictatorships could apply to the Chinese Communist regime, North Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran, to name just three very dangerous nations.
âWhat you don’t know is that a dictatorship has a half-life. When it is new it is thought of as an evil that the world needs to get rid of. But if it is not overthrown in time and continues to endure, the next generation will likely see it as another flawed regime, âwrites Hakakian.
The book is aptly captioned “For the immigrant and the curious”. One can only hope that it will be translated into the languages ââof immigrants to America, ranging from Arabic, Spanish and Russian to Persian.
With his spectacular new work, Hakakian jumped into the past, lived in the present, and jumped into the future. ??
The writer is a member of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
Beginner’s Guide to America
By Roya Hakakian
218 pages; $ 27