A Conversation with Dina Nayeri
The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You.

Catapult Books | 346 pgs. | $26.00

By Jan Alexander

Asylum and the Story-Telling Lottery

I am meeting Dina Nayeri on a noisy concourse beneath Rockefeller Center in New York. She arrives, after a couple of texts because it’s hard to find a staircase leading down there (it took me a while, too), looking as rushed as any New Yorker. She’s wearing slim capris and her hair is streaked reddish; for all appearances this 40-year-old woman is a stylish citizen of the world who’d be at home in any major metropolis.  The hug, though we’ve never met before, is a standard greeting between cosmopolites.

Nayeri writes about assimilation in her new book, The Ungrateful Refugee, which is both a memoir of her own flight from Iran and a cri de cœur for refugees from all over. But she grew up in an urbane home in the ancient capital city of Isfahan, the child of a doctor and a dentist, then had to discover American ways from the Oklahoma plains before she was able to assimilate back into the world at large—to college at a faraway place called Princeton, then to Harvard Business School, then to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

She has written two novels, Refuge, and A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea, both of which contend with Iranian families in which some leave for the West while others stay behind, and she’s won the kind of prizes and fellowships that a writer can spend a lifetime coveting, including the 2018 UNESCO City of Literature Paul Engle Prize and the O. Henry Prize.

She lives in Paris with her husband and young daughter now, after several years in London, and has come back to the U.S. for a book tour. She’s had a busy round of interviews. It’s after 2:00 and she’s had no time for lunch, so we find a gourmet deli and scramble for an unoccupied table. I’ve read about her time in a refugee camp where mealtimes were set, and how fortunate she was to be in a low-hardship camp where there was enough to eat, though as in all refugee enclaves, living in limbo created emotional scars that will never heal.

I’ve also read about why she isn’t totally, unequivocally grateful to America, and the West at large, for taking her in, along with her mother and brother, when they had to flee Iran due to religious persecution. But Nayeri is accustomed to interviewers asking why she’s “ungrateful” and she jumps right in, saying “the thing is, despite the title it isn’t an angry book. I’m full of love and empathy for the Western people. It’s just this moment where I feel they’re going down the wrong path and losing out on a world that could be so much more beautiful.”

“Love and empathy” are the kind of terms you hear if you grow up in a Christian church—which she did, a highly illegal act in the Islamic Republic of Iran. But in reality, the book is a knockout punch against Western smugness, indifference, and ignorance in the face of the refugee crisis, and that’s precisely what makes it a literary triumph.

“There’s a faction of Americans who have never been anywhere else but assume all immigrants come here because everything is better here, I say. I’m flaunting my own bias because I want to talk about the Oklahomans who inevitably assumed that her family came to the U.S. for “a better life,” when  actually, they had a better life in Iran.

“Literally the two bad things about Iran were caused by the Islamic Republic and the war with Iraq,” she says. “Other than those things this was an old civilization, a place with literature and fine food, a place where my family had lived for thousands of years.”

From a home in Isfahan with a pool and a nanny, they shuttled from one temporary refuge to another until they settled in an attic apartment in Oklahoma, in the home of a right-wing evangelical couple named Jim and Jean. Nayeri’s doctor mother went to work in a pharmaceutical factory “sorting pills into bottles late into the night,” as she describes it in the book, with bosses who wrote her off as stupid if the language barrier caused her to take too long to articulate a thought.

When Jean told young Dina and her brother she was taking them out to get the best sweet in America, she writes in the book,  “We squealed.. It would have to be better than saffron ice cream, rose water cream puffs, and pomegranate fruit leather, better than honey baklava..” Or pistachio cookies, or chocolate walnut cake, or chilled saffron almond rice pudding. Imagine the refugee children’s letdown when Jean treated them to… blue slushies.

Nayeri’s story is, needless to say, complicated, as all refugee stories are. She was born in 1979, the same year the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power and founded the Islamic Republic.  A year later the Iran-Iraq war began. She writes about being a child of wartime who developed obsessive compulsive behavior that she describes as “an itch in my brain.”

A more personal war commenced on her home front after her mother took young Dina and her brother to London to visit their maternal grandmother, who had emigrated and become a Christian, and they all converted. As Nayeri describes it in the book, her mother’s conversion  was more a plea for her own mother’s love than an act of faith. But back in Iran, they risked their lives to attend an underground church. Nor was Nayeri’s father—her beloved but drug-addled Baba—supportive of his wife’s religious awakening. She describes how her father had learned which palms to grease and which patients to prioritize after the Islamic Revolution, and now here was his wife openly tucking religious brochures into women’s chadors.

Young Dina herself studied obsessively, and as the top student in her class received the dubious honor of leading her all-girl class in the morning chant, which included the call “Death to America! Death to Israel!”

“We had to chant that every morning,” Nayeri tells me. “My mother had said these are the countries that are our secret allies.” Her mother had said to just be silent and lie, rather than saying the words out loud. “So when the time came when I was actually forced to lead that chant, it was incredibly traumatic.  It took months to live down that trauma. And my mum wasn’t particularly good at making me feel less guilt.”

Sometime in 1987 her mother was arrested and given a choice; “spy against the underground church or face arrest and execution.” That was when they fled. Baba stayed behind and eventually remarried. Dina was eight, her brother, Khosrou was five. (Her mother changed his name to Daniel before they became refugees in Europe;  Daniel Nayeri is now a writer and children’s book editor.)

They spent 10 months hiding out in the United Arab Emirates, then fled to a refugee camp called Barba, housed in an abandoned hotel outside Rome.

The challenge in any refugee camp, Nayeri tells me, is to keep believing that the interminable, indefinite waiting will end with asylum in a new country. But you never know how long the wait will last, or if it will ever end.  “You don’t know when you can start your life. You’re in a limbo.”

In the book she writes about how all waiting has become agony for her. She quotes from Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse,  that “waiting robs you of your sense of proportion. It plays out in scenes, in outbursts and calm, like waiting in a café for a lover to arrive. It is the ultimate indignity, to be made to wait; and power is to impose it.”

Nayeri and her mother and brother were lucky; they passed the grilling at the hands of immigration officers about why they were fleeing Iran, and they had Jim and Jean as sponsors

“There was a tangible feeling at the time when we arrived that this was the duty of the West… yes, there was a feeling that we had to be grateful, but also a sense that there was no other choice because we were vulnerable and in danger,” she tells me. “The feeling of that obligation is gone. Now it’s replaced by tribalism and entitlement.”

In recent years she has worked with refugees in camps, writing about the conditions and helping the refugees learn to tell their stories to officials in a way that will get them through Western barriers that bureaucrats seem to have modeled from a Kafka story.

Refugees can, in theory, gain asylum in a new country if they can prove that they have been persecuted at home based on one of five categories: religion, political opinion, membership in a social group, race, or sexual orientation.

The story they tell is everything, and it has to fit into a particular pigeonhole that might vary from day to day. Nayeri writes of a Kurdish girl who had been raped brutally,  but her story wasn’t interesting enough to immigration officials because half of her village had been raped; it wasn’t an individual enough story.

“Let’s say you’re from El Salvador,” she says. “And a gang came to you demanding money, and you ran away because you knew if you didn’t give them the money they’d kill you. If you tell the border officer that the reason you ran away is that you couldn’t afford to pay the gang, you’re not a refugee. If you say it’s because you believe the gangs shouldn’t be running your country then you might qualify as refugee because of your political opinions.” Few refugees are versed in such nuances, though.

Nayeri studied with Charles Baxter at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and in the book she talks about his definition of what makes a powerful story: a character’s world turns on its axis and their life is changed forever. Oppressive conditions can upend a person’s life, too.

“But the details that make a literary story are what the immigration officers want to strip away,” Nayeri says. “They continually repeat the same questions looking for you to contradict yourself. Yet you could get turned away for being too cookie cutter.”

Worse for immigrants, she says, “The story they’re looking for is not the story-telling tradition of any culture.”

In the book she examines the Iranian storytelling tradition, and how it satisfies none of the requirements for asylum. “No narrative rules, no problem with spoilers…. They start long before the beginning… but you start philosophizing and you’ve lost your Western listener…. Lies aren’t lies if they point somewhere…and you can signal your trauma and shame with a pointed, ‘this isn’t something for saying.’”

Moreover, she writes, the longer a refugee has to wait, “with each passing day, the refugee behaves less like an honest petitioner… his desire overwhelms him. He becomes intense, unattractive… he grows frantic, a risk to a new country… waiting compels melodrama.”

That’s the worst part of waiting, she says as we’re talking. “These long waits they impose on refugees cause them to go from being incredibly… “  she pauses over the word. “You know, from being incredibly productive, happy, good people, to being depressed and dejected, and their children might be starting to be radicalized because they have nothing else to do. You can make anyone like that if you drive them to madness for three years in a camp, living in a shipping crate, jumping at every sound because you don’t know who’s living next door. You turn them into the very danger that people in the West are telling their populations to fear. We’re teaching Western children that they’re of a different caliber, and the refugees are dangerous.. or that somehow Western birth entitles them to more.”

She pauses again. “Sorry to get mad.”

I am left to wonder where this highly productive naturalized    had stayed in limbo for years on end. This is the story that happens more and more now, and of course, it gets even worse when children and parents are separated at the U.S. border. I’m left thinking of another story Nayeri tells in the book—like most of her tales, a matter of one layer upon another upon another.

There was an Iranian Kurd named Kaweh Beheshtizadeh who was granted temporary shelter in the U.K., although he had to claim to be an Iraqi Kurd because of an immigration officer who just didn’t get it. Kaweh spent 21 months in a house in Cardiff, Wales, with a total of 20 housemates who passed through during that time, all of whom were rejected as legal immigrants. He later read that one had set himself on fire. Finally, Kaweh was lucky enough to get asylum, which meant he  had about month to leave the house, secure a bank account, which required proof of address, and a new address, which generally requires a bank account—not  to mention find a source of income. He was lucky again—he was accepted in graduate school.  He is now a prominent immigration lawyer in the U.K., and Nayeri notes that his taxes have has paid many multiples of the allowance he received as an asylum seeker.

Nayeri has befriended him, and just as an experiment, he put her through a mock asylum interview based on the present-day conditions. She didn’t quite pass, because she didn’t actually have a copy of the baptism certificate that proved she was a Christian.  If you must flee persecution today, don’t forget your documentation. 

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