It's funny how one incident can change your life. I had no idea I was that much different, until that barber in Delaware refused to cut my hair because of my ethnicity when I was nine years old. Thereafter, my life was changed. I was afraid to get my haircut, see a doctor, apply for a job, or meet someone new.
Any time I met someone new, I knew I had the potential to be treated "differently", which is really a nice way of saying "experiencing a racially-charged incident".
Things were always good with my childhood friends in Delaware. They knew me since I was a kid, and I didn't really get treated "different" by them, until it was time to start dating and all that. Before puberty -- and even after, really -- to my community of friends I was just "Pirooz". My name wasn't that strange. I didn't feel weird. I was just a normal American kid.
After I moved to Colorado, it was a whole new community. Then, it would be a series of funny questions, such as "What's the weather like where you come from?" or "What do you think of the government in Iran?"
I couldn't say much to those questions. I'd try and answer from what I read, but I was as American as everyone else in Delaware. I liked The Karate Kid, Jean Claude Van Damme (spelling?), Transformers, Cabbage Patch Kids, and riding my BMX.
Still, I was Mr. Nice Guy, and I'd answer the questions and hide if it hurt me, because if I said anything, then a person would get offended and it'd make it worse. I didn't even correct people when they said my name was "Peruse", because that would get people hot and bothered too.
Then September 11th happened.
I remember a friend calling me in Colorado and asking if I was okay.
"Just wanted to see," he said on the phone.
"I'm okay," I said. "Why wouldn't I be okay?"
"Because you're the new #1," he said, referencing how I had taken over his position as a member of the Cherokee nation and that Middle Easterners like me were the new target.
I didn't think it'd be that bad. I thought he was overreacting. But, within a week of September 11th, I got pulled over by the police twice, and one of my best friends was beaten up at a bar after he was accused of being a terrorist -- even though he was from Venezuela.
Over the next decade, this type of stereotyping and prejudice only became more rampant because of politics and media representation. Suddenly, treating Middle Easterners as others became more convenient, expected, and accepted.
As America was growing more and more overt with its racism, I found myself seeking refuge in all things alternative. It was in these outsider communities that I'd be treated more like one of them, because they understood what it was like to be different. That's why I ended up making films that celebrated underground artists and writers, such as Noah Cicero, Tao Lin, Brad Warner, and Alexandra Naughton. These people became the family I could trust. The ones that wouldn't turn me away for being different, because they were just like me. I mean, we weren't literally the same exactly, but we were the same "different", if that makes sense.
Sitting here in Switzerland, I also realize that all my choices for education and jobs also gravitated to an alternative path. This is why I went to the Jack Kerouac School, joined a rock band, went to LA with $300 in my pocket, started doing reality TV, lived in Korea, made films, and now ended up in this community of philosophers and artists at The European Graduate School.
Here, it's like being back with the band in Delaware doing those shows at the East End, or walking the Royal Arch Trail with writers in Boulder, or meeting my future partner on a blind date in Insadong.
It's always been this safety of belonging and family that has gravitated my choices towards those that would be open to me and let me be exactly what I am.
I am grateful for this experience.
It's definitely a strange thing to be treated differently because of where you come from, having a different name, or the color of your skin.
I'm sure everyone has been treated differently at one time or another. I suppose liking the wrong kind of music could get you into trouble with certain groups in the 90s. It might even be a choice in political views that make people treat one another differently now. But, I suppose it's a whole other thing to be aligned with something based on your gender, sexuality, or ethnicity. Nothing can be changed about that.
I also think it's important to realize that for all of us who are others in ways that can't be changed that our differences are not like having an unpopular musical taste. You won't potentially get taunted with racial slurs, in a fist fight, arrested, or killed for liking Bon Jovi over Bruce Springsteen. But a trans-gender woman, a black male, or myself can become a target for violence without ever having said we did or did not like The Boss.
This is what it's like to walk outside everyday for many of us who are others. We simply live in fear of experiencing another traumatic incident. Those of us who have been lucky enough to not experience violent othering to ourselves or members of our community may not think it will ever happen to them. You think if you abide by the laws and treat everyone well, you will not be treated unjustly. And, I'd say, chances are that if you've lived in your community long enough without incident and everyone knows you and you're never going to move, and you already got your job, then you'll probably only hear stories that happen elsewhere, but not in Bedford Falls.
Unfortunately, this isn't about those who already live in safety. It's about those who live in places where everyone is a stranger. It's about crossing the town line and meeting the Sheriff in the state next door while on family vacation. It's about children who may or may not choose to live in Bedford Falls their whole lives. It's about the neighbors you once thought you knew, slowly seeing the Mr. and Mrs. Kalayeh of yesterday as the Mr. and Mrs. Terrorist of tomorrow.
In 2003, I didn't expect my father to lose his job because he couldn't get security clearance. In 2008, I didn't expect my wife's work colleague to warn her about marrying me because he saw "Not Without My Daughter" with Sally Field and was worried I was going to take her prisoner and move her to Iran. In 2018, I didn't expect close friends to say things like "Donald Trump's not that bad" or "You're overreacting" or "That cop treated you the same as everyone else".
But the temperature is changing in America, and if we do not act now, it will only grow worse.
The only way I know to combat racism is to talk about it. I know it's a tough thing for some to consider. It might even be scary to think about if you've never done it. The thoughts could make you feel angry, or left out, or confused, or indifferent. I'd say any way you feel about it is okay, as long as we can talk about it. Because it's in this talking, and then in your feelings, that you'll see things grow easier and easier. You won't feel that strange talking about it tomorrow. You won't feel weird if you're sitting with three people who are all different from you and talking about it. No, it'll just be a dialogue. And, it is in this dialogue, this communication of how you feel and someone else feels, that we can overcome our feelings -- because it's this talking and sharing space that helps us all be exactly what we all are -- which is exactly the same as everyone else.
If you're still with me after this long daydream, please consider helping me talk about the racism in my past with Sometimes I Dream in Farsi, so I can help all of us start talking about it together.
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And, if you're out there and you're hurt or angry or sad or mistreated or indifferent or confused or bitter, please know that you're not alone. I feel all these things all the time. And, we may not be able to change the world overnight, but, together, we can be the change we want to see in the world today.