ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
After the killing of General Qassem Soleimani, Iranian Americans coming into the United States were detained at the border and questioned for hours as the U.S. and Iran exchanged threats and attacks. The events reminded Farnoush Amiri of a day from her childhood, a day her family didn't discuss for years.
It was an early Saturday morning in June 2005, when a stranger in her house abruptly woke her up. He was dressed in what she describes as black SWAT gear, his hand wrapped tightly around her arm, a gun strapped to his waist. She was 12 years old, living in Orange County, Calif. with her family who had immigrated to the United States from Iran. She writes about this in an essay for NPR's Code Switch blog, and Farnoush Amiri joins us now.
FARNOUSH AMIRI: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: Tell me a little bit more about what happened that day. You walked into the living room and saw your father in handcuffs on the couch.
AMIRI: Yeah. So we had just moved in. This was actually our first home in the U.S. that was ours. We had rented and leased before, so this was, like, our first real home. It was beautiful and big. And so we had barely any furniture. And then that day, I walked down the stairs with my mom and my younger brother, and my dad was in his boxers in handcuffs and not really talking, not having really any eye contact, which is very unlike him. He's not a quiet person, definitely not someone to kind of become timid or shy in any situation.
SHAPIRO: And at no point was he actually accused of any crime. Nobody in your family ever was.
AMIRI: No. They didn't introduce themselves. They didn't give a warrant. There was no card, nothing to tell what they were looking for, what we did, what we were accused of doing - just searched and searched for hours.
SHAPIRO: They went through your family photographs. They watched home videos. They asked questions.
AMIRI: It was very surreal. It's one of those moments I feel like if you tell somebody, they're like, oh, I would have done this, or I would have done that. But you really don't do anything. And you kind of just sit there in shock, especially if you're of a marginalized community where your relationship with police is obviously very different than other people.
SHAPIRO: You refer to them as police. But did you ever find out who they were or why they were there?
AMIRI: No. I mean, the only - I knew they were federal agents. They never, ever described themselves as part of a specific agency. They never gave us a card or a callback number. We never heard from them again. So to this day, we don't know.
SHAPIRO: And after barging into your house while everybody was asleep, searching through all of your things, questioning your family, they just disappeared.
AMIRI: They disappeared. They didn't find what they were looking for, apparently.
SHAPIRO: Your essay is titled The Day That Never Happened. Why did you call it that?
AMIRI: I think a lot of moments in your life, you kind of have these things that remind you of specific moments. And that day was only tied to the fact that we never talked about it, and it was this secret that no one decided we were going to keep and - but we kept for 15 years. So it felt like the most telling way to describe that essay.
SHAPIRO: You write that this changed you and your family in some big, permanent ways. How so?
AMIRI: I think it was very unconscious how we changed. It was as if we all, without even talking to each other, knew that there was something that we are portraying to the world and to our neighbors and to our classmates and colleagues that was other, and we had to quickly resolve that and quickly become and assimilate more fast than we've ever done before.
And I think it's important to note that my family is not Muslim. We are obviously from Iran, which is an Islamic republic, but we don't practice and all of that. So a lot of the surveillance that I talk about in the story is targeted towards Muslim Americans. So that was also an interesting thing. It was as if they were, like, they just had one, like, scoop from someone, and then they just followed that. And then they couldn't find anything.
SHAPIRO: Well, you refer to it as a scoop, but it could just have been my neighbors are talking in a foreign language, and it makes me nervous.
AMIRI: A hundred percent. And that's - and I - to this day, I think of all the crazy conspiracy theories I came up with, that seems to be the most resonant one.
SHAPIRO: So what did your family and you do differently after that day?
AMIRI: It was a series of things. I think it was, like how I put it in in the essay, it was kind of a softening of who we were, so changing our eating habits in public. Like, I would take PB&J sandwiches instead of, like, the gourmet stews my mom would make me that I loved. And I would eat Yoplait or Lunchables instead of the things that I wanted to eat. And I straightened my hair. My dad kind of, like, adjusted the way he drove in the neighborhood. He turned down his music when he would turn onto our street.
My brother probably made the most dramatic step, which is the - going by the nickname Rob. But it's, like, usually people that go by Rob are Robert, but his name is Sohrab. So he kind of - and he quickly - like, I think because he was younger, he made the assimilation process. It was much more quick for him. For us, it was more difficult.
SHAPIRO: Years later, you broke the family's silence and asked your father about that day. What did he tell you?
AMIRI: He was really - he was really ashamed. I think shame was a huge part of that conversation.
SHAPIRO: Ashamed about what? I mean, he had done nothing wrong.
AMIRI: I know. I think it was - it's this idea that as a father or the man of the house, that he was supposed to protect us or keep us from that kind of stuff. And that day, he kind of became - like, obviously there was no other choice but to be silent and cooperate, but he felt like in a lot of ways that he was responsible for us experiencing that. So - and I think not talking about it was his way of being like, OK, I don't want to bring this up to my family ever again. It was already bad that we experienced it. Why continue this horrible thing and talk about it?
SHAPIRO: And did you talk to him about the family's unspoken decision not to speak Farsi in public, not to play Persian music with the windows rolled down, things like that?
AMIRI: Yeah, yeah, we discussed that. And he also noted, like, none of us - we didn't have a meeting right after where we were like, OK, this is how we become American. It was as if we just took cues. And a lot of minorities can relate to this. It's just self-preservation, and it's survival. You have to change things about yourself to soften them and to fit in so you don't stand out. And something we had done previously clearly made us stand out to our neighbors or to anyone else who was watching or keeping an eye on us.
SHAPIRO: Does your family have any hesitation about you telling this story publicly?
AMIRI: Yeah. So if you know anything about Middle Eastern families or Iranian families, we're not much for kind of showing weakness or vulnerability exactly. So this was something that I had - it was a lot of discussion. It was a lot of time that we spent kind of going through the story. I made sure all of them read it.
But it felt like the only people we were protecting were the people that came into our house that day. There was no benefit for us keeping this story other than to kind of protect them. It was kind of something I forced on them, so it's not really - they didn't have much of an option, but I think everybody has been very happy to have words to describe that day finally.
SHAPIRO: You end the piece by saying that you've tried hard to love this country and hope that one day it will try to love you back. Given the news this week, how are you feeling about your own relationship to the United States and its government right now?
AMIRI: I think that writing that piece and having that conversation with my family was very cathartic and therapeutic, and I needed to go through that. I think I still have the similar understanding of how amazing this country is. I mean, I'm a journalist, so the freedom of press is not something that is readily available and appreciated in Iran. So I couldn't have the job that I have and the life that I have back home. But it's still very complicated. I mean, I think for a lot of people that you're stuck in between this, it's like kind of an unrequited love that I have with the U.S.
SHAPIRO: Farnoush Amiri is a journalist at the Associated Press, and her essay, The Day That Never Happened, is on NPR's Code Switch blog.
Thank you for speaking with us about it.
AMIRI: Thank you so much.
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