Iranian Jewish writer paints immigrant experience as fulfillment of American dream

A witty glimpse into the bewildering American immigrant experience

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Photo credit: Masih Alinejad

America's shifting, competing attitudes and policies towards refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants have always been hot topics. Now, into the boiling pot of public opinion comes a supremely wise and compassionate voice of Roya Hakakian's A Beginner's Guide to America: For the Immigrant and the Curious (Knopf) .

In equal measure historical analysis, civics lesson, and principled entreaty, at heart Hakakian tells a love story -- a paean both to America's founding ideals and to the poor, tired, huddled masses who have fired the nation's spirit and fueled her greatness.

At their core, most American Jewish families have a saga of escape from persecution and the making of new lives in freedom. These stories remind us how the struggles of the immigrant generation yielded success in subsequent generations.

For Hakakian, this cycle of escape, adaptation, and success was condensed into her own lived experience. An Iranian Jew who as a teenager escaped with her family from the Ayatollahs in the mid-1980s, she writes with eloquence and authority about the redemptive power of a nation built on the notion that people should be free to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.

Hakakian chronicled her coming of age in post-revolutionary Iran in Journey from the Land of No . Her lush, seductive memoir revealed a prodigious talent for storytelling, sensitivity for the human condition, and succulent mastery of English, which, like Joseph Conrad, she learned only after coming to America.

Assassins of the Turquoise Palace , her second book, chronicles Iranian state terrorism and shows her journalistic talents. She also has published an award-winning book of poetry in Persian, For the Sake of Water. Her perceptiveness, attention to detail, respect for truth, and lyricism of these works permeate Guide to America .

Writing in the second person in a form akin to a long letter, she addresses immigrants and refugees of every kind and stripe with compassion and sensitivity to the cruel forces that drove them from their homes. She knows their struggles from the inside out, and offers wise, loving counsel.

While proffering advice to bolster newcomers' hope, confidence, and fortune, she provides natives with strong reasons for pride in America. What might have been lost in the miasma of ambivalent or heartless immigration policies, Hakakian manages to rekindle.

She advocates for refugees and immigrants through endearing anecdotes and historical analysis. She shows how American democracy sprouts from the unique cycle of renewal that is the immigration story.

She refutes those who think America is "full" by describing the process whereby people who redeem their lives in America in turn renew the nation.

"This is the drama at the heart of the American identity. It is the story of beating the odds, to rise from brokenness, if not rags, to comfort and possible riches," she asserts. "Every generation needs a fresh crop of immigrants to renew the original narrative of this nation's beginnings."

While no Pollyanna, Hakakian reminds us that America's unique and singularly successful immigrant story relates to elevating rule of law, civic participation, free speech, religious freedom, and other principles of democracy above blood and soil, and authoritarian rule.

"Nowhere but here do so many people live side-by-side in such perfectly imperfect harmony," she writes, "which is why at no time in history has a people ever been so mighty."

Aaron B. Cohen is a writer based in Evanston.

 


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