Cima discusses finding quiet moments, markers of success, and life after the election.
“Over there, there's a certain feeling of freedom that you don't get over here. It's hard to explain. It's almost in a spiritual way.”
Do you have any fond memories of Iran?
Yea, Iran was very fun. All of my family live there. I basically grew up just playing with my cousins and going to the countryside. We would help out with the rice farm and things like that.
One of my most fond memories would be during the winter when we would all go to my grandma's house and pile up and sleep in one room. There would be like 20 kids listening to my grandma tell her stories. Everybody would wake up at like 4:30 a.m. just because my grandpa would wake up for his prayer.
Is there anything that you miss about Iran?
I miss a lot of things. I miss the vibes and the food. I miss my relatives. I especially miss my grandma's house. Her house is in the countryside. Just being over there is a whole different feeling from being over here. It's much more slow pace. You can relax if you want and you're not always so busy.
Over there, there's a certain feeling of freedom that you don't get over here. It's hard to explain. It's almost in a spiritual way. You can have moments to yourself a lot. You can be alone and just be very comfortable with silence. You just have to find that balance because every place around the world is different. You have to find your flow and get used to it basically.
How do you find those quiet moments here?
You would have to really isolate yourself sometimes. Here, there's a lot of entertainment. You have television, cell phones, internet so I guess you would have to make yourself find those moments. In Iran, it just naturally happens because you don't have access to technology as much as you do here in America. Here, you're allowed to drink, party, and just forget about the day. In Iran, it's a bit more controlled so you can't do all of that.
Do you think it's easier for you to find those moments in the U.S. after having lived in Iran for so long?
I think so because living in two different cultures gave me another perspective. You are a product of your environment. Once you experience all of those different things and move to different places, it's a lot easier to get used to new people and environments. I also think that it makes you less likely to judge other people because you see so many things that nothing surprises you anymore. It's easier to find yourself after experiencing so many different cultures because you don't really identify yourself as anything in particular.
Why did you all move to the United States?
My dad already lived here because he had his business. When I was 13, we decided to all come here just to be together. It was very different because in Iran when I went to school because we had uniforms and I had to wear a hijab. The language was completely different. Adjusting to English was very hard for me especially with reading and writing. It took a pretty long time for me to get used to it. Actually one of my biggest success stories was when I got a 97 in Honors English in college [giggles]. I think I still have the final exam somewhere in my room.
What school did you go to?
I went to Fairfield High School in Bessemer, Alabama. I think they closed it down a few years ago. We lived in Bessemer until two years ago. It was still very different from Birmingham. Bessemer is actually a lot more segregated, so when we moved there, it was very difficult to adjust. I was the only person that wasn't white or black at school. It was different, but I got used to it.
Being from Iran and moving to an area of the United States where it's much more segregated, what was that experience like for you?
At a young age, you just feel very isolated, but the best thing that you can do is just to try to make friends as much as possible. When I moved to Birmingham, it was a lot more diverse.
Speaking of friends, do you still have friends back home in Iran?
I do. I have a lot of friends, and we still talk on the phone. I think I have like 30 or 40 cousins. I talk to them a few times during the week. We also text back and forth. Technology is pretty amazing because up until a few years ago we would have to talk on the phone with those dial-up minute phones. Right now we just use WhatsApp and stuff like that.
Do they have idealistic views of what your life is like?
I would say their idea of living in America is just being very free and frivolous, spending money everywhere, having a lot of fun, and going out partying. That's pretty much the idea that other countries have of America. It's both positive and negative. It’s fun when you think about it, but on the other hand, it's not all fun and games. You still have to work a lot to survive.
What is life like for them over there?
Over there, it's a little bit more harsh for them compared to here. There are not as many chances for success and things like that, so if you tell someone that you're moving to America, that's a huge success story. People would think that you made it completely in life just because you moved here. There's this idea of the American Dream, and there's a sense of upward mobility.
In the United States, there is a big emphasis on individuality. Sometimes I feel like we are so obsessed with "individuality" that we have essentially become islands unto ourselves. Can you tell me a little bit about how that may or may not differ from Iran?
Yea, I definitely think that it has its good side and bad side. Over here, there is a lot more of this sense of individualism. You have more freedom to pick and choose how you want to portray yourself. We also have to keep in mind that we are living with other humans on Earth so we shouldn't be so consumed in our own identity even though it is so easy to do that. In Iran, it's always best to seem religious because it is a religious country.
With Iran emphasizing more of a group culture, do you think that culture is only tied to religion? Is there any way that religion could be separated from that?
It's not just religion. It's also heavily based on family. Here, you move out at a young age. You live by yourself, but over there you don't really move out until you get married, and even when you do, your family is still very much in contact all the time. You are always part of a group. You are never by yourself.
My parents still hold to that part of Iranian culture. They don't see a problem with individuality, but my family is still very connected to each other. I live with my parents just because we're so used to living together and helping each other out all of the time.
What are your parents like?
My parents were immigrants. My mom was around 20 and my dad 40. They were born in Iran and then moved here. At first, they were a little bit strict and wanted us to hold to our Iranian values, but now they are just like us. I feel like because they were a little bit older, it took them a while to get used to it. Because we were younger, we got used to the American lifestyle a lot faster.
They have an interesting story too. When he first came to America, he borrowed $100 from his brother, and that's all that he had. They worked for other Iranians at their stores and businesses. Eventually, they bought their own little grocery store, and he still has it today.
What has your parents' life journey taught you?
My dad had a pretty interesting life. He moved here in his 20s. He never really saved up any money until he got married. That goes back to him borrowing $100 and only having that when he came back to America. I think that's very inspiring to me because it also shows that he didn't really accept failure.
Our business wasn't as good as it is right now. We lived in a much smaller house in Bessemer, but then slowly moved up to a nicer area. He eventually ended up getting another store, but the previous store went bankrupt. We kept the second store. I remember it being a little bit devastating, but it was a blessing in disguise because it meant that we didn't have to be so stressed all the time managing two different stores. It's actually grown to be more successful than the first store.
You've talked before about what life is like in Iran as a female and how there are certain restrictions. Since moving to the United States, in light of the women's movement happening now, do you feel a sense of restriction here too in anyway?
I do feel the restriction, but having to experience living in Iran, I'm pretty grateful for the living here in America. Even though women do have problems with rights here, it's still really not that bad. It's going in the right direction, and I think that people should still be hopeful about the future.
What are your parents' markers of success?
I'm not quite sure. I feel like right now he feels pretty successful because he has his own business and he works for himself. My brother and I are going to college so I would say that it's a pretty successful story.
I think my dad had different expectations of me. My dad wanted me to become a doctor or do something in the medical field. I think that he was a little bit disappointed when I told him that I wanted to be an art major, but my mom was okay with it. She just encourages me to do whatever I want.
Right now, with how our relationship is, it's a very normal family. I feel like I couldn't really ask for more. My idea of success would be to be comfortable wherever I am, who I am, and my surroundings. Part of that perspective is from living in a different culture and experiencing other lifestyles. Starting from a lifestyle where you don't really have much say in anything and then slowly getting to somewhere where you can go to college and have your voice heard, it feels pretty great.
Can you talk a little bit about your anxieties surrounded around success and failures regarding your career and your future? I know right now especially, there are a lot of art majors who are especially nervous when it comes to the future.
I feel very nervous about my degree. There really aren't a lot of job openings for art majors. So far, I've done one internship. I'm still looking for a job right now, mostly in retail and maybe food service. I do have a little bit of anxiety, but I feel like it will be fine because there are lots of opportunities here and there is no way that I can be a failure. As long as I have the drive to do something, to go for it, and to dream, I feel like I'll be fine.
What would be your ultimate dream in life?
I want to be a successful artist. I want to be able to live off of my paintings. I know it sounds ridiculous and a long shot, but eventually, I want that to happen.
A lot of my art is inspired by Persian architecture and geometry. I do a lot of cut outs and paint on them. I create a lot of images of women with scarves to look back and remember where I came from. I like doing art that is very personal. I started creating art when I was very young. When I moved here, my English wasn't that great, and I just started drawing a lot. That's how I became very interested in art and eventually decided to go to school for it.
All of my relatives, no matter their profession, have always had their artistic side. They either draw, write poetry, create rugs. So seeing that makes me want to film them one day and show the world their works.
What inspires you?
One thing that inspires me and gives me hope for the future is to be able to be where I want to be in life. I want to fully accept where I am and help the community. I think that in order to have a better for yourself and everyone else around you, you have to start from yourself and then work outwards.
I hope that more people in near the future will become increasingly open-minded about those from other cultures and races. In Alabama, I've witnessed moments that are difficult for those who aren't from this country - lots of weird looks. Especially for younger children, it kind of stays with you as you grow up.
Can you give an example of at a time when you've experienced that when you were younger?
There was one moment where someone asked me if I rode camels. There was another moment when someone called me a "rag-head." I wasn't mad though at the time. I didn't say anything. I just let it go. They are products of their environment.
Did your parents ever sit down with you to discuss how to combat situations like that?
My parents mostly warned me to not get into any big arguments and try to let things go. We never sat down to talk about it that much because it wasn't one of those things where we would witness it every single day. It would just happen every once in a while. We never discussed racial profiling or anything like that.
Has your family ever felt the pressure to assimilate to American culture?
We hold on to our Iranian culture in a lot of ways. We still listen to the music, and we speak Persian. A lot of our decorations in our house are Persian, but I feel like part of growing up means letting go of your identity and not getting stuck in one identity because it will definitely hold you back. The more you expose yourself to different things and tell people about the culture that you used to be a part of is very important. It's not like you have to pick and choose one culture. You just embrace all of it.
What is one thing that you wish people understood about Iran?
I wish they would understand that wherever you go, there are both good and bad people. When it comes down to it, we are all the same, so you shouldn't really judge people because they live differently. We are all going through our own struggles. Just because someone speaks or lives differently, it doesn't mean that they are bad, it just means that they have been exposed to different things. It's the same with living here. There are things that we perceive as good or bad, but it's really what society deems it to be.
What has life been like since the election?
It's been much harder to travel. I used to go every summer, but this summer I didn't go because I wasn't sure if I'd be able to get back in. Even though I'm an American citizen, I am still very much Iranian. I feel more uncomfortable since he became president because now I see a lot more people who are openly talking about making America great again which to me just means bringing back racism. I don't necessarily feel unsafe, but I do feel very uncomfortable and kind of confused about whether I should feel safe or not.
What was your initial thought after the travel ban?
I thought it was really sad especially after hearing about people who were not allowed to come back into the States. Just thinking about how embarrassing that might have been for that person to have been turned around simply because of where they are from. I think it's kind of embarrassing for our country that we label some a bad people just because of their home country.
How do you stay so hopeful about the future with all of the political turmoil going on?
No matter what the situation is right now, everything changes. We don't really know if the situation will change for better or worse so all that we can do is live in the moment and be as good of human beings as we can. That's the most hopeful thing that anyone can do for themselves.