Back in the late 1970s Ramin Serry led the normal, all-American life of a suburban teenager, eating burgers and hanging out at the mall. His family lived in a spacious house in Oak Brook, complete with a two-car garage. Then the Islamic revolution shook Iran, soon followed by the American hostage crisis. Serry had just entered junior high. It didn’t take long before he, the child of Iranian immigrants, felt the effects of events half a world away. “I was ostracized. Some kids taunted me to go back to my homeland, and they shouted terrible slurs at me. I was beaten up a couple times.”
Serry was born in this country. His parents, both physicians from middle-class provincial backgrounds, met in medical school in Tehran. After graduating in the early 60s, they opted to come to the U.S. for their residencies–“not because they disliked the shah or Iran,” Serry explains, “but because they could learn more in America. They had assumed they’d go back to Iran someday. Yet they were keenly aware of what was going on in the old country. During the turmoil of the revolution, my father bought a short-wave radio so he could listen to the BBC.”
Busy with their careers, Serry’s parents didn’t insist on a Persian upbringing for him and his two siblings. “They didn’t even have time to practice Islam,” he recalls. “Besides, there were no mosques in the burbs. They spoke Farsi with each other but didn’t teach us. We kids got to know about the morning prayer only after our grandmothers came to live with us. Our parents did try to hold on to the Persian values of strong family and social conservatism.” And they socialized with other Iranian families in the area–“a dozen or so altogether,” Serry says.
That community fell apart during the hostage crisis. “There was a shame we all felt,” Serry says. “The kids actually avoided one another in school. The parents did too. Some families claimed they were Italian or Turkish. In other parts of the country, I found out later, some even changed their names to American-sounding ones.”
Serry says that his self-confidence was totally shot by the time he started at Hinsdale Central High School, even though the strongest waves of anti-Iranian sentiment had subsided. “I felt very much the loner. I didn’t socialize with other kids. Instead I’d stay home on weekends watching a lot of videos. Maybe it was part of the complexity of growing up too. My social awkwardness made it difficult for me to pursue friendships or get dates. I took drama classes to help me overcome a sense of not belonging.”
At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Serry gradually regained his confidence and his pride in his roots. He’d enrolled as a premed student but switched to English literature, to his parents’ disappointment. Then a summer of intense film production courses at New York University convinced Serry that he should become a filmmaker, and after graduating from the U. of I. he enrolled in the MFA program at Columbia University.
While making a semiautobiographical short called My Sister’s Wedding–his thesis project–Serry began to think about what he’d gone through as an adolescent. He wondered how other Iranian-Americans of his generation–now in their 30s–endured the social ostracism and feelings of confusion about allegiance to the new country and the old. With his family’s help, he was able to collect numerous anecdotes. “Kids in upper-middle-class counties like New York’s Westchester were roughed up. You’d think well-educated parents would have told their children the evils of bigotry,” he says. “In a New Jersey high school, teachers signed a petition to prevent an Iranian girl from making the valedictorian speech. In other places, shops were burned and bricks were thrown–not to mention the awful things spray-painted on houses and cars owned by Iranians.”
Serry wrote a screenplay based on these and his own experiences and raised the budget–under $1 million–from his parents and other relatives. The film, Maryam, was shot last year in a New Jersey town that could be Oak Brook or any other leafy suburb in the country. The central character, Mary, though loosely based on Serry, is a girl. “I wanted to make the parents more protective, more strict, and it’s easier to see that with a girl,” he explains. “She introduces more conflicts.” A subplot involves a proayatollah cousin, who believes that Mary’s father informed on the cousin’s father to the shah’s police and turns up to settle the score. “He too is a composite character, based on my cousins and others who were born in Iran and had an even tougher time adjusting to the prejudices here,” Serry says. “Assimilation is a wrenching dilemma for the Iranian diaspora in the West. What Iranian-Americans like me endured 20 years ago should never be forgotten.”
Serry will answer questions after the screening of Maryam tonight at 8 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Columbus Drive at Jackson. He’ll return on Sunday at 3 PM to participate in a discussion titled “Negotiating Two Cultures” that follows his film (at 1 PM); the other panelists, all from similar bicultural backgrounds, are Columbia College teacher Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, Iranian director Rafi Pitts, music writer and producer Ben Kim, and In These Times senior editor Salim Muwakkil. Tickets are $7. Call 312-443-3737 for more info.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.