The child of Iranian parents, Asal Dardan grew up in Germany and was shaped by the experience of exile. This book documents her quest to bridge the eternal opposition between “us” and “others”.
The cultural scientist Asal Dardan, who was born in Tehran and grew up in Germany, writes about being human: about basic experiences such as migration, flight, travel and foreignness. Dardan writes about supposedly ancient family traditions that one actually has to learn anew, and of backward-looking labels that simply don’t fit, of the languages of our parents that slip away and new families that arise. Seemingly effortlessly, her elegant essay ranges from country to country and generation to generation, always stylistically confident, both reflecting on and playing with language. In this way, the author also presents a wonderful alternative to rigid discourses on identity that tie people down instead of setting them free.
Asal Dardan was born in Tehran in 1978 and, after her parents fled Iran, grew up in Cologne, Bonn and Aberdeen. She studied cultural studies in Hildesheim and Middle Eastern studies in Lund. As a freelance writer, she writes for Zeit Online, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Berliner Zeitung, among others. She also works as a freelance editor and writer for the online magazine was wäre wenn. She was awarded the Caroline-Schlegel-Preis, a literary award for essay writing, for her text “Neue Jahre”.
And now, what will we do without barbarians?
These people were, after all, a solution.
Konstantinos P. Kavafis
One or two goldfish in an empty, open glass bowl. In Germany today that’s known as animal cruelty. Fish need an aquarium with filters and heating, sand and plants. A fish habitat. A place they can live that suits their taste, a place they deserve. A good fish life.
One or two mahi ghermez. They symbolize luck and joy and are an integral part of the Persian New Year’s festival Nowruz. On the thirteenth day of the New Year they are set free in a body of water and given back to nature. Millions of goldfish every year, in Iran and in exile.
Our goldfish usually perish before the thirteenth day. The older I get, the less sorrow this causes me. That’s the way it is. In the beginning I always gave them names and buried them, even as I shied away from fishing them out of the water with my hand. Later we rolled them up in paper towels and threw them away in the trash. At some point we stopped buying them.
Nowadays, I don’t celebrate the New Year’s festival anymore. At most, a few written cards to the few Iranians I have a passing acquaintance with. Usually they write me first and then I google the suitable responses in the hope that the tone and word choice of my message fits the occasion. I don’t want to disgrace myself, not openly.
As a child, at some point I stopped speaking Persian. Not because I preferred German, but because I noticed that the language was slipping away from me. My mother and I were invited by an acquaintance to tea and her son asked both adults why I pronounced the words I spoke so strangely. He was younger than I, which made it more uncomfortable for me. Even then I felt like an actress, one who imitated others. I had hoped I would be left in my role for a little while longer. That was the last time I participated in a conversation in Persian.
There are people my age who live in exile and can talk in Persian, who celebrate Nowruz, and are not surprised every time that spring’s beginning is the first day of the calendric year. They know, without Google, which dishes one should cook for this day and which seven items traditionally belong on the New Year’s table. I can’t help being jealous of this sometimes.
Every now and then I think about introducing the celebration to my children again. They have an aquarium with a filter and plants, and parents who know how to care for it. They would love the new holiday, the colored eggs; the table covered in colors, the sweets. But I have the feeling that I am not entitled to be a guest at this celebration. This is a reason contact to other Iranians is difficult for me. Even among them, I feel misplaced. They remind me of what I’ve lost, which will never appear obvious and apparent to me. They have preserved the collectivity, or at least an access to it, that I have lost.
I should have paid better attention when my mother made preparations for the New Year. Or when she made pastries filled with nuts, sugar and cardamom, the dough made with yogurt. When she spoke Assyrian with my aunts and Persian with my father, when she told me stories from the time before my birth: about my prematurely graying Grandfather, who sat on a chair in front of the house and scolded the boys who came by: “Leave my daughter alone or else there’ll be trouble;” the cousin of my grandmother who left a pot of beans for her family on the stove every morning, and then, dressed in fine clothes and wearing makeup, vanished for the rest of the day; the good-natured neighbor’s boy who always came over and sat near the television in order to observe the reactions of the others watching it. Attractively painted anecdotes that, in my imagination, do not entirely fit together. How old was my grandfather? What is this cousin’s name? Who was the boy? And what happened to him?
Perhaps there is no full story, not for anyone, always only the illusion of one. Some are able to bring time and space into harmony within themselves more quickly, others not at all.
Sample translation by Joshua LaMorey-Salzmann. See downloadable PDF for whole chapter.
Translated by Joshua LaMorey-Salzmann
with support from