I stopped talking because the truth was complicated, even though I knew, deep within, that one should never, ever remain silent for fear of complexity.Elif Shafak
This piece is an autoethnographic account of my migration experience.
This is the eighth year I call Australia ‘home’: a country that has offered me a new opportunity to pursue my dreams. I landed on the Great Southern Land in September 2015 after winning a PhD scholarship in Sydney. Curiously, through migration, I have come closer to my Azeri ethnic identity, and distanced myself from my national identity as an Iranian.
I have learnt the phrase “I identify as…” during these years. Before that, I was unaware of my agency in introducing myself. So, “I identify as an Azeri-Iranian”, “a global citizen”, and now an “Azeri-Aussie”. But agency is confined within the walls of structure. The people around me might not ascribe me the identities I attribute to myself. I have been caught in the battle of highlighting and/or escaping from different aspects of my identity because of others’ social imaginaries (Taylor, 2004) and my perceptions of those imaginaries.
On being Iranian
I came to Australia three months ago. I got a casual job last month and it has boosted my confidence. I have been invited to the Christmas party at our school. I arrive around 5pm. The place is called the White House and it really is white. I enter and I ask where the party is. A sun-tanned guy with blond curls points to the stairs and tells me to go upstairs. I go up the wooden stairs. I can hear the loud English music. The dancing smells of wood and alcohol create an aromatic experience. When I reach the second floor, I recognise my colleague, Leslie. She waves at me and I go to her table. She’s sitting with two other girls. Leslie introduces me to Jackie and Amal. We shake hands and exchange smiles. Then Leslie shows me the bar and says, “That’s the bar Ellie.” I go there and ask for a cider. When I return to the table with a cider in my hand Leslie looks at me surprised, “Oh, Ellie, are you going to drink that? Do you know it is an alcoholic drink? I thought you were a Muslim? And I replied, “No, my religion is love” [with a smile], to which Leslie replied, “Oh,” still in disbelief.
I have witnessed different other stereotypical judgments in various contexts as well. The negative imaginaries of people about a geographic place called Iran coupled with my own negative experiences in that land further strengthens the distance I feel from my Iranian identity.
On being Azeri
I have been imprisoned in my motherland via a patriarchal society, have been deterred from sending money through Western Union because of being an Iranian, and have even attempted, once, to escape my Iranian identity by performing a French identity.(Zakeri, 2020)
I remember avoiding speaking Azeri at school and at university in Iran. Instead, I spoke in Farsi, the official language of Iran. At that time, Farsi had more symbolic and cultural capital (Bourdieu, 2002). Symbolically, this is how I justified its use. In Australia, where my daughter will be speaking with an Aussie accent soon, I have decided to speak to her in my mother tongue.
The word motherland as well as my mother tongue, Azeri, both have bitter-sweet tastes for me. Elif Shafak describes a similar experience in her TED Talk on the ‘revolutionary power of diverse thought‘:
As I write, it becomes clear to me that my ascribed Iranian identity provokes a more bitter taste in my memory’s tongue than my Azeri self. This has led me closer to my Azeri identity, which is both ascribed to me and self-attributed. I feel safer within the walls of this identity. Or at least, this is my interpretation of it. I joined an Azeri dance group, an embodied representation of this identity, and started speaking the language to my daughter and husband, joining the Azeri community in Sydney.
On being a mother
Late February 2020
It is a few weeks since I have become a mum. My emergency C-section scar still hurts. Eleanora is not taking my breast and I have to wake up every two hours to pump milk for her. I do not remember what a full night’s sleep feels like but when I look into her big black eyes something within me lights up.
5 a.m. Eleanora is having her pumped milk. She sucks the bottle’s nipple voraciously and I watch her with a wide grin on my face. I want to sing her a lullaby but I don’t know one. I reach my phone and type ‘Azeri lullaby’ in the Google search bar. I click on the first result with the image of a shepherd and a lamb. The music gets Eleanora’s attention and I feel a soothing warmth all over my body although it is the first time I hear it. When the verses repeat, I sing along as well:
سنه دییر لای لای
هر اوتن قوش ، هر آخان چای
In English, these words translate to ‘Every flying bird and every moving river is singing a lullaby to you!’.
The folklore music, its rhythm, the traditional instruments common in Azerbaijani music, and the combination of words creating vivid images in my mind’s eye while holding my daughter in my arms seems like a scene out of a movie.
Eleanora has finished her milk and is listening to my voice, following my lips. The warmth of her head, the smell of the milk, and the heat I feel having heard this song, all have created an aromatic experience. I feel so close to ‘home’, and at the same time, not so close.
This is one of the moments I have felt the closest to my Azeri roots, and this feeling has been so strong with the arrival of my daughter. My new identity as a mum has strengthened my relationship to my mother tongue.
On being… human.
Migration is a complicated and difficult journey. These complexities to it make it even harder. I share this post to invite us to practice being less judgmental and more empathetic in our daily lives.
Further reading and references
- Bourdieu, P. (2002). The forms of capital (R. Nice, Trans.). In N. W. Biggart (Ed.), Readings in economic sociology. Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
- Taylor, C. (2004). What Is a ‘‘Social Imaginary’’? In G. Dilip Parameshwar, K. Jane, L. Benjamin, & W. Michael (Eds.), Modern Social Imaginaries (pp. 23-30). Duke University Press. https://doi.org/doi:10.1515/9780822385806-004
- Zakeri, E. (2020). Imaginaries: Turkey, Australia, the world! In P. Stanley (Ed.), Critical Autoethnography and Intercultural Learning (pp. 153-161). Routledge.
Thank you for this beautiful post, Ellie!