I'm Half Iranian And My Uncle Died On 9/11. It Totally Changed How I See My Identity

I learned to understand that my identity was resistance.
Shireen Rose Shakouri

Every day, I put on my copper bracelet. The rare times I forget or can’t because it needs to be cleaned, I feel uneasy and lighter ― but not in a good way, more like a hollow lightness. Like many loved ones of 9/11 victims, I very literally carry a reminder of my fallen uncle daily, engraved with his name and FDNY unit around my wrist. That’s part of why 9/11 season is so conflicting, especially as an Iranian-American.

My mom and I noted the phenomenon marking 9/11 season around the eighth anniversary, and the regular drumbeat of gripping TV ads has mostly held since. Toward the end of August is usually when they start. I’m passively listening to the TV but not even really paying attention, and I hear static ― the crackly, agonized voices pleading for help. If I do look up at the screen, I see the expected footage. I’m almost tired at this point, but it still catches my heart: dusty grey-white faces streaked with tears and sweat, smoking towers, people jumping to their deaths. Or maybe it’s recordings from those at the Pentagon or aboard Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania. I don’t even have to see the screen to know what’s playing ― some commercial for some documentary or for special coverage of the annual ceremonies I’m attending in person anyway.

Those who promised to Never Forget sure don’t when ratings are concerned, at least. These images and sounds have their purpose. They grab your attention and attempt to connect people to the emotions that people who were directly affected by 9/11 feel every day. Maybe that’s why the ads irritate me so much: They’re trying to convey a feeling that could never be replicated.

9/11 memorial in New York in 2009.
9/11 memorial in New York in 2009.
Shireen Rose Shakouri

My mother is Italian-American and my father emigrated from Iran in 1978. On 9/11, my mom’s brother, a firefighter, went missing in the Twin Towers. I had just turned 10 and it completely rocked my small, safe world in New York’s suburbs. I had started fifth grade with my deepest worries focused on tryouts for the Easter solo in the church choir and getting a good seat in the back of the bus ― where the big kids sat ― but none of that really mattered after my second week of school. I quit choir, I sat wherever. Everything was heavy.

For a long time, I struggled with flashbacks of myself and my loved ones crying at memorial services and nightmares of my uncle under crushing steel and fire or of Osama bin Laden himself breaking into my home to kill me ― he’d murdered my uncle, why not me? I didn’t use the upstairs bathroom because it had a window and I was certain bin Laden could break it and get inside. Sometimes I hallucinated seeing him sitting in a tree outside my window, watching and plotting his strike. A kid’s imagination can be chillingly morbid when weaponized against itself. My innocence suffocated in the Twin Towers.

These worries plagued my day-to-day life, but what left the most scars into my adulthood was how quickly I had to learn that my mixed racial identity made me less safe. I went to Catholic church with my mom, and my dad’s atheism is unparalleled by anyone I know, but his family is Shi’a Muslim and with a name like “Shakouri,” it doesn’t take a sleuth to decipher what kind of brown we are.

“For a long time, I struggled with nightmares of Osama Bin Laden breaking into my home to kill me – he’d murdered my uncle, why not me?”

I didn’t really understand myself as mixed before 9/11, and it came from a desire to separate my two sides. Before that, I was just different… and I hated it. I hated my skin and cried to my parents that I wanted blonde hair and light eyes. I was darker than many of my friends but not dark enough that I matched my dad or some of my South Asian and Latinx classmates. They had struggles, too: new teachers unable to pronounce their names, and kids making fun of the language they spoke with their parents or of what they brought for lunch. But I envied that they at least had others in school like them. There were no other Iranians, let alone half-Iranians, at my school.

My anxiety over being outed as Iranian was constant as a pre-teen and teenager, and it lasted well beyond my projection of the Boogie Man paradigm of bin Laden and into high school. I probably wouldn’t have stayed in religion classes or Catholic Youth Group if I didn’t feel like I needed to prove my hold on the white side of my identity. I never talked about my dad’s family or home country, but I’d make great effort to bolster my Italian-American credibility. I started taking an Italian language class instead of going to lunch, and tried to pass my last name off as basically Italian, given the vowel at the end. But my first name and my slightly-more-than-olive skin tone betrayed me.

Then came the controversy over the “Ground Zero Mosque,” which began about midway through my senior year of high school. I watched members of the 9/11 families’ community and even my own relatives wring their hands (and worse) over the plans to build an Islamic Cultural Center near the Twin Towers site. I sneered as then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan spoke out against the building, and people who had no connection to 9/11 declared “Burn a Koran Day,” exploiting the pain of families like mine as justification for their hatred. I knew then ― at long last ― that these people were never going to accept me. This realization angered but ultimately liberated me.

By the end of senior year, I wasn’t hiding anymore. I was finally able to visit Iran, and gushed at how incredible the trip was and how much I learned about my family and culture. Aside from realizing the futility of hiding what was obvious for others to observe, I came to understand that my identity was resistance. Holding two racial perspectives in one mind gave me my power and value. It not only made me different from everyone, but my physical presence in normative spaces allowed me to nuance others’ views.

“Aside from realizing the futility of hiding what was obvious for others to observe, I came to understand that my identity was resistance.”

Debates about the Islamic Cultural Center lasted several years, following me to college in Washington. There, I majored in Middle Eastern Studies and took enough classes on Islam and Zoroastrianism ― the ancient religion of Iran ― for a religion minor. I lived with the Muslim Student Association my junior year. Even while faith communities have never been my home and even agnostic doesn’t fit my apathy concerning the potential of a higher being, I understand deeply how much of a lifeline that community can be for young Muslims and people with family backgrounds in Muslim-majority nations.

We’re now at the peak of this year’s 9/11 season, and the date falls on a Tuesday, just as it was in 2001. This year, though, the season doesn’t really feel like it dragged on, it kind of snuck up on me. Between the frenzied news cycle propelled by an illegitimate president and his stolen Supreme Court seats ― as well as 17 anniversary of the 9/11 attacks not being a notable landmark ― there’s just less fanfare surrounding the occasion.

But I posit another difference this year for me, and probably for many Muslims and others with similar heritage to mine: 9/11 season couldn’t start on time this year, because it hasn’t ended since the Trump administration’s “Muslim Ban” was first announced on Jan. 27, 2017. Surely for others, 9/11 season hasn’t ended since 9/12/01. It hasn’t for family members of victims, either.

The Supreme Court’s Trump v. Hawaii decision finally codified the fear of discrimination and malevolence we’ve been facing for decades, but you’ll never find me hiding my heritage in the shadow of the Twin Towers again. When someone asks me where I’m really from, of course I first say New York. But when inevitably pressed, I no longer obscure my heritage. I wear it on my sleeve, just like my copper bracelet.

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