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An Iranian-American in Boston

Morteza Lahijanian (ENG’11) spans two worlds

| From BU Today | By Nicolae Ciorogan. Text by Seth Rolbein
Watch this video on YouTube

In the video above, join Morteza Lahijanian at his Persian New Year’s celebration in Somerville, Mass., visit his BU lab, and hear his thoughts about being here, and being Iranian, during a time of turmoil in his homeland.

On March 21, the day light and dark balanced at 12 hours each and the Persian calendar turned to the year 1389, Morteza Lahijanian took a break from his Ph.D. studies in control theory to celebrate the occasion. A part of him wishes he could have welcomed the new year in Iran, where he grew up, where his thoughts are often as he watches YouTube dispatches from Tehran or exchanges e-mails with childhood friends who still live there. Lahijanian (ENG’11) marvels at the bravery of those protesting against what they see as a repressive, corrupt Iranian government. He worries about those he knows and loves who have joined what they call the Green Movement.

But saying as much publicly, even expressing solidarity with the demonstrators, is more than many of his Iranian friends studying or working in the United States are willing to do. In his case, Lahijanian says, life’s circumstances offer him latitude: born in California in 1980, he has a U.S. passport. His family brought him back to Tehran when he was less than a year old, but he returned to California for undergraduate and graduate study, then came to BU for doctoral studies. His family now lives in the United States as well.

“Most of my friends and colleagues are on student visas,” he says, “and if they were to say anything against the government or the Revolutionary Guard, they could lose those visas, lose their careers, and their families in Iran could face repercussions.”

Like the robots he works with, Lahijanian navigates a complicated world.

“My American friends, so many people here, don’t understand the situation we Iranians find ourselves in,” he says. “They don’t understand what it means to lead a double life — a public life and a private life.”

And so, Lahijanian says, many of the people he is closest to are “foreigners” as well, not necessarily Iranian, but sharing the expatriate sensibility, facing similar existential questions, even if they aren’t often discussed.

Where — and what — is home? Is it defined by geography or attitude, community or routine? Can one place replace another in that emotional space? Can two places share it? Does the sense of being different and removed, a stranger in a strange land, ever fade away?

Those questions deepen when the familial homeland is in turmoil. A flawed Iranian election last June brought the nation to a roiling boil; the crackdown that followed reduced the boil to a simmer, but the heat is bound to rise again. For people like Lahijanian, being here but remaining passionate about there means living with guilt at not being in the thick of it. He tries to find ways to contribute, and to overcome a sense of helplessness.

“So I want to speak, to speak out,” he says. “I want to help the movement in Iran, but how this conversation will help I have no idea. And I also want to present the Iran that me and my friends know, not the Iran as represented by the mass media in the West. The Iranian people are not part of the axis of evil, I can assure you of that.”

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