Why There’s No More Thanksgiving in Kentucky for Me

Ever since I can remember, my mother has hosted her extended family on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Our childhood home several miles outside of Bardstown, KY, is the spot for this yearly pilgrimage. Aunts, uncles, cousins, my now 96-year-old grandfather, and even some family friends would converge on our home–sometimes several days in advance. They’d come for food, football, fellowship, and old-fashioned banter. In recent years, as my siblings, cousins and I have married and some have become parents, the number of those attending has swelled to well over 50 guests.

Only three times has my mother failed to host our traditional post-Thanksgiving congress.

The first time was when my uncle got married in upstate New York. The second was in 2001 when my mother was working full time and chipping in as my brother and sister-in-law juggled being first-time parents with working full-time and finishing college. The last time was when my cousin set her 2013 wedding for the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The tradition had been so engrained in our family’s ethos that my cousin called my mom asking for permission to schedule her wedding on that day.

Nearly seven years ago, as I was moving to Washington, DC, my mother made me promise to come home for the annual get together.

“Even if it’s the only time you come home each year, make it Thanksgiving,” she insisted.

But since the rise of Trumpism in the summer of 2015 and the embrace of much of the Republican Party of Islamophobia, I knew my attendance at the annual event might be in jeopardy.

As an Iranian-American and Muslim-American who had supposedly been openly embraced by my mom’s relatives (who are white and mostly Christian), I thought the sorts of vitriol and bigotry being spewed from the right would not intrude on our post-Thanksgiving gathering. My family and I should have been on auto-pilot from the moment the GOP went all-in on attacking immigrants, given the fact that my father is Iranian-born.

But they weren’t. Instead of blasting the right, they played the false equivalency game, suggesting that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s low favorability numbers and her supposedly inadequate response to the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi were the same or worse than the invective and innuendo used by multiple GOP contenders to target immigrants and minorities.

I went to Kentucky in 2015 knowing that there were family members who either fully embraced this right-wing rhetoric or who were sitting on the fence. It was not a pleasant experience. To be sure, there were and still are a few who’ve pushed back against the creeping Trumpism running riot in our family. But they remain outliers, multiple standard deviations away from the mean.

By the time 2016 rolled around, it was clear that whatever hopes I had for my relatives to rise above such invective were misplaced. The relatives that were supposed to put family first and stand for obsequious hospitality driven by a strong belief in the Golden Rule, in fact, were enabling the type of politics that ran counter to these principles. Instead of circling the wagons and protecting all of us, they, through their silence or direct support for Trumpism, supplied the kindling that fueled those attacking us from the outside.

The Trump supporters in my family claimed that their favored candidate was merely speaking his mind—and thus was worthy of their support. But the sad fact is that they agreed with what he said. They nodded along when he targeted Muslims. They acquiesced when he mocked the disabled journalist. They condoned his support for harsh and brutal constitutionally-questionable police tactics. They parroted his racist dog whistles.

It didn’t matter, apparently, that members of their own family would be targeted or feel threatened. It wouldn’t matter that their support for him was a betrayal of everything for which our family has stood. It wouldn’t matter that they’d put politics before family.

The reality is, they are directly complicit in the fear and anxiety that my parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, and Iranian relatives feel every single day.

To date, the relatives who supported Trump have yet to openly show remorse. Instead, they’re relying on a false hope that our familial bonds will absolve them from having to apologize for their betrayal. While I still love them, my relationship with them has been fundamentally and likely irrevocably changed.  The people who I thought would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with me to face hatred, racism, and bigotry, instead fed me and my Iranian relatives to the wolves.

This 500-pound gorilla will remain in the room at every family event until they’re willing to show some form of contrition—or at a minimum, acknowledge the damage that they have done.

Never in my wildest dreams, could I have imagined so many members of the family to which I owe much of my upbringing would be so willing to embrace a candidate who promised to target my sister, brother, father, nieces, nephews and indeed all my Iranian relatives.

It should come as no surprise, then, that for the second year in a row (and only the third time ever), with the approval of my mother, I missed the Saturday after Thanksgiving gathering. I still love my family, but I do get to set the boundaries for my relationship with them. Last November, they crossed a line that should have never been crossed.

Instead, I exercised my right to choose by surrounding myself with people who I not only love, but also trust. I know they wouldn’t sell me out or betray me for some false promise to make America great again.

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The Italian Exchange Student

A running joke among Iranians is that we can pass for a lot of ethnic groups.

Unfortunately, I’m not enough of an anthropologist to make a definitive conclusion about how or why, but I don’t think I’m too far off in saying that it’s in part due to Iran’s location. During the Silk Road era, many tribes, nations, ethnic groups, conquerors, marauders, bandits, merchants, etc. crisscrossed the Iranian plateau. Their genes, as usually happens when, over several centuries, people interact and cross paths in the same locations, inevitably intermingled with those of the natives. And thus the present day plight of Iranians being able to blend in, without being noticed as Iranians, was born.

My brother, Jacob, was no exception. In fact, out of my two siblings and I, he looks the most Iranian–he even tattooed his name in Farsi on his arm. Once, right after the ink had settled, I told him they messed up his middle name–they hadn’t, but a little brother has to do what he has to do.

I looked up (and still do) to my brother, especially on the soccer field. Four years my senior, he had all the skills and presence I wanted to mirror. He was a true leader on the pitch.

His skills were so great that some kids from other schools couldn’t believe he was simply an American. He had to be from somewhere else.

“The only reason why Bardstown is any good is because they have that Italian exchange student,” one student from a neighboring county said.

“Umm…what,” the older sister of one of my brother’s friends said. She had been hanging out with some of her friends from that school.

“Yeah, that Italian kid. He dominates the games. That’s why they are good.”

“There aren’t any Italians on the team. I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“That guy, who plays midfield, darker skin, kind of curly black hair, dark eyes. He’s got to be Italian.”

“Are you talking about Jacob?”

“Yeah, I think that’s him, #19?”

“Yeah, you’re definitely talking about Jacob. He’s not an exchange student and he’s not Italian. He’s one of my brother’s friends, born and raised in Bardstown.”

“Well, he looks Italian!”

 

(I’ve probably gotten some of the details wrong, so if anyone is reading this knows the exact interaction, please let me know.)