Straddling two worlds

Guest Written by Andy Sarjahani

Andy “Cotton” Sarjahani, a Russellville native who now resides in Austin, Texas, left the world of academia in 2014 to become a documentary filmmaker. He was involved with the production of “Tower,” an award-winning documentary released in 2016 about the 1966 University of Texas shootings. Andy’s first solo-directed documentary wrapped up in 2017. Titled “Downstream People,” the video can be viewed on VIMEO and explores the environmental and cultural impact of the hog farm built on a tributary of the Buffalo River in Newton County, Arkansas. Andy is currently working on a documentary about an aging mountain climber in Montana.

Late last fall, Andy took a trip to Iran, his father’s home country, in a pilgrimage of sorts to gain a better understanding of his cultural heritage. What he found was that even in a country whose traditions would seem to clash with ours, the similarities between people “over there” and people here at home far outweighed the differences. Andy documented his trip with photos and some commentary. You can find his recorded experience on Instagram at @iranianhillbilly or @andysarjahani or at iranianhillbilly.com 

I grew up in Russellville, Arkansas, fishing the Arkansas River and learning about the ancient Persians whose blood runs through my veins. I straddled two worlds: My mother is originally from Alabama, and my father is an Iranian immigrant and engineer that has been a taxpaying US citizen for over three decades.

Like Hank Williams, Jr., I have a shotgun, rifle, and a four-wheel drive. I can skin a buck and run a trot line. I also regularly cook Persian food, study the films of Abbas Kiarostami, and when I walk around Tehran, people speak to me in Farsi (also known as the Persian language). I can’t speak Farsi… yet. So for now my features are Iranian, but my twang is all Arkansas.

I’ve shared fried pork chops with friends after a Southern Baptist sermon in Arkansas. I’ve also been welcomed into a mosque in Iran where I walked around taking photos instead of praying, and it didn’t matter to the people who treated me to pistachios and pomegranates afterwards. My preferred work boots are Danner and my preferred overalls are Carhartt, because they are made in the USA. I have discussed free will and stoicism with a hillbilly in West Virginia and watched Iranian men clean while their wives scrolled Instagram and discussed nuances in a Persian film. I see the same friendship and humanity in my friend Bubba as I do in my friend Hossein and I think they’d see it in each other, too, under the right circumstances.

Some see me as a confusing juxtaposition. But I believe any confusion is rooted in unfamiliarity because this bi-cultural identity has always been the norm for me. It’s given me tremendous insight into two cultures often misrepresented by the media and politicians: Persian and rural American. My goal through iranianhillbilly.com is to humanize both cultures through documentary photography and film, to show you both of these worlds I love and am proud to be part of.

The world is complex and full of nuance, and critical thinking skills are absolutely essential right now. My hope is that my liberal elite friends will see that blue-collar, rural people are hard-working, intelligent humans with valid concerns, capable of reason. And I hope my conservative friends will see that Iranian and Middle Eastern people are some of the brightest minds on the planet with a warm, welcoming culture similar in so many ways to Deep South American culture. I hope you’ll see beyond the narrative spun by politicians, by both the far left and far right media, and think critically the next time someone mocks the “dumb redneck” or vilifies “the jihadists over there.”

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Category: On a Personal Note

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