Shawndeez Jadalizadeh embarked on a four-month solo journey through her home country, which she had never visted before, in the spring of 2015.
“I was slightly terrified, but I put aside my fears and fantasies to enjoy the present, to enjoy Iran,” wrote Shawndeez, a graduate student in gender studies, in a memoir about her travels.
Shawndeez, who uses her first name as her pen name, published My Iran: an Iranian-American experience back home on Amazon in November. The book focuses on her experiences as an Iranian-American visiting her home country for the first time in March 2015.
“I felt like I had found something really valuable that has been underreported in the U.S. … which is about the people of Iran,” Shawndeez said. “Their daily (lives), what people worry about, what people’s dreams are – the daily ambitions of Iranian people.”
Shawndeez visited more than 25 different cities and towns in Iran. In her book, she wrote about experiences such as restoring her grandparents’ tombstones and attending a funeral procession in Tehran with a million other mourners, held for Iranian soldiers killed in the Iran-Iraq War.
Shawndeez was born in Los Angeles to parents who both moved to the U.S. from Iran when they were in their late teens and early 20s.
“We’re more American than we are Iranian but we still embrace all of the Iranian traditions,” said Parvin Nejad, Shawndeez’s mother.
Though she grew up learning Farsi and surrounded by Persian traditions, Shawndeez said she never had the chance to visit Iran until she traveled to the country with her family to celebrate the Persian New Year’s.
When the three-week family trip ended, Shawndeez decided to stay in Iran longer on her own.
“I had no plan,” Shawndeez said. “But the underlying desire I always had was to go out in the streets, read the paper, buy groceries, meet people outside of my family.”
She traveled for four more months and began writing her memoir in the summer of 2016. She used self-publishing software offered by Amazon to design and create the book herself, including a hand-drawn map to show every location in Iran she visited, Nejad said.
Shawndeez said she wants her main audience to be other Iranian-Americans her age.
“I hear so many young Iranian-Americans my age who still think Iran is this unsafe, tyrannical place where you can’t walk outside or you’ll be killed,” Shawndeez said. “I didn’t want to have gone to Iran and not have something to share.”
Nejad added she thinks Shawndeez’s goal in writing the book was to share a culture many people have misconceptions about, not just to make money.
“We talk about Iranian censorship, but we don’t talk about American censorship; not allowing Iranian writing and literature to come through,” Shawndeez said. “I think it’s a serious divide, and I hope my short little piece here can start to break this divide.”
Nejad said she thinks one of the biggest misconceptions about Iranian people is that they hate Americans and western culture.
“(Iran) is not the two-second segment on NBC you see every night of Iranians saying ‘Death to America,’” Nejad said. “Iranian people love Americans. … Once they know you’re American, they open their arms to you and their homes to you.”
Shawndeez added she thinks the kindness and hospitality of Iranian people made her trip possible.
“Iranians are the most hospitable people on the planet, and everyone was willing to open their doors to me,” Shawndeez said. “The hospitality … really opened my eyes and allowed me to travel the entire country, and that was priceless.”
Shawndeez’s cousin Sahra Kaboli-Nejad said she was not surprised when she found out Shawndeez was writing a memoir about her experiences.
“She is definitely one of the most driven people that I know,” Kaboli-Nejad said. “When she’s passionate about something she’ll put in 100 percent effort.”
Nejad said although she was initially scared when Shawndeez decided to stay in Iran, she thinks she connected with Iranian people because of her strong sense of empathy.
“In her book, when I read the part where she acknowledged me and her dad, it made me cry because I think she realizes the hard work of a parent, which is very valuable for a kid to recognize,” Nejad said. “I think she understands how we have sacrificed for her to have a good life, being an immigrant family.”
Shawndeez said she wants to see how her memoir is received by people and that many of her friends and family are encouraging her to continue writing.
“(Shawndeez) wants to do something that would make life better for other people her age, her color, her gender,” Nejad said. “She’s on her way to doing bigger things and better things in life.”