Iran, the Trump Administration, and the Only Time I've Cried in Class

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Reports are emerging in the wake of Qassem Soleimani’s assassination that Customs and Border Control have been ordered to detain Iranians at American points of entry — irrespective of citizenship. CBC, of course, denies the allegation—despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

I feel physically ill.

I work on ISIS propaganda and the (Endless) “War on Terror.” Believe me, I have a very strong stomach. Often, my unhappy life experience renders me cold, robotic, detached, emotionless when it comes to death. When it comes to personal life problems. Work stress. I’ve seen entirely too much in my life. It takes quite a bit for me to cry, to make me sick to my stomach. Often, I catch myself worrying that anger is the only emotion I can still feel. Sometimes, life proves me wrong.

Let me tell you about the only time I’ve cried in front of my students. At the time, I was teaching at the Georgia Institute of Technology, one of the world’s best science and technology universities— Georgia Tech is full of brilliant international students, many of them from Iran. I had many foreign students in my classes, including several Iranians. The majority of the students were international — and Muslim.

It was the day after the election.

I had not slept all night. I couldn’t decide if I should cancel class or not. I ultimately decided: it’s irresponsible NOT to be there. There’s a damn good reason for this. At the time, I was full-time ISIS propaganda analyst. I begged to teach a Middle East Studies class during my lunch break. I wanted – no, I needed – the hope of students.

Lecture that day was supposed to be about the symbiotic relationship between ISIS and neo-Nazis. When I wrote my syllabus, the thought of the election did not factor into the scheduling. Perhaps it should have. Perhaps it’s better that it did not. Instead, we had an open discussion for the entirety of class. The questions came. They came, and they kept on coming.

First question: “Professor, will he put us in camps?”

I almost vomited. I couldn’t definitively say “no.” I had to say “I don’t know. I don’t think so. I hope not.”

I had to say “I don’t know.”

I couldn’t tell my international (brilliant STEM) students ‘No way, 100%. Not a chance in hell.’

I had to say “I hope not.”

Because I knew who Trump was bringing with him into power, especially on the counterterrorism side of things. For perspective, I teach the first generation of students who have not known a pre-9/11 world. Students used to the normalization of a security state. Who do not remember the days of “moderates” in hindsight: Bush instead of Trump, the Osama Bin Ladens instead of Baghdadis. Who do not realize how much worse it can get.

Second question: “Will we be allowed to come back to the US after break?”

That’s the one that broke me. Holding it together took everything I had in me–and even that wasn’t enough. And that’s the first — and only time — that I have ever cried in front of students. Because I refuse to lie to my students. So I didn’t.

“I don’t know. I don’t think so. I hope not.”

I don’t know how I managed to keep speaking, but somehow, I was able to push forth more words from a strangulated throat: “I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry. You need to make a Plan B, and you need to do it ASAP. There is a very real possibility that your dreams and hopes are over. Because most of you had the supremely shitty luck to be born in the wrong place.”

For no fucking reason.

We knew the Muslim Ban was coming. We knew who was coming into power, and who he would bring along for the ride. Anyone who has taken a class with me will tell you: I do not bullshit my students. I do not offer false promises, or comforting platitudes in response to destabilizing questions.  I will not lie to my students – because I respect them. Looking into students’ faces and telling them to prepare for the unbelievable, the worst of the worst, the unimaginable…it shook me. Because those were questions I never imagined I would have to answer, and words I never envisioned myself saying.

Those words, those questions…once, they were unthinkable.  They aren’t any longer.

Watching my students’ dreams ripped away for no reason other than xenophobic political expediency and the twisted, arbitrary dark joke of the nation-state’s fictional geopolitical borders — for me? There is no pain quite like that. It’s physical. That class was so fucking hard.

Many of my students came from Muslim Ban countries. And many of them have not been allowed back.

I tell this story to new students now, and I have yet to cry in class since. I am at a new institution, with a very different demographic of students: overwhelmingly white, the vast majority from overwhelmingly upper-class backgrounds. Many have never met a Muslim. Teaching Middle East Studies carries additional gravity in contexts such as this. Finding a way to put the humanity in front of the media headlines is, in places like this, a…challenge. One thing is certain: in the days, weeks, months to come, that objective will become harder than ever. As will I.

I posted a brief form of this anecdote on Facebook, and one of the international students from that fateful day commented. My gratitude for him is enormous; I include it here as a reminder for myself: despite this hellish world we all face: there is still hope amidst the madness.

At least, I need to believe so. We all do.

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