When I was a senior in college, I had Iranian roommates. This was during the revolution in Iran and the early days of the hostage crisis. One of the guys, Kassra from Isfahan, was a supporter of the Ayatollah Khomeini, not enough of one to go back to Iran and fight in the revolution, but enough of one to voice support for the Islamic Revolution. The other, Mehran from Teheran, was less certain of his politics. The guys were in an English as Second Language program preparatory to attending some other American college, but their English was good enough that we were able to have many conversations about culture, politics, and what have you. I liked them despite their ambivalence about personal hygiene and chauvinism about their ancient culture. I taught them catch phrases from the “Czechoslovakian Brothers” skits on SNL.
Having these guys as roommates during the trouble with Iran helped me keep things in perspective. The hostage crisis was not a matter of “us” versus “them”. This had nothing to do with me personally or either of my roommates, and I couldn’t get all that worked up about it. I prayed that the hostages would come home safely and that the government would not be pressured into some precipitous act of violence that might get them all killed. At the time, some of my schoolmates were calling for bombings and abandonment of the hostages to their fate. They would rather see all the hostages dead than the US humiliated, as they felt was the case. They took the humiliation very personally.
Kassra and Mehran were very human. Kassra, especially, was a study in contradictions. He praised the notion of an Islamic state under Sharia Law, but he lived a life of decadence, drunkenness and sexual promiscuity while he was in America. He never went to Mosque, never prayed as far as I could tell, and never read the Koran. He was a party animal and would have been right at home in any frat house. Mehran worried about his family and seemed homesick. He had a sweetheart back home, and he wrote really bad poems. Both of them loved to go to the disco, and we would sometimes go to a club called St Tropez on Wisconsin Avenue. Mehran was a chick magnet.
I lost touch with the guys when they went away to some university in Tennessee, but I always felt richer for the experience of having lived with them. That was one real benefit of attending AU, the high percentage of international students and exposure to people from vastly different cultures and backgrounds. I think that my acquaintance with so many aliens has helped me realize over the years that strange looking people in faraway lands are not that different from my fellow Americans. Exposure to this kind of diversity helped to immunize me from nationalistic hatred.