The Diaspora Fruit

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Somehow pomegranates became the Iranian “diaspora fruit.” By diaspora fruit, I mean the way a certain fruit can become a stand-in for a nation or homeland; signifying history, ritual, and the residues thereof.

As Anita Mannur outlines in “Culinary Nostalgia: Authenticity, Nationalism, Diaspora,” food can facilitate “‘culinary citizenship,’ a form of affective citizenship which grants subjects the ability to claim and inhabit certain subject positions via their relationship to food.” If I had a dollar for every Iranian artist I’ve seen deploy a pomegranate in their work, I would not be so stressed about my student loans. Pomegranates are a powerful symbol of Iranian cultural heritage, as the fruit is native to the land we now call Iran and Afghanistan. I fall prey to the time and space travel the pomegranate promises: yes, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I have a pomegranate tattoo planned, and it doesn’t feel like home if there is no pomegranate molasses in the cupboard.

Iranians are obsessed with pomegranates.

The insides of a pomegranate always resembled the architecture of a mosque to me: archways and cavities full of holiness. Seeding pomegranates with my grandfather in the yard, he tells me that the rare translucent seeds in the fruit are pieces of heaven. “I didn’t know you could eat the seeds,” a friend once told me. “You’re not usually supposed to eat the seeds of fruit, and pomegranates are all seed. I thought you just juice them.” I remember white kids’ aversion to seeds at lunchtime: groaning at big grapes, leaving their oranges untouched and unpeeled. But I was taught to embrace the fruits others avoided. Perhaps my first understandings of Iranian culture were through fruit. My father, grandfather, aunts and uncles all have an unwavering commitment to fruit, often the fruit white neighbors grow in their yards but don’t eat–like gojeh, small, sour unripe plums we eat until our stomachs bloated in protest. If you see gojeh, you have to grab it, even if it means trespassing. My family has stopped on the side of the road for gojeh, or marched into parks armed with plastic bags, raising each other up to get to the highest branches and grab the fruit most others overlook.  

Pomegranates, too, are left untouched on many trees. Some people don’t know what they are, while some consider them cumbersome, a pain to seed. My dad’s close friend Farahmarz reminisces about the days when most Americans were impervious to the glory of pomegranates: “They were so much cheaper. The storekeeper would give me extra for free practically because no one bought them–they thought they were for decoration.”

Iranians are obsessed with pomegranates. On one hand, pomegranates hold specific cultural relevance. For example, they are central to the celebration of the winter solstice, Shabe Yalda. On the longest and darkest night of the year, we stave off evil spirits with fruit consumption, laughter, and warmth, candlelight glowing against the waxy maroon of pomegranates’ tough outsides. But there’s also something more nebulous to the appeal of pomegranates, something almost primordial. Even POM , the popular and lucrative pomegranate juice company, pays homage to the fruit’s Persian roots. Their website features a timeline replete with stories and artwork to convey the history of the fruit–1370 AD: the legend of Isfandiyar, from the Shahnameh, national epic of Iran:

“In the Zoroastrian religion of Persia, Isfandiyar became invincible after eating a pomegranate, emerging victorious in seven battles: Slaying two monstrous wolves, two lions, a dragon, a wicked enchantress, a mythical bird and its offspring, braving a three-day storm, and crossing a desert. Pomegranates are known today for their incredible antioxidants, but still, that’s quite impressive.”

Witnessing POM Wonderful’s commodification of myth and history to entice consumers alerted me to the ways the romanticization of origin stories can distort communities. The Aryan myth, for example, circulates in many Iranian communities–particularly diasporic ones. Originally put to use to solidify a national identity by Reza Shah, now diasporic communities have found it useful to wedge themselves under the umbrella of whiteness. “If anyone bullies you for your race, they are stupid because we are the true white people. Caucasian–as in the Caucasus Mountains, hello!” is a statement I’ve heard more than a few times in Iranian circles. 

Mannur writes that “food…becomes a potent symbol for signifying the ethnic integrity of Asian Americans, serving both as a placeholder for marking cultural distinctiveness and as a palliative for dislocation.”  I would take this statement a step further to say that food nostalgia can also become a mode of cultural supremacy. Even Iranians who don’t ascribe to and in fact actively denounce these harmful white supremacist beliefs can find themselves swayed by the appeal of origin stories, including the beguiling roots of the pomegranate. How special to be able to lay claim to such a marvelous fruit! With pomegranate-tinted glasses, Iran is a place we always celebrate, full of vibrant fruit, poppies, rugs, marketplaces and mosques–a world of magic and color. A closer examination of any of these objects, however, reveals a fraught reality of who matters and who is relegated to the margins. All of these things– pomegranates, poppies, etcetera–are also a part of the cultural heritage of Afghanistan, a fact that gets eclipsed.

Even a phrase as seemingly innocuous as “Persian New Year” reveals the extent to which Iranian supremacy has a hold on cultural narratives, erasing the many other regions where Nourouz celebrated. 

In many forms and iterations, the Iranian nation and its myths have perpetuated violence toward Afghanistan and Afghan people, invisibilizing their cultural heritage and lives. In early May, Iranian border guards forced 45 migrant Afghan workers into a river and only 12 survived, Shapoor Saber reports. 

 The comfort and pleasure of connecting with a food for its ability to bind us to our displaced homeland is fraught. We only have the language and maps which teach us to understand this homeland in terms of a nation and its borders, and we must be aware of the ways our diaspora fruit nostalgia has the potential to reinscribe these borders.