Upon the opening of Amir H. Fallah’s solo exhibition in Tel Aviv, the following text by the west coast artist originally appeared as a Facebook post on January 30, 2017 as a response to President Trump’s January 27 controversial executive order halting all refugee admissions and temporarily barring people from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Amir H. Fallah, Contributor, Lookie-Lookie
Thanks for the outpouring of support and kind words the last two days. It meant a lot to hear from so many friends from around the world. Many of you reached out to me and wanted to know the details of my trip and why I was stopped. I have tried to describe it in as much detail below. Please note that although I was inconvenienced I had it pretty easy compared to the people who were denied entry into the US or detained at airports.
Last week I flew to Tel Aviv for an exhibition. The relationship between the Israeli and Iranian government isn’t exactly friendly and I have to admit that I had some reservations about going there as an Iranian-American. The gallery I work with is run by progressive, kind and open-minded individuals. I’ve been in communication with them for to two years and I respect their vision and desire to take risks and bring new voices to their city. They show an international roster of artists including Israelis, Americans, Arabs and now Iranian-Americans. They are pushing the envelope and creating dialogue across borders. Being a believer that art can create bridges between communities I boarded the plane both excited and nervous.
Israel is famous for its airport security and they did not disappoint. During my arrival I was pulled to the side once they saw that my place of birth was Iran. I was put into a special seating area mostly filled with foreigners. After an hour I was called into a room and questioned about why I was there. The gallery had prepared some documents to help with getting through customs. I had an official invite to come to Israel by them along with print outs of the press release, exhibit invite and so on. During the questioning I was asked what my grandfathers name was which I didn’t know. My grandfather died when I was 5 years old. I have only vague memories of him. My entire life I called him grandpa and never had a reason to call him by his name. I had to text my father to find out his name. Not knowing this piece of information was a red flag. I waited for another 1.5 hours. I was then called into a second space where I was interviewed again. I was asked what the reason for my stay was, who had invited me, if I knew any Palestinians and to list all Israeli’s I knew in the country. At a certain point they decided to call my gallerist who explained again the purpose of my visit. Shortly after they hung up the phone I went back into the seating area. I got a text from my gallerist that I would be released any minute as he told them I was an “important artist.” I wasn’t released for another hour and a half.
Once I was in Tel Aviv I was welcomed warmly by everyone I met. The art community was excited that an Iranian (who is not Jewish) was there. They were eager to discuss American politics, Iran, art, and life. Even my cab driver became excited when I told him I was born in Iran. He quickly started to list all the Iranian foods he loved and repeatedly told me that he loved the Iranian people. It was a kind gesture from a stranger and during that 30 minute cab ride our governments agendas melted away and we were two people who laughed and spoke like we were old friends. I met several Palestinian and Arab artists who lived in Tel Aviv. I was very curious about their lives and how the complex politics of the country effectedthem. I met a curator whose parents were Iranian but who was born in Israel. We instantly hit it off. We had only met for a few minutes but we had a connection that is hard to put into words. At one point she looked at me and said “ I feel like you are one of my cousins.” It was obvious that she longed to connect with Iranians and the community that her parents had to leave behind. I knew exactly how she felt. It’s an uneasy feeling of always being in cultural Limbo.
I went to multiple restaurants where Arabs and Jews ate side by side. They spoke so fast that I couldn’t tell if they were speaking in Arabic or Hebrew. They all looked the same, sounded the same, and used the same body language. I’m sure locals can spot the differences from a mile away but to this tourist I didn’t see much difference between the two groups. I found it strange that there was decades of fighting between them when they are already perfectly content eating and living side by side. Why couldn’t that thinking spill over to the rest of the country? After all we all enjoy a tasty hummus plate with a side of fluffy pita. How different can we really be?
After a successful week I felt that I wasn’t just there as an artist but I was also on an informal peacekeeping mission. Several people told me that I was the first Iranian they had met. One gallery visitor told me she was genuinely surprised at how friendly I was. In a small way we were chipping away at barriers. It made me feel like there could be a future for Palestinians, Israelis, Iranians and the rest of the world. Perhaps the world doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom after all.
At the airport on my way back I was once again questioned for over 2 hours. This time I answered over 200 questions that were asked of me in rapid succession. I had to stand at the ticketing kiosk and answer questions such as “why are you an artist?”, “why did you stay for more than one day (implying that I should have only visited the city for the opening of the show and then left immediately)”, “ what materials is your artwork made of?”, “List the names of every person you were in contact with in Israel”, and my favorite, “explain art theory”. I have no idea what the point of this interrogation was. The 18 year old girl that was questioning me might as well have asked me to explain the meaning of life. Every mundane detail from what I ate to what type of crate I used to ship my artwork was meticulously questioned. At a certain point I asked if she was going to ask me if I was a terrorist. She laughed nervously and kept going with the pointless questions. After giving her a mini course in contemporary art I finally was allowed to go on the plane and leave.
I had a layover in New Jersey for an hour and a half. After being questioned for over 6 hours in Tel Aviv I was ecstatic to finally be on American soil. I was home. At passport control the line was moving quickly in the US Citizens line. I admired how efficient the US customs officers were. When I got to the Homeland Security officer he took one look at where I was born and asked if I was coming from Israel. I said yes. He asked if I ever go to Iran. I said no. He escorted me to another officer who was in a larger glass encased booth. He asked me the same questions. As soon as I answered he got out of his booth and escorted me to another area that was segregated from the rest of passport control. This area could best be described as the “brown people holding center.” Every person in this area had brown skin. There were Asians, Latinos, Arabs, Iranians and Africans. I was held in this area for over 2 hours. I was not allowed to use my cell phone and when I told the officers that I was going to miss my connecting flight they just shrugged it off. They could care less. They were not overtly rude but the look on their faces didn’t exactly say “welcome home fellow citizen.” Everyone being held in this room looked embarrassed, depressed and scared. I noticed that at least half the people being held had US passports. After missing my flight I was finally called up and given my passport back. I was never told why I was held, never questioned, never asked if I was Muslim (I’m an atheist) and nobody bothered to apologize for the inconvenience.
I’ve dealt with various levels of prejudice for most of my life but this was the first time I felt homeless. It was made clear that I was guilty until proven innocent and that my citizenship means nothing, my passport means nothing, and my TSA Precheck is worthless. I was “flying while brown” and my own country doesn’t trust me. My skin color and place of origin is all they saw, two things that I have no control of. White skin is really what qualifies you as a true American. I’m happy that my newborn son won’t have to deal with this kind of harassment. He is fair skinned and was born in the US. He won’t be judged for things that are out of his control. He will pass as an American and will only have to deal with prejudice once someone hears his last name or meets his father. It’s a depressing thought to have but that’s honestly how I feel.
I have lived in the US for almost my entire life. We arrived around 1986 and I have been a citizen since I was a tween. I graduated from prestigious schools with multiple degrees, have won multiple national grants and awards, started several businesses, employed dozens of fellow Americans, have paid hundreds of thousands in taxes and have been a believer in American Ideals and beliefs. I’m a proud Iranian American who is scared, depressed and disgusted by the racists, sexists and bigots who have taken over our government. My parents lost everything when they decided to move to the US in search of a better life. They arrived with $75 dollars and a dream of providing their only child with a better future. Through their hard work they have a comfortable middle class life. My father owns a successful business that employs 20-30 employees at any given time. He is proof that you can succeed in America through hard work and determination. How horrific it must be for my parents to sacrifice so much and yet deal with the same injustice that they fled in Iran.
I recently asked my father what he thought of the Trump regime and he said “ We sold off everything once and started over in a new land. If we must we will do it again.“
I ask that all my fellow Americans stand up and fight against Trump and his un-American ideals. He does not represent what makes America great. I especially ask that my white friends mobilize and let their voices be heard. I’m just another shady brown guy with an extremist agenda according to Trump and his followers. You are the ones that will have a real impact on which direction our country goes.
The ban instituted on January 27 sparked worldwide protests and legal challenges, and ultimately was blocked by federal courts. The President has since approved a new travel ban executive order that will replace the one from January. Washington and Minnesota filed a lawsuit challenging the original and the new ban, and so far attorneys general from Massachusetts, New York, and Oregon confirmed last week they plan to join the lawsuit, while a federal judge in Hawaii is schedule to hear arguments against the ban today. The new ban takes effect tomorrow, March 16.
Amir H. Fallah was born in Tehran, Iran in 1979. He received his BFA from Maryland Institute College of Art in 2001 and his MFA from University of California Los Angeles in 2005. Fallah’s artistic oeuvre encompasses painting, photography, sculpture, and installation combined with a visual vocabulary that includes collage and complex patterning. The works present a critical observation of the deconstruction and appropriation of portraiture in its various forms. Fallah’s practice presents an alternative perspective to entrenched art historical portraiture traditions and the dynamics of modern day art collection and art making. Intertwined with these concerns are his reflections upon identity and personal narrative.
Fallah has exhibited widely in exhibits across the United States and internationally. These include Embedded Memories, Mohsen Gallery, Tehran, Iran (2016); The Caretaker, Nerman Museum Of Contemporary Art, Overland Park, KS (2015) ; Perfect Strangers,18th Street Art Center, Santa Monica, CA (2015) ; From The Primitive To the Present, Charlie James Gallery, Los Angeles, CA (2015) ; JOYCE Gallery, Hong Kong (2014); The Collected, The Third Line, Dubai, UAE (2013); The Collected, Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco (2013). His numerous group exhibitions include Illusions of a Perfect Utopia, Walter Maciel Gallery, Los Angeles, California, USA (2014); I’ll Show You Mine, Palo Alto Art Center, Palo Alto, USA (2014), Theory Of Survival: Fabrications, Southern Exposure, San Francisco, USA (2014), Between The Folds, 10 Year Anniversary Show, Gallery Poulsen, Copenhagen, Denmark (2013); SUPERCALLAFRAGILEMYSTICEXTASY -DIOECIOUS, Lancaster museum of Art and History, California, USA (2013); Show Off, Salsali Private Museum, Dubai, UAE (2011); Amir also participated in the We Must Risk Delight- Twenty Artists From Los Angeles, 56th La Biennale Di Venezia, Venice, Italy (2015) and the 9th Sharjah Biennial, Sharjah, UAE (2009).
Fallah is a 2017 recipient of the California Community Foundation Fellowship for Visual arts and a 2015 recipient of the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters & Sculptors Grant. His works are part of several private and public collections, including the Nerman Museum Of Contemporary Art and the Salsali Private Museum Collection, and the Microsoft Collection.
Fallah lives and works in Los Angeles, California.