The sister I always had.
It's kind of a long story.
In 2018, I did the one thing everyone from surveillance experts to serial killers insist you do not do: I gave my DNA to an ancestry site. I will not say which one. It’s actually not that hard to figure out which one but until they pay me the big bucks, I won’t mention them here. From this ancestry site, I learned the obvious: I was 98% Iranian. What a reveal!
I remember telling my mother this very known fact after I got my results. She looked at me, shrugged, and reminded me that her parents were second cousins. Oh, that’s right… my family in Iran didn’t really branch out, if you know what I mean. But this isn’t a story about marrying cousins. Trust me, we will get to that in the future. This story? It’s about many things. But to start, it’s about DNA. A helix dying to identify you and help podcast detectives find your criminal cousin. D-N-A. Like that one Kendrick song. (Hot tip: always mention Kendrick. People love him and they love seeing his name.)
It was Labor Day weekend in 2021. I got an email from the ancestry site letting me know there was a message for me to read. I could see the preview in the email and it was, to put it simply, quite vague. It was from someone asking if they could ask me a few questions because the site had listed me as their closest relative. I didn’t recognize the name. Initially, I thought it may have been someone I had met through podcasting and we were like 3rd cousins coincidentally. I pushed it aside and didn’t think about it again until the end of the long weekend.
When I did finally look at the message, I was… confused? Here was a woman, with a decently white name, being listed as my half-sibling. It made no sense. I looked at her profile. It said she was from Logan, Utah. Huh. Logan, Utah is the first place my father came to when he came to the US to go to college. That’s weird, right? This is going to sound silly but when I first saw her listed as my sibling, I briefly thought that it must be a clerical error. I thought maybe this big ancestry/DNA site had switched some vials in a lacking corporate structure fiasco and posted the wrong information. I didn’t think something like this could ever happen to someone like me. It was too out of the ordinary. Now I’m sorry if I’m generalizing but most children of immigrants aren’t usually taught to take in wonder and truly engage with it. Things are usually so matter of fact. We rarely stray from what we know. It’s safer that way. In a moment true ennui, I decided to stray. I shall engage!
I message her back. I let her know that I am willing to answer any and all questions she has. She tells me about herself. She is 40 years old and lives in Idaho. When she was a teenager, she learned she had a different dad than her siblings. She was told another man was her father. But the children of that man are not showing up on this site as her siblings. I was showing up. Just me. My fucking ass.
I tell her that both my parents are Iranian immigrants who came separately to the US in the seventies. My parents didn’t meet until the eighties so I figure why not, let’s see where this goes. We spend the next few hours really getting into it. We exchange dates, names, locations, and details, details, details! I get my dad on the phone. He remembers nothing. Her mother remembers nothing. They’re both in their seventies! Useless! (Sorry for the ageism, okay!! They were both like IDK, maybe?? over and over which after awhile became exhausting. Remember SOMETHING, please! Human emotions are on the line here!)
We can’t really nail anything down. Eventually I start to feel bad. Here is this woman trying to figure out her literal life and all I can tell her is IDK maybe my dad fucked your mom but he don’t know anything cause he drinks a lot of wine?
We decide to exchange photos as a last ditch effort. Maybe this will jog our parents memories? MAYBE?! Now let me tell you… when her photo came through on my phone… the jig was up. I made a side by side pic-stitch of her photo and a photo of my dad… fucking uncanny. I kept repeating she has our blood, she has our blood, she has Hossnieh blood! I sent the side by side to my best friend. I sent it to my dad. I sent it to her. Everyone had the same reaction of ummmm, wait, what??
She looked like my dad. She looked exactly like one of my cousins from my dads side who lives in Iran. And she had a striking resemblance to other family members. Okay, we have something here. She is related to us. But how? My dad still remembers nothing. After all the head scratching over the photos, things finally did start to click. Her mother was able to remember where they met. From that, my dad was able to remember a specific detail about her mother that put him in a certain place and time. After more back and forth we were eventually able to equate him to being her biological father. Hoorah! It happened! We reached the moon! We can all die now!
Before we were able to nail it down, I remember having to ask my dad in a very serious tone: were you out here fuckin’? To which he replied of course. That was something. My whole life my dad would joke about how he was SUCH a ladies man. Yeah right, we’d say, in what universe? There is no way this civil engineer dork was pulling. Well. Egg on my face, huh? I am mature enough to admit I was an asshole who belittled my fathers ability to charm a woman. Okay, I don’t want to discuss this anymore so we are moving on.
Through this whole process, I never spoke to my mom. I was quite anxious to speak to her after confirming the genetic connection. I called my mom the next morning and the first thing she says to me is I always told you your dad is crazy! No one listens to me. I asked if she was mad about the situation. She said no, it wasn’t during my time. If it had been when we were together, he’d already be dead. My mom has always been a pleasant, kind, and accommodating woman. She also has the driest sense of humor you have ever heard. On top of all of that she’s a devout Muslim who always looks to God for guidance. She immediately welcomed my sister into the family. InshAllah all will work itself out, she said.
Now why my half-sisters mother never informed my dad of her pregnancy… well those details aren’t mine to share. Let’s just say it was a VERY complicated situation. Also… it was the late seventies. There was so social media, no cell phones, and no way to contact an Iranian immigrant if they happen to leave their house every summer to go live and work in the oil fields of Wyoming. If it wasn’t clear… that is exactly what my dad did after their fling.
So alas, there would be no connection for 40 years. My sister didn’t even know she was half-Iranian until she did the ancestry test. The amount of Ghormeh Sabzi she missed out on? A crime!
My father has been more than willing to get to know her. I would say they have grown decently close since we found her. I really think he is excited to know her and have her in his life. I do think he feels bad that he just didn’t know about her. That he left and started another life with my mother. That he couldn’t give her what he gave us. I think he feels bad about being reckless in his youth. Not paying any mind to a woman he had a significant fling with and then never saw again.
I have my own qualms about it. I was raised in privilege in the wine countries of California. She was not. She actually had a very tough life. I think about how she could have come and lived with us, been raised with us, lived a comfortable life. But I try to stop that sort of thinking. She eventually had a daughter, she worked hard to have her career, she has a home she bought with her own hard-earned money. She has a boyfriend, a life in Idaho. It may have been a tough upbringing but she persevered. To wish she had come to live with us earlier in her life would deem those things non-existent. I may not now have a niece who I’ve come to really enjoy. That doesn’t seem fair. I want to be present with her and not consider the what ifs. I try to just accept her and her daughter and the circumstances. It’s out of our hands. I am just happy we know each other finally. That we can continue to grow closer and exist in each others lives.
Something that fascinated me about all of this is the idea of nature vs. nurture. It’s something I haven’t really thought of before, but now it’s very present in my mind. My father and her have similar mannerisms. They have similar personality traits. They both tell it like it is even if it gets them in trouble. They’re realists. They’re not impressed easily. They stand their ground. They work very hard to get what they need out of life. Is this genetics? Or are they just Torks?
Beyond the nature vs nurture aspect, the whole experience has opened my mind to a ton of questions. How it all went down really got me thinking. My father ended up in Utah because he was looking for a place to go to university in the US. He learned that the climate in Utah was similar to the climate in Northern Iran, which is where he is from. Mountains and cold? Great, that’s familiar, sign him up! He arrived in the US in 1976, a mere 24 years old. Ready to party! He is living in a new country that wasn’t as strict as his former home. He could do whatever he wanted! The Iranian revolution wasn’t a thing yet so Iranians hadn’t been demonized by the media. He was just a young, handsome, bachelor from an exotic land getting an education in civil engineering. He was on one. At least that’s how he and all his friends described it to me.
That’s right. My dad is still friends with all the same Iranian guys he knew back then. They’re now spread out across the US but they’re all still very close. So naturally I had to speak to all of them about this era. They all told me the same thing: they were young, living on their own, and surrounded by white women who were interested in getting to know them. What could go wrong? Now the county, in Utah, that they lived in was dry (that means you couldn’t just buy alcohol) so they would drive to Idaho to buy beer and party. They were crossing state lines and truly living their best lives. They felt unstoppable.
I was told my dad had many girlfriends before he met my mom. He was always out and about and meeting people. He loves to socialize, he loves to have a nice cold beer, a glass or two or three of wine, and he loves, and I mean loves, to dance. He was a hit! Now does this make me think there may be more half-siblings out there? Of course, how could I not? When my dad asked if he should possibly take a DNA test, we told him to maybe hold off a little bit. This could be a slippery slope.
Jokes aside, I do wonder how many other kids may have experienced what my sister did. How many others were left behind by an Iranian man who either didn’t know about them or possibly didn’t want to know about them. Yes, I definitely heard some stories about Iranian men who chose to ignore their half-white children due to a number of reasons. It’s not great but it definitely happened.
According to the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, by the mid-1970s, nearly half of the Iranian-Americans who studied abroad, did so in the US. An annual foreign student census, done by the Institute of International Education, listed Iranian students as the largest group of foreign students in the US. In 1975, that was 9% of all the foreign students in the country. Naturally after the Iranian revolution in 1979, that number went up. The Institute of International Education claims that between 1979 and 1980 that more students from Iran were enrolled in American universities than from any other foreign country.
There was also a pattern of only individuals immigrating over, not whole families. So if a man came over before the revolution to go to school, he could have possibly been deported if his student visa didn’t come through. Or he could have just left on his own volition to go back and be with his family. An American woman would never know where or how to find him. They would just be gone. This is just one example but I am sure there are so many more situations I haven’t even begun to process.
I guess in conclusion, I am curious how common this situation really is. I know I have come a long way from submitting my DNA into the surveillance capitalism industrial complex to being curious how many kids lost or didn’t have the chance to know their Iranian fathers due to a variety of circumstances. But here we are. Have you or someone you know experienced something like this? I am dying to know! DM me on my instagram @SellingHossnieh. I want to hear about it!
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed ~*my first ever Substack post*~. I will, of course, write about other culture-esque topics. And I will definitely be back to update you about the long lost Iranian father journey I have sent myself on. If you do choose to subscribe, which I hope you do, I will keep you entertained! (I hope!) If I don’t, well then we have nothing in common and you should poo-poo your way on outta here! Did using the words ‘poo-poo’ in that context win you back? Probably not. I am not for everyone and that is okay! I love you, anyway.
God bless and good night! (I am very religious now.)