The American Bazaar made a mistake too, in reporting the fact.
By Sujeet Rajan
NEW YORK: Last week, when the Obama administration announced Azita Raji, a prominent ‘bundler’, read campaign donation/collection expert for President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, as the nomination for becoming the next US ambassador to Sweden, the Indian media in the US, including The American Bazaar, was quick to report and glorify the fact that she is the second Indian American after Richard Verma, to be on course for an ambassadorial position this year.
Turns out, Azita Raji is not Indian American after all. She is Iranian American, according to the White House’s bio of her.
It read: “Raji was born in Tehran, Iran, and spent her early years growing up and studying in Iran and Western Europe. She attended and graduated from an international high school in Lausanne, Switzerland, where she was a competitive downhill skier and chess player, before coming to live in the United States for the first time, to attend college at age 17. Throughout her life she has lived, studied, and worked in the Middle East, Latin America, Western Europe, and the Far East, and is fluent and literate in several languages, including Farsi and French. She has drawn from her wide global awareness and cultural perspective throughout her life and career. Raji currently resides in Northern California with her family.”
Trita Parsi, the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, sent out a congratulatory tweet on Raji’s nomination, pointing out her Iranian background, but it got lost in the deluge of stories by the Indian media.
But the question that puzzles is why has Raji stayed silent all these years over her being identified as an Indian American, both by the Indian as well as the mainstream media?
She has been identified as a prominent bundler of Indian origin for at least six years now, and nobody has questioned that including the Iranian American community; nobody bothered to rectify that, or to claim her as one of their own. The Washington Post identified her some years ago as an Indian American. Indian news outlets picked up on that thereafter.
Of course, her name sounds very much Indian; in fact, I know of an Indian couple originally from Kerala, and now living in the US, whose daughter is called Azita. And just because she grew up in Teheran does that mean she does not have parents or a parent with an Indian origin?
The name itself is a curious mixture. Azita is a Persian origin name, meaning princess, a common Iranian name. But Raji is a common Indian name used by Hindus, the most common definition of which is the name of a king, and ‘shining’. So a princess born to a king! That makes sense.
Raji’s professional background is no surprise, however. She is a well-known name in the financial circles, having been an investment banker, a former vice president of J.P. Morgan Securities, before she retired, to focus on work for the Democratic Party, in 2008. She was equally successful there, having raised over $3 million for Obama by 2012, as noted by The New York Times. In her household in California, her professional background is beaten only by her husband, Gary Syman, who was the former managing director of Goldman Sachs in San Francisco.
A call to a number listed in Raji’s name in Belvedere, one of the wealthiest communities in Northern California, proved to be a dead end. The number was disconnected. I decided against writing to her through LinkedIn, as she didn’t seem to be too active on that front, having only 220 connections. Seems like she gave up networking on that front a while ago, or only the crème de le crème of society make it to her list of connections. Instinct told me it might prove to be a futile effort, apart from waiting for an indeterminate time for an answer, if it ever comes.
A prominent Indian American Democrat confirmed to the Bazaar that he knew Raji well, and she is definitely Iranian. But he also didn’t have much clue about her parents, what their names are, where they are now.
A pointer also that she might not be connected to the Indian community is in the fact that she does not figure in the list of people invited to the state dinner for Dr. Manmohan Singh by Obama, in 2009, but made the cut for the one for the Chinese president Hu Jintao in 2011. But that could also be attributed to her not being prominent enough in the fundraising circles when Singh was invited, so not really conclusive evidence.
But still, there should be at least one story on her being of Iranian origin? I would have thought so. But there are none, actually, as a sweep of the Internet suggested. I even got hold of her naturalization records, and then found out through readers’ comments on local news portals in Sweden and Switzerland – last year she was tipped to be sent as ambassador to the latter – that she may have Indian parents, apart from a lot of trivia on her wealthy background, and insinuations of Obama’s close connections to her through their university days. But there was nothing on her parents. Well!
Iranians, unlike Indians, cannot renounce their Indian citizenship at the time of naturalization. Raji likely has dual citizenship, which might suggest that even if she has Indian parent(s), she cannot possibly call herself Indian-Iranian-American! If she was born in Iran, and then took up citizenship in the US, she is technically Iranian American.
A quick search of prominent Iranian Americans, who number around two million by some estimates, on Wikipedia and other Persian websites, makes one thing clear: she does not figure there, though. So they also missed out on claiming her.
In 2010, the number of self-identified Iranian Americans in the US was 448,722, with almost all Iranians in the US either citizens or permanent residents. And according to the latest census data available, more than one in four Iranian-Americans hold a master’s or doctoral degree, the highest rate among ethnic groups in the US. Arguably, tennis player Andre Agassi and Pierre Omidyar, founder of e-Bay, are the most prominent personalities having Iranian origin. Surely, Raji belonged in that list, but even Wikipedia has been slow on that front.
The only option left was to do a Lexis Nexis search, or to email her.
But, I decided against it. How would you like it if someone emailed you asking if you are an Indian or a Pakistani? And Lexis Nexis would mean another day lost; and there was no guarantee it would be more illuminating than the facts I had gathered so far.
And perhaps, a search is not really needed.
Raji is where she is today not be reveling in her past background, but by looking ahead in life; not bothered by racial, cultural and national identities, but by being a proven leader in the modern world she has learnt to call home and embrace it as such.
Perhaps, that’s the reason that Raji never objected to being called an Indian for so many years now, and not an Iranian. For her, it was more important to reach out to communities, build bridges, not alienate one at the cost of embracing another. The fact that she never bothered to either correct the assumption of her being Indian or to give an explanation of her background as an Iranian proves her assurance in her own abilities and capabilities.
For people like Raji, it’s more important to be just one term: American.
One thing is for sure: Azita Raji, whether she has an Indian connection or not, will make for a fine, astute ambassador to Sweden. She will make the US surely proud of her.
(Sujeet Rajan is the Editor-in-Chief of The American Bazaar)