Daughters of the Iranian Revolution
Asal Mirzahossein was born and raised in the United States, but her stomach remains ever faithful to her parents' native Iran, where, like the Eskimos with their varied words for snow, Persians revel in rice in its myriad forms. Basmati rice with lentils is Asal's home-cooked Persian meal of choice. Another favorite is baklava cake, a moist pillow of a dessert made fragrant by an Iranian baking staple: rose water.
"We put rose water in every Iranian pastry I can think of. It's the aroma," says the 22-year-old aspiring English teacher from San Diego. Asal believes rose water is soothing for digestion.
Along with pastries, savory khoresh (stews) and kebabs are one way Asal keeps her Persian heritage alive, but it's not the only way. She also grew up learning to speak and write Farsi (correctly, she emphasizes), taking note of her father's vigilant attention to developments in his home country. Several times a day, the 55-year-old businessman checks the BBC for the latest political news on Iran, printing out numerous articles that he adds to his stacks of papers on the subject.
Asal vividly remembers her visit to Iran at the age of 7. There, she watched friends and family stirring waist-high vats of rice in preparation for a neighborhood feast. She also scampered about her grandfather's fruit orchard outside Tehran, climbing trees, picking berries and dipping her fingers in an icy stream. And she wandered the ancient city of Esfahan, for several centuries the capital of Persia. It was dusk when her family strolled under the illuminated archways of the Sio-Seh Pol Bridge, admiring the mosques and other architectural landmarks stretched out before them. For Asal, Esfahan was a little like Rome -- a tribute to a proud heritage. Also a tribute to a lost world.
No going back
The atmosphere of political uncertainty in Iran, where the current government could well tighten already rigid restrictions on dress and free expression, has proven less than enticing to U.S.-raised Persian women like Asal. She says she has no interest in going back to Iran, not right now anyway.
Growing up in the shadow of exile, Asal is one of as many as 600,000 residents of Persian descent in southern California -- most are refugees of the 1979 Iranian revolution and their children. An estimated one million Iranians now live in the United States, with the largest population residing in Los Angeles. By reputation, Iranians in the United States have proven wildly successful -- as profitable in Beverly Hills real estate as they are proficient in medical school admission. They have struck gold as entrepreneurs as well, operating grocery store chains and restaurants (an estimated 60 in L.A. and Orange counties). They have kept their culture alive in the diaspora through bookstores, newspapers, radio stations, websites and Farsi-language TV satellite stations that broadcast anti-government messages to Iran. It's no wonder, then, that Los Angeles has been nicknamed Irangeles.
Still, many Iranian expatriates openly pine for a return to the country of their birth. Asal's parents fall into this category, and lately, they have been talking about retiring in Iran. The subject came up -- again -- at a recent family reunion with Asal's aunts, uncles and cousins of her parents' generation.
"It's a perennial discussion that goes in stages. They reminisce, argue, reason with each other, convince each other and at the end they're telling funny stories about when they were little. It makes them feel like they're still Iranians," she says. In fact, one of Asal's relatives moved back to Iran and is happy there, but Asal questions whether her parents would thrive. Her father left at 15 and her mother at 18.
"Some people in my family are telling them you can't go back. They keep telling them it's not the Iran of the '60s," Asal notes.
Her parents' desire to live in today's Iran may not prove realistic, Asal readily concedes. But their longing for the Iran of yesterday -- that is nothing if not real.
The daughters of Iranian immigrants find themselves in a unique position -- bilingual, able to blend their Persian identity with their U.S. citizenship without apparent struggle and quick to adopt attributes of both cultures while discarding those they find undesirable. Unlike their Iranian-born parents, they don't long for a lost homeland, and they don't grow up marginalized, as some children of immigrants do, by difference and poverty. They are part of a large and affluent community that proudly promotes its language and culture. But the blessing of being bicultural often carries a price.
Newsha Mostafavi, 21, was raised in Orange County, California, though she spent a year in Iran when she was 9. She went to live with her mother, who returned to Iran, while her father remained in the United States as the publisher of a Persian magazine in Laguna Hills, Calif. While in Iran, Newsha didn't respond well to dress restrictions; she had a habit of letting her shawl slide nearly to the back of her head. At one point she even wore a large crucifix to school over her compulsory overcoat and got suspended as a result (she's not Christian, just rebellious). She soon began to long for home -- that is, the United States -- but the cost of her return was to prove exceptionally steep: life apart from her mother. Still, she doesn't regret her decision.
"As hard as it is to admit and as hard as it is for my family to understand, I am infinitely more American than I am Persian," she recently wrote in an essay for the website of her father's magazine. Yet she prides herself on her command of English and Farsi, and on being "perfectly fluent" in Persian and U.S. settings. She also admits to feeling torn between cultures on occasion. One example was the soccer game she attended between the U.S. and Iranian teams in 1998. The contest took place in Pasadena as part of the World Cup tournament; more significantly, it was the first meeting of the teams since the Iranian hostage taking. Against this highly charged setting, Newsha found the game confusing at best.
"I couldn't decide whom to root for," she wrote. "So there I sat for two and a half hours cheering for both as they scored. It felt like a betrayal to choose one over the other, almost like having to choose a favorite among my animals."
It's not unusual for Newsha and other children of immigrants to feel competing loyalties, of course. But the tension facing young Iranian-American women is particularly acute because of the pronounced gender dynamic involved in traveling between the two countries. For example, the female dress code can be unnerving for U.S.-raised Persian-American women who visit Iran.
Mahsa Khalilifar, a college student from Irvine, Calif., hated the shawl and overcoat she was required to wear in sweltering heat during her visit. She remembers feeling "like a caged animal" in her required clothing. "I wanted to scream, 'Why do I have to wear this?'" she remembers. Once she almost broke a rule by nearly sitting on the front of the bus, reserved for men only.
"There are a lot of rules and restrictions," she says. "And yet I didn't feel safe there."
She and other Persian-Americans commonly report the feeling of risk associated with travel to Iran. Foremost is the fear of hostilities escalating between Iran and the United States during a visit. In case of serious conflict, would visiting Persian-Americans be considered enemies? Would American authorities see them as Iranians? Another concern harbored by Persian-Americans is being unfairly associated with the "axis of evil" in a fearful post-9/11 United States.
It was only after Sept. 11 that Newsha Mostafavi felt singled out in America, she says. She felt more conscious of her Middle Eastern appearance and the suspicion it might arouse in her fellow citizens. Similarly, many Persian-Americans now worry that being Iranian will subject them to questioning or detention upon leaving or re-entering the United States. The irony of the terrorist taint, of course, is that U.S.-based Persians left Iran in opposition to the fundamentalist government.
There is something undeniably dÃƒÂ©jÃƒÂ vu about Iranians' concern over their status as Americans in a post-9/11 world. In 1979, when Iranian revolutionaries stormed the U.S. embassy and took American hostages, Persians living here were equally if not more worried.
Memoirs and memory
Memoirist Firoozeh Dumas recalls the hostage-taking in her account of Iranian-American life during that era, "Overnight, Iranians living in America became, to say the least, very unpopular," she writes, following up in characteristic deadpan. "We were asked our opinion of the hostages so often that I started reminding people that they weren't in our garage."
Dumas' book, "Funny in Farsi," puts a human face on the struggle of first-generation Iranians to fit in as immigrants. She and a number of Iranian and Iranian-American women have penned their accounts of life in and outside Iran, writing in the language of their adoptive countries to widespread readership and acclaim. "Reading Lolita in Tehran" is a New York Times bestseller about a female Iranian professor's attempt to teach western literature in revolutionary Iran. And "Persepolis" 1 and 2 are graphical accounts of a young Iranian girl coming of age during the revolution, her exile in Europe and her return.
"I loved 'Persepolis,'" Newsha says, for its painfully honest portrayal of a young woman who falls prey to drugs and homelessness during her exile, before being reunited with her family and finally leaving Iran for good. "I think it's cool that all these Persian girls are telling their stories."