Persian Mosaic

Two decades after the hostage crisis, Americans still have trouble piecing together an accurate picture of Iran.

An estimated 1,000 Iranian-Americans live in Tucson. They have jobs as physicians and pharmacists, in car and carpet sales, they own computer shops or teach at the University of Arizona.

The vast majority of Tucson's Iranians lived in the U.S. before the 1979 revolution. Like many others in this community, they moved here from other places around the country.

They brought with them a heritage and culture that is steeped in history and literature. From the magnificent 2,500-year-old ruins of the royal residence at Persepolis to the beauty of its mosques and traditional desert architecture, Iran is a country of incredible diversity.

As a people Iranians are known for their friendliness and hospitality to strangers. They love poetry, and their food, for both vegetarians and meat eaters, is delicious.

Iranians are very family oriented, and the bond between parents and children is incredibly strong. As Mohammad Ehsani, a civil engineering professor at the University of Arizona, says, "In Iran you live with your parents while going to college and in return when your parents get old their social security is basically their children and they live with them."

Holding onto these bonds is difficult in America, with our more intense focus on work and accumulation of wealth. Simin Karimi, an associate professor in the university's linguistics department, reports, "When my mother moved to Tucson, she thought I would spend three hours a day with her. But I can't because of my job and other necessities of life. I can't even spend three hours a week with her.

"There is more meaning to the concepts of family and friendships in Iran than you see in the West," Karimi says. "If my mother and I were living in Iran, the expectations would have been different. Every time she wanted something, as a daughter I would have to be there." Then with a chuckle Karimi adds, "Which is not expected of a son, by the way."

Iranians also cherish education, with over 80 percent of the Iranian adults living in the U.S. reportedly having earned at least a college degree, and 24 percent having obtained a Ph.D. Unlike before the revolution, however, very few Iranian students come to Tucson to attend the University of Arizona.

The U.S. government doesn't make it easy for Iranians to get visas to study in this country, according to Soroosh Sorooshian, a professor with the university's hydrology and water resources department. As a result, he says, most of Iran's top students who seek a foreign education go to Canada.

Despite that, her fellow countrymen's high level of education and knowledge of issues is one of the attractions that keeps Simin Karimi in Tucson. She is an American citizen, a voter, and a 10-year resident of the community who says, "One of the reasons I don't want to go anywhere else is because there are so many Iranians here that I can relate to."

Unfortunately, many Americans know next to nothing about Iranians, their culture or their country. Instead, as Karimi points out, "Mostly, Americans know very little about Iran. They confuse Iranians and Arabs. They think they are the same. Because of Khomeini, they learned more about Iran but unfortunately they didn't learn the good things about the country, just the negative."

Mohammad Ehsani agrees. "I shouldn't generalize," he says, "but most Americans don't know about other cultures. It is kind of unfortunate. Iran hasn't been singled out."

Then he says of Iran's special situation, "Because of recent relationships, as a whole the majority of Americans perhaps get a biased view from the news media and don't recognize the true nature of Iranians. But people who have traveled to Iran after the revolution have come back with a totally different experience. They find the people of Iran to be very friendly and hospitable toward Americans."

TO TRY TO CORRECT THESE misconceptions, while also teaching the next generation of Iranians in Tucson about their own culture, in 1996 Ghassem Ladjevardi began the Iranian Association of Arizona. He did so, he says, because he wanted to bring the local Iranian community together and to keep Persian culture alive here.

To accomplish those goals, the very active association sponsors a number of events, including raising money to fund two small scholarship programs, one for an Iranian student and the other for a university student of Persian language and culture. As Simin Karimi points out, "A lot of young second-generation Iranians in our Persian classes were either born in the U.S. or came here when they were 3 or 4 years old. They speak only kitchen Persian, their vocabulary is very limited, and they are illiterate in Persian."

The Iranian Association of Arizona also organizes social functions. Beginning next week, the association will start holding events leading up to the celebration of the Iranian New Year on March 21. These will include a traditional fire-jumping ceremony to be held on March 13 and a New Year's party scheduled for March 24 at the Sheraton Hotel on Grant Road.

According to Simin Karimi, current president of the association, this last event will include both Persian and other kinds of live music provided by a singer and orchestra from Los Angeles, along with food and a lot of dancing. There will also be a short report on the activities of the association and the awarding of the group's scholarships for the current year.

Even if currently limited financially in what they can do, members of the association plan to increase both the amount of the scholarship awards and the group's other functions. If funds permit, they hope to sponsor lectures on Iran, host Iranian musicians and arrange for Persian art exhibitions. All of these events would be focused on providing Americans a better understanding of Iran and also trying to bring the two countries closer together.

For more information about the upcoming New Year's events sponsored by the Iranian Association of Arizona, contact either Simin Karimi at 621-5399 or Ghazal Farhang at 903-1158 during normal business hours.

WHILE MEMBERS OF TUCSON'S Iranian community are unanimous in their belief that it is important for Americans to know more about their country, they disagree in their own views about modern-day Iran. Some have decided not to return, fearing they will lose the pleasant images of memory they developed long ago.

Simin Karimi, however, has returned to her native Tehran numerous times since the revolution. She says of her visits, "I feel like I'm living in two different worlds. One world is with family and friends. What I really love and enjoy is the level of people's awareness of political and social issues from all over the world and conversations with these people.

"When I leave this circle," Karimi continues, "it's a foreign country for me. It's not the same country I grew up in. When you go back to Iran today, you get the impression that the whole revolution was about putting (coverings) back on women's heads. It seems like this was the whole purpose of the revolution and you think, 'Was that the reason?'"

Karimi also says that Tehran is not the same city she once knew. That city, she says, "was very similar to Tucson except the mountains there are bigger and higher. Tehran was very peaceful and not crowded, but has about 10 million people today and it's overcrowded. The first thing that catches your attention is how people drive. I would like to describe it, but I can't. I would rather die than drive in Tehran."

Another condition of Iran that Karimi laments is the decline in educational standards. While classroom opportunities have increased since the revolution, she says the quality of education has decreased, in part because of a lack of resources. But, she adds, the decline is also due to university professors and students now being selected based on how religious they are, not on how knowledgeable they are.

Another perspective on today's Iran is offered by Mohammad Ehsani, a U.S. citizen by choice, who has also returned several times to Iran in the last few years. "My personal impression is I found the country to be a very nice place to live. I would not mind going back there, but I might have some problems getting used to that (political and social) system since I lived here. The problems of daily life are much different. Sure, you may have a couple of more TVs in your home here, but one is enough."

While they may disagree about their homeland, Tucson's Iranians are united in their belief that Americans should know more about their country. Soroosh Sorooshian says, "Americans should become a little more knowledgeable about Iran since their tax dollars support programs which affect the country."

Then he adds, "It is crucial for Americans to understand other people and cultures. The information most Americans receive about Iran is so negative, they can view Iranians like terrorists, which is totally inaccurate. Iranians living in America have been really good for the U.S. and have many positive influences. Iranians have an incredibly rich culture and people in this country should participate and get a feel for what is going on with Iranians in the U.S."

Mohammad Ehsani agrees. "What I would really like to emphasize is that what differences we seem to have is really between the governments. The same way a lot of Americans don't approve of their government, we have the same situation in Iran. Sometimes the government makes a decision that the majority supports, sometimes they don't.

"I hope Americans realize that a majority of Iranians still hold Americans in a very good light and consider them as their friends and allies and really would welcome a normalization of relations between the two countries."


WHAT LITTLE THAT Americans know about modern-day Iran usually comes through movies, books or food. These venues open windows onto a culture, and a people, much different from our own.

In his recent review of the Iranian film A Time for Drunken Horses, Weekly critic James DiGiovanna wrote of the current wave of Persian movies focused on children: "Iran has produced, in these children's stories for adults, a new genre of cinema, something that hasn't happened since the advent of film noir in the '30s."

DiGiovanna describes this genre as low-budget, human-centered films that are made for adults but star children. The strict standards placed on the use of women in movies, he says, "has encouraged amazing work and creative solutions. The Iranian film industry may not have been aiming at a universal audience (when it made recent movies such as The White Balloon or Children of Heaven), but perhaps it has found one because they are very good at conveying personal tensions across cultural boundaries."

DiGiovanna wonders how long this creative outburst using children can last. He thinks that the next wave of Iranian movies to reach the U.S. will still focus on human relationships, but that liberalization within the country may affect the types of movies we see.

Susan Wrubel, vice-president of acquisitions for New Yorker Films, agrees. She says the current crop of films using children have "stories that are simple and not complicated so everyone can relate to them. But at the same time the films are about more complex issues."

Upcoming Iranian movies, Wrubel says, represent the next wave of Iranian cinema and will be about different issues. Some of the films she listed include the intriguingly titled Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine, the interesting-sounding The Day I Became a Woman, and Djomeh, which concerns an Afghan refugee who wants to marry but cannot.

Several books on the Islamic Republic and the changes it is undergoing have appeared in the last few years. Written by both Iranian-American and U.S. authors, these books look at either Iranians returning to the country of their childhood after a long absence or the slow but dramatic social evolution occurring within Iran now.

Among the former is To See and See Again (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999) by Tara Bahrampour, who split her early years between the U.S. and Persia. She recounts her extended family's difficult transition to permanent settlement in California and her return to Iran to revisit many of the memories of her youth. While emotionally attracted to the slower-paced, more family-oriented lifestyle of Iran, in the end Bahrampour accepts she is more American than Persian in character.

Saffron Sky (Beacon Press, 1999) by Gelareh Asayesh is a similar tale told in more flowery terminology. In it she writes of her family's decision to remain in the U.S. and not return to Iran: "Most of all we stayed, I think, because we had changed, like an animal that, adapting to a new habitat, is no longer suited to the old."

Robin Wright has penned two books about the Islamic Republic. The first, In the Name of God (Simon and Schuster, 1989), is a well-written account of the Khomeini years after the 1979 revolution. This volume clearly spells out why many Iranians consider the United States culpable not only in keeping the shah in power after 1953 but also for seriously damaging their country's attempts to steer its own course since the revolution.

Less successful but still interesting is The Last Great Revolution (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), which looks at some of the changes that have occurred in Iran since Khomeini's death in 1989. Using scores of personal interviews, Wright covers issues ranging from Iranian family planning to the women's rights movement, and the changing nature of the country's democracy to the future of the Islamic Republic.

All of these works are available from the Tucson Public Library. Ordered but not yet on the shelves is Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran (Free Press, 2000) by New York Times writer Elaine Sciolino.

Also missing from the local scene is a Persian restaurant. While a few have opened and closed in the past, currently Tucsonans must drive north to Tempe's Tasty Kabob to sample the food flavors of Iran. Among the dishes offered by this cuisine of subtle flavors and mounds of rice are Fesenjawn, a sauce made of meat cooked in pomegranate juice; Bawdawmjawn, an eggplant-based topping for rice; and Ghaymeh, which tastily mixes chickpeas, onion, potatoes and meat.


THE 1978 SEIZURE OF THE American embassy in Tehran and the long hold on the hostages resulted in the severance of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran. One of those hostages was James Lopez, a Marine security guard from Globe.

After his ordeal ended, Lopez remembered a list of things he and others had done to aggravate their captors, such as plugging up their sinks and toilets, and urinating on their dishes. He said later, "There were a bunch of little things like that we did to piss them off. They were assholes, so we treated them like assholes."

Lopez is reportedly now living on the east coast. He could not be reached for comment for this article.

Even though today's Iranian government is much more moderate than it was after the revolution 20 years ago, diplomatic ties between Tehran and Washington still have not yet been restored. Which is ironic since Iran is now the most democratic country in the Persian Gulf area. While U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Kuwait remain repressive dictatorships, Iran has moved to a restricted but free electoral system. In addition, despite recent setbacks, the Iranian press is more able to write about government actions than its counterparts in other nearby countries.

The failure to restore diplomatic relations is due in large part to the very sensitive nature of that idea within Iran. While most Iranians, and the reformers who now control part of the government, might want to re-establish links with the U.S., fundamentalist hard-line clerics and their backers insist this can't be done until certain conditions are met. These include an apology for past American behavior in Iran and the promise not to interfere in the country's internal affairs again. Releasing Iranian assets frozen by the U.S. during the hostage crisis is another condition.

While all of these may be diplomatically possible, the fourth requirement needed to normalize relations is for a pullout of American naval forces stationed in the Persian Gulf, something that isn't going to happen anytime soon. Our country demonstrated in the Gulf War a decade ago how far it would go to protect its foreign oil supplies, and that dependence hasn't changed.

Stories, however, have circulated that the Bush administration may be more open than was President Clinton to resuming diplomatic relations. George W. Bush's close ties to the oil industry, according to these rumors, may mean a more friendly attitude toward Tehran.

Even though their government might be reluctant to restore relations with the U.S., the vast majority of Iran's citizens treat American visitors with kindness and respect. They take the position that there is a difference between the people of a country and the government of that country. Americans visiting Iran today can expect to find friendly people, wonderful tourist attractions and a warm welcome.

They will also find people willing to talk about local and world issues, including the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between our two countries. As one acquaintance I made in 1998 told me as we passed by the faded anti-American slogans that once surrounded the former U.S. embassy in Tehran, "It is my fervent hope that the U.S. will again have an embassy here."