You might be wondering why I’m dancing like this at an Iranian nightclub in Los Angeles. “Del-e Divaaneehhhhhh…” Let me explain. My name is Yara. No, not that Yara, the half-black, half-Iranian actress. I’m a different Yara. But like her, I’m also Iranian-American. My parents emigrated from Iran and settled in northern California, where I was born and raised. But even though I’ve been in the States pretty much my whole life, I’ve always felt sort of in-between. Meaning, both American and, well, Iranian. This is especially true now. “Iran, a terrorist nation like few others.” As attempts have been made to ban Iranians and other Middle Easterners from entering the U.S., “…complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States…” I’ve been made very aware of my Iranian identity. All this got me thinking, what does it mean to be both Iranian and American? And is this the first time we’ve had to deal with something like this? To answer that, I decided to head to the world’s largest community of Iranians outside of Iran, which happens to be in Los Angeles. Or, as people here call it, Tehrangeles. “And we’re stuck in traffic.” “Hey, Siri. Where is Tehrangeles?” “What is that?!” Siri was useless. So I asked Iranian-American writer Porochista Khakpour, who grew up in L.A. – “Hi, how are you?” “Good to meet you.” – to show me the symbolic center of the Iranian community here: Westwood Boulevard, also known as Persian Square. “So we’re basically entering Tehrangeles now. This is where the heart of it is.” Growing up, Porochista’s parents would drive the family 40 minutes, almost every weekend, to get to Westwood. “I imagine, for my parents, must have been very hard to afford it, but they wanted to have me be in touch with the culture.” “Oh, here we go.” “Taste of Tehran!” “Taste of Tehran is right here.” “If you think they’re Iranian out here, they’re definitely Iranian.” The whole place is like a little slice of Iran in America. Everything is written in Persian, also known as Farsi, the official language of Iran. You walk into stores and immediately start speaking Persian. There’s tons of Iranian people everywhere. And Iranian food. “I’m going to eat this tongue sandwich.” “Oh my God, these!
This is Iranian fruit leather.” “Made in Iran.” “My mom’s whole refrigerator and kitchen is all this stuff.” There’s even a shop that sells Iranian music. It’s estimated there’s about 1 million Iranian-Americans, and about half of them live in southern California. But why did so many Iranians choose L.A.? I met up with sociologist Ali Akbar Mahdi to find out. He offered a few reasons. “The weather in Los Angeles is very much like Tehran, it’s warm. California is the place where the communities that exist here — Latinos, Asians, Arabs, Iranians – each of them have their independent community. An immigrant could literally be who they want to be. Once a group has come, you’re going to have a base, and that begins to attract other people. This is now the largest community of Iranians outside of Iran.” Walking around Tehrangeles, I realized that a lot Iranians here call themselves “Persian,” unlike Porochista and me. But why is that? “Iranians like me, when we first got to America, everybody was saying ‘Persian.’ Everything about the word ‘Iran’ was negative. It was horrible. So, out of survival, people like my parents and their generation started saying ‘Persian.’ I don’t blame them.” “Iranians don’t even say they are Iranian, Iranians say they are Persian. I am not dangerous, I am Persian. I am Persian like the cat. Meow.” What did that first massive wave of Iranian immigrants need to protect themselves from? “Iranians who confronted the stereotypes and prejudices after the hostage crisis, they needed a protective shield, and ‘Persia’ and ‘Persian’ gave them that cover.” What was the hostage crisis? Let me give you a quick rundown. In 1979, Iranians had a revolution. They got rid of their American-backed king, the shah, and established an Islamic republic led by this guy, Ayatollah Khomeini. The shah fled his country, and at one point went to the U.S. for medical treatment. Anti-shah students wanted the United States to return him to Iran to face trial. So they broke into the American embassy in Tehran and took dozens of American diplomats hostage. 52 Americans were held for 444 days. Their ordeal, known as the hostage crisis, became a fixture of American TV news. “Day 314 of the hostage crisis in Iran.” Nightly newscasts showed the same images over and over again: burning American flags, fist-pumping Iranians and blindfolded American hostages. As a result, anti-Iranian sentiment started to seep into the American psyche. Iranians were demonized in books, movies … “This is a backward, primitive country!” … and music. The hostage crisis also took a toll on public opinion. By 1980, some 60 percent of Americans had a negative view of Iran. Fast-forward to 1989, and that skyrocketed to 91 percent. This hit especially hard for Porochista, whose family fled Iran after the revolution, a time when many other Iranians left the country. When she arrived in the U.S., she was just a little kid. “This is my brother and I. He was born in the U.S., I was born in Iran. Then we were refugees in Paris. And then we got to the U.S. I can’t emphasize enough how horrible [it was], when we got to the U.S. in the early ’80s. I mean, I was so young, but I remember all of it vividly. Because I was so traumatized by the atmosphere of hatred in America. I was just made fun of constantly. There was a lot of anti-Iranian sentiments, and I would get that on playgrounds. I heard ‘dune goon.’ There was ‘sand n-word.’ ‘Camel jockey.’” “What is that?” “Do you know that slur, ‘camel jockey’?” “No.” “It just was the predominant slur used against people from Iran, and possibly the rest of the Middle East, in the ’80s.” It was in that very political climate that Mashti Shirvani opened his ice cream shop, Mashti Malone’s. His brother, Mehdi, joined him 1988 and helped expand the business. The two are often credited with bringing Persian ice cream to L.A. “That’s our best seller, here. Saffron rosewater. That’s ginger rosewater. And then there’s orange blossom with pistachio. Bahar narenj.” “This is the Persian faloodeh. But we mixed it with sour cherry.” “Sour cherry, great.” “Faloodeh is made of rosewater with rice starch noodles.” “Oh, that one’s my favorite. I feel like I’m literally sitting in my grandma’s house right now.” Mashti Malone’s is seen as an L.A. institution now, but when Mashti first opened his shop in 1980, during the hostage crisis, things were not so easy for Iranians. Anti-Iran protests were happening all over the country, from Washington, DC, to Beverly Hills. One of them was even organized by a California state senator. “I mean, everybody could see that the media was completely against Iranians. They kind of associated people with the government. So whatever the government did, people here got punished for it too.” “All the Iranian students, they were afraid to say they are Iranian.” “This is a giant container of saffron.” “We may get robbed, this is…” “Oh my God, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this much saffron in one place.” In spite of what happened to him during the hostage crisis years, Mashti doesn’t hold any grudges. “This is the best temperature to try ice cream.” “You can taste the cardamom in this thing.” What I realized from Mashti and Mehdi is that those who came before me, the people who established the Iranian-American community, they went through a lot. I didn’t have to deal with the immediate fallout from the hostage crisis. And I’m thankful for that. But me and other second-generation Iranian-Americans have had to deal with something else – something that made us feel like “others” in our own country. Hey guys, thanks for watching the first episode of our four-part series on Iranian-Americans. Don’t forget to subscribe to catch the next episode in the series because there’s breakdancing, rare Iranian food and so much more.