In my World Studies class, students choose one country to study in depth, in addition to the regular coursework. Part of the project involves interviewing someone who has lived most of their life in the country of study. When I interviewed a woman from Iran, I expected to hear a harrowing account of clerical authoritarianism. I, like most westerners, was wrong.
For hundreds of years, Iran has been a center of trade. In the middle ages, Western and Eastern merchants alike sought the riches of Persian cities hidden in foreboding mountains. Here in twenty-first century Los Angeles, my quest was slightly different. Somewhere in the tangle of skyscrapers, residential neighborhoods, and large-scale advertising, were Iranians. And, if I had to trek across harsh, windswept deserts and over-decorated restaurants, I would find one. Luckily, such drastic measures proved unnecessary, and my farthest travels were through the Carlthorp School parent directory. My younger sister’s friend, L.M., is the daughter of Iranian immigrants, and her mother, M.M., was happy to speak with me.
Clichéd though it may be, the first thing I noticed when I entered the Moghavem household was the scent of cumin. Just sitting in the living room was like traveling. Several pieces of Persian glassware and a poem in Farsi calligraphy decorated the walls, and glass doors opened into a courtyard planted with citrus trees. Every item- and there were a lot of them- had a story. Two vases decorated with cameos of Qajar shahs framed by curling gold leaf had been smuggled out of Iran in secret. Before the interview, I had imagined a tale of exotic lands in the mysterious orient, or something to a similar effect, and the décor only strengthened my opinion. When I actually sat down and spoke to Mrs. M., I was surprised by how familiar her story seemed.
She had attended a secular school, the Lycee Francais in Tehran, where she was the only Jewish student. Although the coursework was similar to its American equivalent, the system was much more rigorous- Mrs. M. was accepted into Columbia University at the age of sixteen. In Iran, education is valued very highly, and studying until midnight, even in elementary school, is not uncommon. Most Iranians are bilingual, and choose to study in Europe or America as young as fourteen. Learning empowers, creates independence, and, according to my interviewee, helps people “improve and stay out of trouble.” At this point in the interview, L. interrupted us. Her mother’s first question was simple and to the point: “What grade did you get on your math test?” “A ninety-four, but only because dad made me stay up all night studying,” the academic eleven year old replied. Smiling, Mrs. M. returned to the interview. She described hours spent juggling finishing school, piano, tennis, and homework- a situation many students are familiar with.
Work, as taxing as it may have been, was only a small part of Mrs. M.’s life in Iran. She spoke wistfully of the sense of community she felt during her childhood. In the “nice neighborhoods” of north Tehran, it was safe to take cabs alone and walk around the city after dark. Neighbors looked out for each other. She described especially fond memories of playing basketball in the street with her friends and celebrating Nooruz, the Iranian secular New Year, with her family. The ancient Zoroastrian holiday is celebrated on the first day of spring with eggs, goldfish, candles, mirrors, and a huge party. Iranians like parties, she told me. Any reason to get the family together- and especially to eat- is worth celebrating. As she described platoons of Aunts chopping coriander, cooking rice, and mixing spices, my mouth began to water- another situation many students are familiar with. Another stereotype I’d held of Iranian culture- strict, clerical, and authoritarian from the fifteen hundreds on- was beginning to fade. Iran has a rich history of art and a unique Persian culture. The poets Rumi, Ferdoosi, and Hafez are especially honored. Mrs. M. spoke sadly of how many Americans have limited knowledge of other cultures, and are quick to judge. She was glad that Iran’s recent green movement, a series of protests for an opposition presidential candidate after elections that many believe were rigged, has helped to shift the international focus away from the Islamic extremist government and towards the many moderate voices. She also stressed how lucky I was to study the history of the conflicted nation.
I was shocked by the degree of ignorance of many of Mrs. M.’s American acquaintances- she has actually been asked if she commuted by camel when she lived in Iran. For the record, most Iranian’s don’t own camels. They also don’t own dogs. Most children own birds instead, sometimes in quantities almost aviary-worthy. When the cat got one of her budgerigars, she insisted on a proper funeral. The bereaved six year old’s father complied. The treatment of children is one of the areas where Iranian and American values sharply diverge. Iranians value independence, sending their children to summer camp, and later, school, in Europe. However, many parents can be very controlling. Mrs. M. told me that she gave her own children- D. and L., both born in the U.S.- more choices than she was given. She has also tried to retain her Iranian identity in her adopted country, by observing Nooruz- she joked that, between the secular, Jewish, and Persian varieties, she is always celebrating a new year- and by taking classes at a Persian cultural center. It has been challenging for her to adapt to American culture. Iranians, she said, are more relaxed and tend to be group-centric, as opposed to more goal-oriented and individualistic Americans. She also doesn’t like the public transportation in Los Angeles. But most of all, she felt that she had lost the community and the feelings of trust she shared with friends and neighbors in Tehran. Most of those friends live oceans away, and in America even next-door neighbors can be strangers. When I asked her if she missed her home, or wanted to visit, she just shook her had sadly. “The Iran I grew up in no longer exists.”