PERSIA ON THE PACIFIC
by TARA BAHRAMPOUR
A second generation yearns for a country it has never seen.
Issue of 2003-11-10
On June 21, 1998, Irans national soccer team walked onto the field in its first World Cup tournament since the country had overthrown the Shah, installed an Islamic government, and taken fifty-two Americans hostage, nineteen years earlier. As millions watched on live television, the players handed white good-will bouquets to their American opponents. Then Iran beat the U.S. team, 2-1. From Tehran to Toronto, Iranian teen-agers danced on cars and old women in head scarves lifted their faces to the sky and praised God.
In Westlake Village, California, in a two-story stucco house on a cul-de-sac dotted with lemon trees and oversized roses, a twelve-year-old boy named Jonathan Dorriz watched the game with his father. Jonathan was born in the San Fernando Valley, and he didnt know much about soccer or about Iran, his parents home country. But when the Iranian team scored its second goal, he jumped on his fathers back and they galloped around the house, yelling until they were hoarse. Jonathan had always lived among expatriate Iranians, but that evening, on a visit to family friends, he saw them in a different light: It was the first time Id seen Iranians all rooting for the same thing instead of arguing about the Shah did this,the mullahs did that. I saw a sense of unity, and I felt like this was something important. Soon afterward, Jonathan began to go by his Iranian name, Parshaw.
Now in his senior year of high school, Parshaw is a handsome, loose-limbed boy with dark wavy hair, warm brown eyes, and a prominent nose. He wears long T-shirts and baggy jeans. He likes to cruise around the neighborhooda circle of well-kept houses radiating out from the local elementary schoolin his black Lexus GS 300, a seventeenth-birthday present from his parents. When I visited him last spring, he drove me past Westlakes jagged hills, which were dusted with a light green that set off the pink mansions along the ridges. On the main strip, Thousand Oaks Boulevard, each tree was tied with a neat yellow ribbon, and luxury-car dealerships shared street frontage with a set of international-themed gardens. Dangling one arm over the steering wheel, Parshaw sang along with Mansour, a local Iranian pop singer. He pointed out the park where a recent Iranian New Years picnic had attracted so many people that valet parking was required. He told me about the posses of Iranian tough guys who come in from the Valley to strut in front of Westlakes Iranian girls. But there was something a little self-conscious about Parshaws identification with Iran. His Farsi, which he has been improving with the help of a teach-yourself CD-rom, was laced with charming mistakes. At the Iranian market on Thousand Oaks, he excitedly ordered rosewater-flavored MashtiMalone, a locally made ice cream, and a videotape of Noon-o-Goldoon, an Iranian movie. He smiled as he spoke, as if he were using passwords known to only a select few.
Half an hour down the 405 freeway, on Westwood Boulevard, you can tell by the way people cross the street that youre in the Iranian part of Los Angeles. Instead of waiting at the crosswalk, pedestrians dash between moving cars, careful to lock eyes with each driver before striding into a lane. This is how people cross the street in Iran, and here in Irangeles the cars slow down as if they know whom theyre up against.
Two decades ago, this treeless stretch of road, just south of Wilshire Boulevard, was an unremarkable strip with a dry cleaner, a hair salon, and a restaurant called the All American Burger. My family came here regularly then. In January of 1979, my Iranian father and my American mother moved our family from Iran to the United States and settled in Portland, which seemed to be populated entirely by pale-skinned, third-generation Oregonians and was as un-Iranian as a city could be. But my grandparents lived in Los Angeles, and when we visited we would lose my father for days at a time to two Iranian bookstores on Westwood whose shopkeepers always had the latest news from Iran.
Today, those stores are surrounded by Farsi-scripted awnings offering photocopies, wedding videos, tailoring, ice cream, rugs, groceries, and body waxing. The larger of the two bookstores, Ketab, now sells CDs and videos and publishes the bilingual Iranian Yellow Pages, which has thickened over the years to more than a thousand pages, a sixth of which feature ads for Iranian doctors and dentists. The store also sells rustic reminders of home: wooden backgammon sets, Esfahani printed tablecloths, and givehswoven peasant shoes that most Los Angeles Iranians would never have considered putting on their feet when they lived in Iran. The Canary Chicken House, down the street, serves kalepacheh, a stew made of sheeps head, hooves, and eyeballs, which, in Iran, is traditionally eaten for breakfast by poor laborers. Last fall, a billboard paid for by a local exile group informed northbound traffic here that ten thousand political prisoners had been killed by the Islamic regime.
It is not surprising that a nondescript street could be so quickly transformed into a thriving immigrant hub; what is unusual is this ones location, sandwiched between Beverly Hills and Brentwood, in one of the worlds most exclusive swaths of real estate. Here and in surrounding neighborhoods, the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf cafés overflow with dark-haired men and women sipping Darjeeling and speaking the Farsi-English hybrid Finglish. Downtown, a dilapidated alley has become a cheap clothing bazaar where Mexican employees speak Farsi with their Iranian bosses. In a San Fernando Valley strip mall, I came across a little market with handwritten signs in Farsi: Sweet Lemons Have Arrived and Pomegranates Just in from Saveh (a town in Iran that is famous for the fruit). It was a joke; there were no sweet lemons, and the giant pomegranates arranged in a pyramid came from Mexico. Better soil than here, the shopkeeper explained. More like Iran.
Last fall, the Iranian community flocked to the Music Hall Theatre, in Beverly Hills, to see Low Heights, a movie about a man in Iran who, desperate to get his extended family to a country that offers more opportunities, hijacks a plane with his relatives on board. A heated family argument ensues over possible destinations, and a young man who has never left Iran cries out, If anything happens to me, my last wish is that my body be buried in Los Angeles!
Los Angeles and Iran lie at opposite ends of the world, but for the past twenty-five yearsever since the first Iranians fleeing the revolution established an exile outpost in L.A.the two places have been closely linked. Under the Shah, when, as one Iranian writer put it, Iran suffered from Westoxication (a tendency to view all things Western as a gold standard), L.A. was Tehrans sister city. Under the Islamic regime, it became a wicked stepsister. In Iran, people were arrested for possessing Western or Iranian music recorded in America, as well as for watching Baywatch and Beverly Hills 90210, both of which were long-running favorites on illegal satellite TV. In L.A., especially during the hostage crisis, many Iranians began to refer to themselves as Persian. (As one man explained, You think of Iran, you think of crazy mullahs; you think of Persia, you think of Persian carpets, Persian cats. Which would you rather be associated with?)
The L.A. area is home to the largest Iranian community outside Iran. (The number of Iranians in the greater metropolitan area falls somewhere between a hundred thousand and six hundred thousand, depending on which source you choose to believe.) The city has Iranian Republican clubs, Iranian Rotary clubs, and Iranian night clubs; Iranian bank tellers, Iranian insurance agents, and even a few Iranian homeless people. For a time, Westlake Village had an Iranian mayor, and two Iranians recently ran for governor. Like Tehran, L.A. is a mountain-ringed, traffic-plagued, smog-filled bowl, where Iranian retirees putter in gardens and wait at bus stops. For exiles living elsewhere, visiting the city can feel as it might for an American who, coming across a U.S. military base in a strange land, suddenly finds himself awash in Kraft Singles and Lynyrd Skynyrd records. It can be comforting, but it can also be suffocating. Maz Jobrani, a thirty-one-year-old standup comedian who moved south from Marin County and got a job at a Westwood record store, recalled a fellow-Iranian walking in. In Marin, youd be, like, Hey, are you Iranian? Whats your name? I think my dad knew your dad in Iran. Here it was Hey, are you Iranian? and the guy goes, Yeah, so?
Although many Iranians have moved out to Orange County and the San Fernando Valley, those who live in Beverly Hillswhere about a fifth of the population is Iranianhave come to embody the stereotype. Their American neighbors often see them as flashy and loud; other expatriate Iranians tend to regard them as caricaturesformer royal ministers and other Shahi types who fled the revolution with bags of jewels, leaving their Tehran mansions and Caspian Sea villas in the care of servants. Their wives shop for designer clothes on Rodeo Drive; their children grow up to be, or to marry, doctors.
Of course, most L.A. Iranians were never ministers. Like Iranians anywhere, they are rich or poor, Muslim, Jewish, Bahai, Christian, or Zoroastrian, secular or religious, conservative or leftist, highly educated or less so. But to some extent they are all élite. In Iran, they were not maids or shepherds but people who had enough sophistication and cash to get to America. Most are Shiite Muslims, but in West Los Angeles the Jewish Iranians are the most cohesive, connected through synagogues, marriages, and jobs. Few of L.A.s mosques are Shiite, and, in any case, the last thing that most people fleeing the Islamic revolution wanted to see was a mosque. If youre Jewish, you have American Jews, says Mehdi Bozorgmehr, a sociologist who has studied the community. Being Muslim, Iranian, and secular is a potent negative baggage to carry. Youre secular, so where do you go? The community was outraged last December, when men from some Muslim countries were ordered to register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service and several hundred L.A. Iranians, including many Jews, were detained on visa violations. Most were eventually released, but in a rare show of unity thousands of Iranians marched down Wilshire Boulevard in protest. The thought that they had anything to do with Osama bin Laden was, to them, an absurdity.
Since his World Cup initiation into the society of Iranian exiles, Parshaw Dorriz has cemented his membership by attending family gatherings, Iranian concerts, and meetings of the Westlake High School Persian Club, of which he and his twin sister, Parastoo, became co-presidents this year. He has taken a Persian-history class at U.C.L.A. and gone on 3 a.m. excursions with his father to a kabob restaurant in the Valley to eat halim, a sort of cream-of-wheat-and-shredded-turkey breakfast served in mountain teahouses in Iran. But some Iranian flavors remain elusive, like kharbozeh, a sweet, white-fleshed Persian melon that is now grown on farms around L.A. Parshaw hates the taste of it, but when he starts to say, Akh, kharbozeh, his father cuts in. You dont know, he says. In Iran they taste so much better. Parshaw is used to hearing this from older Iranians, for whom food has become the touchstone for more intangible longings. They talk about it all the time, he says. The lamb and the meathow it was different because the lamb had all the fat on the tail.
Someday, Parshaw wants to be a doctor, and to volunteer his services in the poor regions of Iran. For now, hed just like to see Shemiran, the tree-shaded north Tehran neighborhood where his parents grew up. Sometimes he calls there to talk to his twenty-eight-year-old cousin, Ario, whom he has never met. The first time I talked to him, he was, like, Your Farsis so good, Parshaw says shyly. He said, Come on over, Ill take you everywhere, which is exactly what I want.
It is not what his parents want. They left Iran three decades ago and have never gone back. They opened their own businessesAli is a real-estate developer, Sholeh owns a beauty salonand chose to bring up Parshaw and Parastoo far from revolution, war, and the strictures of Islam. They dont understand why Parshaw, an honors student and a basketball player with all the advantages of American life, would want to go to a country where he could be drafted, at a time when the U.S. government is murmuring about regime change there, a country that is a pariah not only to Americans but also to many of the Iranians who left it.
Unlike most exiles, Parshaws family left Iran by design. In 1966, Ali, like many privileged young menhe was the oldest son of a wealthy Tehran businessmanwent abroad to study, travelling around Canada and the United States before earning a civil-engineering degree and settling down in the Valley. Sholeh was the daughter of an art-school administrator and a schoolteacher in Shemiran. When she finished high school, suitors were already lined up for khastegari, a formal courtship that is still widely observed in Iran. She chose, instead, to continue her studies in America. In 1970, at the age of seventeen, she landed in Houston. She knew only three English phrases and was so homesick that she lost thirty pounds. Over time, she adjusted, and a few years later her parents moved to America, too.
When Sholeh and Ali arrived in the United States, the few Iranians living here were considered exotic and harmless. By the time they met, in the early eightieshe was a client at the bank where she workedIranian refugees were pouring in, shell-shocked and rootless. Although the community eventually coalesced, Sholeh and Ali never really joined the busy circuit of dinners and parties. If youre not a doctor, if youre not a millionaire, if you dont have a Mercedes, if you dont go on ski trips, youre nobody, Sholeh says. When it comes to business, Ali says, he keeps his distance from other Iranians. They never work a day in their life, he explains. Theyre on government benefits. They say America owes them because it took their oil. (He is not alone in his disdain. Many L.A. Iranians complain about how Iranians cheat on their taxes, cut lines, and appropriate handicapped license plates for their cars. In the same breath, many admit to having their own handicapped plates.)
But in some ways the Dorrizes are very Iranian. Their house is filled with the Louis XIV-style furniture popular in Iran. They have antique chairs with cream-and-bronze striped upholstery, a silk Esfahani carpet, and an old-fashioned water pipe in their front window. Sholeh brought the children up on Persian food and demanded that they follow Persian etiquette. I emphasized, Persians dont do this,Persians dont do that,When youre offered something, you talk with respect, she says. At the same time, she had no intention of inspiring her children to go to Iran. Im used to my freedom, she says. A woman is not a piece of furniture here. I cannot go back now and live in a society where men rule.
In Parshaws bedroom, under a poster of Tupac Shakur, is a copy of The Complete Idiots Guide to Understanding Islam. He says sheepishly that the book is perfect for someone like him, who has grown up knowing so little about his own religion. His religiosity isnt traditionalhe sees problems with the Shiites and problems with the Sunnis, so, like a picky diner at a buffet, he takes only what he likes from each side. He doesnt pray the requisite five times a day, and he doesnt believe in martyrdom, but whenever he runs out to school or to a friends house he stops at the small table by the door to kiss the large family Koran.
This makes his mother uncomfortable. Five feet tall, with shaggy, wine-colored hair, Sholeh has dark, expressive eyes, and they often betray her fears for her son. Parshaw has surprised me in so many ways, she told me as we sat together on the couch, cradling miniature glasses of hot tea. Religion has helped to make him a good kid, she says. He doesnt drink, he doesnt smoke, he doesnt run after girls; he doesnt cause her the same kind of anxiety as Parastoo, a striking girl who uses her American name, Sabrina, loves to go to parties, and chafes at not being allowed to date until shes eighteen. But Sholeh can understand Parastoos desires. Parshaws are more disconcerting to her. The last thing she wants, she says, is a mullah on my hands. Last year at Ramadan, to her horror, Parshaw decided to fast for the entire month. I said, I dont think thats a good idea. You play basketball and you run track. Im getting a little worried. He reads the Koran before he goes to bed. He wants to fast, and he doesnt touch pork. Believe me, I would like to get his DNA checked.
Ali and Sholeh often speak nostalgically about Iran, but their sentiments have nothing to do with Islam. When the family watched a movie that had been filmed recently in Tehran, Sholeh smiled and clucked her tongue fondly at shots of the snow-covered city. Ali recognized a type of door that his grandmother used to havewooden, with separate iron knockers for men and women. Then, during a scene in which a mullah called people to prayer, Parshaw sat up. You know that call of the muezzin? he said. Itll chill you to the bone. It gives me goosebumps, and I love that.
Sholeh put her head in her hands. When the film showed a group of high-school girls draped in black, she wrinkled her nose. I dont want to see my country like this, she said.
Like what? Parshaw said testily.
Those women in black chadorsits like a herd of penguins walking.
Later, after Sholeh and Ali had gone to bed, Parshaw and I watched the characters in the film stop to light a candle at a tiny shrine built into the side of a building. Parshaw looked pained. Did you see that? he asked. For me, its such an uphill battle just to get my parents to allow me to go to mosque. They think all the radical ideas come from the mosque. But these people, theyre going home, and on the way home they stop at a shrine, which Im sure they dont even think twice about.
Parshaw has tangible objects that link him to Iran. In his bedroom, alongside his CDs of Jay-Z, Ja Rule, Marvin Gaye, and Louis Armstrong, are CDs of Iranian singers. On his bulletin board is an official photograph of the Iranian soccer team; a hand-drawn map of Iran; a picture of Googoosh, the pop diva of seventies Iran who was silenced by the Islamic regime; a flyer from his high-school Persian Clubs Kabob Day. He has a photo album filled with outdated Iranian paper currency, and a twenty-rial coin with the Shahs profile, which Ali found when he knocked down the kitchen wall a couple of years ago. (It must have been built in by the former owners, who were also Iranian.) I wouldnt spend that if you paid me, Parshaw said, placing it in my hand.
As I held the coin that I had once used to buy ice-cream cones, I felt a pang. Growing up in America after the revolution, I, too, had hoarded treasures from Iran. The items I carried onto the plane in the final week of the Shahs reignmy class notebook with its half-finished assignments, my school T-shirt, an amber-colored hand-shaped pendant that my aunt had pressed into my palm on the morning we leftwere, as I saw it, the only objects that remained from my old life. The rest of my childhood was gone.
But it was hard to fathom how Parshaw, who had never been to Iran, could feel the same way. It was as if, after five years of obsession, Iran and the absence of Iran had become so tightly wound into his being that he had, in a sense, turned himself into an exile. Above his bed was a homemade poster that included both the Islamic Republics Allah symbol and the Shahs lion and sun. To anyone who ever lived in Iranpre- or post-revolutionthis would be jarring, like seeing Castro and Batista on the same T-shirt. Also on the wall was a Shah-era Iranian flag. Thats my flag, my prize flag, Parshaw said. It gives such a sense of strength. He sighed like a man who has seen and lost it all. Chi boodim . . . chi shodim, he murmured. What we were . . . what we became.
Iranians in the United States and Europe are often compared with Miami Cubans and exiled White Russiansnot immigrants fleeing poverty or pogroms but élites wrenched from a life of privilege into a shadow existence that will never live up to the charmed world they remember. Like the Miami Cubans, L.A.s Iranian exiles tend to be Republicans. Many blame Jimmy Carter for the revolution, saying that the Shah was soft on the revolutionaries because Carter was pressuring him to improve human rights. They were outraged last year when Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize. (This year, however, the community rejoiced when the prize went to Shirin Ebadi, an outspoken human-rights lawyer in Iran.) When President Bush named Iran a member of the axis of evil, many cheered, and when he declared war with Iraq some hoped that he would bomb Iran, too.
In the eighties, Irans government, like those of Cuba and the U.S.S.R., arrested, tortured, and executed suspected dissidents and blocked much foreign travel. Most expatriates were either too worried that their names were on blacklists or too ideologically opposed to the government to consider a trip home. But after Khomeini died, in 1989, return gradually became easier for all but the most vocal opponents of the regime. Passports that once cost a thousand dollars and took months to process now cost less than a hundred and arrive within weeks.
Some Iranians still refuse, on principle, to go back. Some, like a school friend of mine who came to America when I did, cant bring themselves to go for fear of disillusionment. Others simply have no interest. I met a trim, bronze-haired Beverly Hills real-estate agent in her fifties, who grew up in Iran at a time when women were expected to be only wives and mothers. Here, she socializes with prominent Iranian academics, psychologists, and journalists. L.A., to Iranians, is like the Kaaba, like Mecca, she marvelled. Its our second homeland. But Iranian men her age have been less ready to embrace American culture. One of the grudges my husband is holding against me is that I brought him here, she said. He only reads Iranian magazines, he only watches Iranian TV. He had a much better life in Iran. His passion is teaching, and he lost that here. For him, life in L.A. isnt that promising.
Her story reminded me of Andre Dubus IIIs novel House of Sand and Fog, in which a former Iranian colonel puts on a suit every morning and then changes clothes on the way to his job as a trash collector on a California highway. For all the successful Iranian entrepreneurs, there are also men of a certain age who, paralyzed by the loss of their former status, came here and refused to learn English or to get drivers licenses. Often, their wives took up the slack, going to school and launching careers of their own. I have met no women older than fifty who want to go back to Iran, but I spoke with many men who longed for home. A Beverly Hills schoolteacher told me that her father, a wealthy insurance agent with an elegant condominium in Brentwood, dreams of spending his final days in a shack on the Caspian Sea. Even a man I met whose brother and friend were executed after the revolution for their leftist political beliefs still wanted to go back. I look at life like a ghezel-ala, he told me. What is this fish? Born in the river and then goes to the sea and then comes back and dies in the river.
But even today, after thousands of Iranians have returned to Iran without incident, a scrim of fear still covers those who havent made the trip. Last year, L.A. Iranians were shaken when a well-known dance teacher with U.S. citizenship went back after a twenty-year absence to see his sick father and was arrested for corrupting the youth of Iran with his videos; he was barred from leaving Iran for ten years (though he was later allowed out). Parshaws parents have horror stories of their own. Sholehs brother went back, they gave him a rosy picture, Ali says. Then he ended up having to flee. They found a picture of him in the Shahs time with a right-hand man of the Shah. Another guy went back to bury his mother. When he wanted to leave, they made him pay ten thousand dollars. How can you trust people like that? An Iranian travel agent told me about two friends who recently returned for the first time: One came back, and he said, Khoda, how much fun it was. People are bullshitting when they say Iran is bad. Every night we had parties, opium from here to there, vodka, girls who will do anything to come to America. Two days later, his friend calls me and says, I will never go back. There is so much sadness, so much poverty. These people I was staying with had to get up at five in the morning to buy bread to give these parties.
Those who were adolescents at the time of the revolution feel perhaps the greatest ambivalence about where home is. Ali Behdad, a forty-two-year-old professor of English at U.C.L.A., sees himself as part of a lost generation, too young to have had an independent life in Iran but too old to feel completely at home in America. Iranians his age have trouble sustaining relationships, he says; he has been divorced three times, and recently married again. Between his marriages, his family in Iran offered to find him a beautiful wife if he would only come home. But, especially for someone like me, who is trained in post-structuralism, feminism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, you cant go back, he says. As they say in Iran, Im a stick thats been dirtied on both endsrotten on one side, forgotten on the other. Still, he adds, there is a place I can go when I get homesick: I can go to Irangeles.
Through all the years of official silence between their two countries, Iranians in Los Angeles and Tehran have keenly watched one another from afar. In the late nineties, exiles in L.A. started beaming satellite-TV programs to Iran. This past June, when students in Iran held demonstrations against the Islamic government, the satellite stations tried to stage their own virtual-reality revolution, taking calls from Iranians who reported on the street battles, and exhorting viewers in Iran to go out and protest against the clerics. Mostly, though, the stations, which are also widely watched in L.A., broadcast ads, music videos, and talk shows featuring celebrity doctors. Young women call in to ask the TV plastic surgeon if they should get breast implants. Parents ask Dr. Holakouee, a psychologist who has a local radio show, how to handle their pot-smoking adolescents. Its still a primitive culture, said Payam Farrahi, who hosts a radio show with his father. Theres still a concept of calling the head of the village to solve your problems.
The owners of the stations generally disclaim political affiliations, and their aesthetics are often datedmarked by layered blow-dried hair, tight pants, pointy shoes, and wide lapels that survive among older Iranians in L.A. long after they have gone out of style both in the United States and in Tehran. (Young Tehranis take their cues from MTV, not from the aging newscasters of stations like Pars TV or NITV.) The outdated styles seem to reflect a deeper inertia among the exilesan inability to move beyond the political and social mind-set of the Shah era. To Mehdi, a thick-bearded man who works at one of the bookstores in Westwood, the Iranian communitys pining for the past is misguided. They have no idea what is happening in Iran, he told me. Its been twenty years, and nobody takes responsibility for what happened in Iran. We dont accept our dark side. Fariborz Davoodian, a forty-four-year-old Hollywood producer and actor with a shaved head and stylish black jeans, told me, Ive read somewhere that this is typicalthe home country moves forward, but migrant groups dont.
Although Sholeh Dorriz assiduously heeds Dr. Holakouees advice, she worries about the effect that the stations nostalgia may have on her children. For a teen-age boy accustomed to the American medias dour images of Iran, the exile programs can be alluring. They say, Iranians are this, they are that, they are the most educated immigrant. They have this kind of doctor, that kind of doctor. My kids hear that theres no crime among us, that we have a good culture, a good backbone. Its constantly brainwashing the people about how good we are. Sholehs friend Azita, a blond, well-manicured woman who lives a few blocks away from the Dorrizes, admits that she has painted a similarly romantic picture for her son, Daniel. He says to me, Oh my God, you had a perfect childhood, and I say, Yeah, I did, she says. But now you can be arrested for listening to foreign music. I mean, I dont think my children can comprehend this. I dont think Daniel could ever comprehend that he cant wear shorts going down the street.
At Westlake High School, a clutch of low stucco structures set into a sheared-off hill, the parking lot is lined with shiny Jettas, Audis, BMWs, and one enormous black Cadillac S.U.V. with twenty-three-inch reverse-spinning rims, which, Parshaw tells me, in a hushed voice, cost five thousand dollars apiece. On the school grounds, tanned girls in tight jeans and Guess T-shirts talk on cell phones as they walk past oak trees and rosebushes. Boys in baggy shorts eat onion rings and cookies. Many are Iranian. A sign above the administration office announces that the school is a National Top 100 School. There is a rumor among the students that Heather Locklear was once enrolled here, and although the school has no record of her ever attending, the mere idea of it would thrill many boys in Iran. It does not thrill Parshaw and Daniel. Hanging out in Daniels room after school, the boys study a National Geographic map of the world pinned above the desk, something that they say would hold little interest for most of their classmates.
Were the political ones, Parshaw says.
Most kids are so stupid, adds Daniel, a sturdy kid with a dark-blond brush of hair, pale skin, and red cheeks. Only his dark eyebrows hint at his mothers Iranian roots. (His father is American.) They think Westlake is it, like the rest of the world is so far away.
I know this sounds kind of bad, but we dont have any American friends, Parshaw says. Parshaw and Daniel are, of course, American, and so are their friends, though many have parents who come from other countries. But the boys identify with Iran, an anachronistic Iran that has more to do with their grandparents generation than with their own. Parshaw imagines Tehran in black-and-white, as it is in his parents old pictures. When Sholehs father, who is ninety-four and lives in Torrance, near the Los Angeles airport, comes for dinner, Parshaw drapes his long arm around the old mans narrow shoulders and tries to memorize the Persian poetry that his grandfather carefully writes out in a shaky calligraphy. Daniel imagines Iran with nineteen-fifties-era cars, and dreams of hunting leopards with his grandfather. Those images of Iranian life are more meaningful to the boys than their encounters with the Iranian kids in the Valley who get tattoos that say Allah and pick fights with Iranian Jews.
Instead of a tattoo, Parshaw has a screen name, Parshaofiran, which he uses to chat with other Iranian teen-agers and trade You know youre Iranian if . . . lists. (He is delighted to find entries that apply to him, such as You drive a black Lexus, Mercedes, or BMW, You rewind the movie Clueless to show your friends the Persian Mafia part, You have a hookah as a centerpiece in your living room, and You actually like carbonated yogurt drinks.) He also has a hidden mark. I dont show this to many people, he said softly, pulling off his heavy gold Westlake High School class ring and dropping it into my hand. On the inside, inscribed in a delicate cursive, were the words Allah Akbar. I am Irans youth.
When I was at the Dorriz house, Parshaw showed me a thick stack of papers lying beside the family TV: copies of his parents expired Empire of Iran passports and blank applications for new Islamic Republic ones. The forms had been there for months, though Parshaw said that it would take only half an hour to fill them out. A few weeks ago, Sholeh said, she finally mailed them off, simply because he drove me crazy. Parshaw is ecstatic, but Sholeh is still hoping that hell outgrow his obsession with Iran. It is perhaps more likely that over the years Iran will grow closer to Parshaw. The real youth of Iranthe young people living there nowmake up more than half of the countrys population; as they come of age, they will gain leverage against the Islamic rule imposed by the older clerics. How Iran will change remains to be seen, but chances are it will become, in certain ways, more like L.A.
L.A., on the other hand, is probably as Iranian as it will ever get. In coming generations, many of the Iranians there will assimilate. Some will move back to Iran. Among those will be people like the middle-aged man in his Brentwood condo, dreaming of a beachside shack, and people, like Parshaw, whose inherited nostalgia is strong enough to pull them across the world. Once that happens, there may come a day when a child in Iran, listening to his American-born parents tales of lemon trees and veggie burritos, will close his eyes, let out a wistful sigh, and claim Los Angeles as his own lost home. http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?031110fa_fact