San Diego's Persians find a home in Balboa Park

Through the flames

Reza Khabazian: "Here I was in America, with freedom of speech, and I was afraid to speak out against Ayatollah Khomeini."
  • Reza Khabazian: "Here I was in America, with freedom of speech, and I was afraid to speak out against Ayatollah Khomeini."

The first thing you notice about Iranians is their language. Farsi is filled with soft a's, like the a in father, and sh's, as in shore. "Sh" occurs often because it appears in shoma, meaning "you," and in suffixes indicating possession: -- esh, for his, hers, and its; -- eshan for their. (Nan, bread. Naneshan, their bread.) "Sh" also appears in many prepositions. From a distance, Farsi speakers sound as though they're lulling a tired child, "Shhh, shhh, shhh..."

Ghazal Badiozamani: "I may be from Iran, but I'm not from the country that it's now become."

Ghazal Badiozamani: "I may be from Iran, but I'm not from the country that it's now become."

Listen closely and you might hear a few words you recognize. Farsi is an Indo-European language: madar, mother; pedar, father; baradar, brother; dokhtar, daughter or girl. There aren't enough familiar words for an English speaker to understand Farsi conversation, but its sound is seductive. You can understand why Iranians who've no hope of ever returning to Iran, even Iranian minorities -- like Jews and Baha'is -- who've been oppressed by the current regime, remain passionate about Farsi.

Shahri Estakhry Aghassi: "What will people think? What are those crazy Iranians doing at La Jolla Shores jumping over fires?"

Shahri Estakhry Aghassi: "What will people think? What are those crazy Iranians doing at La Jolla Shores jumping over fires?"

"When I was in elementary school," remembers 22-year-old Ghazal Badiozamani, "I'd come home filled with news. Things I couldn't wait to tell my mother. I'd run through the front door, and I start talking to my mother in English and she'd say, in Farsi, 'Wait. Stop. I can't understand what you're saying. Tell me in Farsi.' I'd get so angry, so frustrated, because I knew she spoke and understood English. My parents were adamant that my sister and I speak Farsi. 'But Mom!' I'd say. 'Don't speak to me in English,' she'd say. 'Speak to me in Farsi.' "

Badiozamani just graduated from Stanford and will attend the London School of Economics this fall. When she was a little girl her parents sent her to study Farsi at the Iranian School of San Diego. Shahri Estakhry Aghassi established the school in 1987 after she'd moved to San Diego from North Carolina.

Estakhry is a small woman who wiggles in her seat when she talks about Persian culture. Mention the 14th Century poet Hafez and Estakhry's delicate hands shoot into the air, "Oh, my! Hafez! Our greatest poet. Every Iranian knows his poems. They're so, so beautiful. If only you could understand them in the original! The man who cleans the streets, intellectuals, rich, poor, everyone has memorized some Hafez. In Iran it's common to keep a book of his poems by your bed. It's like a custom. If you have a problem, a question about your life, you open the book at random and where your finger lands, you read the verses to see if they offer some insight, some answer. You'd be surprised at how often they do."

Estakhry comes from Shiraz, a city in southern Iran famous for poetry. Hafez lived and died there, as did Saadi, another great Persian poet. Estakhry thinks, but does not know, that many of San Diego's 40- to 50,000 Iranians come from Shiraz. "The two cities," she says, "share a wonderful climate." Estakhry speaks of Shiraz with longing, but, she says, "There comes a point when you realize how happy your children are in America, when you realize that your children are American, and you understand that this is now your home. You're not going back. Iranians, you see, who've come here have gone through a revolution in their heads and adjustments in their hearts.

"The whole idea of starting the Iranian School of San Diego came to me one day when my daughter called to speak to her grandmother, my mother, in Iran. My mother told her, 'Listen, phone calls are too expensive. Write me a letter.' My daughter couldn't read or write Farsi. The idea of giving her classes myself seemed too difficult. I was teaching at All Hallows Academy in La Jolla at the time, very busy with work. So I put up a little note in a Persian supermarket in Pacific Beach announcing that I was thinking of organizing Farsi classes for children and that interested parents could meet with me on Saturday at the All Hallows library. I don't know what I expected, but 80 people showed up. From one tiny note!

"Very soon we had a board of directors -- wonderful people, professional people -- who wanted to donate their time to the project. We started our classes at All Hallows and have moved around from various locations ever since, renting classrooms from public schools on Saturdays. So far, more than 1000 children have attended our classes, kids from every kind of Iranian background -- Muslim, Jewish, Baha'i, Zoroastrian, Christian. We not only teach Farsi, but we also teach traditional Persian dance. We have Farsi classes and Persian history classes for adults. This is how the Persian Cultural Center grew out of the Iranian School of San Diego. There are now close to 2000 adults on the Persian Cultural Center mailing list. Each year the Center sponsors six or so cultural events -- poetry readings, Persian classical music, guest speakers.

"I am, of course, most proud of our students, of the children. Of all that have graduated from our program, I can't think of a single one who hasn't gone on to obtain at least a bachelor's degree. Almost all of them are professionals -- doctors, dentists, engineers, computer scientists, lawyers, microbiologists."

Estakhry has a point. Only one in ten Iranian immigrants holds a blue-collar job. In 1980, the last year for which statistics of this kind are available, 40 percent of Iranian immigrants held a bachelor's or advanced degree -- a percentage twice that among all other foreign-born immigrants, and two and a half times as great as native-born Americans.

"In that respect," says Badiozamani, Estakhry's former pupil, "I guess I'm pretty typical. We came here when I was two years old, and among the Iranian families I grew up with in San Diego, it wasn't a question of if you were going to college. It was which graduate degree you were going to take. There's considerable pressure to enter a profession. To become a doctor. Even I did two years of pre-med at Stanford, and I hated it. I could never stand the sight of blood. When I was little and had to have a blood test, I had to be literally dragged screaming and crying to the nurse. I screamed so loud, for so long, that every doctor and nurse in the clinic came running into the room to see what was being done to the poor little girl. I wasn't cut out to be a doctor."

It's hard now to imagine Badiozamani screaming and crying. She's a lithe, self-assured, pretty young woman with large dark eyes that shine when she talks about her move to London in October. The prospect of life in the big city excites her. Her Stanford boyfriend, the son of a UN diplomat and a judge on the Indian Supreme Court, won't be far away. He'll be studying law at Cambridge.

"Of course, my career choice," says Badiozamani, "is totally off the wall for an Iranian girl. I want to work in international development, to work with an international, nongovernmental agency involved in either medical or economic aid to countries in the Third World. My father, who held an undergraduate degree in Romance languages and literature and a master's in public administration, had to drive a taxi when we first came to San Diego. He's a very resourceful man, so he didn't stay a taxi driver for long. He now has his own translation agency. He also works as a court interpreter, a notary public, and he's a licensed insurance salesman. He didn't get to use his education. Like many Iranians who came to this country, he saw that Iranians who were able to make the easiest transition, who were able to maintain their careers, were people with degrees in medicine, engineering, and science. So, there's this idea in the Iranian community -- an idea that comes out of an understanding that the world is often dangerous and unstable -- that you should choose a career that you can take with you. Sure, America is a wonderful country that's very prosperous and very safe right now, but 10 years, 20 years down the line, who knows?

"This idea comes from their experience of the revolution. Even though I'm American, I can understand it. I can understand many things like that. I'm basically a blend of two different cultures, a blend, I hope, of what's best in both. I can now understand my parents' position on dating, although when I was in high school it was difficult. My parents are completely secular. They want nothing to do with Islam. But, still, dating was something they felt girls shouldn't do. They used to joke, 'Well, since you won't be getting married until you're 40, there's no reason for you to start dating now.' So, when I was in high school, I didn't date. I didn't go to the prom. Not to be able to have that choice was hard. But without dating, I was able to concentrate on academics. I have friends from high school who now say, 'I wish I hadn't been so caught up with boys. With who liked me and who didn't. With dating. I wish I'd spent more time studying.' "

While at the London School of Economics, Badiozamani hopes to travel in Europe. She'd also like to visit North Africa and perhaps Israel. She has no plans to visit Iran.

"Why would I go there? To a place where women aren't respected, where women have no voice, where you can be arrested for wearing makeup? I may be from Iran, but I'm not from the country that it's now become. No. There's no place for me there. My father went back just recently, and I begged him not to go. I knew it would break his heart. He was there during the student protests, and he saw how the students were beaten. Everyone he talked to there was without hope. None. They're completely nihilistic. It did break his heart. He came back with a bleeding ulcer. I have no plans to go there."

Forty-nine-year-old Reza Khabazian has no plans to visit Iran, either. Tall, lanky, with long graying hair, Khabazian, like many Iranians, is hard to place ethnically. He could be Hispanic or East Indian. His accent, too, which is very slight, is difficult to define. He left with his wife and one-year-old son just two months before the revolution. Raised in Teheran, he was studying horticulture in Shiraz when the Shah's government began to collapse.

"I'm one of six children from a very, very religious family. Of my entire extended family, I'm the only one who isn't religious. I'd estimate that in all of Iran, there were only about 500,000 people like me, people who'd made the transition of coming from an exclusively religious environment into a secular one. Because I came from that religious environment, I knew it would be impossible for me to live under a religious government. I knew how narrow-minded religious people could be. I knew that using religion to run a government, a country, simply couldn't work. There were other students -- students who'd been opposed to the Shah's government -- who were optimistic about the revolution. They thought religious leadership would be only a transitional phase. But these people came from educated, secular families. They had no contact with religious people. They didn't know how religious people think.

"It was only after I left home when I was 18 that I could begin to study music. I had wanted to learn the violin, but to religious people, secular music is a sin. The violin was an instrument of the devil. My family would have never allowed me to play it. The funny thing is that when I first came to America, I went to Texas A&I, a private university in Kingsville, Texas. It was very inexpensive. There were about 1000 other Iranian students there, and 900 of them were religious. They were from lower-class families, and they came to the university because it was cheap. They were very happy with the revolution. They thought it was a wonderful thing. They wanted to go back to Iran. Secular Iranians were definitely a minority. We were afraid to speak out. Here I was in America, with freedom of speech, and I was afraid to speak out against Ayatollah Khomeini.

"We didn't stay in south Texas for long. Shortly after I finished my degree, a friend from San Diego came to visit and he said, 'What are you guys doing here? Move to San Diego!' So we did, and it was here that I began to get involved in Iranian classical music. I began to study the setar, which is a four-stringed traditional instrument. In 1984, I and six other people who played traditional Iranian instruments started a group called Darvak -- it's the name of a bird who sings before it rains. Since 1984 we've gotten together once a week and practiced. Twice a year, in conjunction with the music department at San Diego State, we give concerts.

"I have my own landscaping business, and that allows me to devote two days a week to my music. For me, traditional Iranian music, playing it, is a kind of prayer. I don't even associate it very much with Iran, with the place or the people. It's not painful for me to play it. The music is, I think, very universal. It's a way, a nonreligious way, of experiencing God.

"For the past three years I've been working on a musical called Arash that's based on a book that was written in verse by an Iranian poet 30 years ago. The book was based on a very ancient Iranian story about a war between Iran and Turkey and a hero named Arash. At the end of the war, when it was time to reestablish the borders between the two countries, the Turks said to the Iranians, 'Okay, we'll let you decide where the new border should be by letting you choose an archer to shoot an arrow into our territory. Wherever his arrow lands, that's where the border will be.' Arash was the archer, and according to the story, it took two and a half days for his arrow to land.

"I've set the book's verses to music. The play uses 15 dancers and 6 actors. It will be performed on October 17 at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art. From there, I hope, it will go on to other cities. It's being sponsored by the Persian Cultural Center, and I know Shahri Estakhry is excited about it."

She is. She's also excited because in the fall, she hopes, construction will begin in Balboa Park, among the other Houses of Pacific Relations, on a House of Iran. The project has taken two years to realize, and although Estakhry sometimes wonders if the length of the process, the incessant bureaucratic wrangling didn't have something do with anti-Iranian sentiment, she sees the House of Iran as a victory.

"You must understand," she says, "the attitude toward Iranians when we first came here. The revolution. The hostage crisis. People thought we, who'd fled the revolution, were all terrorists. We were all suspect. Now, I think, finally, that's all behind us. We're Americans. We fit in. Like other nationalities, we'll have a little house in Balboa Park. Some local Iranians didn't think it was a good idea. They were afraid. They didn't want Iranians to be too visible. I tell them not to worry about it. Having this house will allow us to show the finer cultural aspects of Iran.

"I was on an Iranian television show recently, a cable-access show, and we were debating what to do about the holiday called Chahar Shanbeth Suri. It's a very old, pre-Islamic holiday, and one of the things we do on it is build a fire and jump over it. It's for good luck, for purification. People were debating whether or not it's a good idea to go to the beach to build the fires. 'What will people think? What are those crazy Iranians doing at La Jolla Shores jumping over fires? Are they crazy?' My answer was not to worry about it. I told them it would be better if we all didn't congregate at La Jolla Shores. It would be better if we did it in our own neighborhoods so we could show our neighbors what the holiday was and how we celebrate it. 'There's nothing to worry about. We belong here,' I said. 'Go ahead and jump!' "

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