Conversations on Roots & Identity II: Iran

by Teresa Camacho

The meaning of roots and identity was given a thorough, emotional and thought-provoking examination in the second of the Los Angeles dialogue series, "Conversations: Iran"  The event took place at the exquisite home of local businessman and musician Manouch "Mike" Delshad on Oct. 25. Introductions were made and the atmosphere was warm and inviting with sweet treats and tea and a small exhibit of photography by Hooman Shadravan, along with several paintings by Nahid Hagigat, a Persian Jewish artist based in New York. Many of the guests were born in Iran; a few were raised in either a Muslim or Bahai'i tradition.

Jordan Elgrably welcomed guests and spoke of several books which are very timely and relevant to Iran and Iranian-American culture.  Of particular interest is the anthology entitled, A World Between: Poems, Short Stories, and Essays by Iranian-Americans by both Iranian Jews and Iranian Muslims; this, along with novels by Gina B. Nahai and Dorit Rabinyan, will raise the profile of Iranian-American literature in the English-speaking world.

Artist and filmmaker Hooman Shadravan was the first guest speaker. He recently traveled to Iran---a country he had not seen since the age of 13.  He and his family left Iran due to the Iranian Revolution and relocated to the United States and Mr. Shadravan did not realize at the time what he had left behind.  As an "American" returning to the land of his childhood and adolescence, he came away with images of the culture, traditions and "the beauty I left in Iran."  Because of a compulsory military service for Iranian men, Shadrevan had previously been unwilling to re-visit his motherland.  He became aware of a special visa, however, which would allow him to travel to Iran for three months with no obligation to complete his military obligations, and contacted the Iranian embassy to make travel arrangements.

During his month-long sojourn to Iran, Shadrevan captured 1,500 film and video images of small Iranian villages and some of the larger towns. (He plans a return-trip next March.) The culmination of these images is several art exhibits in New York and Los Angeles art galleries, and Shadrevan has created a three-part video, respectively "Colors of Iran"; "Faces of Iran"; and "Persia."  He screened "Faces of Iran" for the gathering, which depicted a vibrantly stunning country. Its images weave a tapestry of colors, expressions, faces, and smells of all that is fundamental to life as it should be lived.

Elham EzzatiThe facilitator of "Conversations: Iran" was Elham Ezzati, who practices psycho-spiritual therapy and engages herself in meditation and healing practices. Ezzati frequently contributes articles to journals on psychology and Iranian topics. She left Iran at the age of 9 and spoke of her struggle to construct her own identity as an Iranian American. Ezzati commented on Mr. Shadrevan's film and stated that she felt both joy and sadness in watching the film because it makes her wonder what life would have been had she always lived in Iran.

Indeed, struggles with identity as American or Iranian and how to include Jewishness to the formation of this identity were at the forefront of the issues Ms.Ezzati weighed for many years. She also spoke of her love/hate relationship with Iranian values and strict morals, particularly in reference to women and
the Iranian community as a whole.  Ms. Ezzati's identity struggles and comments on the film served as the catalyst for intense discussion, which followed introductions in which everyone present provided a bit of personal background and briefly detailed the circumstances and year they left Iran.

Many of those present related that they had also experienced identity struggles and had problems with assimilation, racism and how to live a religious life in an when it seemed to be at odds with the broader American culture which did not seem to have room for diversity in culture, tradition, religious and moral values.

There were participants who struggled but had found an understanding of themselves in embracing their diversity through their culture, traditions and religion even as they continue to live as Americans.  Several of the women are grateful for the opportunities such as education, writing, art, and psychology, that they have outside Iran because in Iran they would not be allowed freedom to pursue much outside of home and marriage.

Manouch DelshadManouch Delshad gave the most moving account of identity struggle, assimilation and finally acceptance.  Mr. Delshad was born in Shiraz, the third largest city in southern Iran, which has a long and illustrious history as a religiously traditional Jewish city since the time of the Destruction of the Second Temple.  As a result of a middle class upbringing, the Delshad family moved out of the ghetto and had to endure extreme hardship in the form of racial discrimination from the majority Muslim population.  As a child, Delshad had to attend school for half a day at a Muslim school where he studied and excelled at Arabic and the Koran and the other half of his day he attended a Jewish school where he had to excel in Hebrew and Torah since his mother was an educator.  This double life in which he claimed to be Muslim ended at the age of seven, when a classmate visited the Delshad family on Shabbat, and then revealed all that he had seen and heard to his mother who in turn related this to the principal at the Muslim school.  The principal brought the young Delshad before the entire school and beat his hands with a ruler after revealing the ruse that had been played; the principal further humiliated him by asking the school janitor to hold his feet in the air so that his two best friends could beat his feet with tree branches to the point of drawing blood.

Due to the severe discrimination and problems in being understood at home, Delshad ran away at the age of 13 to Israel and became a young member of the Haganah.  After some time in Israel he was recruited by the secular group Mapan to learn the ways of a kibbutz like environment. He returned to Israel to recruit children and subsequently brought his entire family to Israel to a farm near the Gaza Strip, which is still in existence today.  Discrimination became an issue again with the advent of the masses of Ashkenazim flooding into Israel and receiving preferential treatment in terms of the provisions and governmental aid extended to them as opposed to the Mizrahim and Sephardim who always seemed to be left to their own devices.

In 1952 he left for the United States to study engineering and met his future wife, an Ashkenazi Jew, at university.  Through his marriage he and his wife learned to accept each other's culture and traditions and lived a wonderful life. This new found appreciation of his traditions and culture after years of identity struggles afforded Delshad the opportunity to look to Iranian culture as a source of pride. As a result, ten years ago he began to study the tar with a local virtuoso. He performed several pieces toward the conclusion of the evening and a few people got up to dance, including Shida Pegahi, the lead performer with the Persian dance ensemble Ney Nava Dance Theater. It was apparent from his life and music that Manouch Delshad's longing for Shiraz is still as fervent as ever. While he identifies strongly as both a Jew and an Iranian who has become an American citizen, and who had devoted many years of his life to Israel, Delshad noted that in recent years he made more and more friends in the Muslim community, and it has become important for him to bridge the gaps of prejudice he experienced as a youth in Iran.

At the end of the discussion, following a break for food and then music, the proceedings were best summed up by the words of Hooman Shadravan, "Through art and writing we can find out who we are, where we have been and where we are going."

Teresa Camacho is a graduate student living in Los Angeles.

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