hidden cultures: middle east
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Hidden Cultures: Middle East
June, 2012, Page 114
Phoenix isn’t famous for its diversity. But peer into its margins, and you’ll find a city flush with people from around the world. In part two of a three-part series, we delve into the Valley’s Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian communities.
PART ONE - HIDDEN CULTURES: EURASIA
: Approximately 78 million
Estimated population of Iranians in Phoenix
It’s April Fool’s Day at Fountain Park in Fountain Hills, and hundreds of families lounge on Persian rugs spread under trees. Old men puff on hookah pipes, young men play soccer, and wannabe brides braid strands of grass to signal their desire to tie the knot. Lamb sizzling on grills emanates roils of meat-scented smoke that rise into a sky dancing with butterfly and dragon kites. Polar opposites of music vie for attention – musicians play traditional folk songs rich with strings, tambourines and throaty vocals at one end of the park; DJs pulse Persian pop at the other. Between them dances the ancient tongue immortalized in the poetry of Persian scribes like Rumi and Omar Khayyam: Farsi.
To the casual observer, it might look like an elaborate April Fool’s party. But for the thousands of Iranian immigrants living in the Valley, this merriment marked a different holiday: Sizdahbedar, which they’ve celebrated at Fountain Park for more than 12 years. In Iran (known to the western world as “Persia” until 1935), Sizdahbedar is Persian Nature Day and marks the culmination of a traditional 13-day celebration of the Iranian New Year, Nowruz, during which people visit each other in their homes and exchange gifts. Then on Sizdahbedar, everybody spends the day outside.
Nearly 6,000 estimated Iranians call the Valley home, enough to fill the 160-page Arizona Persian Yellow Pages book. Now in its seventh year of publication, the directory is a one-stop resource for Valley restaurants, real estate businesses, accounting firms, medical offices and more, all run by Iranian-Americans. “A lot of Persian people are very proud to be Persian, and they’re proud of their history. They want to show what kind of culture we have,” says Reza Talai, Arizona Persian Yellow Pages founder and publisher.
Photo by Sam Nalven
Mesa Community College hosts a Persian social the first Friday of every month, which organizer Farid Akhbari says 40 to 50 people typically attend, and there’s an Iranian American Society of Arizona (azpersians.com), which hosts monthly programs at various places. They’re currently raising funds to build a community center.
Of the many occupations undertaken by the Valley’s Persian community, there are two industries in which they seem to thrive: restaurants and law. Several Persian eateries sate the desire for succulent kebabs and saffron-speckled rice, including the opulent Persian Room in Scottsdale, Persian Garden Café in Phoenix, and Tasty Kabob Persian Bistro in Tempe. And when members of the local Iranian community need legal advice – especially regarding immigration – they can choose from a pool of Persian counsels, including the Law Office of Najafi and Adib in Scottsdale.
Azadeh Najafi and Samin Adib are both 20-somethings who came to the U.S. from Tehran, Iran with their parents as young girls. Adib’s family came to the States in 1990, when she was 6. Najafi’s family fled Iran after the 1979 Iranian Revolution that toppled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and brought the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power. Najafi says her father occupied a very high position under the deposed Shah, making staying in post-revolution Iran too dangerous. Her family spent several years in Sweden before the United Nations brought them to the U.S. in 1994.
After emigrating, both women watched their formerly prominent parents struggle to adapt to life in the U.S. “My father was an architect [in Iran], but when we first moved here, he was a cab driver in New York. He worked in a kitchen,” Adib says. “My mom used to work for Iran Air back in Iran, and when she came here, she worked the graveyard shift at McDonald’s. Our parents are lucky they were able to establish themselves and pull themselves up and out.”
“Just like my dad,” Najafi adds. “He had a very high position in Iran, and he comes here – and now he owns a business, but he worked very hard to get where he is right now, 20 years later. He essentially started over.”
Watching her family’s struggle ultimately led Najafi to law school. “For me, [it was] because of my dad... So when we came to the U.S., I thought I owed it to my dad to become an attorney,” she says. “And I’ve always felt like I was born to do it, because I’m so passionate. I’m so good at what I do. I’ve been through the immigration process. I just wanted to go to law school, do something positive in my life.”
Photo by Sam Nalven
Now, Najafi and Adib represent immigrant families struggling to enter or remain in the States, and for some, it’s a matter of life or death. In March, Najafi filed a lawsuit in federal court against the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service on behalf of her clients Fatemah Asadi and her husband, Rahmat Khalili, because their green cards have been held up for five years. The reason? The Mesa couple, who left Iran in 1979 and came to the U.S. as refugees nine years ago, once belonged to a political party called the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, which rebelled against the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 and 1980 but is classified a Tier III terrorist organization under the U.S.’s more recent, broader immigration laws. “My client was in no way, shape or form involved in any activities,” Najafi says. “There’s no evidence that they were ever violent.”
At press time, Najafi was awaiting a response from USCIS, but said she’s confident her clients will be granted green cards. She also acknowledges that naturalization is not the only potential outcome. Her clients could be threatened with deportation, and if that happens, “Iran will kill them,” Najafi says.
The impetus for many Persians’ migration to the Valley was the Iranian Revolution, a pivotal point for one of the world’s oldest civilizations. (The first dynasty, the Elamite Kingdom, began ruling in 2800 B.C. and was succeeded by various empires until the Muslim conquest in 651 A.D.) In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower authorized Operation Ajax, a successful coup to depose democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, a Socialist who had worked to nationalize Iran’s oil reserves. This resulted in increasingly autocratic rule by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who modernized Iran’s industries with American support but imprisoned political rivals and active critics like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In 1979, Khomeini led the Iranian Revolution and assumed power, creating an Islamic Republic. Under the new government, the legal marriage age for females dropped to 9, women who did not cover their heads with the traditional hijab faced severe punishment including execution, and freedom of speech was quashed with the imprisonment of journalists and the killing of dissidents. This was followed by the eight-year Iraq-Iran War, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated half a million to a million Iranians.
Today, Iran is not friendly to its defectors. “I would probably be killed if I went back,” Najafi says matter-of-factly. “I would have to get married and change my last name, because I could never go back with my dad’s last name. We came here on political asylum.”
Najafi says that while the Shah era was by no means ideal, life in Iran was better than now, especially in terms of religious freedom. “Everyone lived in harmony – the Bahá’ís, the Jews, the Christians, the Muslims,” she says. “But right now, if you’re Bahá’í or a Jew, they could assassinate or execute you.”
Photo by Sam Nalven
The Bahá’í Faith was founded in 19th-century Persia and today is embraced by an estimated 5 to 6 million believers worldwide. It’s a monotheistic faith that acknowledges the prophets of all religions, including Jesus and Muhammad, and its followers have faced persecution in Iran for decades. Bahá’í schools were shuttered in the 1930s and ’40s. Since the Iranian Revolution, Bahá’ís have been banned from higher education and government jobs in Iran, subject to arrest, and forbidden from holding study groups. Bahá’í marriages are not recognized by the government, and there are numerous stories of Bahá’í homes being destroyed. In 2005, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights revealed an order in Iran to identify and monitor the Bahá’ís. The exodus of Bahá’ís from Iran swelled in recent years, resulting in a global diaspora.
While most local Iranians are Muslim, there are two Bahá’í centers in the Valley – the Phoenix Bahá’í Center, with an estimated 900 members, and the Mesa Bahá’í, who number around 1,500. An estimated one-third of Valley Bahá’ís are Persian, and some still have family in Iran, including one 40-something male worshipper who wished to remain anonymous. He says the Iranian government pays people for information about Bahá’ís. “That’s one of the reasons you cannot just get so close to anyone who’s coming to you or asking questions. You never know. It actually happened to a few close family members of us. They came to him and asked him about the Bahá’í faith, so he tried to teach and gave them a book, and Iran took him to government court. They sent him to jail for six months.”
Such incidents led him to seek refuge in the U.S. He moved to Phoenix in 1998 and worked multiple menial jobs to support his family, learning English as he went. “For the first four or five years, it was so hard, to just get used to the place, used to the language, used to the culture,” he says.
Now he owns his own business, and his wife has earned degrees in education and child psychology. His daughter will be attending Arizona State University in the fall. “We are so happy to be here,” he says, tears welling up in his eyes. “Every day, when I say a prayer, I thank God to be here. Because the opportunity I had here – my brother, my sister, my friends – they don’t have that opportunity living back there. For them, it’s too hard.”
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