Iranian-Jewish community embraces a vision of training the visually impaired to teach music


It was a talent show that had to be seen. Or, well, not.

For one night in late January, more than 1,300 Iranian Americans of various faiths attended a sold-out night of music, comedy and more at the Wilshire Ebell Theater to raise money for a new nonprofit aimed at helping the blind or vision-impaired become music teachers.

“It was really a special evening where we had local Iranian performers from different religions — young and old, amateurs and professionals, those who had vision and those who were vision-impaired — all sharing their talents of playing musical instruments, doing comedy and singing,” said Saeed Deihimi, an Iranian-American pianist and music teacher who heads the show’s beneficiary, the Beyond Vision Music Foundation.

The nonprofit is the brainchild of Deihimi, 56, who started it two years ago to help those like him earn a living. He was diagnosed at a young age with having retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a hereditary degenerative disease of the optic nerves that has reduced his vision to the point that he can only see shadows of individuals and objects. Nonetheless, he has been performing and teaching music in Iran and the United States for more than 40 years.

“When I was very young, my mother took me to Austria for diagnosis of my RP and I was incredibly fortunate that the place she had taken me was also teaching children like myself music, and I took to it very quickly,” said Deihimi, who was born into a Muslim family but does not consider himself religious. 

“It was truly a gift for me because back in those days in Iran, if you were blind, you’d either have to beg on the streets for money or you’d have to sit at home all day doing nothing and being a financial burden on your family. I did neither because I was able to teach piano and music to others since I was 13 years old.”

In Iran, many of his piano students were Jewish. Two years after the 1979 revolution in Iran, which implemented radical Shiite Islamic laws restricting music and other individual freedoms, Deihimi left the country and settled in Los Angeles. He continued to teach new Iranian immigrants and their children at his home, and, in 1990, he formally opened his own school in Tarzana, World of Music and Dance.

Deihimi said 90 percent of his students over the years have been Iranian Jews, many of them welcoming him into their homes for Shabbat dinners.

“I can say that I truly feel like I’m a part of the Iranian-Jewish community because I grew up with them and taught them, taught their children and now I’m teaching their grandchildren music,” he said.

His new project, Beyond Vision Music Foundation, currently has four teachers and serves 15 students who are either blind or have some form of vision impairment and range in age from 8 to 60. 

“After all of these years, I realized how lucky I was for being able to support myself through music, and I always wanted to give that same ability to those with vision impairment or blindness,” Deihimi said.

“There are many schools in America that teach the blind to play music, but our foundation is the only one in the U.S. with the specific objective of teaching the blind or those with vision issues to become music teachers themselves, so they can teach others and earn a living on their own.

“We teach them music theory, we use Braille music sheets and also work with them one-on-one to teach them about rhythm or beats. One day, we hope to transform this nonprofit into a major national institute to empower those with vision impairment.”

One of Deihimi’s students is 20-year-old Devin Maghen, an Iranian-Jewish man who was left with vision impairment and other physical problems following a 2012 car accident. In an interview with the Journal, his mother, Shala Maghen, said her son was unsure of his future career decisions for a while because of his medical condition. Yet she said he was immediately drawn to a potential career of teaching music when he first learned that Deihimi had started a nonprofit school focused on helping individuals like him. 

“I’ve seen a real transformation in Devin since he started working with Mr. Deihimi in learning music. He seems more optimistic about his future career,” she said.

The Iranian-Jewish community has responded with strong support for Deihimi’s latest project. Among those who helped organize the talent show fundraiser was Fariba Lavizadeh Nourian, a close friend and Iranian-Jewish business consultant living in Encino.

“To be honest with you, the majority of us are Jewish, but it did not cross our minds even for a second that we were raising money for a non-Jewish group,” she said. “We just wanted to help a worthy cause in our community.”  

Officials declined to release the amount raised through the talent show.

Robert Khorramian, a Santa Monica-based Iranian-Jewish podiatrist who sponsored one of the performers at the event, said, “I’ve known Mr. Deihimi for many years, and he is not only an incredibly talented pianist but he is truly a remarkable loving and kind human being with an amazing heart.”

Southern California is home to nearly half a million Iranian Americans. Roughly 40,000 of them are Jews living in Los Angeles County. Despite their different faiths — Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Baha’i and Zoroastrianism — they remain connected by language, culture, food, music and the mutual respect the community maintained in Iran during the reign of the late Shah prior to the 1979 Iranian revolution. 

Sam Markzar, a Beverly Hills periodontist who impersonated popular Iranian comedians from the 1970s at the talent show, said he got involved because of Deihimi’s reputation in the community and a sense of tikkun olam, or desire to heal the world.

“Our culture, the Persian-Jewish culture, has always tried to help the larger community in which we lived in, whether in Iran or in the U.S., and as a result, we have maintained friendships that truly go beyond religion,” he said. 

Deihimi said it’s a gift to be able to share the beauty of music while helping others who share his disability. 

“When I close my eyes and play the piano, I feel as if I see a very powerful light or energy that is very special,” Deihimi said. “Music is the international language of love, regardless of what your religion may be, and if I can help even one person with vision impairment like myself share that beauty of music with the world and also be able to create a better life for themselves while doing it, then I’ve accomplished a lot in my life.”

To read Karmel Melamed’s interview with Saeed Deihimi and watch a video of Deihimi playing piano, visit the Iranian-American Jews blog at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews

Shulamit Gallery showcases Iranian stories, artists


Giving directions to the Shulamit Gallery would be an easy task. Just take Venice Boulevard all the way west until you see the sand. Stop. 

Located in a converted home right off the famed Venice Boardwalk, the gallery founded in 2006 by Shulamit Nazarian, of L.A.’s philanthropic Iranian-American Nazarian family, is now showcasing its inaugural exhibition in its brand-new home: “My Heart Is in the East, and I Am at the Ends of the West” will be on view  through Jan. 5. 

“I specifically chose Venice because I felt that Venice has had a very creative history,” said Nazarian, sitting at an elegant table on the second floor of her gallery. “The people that reside here have an edge of creativity to them which is quite raw, and very much in-your-face, which you cannot run away from. And there’s a beauty and fear to it, which kind of intrigued me.”

Nazarian, who was born in Iran and immigrated to the United States in 1979 along with her family, had another reason for choosing Venice: “I felt like I should push myself to come be exposed to the beauty of the Pacific Ocean.” 

Part of the charm of the Shulamit Gallery (shulamitgallery.com) is in its location, 17 N. Venice Blvd. The view from the rooftop deck is an eyeful of sand and blue sea. Spread out over five light and airy levels, the gallery still bears many signs of having once been a functioning home, though it is every bit a gallery space. You can’t turn a corner without encountering art. 

The current exhibition, a satellite exhibition of the ongoing “Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews” at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, mostly occupies the ground level. Four of the artists — Farid Kia, Jessica Shokrian, Laura Merage and Soraya S. Nazarian (Shulamit Nazarian’s mother) — are contemporary artists. In a twist, the Shulamit Gallery pairs their work with that of artist Ben Mayeri, a more traditional Iranian artist who worked with silver and gold. The Mayeri works came courtesy of the Fowler Museum.

“Fierce Grace,” by Farid Kia, oil on canvas.

The work covers a wide range of media, from Kia’s massive paintings, one of which depicts an almost grotesquely wrinkled Golda Meir, to Merage’s provocative photography/installation art, which includes some female nudity.

“We’re interested in showing work that has a powerful story to tell and that also is executed in a way that’s of high caliber,” gallery co-director Anne Hromadka said. In pairing the modern artists’ work with Mayeri’s, Hromadka hopes to show people the link between the different generations of Iranian artists.

“Supporting emerging artists is an essential. Likewise, midcareer [artists]. They all need the space, they all need to be exposed, and when you combine both experiences together, always one learns from the other,” Shulamit Nazarian added. “Anne has brought great skills into what we have created here together.”

Shulamit Nazarian and Hromadka first met five years ago while serving on the USC Hillel art and gallery committee. Back then, they were working on an Iranian art exhibition.

“In some ways, this project actually brings [us] full circle as a team,” Hromadka said. 

According to Shulamit Nazarian, the two just clicked. “We both have a huge love of Judaism and Israeli artists and the Middle East.”

In that sense, the Shulamit Gallery is the perfect partnership. The two have big plans to potentially host everything from educational events to Shabbat dinners. 

“We view art and culture as a way of opening up a dialogue and having those conversations. Programming really is an essential part and also allows us the ability to work with nonprofit organizations and different groups across the city,” Hromadka said. 

The gallery’s next exhibition, opening Jan. 14, is a sort of companion piece to the current show. “Leaving the Land of Roses” will feature the work of artists David Abir, Marjan Vayghan, Tal Shochat and Krista Nassi, and it will focus more on Iranians in exile. It will run through March 9.

Black and white

Attending the opening reception for “My Heart Is in the East, and I Am at the Ends of the West” are Homeira and Arnold Goldstein, Jane Glassman, Steven Neu and friend

“What does it mean when you long for the physical landscape, for the sights and the sounds of the place you were born and raised, but you know it’s unsafe and you can’t go back?” Hromadka asked.

For many Iranians, according to Shulamit Nazarian, the home they left is very much a paradise lost. 

“There is a whole history of us which has never been talked about,” she said.

Art, Shulamit Nazarian said, is the perfect way to speak about that hidden history. 

“You can talk about your wishes, your fears, your experiences through art and express it without necessarily being aggressive,” she said. Smiling, she added, “In a very selfish way, I wanted to learn more about my own heritage.”

“The rose in Iran has a very special connotation,” said Hromadka, explaining the reason for the name of the upcoming exhibition. “The rose is such an important part of the Persian garden, of rosewater, of food, even in their rituals … for Havdalah, rosewater is used. That’s the scent that’s passed around. For Iranian-Jewish funerals, flowers and rosewater are poured into the grave. So it really follows the Iranian-Jewish experience from birth to death.” 

During presidential campaign, engaging Iranian Jews at 30 Years After event


By the time former Congressman Mel Levine took the stage as an official surrogate for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign at a gathering of mostly young Iranian Americans, the ballroom at downtown’s Millennium Biltmore Hotel was more than half empty. 

Most of the more than 1,000 attendees at a daylong Oct. 14 civic action conference organized by 30 Years After (30YA) had left before the after-dinner speeches by Levine and his counterpart, David Javdan, who spoke on behalf of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. 

Not Shala Kohan, though. 

After a full day of panel discussions about the challenges, opportunities and choices facing publicly minded Iranian-American Jews, Kohan sat at a table near the back of the room with her husband, her two daughters and one granddaughter, dissecting Levine’s every word and offering a running commentary. 

“We haven’t climbed out at all!” Kohan said after Levine touted the Obama administration’s record on job growth since the 2008 economic collapse. When Levine said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had “called President Obama” to help arrange the rescue of six Israelis trapped in the Israeli embassy in Cairo in September 2011, Kohan responded, “He called America.” 

Levine knew the audience wasn’t going to be particularly friendly to an ally of the Democratic president; his joke about how the 30YA crowd “would be a hotbed of Obama support” didn’t even draw a laugh. 

Javdan, who served as general counsel in the Small Business Administration under President George W. Bush, drew applause from the remnants of the crowd even before he made a single policy statement on behalf of Romney.

“Our community understands implicitly that the key element of freedom is economic freedom, that the American dream is about being your own boss and controlling your own destiny,” Javdan said to more applause. “Drowning our small businesses with higher tax rates than corporations pay and binding them in endless red tape and regulations is no way to go.”

Although the campaign surrogates were given the last slot of the night, the hotly contested presidential campaign had been simmering just beneath the surface of many of the public and private conversations throughout the day, and the subject had worked its way into panel discussions, though often indirectly. 

During a discussion among Jewish elected officials, Rep. Howard Berman offered a vigorous defense of the Obama administration’s work to secure sanctions against Iran. In the context of another conversation about improving public perception of the Iranian-American community, panelist David Peyman, a deputy attorney general with the Department of Justice, wondered why the Iranian-American Jewish community hasn’t commanded the kind of attention from the two candidates on Iranian issues that the Cuban-American community commands on Cuban relations. 

And every conference attendee received, along with the day’s schedule of events, a form letter to sign addressed to Obama and Romney urging the president and his Republican rival to toughen their positions on Iran by agreeing to impose a “full economic blockade” of the regime. 

Even so, most of the discussion at the conference was dedicated to subjects that weren’t quite partisan, even though political issues sometimes came up, even when presenters expressed opposing positions. 

Foreign policy “insiders,” including former ambassadors Dennis Ross and Mark Wallace, presented briefings about Iran, Israel and United States in the morning, and four candidates running for mayor of the City of Los Angeles — a nonpartisan position — were on hand to make their cases in the afternoon. 

Rabbi David Wolpe spoke not about Iran, as he had in his Rosh Hashanah sermon at Sinai Temple, but rather addressed more personal matters facing young Iranian-Americans and their community — struggling with one’s ego, figuring out how to best use one’s money and the search for love.

When Berman and his congressional colleague Rep. Henry Waxman — both of them facing tougher opposition than usual this election season — appeared on stage together, no mention was made of Bill Bloomfield, an independent who has spent more than $2 million of his own money on his race against Waxman, or of Rep. Brad Sherman, who is leading Berman in the polls and had appeared at the 30YA conference earlier in the day.  

The two long-serving congressmen together presented a commendation to Shervin Lalezary, the Iranian-American Jewish reserve deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff who caught the suspect now charged with 100 arson-related counts connected with a series of fires that burned around Los Angeles in the days leading up to and following New Year’s Eve 2011. 

Lalezary was featured in national and local press when he made the arrest in January and he has been honored by 30YA on at least one other occasion this year. He serves as a model for the five-year-old group — a successful lawyer who also volunteers to advance the public good. 

But if Lalezary is one model of civic action put forward by 30YA, Assemblyman Mike Feuer, who appeared on a panel titled “Why Politics Matters” at the conference, offered up another, more political suggestion. 

Feuer, with the support of 30YA, has passed legislation in Sacramento that puts economic pressure on the Iranian regime by taking action at the state level. Because of term limits, Feuer is now running for Los Angeles city attorney next year; if he doesn’t win, he and possibly two of his co-panelists — Berman and Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who announced in September that he will retire at the end of his term — could all find themselves out of office by 2014. 

With all eyes on the race for the White House, Feuer encouraged the conference attendees to consider upping their political involvement at the local level, as well.

“Find someone in whom you believe,” he said, “and get involved in one of their campaigns.”

Debating Presidential politics, Chanukah in August


Presidential Politics Debate

A crowd of 250 Iranian Jewish young professionals gathered at the Luxe Hotel on Aug. 6 to hear a panel of Jewish community leaders speaking on behalf of both presumptive presidential candidates Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) and retired Federal District Court Judge Bruce Einhorn made the case for Obama as the candidate best suited to deal with the threats from Iran. Berman, who chairs the House Foreign Relations Committee, said he was pleased to see members of the Iranian Jewish community engaging in the political process and defended Obama’s calls for direct negotiations and dialogue with Iran’s Islamic regime.

“When members of the community look at what is going on now, I don’t know how they could reach any other conclusion than the current policy [toward Iran] is not working,” Berman said. “What we need to be doing is leveraging our relationships with our allies to create a level of sanctions that can change the behavior of Iran. To me, the rising anger of Iranian Americans should be toward the current policy that is not working against that regime.”

Larry Greenfield, California regional director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, and local Iranian Jewish activist Frank Nikbakht pointed to McCain’s extensive foreign policy experience as the candidate of choice.

The gathering was sponsored by 30 Years After, a Southern California-based Iranian Jewish nonprofit seeking to engage young Iranian Jews in civic and political affairs.

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Chanukah in August

It was difficult to determine the oddest part of Craig Taubman’s PBS Chanukah special, “Lights,” during its taping on Aug. 5. Was it a room filled with Jews singing Chanukah songs in the middle of Little Tokyo’s Japanese American Cultural and Community Center? Reciting the blessing over a beautiful chanukiah in August? Having a celebration immediately before the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, Tisha B’Av?

Amid all the questions it was impossible to keep from being entertained, amused and excited. With myriad Christmas specials that overcome public broadcasting during the winter, Taubman felt that the Jews and Chanukah were getting cheated.

“I think what you need to do is cater to an audience that’s underserved in this time of year. I mean, how many Chanukah specials are there?” Taubman said to PBS of the program that will air in December.

With a group of eclectic and talented performers, the show was an endless night of lights and sounds: from the Klezmatics, the Grammy Award-winning klezmer group, to tenor Alberto Mizrahi, famed chazan at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago, to renowned saxophonist Dave Koz and actress/country-bluegrass singer Mare Winningham. Taubman’s multiethnic cast celebrated the joy of a community singing together, and the evening inspired the audience to appreciate the miracle of Chanukah, despite the unusual circumstances.

Although celebratory events are prohibited during the days leading up to Tisha B’Av, “Chanukah is also a festival of darkness,” said Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple. “Only against the backdrop of darkness can you see light.”

Through the darkness in the month of Av, “Lights” was a reminder of the miracle of Chanukah even if it is a few months early.

Jina Davidovich, Contributing Writer

ALTTEXT

All the performers “light” the stage with the spirit of Chanukah for this PBS special to air in December. (Above, from left, front row) Dave Koz, Joshua Nelson, Mare Winningham and Josh Nelson.

Iranian American Jews mentoring new generation of leaders


“It’s amazing. It’s awesome,” Nicole Lavi said. “I have an older ‘sister.'”

Lavi, 17, a senior at Beverly Hills High School, reached over to Donna Pouladian, 23. “She’s the best. I love her,” Nicole said.

The two were meeting in person for only the second time, but already they’d discovered many common characteristics — both are outgoing and energetic, both have an older brother and both want a career that will help people.

And most pertinent, both are Iranian American Jews born in the United States and assimilated into American society but raised by parents steeped in the culture and traditions of Iran.

Pouladian, who is finishing her doctorate in occupational therapy at USC, and Lavi are part of a pioneering Young Iranian Jewish Leadership Program developed to give motivated Iranian American high school students the direction, encouragement and skills needed to shine as professional and community leaders.

This is a project of 30 Years After, an organization founded a year ago to engage the Iranian Jewish community more intensely in American civic life and the broader Jewish community, in partnership with Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles and Beverly Hills’ Nessah Synagogue.

On this night, the two young women are one of 11 pairs of mentees and mentors — Los Angeles area high school students matched with successful young professionals in their 20s and 30s — who have gathered at Berri Good on South Robertson Boulevard in Beverly Hills to chat, play board games and feast on frozen yogurt, competing against a background of piped-in hip-hop techno music.

Some, like mentee Aaron Eslamboly, 17, and mentor Sam Yebri, 27, sit together at a table, swapping life histories and aspirations.

For Eslamboly, a junior at Santa Monica High School with dreams of becoming a journalist, lawyer and/or entrepreneur, it’s an opportunity to explore those options one-on-one with Yebri, an attorney.

“My parents are not as immersed in American culture as Sam and the other mentors,” Eslamboly said, adding that he and other Persian American high schoolers feel pressure from their parents to be successful.

The genesis of the Young Iranian Jewish Leadership Program can be traced to Nessah member Fariba Behnam, who helped organize a Career Day panel for students at Milken Community High School. “This is something the Persian community needs,” she thought at the time.

Later, in April 2007, Behnam convened two panels of young professionals at Nessah Synagogue to speak to an estimated crowd of 350 high school students and their parents, allowing them to see that different professional paths — such as careers in entertainment, engineering and psychology — were available, in addition to the standard occupations in business, law and medicine.

Afterward, the panel participants, most of whom had not previously met, remarked about how they wished they had had someone to help them navigate the challenges and decisions regarding colleges, careers and community involvement.

But what the panel discussion couldn’t do was provide meaningful opportunities for individual mentoring, according to Yebri, co-founder of 30 Years After.

Thus, a series of discussions ensued between Morgan Hakimi, a psychologist and president of Nessah Synagogue, and representatives from Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters and 30 Years After. And the Young Iranian Jewish Leadership Program, which Hakimi said is revolutionary for the Iranian Jewish community but generally welcomed, took form.

Hakimi sees the program as an effective means to bridge the gap for a generation going through an identity struggle.

“It will help these kids cherish the traditions and identity of their parents, but meanwhile practice and live as American Jews,” she said, ideally resulting in what she calls the “Iranian American descended community.”

Nessah is providing meeting space, food, public relations and some financial support, while 30 Years After is creating activities and coordinating the overall program.

For Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters, it is “important to reach populations in new ways,” according to Dan Witzling, director of communications. Thus the organization, with its long history of mentoring and administrative expertise, interviewed potential mentors and mentees, conducted background checks, trained the mentors and made the matches.

Eleven mentors were chosen, receiving an initial one-and-a-half-hour group-training session that was facilitated by Ze’ev Korn, director of school-based mentoring at Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters.

The training helped the mentors understand that they are not therapists, parents, classroom teachers or occasional ATMs, said Korn, who explained that ideal qualities in a mentor include “listening, empathy and curiosity as to who this [mentee] uniquely is and uniquely wants to become.”

Korn added, “The gift they give to the young person is themselves, with all their limitations.”

To give mentees a full range of possible opportunities, mentors and mentees are not matched according to specific career goals but rather by common interests, needs and strengths and personality characteristics.

The inaugural group has committed to the program for a full year and met for the first time on April 8. The long-term goal is to come together as a group twice a month, with one event or workshop focused on a substantive topic such college or social justice and another purely social, such as bowling, where mentors and mentees can continue to forge deeper relationships.

Additionally, optional activities will be offered such as “You, Me & the Troops,” a community service event sponsored by Nessah and Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters, which took place on Sunday, May 25. Mentors and mentees were invited to help assemble care packages for American soldiers serving in Iraq.

The current program has openings for two mentees. And next fall, according to Yebri, the Young Iranian Jewish Leadership Program will expand to include a second contingent of two-dozen mentors and mentees, who will also sign on for a full year.

In the meantime, the Young Iranian Jewish Leadership Program gives successful twentysomething and thirtysomething professionals a grass-roots, cost-free opportunity to give back to the Jewish and American communities and to inspire and guide a new generation of Iranian American Jews.

Many of the mentees already expect the program to extend beyond a one-year relationship.

“I’m building a friend for life,” said mentee Lavi.

For those interested in becoming involved, contact Jewish Big Brothers at C323) 761-8675. For more information:

30 Years After,
Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles and
Nessah Synagogue.

Jimmy Carter hatred is alive in Iranian L.A.


The September release of anew documentary that follows Jimmy Carter on tour for his controversial book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” has reignited the longstanding animosity many Iranian Americans feel toward the former U.S. president.

The film, “Man From Plains”, reveals the sharp criticism Carter faced from Jewish groups for comparing Israeli actions toward Palestinians to the oppression of South Africa’s former apartheid regime.

Among Iranians — whether Jews, Muslims, Christians or Zoroastrians, the majority of whom have been living in the United States for nearly 30 years — Carter is still blamed for the fall of the pro-American regime of the late Shah of Iran. Many also hold Carter responsible for the loss of innocent lives and of the vast fortunes they were forced to leave behind after the 1979 overthrow of the Pahlavi government.

“I dislike Carter so much that I hate to have my name ‘Jimmy’ the same as his name,” said Jimmy Delshad, an Iranian Jew and mayor of Beverly Hills.

“Not only did Carter cause problems for Jews and non-Jews who were forced out of Iran, but he changed the whole dynamic of the Middle East by his backing of Khomeini, and that has had a whole ripple effect in the Middle East, which America is still trying to recover from,” Delshad said, referring to the Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, who led the revolutionary, fundamentalist Islamic Republic.

The Carter film is just one in a series of recent events that have rekindled Iranian Americans’ painful memories of Carter. In May, when Carter referred to the current Bush administration as “the worst in history,” many Iranian Americans charged that that title actually belongs to Carter’s administration.

“I think Jimmy Carter’s integrity is questioned,” said Dr. Solomon Meskin, an Iranian Jewish resident of Beverly Hills. “The fact that he doesn’t even acknowledge the kind of things that are going on in the Arab world and Muslim countries, where people have their rights totally ignored, and he instead cites Israel for apartheid, is totally ridiculous.”

Frank Nikbakht, director of the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, said Iranian Americans are particularly angry at Carter and his National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who encouraged the revolution in Iran because they believed an Islamic government in Iran would help encircle the former Soviet Union and decimate Iran’s communists.

“During and following a regime such as the Shah’s, which was so dependent on the U.S. and Britain, nothing like this — the participation of the army and the Iranian secret police (SAVAK) in the handover — could have happened without their approval,” Nikbakht said.

In July 2003, when General Alexander Haig, NATO commander during the Carter Administration, gave a speech at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, he was the first U.S. official to publicly discuss Carter’s complicity in toppling the Shah’s regime. Haig indicated that he resigned his post at NATO after discovering the administration had turned its back on the Shah.

Further indications of Carter’s activities in ousting the Shah were revealed in a 2004 article in “Nameh,” a Persian-language magazine based in Iran that is now defunct. In an interview, Ibrahim Yazdi, a close confidant and former representative of Khomeini to Western nations, described extensive correspondence from Carter in 1978, prior to the revolution.

“These correspondences were going on long before the Shah left Iran, and Khomeini had promised Carter in a letter that he would not disturb the flow of oil from Iran if he came to power,” Yazdi is quoted as saying. “Then Carter, in his last correspondence to Khomeini, said the Shah will be leaving soon and asked Khomeini to return to Iran. Carter believed Iran should have an Islamic government, and I agreed with him.”

In her book “Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution” (Yale University Press 2003), UCLA professor emeritus Nikki Keddie cites William H. Sullivan, U.S. ambassador to Iran, who said Brzezinski “repeatedly assured the Shah that the U.S. backed him fully,” but Carter failed to follow up on those assurances. High-level officials in the State Department believed the revolution was unstoppable.

Keddie writes that Carter could not decide how to stabilize Iran and was against another coup; his failure to move quickly plunged the country into a fundamentalist Islamic regime.

Habib Levy’s “A Comprehensive History of The Jews of Iran” (Mazda Publishers, 1999), describes how the unprecedented tolerance and prosperity Jews and other religious minorities in Iran experienced during the Pahlavi dynasty were lost after the revolution.

Although the majority of Iranian Americans have prospered in the United States since they continue to harbor ill will over their losses. Abraham Berookhim, a resident of Santa Monica, is one of many local Iranian Jews who said he holds Carter personally accountable for his family’s devastation; Iran’s radical Islamic regime confiscated not only his family’s multimillion dollar hotel in Tehran, but also executed his uncle in 1980 as a “Zionist spy.”

“In my opinion, Carter is the worst human being in the world,” Berookhim said. “Carter saw how cruel Khomeini was to the people of Iran who were being killed for no reason, and he did nothing.”

Delshad and other local Iranian Jews also say Carter fostered the atmosphere of hatred and discrimination they encountered after Americans in the U.S. Embassy in Iran were taken hostage by the Iranian regime in 1979.

“It was very hostile time for Persians living here. Everywhere I went, I was picked on,” Delshad said. “I started wearing American flags on my lapel all the time to show that I was an American and to let people who met me [know] not to include me as part of those hostage-takers in Iran”.

Nevertheless, a few Iranian Jewish leaders applaud Carter’s immigration polices.

“Iranian Jews also remember the gentle side of President Carter’s administration, which opened the doors to the migration of a large segment of our community to the United States,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the L.A.-based Iranian American Jewish Federation.

Others point out that that Carter is not the only one responsible for the ongoing situation in Iran. H. David Nahai, an Iranian Jewish attorney and president of Los Angeles’ Department of Water and Power, said “We should also not forget that while the revolution took place during Carter, it became entrenched during Republican administrations.”

‘Live from Tehran’


It’s 8 p.m. on a Wednesday, and I’m at the studios of KIRN — a Persian-language AM radio station on Barham Boulevard near Universal Studios. I’m a guest on a program called “Live From Hollywood.”

The host/producer, Suzi Khatami, is an Iranian woman who, like me, left the old country — long before the revolution — opted for exile and is happy about it. Earlier this evening, she has had on the show an Oscar-nominated Iranian actress who has just finished making (what else?) “The Kite Runner,” followed by an award-winning Iranian documentary filmmaker who has spent five years in very exotic places shooting a movie about the life of the Iranian poet Rumi. The show’s technician is a young Iranian man; he has the television monitor tuned (without sound) to CNN, where Iranian-born reporter Christiane Amanpour is interviewing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

This may be “Live From Hollywood,” but we might as well be in Tehran.

On the air, Suzi and I talk about books and writing and the places where stories originate. She wants to know how I can write about a country I haven’t seen in 30 years — that I left when I was barely a teenager and cannot go back to for security reasons — how I remember so much of the landscape and the people, so many details of our lives there. I fumble with the response — something about the subconscious mind and how it retains so much during one’s formative years — but I’m more interested on what’s happening on CNN than in my own interview. When we go off the air for a commercial break, I ask the technician if he’s followed Ahmadinejad’s travels through the United States. He lights up.

“Of course I have,” he says, shaking his head in dismay. “That weasel conquered Columbia University. He had the students cheering for him, jeering their own president. It was a fiasco; he went in as the bad guy and came out as the victim. Imagine Columbia’s president making the weasel look good.”

The technician is not saying anything I haven’t already heard, but something about the way he talks strikes me as odd. It reminds me of the way Iranians used to talk about their leaders when I lived there — that mixture of resentment and awe (resentment for the way the country was run; awe for the fact that it was run at all, that anyone had managed to overcome the impossible circumstances, the challenges we faced from inside and out) that begrudging, spiteful admiration one feels for a worthy adversary. Even his choice of words, calling Ahmadinejad a weasel — is singularly Iranian.

Back on the air, I watch him throw switches and talk on his cell phone as he follows the images on CNN. He moves briskly, with confidence, I can do all this and much more just give me a chance and I’ll prove myself. He has the demeanor of someone who is accustomed to staying on his toes all the time, who doesn’t take success for granted. He doesn’t have the jaded quality, the I’m tired when I get up in the morning air of so many Iranian men who have lived in the West for a good while.

At the next break, I ask him how long ago he left Iran.

“Four years.”

“Is that all?” Suzi exclaims. “You left only four years ago?”

Suzi’s reaction is understandable: These days, it’s rare to meet an Iranian who hasn’t been living abroad for at least a decade. But for me, it makes perfect sense, defines what I’ve sensed but could not quite put my fingers on: He’s more Iranian, still, than Iranian American. He works quickly, half a dozen tasks at once, because that’s how people work in Iran. He thinks of Ahmadinejad not in general terms, as a lunatic who is a threat to international peace (which is how the rest of us old-timers think of him), but as a lunatic whose actions and decisions have a direct influence over the individual’s daily life. He’s disappointed at the performance of Columbia’s president because he still believes, as we all did back in Iran, that the head of such a mighty institution would easily overpower a working-class former mayor of a Middle Eastern city who goes around with an unshaved beard and whose idea of formal attire is a zip-up windbreaker with dirty cuffs.

“Yup,” the technician nods. “And I go back all the time to visit. But I don’t think I’ll ever live there again. I think I’m going to stay in Los Angeles. I almost like it here.”

At 9 p.m., the show over, we shake hands and say goodbye. I tell him that Los Angeles is an acquired taste; it grows on you till you can’t live anywhere else. I say I envy other Iranians who, as of late, have been able to travel back and forth freely and without apparent threat from the regime’s police and judicial system. I couldn’t do that because of the books I’ve written. He nods pensively. Right when I turn around to leave he says, “They’re still there, you know.”

I don’t understand.

“The places you write about in the book,” he explains, “Sorrento Café, the park on Pahlavi Avenue, the Square of the Pearl Canon — they’re all there, just like you describe them.”

I look at him then and think how strange, that this young man has seen — can still go back and see — all the places that, for me, have long been only images on a distant plain. How my memories, so old they are nearly indistinguishable from my imagination, are actual places — real and concrete and tangible — to people like him. Later, as I drive past Universal Studios to get to the freeway, I think of Sorrento Cafe, and of the character I’ve created and sent to sit on its terrace in Tehran — a man I’ve named “The Opera Singer” because that’s what he wants to do in life, though he can’t sing and has never been to the opera. He sits in the cafe every afternoon, sipping iced coffee and reading government propaganda in yesterday’s newspaper as he waits to be discovered by a person of influence. He stays till dark when the waiters chase him away, watches the sun set over the city before he leaves. Below him the street chokes with traffic, old city buses hiss and sigh and exhale dozens of working-class men every time they come to a stop, dark-eyed young women throw one last glance at the lovers they have met on the sly, away from the eyes of their parents, in the narrow, shady back streets surrounding their school, squeeze into orange taxis and pray they will not be spotted by someone they know.

How strange, I think, to be told that the fairy-tale places I have invented really exist — that they look the same as I’ve described them, are populated by living characters I had thought existed only on my page.


Gina B. Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her new novel, “Caspian Rain,” will be published this fall. Gina Nahai’s column appears monthly in The Journal.

L.A. Persian Jews and Muslims oppose bombing Iran


In recent weeks, calls for possible strikes against Iran by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and other government officials have caused alarm among some local Iranian Jews and Muslims familiar with the Tehran regime.

Iranian American experts on Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic government say an American strike on Iran could backfire against the United States and serve to strengthen elements within the regime. Since 2005, the Center for the Promotion of Democracy and Human Rights (CFPD), an L.A.-based Iranian American nonprofit, has been examining the Iranian government’s actions and educating lawmakers in Washington, D.C. on how to deal with the regime.

“Twenty-five years of research and studying this government teaches us that the Islamic Republic of Iran provokes crisis to remain in power,” said Farhad Mansourian, an Iranian Muslim research fellow at the CFPD. “They are looking forward to someone, one of these days, to do exactly what they want, which is to answer back on that provocation so they can capitalize on it.”

In an interview on the CBS “Face the Nation” on June 10, Lieberman said the United States should consider limited air attacks against camps in Iran where insurgents are being trained to fight American forces in Iraq.

Mansourian believes that rather than attack Iran, the United States needs to develop a comprehensive policy of supporting pro-American elements there to bring about the demise of the regime from within.

“We have been procrastinating on Iran for 28 years, and it’s time to talk about the only option that will deal with this cancer, and that is regime change,” Mansourian said. “The ayatollahs in Iran have a vision of destruction in the world so their ‘mahdi’ or messiah can come.”

This belief, he said, “is not a joke. That is why we must talk about the only viable option that destroys this cancer cell, since anything less than that is cosmetic.”

Members of Iran’s government have been quick to exploit Lieberman’s statements because he is Jewish, as part of their long running anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, Mansourian said.

“Various news reports from the Islamic Republic’s controlled media used words to the effect that the ‘Jew Lieberman’ — as opposed to Joe — a known Zionist U.S. Senator, after meeting in Israel calls for military strikes on Iran … and we know who controls U.S. policy,'” Mansourian said.

Iranian Jewish leaders, including Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the L.A.-based Iranian American Jewish Federation, argue that U.S. officials should put their efforts into supporting democratic movements within Iran, since nearly 90 percent of the country’s population is believed to oppose the regime.

“The people of Iran are so fed up with their regime that they are willing to risk their freedom and even their lives for a chance at a better future,” Kermanian said. “But they need to know that their struggle indeed has a chance, and the civilized world in general and the United States in particular will support them in this struggle.”

Leaders of many local Iranian Jewish groups have mostly stayed out of political matters concerning Iran, out of fear that their statements could be used by the Iranian government as excuses to punish the nearly 20,000 Jews still living in Iran.

Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian Jewish activist and director of the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, said a substantial number of Jews have stayed in Iran because they feel they will face economic and cultural challenges if they leave the country.

“Some successful and resourceful Jews [in Iran] have either a false sense of security or are willing to take risks, hoping to outlast the regime,” said Nikbakkht, “while some have converted to Islam or other ‘safer’ religions such as Christianity to help them survive.”

Nikbakht also said that in recent years Iranian officials have repeatedly threatened to retaliate against the United States by hitting oil fields in Persian Gulf countries, attacking oil tankers passing through the Strait of Hormuz and striking U.S. military forces stationed in the Persian Gulf and throughout the region. Moreover, he said, Iranian officials have indicated that they will attack U.S. interests in the Gulf in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran has made it clear that even an Israeli strike alone will be considered as a U.S. attack, since according to the Iranians, the Israelis would not strike without U.S. approval,” Nikbakht said.

Tensions between the United States and Iran have also intensified within the last year as Iranian officials have refused to halt enrichment of uranium, which many Western experts believe will be used for the creation of nuclear weapons.

While U.S. and Iranian officials met in Iraq in late May for direct talks for the first time in 28 years, U.S. military officials have released new evidence showing that Iran has been aiding Shiite insurgents in Iraq as well as arming members of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Assadollah Morovati, the Iranian Muslim owner of Radio Sedaye Iran (KRSI), a Persian language satellite radio station based in Beverly Hills, said radio listeners in Iran have frequently called his station expressing their desire for the United States to attack Iran.

“Unlike in Iraq, people in Iran know that America does not want to take over their country,” Morovati said. “We have people calling in from Iran everyday saying that America should launch military attacks on Iran so that they can be free from the oppression of the regime — but mind you, this isn’t my opinion.”

On June 4, the California Assembly unanimously passed legislation that would require state pension funds to divest an estimated $24 billion from more than 280 companies doing business with Iran. The bill is slated for a vote in the California State Senate later this summer and is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Earlier this month, Florida became the nation’s first state to pass an Iran divestment bill into law. Legislatures in Texas, Illinois, Michigan and New Jersey are also weighing similar divestment legislation.

Many Iranian Muslim experts have compared the Iranian threat faced by the United States to that of Nazi Germany during World War II.

‘My Life as a American Persian Jew’ by Angelena Melody Khadavi


‘My Life as a American Persian Jew’ by Angelena Melody Khadavi