Oh, to be young and stupid again

I was 21 years old, a first-year law student at USC, when I walked by a trailer parked on an empty lot off McCarthy Way on the downtown campus. It was late afternoon, and I was on my way home; I only noticed the trailer because it was such an anomaly among the red brick buildings surrounding it. The door was open, and I could hear voices inside, and I saw a young man with dark skin and a sparse, reddish beard standing amid a mess of paper on the floor.

“Come on in,” he said, like the big, bad wolf in the story, and I did.

There was a maroon yard-sale couch, a creaky desk chair with no desk, a few stacks of books, a tall man wearing a brown-leather jacket, black socks and no shoes. He introduced himself as “the director,” and the young man, Michael, as “the program specialist.” They welcomed me to the “program offices,” offered to answer my questions, handed me a one-page application, and I still had no idea where I was, what “program” they were talking about or why “the director” had no shoes.

It turned out that he was James Ragan, a noted poet who had recently taken over the then-fledgling Masters of Professional Writing Program at USC. In retrospect, that just about explained everything, including the modesty of the premises; I promise you the law school deans all had desks and wore shoes at the office. Then again, I had met many a lawyer and dean and professor in my life; I’d never met a poet. Nor had I imagined there were schools that trained people to become writers, or that anyone in his right mind would actually decide he was going to be one. All the writers I’d ever heard of had either committed suicide or stabbed or shot someone. They were depressives and alcoholics; they died young in car accidents or were put in jail and tortured by their governments and then thrown out of helicopters into marshlands.

You have to remember this was before every university and community college and online school discovered that there are more writers in the world than readers, and that every one of those writers can use some instruction, and can create what a literary-minded friend of mine calls “a booklike object,” and that some of those booklike objects go on to become classics or mega-sellers or, at the very least, a safe hobby. And it was before most nice Iranian-Jewish girls like me wanted to grow up to have a profession, as well as a family. And, yes, I was young and stupid and didn’t know just what a risk I was taking, but a few weeks after I made my great discovery, I dropped out of law school and signed up at the trailer.

The jury’s still out on whether this was a good idea in the long run, but I’m forever grateful to James Ragan for encouraging me to write, and grateful to the stars for putting him on my path.

I was reminded of this a couple of Sundays ago, when I went to Orange County for the Iranian-American Women’s Leadership Conference — 680 professional women, 40 speakers, every last one of them impressive and accomplished in her field. It wasn’t the first time I’d been to an event like this, but I found myself having an especially good time and feeling unusually inspired. Late in the day, I went to thank Maryam Khosravani, the brain and the force behind the conference, for inviting me. I heard myself say that the gathering had been a revelation to me, which was true, though it would take a while longer for me to figure out why, and some more time after that to admit it to myself: These women were all Iranian.

The last time I was surrounded by nearly 700 Iranian professional women was — I’ve been raking my mind about this for over a week — never. I’ve known for a long time that there are thousands of brilliant, successful Iranians in this county, but it never occurred to me that so many of them could be women. I’m talking about senior executive positions at the World Bank and Boeing and Texas Instruments and Genentech; about directorships at major research medical centers and universities. It’s not as if any of these people had been hiding herself all these years; it’s more like I had taken an idea with me out of Iran, when I left in 1973, and carried it around for the next 38 years till I happened to go to the Hilton in Costa Mesa. In between, I’ve had a vague idea that leaving Iran has been the best thing that could have happened to Iranian women, but that was mostly because of rights issues and family traditions. And I’ve witnessed the endless hyperbole and unrestrained self-promotion generated by a few women, but, as is often the case, the ones who scream loudest have the least to boast of.

For me, the existence of so many accomplished Iranian women puts the lie to the image so many Angelenos have of Iranian women as being either oppressed and unhappy, or bored, infantile and overly comfortable. It was proof that while some of us might have stayed in a high-school frame of mind well into our 30s and 40s, struggling to be liked and accepted by the “cool” girls or to date and marry the rich boys, and while many of us expect too little of ourselves and our daughters, many more have gone on to scale great heights.

I’m so glad I had a chance to look through this other door, and that the people inside invited me in. Right before I left, I went up to Parisa Khosravi, senior vice president of international news gathering for CNN Worldwide, and told her that in my youth, I had dreamt of becoming a reporter, only I had no idea that an Iranian girl like me could grow up to become a woman like her. I only hope that our children’s generation has a better eye for all the open doors and all the magical figures that reside beyond them.

Roger Cohen’s Dialogue with the Iran Jewish Community

For video footage of the dialogue, click here.

There was no clean knockout when New York Times columnist Roger Cohen faced off against some 400 members of the local Iranian Jewish and Bahai communities last week, but spectators were treated to some vigorous rhetorical sparring and nimble footwork.

Last month, Cohen, a British-born Jewish journalist, returned from a reportorial visit to Iran and wrote a column for the Times headlined “What Iran’s Jews Say.”

In the city of Esfahan, in central Iran, Cohen talked to a handful of Jews, who are among the 25,000 remaining in Iran out of a one-time community of 100,000. Cohen reported that the Jews were “living, working and worshipping in relative tranquility.”

Despite the Holocaust denials and rants by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about wiping Israel off the map, “as a Jew, I have seldom been treated with such consistent warmth as in Iran,” Cohen wrote.

To some 30,000 Iranian Jews living in Los Angeles who had uprooted themselves from their ancient homeland, Cohen’s evaluation was dangerously naïve at best and a mockery of their own experiences at worst.

They inundated Cohen and the New York Times with letters and e-mails, and the columnist agreed to fly to Los Angeles to address his critics at Sinai Temple, which has a large proportion of Iranian congregants.

What could have been a highly emotional face-off went well, thanks largely to the audience’s restraint during Cohen’s lengthy presentation and Rabbi David Wolpe’s insistence on decorum during the more emotional question-and-answer period.

Cohen started by expanding on the main points of his earlier column:

* Labeling Iran a totalitarian regime ready to destroy Israel and then the West’s infidels is a “grotesque caricature.”
* Iranians are a proud people, but pay little attention to the regime’s propaganda and incitements. To compare the situation in Iran to an impending holocaust “dishonors the memory of six million victims.”
* Iran’s leadership is mainly pragmatic and primarily concerned with assuring its own survival.
* Iran is the most democratic state in the Middle East, outside Israel, and is against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
* An attack on Iran by Israel or the United States would be a global disaster. “Force is the unthinkable option,” Cohen said, and mutually respectful negotiations are the only answer.
* Although he counts himself as “a strong supporter of Israel,” Cohen believes that Israel “overplayed its hand in Lebanon and Gaza” and that Hamas and Hizbollah are “established political forces,” that cannot be eliminated by military means.

The audience politely applauded Cohen at the end of the talk, but when Wolpe opened the dialogue, some sparks – leavened by humor – were ignited.

Wolpe to Cohen: “You draw a distinction between the Iranian people and their rulers, but Iran has a long history of anti-Semitism…the Iranian government has republished the notorious anti-Semitic forgery ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’ and your New York Times column ran in the Teheran Post.

Cohen: “Then they stole my column.”

Wolpe: “That shows that it was worth stealing.”

Finally, it was the audience’s turn to confront Cohen directly, and the questions ranged from thoughtful to bitter.

“Were you paid by the Iranian government for your trip?” asked one audience member. “No,” said Cohen, though he paid an Iranian “agency” $150 a day for the services of a translator, who acknowledged that he would have to file a report on Cohen’s doings with the authorities.

Wolpe interjected that Cohen had paid for his own trip to speak at Sinai Temple.

Several questioners wondered how Cohen could take the answers of fearful Iranian Jews at face value, especially with a government translator at his side.

Cohen responded that he recognized the possibility of self-censorship by those he talked to, “but that doesn’t mean that nothing they said is of any value.”

Some of the sharpest questions came from the Bahai community, seven of whose leaders in Iran were recently imprisoned as alleged Israeli spies.

Cohen said he had not spoken to the Bahais, but was aware of their plight.

Despite his stout defense, it became obvious that Cohen was affected by the direct or implied criticism of his views by a knowledgeable audience.

“I feel your anger, indignation and pain,” he said. “I think that at some level you retain a love of country [Iran]. But I hope you will give some thought to what I have said.”

A sampling of audience reactions after the talk revealed little indication that Cohen’s request was acceptable.

“He didn’t understand the geopolitical situation, and he doesn’t know what he is talking about,” commented Jasmin Niku, a 22-year old law student.

Two veteran community leaders, who rarely see eye-to-eye but have excellent contacts inside Iran, also expressed strong reservations.

“In Iran, Jews are pawns of the regime, which will go to great lengths to persuade outsiders, like Cohen, who know little about the history of the Jewish community, that everything is just fine,” said George Haroonian.

Sam Kermanian was particularly disappointed, after spending two hours one-on-one with Cohen earlier in the day, trying to explain the real situation in Iran.

Kermanian, who is active in the Center for the Promotion of Democracy, based in Iran, said that the Teheran government is adamantly anti-American, whatever the sentiments of its people.

“If Cohen has come to a different conclusion, after talking to four or five Jews through an interpreter,” added Kermanian, “then he has been deceived.”

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Roger Cohen speaks with Iranian Jews at Sinai Temple
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