Iran, We May Be Enemies, But Can We Have a Love Story?

Let me love you, Iran, and I promise to bring the best of my Ashkenazi heritage to the table-minus the gefilte fish.
May 23, 2024
Vepar5/Getty Images

UCLA has been highly visible in the news recently because of the unhinged escalation of protests and rampant antisemitism on its campus. Yet for some reason, I felt an uncanny pull to visit my undergraduate alma mater to see what has become of the place where I spent some of the best years of my life.

As I drove past my old sorority house on Hilgard hoping to find that needle in a haystack parking spot, I looked across the street and saw the UCLA Faculty Center, and that is where my memories flooded back to me in a wave of nostalgia and longing for a time that once was, before the real world changed my future reality. It was simple. When I was 19, I needed to find a campus job to pay for my massive phone bills incurred due to having an Israeli soldier as a boyfriend and I was willing to work day and night for minimum wage to hear him woo me in Hebrew for five minutes a day.

However, as they say in the old country, when man plans, God laughs. Not only did I manage to land a job, but I also walked into a living and breathing fully functional Farsi-speaking ecosystem. Everyone from my co-workers to my bosses was Iranian, and I wasn’t going to waste this unexpected opportunity doing useless things like homework or studying on my off-peak hours. I was going to learn to read and write Farsi. My co-workers Mina and Pamela began to teach me, and my bosses Ali and Hamid began to embrace the novelty of the dokhtare sefid (white girl) scribbling the Persian alphabet in her notebook underneath the cash register after the mad lunch rush of professors. By the following semester, I was enrolled in Professor Hagigi’s Farsi class ready to forge the path to a new Middle East with youthful optimism and extreme naivete.

My unusually pale skin, blonde hair and awkward out of place excitement had my classmates wondering if I had wandered into the wrong classroom as their gorgeous Mediterranean faces stared at me like I was an ugly American trying to order tacos in failed and pitiful Spanish at Baja Fresh. I sat down and that is when our beloved professor entered and began by asking everyone “Kojayee hastid?” or “Where are you from?” Most of the answers were predictable—Tehran, Isfahan, and even Hamedan where some snickers were heard given the region’s reputation for being overly cheap to the point of obscenity. When it was my turn, I answered with composure and keen attention to authenticity of accent, “Man lehstani hastam,” or “I’m Polish.” I think that was a first for Professor Khanoome Hagigi but what followed was a year of a virtual treasure trove of learning that, along with the privilege of learning with Dr. David Myers and the late Dr. David Ellenson, defined the greatness of my undergraduate experience.

So much of our learned experiences are limited by forces beyond our control. While I dreamed of visiting the villages of Isfahan where the most intricate dast baf (handwoven carpets) are made and tasting kababe khoonegi (homemade kabob) from a street vendor in the bustling bazars of Tehran, I knew that my wings would be clipped by the fact that I am a Jewish woman and a brazen one at that. There are many reasons why the Iranian Revolution happened when we consider it through the obligatory historical lens. However, none was acceptable to me as a 19-year-old who wasn’t used to hearing the word “No” for any goal I had set my heart on and especially for some reason as miniscule as my gender.

I read recently that the Mullahs in Iran are doubling down on the harsh enforcement of the hijab. This further escalation of Islamic fundamentalism is likely an effort to match the tenor of their regional posturing having foolishly chosen to attack Israel and consequently suffer a humiliating defeat. My heart sank first and foremost for the women like the late Mahsa Amini whose bodies have defined the battleground of Islamic fundamentalism for the past 45 years. On a much less important and selfish note, this served as yet another reminder of how my life’s aspirations are determined by forces out of my personal control and that fills me with resentment toward how the games played by nations often define our individual paths.

One of my favorite images of pre-revolutionary Iran is that of the late Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, gleefully jumping over a fire to celebrate Chanarshanbe Suri, officially ending the year and ushering in Nowruz, or the Persian New Year. How I wish I could partake in the authenticity of this ceremony in Iran, joining hands with Iran’s Muslim, Bahai, Zoroastrian, Christian and of course Jewish communities.

Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, jumping over the fire on Chanarshanbe Suri (Aidepikiwnirotide/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

Let me love you, Iran, and I promise to bring the best of my Ashkenazi heritage to the table-minus the gefilte fish.

Lisa Ansell is the Associate Director of the USC Casden Institute and Lecturer of Hebrew Language at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Los Angeles

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