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A Flamenco lesson for Michael Howard
Persian Jew condemns British Conservative leader's policies on refugees

Peyvand Khorsandi
April 20, 2005

Last week, Federico Mazandarani phoned up Conservative Party leader Michael Howard - who hopes to oust Blair’s Labour government from power at the UK's general election on 5 May - on a radio talk show.

"I would like to say to Mr Howard that, like his grandfather, I am a Jew who is a refugee in this country. But unlike Mr Howard, I have dark skin and dark hair. And every time Mr Howard opens his mouth and talks about foreigners who are invading this country in the way that he does, life for me and people like me who are working extremely hard... he is making life impossible for us, because he is pandering to the xenophobic readers of the Daily Mail, or to the hunting lobby or the shire county places where hardly any foreigners live," he said. UK newspaper The Independent splashed these words across its front page on Saturday (16 April) against a silhouette of Howard's head with the title: "The day Michael Howard met his match".

Mazandarani, a 51-year-old Jewish resident of London who arrived from Iran in 1972, was objecting to the Conservative Party's focus on immigration in its election campaign. "I am sick and tired of politicians inflating this issue," Mazandarani told the Independent. "If I had any power I would throw him out of the faith."

When I speak to him a few days later he is still angry:

"What right has Howard to deny anyone the right to emigrate here? Jews have been emigrating for thousands of years - it's the most natural thing for a Jew to do. If it's good for Jews, it's good for everybody else.

"Howard shouldn't call himself a Jew. He should call himself a born-again Christian. Jews by their very nature are emigrants. A Jew is a wanderer, a gypsy. What would have happened to Jews in history if the world was run by people like him?

"I am both a Persian and from Jewish stock. Howard doesn't realise that the majority of Jews don't look or talk like him."

Mazandarani is a tango instructor and holds lessons for people "aged 18 to 80" across London every night. He left his job as a mathematics teacher in 1996 to pursue a career as a flamenco dancer. There was no way he could have done this, he insists, with the Persian name which he has long-since jettisoned. Now a tango expert, he says dancers visit him from Argentina to hone their skills, and though surprised that he does not speak Spanish, they are accepting.

Referring to his students, he says: "You know who has the most problems? Iranians. As soon as they realise I am Iranian, I don't see them again." When people are surprised that he is not from a Latin country, he tells them he is from "the birthplace of flamenco."

"According to Ferdowsi," he explains, "flamenco started under the Jamsheed regime of 1,500 years ago when the Persian emperor realised that his people did not have enough money to pay professional musicians and entertainers at festival times. So he asked his son-in-law, who was king of Kashmir or somewhere in India, to send entertainers, and he did - 12,000 of them came to Persia. Then they became travellers and gypsies. The roots of flamenco were a mystery until a linguist who was writing his PhD on it discovered them."

As I absorb this, he adds: "I didn't know poker was a Persian invention. One of the top players in the world told me - he was my friend."

Back to the interview, and I ask if he believes in a sense of active citizenship:

"Politics," he says, "is the artery through which our lives flow. You cannot deny that everything in your everyday life has political implications. If you have a choice between buying an orange from Israel and buying an orange from the Caribbean, you are likely to buy Israeli because it's cheaper. You are then helping the state of Israel as opposed to a third world country where people are starving. The Israeli orange is subsidized but the third world country’s government is probably too bankrupt to subsidize."


"Israel is a construct, manufactured entirely by Western powers who want to spread influence all over the Middle East." Many would beg to differ.

"I don't want to support a cruel regime," he continues. "I have no love for Islam but I have nothing against Palestinians and Arabs."

He has not been back to Iran because he does not want to see "morons" who oppress women "destroying the place. Give woman a chance and she'll get a PhD," he says.

I ask if the racism he says he encounters might be due to his accent:

"I don't need to open my mouth to suffer racism: they take a look at me and say ‘he's a foreigner here’, and they take liberties. I don't need to tell anybody about any religion I might have, or about my politics. My physical appearance attracts racism. I am critical of any party that puts issues of race and immigration at the top of an election agenda. In 1964 the Conservatives [in Birmingham] distributed leaflets saying 'If you want a nigger as a neighbour vote Liberal or Labour.' That could come back again."

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