It was 8:45 p.m. and the weather was getting cool, even by Los Angeles standards. My friend Niloufar and I stepped out of the restaurant and into that cool air when all of a sudden she said: “Negah Kon Mersedeh!” (Look!) . My eyes followed her hand. In the main strip of Universal City Walk, a procession was passing by. For any Iranian native of Los Angeles, this procession would have been a common sight. For me however, it was a brand new world; a fascinating world.
Was it a fashion show? A funeral ceremony? A Middle-Eastern conference? I tried to guess the thoughts of the security guard standing to my right, staring at the never-ending flow of people, much like I was. Of course, I didn't need to ask those questions. I recognized my fellow Iranians and I knew where they were headed, since Nilou and I, were also about to join them. I was staring because this sight was still overwhelming to my East Coast eyes. It has only been a year since I moved to San Diego from Boston and I am still not used to seeing such large gatherings of Iranians outside of Iran.
Finally, after a few minutes, Niloufar broke my trance by announcing the time. Ebi's concert was scheduled to start at 9:15 (which translates into 10 Persian Standard Time) so we decided to head over to the theater. As we merged with the crowd, I linked arms with Nilou, partly because I was cold but mainly so that I wouldn't fall. My eyes were so busy looking at everyone that I knew I would not be paying attention to my next step. She smiled because she knew what was going on inside my head. EVERYONE is wearing black! EVERYONE is so dressed up! My thoughts were interrupted again as Niloufar found some people she knew. She introduced me and with some doubt they greeted me in Farsi. Once inside the theater, we found our seats but we decided to walk around and continue to feed my eyes.
In the past, my interactions with Iranians had been limited to family and friends. When we lived in Boston, my Iranian experiences consisted of our circle of family friends and the occasional New Year or concert event that we would attend. My trips to Iran were also jolts of culture shock for me, since I was never used to interacting with Iranians outside of my comfort group. Somewhere along the way, subconsciously I had associated all things Iranian with those people that were closest to me. Farsi, was not only my mother tongue but also the language of cherished and private moments. Since my appearance never gave away my nationality, I had become unaccustomed to speaking Farsi to strangers. Given these circumstances, I never realized the impact that the Iranian culture of Los Angeles (commonly referred to as Tehrangeles) would have on my overall perception and understanding of Iranians and Iran. All of that changed once I emerged from my sheltered past and dived into the community, through experiences as simple as attending a concert.
Walking around the theater, by the entrance doors, I was trying to soak in all the different types of Iranians. I felt as though I was in a totally new surrounding. Not only did these Iranians not resemble the ones in Iran, but they were unlike the ones on the East Coast as well. I leaned against the wall and watched a man in a fake fur jacket walk by with a woman dressed like Mariah Carey or Jennifer Lopez at some award show on his arm. I saw a woman in her fifties wearing an all sequins top with a big chiffon skirt like the outfits from the Latin dance competitions. Once inside the ladies room, I couldn't help but smile. No other concert could gather the amount of gold, glitter, shimmer, lipstick and fake blond hair like the bathroom that I was in. In the mirror, I looked at my gray pants, white top, black coat and boots and told Niloufar that I felt under-dressed. She told me not to worry. “Iranians wear high heels and suits even out to picnics”. We laughed and left the glamorous ladies and started to walk back.
Slowly, my focus shifted to the men walking around us. They were just as fashion conscious as their female counterparts, if not more. There were the teenage boys with their tight sweaters and creative mustache and beard designs. Then, there were the muscle men, with their shirts halfway unbuttoned, big tattoos, and super-slick geled hair. Not to mention, the high rollers or label worshipers wearing designer suits, decorated with Gucci belts and Armani sunglasses, mingling in the crowds.
Looking past my initial shock, I realized that part of me was pleased to see that so many of my hamvatans are so well groomed. The other part of me however was searching to see what type of message these people are trying to send about themselves. What was the overall statement? Was it wealth? Physical beauty? Good taste? One thing I was certain about was that a sense of competitiveness was in the air. Some people kind of eyed each other to see how they measured up, while others were clearly just begging for attention. It saddened me to think that as a community we would place such major importance on our external image. Especially, when we have so much to offer in so many different fields and areas. Our culture, history, customs, celebrations and unusually high rate of educated professionals and scholars seem much more impressive and worthy of attention than the types of cars we drive or our zip codes. However, looking around, it became apparent that my view was only one ingredient in a cocktail of culture and influence.
As we took our seats, the lights dimmed, and we heard clapping and screams signaling the beginning of the show. A few minutes into the concert, the spotlights shot off the stage and scanned over the large crowd. That's when I felt a change in the air. The mood had changed from a competitive one to a feeling of unified bliss. Under the darkness of that theater, the external barriers fell and we became one. Everyone was there because they shared the same pleasure. Not only because of the person performing but also because listening to music performed in their native tongue is incomparable to anything else. Maybe, just maybe, they get the same chills as I do when I am standing among thousands of other Iranians. For some, I know it is the closest they can ever come to actually being in Iran, while for others like myself, it is like being in a different Iran altogether.
Halfway through the concert, my attention started to shift from the stage to the two couples sitting in the row in front of us. The men fit my previous “muscle man” description to perfection and the girls matched their dates extremely well. They were hard to ignore since they would get up every five minutes to buy popcorn, pretzels, beer, nachos, and anything else they could carry back to their seats. I noticed that as the alcohol was getting to their heads, their behavior was changing dramatically. The girls, in particular, were losing total control. One of them even screamed at the stage that she was very drunk. As the evening progressed, so did the inappropriateness of the couples' behavior. I could not believe my eyes! I don't know what was more shocking. The manner in which these people were acting, or the fact that they were Iranians acting in this way. I know that had this situation taken place in an American concert, I would still have considered it inappropriate but I would not have been so taken back by it.
I realize I was brought up expecting more from Iranians than other groups. Therefore I hold much higher standards for things related to my own community. These four people were acting against every code of social conduct drilled into my head of 24 years, and it was a real wake-up call. The message? Iranians come in as many variations as the countries that host them. Accordingly, there will be variations in what we each feel is and is not “appropriate behavior”. The challenge for me was not only recognizing where I personally stood, but also understanding the opposing views.
In the case of the couples, they were probably just releasing stress and feeling “free” even if it cost them their self-respect. But what about the person giving the performance? At one point Ebi went into detail describing the contents of his drink (vodka and 7-Up), and how good it tasted. He also made no attempt to hide the affect that it was having on him. As an artist, is he a representative of his audience / community (a significant portion of which is celebrating Ramadan)? If so, does he hold a responsibility towards them? Should he be bound to a higher level of morality, at least in public? Or should we just ignore his behavior, if we find it offensive to begin with, and judge him only by his art? These questions drifted in and out of my mind for days following the concert.
For the rest of that night, however, my attention was on one thing I found extremely amusing. Somewhere by one of the front side sections near the stage, was a man in black pants and a white shirt dancing away. He was out of his seat and in the isle area with the security guards keeping a close eye on him. None of that could matter to him. He was in his own world. He twisted and shook his body as though it was the music that was flowing in his veins rather than blood. He didn't care how he looked or who might be watching him. Although everyone in that theater was mesmerized by Ebi's beautiful voice and his total charm on stage, this man felt an even stronger connection. He danced from the inner depths of his soul and it was beautiful to watch. Seeing him dance, put everything in perspective for me and I realized why I was there and why I would go back again and again.