Tara Bahrampour's article “Persia on the Pacific” is not only another fantastic article from The New Yorker, it's an article that I feel like I really identify with.
I am the son of an American mother and an Iranian father. I grew up not learning Farsi, but being around it, hearing it, living entirely on the periphery of it. I knew the joys of bastani, qormeh sabzi, and Nowruz, but I couldn't speak the language, I had never been to Tehran, I was somehow in a stasis, not quite Persian, but yet, Persian by birth.
I grew up knowing my grandparents, my mother's parents, to whom I am grateful for many things. I am proud (via their side of the family), to be the fourth consecutive (non-linear) generation to attend UC Berkeley. I grew up, going to Christmas gatherings in Northern California and getting to know them.
Meanwhile, a whole side of my family is somehow separated from me. My grandfather, Abbas “Babajoun” Farivar, passed away in Montreal in 1998. My grandmother, Zari “Zarijoun” Farivar, still lives in Tehran, often with her mother, an elusive woman who is only known by the respectful title of Khanoum (Madame).
Babajoun, a kind and gentle man, is someone whom I never was able to understand or communicate very easily with. As I grew older and began to show increased interest in one side of my family that I didn't know, his health declined further. He also was deaf, as I remember him, and understood much of, while being unable to speak much English. This only compounded things.
One of the most powerful memories I have of Babajoun is one time when he and Zarijoun were visiting our home (they only come once every 3-5 years, and their journey takes six months, given that they have five children on three continents). We were all sitting at the table, waiting for Zarijoun, who was continually futzing with something in the kitchen.
Babajoun called to her, with a slight impatient, but understanding tone in his voice: “Zarijoun, biyaa, beshin!” (Zarijoun, come, sit down!)
At the time (and up until the time that I took my first Farsi class at UC Berkeley), my Farsi vocabulary was limited to about ten words and phrases. I knew simple commands, a few words for food, “baleh” (yes), “nah” (no), “salaam” (hello), “khoda hafez” (goodbye) and “mersi” (thank you).
But, the amazing thing is, that those words were among the two that were part of my vocabulary. As far as I can remember, that's the only time that Babajoun said something in Farsi that I actually understood.
When I was in middle school and high school, I asked my parents to pay for me to have Farsi lessons, but they never listened. I don't know if they didn't take me seriously or what, but it never happened.
As I entered Berkeley, the cryptic language of curved lines and dots actually started to make some sense. And with the help of my Persian roommate, and good friend, Sina Mohammadi, I was able to make slow, but assured progress.
Along with learning the language, came a fountain of interest about my culture that I knew little about. I started reading and learning everything I could get my hands on. Sure, I had interest before that, I wrote a paper for my IAS 45 (World History) class on the Iranian Revolution, and dedicated it to Babajoun, whom my Dad told me served as chief of staff for Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq, the CIA-overthrown, democratically-elected Prime Minister of Iran in 1953.
I started reading books about Iran. Literature. History. I purchased a Canadian-made map of Iran from the Rand MacNally store in San Francisco and pinned it to my wall. I devoured Andre Dubus's The House of Sand and Fog, and Elaine Scioliano's Persian Mirrors.
I savored the films of Majid Majidi, hoping that with each film that my Farsi comprehension would increase incrementally. I downloaded the music of Iranian pop star Sandy, and felt a discrete rush when he sang a word that I understood.
A few months ago, like the Parshaw, the boy in the Bahrampour's article, I too, have purchased a Shah-era Iranian flag and have it proudly hung on my wall.
I've experimented actually trying to emulate some of the Persian dishes that I have enjoyed over the years growing up in close proximity to Irangeles and “Vestvood” Blvd. I've joined and become fascinated with Persian blogs like Hossein Derakhshan's hoder.com and Pedram Moallemian's eyeranian.net.
On the one hand, when our Persian class lets out everyday, and the “Persian” kids get together and talk about this or that, easily and fluidly speaking Fargilisi, I am left to laugh and smile, only understanding some of the time. But on the other hand, when Dr. Pirnazar explains an Iranian concept like taarof for the sake of the non-Persians in the room, I feel like I really am Persian, and I feel somewhat like part of an elite because I know this tradition, I've experienced my culture — and this something that cannot be taught in a classroom, it is something that you grow up with.
And I know that when I go to Iran this summer, or whenever, I won't be fully Persian. I won't speak the language very well, and my writing looks like that of an elementary school kid. But am I a “Child of the Revolution”, one who has no memory of the Shah, one that identifies with the Iran of my grandparents, as Parshaw does? Am I Iran's youth, even though I have never glared down a driver in downtown Tehran, touched the fabrics for sale at the bazaar of Isfahan, or explored what used to be our ancestral home at Arak, now in the news for being a nuclear site? Even if I could speak Farsi like any Tehrooni, what would that make me?
I've often said that I would trade my fluent French, and mediocre Italian and Wolof skills to be able to speak Farsi in a heartbeat. And I would. Would that complete this other half that has been undernourished?
What is to become of me?
What is to become of the “Farivar” family, who will likely lose their authentic Iranian identity after my generation? Out of the six grandchildren that were produced by the offspring of Babajoun and Zarijoun, only one, my cousin Babak can speak Farsi. In fact, more of us can speak French (four of six) than Farsi.
I, Cyrus Farivar, who speaks French fluently, a language that neither of his parents speak, the product of a Muslim man and a Christian woman, the grandson of a Presbyterian minister, a descendent of the prophet Mohammad, who is dating a wonderful Jewish girl and have lived in four nations on four continents — am I the ultimate mix of my ancestors, a conglomeration of ideas, religions, philosophies, with blue eyes and dark hair and lots of body hair?