Today a good portion of first-generation Iranian Immigrants to the US have reached old age. Comparing the conditions of these elderly Iranian immigrants to their counterparts in Iran leads us to two contradictory conclusions: Loneliness and estrangement have made their adjustment to the old age more difficult, and compared to patriarchal Iran, the individualistic society of America has lowered their social prestige as carriers of old traditions.
By contrast, because they enjoy the same legal rights and social and medical benefits that the American senior citizens are entitled to, the elderly Iranian immigrants can potentially be more creative and active than their counterparts in Iran.
I. Old Age: Iran vs. the US
The border line of old age differs between Iran and the United States. According to “international Data” from the “Bureau of the US Census” for the year 2000, the average life expectancy in Iran is 69.7, and in the United States is 77.1.(1) Of course, we should consider 65 the beginning of old age in the US because this is the legal age for the American citizen to receive SSI. Nevertheless, there are still many men and women who have maintained jobs beyond the age of 65, not only because they don’t want to loose their financial independence but also because they find themselves creative and useful in the work place as before.
In 1970, Maggie Kuhn (1905-95) founded the “Grey Panthers” organization because she had been forced to retire at the age of 65. One of the goals of this organization is to fight against discrimination and prejudice against the elderly.
It is obvious that new medical achievements and progress in public hygiene, especially in gerontology and geriatrics play an important role in keeping the elderly creative and active. But one should not forget the importance of organizing and raising consciousness in this respect.
Being old does not mean sitting home, longing for the good old days and waiting for death. Contrary to the cynical Persian proverb “sar-piri va ma’rekehgiri!” (old age and new tricks!), one can fall in love again, change jobs or professions, return to school and like a living person enjoy life during this period. Therefore, medical progress, economic independence, support of a social network and struggle against age discrimination can be considered as the four pillars of the elderly movement in the United States.
In Iran, social life is still based on extended family and the role of the elderly is defined within this framework. If after the death of a spouse, an elderly father (or ,as happens more often, an old mother) cannot maintain his or her financial independence and social network, they usually have to move in with one of their children, or like nomads move from the house of one son or daughter to the other. This method of dealing with old-age challenges seems fine as long as tensions have not built up between the elderly parents and the younger members of the family. But usually this is not the case and individual differences and generational gaps make the home environment unbearable for both sides, as reflected in jokes related to the relationship between “brides” and “mother-in-laws”.
In the US, the elderly do not have to impose themselves on their children because after retirement they can receive social security benefits and stand on their own two feet. In addition, there are many organizations such as elderly centers which bring the senior citizens together to go hiking, or to the jims, movie theatres and concerts, creating a social network which reduces their dependency on their children.
Of course, the financial and social independence does not mean that the elderly should lose their role as grandparents or break their ties with their children and grandchildren. On the contrary, independence allows them to have quality time with their grandchildren, imbibe their passion for life and in turn share lessons of their own lives.
Ultimately, struggle against ageism is not limited to old people but includes other age groups such as children and the adolescent who might be discriminated against because of their age. Since both children and the elderly have limited physical strength, they are more vulnerable and subject to harassment by the young and middle-aged groups.
Child abuse and elderly harassment are two sides of the same coin, and legal achievements such as legislations against child labor and for paying social security benefits to old people results from the same struggle.
II. Paintings and Writings of the Iranian Elderly in S. California
One activist in struggle against ageism and the organizer of Iranian elderly movement in Southern California is Kaveh Dadashzadeh, who has been teaching painting as a volunteer for a few years at one of the senior centers, called “House of Sultan” in Orange County. Most of the members of this “House” are Iranian elderly men and women from the nearby area who come together to draw pictures, write poems, dance, play chess, eat meals, drink tea, and chat, Monday through Friday from 8 am to 2 pm.
Kaveh has selected samples of the paintings and writings of almost 100 Iranian senior citizens belonging to “House of Sultan” and three other elderly centers in Los Angeles and Orange counties, in order to publish them in an anthology, called The Life Goes on: Paintings and Writings of Iranian Elderly in Southern California.
Since this artist and social activist taught painting to children and teenagers for a few decades in Iran before immigrating to the US and assisted them in presenting their artworks to the public, we should, indeed, consider him as an activist against age discrimination for both the young and the old.
Kaveh Dadashzadeh was born in 1930 in Astara, Iran in a Tourkish speaking family. Because of his love of freedom and independent-Leftist tendency, he was imprisoned during the Shah’s regime both before and after the 1953 CIA-coup in Iran. One can read Kaveh’s memoir of seven years in political prison in his book, Padeshah-e Zendanha (“The King of Prisons”) which was first published in Los Angeles in 2005, and was recently released in its third edition.
After being released from prison due to the pressure from the Intelligence Service, Savak, he could not find a position in public schools and only thanks to his prison friend, the well-known writer, Parviz Shahriari he was finally hired in the prestigious private school, Kharazmi, where he taught the art of painting to children and teens for more than twenty years. During these years, he selected four volumes worth of his students’ works which he entitled Paintings and Writings of Children published by major publishers, Kharazmi, Gutanberg and Donia. He is now planning to publish the fifth volume, called, Half a Century from the Children’s Point of View.
After the establishment of Islamic Republic of Iran, Kaveh taught no more then 3 years before he was fired under the pressure from the new Intelligence Service, Savama.
As a result, in 2000, Kaveh and his beloved wife, late Mahin Shahbazi, known as Zari, were forced to immigrate to the US and resides in Los Angeles.
Now, the majority of Kaveh students are women, because, first, the population of the elderly women is greater than men, and second, women who suffer from gender oppression in Iran, more eagerly break their silence and start to express themselves once they come to the United States and enjoy the support of the law.
Some of these artist and poets are master of their pens and brushes, but the majority are novices. Nevertheless, everyday their teacher tells them that “do not imitate, but feel free to express yourself and dare to experiment”.”
The subject-matters of these artists are of two types:
The first relates to the past and is the product of nostalgia and contemplation about “a revolution usurped by mullahs”. The second relates to the future and is often filled with apprehension regarding death, doubt about divine justice and the mystery of being.
A small portion of their works reflects the present situation of their artists living in Southern California, and this is a shortcoming which needs to be addressed.
By making art and literature, the elderly immigrants not only create beauty but they also, in the process of this creation rekindles their “spirits. Their artworks will be viewed as historical materials by historians who want to write the social history of Iranian-Americans in Southern California.
Even though our traditional Iranian culture is anti-child and patriarchal in which gray-bearded men and gray-hair women play pivotal roles, it also paradoxically holds a negative view toward aging. In this culture, old age usually implies physical and mental disability, decay and death instead of a natural and beautiful period of four seasons of human life. When old, the bard, Rudaki (858-940s) only laments his “lost pearls” of teeth, and the epic poet, Ferdowsi (935-1020) grieves for his fading “lamp of eyes”, and the exile poet, Naderpour (1929-2000) feels depressed, when instead of a young face, finds an “ugly skeleton” in the mirror. Longing for his lost homeland and bygone youth, Naderpour called his last collection of poems zamin va zaman (The Land and the Time) published in Los Angeles. (2) However, the elderly creators of paintings and Writings in Kaveh Dadashzadeh’s book have a different view. By creating these works they are telling themselves and others that: no! Old age is beautiful just as winter is beautiful. Although, as the contemporary poet, Shamlu (1925-2000) writes “The snow does not stop, the snow which falls on our hairs and eyebrows”, one should not give way to grieve. In the last season of life, men and women are still worthy of praise and love.
1. See: www.census.gov
2. For more details see my essay “The Odyssey or the Aeneid?” in I Am Iran alone and Thirty-Five Other Essays (man khod Iran hastam va si-o-panj maqaleh-ye digar) Afra-Pegah publishers, Toronto, 2006
My gratitude to Mohsen Mirhoseini who originally rendered this essay into English. The Persian version of this essay was first published in Shahrvand magazine at: fa.shahrvand.com