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Learning to love L.A.
Could this be the secret that attracted Iranians to this city?



November 14, 2006 

Most Iranians who live outside of California, view LA as a whole different planet, one that they’d rather stay away from. Even some Californians consider the city a last choice for residence. With its overwhelming number of Iranian emigrants, a visitor can expect a few encounters with them and they are not always pleasant. After all, we tend to take our good as well as our bad wherever we go, and it’s too bad that pleasant memories are easily forgotten while a bad experience tends to linger for some time.

Before becoming a California resident, my experience of LA was that of any tourist’s. It began with a trip to Disney Land and a tour of the Universal Studios, perhaps a walk in front of the Chinese Theater, and finally window-shopping on the magnificent Rodeo Drive while dreaming of winning the lotto to actually shop in some of those stores. To me, LA meant limited human contact and few acquaintances. Ironically, most of our friends who happened to live in and around LA shared some of our negative sentiments.

“We don’t go out much,” a distant relative said. “The Iranians who came after the revolution are a whole different crowd.”

“What do you mean?”

“They’ve brought their money and their attitudes with them. The competition – cheshm-o-hamcheshmi – is ridiculous. They all carry Chanel handbags and insist on wearing mink coats in January, even when it’s in the seventies. They overdo their parties and even their sofreh aghd doesn’t look like it’s supposed to!”

She sure had plenty to say and deep down, I had to admit that she was voicing some of my own secret thoughts. One friend went as far as saying, “If the wind should blow my hat to Los Angeles, I wouldn’t go there to retrieve it!”

Years later, as UCLA parents, my husband and I made frequent trips to LA to see our daughter. Unfortunately, on each visit, something unpleasant happened and as a result, we concluded that we’d never want to live there. The flashy lifestyle, fashion craze, and the fact that suddenly every single person claimed to be related to the royal family, became a redundant topic. “How can I be sorry for someone who still lives in luxury?” my best friend said. “To think of those who lost everything, and those who’d go to any length just to be here, makes it hard to feel bad for someone’s confiscated antiques or the maids they now can’t afford.”

I tried to be more compassionate. After all, I couldn’t even begin to imagine what some of these people had been through. However, most Americans weren’t so sympathetic and soon I, too, became the target of anti Iranian insults. The offense could be a comment about Iranians in general, or a personal slur. I tried to keep my sense of humor, for instance, when a bike rider called me “Stupid Iranian,” I asked my husband, “So my looks told him I was Iranian, but how did he know I was stupid?”

After relocating to Southern California, I noticed that some of the LA attitude repelled even me: A shopkeeper’s haggle, the loud group in a Persian restaurant, and the many Mercedes with the open sunroof and blasting Googoosh or Ebee. A liberal, I realized that people’s lifestyle was their business, but I also knew my choice not to witness such behavior. Add the traffic, the smog, and all the other big city problems to that and I only saw LA once a year as I drove through on my way to Santa Barbara.

Last week, I had to go to LA in order to attend my daughter’s big art show, and decided to visit an old friend prior to that. When I contacted my friend, she asked me to join her family for lunch, an invitation, which I gladly accepted. I won’t go through the details of how much trouble she had gone to, or how she renewed my faith in Persian hospitality. Let’s just say I can’t remember the last time someone arranged fruits in a plate for me, or ran for a glass of water as soon as I reached for my medicine.

As more children and grandchildren arrived, my friend’s mother gifted each one with her warm embrace, and I stood back to enjoy the splendor of three generation. That sense of euphoria had nothing to do with the delicious food or the magnificent view of Los Angeles below. I had gone back four decades and every passing minute brought back another fragment of a lost life. As if by magic, I was a teenager again surrounded by aunts, uncles, and cousins who asked about my life and I was finally home.

We told anecdotes, reviewed old memories, and enjoyed each other’s company. No one bothered with talks of politics, economy, or wars. We spoke of the value of old friendships. We recited bits of poetry, shared the laughter, and overlooking the wrinkles, complimented each other and let words close the gap of the past decades.

On the drive back, I knew my sentiments toward the city of angels had taken a drastic turn. Could this be the secret that attracted Iranians to this city? Do they go there simply to be among familiar faces, see their own reflections in kinder eyes, and find the life that they have lost? For the first time, I looked at Los Angeles in a different light and saw the other side of it; indeed, I had found beauty in a city that tries so hard to be ugly.

The next day, I called a friend in Chicago and told her about this experience. “Maybe what people say is pure envy,” I said. “It’s so easy to be jealous of the little Tehran those Iranians have created for themselves, but let me ask you, what’s wrong with that?”

She said that I now sounded like “one of them,” and that I had been “Californialized!”

“No,” I argued. “I still see the flaws, I still hate the traffic, the smog, and the glitter. But I also see that the majority of Iranians in LA are the same as you and me, with the exception that they are united, less lonely, and there’s a certain warmth among them.”

Trying to talk some sense into me, she said, “You only had one good experience.”

“True, but isn’t life itself just one experience?”

“Stop being so philosophical. Your friends are nice and humble. Big deal! It’s not like they’re one of those big-shot Iranians living in a Beverly Hills mansion!”

I laughed out loud. “Oh, but they are!” Comment

Zohreh Khazai Ghahremani gave up dentistry to be a full-time writer. She lives in San Diego, California. Her latest book is "Sharik-e Gham" (see excerpt). Visit her site

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