Iranian-Americans in Los Angeles must forge close, deep connections to one another and to Iranians in Iran and around the world so they can be ready to rebuild their home country when the Iranian regime falls, said speakers at a Zócalo/UCLA event at the Fowler Museum at UCLA.
The panel discussion, “What Would a Persian Spring Mean for Los Angeles?” surveyed the state of the diverse Iranian community of some 700,000 people in L.A., home to the largest Iranian community outside of Iran. The panel of Iranian-Americans–including an academic, artist, philanthropist, and lawyer–charted the connections that have already been made.
“The foundation is there. Our community in Los Angeles, in Europe–we all poised for that day,” said Sharon S. Nazarian, an entrepreneur and philanthropist. “We’re all hungry to be able to collaborate.”
Shiva Falsafi, a lawyer and UCLA women’s studies lecturer who moderated the discussion, said that “even though there doesn’t seem to be any imminent sign of a change in Iran,” to discuss it is important because ” it allows us to broaden the debate on Iran; so many outlets in the country are specifically focused on the nuclear crisis.”
Nazarian, who runs her family’s foundation, said she saw signs of greater maturity in the community as Iranian Angelenos turned from the work of rebuilding lives and families to that of building their broader community. In response to an audience question, she said she thought the moment was ripe for Iranian Angelenos to become more involved in local politics. “We have very little voice, especially in the political arena,” Nazarian said. “I think it’s time.”
Amir Soltani, a filmmaker and co-creator of the graphic novel Zahra’s Paradise, said the arts–a field in which Iranians and Iranian-Americans have distinguished themselves–offer “a way of connecting Iranians back together again, connecting us back to America and back to Iran. The potential that offers is really extraordinary.”
M. Rahim Shayegan, director of UCLA’s Iranian Studies program, said that the hunger for course offerings in Persian language and other topics was so strong that it was impossible to satisfy it with existing resources. He described a similar hunger for connection among academics who study Iran and academics in Iran. To a great extent, Iranian-American intellectuals have created a community with civil discourse that could be a model for Iran. “In a small context we are basically creating the kind of democratic discourse that we are trying to have back in the country,” Shayegan said.
Shayegan said there also needs to be practical thinking about how to rebuild Iran, its economy, its energy infrastructure, its water systems, and its education system, and that Iranian-Americans were in a strong position to develop plans because they have the liberty to do so. Nazarian added that when she attends international conference, she has been struck by the camaraderie and collaboration between American and Iranian intellectuals.
The panelists all said that, despite the diversity and differences among Iranians, Iranian pride in the country’s history, particularly in its arts and culture, is strong. And doing more to preserve that heritage could provide a bond to build upon. Shayegan noted that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art had been particularly effective at reflecting the “collective memories” of Iranians in its exhibitions.
“Every nation, while rejuvenating itself, draws upon its past as well,” said Shayegan. “Its past has the impact and the influence. It can help us to navigate through moments of trouble and political turbulence.
One audience member, while posing a question, recalled that she had connected with a friend from Iran whom she hadn’t seen in 30 years–but it was disappointing, because they now had so little in common.
Nazarian, in reply, noted that Iranians in Iran can tell by the accent when they hear an Iranian-American. “Our identity as Iranian-Americans is vastly different and has evolved in a different way than those who stayed,” she said. But there remains goodwill. And those differences may be an advantage when there’s an opening up of the country, “not because we’re the same exact people but because we have a lot to give to each other.”
Soltani, the artist, said the current regime is already in trouble. “I think what’s happening is the implosion of something that’s fraudulent and illegitimate,” he said. “The question is: will we be able to hold this beautiful country and keep it from being shredded to pieces when that happens?”
Watch full video here.
See more photos here.
Read expert opinions on the impact of Iranian-Americans in Los Angeles as well as on the future of Iran here.
*Photos by Aaron Salcido.