By Soraya Sepahpour-Ulrich
Whether you look at Los Angeles as a melting pot or a lumpy stew, the distinctiveness of its ethnic makeup cannot be rivaled. LA draws people from across the world, be it to escape political persecution or in search of a better life, the pot accommodates them, making LA all the more unique. Attracted to the magic brew of this pot and in the heart of Westwood, a cultural bridge has been built between East and West, eliminating hostilities created by US-Iran governments, and harmony is all that is palpable between the residents of this community. Overshadowed by such landmarks as Beverly Hills, Brentwood, and the renowned UCLA, the once ordinary Westwood Boulevard has lent a generous portion of itself to a community of Iranians living in exile. These Iranians have wasted no time in transforming a few blocks of Westwood Boulevard to a replica of Iran and take delight in calling their new surroundings “Irangeles.”
Given that the majority of the shops are run by Iranians and the awnings and shop windows are covered in both Farsi and English script, the name seems appropriate. In the Irangeles block it’s hard to find stores that do not have a bilingual sign, although some shops have found it unnecessary to advertise in Farsi. As I venture down the wide Boulevard, I find my nostrils flare involuntarily in response to the aroma of kebab rising above that of car exhausts. In a Herculian effort to escape its temptation, I enter Sherkat-e Ketab (Ketab Book Store). Not only does it have a large selection of books, but it offers knick knacks, handicrafts, miniatures, and among other things, givehs – a kind of footwear worn by peasants.
It is amazing that the affluent Iranian should long for the comforts of the underprivileged that they previously shunned and mocked. Are these a sinister reminder that it was their own greed and oppression of the poor that was the root cause of the revolution which sent them all to exile? Or are these objects for sale to attract the non-Iranians? Perhaps both.
Zohreh, the attractive store manager in her thirties talks to me about her clients. She tells me that business is not too bad, a lot of Iranians buy “stuff” because they miss Iran; the Iranians buy the more expensive items, pointing to backgammon boards that are works of art, and one of the Iranian’s favorite pastimes. Non-Iranians who have Iranian “partners,” she tells, also come in to buy little knick-knacks for the house, or to the most popular item in the store: “How to Learn to Speak Farsi.”
Zohreh also informs me that movie producers often borrow props for movies from her store, the last one being for an episode from the T.V. series “Jag” which supposedly takes place in Iran.
I am reluctant to leave the store with all the objects that take me to another land, and another time, for there are historical replicas too. But I walk out towards another store that has magnificent carpets on window display, again ignoring the kebob aroma in the air. The Persian Rug Center proudly boasts of its inventory of genuine Qom, Kashan, Esfahan, and Yazd carpets. Every carpet is a work of art, a story. To own a Persian carpet is to own a legacy, something we truly appreciate in the West. And of course, in the heart of Irangeles, one can be sure that the carpets are genuine and from Iran.
I decide to cross the boulevard – Iranian style. It is fascinating to watch “Iran-gelinos” cross the street. They challenge each car, every driver, to a duel of wills. Locking their stares they will the drivers to stop right in the middle of the road, while slowly, dangerously approaching the car, crossing the wide boulevard, adamantly refusing to use the crosswalk. After all, this is Irangeles and this is how pedestrians cross the road. As if by some magic, they have even imposed their cultural traditions on all vehicles passing through – regardless of their point of origin. They lock stares, and it is so readily accepted that even cops stay off this beat.
Having braved my way through the stream of screeching cars, I walk into Ghanari (Canary House). The proprietor tells me that it is a favorite spot on weekends for people to visit after a late night at the night clubs and discos. He explains that he serves Kalepache, a stew made from sheep’s head, eyes, and hooves (a sure cure for hangovers – which explains the spot’s popularity among the night crowd). In Iran, this was traditionally served for breakfast, and only eaten by laborers. I asked some Iranians what they liked about it, making a face at the sheep looking back at them – me. They said they were nostalgic for anything that reminded them of home, even amaleh’s (laborer) food; plus anywhere quiet where they can discuss politics, something they could never do in Iran.
Iranians love to talk about politics and what is happening in Iran. Everyone is opinionated, they are all men, and they are all eager to express their opinion. They all start speaking at once, finally they calm down. Ali and Mahmoud speak to me of the hopes and dreams of those shared by most Iranians – of going back to Iran. Some think that soon Bush will overthrow the current Islamic regime and bring back the Shah, others are vehemently opposed to it and want the Iranians to decide their own future. Both sides agree that America should stop supporting the terrorist organization – Mojahedeen Khalgh (MEK), or at least, to stop the fund-raising activities of the MEK and take away their propaganda machine. Iranians have discovered political freedom and political discourse.
It is a part of their life in Irangeles and they like to draw everyone into it. I glance at my watch and make a hasty excuse.
I can’t resist an authentic Iranian ice cream, Akbar Mashti. The old, wooden chairs outside are inviting, although there is nothing fancy about them, much like the clumsy sign on the shop window, projecting confidence that the goods would draw in the crowd. I sat next to a young couple who were so absorbed in each other that they were totally unaware of their surroundings. Their dark hair and olive skin quite unremarkable in this place, they looked like any other college kids, and, undoubtedly, they would be just as comfortable having Baskin-Robbins. Only today, they are having Iranian ice cream, with Iranian music blaring in the background. Two girls dressed in jeans and light sweaters, thongs and painted toes, chat incessantly, glancing occasionally at a cell phone on the table, as if they can will it to ring. They speak a mixture of Farsi and English, when one of the girls stops chatting and screams in delight “I love this song” upon hearing a favorite song by a popular Iranian singer. Odd that she should express her excitement in English in response to a Farsi song. A couple of old men look on with envy, while sipping their hot chai, wondering where their youth went or perhaps reminiscing about home. Maybe they are envious that they cannot understand everything that is being said by the two young girls, for they have not learned to speak English.
I walk past a Starbucks and notice a young guy sitting at a table working on his laptop. On another table there is a backgammon game in progress, in an atmosphere of heated anticipation, the two young players are oblivious to the young girls standing next to them impatiently tapping their feet. Middle-aged bleached blond women sipping coffee and showing off their be-jeweled hands, their language a mixture of Farsi and English with an unmistakable Iranian accent appeared to be gossiping, or so it seems. It is the same Starbucks one sees everywhere, yet is seems louder, livelier, mostly students, for it is near UCLA, but there is something different about it. Was it all the lumps in the stew trying to mix? Maybe it is my imagination.
I leave the coffee shop and follow the scent of the Kebab all the way to Shamshiri; the hallmark of Irangeles. Few people who have heard of Persian food (in L.A.), fail to associate it with Shamshiri. The Kebobs are excellent and the portions generous.
Although at the heart of Irangeles, it truly reflects the cultural diversity of Los Angeles – the ethnic mix that lives so peacefully under its warm sun. I was greeted with surprise upon walking into the restaurant, for it is uncommon for women to dine alone an Iranian restaurant. Intimidated, tired, and longing for the taste of the kebob, I left, the grumbling of my stomach echoing back my reflections.
What brings people to Los Angeles, I wondered. Was it escape from political persecution or search of a better life? I wondered how they learned about the freedoms and opportunities that Los Angeles had to offer. Could it be that the answer still lies in the soft power of Hollywood? Even the most remote villages in the farthest corners of the world have television sets with movies depicting life in America – movies made in Hollywood. To many, America is Hollywood laying in the hills of LA. So they come here in search of a life often depicted in the movies. They pick the role they want; they go for the plot that best suits them and make believe it will happen. Some make it, others don’t. But if a group of exiles can turn a whole section of a city into a replica of their country, impose their culture, and live harmoniously with their host nation, any scenario is possible.
About the Author
Soraya Sepahpour-Ulrich is currently studying International Relations at USC. She plans to go on to graduate school after which she hopes to work as an analyst for a think tank.