In 1989, after 10 tough years in America, the Iranian-American family moved into the house at the end of the cul-de-sac (where one of the other houses has lion-head sculptures on its massive gates). She raised four children in this Persian Palace with a mezuzah on the doorframe and rose bushes out front. Elements of the style eventually spread from that hilltop down to the flats of Beverly Hills, south of Sunset, until it was essentially banned in 2004.
“All the other Iranians bought homes here” in the 1980s, “and we didn’t have the money to buy—not enough for a big down payment,” Banayan told me one recent afternoon in Farsi. As we sat together, sipping tea and nibbling Persian sweets on an overstuffed leather couch in her living room, she told me about building the home, with its large windows overlooking a sparkling pool in the backyard, more of those columns supporting a portico, and the view of other magnificent homes in the hills.
“With our budget, every house we looked at was broken down, and old, and smelled bad. And my husband was a builder. He had 2,000 workers under him in Iran,” where he was an engineer overseeing the construction of Air Force bases and hangars, she said. It took two years, $200,000 borrowed from family to buy the land, and a loan from the bank to build their house, nestled in a gated community just off of Mulholland Drive.
Banayan is named for a Persian empress who briefly ruled in 630 AD, in a dynasty that ultimately fell to the first Arab Islamic invasion of Iran. She chose the columns in honor of the palaces of ancient kings and queens of the Persian Empire. When she talks about those long-gone leaders, she doesn’t praise the golden crowns, jewels, or pageantry—though Persian rulers certainly had all of that.
As a profound lover of her culture and history, she explained: Thousands of years ago, it was a Persian king who decreed that no worker should be a slave and banned work without pay. It was a Persian king who decreed a pregnant woman should stop working at seven months, but continue to receive pay.
She punctuated each historical note with: “And that was 3,000 years ago!”
These are the things that straighten the spine of anyone of Iranian heritage, including me: The high-minded regard for human rights expressed by our ancestors, and often lost in modern politics.
“These columns are very beloved for us Iranians,” Banayan told me. “It’s like we have this mission to tell the world: ‘Baba joon [my dear], don’t look at us like that, like we ride camels and horses—we were something else. We were the world’s greatest empire.’”
A serious danger
I first heard the term Persian Palace years ago, while wandering the aisles of a south Orange County antique shop with my mom. As she browsed delicate porcelain pieces, methodically turning them over to see if they were marked Limoges (they weren’t), an old man nearby was airing “there goes the neighborhood”-type complaints to a saleswoman. Wearing a dirty baseball cap and a scowl, he spat the words and let loose with a description of how ugly and gaudy those houses were. I caught his eye. He returned my gaze without softening. I hustled us out of there, turning the phrase “Persian Palace” and his open hostility over in my mind. Though I wasn’t raised in one of those so-called palaces, I knew what he was referring to, and as an Iranian-American (a Persian, in the local parlance) raised in Southern California, I had experienced racism before, thinly veiled and otherwise.
Back then, I didn’t like Persian Palaces much. From what I knew, rich Persians built those swanky homes in Beverly Hills, spending a pretty penny—those columns were said to go for four figures a pop in their heyday. Maybe those Persians longed for centuries-old kingdoms, but the Iran my parents were nostalgic for wasn’t the one of the ancient era, but of the recent past, colored by memories of road trips to the Caspian Sea and the comforts of being raised in large families and always having them close, before the Islamic Revolution and an eight-year war with Iraq scattered the living generations of Iranians all over the world.
Now, I wonder if Persian Palaces should have meant a little more to me then, and to Los Angeles, before they went out of vogue. Younger Iranian-Americans don’t care to build Persian Palaces anymore; perhaps, like me, they are just not into the style, or maybe they were browbeaten out of the sentiment, or the style was outlawed in their communities.
The way these homes were seen and spoken of at the height of their popularity hints at something more than a disruption of architectural decorum. All over LA County, city officials banded together to decry the big, boxy homes with those oversized columns out front—nowhere louder than in Beverly Hills. The style was eventually outright outlawed through oddly specific rules that were delivered with a heavy dose of side-eye; in 2004, the civil language of the Beverly Hills code took on what the Los Angeles Times dubbed a “tsk-tsk tone” when city officials wrote,
Emerging trends have led some owners and developers in residential areas to disregard prevailing styles and neighborhood character … [posing] a serious danger that such overbuilding will degrade and depreciate the character, image, beauty and reputation of the City’s residential neighborhoods with adverse consequences for the quality of life of all residents.
Degrade and depreciate.
Adverse consequences for quality of life.
Like pestilence or plague, the Persian Palace was deemed a threat.
The style was treated as an invader and scourge on upscale neighborhoods all over Southern California, even though the local aesthetic has the consistency of quicksand. Beverly Hills is hardly the place for architectural modesty, and yet locals really had something against Persian Palaces.
Banayan said she can understand why locals responded the way they did, to some extent. Persians had been drawn to Beverly Hills and soon began to make their presence felt.
“I can respect that [established Americans] wanted to keep their own culture, too. We came to the most admired and expensive town in the world and occupied it,” she said.
“But there is a richness in our culture that we longed for.”
That culture may seem particularly mysterious to outsiders. While countless Iranian-Americans have made inroads in business and academia in the U.S., rising to lead in many fields, the news here about Iran has been dominated by endless enmities and failed diplomacy for more than 35 years. The modern memory is tainted by a loop of mullahs shouting “Death to America” and the saber-rattling of American leaders who have dubbed the country an Axis of Evil.
Small moments of diplomatic breakthrough, like the multi-nation nuclear deal struck in 2015, are easily outweighed in the zeitgeist by charmless fictional representations—even when Iranians are not cast as terrorists, we haven’t fared well. We might show up as a punchline on 30 Rock; or a Beverly Hills high school clique that you can only join if you own a BMW, according to Clueless; or the one thing that the manic punk dream coquette played by Patricia Arquette lists as a turnoff in True Romance. Until, perhaps, Saturday Night Live alum and Iranian-American Nasim Pedrad’s Middle Eastern family comedy debuts next year on Fox, the most prominent representation Iranians have on the small screen is, lamentably, the reality show Shahs of Sunset, which offers caricatures and little culture that is any different from the Real Housewives or anyone else on Bravo’s vapid slate. I’ve never met an Iranian-American like the ones on Shahs, but they fit right in on the network’s programming schedule of shameless attention fiends.
So when the Persian population in Beverly Hills surged after the revolution—estimates vary, but up to 25 percent of the population seems to be the prevailing number—there was bound to be some culture clash. And it has persisted after the 2004 rule. In 2007, when Farsi showed up on the city ballot, some locals were appalled, comparing it to a kabob house menu. (Never mind that Iranian-Americans in Beverly Hills were eager to take up voting after centuries of living under thrones and, later, a theocracy.) In 2014, Sinai Akiba Academy, a Beverly Hills K-8 Jewish school, took out an advertisement in the Jewish Journaladmonishing parents who might describe the school as “too Persian.” That phrase is an insult I have heard myself, most recently from a woman tasting saffron-pistachio ice cream, no less, who wrinkled her nose in distaste as she said it.
While more recent anti-mansionization campaigns simply decry homes that creep outward from the original footprints to forgo big yards for more house, the ire Persian Palaces drew in the past was layered with racially coded sentiment. Before the 2004 rules came down, Persian developers gave interviews saying that Persians loved buying the houses, but the articles they were quoted in were derided by other Persians who were embarrassed—of the attention, of the sentiment, of yet again being on the fringe of the American society in which they had worked so hard to succeed. Every letter published in response to that Times story in 2004, some penned by Persians and others by longtime locals, expressed an unhinged disgust for Persian Palaces, calling them “an insult to Persian people and their ancient history” and “monstrosities,” and dubbing the style “nouveau mausoleum.” One Beverly Hills resident offered “a remedy: bulldozers.”
The king of Persian Palaces
Before architect Hamid Omrani became notorious for building the Persian Palaces of Beverly Hills, he was a whiz kid in Tehran who prided himself on being a pioneer. In 1963, still a teenager, he started his own school newspaper, finding an early Xerox machine to make copies of the first issue. The cover image was of John F. Kennedy, because “he seemed like a good, important man,” Omrani told me in Farsi.
In his seventies now and still working, Omrani said he has always had the mind of a journalist, which is why he didn’t shy away from critics of any of his projects—and he proudly recalls exchanges he’s had with reporters to defend his Persian Palaces.
Like the time NBC’s Josh Mankiewicz visited for a segment on the Nightly News and asked why Omrani was ruining Beverly Hills history, to which Omrani retorted, “In this city, 25 years [old] building is historical. In my country, 25 century building, we call that historical.”
Or the time The Economistinterviewed him about more restrictions in 2007, when he chafed openly, “If I wanted to have mullahs telling me what to do, I wouldn’t have left Iran.”
Omrani left Iran in the early days of the Islamic Revolution, in 1980, at age 37. He had studied architecture at the notoriously competitive University of Tehran, nicknamed Iran’s Harvard, which to this day educates countless intellectuals who later flee west, degrees and research in tow, for professional opportunity and freedom.
When he landed in Beverly Hills, he wasn’t impressed with the builders he saw.
“In terms of quality of work, materials, or architecture, these people in Beverly Hills were zeroes by comparison to our architecture in Iran,” Omrani told me on a recent evening, sitting in a café in the shadow of the gold-accented cupola of Beverly Hills City Hall.
By the time Omrani had begun working in Beverly Hills in 1982, he’d already spent more than a decade building homes in the Tehran neighborhood of Jordan. In the decades before the revolution, a development boom changed the face of the area in northern Tehran; as Omrani said, “It was always a rich neighborhood, but only the richest, old money families lived there. But in those 10 or 20 years before the revolution, people went there because it developed.”
Sound familiar? In that sense, Omrani has densified more than one of the world’s richest neighborhoods, building homes to accommodate large, new-money families in a metropolis’s most admired zip code.
Though I was born in the U.S. and visited Iran rarely, Jordan is one of the few neighborhoods of Tehran that I know pretty well, having visited my grandmother’s home there. I would peer down at the homes and sparkling pools from the fire escape of her top-floor apartment, where I would sit for hours feeding pigeons and doves stale sangak bread. I remember putting on the hijab to wander the boutiques, bookstores, and cafes, nibbling the most delicious olives I bought at the grocery store on her hill, the sack tucked into the pocket of my oversized overcoat, which was so uncool that it marked me as a U.S. citizen by the fashionable neighborhood’s standards. I would walk along the leafy side streets that are lined with grand old manors built in the traditional Iranian way—prizing privacy. Tall walls mark the property lines, blocking from view most of the homes, save for some of the eaves or the tippy-tops of pomegranate trees where the most unattainable fruits grow. Like Beverly Hills, it’s a neighborhood safe enough to let your twentysomething granddaughter wander around in by herself—save for maybe a few lusty catcalls from pent-up young men cruising the boulevards in nice cars. It’s also terrifically congested; Tehran rivals LA for traffic.
A note of longing inflected Omrani’s voice when he recalled the homes he helped build in Jordan and the talented craftsmen he worked with.
“The homes that we built there—such homes don’t exist in places like Beverly Hills. The homes that they build here with wood? We used Iranian plaster and masonry, and we’d build huge domes by hand for the homes, like a mosque,” Omrani said, gesturing to the sky. “The work was done by craftsmen who just don’t exist anywhere else, they can’t build like that here.”
Yet Omrani tried to make a splash when he began working in the U.S. One of his first major projects in the 1980s was a seven-story hillside mansion in Beverly Hills’s Trousdale Estates neighborhood. Since there were height limitations, Omrani built a glass and steel house into the hill below street-level, creating more than 20,000 square feet with majestic views of Los Angeles.
“Anything I did, it was never for the money, it was never about that,” Omrani said. “I wanted to build something that would be unique in the United States.”
That building will remain unique. After its construction, the city made rules limiting such hillside construction, though Omrani said it’s an approach that pops up in expensive areas all over.
When he began building Persian Palaces, it was simply in response to the demand. Before the 2004 law went into effect in Beverly Hills, Omrani estimates that he built more than 200 of them.
“They criticized me for not following classic styles—I don’t even know what they call classic styles,” Omrani said. “I worked with people—what people wanted and needed, I built. I looked at their lifestyles. I paid attention. I listened. And I would create something to match their lifestyles.”
Omrani believes his work as an architect is a dance of art and math, and is also about following rules and working with the city, but this element of serving family structure and a family’s needs are core to why the Persian Palace came to exist.
He noted that despite the vast size of many of the old homes in Beverly Hills, they often house few residents, and those residents tend to be much older than the Iranian-American families.
“We’d go to these homes in Beverly Hills with the best land, the best views, the richest residents—a billionaire!—and they’d only have two people living there. What can I even do to meet those people’s needs?” Omrani recalled, of being called in to give renovation estimates.
“Our culture of families is what guides our architecture,” Omrani said. “You pay an architect to use a space.”
Controversy hid in every aspect of what Persians love in a home, according to Omrani. Conflicts arose around height, light, spacious entertainment rooms, window sizes, and grand staircases.
When it came to height, American standards seemed somewhat primitive to him: “All the homes in this city are eight feet tall. They don’t understand height or the feeling it can create and how that can be used,” Omrani said.
When it came to light, “Iranians are really attracted to brightness, we really like having light in our homes—but Americans lived in these dark, squat homes, with the curtains drawn,” Omrani said.
Before the open floorplan became popular, American homes were broken up into so many little rooms, like a collection of isolation booths: “It’s part of the traditional lifestyle of Iran to have open spaces, so if you have a house and you want to all sit and have a meal with a few generations, and you want kids to play and for there to be conversation, you need an open room.”
And considering that one traditional style in Iran is a home with a large internal courtyard, indoor/outdoor living was prized, which should only put Persians in step with Southern Californian tastes.
As for those luxe stairways, Omrani noted it is often simply a matter of geometry; placing a stairwell centrally can reduce the amount of square footage one wastes on hallways. And a lovely staircase can be pleasing, but the grandeur would raise eyebrows, Omrani said, adding “Americans would look at that and say, who do you think you are, Louis XIII?”
To Omrani, letting every man be the king of his castle—a saying he credits to Iran—is the work of an architect.
“Whether you live in a palace or a one-bedroom, why shouldn’t you have that feeling and the pleasure that Louis XIII had, why shouldn’t you have that every morning when you get up in your home?” Omrani asked.
Why the columns?
Architects may fuss over the proper shape and make of the columns installed in Los Angeles, arguing that the local palaces usurped Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian columns, which were styles of the Greeks, not Persians.
The ancient Persians topped their columns with more ornate sculptures than the Greeks, like the double bulls at Persepolis, or the wooden carvings at Chehel Sotoun, the glorious old palace in Isfahan. (The palace’s name means “40 Columns” though only 20 stand on the broad front portico—the other 20 can be counted in the long reflecting pool in front of the palace.) It would have been tough to truly recreate the craftsmanship of palaces marked as world treasures by global organizations like UNESCO, architecture that took lifetimes to build in ancient days. Even the kings who commissioned those palaces did not live to see them completed.
But on appearance and sentiment, it’s not entirely incorrect to link those columns and the big boxy shape of these American palaces to ancient palaces of the Persian Empire. Dating back to at least 5,000 BC, Persian architecture has had one characteristic: “simple and noble forms, richly embellished,” according to Arthur Upham Pope’s 1965 book Persian Architecture.
Educated at Brown University, Pope was the first American expert on Persian architecture, and his passion for Iran’s early feats inspired the Pahlavi royal family to start preservation efforts in the 1920s. Pope notes that those columns are an architectural element that persisted for longer than 3,000 years and represented “a rather amazing consistency for decorative preferences, the high portal set within a recess, columns with bracket capitals, and recurrent types of plan and elevation.”
These forms cropped up across an empire that grew vast—Persian kings ruled a region from the Nile to the western reaches of China, leading a deeply diverse, multiethnic kingdom. But the old kings, especially Cyrus, were known for a style of empire expansion that had a reputation for tolerance. Cyrus is believed to have made the first declaration of human rights with his Cyrus Cylinder, an artifact that decrees equality. (A monument to the cylinder is due to be unveiled on Santa Monica Boulevard next year, a stone’s throw from the Beverly Hilton.)
Cyrus the Great was also credited with ending the exile of Jews in Babylon. His name was invoked to protect Jews once more during World War II by a consulate worker in Paris, dubbed the Iranian Schindler, who issued hundreds of Iranian passports to non-Iranian Jews to save their lives. He found a loophole: Though Nazis co-opted the term to describe themselves, Iranians are the original Aryans.
And yes, the palaces commissioned by Cyrus were built with columns.
Centuries later and on the other side of the globe, it was mainly Persian Jews like the Banayan family who built the homes that were seen as offensive in Beverly Hills.
Why the big boxes?
It wasn’t just the columns that ticked off longtime residents of Beverly Hills. Among the cardinal sins of the Persian Palace was the expansion of the house’s footprint, adding rooms and square footage and disposing of an American suburban vanity that remains prevalent in this oddball city: the front yard. You won’t find wide swaths of grass in front of homes in Tehran or Isfahan—or any of the other grand old cities, from New York to Paris to Rome. And so, here in Los Angeles, as the palaces were built, the lawns were lost, to more home and more parking.
For many Iranian-Americans (and anyone vaguely astute about real estate; a four-bedroom in a fancy zip code will fetch more than a three-bedroom), a better use of the front yard was a more spacious living room for entertaining, and spare bedrooms, to live multi-generationally, as so many Persians do.
And the seeming lack of reverence for scale is something that shows up in early Persian architecture, too.
“Scale was consistently understood and skillfully exploited even though the Persians, unlike the Greeks, seem to have made no general study of harmonious proportions. The result is that there are no trivial buildings; even garden pavilions have nobility and dignity, and the humblest caravanserais generally have charm,” Pope wrote.
To say that these places had charm is a delicious understatement of Pope’s—some of them were utterly breathtaking. In ancient times, it took many nights for merchants to traverse the Silk Road from Europe to Asia, and all along the way there were these caravanserais, or inns where caravans hauling goods could stop. Iran, with its bazaars and reputation for hospitality, marked the middle of the path. One old caravanserai that still stands in Isfahan has been converted to a hotel, once named for a king, Shah Abbas, though it has been renamed the Abbasi Hotel under the Islamic regime, which has methodically changed names of streets and institutions to delete references to Iran’s monarchies and Western words. What remains unchanged is a grand courtyard entirely surrounded by a square building, so that rooms look out onto lush gardens and fountains below. It’s where I’ve had the good fortune to stay every time I’ve visited Isfahan, and the spirit of noble hospitality, with its worldly amenities, is what I think of when I think of how a guest should be treated.
In a sense, Iranians built their own little caravanserais in Los Angeles, surely the most distant outpost of the Silk Road. The journey from Iran is very expensive, and America is difficult to navigate—when family and friends came from overseas, their suitcases invariably full of Iranian sweets, saffron, and gifts, we always had spare rooms for them to stay in after the long trip west.
We would always make a pilgrimage to Los Angeles from the cookie-cutter tract house where I was raised in the suburbs, a box of stucco and Spanish tile, identical to the houses two of my best friends lived in on the same hill. In the 1980s and 1990s, we would pile into my mom’s Volvo to fly up the 405 until we got to the Wilshire exit, where we’d roll the windows down and cruise the streets of Beverly Hills and Bel Air, not to see the Persian Palaces, but to gawk at big houses where movie stars might live. We’d walk Rodeo Drive to pause in front of the Bijan store, with its yellow and white striped awnings—where the sign read “by appointment only”—and I imagined the Iranian-American perfume impresario was just inside, peering back at us through plate glass. We’d stop at Westwood Village Memorial Park to visit the graves of two greats beloved by every Iranian: Marilyn Monroe and the operatic pop singer Hayedeh. We might duck into Sherkat e Ketab, a Persian bookstore, for my mom to pick up the latest issues of Javanan or Raygan, LA-based Farsi-language newspapers.
Other weekends, we might go to UCLA for leftist Iranian student meetings or concerts or protests in front of the Federal Building on Wilshire, to end the Iran-Iraq War, or to free a political prisoner, or to call for justice on some other political issue, protests that surely fell on deaf ears from Los Angeles to Tehran. Afterwards, my family would stop at Shamshiri, where I remember slipping into the big booths that looked like they belonged in a red sauce Italian place, tables covered in linen, topped with little jars of sumac, raw onion and individually wrapped butter, kabobs and steaming platters of rice wafting past our table. The bread was fresh and hot, and to our delight, the servers spoke Farsi, allowing for the typical exchanges of pleasantries that Persians engage in. “Khasteh nabashi,” my father would have greeted the service. “May you not be tired.” Back then you ordered your saffron-dappled rice with a raw egg yolk sitting atop it, or without—a tradition that must have disappeared in response to a health code. Despite the restaurant’s fast-casual makeover in recent years, and the addition of the Chili’s-esque “Grill” to the name, the servers still speak Farsi in public.
Back then, Orange County didn’t have the Iranian population or presence that LA did, though now there are countless Persians living in the OC. Back then, it was a novelty that Los Angeles had signs in Farsi, there were strangers in the street speaking the language we only spoke at home. LA Persians were flashy and smart and rich, from what I could tell.
We repeated these trips with some frequency because, like many Persian families, our home was the caravanserai for a constellation of friends and relatives. Some guests would stay for years, trying to figure out if they could make it in the U.S.
That’s true for Banayan, too, who said that to this day, when she visits Iran, she visits her old neighbors, and when they come to the United States, they come to her home.
“Our very closest friends, even now, are the friends from our lives in Iran, our friends from childhood, our old neighbors, our classmates,” she said.
Coming to Tehrangeles
The very first night that Banayan came to America, a decade before her Persian Palace was built, she stood in her brother-in-law’s beautiful home, at a window overlooking Los Angeles. It was 1979 and the Shah was barely holding onto his throne in Iran—there was violence in the streets. She had convinced her husband to spend the kids’ school break with family in America. Maybe everything would blow over by the time they’d return.
But the moment she laid eyes on the vista of Los Angeles, Banayan remembers turning to her sister-in-law and saying, “I will die in this city.”
“I think the sorrow of Iran will kill me.”
For all her affection for the ancient civilizations, it wasn’t hard to see the corruption and problems plaguing Iran in 1979, as the last king was set to be toppled. After he fell, it became clear to the Banayans that they would need to start over in the West, as many Iranians decided to do. Los Angeles is home to the world’s highest concentration of Iranians and Iranian-Americans outside Iran.
But life in the city nicknamed Tehrangeles wouldn’t be easy, either.
They moved into a two-bedroom condominium in Encino, enrolling their three kids—ages nine, six, and three—in school at a time that marked the nadir of Iran-U.S. relations: the hostage crisis. For every one of the 444 days that passed with Americans held captive at the embassy in Tehran, Iranian immigrants and Iranian-Americans, including Banayan’s family, faced rebuke and resentment in the United States, which sometimes boiled over into violence.
“We’d send the kids to school and they would get beat up—a lot,” Banayan remembered. “I was forced to put them into karate lessons so they could defend themselves.”
Teachers tried to intervene, but the problems extended beyond schools. Neighbors lobbed cruelties and insults. And they had left so much behind.
During the hostage crisis, Banayan’s husband returned to Iran to sell their home, in hopes of returning with a nest egg. That was a dodgy time for many Iranian-Americans, who began going by less ethnic names and calling themselves Persians, harkening back to those ancient empires instead of identifying with modern Iran, where the Ayatollah had begun calling the U.S. “the great Satan.” While her husband was overseas, President Jimmy Carter invalidated the visas of Iranian citizens seeking entry into the United States and implemented sanctions.
While Banayan’s husband was in transit from Tehran to London, an American rescue mission to free the hostages ended in disaster: A U.S. military helicopter crashed on Iranian soil, killing eight American servicemen.
Her husband managed to talk officials in London into honoring his visa, but when he landed in Los Angeles, tensions were exceptionally high. He was sent to Los Angeles County Jail, where his rough treatment led to a warning from a man sharing his cell.
“Swear to god, just like this, he says to my husband, ‘Tonight, these officers want to kill you. Whatever they do, whatever they say, you just say ‘yes, sir.’”
Dressed in a silk suit and impossibly polite, he survived cheap shots and intimidations—rough searches and ripping his chest hair—but when he was released three days later, Banayan said an apologetic judge ordered the green cards they had applied for be issued immediately.
Over the years, with their nest egg from Iran, they built up a tiny business that helped them build their Persian Palace, selling personalized gold charm necklaces. It wasn’t easy, but the business took off in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Still, for all the ties she has built with America, and all the bonds she feels with her heritage, she longs for the friendly neighbors she had in Iran.
Gesturing to the house alongside hers on the cul-de-sac, she said, “This neighbor I’ve lived next to for almost 30 years. I don’t know this neighbor’s face. Truly, I don’t. Today if someone came to me and said ‘I am your neighbor,’ I’d have to ask ‘Which one? Where do you live?’”
How we lived
In the Iranian tradition of deed o bazdid, which translates to “to see, and to see again,” the social rigor dictates that when you are invited into someone’s home, you owe them an invitation—and it can carry on through decades. As Iranian immigrant populations grew in Southern California, circles of friendship and chosen families grew; my parents’ best friends were addressed as aunts and uncles, I comfortably called children I share no blood with “my cousins.” (What else do you call a child you’ve known since their umbilical cord was clamped in the Persian tradition?)
So, we didn’t just need spare bedrooms—we needed big living rooms so everyone could keep an eye on each other’s kids. Before open floorplans took hold in the U.S., Persians couldn’t fathom how to entertain in houses broken up into little rooms. It’s less so now, as a new generation spreads out and seeks employment and adventures of their own, but in decades past in Southern California, we would almost inevitably have a party to attend most weekends. A herd of families would stay up late and feast on elaborate dinners that took days to prepare and were rarely served before midnight. We’d wear our nicest clothes to dance, laugh, and drink with each other.
Persian parties (a hashtag worth exploring on Instagram or Twitter) have grown fairly epic, but in those days, sometimes parties were subdued affairs of storytelling—especially when elders would visit. There would be affectionate remembrances of how life was in Iran, or tales of their early missteps in America.
Most of all, I remember listening to Iranian immigrants try to explain Americans to each other. How you could go to an American’s house and never be offered so much as a glass of water—horrifying. They couldn’t understand the changes that were happening in their homeland, darkened by years of war with Saddam Hussein and news of crackdowns and fatwas, but America seemed off-kilter in its own way: they would relate their shock at how Americans could be brutish and violent, recounting gruesome murders in the news or this country’s affection for football—mystifying. (Alternatively, many of us took up NBA basketball with great affection; I credit Laker Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a mesmerizing star of the Showtime era who had a name like he might be related to me.)
And other times they would relate stories of honest, reliable Americans they’d worked with, good businesses they’d discovered, affectionately remarking how fair and firm Americans could be in dealings. Kind Americans were given the high praise of bashakhsiat, a person of character, and whether they were agnostic or Zoroastrian or Muslim, they would offer up a prayer for God to give those Americans long lives.
There was also marveling at all the ways to succeed—or avoid failure—in America. Long conversations about the new pizza place owned by an Iranian, some real estate debacle that sunk a once great military general, or someone who was a nobody in the old country who bought a gas station to become rich overnight.
Sometimes, after dinner, we’d sing to each other—old love songs, folk music, or leftist anthems, helping each other remember the words. Or someone would begin to recite a poem and others would chime in with the familiar refrain. At some point, there would be dancing. At some point, some kid would make another kid cry.
To the sound of rolling backgammon dice or the cracking of seeds, we spent long nights together until the kids fell asleep, curled up like kittens. On the longest nights, the grownups would clasp each other’s shoulders to do old village line dances, singing old Kurdish songs until they were tired and it was time to thank the hosts again and again at the door, and eventually go home tired, overfed, and happy.
Those big houses may have seemed like cold mausoleums to the neighbors. Inside, we exchanged endless bits of advice on how to navigate the workplaces and schools and public places of America beyond our homes, where Iranians were often looked at with suspicion or open dislike. Our homes were where we massed together in search of an understanding of America, and to preserve what was noble about the culture we had drifted west from.
For Persians, it was worth losing a front yard if it meant gaining the space to host more guests, to let your best friend’s cousins join the party, because inside, we lived so very close to one another.
Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler