Friday, October 03, 2008

Tehrangeles: Starbucks, sushi, and Chabad House

I was hanging out with a 22 year-old Iranian-Dutch woman who was telling me about her summer trip to LA to visit cousins. (Raise your hand if you have cousins in LA. I know I do, and I’m not even Iranian.)

“You wouldn’t believe it,” she told me, “My cousin drove for an hour to buy sweets so she wouldn’t have to buy them from the Jewish baker. She said, ‘I want my money in the pocket of a Muslim, not of a Jew.’”

Part of me was appalled, and part sympathetic. After all, when I was growing up, we bought from Jews whenever we could. That was the rule. My father still complains about certain university types who did not understand the importance of supporting Jewish merchants and would buy from anyone. “They just don’t understand how hard it is to earn a living,” he says.

Irangeles, apparently, is starkly divided by religion: Iranian- Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Bahai’s divided by semi-strict borders. “Even the coffee shops,” my young friend says. She told me of her cousin’s dismay when a group of Jewish 20-somethings dared to step foot in the coffee shop they were visiting. “They have their own. What are they doing here?” When my friend expressed her disgust with her cousin’s attitude, she was met with a blank stare. “We just don’t do that kind of thing in Amsterdam.” To be fair, Iranians in the Netherlands are pretty divided by political lines. It is true, however, that the 20-somethings are more likely to blur those lines than their parents.


Starbucks, sushi, Chabad House. Starbucks, sushi, Chabad House. A little Spanish, a lot of Persian, some Hebrew. That’s what Kamran and I experienced when we visited LA last Spring.

In a Persian restaurant in Westwood, a young Baha’i told us how disheartening it was to try to bring the Irangeles community together. He confirmed our Iranian-Dutch friend’s experience of the strong religious divisions in the community. Another man we met told us that when young Iranians arrive in Irangeles, they are comfortable crossing the borders between the religious communities. “They don’t seem to care at all about religious divisions at all. They’re just so much more relaxed than those of us who grew up in this community.”


Yesterday Kamran and I had lunch with some friends who live in Iran. “Do you think anti-Semitism is growing among Iranians?” I asked. (An article in the Washington Post had been haunting me since I read it.)

“Do you mean anti-Zionism?”

“No. I mean anti-Semitism.”

They told me that the young people born after the revolution to parents who lived most of their lives with the current regime had, in fact, become more susceptible to the message of the regime. “I mean, my friend’s younger sister has no problem throwing off her hejab and wearing a bikini in public, but when she talks you are surprised to hear her echo the message of the regime.” She’s not unique, just specific.


homeyra said...

I am surprised by this LA story. I wouldn't imagined this sort of atmosphere.
A friend has just returned after visiting his ... LA cousins! :)
They happen to live in a neighborhood where many Iranian-Jewish work and live: their neighbors, next door shop owners etc.
He was very impressed by their kindness also their "Iranian-ness".
He said that their youngsters, who have never been to Iran, spoke better Persian than his own son!
Maybe there are as many LA stories than there are LA cousins!

Tori said...

One of my own LA cousins, who grew up in Decatur, Illinois, told me that his kids are so accustomed to being surrounded by other Jews that they were shocked to find out that Jews make up only 2% of the US population.

I am certain that there are many LA stories. But I am not surprised by the religious divisions: it's not so odd among US immigrants (or among any of its citizens, for that matter.)

homeyra said...

I understand your LA cousins:) This could happen so easily and naturally.
But the increasing polarization of the society seems to be of another nature. A sort of a new phenomenon - almost encouraged by various political interests. I am sure many are influenced by this trend. Hopefully many can still think by themselves:)

Anonymous said...

Most young Iranians around my age (early 20s) don't care about the religous and ethnic lines. We just try to hang out and live our lives.

Of course there are nutcases but Iranians are sort of cliquey. Even Iranian Jews I know like to only really be friends with other Iranian Jews and talk bad about non-Iranian Jews.

Tori said...

Thanks, anonymous. The reason I posted this was to hear other stories. So I am glad to hear them.

Listen, I know how insular minorities can be: it's a kind of self-protection. Majorities have so much padding: people, people, people, culture, culture, culture. It's hard for them to imagine why minority groups become protective and even militant about the borders that separate them from others.

My husband comes from a Muslim family, trust me, I know what it means to cross borders and how difficult it is for some people to accept. (BTW, his family and my own family have always been lovely...)

I have always been surrounded by people who think for themselves. So I am confident that there are many who can.

sadia said...

I am Pakistani and love Iranian peoples speally iranian political leaders.