A Persian Feast, for Art’s Sake

Some details were off. Where, for example, was the raw egg yolk and butter to mix with the rice? asked Ali Razi. And the hot tea should have been served from a proper samovar. “This is not a samovar. This is what you call an urn,” noted Zohreh Ladjevardi.

Still, everyone agreed that staging its first Iranian feast was a real cultural accomplishment for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Saturday night’s black-tie dinner, dubbed “A Night in a Persian Garden,” raised $125,000 for the museum’s Islamic art department; more than half of the 520 guests were members of Los Angeles’ Iranian community.

“This is the first big cultural event related to the Iranian community in Los Angeles,” said Homa Sarshar, host of Radio Omide Iran (Hope of Iran), a talk show on KFOX, 93.5 FM.


“It’s an excellent showing of who’s who of the Persians here,” Sid Askari said. “So far, all you have heard about Iran is in the negative sense. This is the first positive undertaking.”

The evening began as a trail of limousines and Rolls-Royces snaked up to the museum’s entrance, which had been lined with colorful Persian carpets. The lulling sounds of ancient instruments--the centaur, tambak and kamouncheh-- filled the night.

There were few takers for pomegranate juice during the cocktail hour and the lattice-work chuppas, or tea pavilions, stood empty (“a bit Americanized,” one guest said of the preparations), but there was intense scrutiny of “Timur and the Princely Vision,” the 15th-Century Persian art exhibit prompting the gathering.

Then dinner was served: chelo kebab (skewered meat and chicken) and rice, followed by a German strudel. The menu appeared in English and Farsi.


Caroline Ahmanson said the party made her nostalgic for her 1974 visit to Iran. “It was like Arabian nights wherever I went,” she recalled. “The high point was visiting Esfahan and being in the Shah Abbass Hotel--is it still there?” she asked Iraj Pour, who said it was. “It had great arches that could accommodate camels, and the gardens were all aromatic. I hope Iran will return to a stability of its great culture,” she added.

All parties agreed that the goal of the evening was not strictly about money. “The success comes from the mingling of communities,” said Judy Mathey, who chaired the event with her husband, Robert (both avid collectors of Ottoman art), and with Mina Sadegh and Mahvash and Feridoun Ghassemieh.

While the Iranians were in charge of bringing in their friends, Judy Mathey said she functioned as “the bridge over which they could walk into the museum. I know the players. I know how to work with the museum.”

Museum director Earl Powell observed, “In a city like L.A., which is like a mini United Nations, this has brought us all together.”

Still, there were doubters. “A lot of people told us this would never come off, that we’d never get the Iranian community to interact with the museum,” said Thomas Lentz, curator of Ancient and Islamic art. “Iranians keep a very low profile here, but their culture is enormously sophisticated, and as I often tell them, we have an enormous amount to learn from them.”

Southern California is home to an estimated half a million Iranians, the largest community outside of Iran, said Ghassem Ladjevardi, chairman of the Iranian Assn. of American.

“When you have different cultures, it’s difficult at first to click,” said Kamran Behbehani, whose wife, designer Fe Zandi, added that it has taken her a while to mix with the locals. “But when they become your friend, they become your friend for good. There’s no difference. We have a little accent, but they have a little accent as far as we are concerned. So we are equal.”

Razi agreed. “Why make colonies of different ethnic groups? California is going to be the greatest place in the next century.”