Wave of Wealth : Iranians No Ordinary Group of Immigrants
Ten years ago, amid the chaos of the Iranian Revolution and the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic fundamentalist regime, the migration of upper-class Jews from Iran to the United States began in earnest.
These were no ordinary huddled masses yearning to breathe free. This was one of the richest waves of immigrants ever to come to the United States.
Their first toehold in their new land was no squalid, crowded “Little Tehran” but rather the gracious hillsides of Trousdale Estates in Beverly Hills and other nearby neighborhoods of the Westside and the San Fernando Valley.
Khomeini’s revolution drove about half of Iran’s 80,000 Jews into exile. A few headed for New York or Israel, but the vast majority of those emigrants, probably at least 30,000, have settled in or near Beverly Hills.
Not all are fabulously wealthy. While some families have bought or built mansions north of Sunset Boulevard, at least as many are crowded into rent-controlled apartments on the south side of town.
But whether rich or merely middle-class, they have, like most immigrants before them, brought change to their adopted home and have themselves been changed by life in America.
“Before the Iranians came, this city was a sleepy city,” said Beverly Hills real estate broker Stephan Saeed Nourmand, an Iranian who moved to the area in the early ‘70s and has been on hand for the wave that followed. “Sure there were celebrities, but it was still a small town. There was a gas station and a hardware store on Rodeo Drive.”
The Iranians, Nourmand said, brought more than money.
“They brought their talents too. There were doctors, lawyers, businessmen, retailers, manufacturers--a variety of people who came and immediately contributed by boosting Beverly Hills’ international image,” he said
The stamp of Iranian success is seen in the glitzy Rodeo Collection, trendy shops and eateries on Rodeo Drive built by Dar Mahboubi, who is also part-owner of the fashionable Bijan boutiques of Beverly Hills and New York. Adrays, a chain of discount department stores, is owned by Masud Hakim and two partners. And Iranian-born developer Kambiz Hemkat is building a 22-story Center West tower in Westwood.
Nowhere is the immigrants’ impact more evident than in the Beverly Hills Unified School District, where nearly one out of every five students is Iranian. Their language, Farsi, is incorporated in announcements sent home to parents and taught in after-school classes to the children.
The district has hired a full-time counselor to ease the transition for students and to sensitize administrators and teachers to Iranian culture. And thousands of dollars have been contributed by parents to the Beverly Hills schools through the Iranian Education Foundation.
Despite this, many Iranians still manage to live their lives nearly surrounded in the culture of their homeland--going to Iranian nightclubs, worshiping at Iranian synagogues, shopping for clothing and jewelry at Iranian businesses.
The majority of the Beverly Hills-area Iranians are Jewish, and in many respects, they form a community of their own. At times, however, they also function as part of a larger Iranian community that is estimated to number 300,000 in Southern California. For Iranian Muslims, the largest concentrations are in Palos Verdes and Irvine. Ethnic Armenians from Iran have migrated in substantial numbers to Glendale, already home to a large Armenian community.
There is an 848-page Iranian Yellow Pages, listing 1,600 Iranian businesses and professionals in Southern California. There are Iranian magazines and television and radio shows. Concerts of Persian music, featuring such noted Iranian singers as Moine, Darioush or Shahram, often perform at Hollywood’s Palace theater before audiences of 1,000 or more.
On most Sunday afternoons, Iranian families gather for picnics on the Palisades in Santa Monica, where mothers parade their teen-age daughters in front of prospective sons-in-law.
The influx has transformed a stretch of Westwood Boulevard south of Wilshire into an Iranian Main Street, where the aromas of shish kebab and rice hang in the air, where Iranian grocery stores stock hard-to-find Persian foods and spices and where bookstores offer books and tapes in Farsi--including some that recall the “glorious days” under Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlevi.
Iranians have also contributed to the night life in Westwood and Beverly Hills. Stores and restaurants stay open longer, catering to Iranian families who tend to eat and shop later in the evening. And festive Iranian parties go on until the early hours of the morning--at times ending at the request of the Beverly Hills police.
“At restaurants, the locals clear out by 9 p.m., and that’s when the Iranians are coming in,” said Irwin Kaplan, the former director of city planning in Beverly Hills.
Every Tuesday night, the Omarkhayam Restaurant on Westwood Boulevard becomes a Who’s Who of former celebrities, government officials and other notables from the days of the Shah as they gather with families and friends for an evening of dinner and poetry.
UCLA sociologist Ivan Light, who is studying the Iranian immigration under a grant from the National Science Foundation, said the influx is extraordinary for its number of “high-status immigrants.”
Both the Jewish and Muslim immigrants, according to Light, are drawn largely from the privileged classes in Iran, tend to be well-educated and include many doctors, lawyers, bankers and other professionals. But there are also some differences between the two groups.
Muslims, he said, are somewhat more likely than Jews to have advanced degrees. Large numbers of Iranian Muslims have gone into real estate development and construction. The Jews, meanwhile, are more likely to be self-employed with backgrounds in trade and manufacturing of apparel and jewelry.
Light has also found that all of the Iranian subgroups are more dispersed within their new communities than is typical with other immigrants.
“With the possible exception of Westwood Boulevard, there is no central location for Iranians, like a Koreatown or Chinatown,” he said. “We suspect that wealthy immigrants don’t need those kinds of support systems.”
Jews have lived in what is now Iran for 2,500 years, ever since Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian empire, conquered Babylonia and invited its freed Jewish slaves to live in Persia.
Traditionally merchants and traders for generations, the Jews found great prosperity during the regime of the Shah, not just as merchants and manufacturers but also in government and the professions.
But in spite of a history in Iran that predated Islam by more than 1,000 years, the Jews were never more than a tiny minority in a country that is about 98% Muslim. Iranian Jews who have come to California say they always knew the day might come when they would have to leave.
“Because they were a minority in Iran, they always felt insecure, and many made sure they invested outside the country,” said Baroukh Beroukhim, former president of Ettefak school, a 2,000-student private Jewish academy in Tehran.
“They even sent their children abroad to go to school as a means of having a little branch out there somewhere that would become the only hope if things got bad,’ he said.’
Beroukhim, who now lives in Westwood, is active in the Iranian Education Foundation and the Iranian Jewish Federation Council.
Many Jews who left Iran in the days immediately before and after the Shah’s downfall in early 1979 say it was not overt religious persecution by Islamic fundamentalists that forced them into exile. Far more threatening, they say, was the general chaos and the enmity that Khomeini’s followers seemed to feel toward wealth in general.
The memory is still painful for Guity Nemani, who abandoned a successful family rug business, her home and most of her belongings in the city of Abadan, and fled the country with her husband and three children in 1978, shortly before the Shah was overthrown.