Iranians Bridging Cultural Gaps in Beverly Hills


At a gala Persian New Year's celebration in March, Iranian immigrants in Beverly Hills began to sense that they were bridging a cultural gap.

That evening, the grand ballroom of the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel was filled with the spicy aroma of shish kebab and rice as more than 1,500 guests--including some of the city's business and civic leaders--were treated to a wide array of Persian food, music, dance and art.

"The strength of our city is based in large part on its cultural diversity," City Councilman Tom Levyn told the crowd.

It was a common theme in many of the speeches, symbolic of how a city not especially known for welcoming huddled masses yearning to breathe free began embracing its Iranian community, which now is the single biggest foreign-language ethnic group in the city.

But then the Beverly Hills Iranians--mainly Jews but also Muslims and Bahais--who escaped the revolutionary chaos and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism 20 years ago in their homeland are not your typical immigrants.

They arrived with more than just the clothes on their backs and a hope for the future. Many had money or at least the skills to have an impact on their plush surroundings. Often drawn by the excellent reputation of Beverly Hills schools and the city's safe image, they crowded into rent-controlled apartments on the south side of town or bought lavish homes in exclusive Trousdale Estates. They brought commercial dollars to the city--by buying or opening trendy boutiques on Rodeo Drive or more workaday mailbox businesses at the city's edge.

Their stamp has been evident in the Beverly Hills Unified School District, where one out of every four students is of Iranian descent. School announcements are printed in Farsi--the foreign language most likely to be spoken in students' homes--as well as in Russian, Korean, Hebrew and Spanish.

But although the Iranians have changed the business and school life of Beverly Hills, they have just started to alter the city's political landscape. As an early sign of that, Iranians in Beverly Hills are joining commissions, taking part in civic organizations and contributing funds to city candidates.

Two years ago, Farshid Shoo-shani came in sixth out of eight candidates in an unsuccessful run for City Council. And last year Soraya Melamed ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the school board. Despite the defeats, the fact that the two Iranian-born candidates ran was considered by many to be significant for the future.

Involvement has developed slowly. Both city and Iranian leaders say that is not because doors have been shut, but because Iranians have resisted walking through.

Architect Hamid Gabbay, a former planning commissioner and the city's first Iranian to serve on that commission, said those who fled Iran are not accustomed to participatory government.

"I have been encouraged by the City Council to get more Iranians involved in city government, but they don't want to come forward," said Gabbay, who currently is on the city's arts commission. "Remember where we are coming from. We are coming from a country where democracy was not the first thing. We are not used to the political process that we have in this city."

David Haloossi, a former Parent-Teacher-Student Assn. president who now serves on a school district commission, said that Iranian parents have been traditionally reluctant to play a role in the system.

"The reason is, Persian parents who came to this country usually stayed away from involvement in the schools. If a parent [is] called into the school, right away they think something terrible has happened, something is wrong," said Haloossi, one of three Iranian commissioners in the district.

Evidence of Iranian participation in the political process is growing as the American-born generation starts to make its mark without the constraints of the past.

"The Iranians will follow the same pattern that the mainstream Jewish community followed," said Rudy Cole, a longtime Beverly Hills activist. "The Jews' first interest was in education, and their first political impact was felt on the schools and through the Board of Education.

"The Iranians will probably elect someone on the school board before the City Council, but inevitably there will be an Iranian on the City Council, sometime in the next six years."

Councilman Mark Egerman said there are Iranians who are ready to step into leadership roles in the city government as members on the council.

"Absolute yes," he said. "We have them right now."

One name often mentioned is that of Nanaz Pirnia, the president of the Iranian American Parents Assn. She said Iranians have paid their dues and are ready to make a difference.

"We have lived through a revolution and have had to make a lot of adjustments," she said. "Now we are over the shock, the anger and depression and it is time to blend in and become part of the whole."

Six years ago, the association held its first traditional "Nowruz" party, celebrating the Iranian New Year and the beginning of spring, in a house with only a handful of officials present. This year's event attracted a who's who of city government and raised thousands of dollars for educational programs.

Pirnia, a psychologist who sits on the boards of several of the city's charitable organizations and is of the Bahai faith, was herself honored in May as co-citizen of the year at a star-studded event held by the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce. Such recognition marked a turning point in Beverly Hills, where the population is 32,000, overwhelmingly white and with a large Jewish population of European heritage. However, the school district's student population represents 57 nationalities speaking 46 languages.

Iranian parent organizations have contributed thousands of dollars to the school district, and have begun urging school officials to make changes, such as adding Farsi to the curriculum.

The district has hired a full-time Farsi-speaking language specialist and a home school coordinator to ease the transition for students and to sensitize administrators and teachers to Iranian culture.

In addition, the district has asked the Museum of Tolerance at the Simon Wiesenthal Center to train its staff to serve a multicultural student population.

The Iranian community in Southern California is estimated to be well in excess of 300,000. Because their numbers are concentrated in a relatively small area, many Iranians still manage to live their lives nearly surrounded by the culture of their homeland--going to Iranian nightclubs, shopping for clothing and jewelry at Iranian businesses.

There are Iranian magazines and Iranian television and radio shows in Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles. A 1,000-page Iranian Yellow Pages lists 5,000 Iranian business and professionals--half located in Southern California and many in Beverly Hills.

But as is the case with other immigrant groups, the younger generation tends to lead the way when it comes to adapting to a new homeland, and the older people often find it a struggle to keep up.

Stephan Saeed Nourmand, president of Nourmand & Associates Realtors, recalls the first generation of Iranians who flocked to Beverly Hills, buying expensive properties with cash. Now, he said, a second wave has hit the city.

That next generation, said Dar Mahbubi, who built the fashionable Rodeo Collection on Rodeo Drive, will be the one to branch out into politics.

"The new generation of Iranians feels like they are part of the American community," he said. "They are Americans, blending in and becoming one. It has taken 20 years, but that is the normal time it takes for the new generation to get its foothold and become part of the American community."

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