Radio Host Helps Ease the Way for Troubled Iranians

Times Staff Writer

It is one hour into Farhang Holakouee's daytime radio show, and a caller reveals a Persian version of "The Scarlet Letter."

The woman is 33, unmarried and six weeks pregnant. Her boyfriend refuses to marry her. Should she have an abortion or become a single mom? Her own horrified mother, meantime, is staging "typical Iranian mother theatrics."

"My dear, you need to think realistically," Holakouee says, gently probing the woman's ethical position on abortion and her financial ability to raise a child alone.

In a calm voice, he walks her through some costs of keeping the baby: It will be harder to find a husband. Her family might not be willing to help. He suggests that she weigh that against her reluctance to end the pregnancy.

"Find some solitude, talk quietly with your God, and decide which pain is easier to bear," he says.

Then he takes a moment to stick up for the maligned "Iranian mother": "Theatrics?" he asks. "Isn't it possible she's simply upset?"

Six days a week, Holakouee offers thousands of Iranian listeners advice on how to balance their traditional values with American culture. He preaches a sympathetic realism in dealing with shifting gender roles, homesickness, mental illness and the conflicts between generations over premarital sex and cohabitation.

Holakouee has helped make it respectable to discuss such concerns outside the family and with a stranger -- a significant break from Iranian tradition.

Since 1980, Holakouee has transformed himself from a teacher of classes on self-esteem and anger management into a radio star in the Iranian community through his show, "Needs and Mysteries."

His seminars pack hotel ballrooms in Los Angeles, New York, Washington and in Europe. He speaks on cruise ships bound for Mexico and Alaska. His radio show on Los Angeles' Persian station KIRN-AM (670) reaches thousands of Iranians living in Southern California. He also draws listeners via satellite and the Internet from Iranian expatriate communities around the world.

Holakouee grounds his thinking in history, philosophy and literature, as well as psychology. He sprinkles his lectures with references to Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and 11th century Persian Sufi poet Jalaleddin Rumi.

His critics, who include husbands leery of psychology who can't fathom why their wives listen to his show, accuse him of dispensing advice that runs counter to Iranian culture. They say such ideas as a person's "inner child" and attention deficit disorder are Western notions that Iranians must avoid to retain cultural purity.

But such criticism often is overshadowed by praise from his devotees.

"He's insightful, funny and makes a point of keeping you engaged," said Ferial Sarrafian of Beverly Hills, who regularly listens to him on her commute home. "I never stop being impressed."

Holakouee says he is trying to find a middle ground, where Iranians shed the worst of Persian and American cultures and forge more humane values.

"If you're wise, you don't believe culture is holy," he said. "It's supposed to be a vehicle for self-actualization."

His language of psychology, translated into Persian, has seeped into the local vernacular. For example, Holakouee argues that birth order shapes personality.

In a commercial on Persian television for a bank loan, for example, the officer asks the borrower, "Are you the oldest, middle or youngest child?"

Holakouee's listeners include Armenians, Assyrians, Bahais, Jews, Muslims and Christians. They all have their share of assimilation problems, he said, and they tune in with relief to hear that they are not alone.

Some, for example, need coaching to relax their hold on daughters so the daughters can leave home to attend college or get jobs. Others might struggle with prejudice if their daughters date men of other backgrounds.

His callers' dilemmas are commonplace: an immigrant teenager obsessed with Internet chat, a young girl frustrated with her father's traditional reserve, a husband estranged from a rapidly assimilating wife, the meddling mother-in-law.

Holakouee's followers see him as a catalyst for change.

"It's rare that one person can change a culture," said Homa Mahmoudi, a prominent psychologist who has practiced in Los Angeles for 35 years.

In the four years since Holakouee began advocating therapy on his radio show, demand for Iranian psychologists and therapists in L.A. has increased, Mahmoudi and others said.

"Clients whose names I didn't know 15 years ago now brag that they have a therapist," Mahmoudi said.

Iranians in Northern California, the other large community in the state, discovered Holakouee in videos at their public libraries. Some commute south to attend his classes, said Nahid Azar, a therapist who practices in San Jose.

Holakouee, 59, grew up in the Iranian city of Shiraz, where the great national poets he quotes are buried.

He taught collective behavior at the University of Tehran until 1977, when he anticipated the Iranian revolution and moved to the United States.

He earned a doctorate in sociology and a master's degree in marriage and family counseling at the University of Utah and began teaching classes and seminars.

Along the way, his own marriage ended, and he raised his two sons alone.

When asked by a listener how he can advise on marriage when his own failed, he replied that he prefers to keep his life private.

His classes attract grandfathers in cardigans, pampered Beverly Hills wives, newlywed couples, rabbis, pop singers and second-generation children who understand Persian but speak it haltingly.

Rarely does Holakouee dispense harsh advice. But his warm tone can drip with dismay, such as when he chided a mother for being concerned about her toddler's choice of outfit: "Dear lady, a 3-year-old cannot distinguish from chic."

Many Iranians displaced by the 1979 revolution, particularly members of religious minorities and political exiles, think they will never go back to their homeland. Twenty-five years later, that belief sometimes haunts them.

In such areas as Westwood and Beverly Hills, they cook Iranian food and celebrate the Persian new year with a sorrow-tinged enthusiasm, clinging to traditions.

On the air, Holakouee reminds listeners not to live in the past: "It doesn't exist except in your mind." He urges them to view life realistically, and, when in doubt, to get a proper psychological evaluation.

"In Iranian families, anxiety and obsessive behavior are called by other names," he tells the caller whose son chats online all day. He suggests that the son see a licensed therapist to find out whether the problem is lingering homesickness.

Often, callers are perplexed by the dizzying array of choices of life in America, finding themselves in uncharted territory.

Holakouee's biggest lesson is that freedom has consequences.

"Having options is certainly progress," he said. "But when you're free, it's your own choices that can confine you."

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