As Iranian American weddings grow more lavish, some call for restraint
Shahbal Shabpareh and his band Black Cats — a premier Iranian American pop group — have performed American hits with a Persian twist at upper-crust Iranian celebrations almost weekly for years.
They’ve seen lots of lavish weddings, but one stands out as the most over-the-top.
As guests enjoyed hors d’oeuvres outside the banquet hall, the bride was placed in a glass coffin. The groom fitted on a white half-mask. Then, the carefully planned Phantom of the Opera theme devolved into chaos.
Condensation formed inside the coffin as guests delayed filtering in. When the groom finally took his cue to present the bride, the lid wouldn’t budge. Before long, he was slamming the glass trying to break through as the bride wailed inside, her makeup running down her face. It would be an hour before she was finally freed.
For Shabpareh, the night crystallized the breakneck rise in ostentation at weddings hosted in recent years by L.A.'s wealthiest Iranian Americans. For some, party hosting can be a competitive sport, with spending used as a yardstick for status. Weddings boasting guest lists almost a thousand deep with price tags nearing half a million dollars are not unheard of.
Iranian culture is by no means alone in making huge affairs out of weddings, rites of passage and other celebrations. But rarely are the stakes as high as they are for Iranian Americans, particularly in Los Angeles, home to the largest — and one of the most affluent — Persian communities outside of Iran.
During the 1980s, the initial years of the Iranian diaspora, many were unsure whether L.A. would be any more than a temporary home, and were wary of spending extravagantly during a time of transition. But as members of the immigrant group began to settle down and prosper, there was a shift.
“They said ‘If we are living in this country, let’s live,’ ” Shabpareh said. “It used to be only one cameraman with the camera on his shoulder. Now there are four or five camera crews at parties and they have a 25-foot crane over the dance floor.”
The festivities often double as enormous family reunions, with relatives flying in from the East Coast and abroad. Open bars, fully stocked with top-shelf liquors, are the norm. Guests dance to live musicians so well-known in the community that many go by one name. Festivities continue into the early morning, fueled by cups of black tea and sugary Persian pastries.
But competitive spending can be destructive, particularly in the midst of a slumping economy.
Rabbi Zvi Dershowitz of Sinai Temple has attended dozens of Persian weddings. Most are modest, but there are some that he believes cross a line of good taste.
He recently attended a wedding in Las Vegas with 900 guests. At another wedding, he was shocked to find spinning helicopter-like propellers over the chuppa, a traditionally plain structure under which vows are exchanged.
“That to me was improper,” he said.
The rabbi says he makes a point of not judging — and even sees virtue in the enormous family gatherings — but he worries about the debt some families are racking up. He said he’s seen multiple instances of Iranian American congregants at Sinai Temple who he knew did not have the wealth to throw lavish parties but did so anyway.
“There’s a lot of societal pressure,” he said. “If they don’t do it, what will people think of them? The dollars seem to show the status of the family in the community. When you invite 300 or 400 people you’ve made a statement. Look who I am. Look what I have.”
Sheila Kharrazi, 32, of Beverly Hills would have preferred a smaller ceremony, maybe even a destination wedding at some far-flung locale. But with Persian weddings, she said, the bride and groom don’t always get to choose.
“In the Persian community, your wedding is not so much your wedding as it is your parents’ wedding,” she said. “My mom’s response was ‘Your kid’s wedding will be your wedding.’ ”
Her mother’s desire to have a large affair trumped the wishes of the bride and groom. Kharrazi and her husband, an orthopedic surgeon, ended up getting married at the Beverly Hills Hotel with some 450 guests.
She declined to disclose the total cost of the wedding, but with performances by Martik, a premier Persian entertainer, tons of white orchids and a custom-made round white dance floor, the event met what she described as her “expensive taste.”
“When I look back at the video, during the ceremony, when the mother and father kiss their daughter goodbye, my mom had tears in her eyes,” Kharrazi said. “She was shaking.”
Sepehr Jourabchi, 40, a textiles wholesaler, began saving — for his wedding and other big expenses — long before he’d even met his wife, Mehrnoush Salim, 30. When the Beverly Hills couple decided to marry, he said he was prepared for the hefty price tag.
Some 400 guests attended their wedding, featuring a live band, a sushi station before dinner and an elaborate series of giant trees composed of white orchids, roses and hydrangeas. Crystals and candles hung from the branches.
Jourabchi, who also declined to disclose the final tab, said he and his wife weren’t giving in to societal pressure or looking to be showy with their reception.
“When you have a big wedding you have all the family there and you know they’re all behind you,” he said.
The bad economy has challenged the culture of the lavish Persian wedding, forcing some hosts to cut back, at least a little.
Florists, caterers and banquet hall owners are reporting a downturn in spending. Performers, like the Black Cats, are working for less and being asked to limit extras like DJs and backup singers.
Joseph Akhtarzad, general manager at Olympic Collection, a Westside banquet hall popular among Iranian Americans, said guest count fell between 20% and 30% when the economy soured, a hefty drop in business considering that he charges up to $200 a head.
Still, many in the Persian community are loath to leave out even the most distant of relatives — a reality Akhtarzad says is on full display at mixed-ethnicity wedding receptions, where the vast majority of guests will be from the Persian side of the family.
He estimates that a fifth of his clients are borrowing to cover costs for these massive gatherings.
Saeed Babaeean, owner of Empty Vase, a West Hollywood flower shop that commonly caters to high-end Iranian American parties, said he’s seen spending drop since the economy began to decline. Many of his clients fear appearing gaudy or insensitive in the midst of hard times.
But he says the lavish events continue.
Recently he worked a wedding with 750 guests. The price tag: $300,000, not including food, drinks, entertainment or space rental.
The groom’s parents were originally working with a smaller budget but decided to double it because the groom’s mother wanted to make the most of her son’s wedding.
“They didn’t triple it because politically it didn’t look good,” Babaeean said.
Many in the community say the pressure to have lavish parties can be too much.
“Their cousin has a party and they say, ‘I have to do better,’ like they’re a rival,” Shabpareh said. “Come on, it’s your cousin.”
Dara Abaei, director of Jewish Unity Network, a nonprofit active in the Iranian American community, has lobbied against the climb in spending.
He’s proposed that a few prominent families join together and make a point of hosting modest affairs. That, Abaei says, would ease the pressure on families who aren’t as wealthy.
Recently, he persuaded one couple to scrap the open bar at their wedding reception and donate the savings. Getting rid of what’s become an almost requisite expense prompted some grumbling among guests, Abaei said, but he calls the decision a small step in the right direction.