Essay: Iranians moving past negative depictions in pop culture


If pop culture is a measure of cultural visibility, then Iranian Americans have been invisible for decades. Of course, there was Iran itself, hardly invisible. But as a teenager, I knew my reality, one far from hostage crises and contra trials, was never going to make it pop culturally; in fact, I would have bet my little hyphenated life against the very moment of pop cultural breakthrough we’re finally reaching now.

Back then, every time a bit of Iran broke through, it was an event. In 1991, when I was 13, “Not Without My Daughter” came out — the true story of American Betty Mahmoody (played by Sally Field) who was essentially kidnapped by her abusive Iranian husband while on a visit to Iran. I still remember my family’s naïve moment of rejoicing at the trailer — Gidget had married an Iranian! But after 45 seconds the voiceover’s tune changed: “He swore they would be safe. They would be happy. They would be free to leave. He lied.” Apparently Gidget’s “crime of being an American” was being met with the horrific punishment of living in Iran forever! On the screen were suddenly bombs, women in veils screaming. It was a horror movie about Iran. We were Freddy Krueger. I went to school the next day filled with shame, as if everyone would be thinking I was a Gidget killer.

The next time I caught mention of Iran in any cinematic sense was four years later, when “Clueless” came out, about the life and times of a spoiled 90210 Valley Girl, Cher. I still remember doing a mental happy dance when Cher, pointing to a cloud of Cartier, Armani and Aqua Net, declared, “And that’s the Persian mafia. You can’t hang with them unless you have a BMW.” What a point for the team, I thought!

By then I knew Beverly Hills High was filled with “Tehrangelenos” — denizens of Westwood and Beverly Hills colonized by Iranian culture — but to have Hollywood say this, well, take that, Gidget! Iran had gone from the land of blood and bombs, prayers and veils, to Iranian-America, a haven of big hair, bling, allah-who-alla-wha-ing, material girls and boys.

In the mid to late ‘90s — the closest Iran-US relations came to a golden age since the ‘70s, thanks to moderate mullah Khatami’s reign — there were few other popular movie references, but the big-city indie set was hot on Iranian arthouse cinema: Kiarostami, Majidi, Panahi and Makhmalbaf. Quick to become Cannes critics darling, much of the novelty of the 90s Iranian arthouse was a cinema of restriction, the artistry of necessity, what happens when a government won’t allow its greatest minds to visit, say, the simplest expressions of female sexuality. My father made them mandatory viewing and I’d often fall asleep in the theater, immune to anything that didn’t involve MTV editing, hunks, or Terminators. Plus, none of the kids at school knew about these bleak yet beautiful arty knockouts. The tree was falling in the woods, but only Iranians — and the film critics who love them — were around to hear the sound.

You can’t ignore a diaspora for long, though. The “temporary” immigrant population, a notion early on mainly perpetuated by Iranians who were loathe to abandon “exile”-status, was becoming less and less temporary. Wasn’t the L.A. climate pretty much the same as Tehran anyway? Wasn’t the Persian rosewater and saffron ice cream at Hollywood’s Mashti Malone’s just as good, if not better, than the bastani akbar-mashti on Tajrish Square?

Iranians, left outside of the 9/11 conversation, began to leak fairly seamlessly into the best and worst of pop culture. In 2003, veteran Iranian actress Shohreh Aghadashloo starred in “The House of Sand and Fog,” for which she became the first Iranian nominated for an Academy Award (although two years later the pendulum swung back when she played a member of a terrorist family on the hit TV show “24”). In 2005, the best picture winner, “ Crash,” featured Persian characters and Persian dialogue. Two years later, MTV’s “The Real World: Sydney” included a whiny Iranian American cast member, and even “90210” cast an Iranian.

Worst moment yet: 2006 action-film mess “300” outraged Iranians around the world for its depiction of demonic Persian warriors. Best moment yet: In 2007, “Persepolis,” the French animated film based on Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel about her Iranian childhood, was released to widespread, deserved acclaim.

Since June 12, 2009, and the protests that followed the likely rigged reelection of Ahmadinejad, Iranian visibility has spiked dramatically. Who could forget the brief moment when icons all across the Twitterverse went green, when even actress Alyssa Milano (the Green Revolution’s most inexplicably ardent celebrity supporter) could tweet about nothing else? And of course, the revolution got a face that launched tens of thousands of clicks in Neda Agha-Soltan, the 26-year-old philosophy student whose fatal shooting at the protests circulated worldwide via the Internet. The world was seeing, was listening, for once.

So maybe it’s no surprise that pop culture has thrown Iranian-Americans some big bones recently: last fall, NBC added fairly-unknown comic Nasim Pedrad to the “SNL” cast. ABC announced plans to shoot a pilot for Iranian American humorist Firoozeh Dumas’s Big Fat Greek Wedding of Iranian-American memoirs, “Funny in Farsi” with Iranian American funnyman Maz Jobrani as the lead (though ABC did not pick up the pilot in the end). The $200-million movie “Prince of Persia” was released in May. And this spring, the creators of “Jersey Shore” sent out a casting call for a show they are tentatively calling “The Persian Version,” a “Jersey Shore”-of-the-Tehrangeles set.

Now that we’re starting to be seen a permanent part of this country’s fabric, we have to ask: Is this the manifestation of that hyphen that we long sought? Does it all amount to a Persian Snooki?

In a recent, heavily circulated video promoting official Iranian minority status on the occasion of the 2010 census, Jobrani — whose IMDB reflects roles on prominent TV shows (“The West Wing,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) but also reveals some unfortunate typecasting (“Sikh,” “robber,” “imam”, “marko”)—parodies several Iranian types, who all, much like my many of us who at some point or another wanted to co-opt a less controversial ethnicity, insist they’re “Italian.” The video’s point is to get Iranians here to put “Iranian American” in the “other” category, but it cleverly spotlights a turning point for Iranian acceptance in the proverbial melting pot.

It’s a pot that would scare any self-respecting minority from dipping a toe into, of course.

Perhaps Kiarostami’s much-acclaimed Cannes entry last month is the best indicator of how to proceed. “Certified Copy” is the director’s first totally non-Iranian film — Frenchwoman ( Juliette Binoche) and Brit (William Shimell) star in a movie set in Italy — so he has in one swoop catapulting him from a devoutly nativist artist to an international director. It’s bound to create less critical praise than his more allegorical idyllic-Iran impoverished-children-tearjerkers. But it’s an occasion for Iranians abroad to celebrate. When we can bust out of the ol’ pigeonhole — as when Pedrad gets to play Kathy Griffin or Mary-Kate Olsen instead of Ahmadinejad’s wife on “SNL” — then we will be a real American minority.

Just like most self-respecting Italian Americans don’t want anything to do with the image of Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, we should be the first to dismiss the Persian Snooki-Princess when she arrives. And we should remind ourselves that “Prince of Persia” and that awful Oriental arabesque font used on almost every book cover by a female Iranian memoirist — aren’t about us.

After all, a certain type of invisibility, if considered like that superhero power kids covet, is a virtue. It’s up to us to be individuals to resist what comes after easily fitting into a census category. Being able to say there is no us sounds like freedom to me.

Khakpour is the author of the novel “Sons and Other Flammable Objects.”