Sadra Ford looked out the front window of the Persian cafe and watched people passing by storefront signs in the language of his native Iran. He grabbed the condiment bottle next to him and poured ketchup all over his thin-crust pizza.
“This is how Iranians eat pizza in Iran,” Ford said, then took a bite.
Ford is one of the many Iranian Americans who come to what’s known as Tehrangeles, an enclave in Westwood that’s home to a vibrant Persian community that started small in the 1960s and boomed after 1979.
He was 5 when his parents began bringing him to Tehrangeles, when the community was expanding beyond a few Iranian mom-and-pop restaurants and stores. Now he’s 34 and makes the trip at least once every couple of months from Orange County.
“It makes me feel good to come here and see a place that reminds me of Iran,” he said.
Of the roughly half-million people living in the U.S. with Iranian ancestry, more than 40% live in California, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Many wound up in Southern California because the climate reminded them of Tehran, making it home to the largest Iranian community outside of Iran. Los Angeles is home to 87,000 people of Iranian ancestry, according to the Census Bureau.
Many older Iranians in Tehrangeles trace their roots to the 1979 Islamic Revolution that led to the ouster of the secular, pro-U.S. monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. He was replaced with the conservative Shiite Muslim government headed by the anti-Western Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Four decades later, relations between Iran and the U.S. remain sour and the Persian community in Tehrangeles continues to be influenced by divisions and tensions it inherited from the past. Yet older Iranians continue to cherish this piece of Los Angeles that offers them memories of their first home, and younger generations flock here to embrace their Persian heritage.
Between 2,000 and 4,000 people annually were leaving Iran for the U.S. in the 1960s and ’70s, many on scholarships to study and others to do business.
In Westwood, a handful of Persian restaurants and grocery stores started to pop up.
Then came the revolution. More Iranians came to the U.S., and to Tehrangeles, but the upheaval caused tensions among Persians here and some animosity toward them.
After Iranians stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took Americans hostage for 444 days, protests broke out in Los Angeles. On one side were Americans outraged by the U.S. Embassy takeover; on the other side were supporters of the Islamic Republic.
Caught in the middle were the Iranians in Los Angeles who had hoped to leave the politics of their homeland behind.
Ata Farman was one of them. Farman, 35 at the time, recalls American protesters swarming a Persian restaurant he owned in West Los Angeles, and others leaving death threats on his phone at work.
“I was scared. People were telling me they’d kill me if I didn’t get out of the country,” Farman recalls.
Many of the people escaping the revolution and its aftermath didn’t plan to resettle in the U.S.; they were upper-class and highly educated and planned to return to Iran.
But by the 1980s and 1990s, hope had started to fade and Iranians in Los Angeles slowly began to realize that they would be building a new life away from their motherland.
The number of people fleeing the Islamic Republic to the U.S. rose to about 9,000 per year.
And Tehrangeles started to grow.
More Persian restaurants opened, along with bookstores, music shops, art galleries, immigration legal services and passport processing agencies.
Today, as the complex relationship between Iran and the U.S. worsens, tensions continue to spill over into Tehrangeles.
In 2014, the Westwood Neighborhood Council passed a motion calling on the Los Angeles City Council to remove signs written in Persian in some stores that offered assistance for travel to Iran or consular services.
Subsequently, last May, some Iranian businesses in Tehrangeles came together with other Westwood residents to vote for a new neighborhood council.
“I think it was very insensitive that they did that and I understand why the community was hurt,” Michael Skiles said of the neighborhood council’s action. Skiles, president of the Graduate Students Assn. at UCLA., spearheaded efforts for the new council.
The Trump administration’s reimposition of tough economic sanctions on Iran, coupled with the travel ban, is also hurting businesses in Tehrangeles.
For the last 20 years, Farhad Besharati has owned ATT Vacation, a travel agency that primarily helps older Iranians book trips to and from Iran.
But over the last year, Besharati’s business has tanked. Skyrocketing inflation in Iran coupled with restrictions resulting from Trump’s travel ban has meant fewer customers.
As a result, Besharati, 59, plans to close his store in the next few months.
“Rent is $4,000 a month, and I can’t afford it,” he said. “I’ve probably lost $1 million since Trump’s travel ban.”
Across the street, 62-year-old Alex Helmi faces the same predicament. He has been selling Persian rugs from his Westwood shop for more than 30 years, but over the last decade his livelihood has rested on the economic battles played out by the U.S. and Iran.
A 2010 embargo on Iranian goods prevented Helmi from being able to import merchandise. In 2018, when Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, Helmi was again caught in the middle.
In January, Helmi decided he’d had enough. He would close the store and retire.
“I’m heartbroken,” he said. “I’m in the middle of this geopolitical mess.”
Despite the obstacles, many of the Iranians who helped establish Tehrangeles — now in their 70s and 80s — still cherish the community.
Many spend their days strolling the neighborhood or sipping tea at cafes while playing backgammon and recalling memories from their native country.
Kambiz Ghaemmagham, 75, recently sat outside a coffee shop and talked about his younger days as an Iranian student activist in California.
Ghaemmagham left Iran in 1962 and came to study engineering at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. After the revolution, he stayed in Los Angeles and joined the National Front — a political organization with chapters throughout the country for Iranians who opposed the Shah’s monarchy.
Ghaemmagham decided to return to Iran in 1979 to see the outcome of the revolution. It was his last time.
“I was scared for myself,” Ghaemmagham recalled. “The old Iran I knew was dead.”
He’s still interested in politics, though. For more than 20 years, Ghaemmagham has organized a monthly meet-up for Iranian Americans to discuss topics related to their homeland.
“Forty years might be a long time, but Iranians are still active,” Ghaemmagham said.
For younger generations, the community their elders created is a link to their Persian culture, a way to embrace their dual identities.
The older Iranian generation came to America and established themselves, setting the foundation for the younger generation. As a result, the newer generation has embraced their Iranian American identity while establishing careers that their parents didn’t have the opportunity to pursue, said Ali Akbar Mahdi, a sociology professor at Cal State Northridge.
“The first generation had to fight for everything the second generation has,” he said.
Because of that, Akbar Mahdi said, young Iranian Americans are now able to embrace both American and Persian culture while pursuing their passion.
“Now this new generation is coming to the scene much stronger and more rigorous,” he said.
Consequently, Iranians have formed a successful community that goes beyond Tehrangeles.
Many Iranian Americans are doctors, engineers and lawyers. Some have taken on high-profile jobs in Silicon Valley, such as Dara Khosrowshahi, chief executive of Uber. Others have tackled politics, such as Jimmy Delshad, who served as mayor of Beverly Hills.
On a recent afternoon in Tehrangeles, 36-year-old Shahab Vahdat took a drag from a shisha, a water pipe also known as hookah, as Persian music blared in the background of Naab Cafe.
His family fled Tehran on a cold, snowy day in 1985, when he was 3. His parents placed him in the back of a pickup truck and crossed the border into Pakistan.
Vahdat, who now works at a marketing agency, said his family left Iran because in the years after the revolution, they no longer felt safe because of their Jewish faith.
Vahdat, who has spent most of his adult life in Los Angeles, strongly identifies with his Iranian heritage.
Aside from Tehrangeles’ Persian restaurants, Iranian memorabilia shops and annual Nowruz celebrations, Vahdat values living in Westwood since it has helped keep him rooted in Persian culture.
“I’m half in one space and half in the other space,” he said.
Sadra Ford understands that feeling. In addition to being in a space where no one looks twice if he douses his pizza with ketchup, he treasures being able to roam around and hear others speaking Persian.
“I feel like I can stay connected to my Iranian roots,” Ford says.
Sitting in the cafe, Ford talked of his family leaving Iran when he was very young. He’s not able to return because as a businessman with dual citizenship, he worries that Iranian authorities would arrest him and use him as a bargaining chip with the U.S.
A few weeks earlier, his 94-year-old grandfather had died in his arms, taking with him stories of the old Iran that Ford had come to love.
His grandfather’s last wish was to be buried there. Ford’s mother fulfilled that promise and was returning that day from Iran. Ford would soon pick her up at the airport.
“I wish I could go back to Iran and see my real identity,” he said before leaving the restaurant.
But he will make do with visiting Tehrangeles.
Follow me on Twitter @melissaetehad