Monday, December 6, 2010

Heart Away from Home

A few days ago, my husband and I had a hankering for pizza, so we headed for our favorite pizza joint in Sunnyvale, which happens to be owned by an Iranian. And the owner just happened to be hanging about that day. The men were soon deep in conversation working out the connections they had to various mutual Iranian acquaintances: the guy who used to manage the Croatian restaurant down the street and the friend who owned a café nearby then sold it and moved to Australia.

Versions of this scenario repeat almost every time we go out together. Maybe it’s just coincidence, certainly not because the Iranian community here is small. With over 200,000 people in the entire Bay Area, the Persian population is more than twice the size of the city where I live. I think the answer lies in the nature of immigrant communities everywhere. New immigrants tend to gravitate toward compatriots who’ve arrived before them, seeking assistance from people who share a common language and culture and can help them navigate the new and sometimes confusing customs of their new country.

When I’ve lived abroad, assimilation has always been my goal. I’ve avoided hanging out with other Americans or even other English speakers, preferring to immerse myself in the local culture, gain fluency in the language, bone up on the history of a place, and make new friends whose world view might be different than mine. But then, travel for me has always been about discovering the world and all its diversity.

In the Iranian diaspora, priorities are quite different, at least on the surface. Persians are proud of their culture and history, if not of the current regime ruling their homeland, and it comes as no surprise that, in their new country, they want to recreate the world they left behind.

When I go to parties at Iranian friends’ homes, it’s like stepping through a space-shrinking portal and emerging in Tehran, halfway across the world. The language spoken is Farsi. Dinner is a multicourse feast with Persian rice dishes, khoresh (meat and vegetable stews), and kebabs, and the food is served late, rarely before nine p.m. While tea flows pretty much all evening long. The only differences from similar parties in Iran are the fact that the women arrive without hejab and wine is served with dinner. But like in Tehran, I’m usually the only “foreigner” present.

Yet this focus on recreating the familiar is only half the equation. Iranian expats put down deep roots in their new country. Most arrive with the requisite skills and drive to establish a successful career or start a new enterprise. They may speak Farsi at home and with friends, but they learn English well enough to function in the larger society. Like back in the old country, Iranian expats put on a public face and a private one. The private one is pure Persian.

Diasporas make life a whole lot more interesting for the rest of us. The Iranian one gives me the chance to learn more about a culture that fascinates me without having to go to Iran. I can practice Farsi, not only on my husband and during phone calls to relatives “back home,” but also at parties or by watching old movies on Persian TV. With Middle Eastern markets nearby, I have no trouble finding specialty ingredients for the Persian dishes I like to prepare. And occasionally, even when we go out for pizza, I can catch up on gossip passing along the Persian grapevine.


  1. An Iranian pizza place? I couldn't imagine sich thing existed! How different is it from Italian pizza?

  2. Lina, the pizza is Italian, just the owner is Iranian. (The cook is Mexican and the waitress Chinese.) The only thing on the menu that I've never seen anywhere else is a pizza that has a mustard sauce instead of tomato. But it's not Iranian, either.

  3. I love how different cultures adapt food from different countries and make it their own. Mmmm.... pizza... my tummy's grumbling (although I'm not that keen on trying a pizz with mustard sauce)!

  4. Alli, I'm not a big fan of the pizza with mustard sauce, but it's one of the reasons my husband likes that place. Maybe it is an Iranian thing, after all. There is also an Italian-Iranian restaurant here in my town, but it's not fusion. There are separate Italian and Iranian dishes on the menu.

    I do make an Italian-Iranian fusion dish sometimes. It's basically spaghetti bolognese, but it's prepared like Iranian chelo (rice with a crispy crust on the bottom). And it's called - get this - makaroni. My sister-in-law taught me how to make it, but a version is also in a Persian regional cookbook I have, so it's the real deal.

  5. I love the way Heidi and I both focused on food when it came to covering diasporas this week. :)

    And Heidi, as we've discussed, a lot of what you've described in terms of dual identities applies to Indians abroad as well. Probably a lot of other diasporas as well. Only I don't of any others with mustard pizza...