We Are Here, We Have Always Been Here

An international conference hosted by San Francisco State University brings together the Iranian American diaspora — one that has flourished, noticed or not, in the Bay Area.

With just a handful of Iranian families alongside hers as she grew up in Marin County, author Jasmin Darznik felt like they were too small even to be a minority.

It felt as though everyone knew one another, or at least came together over a shared culture and similar experiences of moving to the United States amid the turmoil of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. But Darznik was caught between two worlds, one where her parents wouldn’t let her date and another where she questioned why they couldn’t have “normal” food like her classmates.

“I tried to hide how strict my parents were. I was really angry but I was also very ashamed,” Darznik says. “I felt like my American friends just didn’t get that, and that we were backwards.”

Darznik, now a literature professor at California College of the Arts in San Francisco and Oakland, would go on to write the acclaimed books Songs of a Captive Bird and The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life. But for most of her professional career, she felt very alone in centering Iranian American experiences.

As the immigrant community starts to reflect on the revolution’s 40th anniversary, that feeling is melting away. Darznik is one of several speakers at San Francisco State University’s International Conference on Iranian Diaspora Studies from March 28-30. Mirroring the diaspora’s growing roots in this country, the conference brings together scholars, writers, and artists whose work has fleshed out complexities among the several generations of Iranian immigrants.

“When you’re an immigrant writer or writer of color, you feel like you can only be one of us,” Darznik says. “There’s a real power that can come from that, from finding yourself in a community. There doesn’t only have to be one of us.”

Among some of the topics: queer Iranian American women (Arizona State University’s Shadee Abdi), anti-Blackness among Iranians (Sacramento State University’s Sahar Razavi), and themes of longing and belonging in Persian pop music made by exiles (independent researcher Arash Saedinia). Darznik notes that many of the presenters are women, and many of the themes involve art.

It’s no coincidence that SFSU is hosting. The conference is put on by the university’s Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies, the first academic institution of its kind. In November, SFSU announced the center, along with its Documentary Film Institute, would produce We Are Here, We Have Always Been Here to document the Bay Area’s Iranian diaspora — another first. 

“I want to sort of show that it’s not a homogenous community. It’s not just the post-1979 upper class,” says Persis Karim, We Are Here’s co-director and the center’s director. “It’s about the Bay Area and the way the Bay Area has influenced them, as much as they’ve influenced the Bay Area.”

California has one the largest populations of Iranians outside Iran, but without a clear distinction by the U.S. Census — Iranians are among many left with either ‘White’ or ‘Some Other Race’ — it’s hard to tell exactly how many. Karim estimates that the state has closer to 1.5 million people of Iranian descent, of which the Bay Area is home to more than 100,000, but much attention is paid to wealthy residents of Los Angeles. That tends to overshadow stories of Iranian immigrants who reinvented themselves in the Bay Area, and how their children and grandchildren meshed that culture with an American upbringing.

Some Iranian Americans in or from the Bay Area include Netflix’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat host Samin Nosrat, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, San Francisco Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, and Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian. Karim also points to Torange Yeghiazarian, who founded San Francisco’s Golden Thread Productions in 1996, establishing the first American theater company devoted to stories surrounding Middle Eastern perspectives and identities.

“The San Francisco Bay Area is one of those places where you can really bring you to the table,” says Soumyaa Behrens, We Are Here’s co-director who leads SFSU’s Documentary Film Institute. “There’s that level of acceptance and welcoming — it goes beyond tolerance.”

Like Nosrat, acclaimed chef Hoss Zare has helped that welcoming by bringing Iranian culture into the mainstream through food. After arriving from Iran in 1986, he traded his studies to become a brain surgeon and instead blended Persian flavors into popular foods — first at Ecco, then at five other Bay Area restaurants he opened and closed.

Zare moved back to Iran in 2018 to settle family matters after his parents’ 2007 murders, but returned in November after feeling that it wouldn’t work any longer. He now feeds workers at companies like Google as Bon Appétit executive chef and hosts pop-up dinners, like a four-course dinner at Danville’s Albatross to celebrate Persian New Year — known as Norooz — on Wednesday.

“I felt that, even though I spoke their language, I didn’t know what they were saying,” Zare says. “Iran is the country that I love. I was born there, but now the United States is my country.”

Whereas Zare’s generation lived through the revolution, 1979 hostage crisis, and Iran-Iraq War, newer generations have also grappled with a lack of misunderstanding from decades of negative headlines regarding Iran. Former President George W. Bush deemed Iran a part of the “Axis of Evil” after 9/11, as the country dealt with crippling economic sanctions over its nuclear program. Though a brief diplomatic period lasted under the Obama administration striking a nuclear deal, President Donald Trump undid the agreement, included Iran in his travel ban, and reinstated economic sanctions.

But We Are Here is not about the challenges and what has been lost. It’s about the lives and successes that have emerged from Iranians in the Bay Area, how they do or don’t fit in, and how they come together for traditional celebrations like Norooz.

However, time is of the essence for the documentary, which is still fundraising to reach the goal of a March 2020 release. Earlier generations of Iranian immigrants are elderly, and with their loss comes a lack of valuable stories largely unrecorded. Separately but similarly, Karim is building a digital archive about the Bay Area’s Iranian American community through a National Endowment for the Humanities grant.

“We’re in danger of losing a whole generation of people without having documented it,” Karim says. “In 25 years, there will be a generation that will be hungry to figure out their own place in U.S. society. If you don’t claim that history, you’re not seen as having a history.”

Ida Mojadad is a staff writer at SF Weekly.

imojadad@sfweekly.com |  @idamoj

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