In nearly any large group, religion can be divisive, but there’s particularly thorny baggage attached to faith for Iranian immigrants. A look at the pattern of emigration from Iran helps explain why.
The attitude of Iranian Americans who arrived around the time of the 1979 revolution can clash with those of other groups. Many introduce themselves as Persians rather than Iranians to disassociate themselves from the Islamic government in modern-day Iran. Some even fly the pre-revolution Iranian flag, which featured a lion and sun rather than the modern religious emblem, to show their opposition to the Islamic regime, which officially changed the flag in 1980. That strong rejection can be alienating for more religious Iranian Americans, many of whom left after the revolution.
Nonetheless, the different groups mingle often—so in mixed company, religion and politics are strictly off-limits. “They feel very, very strongly about [these things],” said Roxana Bahani, one of the leaders of the University of Washington’s Iranian student group, Persian Circle. “So if they start a conversation about it—well, you don’t want to. You just don’t. They’re just very, very strongly opinionated.”
Community leaders tend to rely on some other element of shared Iranian identity to bring people together. While waiting at a table in a Persian restaurant for kabobs and rice, Iraj Khademi, a jowly poet-scholar with an impish smile, told me exactly what he thinks that is.
“The reason that we have kept our unity and diversity? We never talk about religion; we never talk about politics,” Khademi said. “It’s cultural, cultural, cultural.” He brought a flat hand down onto the dining table three times as he spoke.
Khademi’s cultural offering is a monthly poetry and music workshop, which he says regularly fills the 150-person space in Kirkland where it’s held. Besides poetry and traditional music, there are academic lectures about history, literature, and the arts, and of course, an ensuing social hour. He’s been running them for 16 years.
Khademi told me about the poems he used to publish in Persian-language newspapers and magazines in California. While his publishing success is unusual, his love for poetry isn’t, at least among Iranians. Poetry is at the very core of Iranian identity and culture, and most Iranians, even some who largely grew up in the U.S., know the poems of the great Persian writers—Saadi, Rumi, Hafez, Khayyam—by heart.
“That’s a very important thing for that generation,” Bahani said of Khademi’s poetry nights. “When I go to parties with my parents, they just end up sitting around—they all know the poetry, everything’s memorized, and they all end up singing it together, or speaking it together, or playing poetry games.”
Indeed, when Ghambari and I first met at one of his coffee shops and I asked him about his personal philosophy, he kept returning to poetry to explain himself. He recited a few lines here and there by Rumi and Saadi, poems about unity and love that he said “made me who I am today.” The lines of calligraphy that adorn a wall in his “sexy Persian” shop are from a quatrain by Khayyam. Loosely translated, it reads: “I’m a slave to the moment that the cupbearer offers me another drink and find I cannot take another sip.”