Eleven years ago, amid the chaos of the Iranian revolution and the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic fundamentalist regime, the migration of upper-class Jews from Iran to America began in earnest.
These were no ordinary huddled masses yearning to breathe free. This was one of the richest waves of immigrants ever to come to the United States. Their first toehold in their new land was no squalid, crowded "Little Tehran," but rather the gracious hillsides of Trousdale Estates in Beverly Hills, and other nearby neighborhoods of the Westside and the San Fernando Valley.
Khomeini's revolution drove about half of Iran's 80,000 Jews into exile. A few headed for New York or Israel, but the vast majority of those emigrants, probably at least 30,000, have settled in or near Beverly Hills.
Not all are fabulously wealthy. While some families have bought or built mansions north of Sunset Boulevard, at least as many are crowded into rent-controlled apartments on the south side of town.
But whether rich or merely middle class, they have, like most immigrants before them, brought change to their adopted home, and have themselves been changed by life in America.
"Before the Iranians came, this city was a sleepy city," said Beverly Hills real estate broker Stephan Saeed Nourmand, an Iranian who moved to the area in the early '70s and has been on hand for the wave that followed. "Sure there were celebrities, but it was still a small town. There was a gas station and a hardware store on Rodeo Drive."
The Iranians, Nourmand said, brought more than money. "They brought their talents too. There were doctors, lawyers, businessmen, retailers, manufacturers--a variety of people who came and immediately contributed by boosting Beverly Hills' international image."
The stamp of Iranian success is seen in the glitzy Rodeo Collection, a collection of trendy shops and eateries on Rodeo Drive built by Dar Mahboubi, who is also part-owner of the fashionable Bijan boutiques of Beverly Hills and New York. Adray's, a chain of discount electronic stores, is owned by Masud Hakim and two partners. And Iranian-born developer Kambiz Hemkat is building the 22-story Center West tower in Westwood.
Nowhere is the immigrants' impact more evident than in the Beverly Hills Unified School District, where nearly one out of every five students is Iranian. Their language, Farsi, is incorporated into announcements sent home to parents and taught in after-school classes to the children. The district has hired a full-time counselor to ease the transition for students and to sensitize administrators and teachers to Iranian culture. And thousands of dollars have been contributed to the Beverly Hills schools by parents through the Iranian Education Foundation.
Despite all this, many Iranians still manage to live their lives nearly surrounded by the culture of their homeland--going to Iranian nightclubs, worshiping at Iranian synagogues, shopping for clothing and jewelry at Iranian businesses.
The large majority of the Beverly Hills-area Iranians are Jewish, and in many respects they form a community of their own. At times, however, they also function as part of a larger Iranian community that is estimated to number 300,000 in Southern California. The largest concentrations of Iranian Muslims are in Palos Verdes and Irvine. Ethnic Armenians from Iran have migrated in substantial numbers to Glendale, already home to a large Armenian community.
There is an 848-page Iranian Yellow Pages listing 1,600 Iranian businesses and professionals in Southern California.
There are Iranian magazines and television and radio shows. Concerts of Persian music, featuring noted Iranian singers such as Moine, Darioush or Shahram, are often performed at Hollywood's Palace theater before audiences of 1,000 or more.
On most Sunday afternoons, Iranian families gather for picnics on the Palisades in Santa Monica, where mothers parade their teen-age daughters before prospective sons-in-law.
The influx has transformed a stretch of Westwood Boulevard south of Wilshire into an Iranian Main Street, where the aromas of shish kebab and rice hang in the air, where Iranian grocery stores stock hard-to-find Persian foods and spices, and where bookstores offer books and tapes in Farsi--including some that recall the "glorious days" under Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlevi.
Iranians have also contributed to the night life in Westwood and Beverly Hills. Stores and restaurants stay open longer, catering to Iranian families who tend to eat and shop later in the evening. And festive Iranian parties go on until the early hours of the morning--at times ending at the request of Beverly Hills police.
"It's like they never set their watches back when they came here," said Irwin Kaplan, the former director of city planning in Beverly Hills. "At restaurants, the locals clear out by 9 p.m. and that's when the Iranians are coming in."