Every Tuesday night, the Omarkhayam Restaurant on Westwood Boulevard becomes a Who's Who of former celebrities, government officials and other notables from the days of the shah as they gather with families and friends for an evening of dinner and poetry.
UCLA sociologist Ivan Light, who is studying the Iranian immigration under a grant from the National Science Foundation, says the influx is extraordinary for its number of "high-status immigrants."
Both the Jewish and Muslim immigrants, according to Light, are drawn largely from the privileged classes in Iran, tend to be well-educated and include many doctors, lawyers, bankers and other professionals, but there are also some differences between the two groups.
Muslims, he said, are somewhat more likely than Jews to have advanced degrees. Large numbers of Iranian Muslims have gone into the fields of real estate development and construction. The Jews, meanwhile, are more likely to be self-employed with backgrounds in trade and manufacturing of apparel and jewelry.
Light also has found that all the Iranian subgroups are much more dispersed within their new communities than is typical with other immigrants.
"With the possible exception of Westwood Boulevard, there is no central location for Iranians, like a Koreatown or Chinatown," he says. "We suspect that wealthy immigrants don't need those kinds of support systems."
Jews have lived in what is now Iran for 2,500 years, ever since Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian empire, conquered Babylonia and invited its freed Jewish slaves to live in Persia. Traditionally merchants and traders for generations, the Jews found great prosperity during the regime of the Shah, not just as merchants and manufacturers, but also in government and the professions.
But in spite of a history in Iran that predated Islam by more than 1,000 years, the Jews were never more than a tiny minority in a country that is about 98% Muslim. Iranian Jews who have come to California say they always knew the day might come when they would have to leave. "Because they were a minority in Iran, they always felt insecure and many made sure they invested outside the country," said Baroukh Beroukhim, former president of Ettefak school, a 2,000-student private Jewish academy in Tehran. "They even sent their children abroad to go to school as a means of having a little branch out there somewhere that would become the only hope if things got bad," said Beroukhim, who today is active in the Iranian Education Foundation and the Iranian Jewish Federation Council.
Many Jews who left Iran in the days immediately before and after the shah's downfall in early 1979 say it was not overt religious persecution by Islamic fundamentalists that forced them into exile. Far more threatening, they say, was the general chaos and the enmity that Khomeini's followers seemed to feel toward wealth in general.
The memory is still painful for Guity Nemani, who abandoned a successful family rug business, her home and most of her belongings in the city of Abadan, and fled the country with her husband and three children in 1978, shortly before the Shah was overthrown.
"It was terrible," she recalled. "There was so much hatred on the streets. There was shooting. . . . It wasn't a good place for my children. Anyone who had a little money, anything, was not safe."
In their flight, the Nemanis did what many of the early emigrants did: They left home for a vacation in Europe and never returned. Instead, they headed for Beverly Hills, which already was becoming known as a Persian ghetto. They chose the city, they said, because of its affluence, its excellent schools and police force, the presence of a large Jewish community and its climate, which is similar to Tehran's.
Those who left before the revolution found it relatively easy to liquidate their assets and get out. Since the revolution, it has been harder. The government has restricted emigration, and confiscated homes and businesses of some who do leave.
While many of the early emigrants simply flew first class out of Tehran and into LAX and brought their money with them, the more recent ones are far more likely to have snuck across the border into Pakistan or Turkey with little more than the clothes on their back.
"The first to leave were the wealthy . . . ones who could get out quick and adapt easily," said banker Solomon Aghai, who arrived in 1980. "Then came to the middle class and now we are getting the ones who are less fortunate." About 1,300 Jews emigrated from Iran in 1988 to the Los Angeles area, said Aghai, an executive vice president of American Express Bank International and the president of the Iranian Jewish Federation, a coalition of seven organizations in the area.