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The Americanization of an Ancient Holiday


At the approach of Nouruz, spring was in the air. There was a change in the quality of light; buds appeared on the bare branches, and sudden downpours of warm rain left everything glistening in the soft sun . . . . I knew . . . that winter was gone for good.

Shusha Guppy, "The Blindfold Horse"

The Nouruz of 1977 was the happiest of Sharifeh Saee's life.

"It was a very good celebration," she remembers. "My daughter had just been married and we had a new family in the house. For five days we had a party--people for lunch and dinner every day and music all the time. The house was full of flowers; there were fruits and pastries everywhere."

That was also the year Dora Levy Mahboubi knew she had to leave Iran.

"I sensed a certain stirring," she says. "It was not very obvious, but if you read the papers and heard what was going on, there was a certain discontent. It came straight from the bazaar, as we say. Being Jews in a Muslim country, we were much more sensitive to it and much more scared of it."

By 1978 all of Iran sensed the discontent and by 1979 the whole world did, as the Khomeini revolution overthrew the shah and the great migration of Iranians to this country began. Today, there are about 800,000 Iranians in Southern California.

And it's a safe bet, for this one week at least, most of them are thinking about Iran.

"I remember Nouruz as being the most beautiful time of year in Iran," says Mahboubi, seated in the dark, wood-paneled family room of her palatial home above the Beverly Hills Hotel. In Iran, Mahboubi's family owned one of the largest chewing gum companies in the Middle East. Now an American citizen, she has earned a degree in English from UCLA, holds a master's in professional writing from USC and has written two novels about Iran.

"You cannot imagine," she says. "It is the first day of spring. There are flowers and cherry blossoms everywhere. The streets in Tehran are lined with plane trees and cherry trees and everywhere you can smell the flowers.

"When you are in Iran during that week, or month even, you can feel there is something happening. You can see the sabzi (sprouts) growing on people's window ledges. Everyone is out buying new clothes and shopping, and the stores are all lit with little bulbs. It's like Christmas here. It's in the air."

Here in Southern California, says Mimi Farahmand, who was educated as a child psychologist but works in a Beverly Hills hair salon as a colorist, "(Nouruz) is nothing, just one night going out to a few different parties where they sell tickets for dances."

Farahmand's parents still live in Iran, along with her younger sister. Another sister lives with her in Los Angeles in her home in Beverly Glen. Farahmand is a self-taught cook who came to the United States with nothing but an educated palate.

"I never cooked in our country, and I was always a very picky eater," she says, dishing up samples of her delicate version of sabzi polo ( basmati rice fragrant with herbs), her moist, eggy kuku-ye sabzi (a thick omelet or frittata, also made with herbs) and a delicious dish of her own invention, veal shanks braised with quince and prunes.

"When I moved here," she says, "I just decided to cook. I thought about how things came together, but I didn't ask anybody for recipes. I just did it. And from the beginning, I never botched a meal. (In Iran) I supervised the cooking at home, but I never cooked myself. We always had cooks in the house, and it was our job to see that everything was perfect. Still, I guess I learned the taste."

Unlike most modern emigres, who make the decision to leave their homes and come to the United States in search of economic opportunities and a brighter future, most Iranians had little choice in the matter. With the Khomeini revolution, change came swiftly and unalterably. A society was turned on its head.

"It is unbelievable, people could come and take everything you had," says Saee, who now co-owns the Atwater restaurant Osteria Nonni with her husband, Mohammad, a former colonel in the Iranian army. "It was like the gangs here, except they were in control. A 16-year-old boy with a gun could walk into your house and take everything."

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