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In Person

Finding Himself in Cultural Celebration

March 23, 1998|RUSS LOAR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This is Fardad Fateri's 10th year as organizer of the Persian New Year festival in Irvine, said to be the largest annual gathering of Iranians outside Iran.

A decade ago, traffic, noise and litter generated by the loosely organized celebration angered residents. And some city leaders, in turn, called the participants "barbarians," said Fateri, who was deeply troubled by the damage the controversy caused to the image of Iranian Americans.

"An article in the local newspaper was saying that some people thought of this event as some kind of terrorist attack," he said. "This article was so negative, I was insulted. Here was this cultural celebration where people just wanted to gather together; a good thing becoming so bad."

Fateri was also struggling with his own feelings of cultural alienation. He was born in Tehran but spent his teenage years in Switzerland at the exclusive Le Rosey private boarding school.

After graduation, he moved to the United States and attended UC Irvine, eventually becoming a U.S. citizen.

"I never really lived in Iran for very long," said Fateri, an Irvine resident and dean of DeVry Institute of Technology's Long Beach campus. "I had reached the point where I felt like I needed to make that connection, to remind myself of who I was and where I came from. I needed to do something about my own identity. That's why I became involved."

There were still plenty of negative feelings toward those of Iranian descent, Fateri said, prejudices left over from the taking of American hostages in Iran during the overthrow of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979.

"I still tell a lot of my colleagues and friends not to take this incident and make a generalization about a culture that's 3,000 years old," he said.

The Persian New Year festival, on April 5 this year at Mason Regional Park in Irvine, has been relatively trouble-free since Fateri joined with city and county officials in 1989 to plan the event. "A slight miracle," he said, considering the celebration now attracts about 35,000 participants.

"There is no version of Little Saigon in Orange County for people of Iranian descent," he said. "We haven't created that kind of tightly knit group, but we do want to maintain our heritage. This is one of the very few events that brings us together."

More than 80,000 Orange County residents are of Iranian descent, community leaders have estimated, with most living in Irvine and Newport Beach. But Fateri said precise numbers are impossible to come by.

"Everybody guesses the number because it's not recorded in the census," he said. "In the ethnicity surveys that are taken, there is no category for people of Iranian descent. They are classified as white, not Hispanic. But almost everyone I know knows of someone else who is of Iranian descent. There must be hundreds of thousands of us in Southern California."

Fateri, who has a master's and doctorate, says it was his father, Mohammad Fateri, who helped him make the journey from boyhood in Tehran to an academic career in the United States. His father left school at age 11 to work as a street vendor to help support his family. He prospered as the years went by, becoming a cotton exporter and real estate developer.

"He had his own cotton fields, because in Iran, you don't specialize," Fateri said. "He also had his own processing plants and he exported the materials to Western Europe. My father never had a formal education, but he wanted his children to have the best, what he would have wanted for himself."

By taking on the organizational duties for the Persian New Year, Fateri says he has found a way to reconnect with the culture of his parents and to help improve the image of Iranian Americans in Orange County.

"A couple of generations down the road, when my grandkids will say, 'I'm an American and my grandparents were born in Iran,' I hope they will say it with pride, because our children will be living here for hundreds of years.

"It's the owners of every culture who need to take that responsibility of saying, 'I'm going to make sure that my children and my grandchildren are going to be proud of being of a certain descent.' That will be the making of a much better country in the long run."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Profile: Fardad Fateri

Hometown: Tehran, Iran

Residence: Irvine

Family: Wife, Nazy; two preschool-age children

Education: Bachelor's degree in social science, UC Irvine; master's degree in social science, Cal State Fullerton; doctorate in industrial and organizational behavior, United States International University, San Diego

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