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Iranians Bridging Cultural Gaps in Beverly Hills

Community: Immigrants who fled revolution 20 years ago are now moving into mainstream involvement in politics.

July 06, 1999|JOHN L. MITCHELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At a gala Persian New Year's celebration in March, Iranian immigrants in Beverly Hills began to sense that they were bridging a cultural gap.

That evening, the grand ballroom of the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel was filled with the spicy aroma of shish kebab and rice as more than 1,500 guests--including some of the city's business and civic leaders--were treated to a wide array of Persian food, music, dance and art.

"The strength of our city is based in large part on its cultural diversity," City Councilman Tom Levyn told the crowd.

It was a common theme in many of the speeches, symbolic of how a city not especially known for welcoming huddled masses yearning to breathe free began embracing its Iranian community, which now is the single biggest foreign-language ethnic group in the city.

But then the Beverly Hills Iranians--mainly Jews but also Muslims and Bahais--who escaped the revolutionary chaos and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism 20 years ago in their homeland are not your typical immigrants.

They arrived with more than just the clothes on their backs and a hope for the future. Many had money or at least the skills to have an impact on their plush surroundings. Often drawn by the excellent reputation of Beverly Hills schools and the city's safe image, they crowded into rent-controlled apartments on the south side of town or bought lavish homes in exclusive Trousdale Estates. They brought commercial dollars to the city--by buying or opening trendy boutiques on Rodeo Drive or more workaday mailbox businesses at the city's edge.

Their stamp has been evident in the Beverly Hills Unified School District, where one out of every four students is of Iranian descent. School announcements are printed in Farsi--the foreign language most likely to be spoken in students' homes--as well as in Russian, Korean, Hebrew and Spanish.

But although the Iranians have changed the business and school life of Beverly Hills, they have just started to alter the city's political landscape. As an early sign of that, Iranians in Beverly Hills are joining commissions, taking part in civic organizations and contributing funds to city candidates.

Two years ago, Farshid Shoo-shani came in sixth out of eight candidates in an unsuccessful run for City Council. And last year Soraya Melamed ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the school board. Despite the defeats, the fact that the two Iranian-born candidates ran was considered by many to be significant for the future.

Involvement has developed slowly. Both city and Iranian leaders say that is not because doors have been shut, but because Iranians have resisted walking through.

Architect Hamid Gabbay, a former planning commissioner and the city's first Iranian to serve on that commission, said those who fled Iran are not accustomed to participatory government.

"I have been encouraged by the City Council to get more Iranians involved in city government, but they don't want to come forward," said Gabbay, who currently is on the city's arts commission. "Remember where we are coming from. We are coming from a country where democracy was not the first thing. We are not used to the political process that we have in this city."

David Haloossi, a former Parent-Teacher-Student Assn. president who now serves on a school district commission, said that Iranian parents have been traditionally reluctant to play a role in the system.

"The reason is, Persian parents who came to this country usually stayed away from involvement in the schools. If a parent [is] called into the school, right away they think something terrible has happened, something is wrong," said Haloossi, one of three Iranian commissioners in the district.

Evidence of Iranian participation in the political process is growing as the American-born generation starts to make its mark without the constraints of the past.

"The Iranians will follow the same pattern that the mainstream Jewish community followed," said Rudy Cole, a longtime Beverly Hills activist. "The Jews' first interest was in education, and their first political impact was felt on the schools and through the Board of Education.

"The Iranians will probably elect someone on the school board before the City Council, but inevitably there will be an Iranian on the City Council, sometime in the next six years."

Councilman Mark Egerman said there are Iranians who are ready to step into leadership roles in the city government as members on the council.

"Absolute yes," he said. "We have them right now."

One name often mentioned is that of Nanaz Pirnia, the president of the Iranian American Parents Assn. She said Iranians have paid their dues and are ready to make a difference.

"We have lived through a revolution and have had to make a lot of adjustments," she said. "Now we are over the shock, the anger and depression and it is time to blend in and become part of the whole."

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