Sharon Sabet steps into a circle of dancers and lifts her tambourine like a rising moon. Combing her hair, putting on her makeup, twirling on her toes, she dances the part of a Persian princess in a sultan's court. After class, she steps out of the rehearsal studio in West Los Angeles and into her other life, as a dental student at UCLA.
Sabet is a 22-year-old Iranian American whose parents were born in the Middle East. Like a growing number of young Iranians in Los Angeles, she is piecing together her cultural past, fitting it with her present.
For Sabet, dance classes with her Iranian-born instructor, Shida Pegahi, have helped. "Persian dance isn't all that technical," Sabet says. "It's more about the way you move. I discovered it's something I have within me." Relating well to this part of her heritage makes it easier for her to accept the aspects that aren't fitting together so smoothly.
"Sometimes I feel pulled in two directions," says Sabet, a native Angeleno. "I grew up with Persian culture and my parents still have their old views, from Iran. But I am here, living in American culture."
She and her family celebrate Persian New Year, Noruz, and she speaks a bit of Persian with her relatives. Some of her contemporaries are digging deeper. They are learning to be fluent in classical Persian, studying the country's history and art, and memorizing verses by the medieval poet Hafiz, whose books are displayed like family heirlooms in Iran. Some are taking up the santur, the stringed instrument whose soft twang is inseparable from Persian music.
One powerful magnet is on the UCLA campus, where the school's Iranian Studies department includes courses about Iran as well as its bordering countries. What started as a quiet lure for some in 1989, with around 50 students enrolled, has turned into a strong tug. This semester there are 400 students enrolled, all but a handful of whom are of Middle Eastern descent.
Bordering the UCLA campus, the streets of Westwood bustle with Persian restaurants, gift shops, markets and music stores. Los Angeles, in fact, has the largest Iranian community in the U.S. The 2000 census estimates there are nearly 277,000 Iranian immigrants in this country, with more than a third of them in Los Angeles County.
Clouding the Iranian students' quest for cultural identity is the poor relations the two countries share. President Bush recently placed Iran and neighboring Iraq on an "axis of evil" with North Korea because of their nuclear stockpiles. It's sometimes hard to embrace fully a culture seen as "the enemy" and, as a result, young Iranian Americans seem more than slightly removed from U.S.-Mideast politics.
Hossein Ziai, director of the UCLA program, came west in the mid-'70s in a wave of Iranian college students. He expected to return home after graduation, but the fall of Shah Reza Pahlavi's government in 1979 and the rise of a fundamentalist stronghold changed his plans.
Ziai has seen a change in perspective from his generation of Iranians to the generation of students he teaches. "American students in general are manifestly less political than in my time," he says. "And most of them consider themselves to be Americans. At the same time, the Iranian community here is a new immigrant community. Foremost in people's minds is how to succeed here. It is secondary to try and change what goes on in Iran."
Many of his students are majoring in science or business. "Some tell me they are studying Persian language, or poetry, despite their parents' nudging them to be a dentist or a pharmacist," Ziai says. "Others tell me their parents have encouraged them to take at least some courses in Iranian studies." A number of his science students minor in Persian language, history or literature.
Babak Roobini, who just graduated with a degree in neuroscience, is applying to medical school at UCLA. As an undergraduate he took seven courses about Iran with his science requirements. "I'd always been very interested in the culture, the poetry and philosophical texts, but I never had any vigorous courses until college," he says. "I wanted to understand the culture that I am part of."
Roobini was born in Iran but his family moved to California five years ago, for greater academic freedom. Because they are Jewish, he and his sister would not have been allowed to attend a good university there. "There are restrictions for non-Muslims in Iran," he says. "Minorities don't qualify for the better schools."
He keeps up with politics in his homeland but only as part of a bigger picture. "Iranians get annoyed when the whole Middle East gets lumped together," he says. "People need to understand the changes that have taken place in that part of the world over the years."