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Farsi phone service helps bind a community

Immigrants from Iran know where to call for information on navigating life in L.A.

December 20, 2009|By Robert Faturechi

Looking for some kebab? Need a Farsi-speaking plumber? Can't find the showtimes for a new Iranian film release?

Just call Iranian 411.

The information line run by a private company and staffed by half a dozen Farsi-speaking operators puts Los Angeles' enclave of Iranian immigrants in touch with services provided by local expatriates.

Its popularity underscores the paradox of Iranian assimilation in Los Angeles. In the three decades since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, many have reached the pinnacles of business and civic engagement, snatching up prime real estate and sending their children to the finest schools. At the same time, when it comes to patronizing businesses, they still largely prefer doctors, tailors and butchers who know their language and culture.

In the cluttered second-floor call center on a strip of Westwood Boulevard dubbed Little Tehran because of its Iranian eateries and bookstores, the phones ring constantly. Owner Bijan Khalili, who also owns the Ketab Persian Bookstore on the floor below, estimated that the center gets 2,000 calls a day.

Khalili launched the Iranian Information Center, along with an Iranian business directory similar to the Yellow Pages, in 1981.

With droves of Iranians fleeing the political turmoil in their homeland and settling in Los Angeles, the venture was a quick success.

Khalili's entrepreneurial acumen wasn't always so sharp.

As a young man in Tehran, he headed an insurance firm.

But the company suffered because of its unfortunate name during a time when the streets filled with protesters chanting, "Death to America."

"It was called Iran America Insurance Co.," Khalili said. "Not a good idea."

And in the midst of political upheaval, the market for insurance -- a venture that requires an endowment and financial security -- was not very promising.

So Khalili switched his salesmen from insurance to books. The government of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was weakening, as was its grip on literature. Books -- political and otherwise -- that had once been censored were now available, and the public was hungry.

Khalili saw his opportunity.

"I thought it was a good idea," he said.

It wasn't. When the Islamic Republic, arguably more repressive than its predecessor, was established, it took a hard line on nonreligious literature.

"Everything stopped," Khalili said.

Rebounding from two failed endeavors and uneasy about the direction his homeland was headed, he opted to make the move to Los Angeles. There he took up what he knew, opening a bookstore and publishing the annual directory, which is still sold today.

To compensate for outdated or missing listings in the directory, he started the information line: (818) 908-0808.

The iterations of "08" are a throwback to Iran, where residents once dialed those numbers to reach the telephone operator.

The service has become a staple, even drawing callers from Iran looking to share news with local media during uprisings after the disputed reelection in June of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Some just want to hear about singers and filmmakers whose work is stifled in Iran.

Like most things in Iranian culture -- marked by a flair for haggling and negotiation -- the conversations on Iranian 411, as it is fondly called, can be much more casual than those on its English-language counterpart.

Patrons don't always have specific questions in mind when they call, and sometimes exchanges can drag on.

"No, I don't know where it's located. Ask them," said operator Mahin Zarnighian, after providing a phone number to a caller.

"No, love, I'm very busy. I can't connect you."

A pause.

"Fine, OK. Get a pen, write it down. I'll wait," she said in Farsi, keeping her cool as she repeated the phone number.

The operators use the directory, their memory and contacts within the community to decipher callers' requests.

"They'll call to ask the phone number for a business, but they don't know the name of the business. They don't know the name of the owner. They don't know where it's located," Khalili said.

"The only thing they'll know is that they heard about it on the radio yesterday."

Still, Khalili estimated that operators manage to help more than 90% of callers.

Most of his clients, he said, are elderly; no matter how vague their requests, he said he instructs operators to go out of their way to help them.

But as he faces a new generation of Iranian Americans -- their Farsi shaky and their connection to Iran tenuous -- he's taking steps to adapt.

Khalili is preparing to announce a new line: (310) IRAN-411.

"The new generation has no clue about '08.' But as soon as I tell them about IRAN-411 they'll know exactly what I'm talking about," he said.

"It's 411 for the Iranian community."

robert.faturechi@latimes.com

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