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Lyrical voices hail Iranians from overseas

Watching the election protests in their homeland, an Iran-born mother and daughter -- a poet and a singer -- are part of a growing expatriate artistic movement.

July 01, 2009|Teresa Watanabe

From the house we built

With blood and soil

To the road on which

The moonlight procession

Flies forth on their boat

Of shooting stars

It is a pity you did not wish

To stay here with us

The poet had crafted those words so long ago. Flush from the victory of a People's Revolution in Iran that ousted a repressive monarch for a bearded cleric who spouted promises of freedom and quality, Partow Nooriala all too soon came to believe that the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had deceived them.

Ever so briefly, the poem mourns, Lady Liberty had arrived at her oppressed homeland of Iran in 1979. But, within a year after the revolution, she had vanished. The ayatollah banned opposition parties and shut down newspapers. His theocracy ordered women into the hijab and enforced Islamic family law that gave men greater rights to divorce, marry and hold custody of children.

So Nooriala and her family eventually left, bringing their dreams to California instead.

Now, nearly three decades after that people's movement, she and her daughter Shahrzad Sepanlou have become overseas heralds of another one. Nooriala, a poet, and Sepanlou, a singer, are lifting their voices in the diaspora to support their people's freedom once again.

"I could never think that in my lifetime I would see people come out into the streets twice," Nooriala says over Persian tea in her tidy Studio City condo.

Farzaneh Milani, a professor of women's studies and Persian literature at the University of Virginia, said women have long been a force of resistance against Iran's repressive governments and male dominance. The most famous artistic voice in Iran today is female poet Simin Behbahani, but amid the Iranian diaspora in the United States other female poets and writers, working in both Farsi and English, have emerged, she said.

"There is a long history of Iranian women resisting and asking for their rights," Milani said. "Partow is an important part of that. The tenacious strength of her work makes her a voice to be listened to."

Nayereh Tohidi, head of the department of gender and women's studies at Cal State Northridge, said Nooriala and Sepanlou represent a wave of Iranians who endured the revolution that overthrew Shah Reza Pahlavi, came to the United States and are bridging the two lands through their work on behalf of women and human rights.

"They are part of a growing number of artists inside and outside Iran who are mobilizing to support the movement," Tohidi said.

Nooriala, 62, works out of her condo, decorated with richly hued Persian carpets and photos of family and famous Iranian poets, including Behbahani. Lively and candid, her words punctuated with frequent laughs, Nooriala pours out stories of a tumultuous life even as she jumps up to bring out watermelon, sandwiches, cucumbers and coffee. Her blond hair has darkened with age, but she still favors red in the stripes of her shirt and accents in her kitchen -- a bold color she embraced after divorcing her husband, who preferred more muted hues.

She writes daily blog posts, attends a whirl of poetry conferences and gives frequent interviews about events in Iran to international news outlets, including Voice of America. She has published nine collections of poems, literary critiques and short stories -- almost all of them written in California after escaping the censors of Iran.

Her work is included in several anthologies, including "The Poetry of Iranian Women" due out next year. In February, she was honored with a certificate of recognition from state Assembly Majority Whip Fiona Ma.

Nooriala has written about the failures of the Islamic revolution, erotic love and such taboo women's subjects as abortion and menopause. She recently posted a piece dedicated to Iranians protesting the country's presidential election.

I have seen your nightmares in my dreams

I have kept your sorrows in my heart

I picked a dandelion flown about by the wind

Bringing me news, anxiety and trembling hands

If you are tied down

I shall be your wings

If you are at war

I shall be your armor

Your voice

will fly through the blue sky again,

And your free hands

will weave through the sun again.

A few miles away in Encino, her daughter spends five or six hours a day furiously sharing information, videos and commentary about events in Iran on Facebook. Never overtly political before, Sepanlou says she, like many young Iranian Americans, is consumed by the drama in her homeland.

As she led a visitor into her bedroom office, she apologized for the children's toys and box of baby wipes on the carpeted floor of her spacious home.

"I haven't cleaned or grocery shopped. I haven't paid my bills. I feel I've been a terrible mom," says Sepanlou, dressed in jeans and casual ponytail in contrast to the glamorous looks of her publicity stills.

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