Tehran Nights 

Photo by Stacy Kranitz

"I wore a bikini and caused a world controversy," said Vida Samadzai, now wearing an aqua evening gown in a darkened ballroom at the Canoga Park Hilton. Samadzai, better known as Miss Afghanistan, wasn’t exaggerating. She shocked the Muslim world by participating in the swimsuit segment of last year’s Miss Earth contest. A year later, she still receives letters of admiration as well as death threats. "The government might prosecute me if I go home," she said.

"It was a two-piece swimsuit, not a bikini," said former Ms. America Susan Jeske, who coached Samadzai through the Miss Afghanistan contest and continues to do so today. "You have to remember to tell the press that you’re not interested in politics."

"I’m not interested in politics," said Samadzai, nodding.

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Interested or not, a week ago Sunday night Samadzai was once again at the center of an event with tacit political significance: the North American semifinals for the international Miss Iran contest taking place next month in Dubai. Samadzai hustled off to give the 13 young Iranian-American and Iranian-Canadian pageant contestants a final pep talk. Just as Jeske had done for her the previous year, Samadzai was teaching a new axis of beauty how to rule the catwalk.

"Girls, listen up, we only have a half hour to practice, but you look hot," she began.

Despite Samadzai’s encouragement, most of the contestants looked visibly nervous. The judges were sending fewer than half of them on to Dubai to compete for the deed on a $125,000 apartment and the chance to represent Iran to the world for the first time in 27 years. After what seemed like another 27 years, the show finally began with a thrumming of Persian techno, a psychedelic light show, an opening act who resembled a rhinestoned Dr. Evil, and questions adapted, not so subtly, from the Miss America playbook.

"Define yourself as a unique Persian woman," a judge instructed the first contestant, Shiria Behroozfar.

"I’m bubbly, is what people tell me," said Behroozfar, resorting to English after a struggle with Farsi. (Fluency in the native Iranian tongue improved contestants’ standings.) As the onstage interviews progressed, the I-would-promote-world-peace platitudes were punctuated with some surprising responses. A 17-year-old announced she wanted to work for the CIA. A contestant from Montreal boldly gave the crowd her take on the cultural gap in the Persian diaspora. "In Iran, all the young people do is party. Here we have to work," she said.

One can only wonder how the morals police would view some of the talent show that followed. Candles perched on their heads, the women belly-danced down the catwalk, exhibited traditional Persian paintings and recited poetry in Farsi, all in a bid for shayesteh, the Iranian ideal of perfection. Halfway through the program, Hooshmand Ashili — "Iran’s Tony Bennett," according to one audience member — came onstage to belt a Sinatra tune. "No more will I go all around the world," Ashili sang to his fellow exiles.

The pageant itself will air in much of the world, courtesy of local organizer International Programming Network, Australian sponsor Emu Oil, and the illegal but widespread access to satellite television back in Iran. Audiences can phone in to pick their favorites, American Idol–style. IPN head and contest host Mehran Abdeshah claims the final pageant will be the most watched event in Iranian television history. That hope, he says, is not simply for the benefit of his channel. "We’re tired of seeing these videos of killing of people and cutting their heads," Abdeshah said a week before the production. "We’re trying to show another side of our people."

But since few Americans are likely to tune in to a program delivered partially in Farsi, the pageant’s impact may be limited. Some Iranian-Americans worry it may inspire a backlash. "A few of the contestants have interned with Shirin Ebadi," said judge Nelly Farnoody-Zahiri, referring to the Iranian lawyer who last year became the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. "This will give the Iranian government a good excuse for arresting her."

The final contestant of the night, Sepideh Haftgoli, could probably be arrested for her performance of a risqué salsa with a non-Persian partner. Dipping suddenly to the floor at the end of their number, the pair scandalized the audience with a Havana Nights–style lip lock. Sitting in the second row, actor Faramarz Assef suggested that the pageant was not about offending hardliners back home but giving the modern equal footing with the traditional, and letting ordinary Iranians interpret shayesteh for themselves. "What she’s doing the community can’t accept," Assef said. "But they’ll see it’s very brave."

—Justin Clark

One Hand Debating

The overhead fluorescent LIGHTING flickered and hummed as people found their seats in Ojai’s tiny Chaparral High School auditorium last Wednesday night, settling in for what was billed as a good old-fashioned, town-hall-style candidate forum. Ferial Masry, Democratic candidate for the 37th Assembly District, sat patiently behind a long, sticky cafeteria table as several school-board candidates hashed out their differences. But at 7:35, when she was set to go head to head against her Republican opponent, Audra Strickland, Masry found herself staring at an empty chair.

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