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Three Iranian families in L.A.

Wednesday, Jan 3 2007
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All Around the ?Mulberry Tree

On a Palos Verdes street drenched in the beige of suburban luxury, past the orange Mini Cooper parked in one of the red-brick motor courts and around a stand of moist ferns, a carpet inscribed with a Koranic passage hangs protectively over a doorway. I ring the bell, and Lila Mirrashidi, surprising me with her vivacious curls and sparkling laughter, ushers me into her parents’ home, a lightwell of glistening marble and glass. Through the windows is a spectacular view of Long Beach and its ports seen over a canopy of Mediterranean trees on the hillside. In the living room lies a Persian carpet larger in square footage than many apartments I’ve called home. Lila’s mom, Ivonne, announces herself from behind me with a flash of her humor: “Remember,” she says, “in every Persian home, there is a Persian carpet.”

Ivonne, whose name used to be “Iran” until the customers at her clothing store took to calling her “Ivonne” (she formally changed it when she obtained citizenship), has silky black hair pulled back, immaculate posture, a powerful and welcoming voice with slightly cracked edges and an equally loud necklace spelling out “G-O-D.”

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Lila’s father, Abbas, a development contractor and former Iran Air executive, appears and shakes my hand with the urgency of an impending business meeting: Actually, he just wants to show me the garden. We don some clunky sandals, ideal for a garden tour, and stop first at “the House for Abused Men,” a refuge that Abbas erected for his male friends whenever they need to escape their wives’ wrath. He then points to an obvious showcase tree, the shahtoot (Farsi for “King of the Berries”), native to Iran and known to Southern Californians as the super-expensive Persian mulberry they buy at farmers markets. We pick the darkest of the berries, scattered on the tree in incandescent stages of yellow, red and purple, to serve later with dessert. My indelicate fingers pop open a few, and the deep-red juice courses down my palm, which I lick when Abbas is not watching. Then I look over and see that his own hands are bloody as murder.

“How do you get the berries all the way up on top?” I ask.

“I have to shake it,” he responds.

We walk past an unfortunate dry thing, from which Abbas rips off a branch with comical violence: “Avocado tree is dead,” he declares. Many other organic reminders of Iran exist in this climate that is so similar to the one the Mirrashidis left: sour cherries, figs, lemons, pomegranates, all of which Ivonne uses in her family meals.

“You have to take off your shirt to eat it,” Abbas tells me as I admire the fruit on the pomegranate tree. “Use that strategy on a girl!”

Back inside, the Mirrashidis sit down at a circular table, joined by Abraham, Lila’s baby-faced older brother, for a multicourse, pasha-worthy dinner prepared by Ivonne without so much as a hint of sweat.

“We call her Supermom,” Lila says.

“I was two or three months pregnant, and my mom invited me to Mecca,” Ivonne says as she tells the story of Abraham’s name. “I was so much influenced by the trip. You go to Mecca and you see that there’s only the one God, and Abraham broke all the idols in Mecca. My son was born during the revolution — I really wanted to call him something religious.”

“Shah was a big idol, and we’re gonna break him!” Abbas interjects, explaining their feelings at the time.

Before the 1979 revolution in Iran, the Mirrashidis had honorary membership at the shah’s country club in Tehran, where it wasn’t unusual for patrons to leave $100 tips. “After revolution, 80 percent of the members were shot,” says Abbas. “After that,” he adds with an ironic laugh, “we were the most important people in the club.”

“I always thought the system in Iran was gonna collapse — I should know because I used to make economic forecasts,” notes Abbas with one finger raised. A man of formidable accomplishment, Abbas built a government airline from scratch (Vigeh Airways) and then rose to become the senior corporate planner for IranAir. “In 1963, Kennedy invited me to the White House; it was a ceremony for the best foreign student. I was going to parties with the high-caliber [people] of Washington.”

Abraham adds that his dad is like Forrest Gump: “Always at the right place at the right time.”

After the revolution, it seemed that the Mirrashidis were in the right place. Abbas even hatched a plan to try selling 14 of the shah’s 747s. “I wrote a letter to the prime minister,” he recounts. “I said there is $1 billion worth of the shah’s airplanes that you don’t need.” One of the planes was lavished with an estimated $38 million in decorations. After getting the okay to sell the planes, Abbas received a call from a potential buyer — Oscar Wyatt, the infamous corporate raider and Texas oil man (last year Wyatt was indicted in the U.N. oil-for-food scandal over alleged kickbacks to Saddam Hussein). “Next thing, I was in Tehran,” Abbas continues, “and the airport authorities called and said, ‘There is a plane flying over Tehran without permission; they are saying Mr. Abbas Mirrashidi told them to come.’ Let me remind you this is one month after the revolution! I said, ‘Would you let them in please?’ All this was easy because revolution people really wanted to sell shah’s planes. Wyatt came with his chauffeur, already with his checkbook out. When I left, immigration stopped Wyatt and said, ‘You are a CIA man taking pictures of our planes — you think you are getting off that easy?!’ I went personally to show them the prime minister’s letter, and Wyatt was free to go home.” But the deal never went through.

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