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.”
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.
This was a time when everything in Iran was changing. At first, the Mirrashidis were pro-change, if not pro-revolution. But while Ivonne is religious, it’s something she never imposed on her children or husband, and she very much advocates the separation of religion and state. So like many secularists and leftists who participated in the revolution, the Mirrashidis felt deceived when the religious wing of the revolution took over and reneged on the promises of unity and tolerance that helped rally the country together in the huge numbers needed to overthrow the shah. After the Ayatollah Khomeini began consolidating his power, Abbas lost much of his land and other assets.
“In July of 1979 we came on vacation [to the U.S.] with my children,” Ivonne says. “They were registered for school in September in Tehran. But we decided to stay. We had only five suitcases.”
In the fall, Ivonne went back home to take care of some business, and was in the country when the hostage crisis began.
“My name was Iran — I had so many troubles at the airport,” she says. “But luckily, I had my green card!”
When Ivonne returned to the States to live, she became depressed, not knowing how to spend the long days. “I needed to do something, so I opened a business in 1983 — a swim- and dance-wear store. I’d never worked in my life before. Then I expanded to European fashions, which now takes up most of the space. I go to Europe two to three times a year.”
When asked to describe the feelings she experiences during prayer, Ivonne is at a loss for words. Her face describes it better, as she looks into an indeterminate space above the table, maybe the fourth dimension. “It gives me a satisfaction I cannot describe.” I ask how religion factored in the children’s lives. “Whenever people would ask me,” remembers Abraham, “I’d say my mom is practicing and my dad is more Buddhist than anything. He meditates every day, and is always in the garden. It’s a Native American, natural kind of thing.”
It seems that the Mirrashidi kids believe in higher powers regardless. When Lila was applying to UC Hastings law school, she would ask her mom to pray for her. It seemed to have worked once — Abraham is getting his graduate degree in business at USC. Earlier this year, when the going seemed bleak, Lila even said, “Mom, you’re not praying hard enough.” Ivonne replied, “Come on, Lila, you have to study!” “No, Mom,” Lila said, “I tried my best; it’s your turn now.”
Thanks to God, Lila started at Hastings this past fall.
The Chocolate Dream
With its red awning and cute window display, Edelweiss Chocolates of Beverly Hills evokes the cheer and gemütlichkeit of a Swiss alpine holiday. I can smell the sweet essences lurking inside the 80 varieties of chocolates, which beckon from behind the glass display cases. There are dolls with puzzled faces, hand puppets and knickknacks crowding every nook; eventually they’ll be needed to accessorize one of the store’s chocolate gift baskets. For a time, the shop — founded by candy maker Hermann Schmid, who became famous for selling dark-chocolate caramels to Katharine Hepburn — was owned by Partridge Family mom Shirley Jones and her husband, Marty Ingels (supposedly, he bought her the chocolate store for Valentine’s Day). But today Edelweiss is in the hands of Madlen and Steve Zahirpour, a Jewish couple from Tehran, who greet me as if I were a longtime regular customer.
“I was 23 and he was 26,” says Madlen as she describes how she met Steve (formerly Parvis). “When we got married, he said he would like to move to the United States — from Tehran to Tehrangeles. I said, ‘Yeah, right.’?”
The Zahirpours first settled in Texas, where they bought rental houses and worked in restaurants before moving on to convenience-store ownership.
“We started to work at a restaurant, him as a busboy and me as an order taker, so that we could learn English,” Madlen recalls. “It was called Bonanza, a steak house with a big, huge salad bar. The very first time the manager told me, ‘Can you wipe off this salad bar?’ I started sobbing and ran away. The manager was a young kid, 22 or 23 years old. He went to my husband, ‘What did I say wrong?’ Even to be cashier was hard for me, because I was executive secretary at a Japanese company in Iran, with people waiting on me all day long.”
The Zahirpours’ son, Danny, who is in his early 20s, walks into the shop as Madlen talks. He’s a little groggy because he was up late working on the store’s Web site. Danny respectfully kisses his father on the cheek, who in turn serves him coffee.
“I never saw your dad serve nobody,” Madlen notes tauntingly, “not even Mom.” Mom has big brown hair, a sweet smile and an authoritative business suit.
The family seems to have a great entrepreneurial spirit and love for the democratic pillars of their adopted country, but as they talk, it’s clear that their road to assimilation wasn’t easy.
“The hostage crisis, you don’t want to know about that,” Madlen says. “Oh my God.”
“Dad started pretending he was Italian,” Danny explains. “At the time he had a mustache and kind of looked like Saddam.”
“In Texas one day, a gentleman attacked Steve,” continues Madlen, her eyes suddenly red. “He said, ‘Where are you from?!’ He grabbed him to hit him. My husband said, ‘I’m Jewish, I’m not wanted in Iran.’ Apparently, the guy’s brother was killed in Isfahan, a car accident or something. The restaurant manager had to come between them, because he wanted to kill him.”
It happened a second time, at one of their convenience stores: “Someone came and attacked Steve, saying, ‘We don’t want you in our neighborhood.’?”
“I ignored him and just talked nicely,” Steve continues. “He said the bad words again a few times, but finally he recognized I’m not that type of people, and he apologized to me. He became one of my good friends. He said, ‘I don’t care where you come from if you accept my friendship.’?”
In the late ’90s, the family moved to Los Angeles, where Danny and his sister Renee transferred to Beverly Hills High. Suddenly, after a childhood spent feeling like the lone Iranians in the Lone Star state, they were surrounded by people like them (an estimated third of the students at Beverly High are Iranian). Steve and Madlen scanned properties for two years before getting an inside tip on Edelweiss: “We had one piece of chocolate and fell in love with it,” recounts Madlen. “It’s a historic business: Outside of this place you cannot touch. Just to paint the awning, we had to get permission.”
They also kept a lot of the same workers who know the traditional techniques needed to make Edelweiss chocolate — many of the white-robed candy makers chat animatedly in Spanish as they await the action about to begin at the conveyor belt in back, where treats like orange peel and whole grapes will get a coating of edible paint from vats of churning dark and milk chocolate.
Stacked vertically against the walls are cardboard boxes inscribed with the names of the molds they contain — “It’s a Girl,” “Star of David,” “Corazones,” “Easter,” “Seder Plate” and “Nude Body Parts: Man and Woman” — each reflecting different client needs. “Whatever their little hearts desire,” says Madlen musically.
When customers come, they are invariably greeted not just by a variety of sweets but also a variety of religions. At any time, there might be Baha’i, Muslim, Jewish or Christian employees, and sometimes all four. Today, Sohela, an Iranian Muslim friend of the Zahirpours, is helping out, and the talk goes back to the time they all lived in Iran.
“Being a Jew, you had your freedom,” Madlen says, “doing anything and everything. But still, they always looked at you as a Jew.”
“There was nothing different between anybody — we all loved each other like a family,” Sohela says. “But, yeah, after the revolution, they started bugging people; the fanatics did of course.”
“I want to tell you something, Sohela-jan,” Madlen says, using the affectionate “Sohela dear.” “When we went to public places and they’d bring you tea, if they knew you’re Jewish they would put a toothpick in your cup — so that when you’re done they could wash it more. Not every time, but it happened, Sohela-jan.”
People bothered the Zahirpours even as they tried to leave the country. “I went with my sister and my mom to Italy, and they held my dad back,” Madlen recounts. “They said, ‘When your mom and sister come back, then your dad can leave.’?”
“They tried to make us like hostages,” explains Steve. “But I’m different from her; always, I get my rights back, with muscle or whatever you want to call it.” Eventually the authorities loosened the law, and Madlen’s father was able to come and go.
“But even now, many times when my mom sends stuff from Iran, I open the package and there is only one shoe,” Madlen says. “They don’t let a pair of shoes to come!”
As for the shah, Jewish Iranians in Los Angeles tend to take a different view of the shah from most Muslim Iranians. “Shah, we really liked him,” says Madlen. “We knew that if he leaves, it will be a disaster — which it was. Shah was good himself, but his family — to my knowledge they backstabbed him; they stole a lot from the people and sent the money to Europe.”
I ask about the billboards, seen in L.A.’s Westside, of Reza Pahlavi, the shah’s heir, who some militant monarchists want to reinstate by force.
“We all would want Reza Pahlavi to go back,” Madlen says. “He and his father, they brought the country up to European levels. There was a lot of protection under the shah. We were young, out having fun, nothing would happen — wasn’t it like that, Sohela-jan? You could drive around with $10,000 worth of jewelry on you with no problem. ?You know, Iranians have always been very fashionable.”
In this light, the shah was an economic savior who encouraged general freedom through freedom of decadence.
I ask about Israel and why they didn’t move there. “My father’s two brothers and two sisters, they left to Israel when it was allowed, and I’ve never seen them again,” Madlen says. But many Jews, like Madlen’s parents, never left Iran. The Jewish community in Iran is still the largest of any Middle Eastern country outside of Israel (around 40,000).
“An important difference between Iran and other Middle Eastern countries,” points out Danny, a political science major at UC Irvine, “is that, as far as national identity goes, other nations are not that old, they’re basically the result of world powers cutting the cake and creating borders. But Iran has a long history of Persian empire — it’s grounded into who the people are.” Which would explain why Iranian Jews would be more reluctant to leave.
“When there are disputes between Iran and Israel, does that bother you?” I ask.
My question is answered with another question: “If Ahmadinejad says he wants to wipe Israel off the map,” Madlen asks, “wouldn’t that bother you?”
“When they hit that building in Lebanon,” she says, referring to this summer’s carnage at Qana during the war with Israel, “with all the little kids and women who were killed, I cried, I really cried. I don’t care if it’s Muslim or Jewish — it hurts me. War is not right and I don’t agree with it, no matter which side.”
“I wanna be at peace,” Steve says at last. “War is a hurt; it doesn’t make a difference who dies. What’s the difference between you, a Muslim, and me?”
The Zahirpours send me off with a bag full of their designer chocolates — “Put on the air conditioning in your car or else they will melt!” Madlen orders — and I ponder Steve’s question as I sample the candy, the answer more elusive with each bite.
The Children Understand
Harry and Azadeh Ben-Sushan (not their real names, at their request) live in a modest and well-kept suburban house in Los Alamitos. There is a fountain on the lawn and a plumber’s van in the driveway. Cherries and figs, still moist, are laid out on a glass table, and in the kitchen Azadeh is preparing my favorite Iranian rice dish, tah-deeg (meaning “bottom of the pan”), shaped when executed perfectly like a half orb, with a crunchy and beautifully browned outer crust. A coughing condition interrupts Azadeh at some of the most dramatic turns in her stories, but she carries herself as she cooks with balletic elegance and has a luminous open face that defies her 57 years.
Harry is smaller than Azadeh, with sunken, somewhat plaintive eyes, a mustache, and a bewildering attitude that is alternatively somber and joking. He has a penchant for scribbling things and for speaking in metaphors, without telling you that he is going to do so beforehand. He changed his name from something much more Persian and unpronounceable for Americans. Together, Harry and Azadeh form a concoction most rare in the Middle East: a Jewish-Muslim couple.
They met in an English class in Tehran. Harry was majoring in mechanical engineering and Azadeh in biology. She wanted to fine-tune her language skills to come to the United States, a long-held dream of hers.
“It was a three-year battle for the acceptance of our marriage,” Harry says.
“I was always thinking, it’s not their fault they think that way,” Azadeh says of her parents. “Especially my dad, he was working in the bazaar, a very big trade center, and most of those men are very religious. My dad wasn’t really, but he was working with them. Jewish and Muslim worked together there all the time, even now.”
But working together isn’t the same as trusting each other. Harry tries to explain with a commercial analogy: “It’s a kind of credit — if they don’t trust your religion they don’t give you merchandise. And then you have to pay cash.” Spouses belonging to another religion have to work harder to prove themselves to the other family.
Harry’s sister also got engaged to a Muslim. At the time, Azadeh told her sister-in-law to be careful. “I said, ‘Don’t think everybody will be like your brother and I. I suffer things and he suffers things, and we do things for each other.’ Unfortunately, now she has a very difficult life.”
When I ask if it ever occurred to either of them to convert, both respond simultaneously: “This is a very big issue,” Azadeh says, while Harry yells, “We’re not gonna fight for nothing!”
Eventually, the Ben-Sushans decided to come to America because of their daughters, Neda and Shohreh. They wanted to raise them in a place where women’s rights were more secure, where there would be no more religious differences. When the Ben-Sushans arrived, Harry took a job at El Pollo Loco, even though he had years of government contracting experience; Azadeh volunteered in a friend of a friend’s laboratory and eventually got a paying job there. Harry went on to find work as a maintenance person, then a plumber, but was fired.
“My age was about 40, so I decided to start myself a company,” Harry says. “I started with only $600 in my pocket. She was working, and we borrowed and borrowed from the credit card.”
The business got rolling — “Thanks to God,” says Azadeh, popping out of her seat to find a wood cabinet to knock. When Azadeh was “respectfully fired” from the lab after the company came under new management and moved to San Diego, she became a valuable free agent: “I gave her a good offer,” says Harry. Vice president? “No, president!” he says, dragging out and deepening the “pre-” for emphasis.
For Shohreh, the elder daughter, who is now getting her master’s in architecture at Yale, the cold-turkey immersion from Iran into the United States was brutal. She quickly realized she would have to work as hard as her parents to succeed in her new life. Very self-conscious about the way she talked, Shohreh tried to cover up her accented English; meanwhile, Neda just refused to talk. A kindergarten teacher called in Azadeh and asked whether her child was deaf or mute. With the help of American cartoons and the interpreting assistance of a Farsi-speaking preteen, Neda soon turned into the chatterbox everyone knows today. She recently moved to the East Bay to take a job at Medea Benjamin’s nonprofit Global Exchange.
Several moments from her daughters’ lives remain viscerally etched in Azadeh’s memory: when she couldn’t take Shohreh to play rehearsal because she didn’t have a car, when Shohreh graduated with full honors at the top of her class, and the sound of her screaming when she got into Berkeley. But there is one episode that lingers, painfully, a terrible reminder of parental impotence.
“It was the day in Iran that we had to sell our house. I didn’t want to take Shohreh with me to Iran, but she insisted. She was 10 years old. I said I’m going to go clean the house and make sure everything is okay. But when it came time to leave, I saw that she wasn’t coming. I went back inside and found her in her old room.” Azadeh’s voice starts to change. “She was kissing the walls; she was crying so much!”
There is a long pause. Azadeh looks at me with devastated eyes, her hands over her mouth, while Harry, respectful of a mother’s right to tell a story, just sighs. “She wanted to say goodbye to our house. I knew this was going to happen, but I never thought it would be that bad.”
I try to lighten the tone: “Maybe, with her appreciation for houses, that’s why she became an architect?” It doesn’t really register.
“It’s not just the parents who have difficulties when you move to a new place,” Azadeh continues. “The children don’t say ?anything, but it doesn’t mean they don’t understand.”