Retracing roots - the Persian way

Go West, young man, go West." Horace Greeley's 19th-century mantra echoes luringly in today's Iran: According to some estimates, 1 in 4 Iranians with a college degree works outside the country.

Upwards of 1 million Iranians, for instance, have made their residence in the Los Angeles area, prompting the nickname "Tehran-geles," after the Iranian capital.

In recent years, poor career prospects and a high rate of unemployment have speeded the flight that began with the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

But that is not the only story. A number of educated Iranians are returning to their homeland - especially from America - some after being away for years.

The reason: identity.

Some of these Iranians have American passports, others have green cards. Most have US degrees, and their thinking - and accents - are often a product of America's melting pot.

Some Iranians in the US were subject to prejudice born during the anti-West revolution, when Americans were taken hostage. It was manifest in a bumper-sticker that read: "I don't brake for Iranians."

But Iranians have a self-confessed weakness for nostalgia about their homeland. Many gave up lucrative jobs in the US, to make a bid at reconnecting with their unique cultural and spirituality heritage.

Some have built bridges between the two different realities of their lives. Others have watched American and Iranian cultures collide within them.

These are their stories.

The trade-off

Cambyse Mirabedy's tastes are as American as they come. He scans the Internet for NBA results, pauses wistfully when noting the record of his "home" team, the Los Angeles Lakers, and then talks about online stock deals.

"What about the Elian [Gonzalez] story?" he asks offhand, again betraying a typical American accent - and a common attitude. "Are we bored, or what?"

But Mr. Mirabedy is thousands of miles from L.A., where he spent 20 years of his life. He gave up a well-paying job as a software engineer in the past year to return to Iran for good. With two other Iranian returnees, he set up Pars Online, an Internet service company that is the fifth-largest of the 100 now operating in Iran.

"There are a lot of misconceptions among Iranians in the US," he says. "They think you will get busted at the airport, but that's not true. We are trying to reverse the brain drain."

"Every engineer in our office is waiting in those visa lines, because the grass is always greener on the other side," he adds. "They look at us, and say we are crazy."

But Mirabedy and his partners came back for more. "In the US, we lived practical lives. But here you must pay attention to elders, to observances and rituals and family. In Iran you have more time on your hands," he adds. "We have a very rich culture, our doors are always open, there are subtle culture things: if these things mean something to you, you come back."

"The US allows you to become a middle class citizen very quickly. So if you want to drive a BMW and drink Perrier, stay there," he says. "But here you are ... getting in touch with your culture. It's better than any PhD."

Seeking equilibrium

Striking the right balance has been the aim of Mohammad Bahrevar, who lived in the US for seven years.

A geophysicist for Iran's national oil company, Mr. Bahrevar was away during the revolution. He had a fencing scholarship at Rutgers University in New Jersey, then got a master's degree in Rhode Island, and began working on a PhD in Wisconsin. He climbed rock faces - a hobby that he continues today.

"Iran for me was like a dream, a foreign country," he says, of his return. "I was walking on the street, and took buses to see the people. To me Iranians looked foreign; you go through this transformation without noticing it. I had started feeling American culturally, even though I wanted to be Iranian."

Even while in America, Bahrevar kept up his Muslim prayers five times each day. Echoing many Iranians, he says that prior to the Islamic Revolution, the reign of the pro-West Shah Reza Pahlavi was problematic.

"Iran was 'Westernized,' without the authenticity of the West," he says. "It had the technology, but not the culture that developed alongside it as it did in the West. The Shah never understood how to keep the Iranian cultural identity and Western culture."

The result of his return home, he says, is personal.

"In your life, you need to find an equilibrium inside, and that is easier in Iran," he says. "In the US, many people hunger for this, but most don't find it. They are too busy. Everything in the West is about measurement, how big, and how much money. But this is not the man."

The taxi home

Coming home to Iran does not work out for everyone, but getting back to the US is not always easy, either. Sherwin Karimi spent nine years in the US, but being an Iranian youth in Portland, Ore., had its challenges. Even though he was a good skateboarder, fitting in wasn't easy.

"I felt that the US was the place I wanted to be, but there were bigots who hassled me every day in high school," Mr. Karimi says. "They said: 'You are a terrorist, a hijacker, you are not going to see your next birthday!' "

Those problems ended at Portland State University, where he studied English. Karimi's dream was to be a US Air Force pilot, but little did he know that someday he'd be drafted into Iran's Revolutionary Guard.

"I wanted to stay there and have the rest of my life in the US, but I missed my parents," he says. Upon returning, he was unable to pay the $16,000 fee to avoid the service and was conscripted into the Guards.

Despite potential jobs in Iran that would use his English or karate skills, in which he holds a black belt, Karimi is set on returning to the US is driving a taxi to pay his way. The daily take two months ago was $12, when he was also teaching martial arts at a local gym. But now the gym is closed, and taxi profits have dropped to just $3 or $4 a day - barely enough for him and his wife.

"Spirit is where you find it, in your heart, wherever you are," says Karimi, philosophically. "I feel more American. No one can convince me otherwise. Going back to the US is something I want to do."

Wake-up call

Few Iranians have accents as succinctly American as Shahrom Jodiri, son of a successful Tehran businessman. He gave up his Porsche and its Blaupunkt stereo system as a college student in San Diego to return to his homeland five years ago.

"When I first came back I was in shock," Mr. Jodiri says, recalling the morality police, who then were in full power on the streets. "I had long hair, cowboy boots, and jeans, and back then they were really strict. In two months, I was stopped 14 times."

His father wanted to keep him close, so Jodiri spent a year in the Ukraine, learning Russian. When he came back, his father wouldn't pay to have him relieved of military duty, so he was forced to serve as an officer in the Basijis - Iran's normally right-wing "volunteer" military force. "I was one of the hard-liners," Jodiri says, with a wry smile. "Later, my father told me that he would have paid the $16,000 just to make sure I did it!"

Military service has since given way to teaching English - his American accent means that he is in high demand - and helping out with one of his father's companies, selling personal-care products such as Gillette. Foreigners searching for razors along Valiasr Avenue are likely to be asked in perfect English from behind the counter what they are looking for.

"If I am happy, I will stay. I had a machine life over in the US - wake up, go to school, study, go home," Jodiri says. "Here you have much more time to yourself.... If you have money, you can have as much fun in Iran as over there. Everything is here, but freedom, and that can be bought."

Contented in Tehran

The journey home has been long but fruitful for Madjid Emami, another Pars Online Internet partner, who graduated summa cum laude from UCLA. He was a buyer for the Versace Boutique on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, and earlier sold haute couture to the likes of Danny Glover, Elton John, and Nicholas Cage.

Hockey star Wayne Gretsky used to give him free tickets to L.A. Kings games, and he remembers with a laugh fitting Mike Tyson with expensive silk shirts. "His neck was so big that he had to buy two of the exact same color, and have both collars stitched into one," Mr. Emami remembers. "The environment I was in was almost surreal."

The result was a landing back in Iran. "My dad stayed here, and told me, 'You've got a lot of opportunities in this country. If you are not a CEO in America, why don't you try it out?' " he says. "It was a culture shock, and I learned a lot. I was a history major, and studied Islam and the Ottoman Empire, but I couldn't speak Farsi very well."

Anti-Iran propaganda in the US had been so pervasive that he was "pleasantly surprised. When I first got off the plane, I saw the logo of the Iran Air planes. I saw the mountains again, and these emotions helped connect loose pieces of the puzzle for me.

"I have thought about going back 100 times," he adds. "But my friends in L.A. are jealous, they envy me being so close to where I come from, and they will come back too. They say: 'You have become so much more Iranian!'

"Hardship builds character. When I look at myself before I came to Iran and now, I am a much deeper person. I can handle much more. I am more content."

Liftoff to liberty

After 17 years in the US and now back in Iran for nine years, engineer Darius Anvari is well-qualified to make an analogy between the two systems.

"In the US, barriers are low and respected, while here the walls are high and unreasonable - but the holes are so big that you can go through them," he says.

Mr. Anvari scaled the US barriers. He worked for three years as a reliability analyst on space-shuttle systems, including the toilet unit. "One achievement," he says tongue-in-cheek, was that his identification of a safety problem "caused the addition of one switch to the shuttle."

These days, through the Internet, he stays on the cutting edge of new technologies, and does freelance circuit design. But why did he return to Iran?

"I really felt a thirst for my country, and I am still trying to satisfy that thirst," he says. The Shah's phony modernization and nationalism denied our cultural history ... [but now] I'm in a culture that has some authenticity. How else can you measure civilization?"

One way he suggests, is to visit a remote village. "These people have a real identity, something that people like me with a Western education often lack."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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