August 2, 2011
Opinion: Culture clash
In case you were too busy watching Congress make a fool of itself last month to have noticed, a parallel, no-less-wrenching debate was raging in the halls of Beverly Hills
City Hall at the same time. Instead of the debt limit, the issue in Beverly Hills was the city’s noise ordinance — specifically, how late people can party in their homes without having the police show up at their door and demand that the music be turned off. Currently, the law stipulates that residents can make noise until 6 p.m. on weeknights and 10 p.m. on weekends. It’s safe to say that whoever drafted that law was 1) not Iranian and 2) not aware that Iranian parties don’t really start until 10 p.m. on any night of the week.
The Iranians, in turn, seem to have been unaware that 1) not everyone who lives in Beverly Hills is Iranian and 2) the other residents of Beverly Hills don’t really care what time Iranian parties start or end, they just want some peace and quiet at the end of the day; they’re quite happy with the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. arrangement, thank you very much. A few months ago, some Iranians began to lobby for more indulgent noise limits. That, in turn, unleashed 30 years’ worth of resentment over the sound and the fury that Iranian parties seem to have generated in Beverly Hills. The ensuing standoff is not unlike the Roman siege of Masada, with the Iranians playing the part of the Jews.
Lest you suspect that I have an ax to grind on either end, I don’t live in Beverly Hills and have no vested interest in the outcome of this fight. It’s true that in the grand, life-and-death-and-world-peace scheme of things, how late the DJ should be allowed to play is a rather trivial question. Then again, this is great drama: a conflict in which both sides are right, yet separated by vast, forbidding and solid ground. I know because I’ve had the good fortune of eating dinner on both sides of Masada’s walls, and I’m here to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, you might as well be talking about two different planets.
I’ve been to many an Iranian party where the music nearly made my ears bleed, the conversation was shallow and overly spirited, and cars were backed up two blocks waiting for the valet. But I’ve also sat through many an American dinner at which the guests didn’t utter a word to each other while they ate.
I’ve yet to go to an Iranian dinner party where the host hasn’t prepared 12 dishes when two would have sufficed, but I’ve also been to more than one American BYOM (Bring Your Own Meat) dinner where the only thing the host provided was the fire on which to cook the meat. Fights broke out when two people claimed the same piece of steak as their own.
I know that Iranians often go overboard trying to impress their guests with their wealth and good taste. They pay way too much to the florist because they know he will rat them out to his other clients if they “act cheap,” and they are afraid to ask the DJ to turn the music down after they’ve paid him $10,000 for five hours. But I’ve also been to a dinner party thrown by a French woman in $500 sandals who asked guests how many olives they would eat (the limit was three each) then counted that exact number and put them in the salad. When the main course — spaghetti with sauce from a jar — was served, she spent 10 minutes arguing with her mother over whose Parmesan was in the fridge. The mother won, and we ate our pasta without cheese.
Some of my Iranian friends spend too much precious time and valuable brain power preparing for parties, gauge their popularity by and draw their self-esteem from the number of parties they get invited to. Iranian hosts would be shocked if any of their guests shows up less than an hour late. When they say they’re having “a few people” over, they’re really talking about “a few hundred.” They serve dinner at midnight, coffee at 2 a.m. Sometimes, they serve breakfast as well.
Then again, my very dear American friend Madeleine likes to do laundry and make the beds while she has people over. She usually serves cold cuts. The one time she planned to cook, she waited till all the guests had arrived, then decided to take a piece of raw, cryogenically frozen meat out of the freezer to let it thaw. The meat was the only potentially edible item in the house. Madeleine uses her fridge as a filing cabinet — to store important documents that may otherwise be destroyed in a fire.
My other friend Nora, a WASP who lists her profession as “heiress” on every questionnaire she has to fill out, met me at the door of her Hollywood Hills house on a Saturday night only to announce that she had canceled her party and failed to tell me. She had invited 34 people weeks earlier, then called every one of them to say she had just bought a new Ferrari with a $10,000 sound system and would rather drive top down on Sunset Strip than see any of their faces. She insisted on taking me for a joy ride. The Ferrari was a stick shift; Nora didn’t know how to drive a stick shift. Her house was high on top of a steep hill with narrow streets and no sidewalks. Every three minutes, the car roared to life, lurched forward, slammed to a stop and took another year off my life.
My husband says I have some very strange friends. Maybe so, but someday, I’ll tell you about the pork-and-beans dinners I’ve endured at the homes of his Beverly Hills Jewish American friends. The point is, I wouldn’t give up any of these events — not the noisy Iranian parties, not the olive-counting, Parmesan-fighting Americans — in favor of the other. I remember when I first came to Los Angeles in 1974, how plain and provincial and downright boring a city it was. Beverly Hills’ idea of “ethnic” food was Nate ’n Al’s on one street and a Polynesian restaurant called The Luau on the next. Not that anyone’s asking, but I think the great Rochelle Ginsburg, a human relations commissioner in Beverly Hills, had it just right when she suggested that the two sides split the difference and move on. The Jews of Masada should fire the DJ if he won’t lower the volume (and they should really fire that florist, too), and the Romans should let their hair down a little and think about all the peace and quiet we’re all going to get when the music really stops.