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Jewish Journal

PBS’ Iranian-American Story

by Karmel Melamed

December 12, 2012 | 2:02 pm

An Iranian-American family celebrates Nowruz. Photo courtesy of PBS

An Iranian-American family celebrates Nowruz. Photo courtesy of PBS

Following more than three decades of Iranians flourishing in the United States, a documentary titled “The Iranian Americans” offers a nostalgic look at how tens of thousands of immigrants resettled in America following the 1979 revolution in Iran. It will air Dec. 18 at 9:30 p.m. on PBS.

After quickly establishing the circumstances behind the political upheaval in Iran during the late 1970s, the film features interviews with various Iranian-Americans who shed light on the difficulty they experienced in leaving their homes in Iran and coming to a land of freedom in which they were unfamiliar with the language or culture. Whether Muslim, Jew, Baha’i, Christian or Zoroastrian, the Iranian-Americans in this film reveal the duality of their cultures and how they succeeded in their new home.

Numerous prominent Iranian-Americans are featured, including former Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad, who is Jewish; Citicorp vice chairman Hamid Biglari; the former head of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, Firouz Naderi; and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Goli Ameri. All discuss how they were able to achieve high levels of success due to their pursuit of higher education and hard work.

“I think Iranians living in the U.S. are so misunderstood by average Americans, who do not know the tremendous contributions they’ve made to our country and the pride they have for being Americans,” said Andrew Goldberg, the Emmy Award-winning filmmaker behind “The Iranian Americans.”

The documentary shows how Iranian-Americans live bicultural lives by keeping alive some of their music, food, poetry and other traditions — such as Nowruz, the Iranian New Year — while at the same time taking on new American traditions, such as Thanksgiving. This cultural juggling shows up in language, too. Citicorp’s Biglari points out that Iranian-Americans today “sometimes speak Farsi and sometimes speak English or sometimes count in English and sometimes count in Farsi.”

Captured in the film is the sense of nostalgia some older Iranian-Americans have for their former homeland — and with it the desire to visit there one day. But at the same time, it highlights the tremendous pride they have in being U.S. citizens.

Numerous Iranian-Jewish scholars, journalists and writers explore the acculturation of Iranian Jews into American society and how a large segment of Iranian Jewry was embraced by Jews already living in the United States.

Despite showing the trials and tribulations of the immigrant experience, the film also has several lighthearted moments, thanks to Iranian-born stand-up comedian Maz Jobrani, a Muslim who pokes fun at the behavior of certain older Iranian-Americans. Jobrani even recites famous Iranian poetry in Farsi and jokes at how some would not approve of his Farsi accent.

For his part, Goldberg said he wanted to educate the public about the Iranian-American community while at the same time celebrating its tremendous achievements and successes over the last three decades. Yet making the film wasn’t always easy, he said.

“I think the two biggest challenges we had [were] obtaining financial support for making this documentary from the community and also interviewing certain people who were afraid that the Iranian regime may take what they say out of context and possibly create problems for their family members still living in Iran,” Goldberg said.

In the past Goldberg has produced similar documentaries for public television about other immigrant groups, including Armenians, Jewish-Americans and a 2007 film regarding anti-Semitism in the 21st century.

While the film accurately showcases the various Iranian-American religious groups and their achievements in the United States, it omits the tremendous sense of friendship, mutual respect and camaraderie Iranians of all religions living in the United States share for one another. 

And even though the documentary discusses the dictatorial nature of the government of the late shah of Iran, it fails to mention the advances in education, prosperity and social tolerance all Iranians experienced for one another in the country prior to the revolution. 

Another element that is missing is how many non-Muslim Iranians, including Jews, Christians and Baha’is, still struggle to live with the significant trauma resulting from persecution they experienced at the hands of Iran’s current brutal regime. 

Overall, though, the “The Iranian Americans” documentary is a fairly good representation of the larger Iranian community living in the United States and how its members struggled to become acculturated into American society over the years. 

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