Critic's NotesA New Persian Empire Plants a Personal Flag
By Porochista Khakpour, The New York Times
- Mar. 9, 2012
In the beginning there was the word ... Persian.
It was imaginary, of a place that no longer exists, the realm of dusty maps and fairy tales and myths, and yet for my entire childhood it was who I was. We said Irani among Iranians, but when we were among Americans Persian was the name of the game. I said it because my parents said it. At first I suspected empire-state-of-mind pride, though I slowly began to sense bony shame in an era when Iran equaled hostage crisis and revolution.
I hid in American costumes punk, cowgirl, starlet and took on Persian only when I had to. Once in a while a baffled peer would ask: But what's Persian? Aren't you from Iran? I'd spin the wheel in my brain and let the arrow land on the many somethings, anythings, I had cobbled: Oh, it's the label for Islamic-Republic-disliking Iranians! Or it's what Iranians who used to be fancy prefer! Or it refers to a state in Iran uh, state of mind I mean, an actual state yes, that's it!
The stress was hideous. My Oriental best friend (Where's Orienta? a student asked her once) and my Persian self were perpetually rolled up into ourselves like, well, discount rugs.
As I grew older I said Iranian never mind the label's problematic past, I was concerned with owning its problematic present. After the Sept. 11 attacks I began insisting on it. No more convenient euphemisms.
Little did I know 2012 would herald The Return of the Persian. At least according to the Bravo
cable channel, which on Sunday is unveiling the reality series Shahs of Sunset (at 10 p.m.)
from Ryan Seacrest Productions. On the show, which follows a group of well-heeled friends in Los Angeles, Persian is thrown around as if Iranian never existed. But who could blame them? If it's a bad time for Iranians, just maybe it's a great time for Persians.
For it has been a winter of discontent for us, a particularly hard one in more than three decades of discontentment. As Israel, Iran and the United States play their messy games of cat and mouse and musical chairs, the temperature has plunged to cold-warring with sanctions that have hurt Iran's people while helping the regime. Hot-war talk hastened, but so far the old World War III nightmare is being dangled as a threat.
For Iranians here, there, anywhere it means just more living in the tangles of neurotic defense and justification. In the endless hangover from old empire glory, the dissecting of old dirty realities in new contexts is complicated, we explain to others, we explain to ourselves: problematic on-and-off flings with the West; church and state dysfunction thanks to the dual leadership of frenemies; extrareligious fundamentalism fronting to mask secular economic fiending. It all adds up to never-ending identity angst that perhaps only an American can understand.
Then suddenly an intermission: in came Asghar Farhadi's resoundingly universal 2011 feature film A Separation, which had artistry and accidental timing on its side as it crept from the festival circuit to an Oscar. With the ticking of the nuclear clock growing audible, all sorts of displaced hopes and anxieties clung to the film's ascent. As Mr. Farhadi even said, I think it's not only the best film, I think it's the film that has to win. And when it did, Iranians' Facebook and Twitter yawp went, We won. For once the diaspora and homeland Iranians were connected in a similar cause: a love of great art.
Still, Iranian cynics, more invested than rappers in cred, piped up with their mix of hyperanalysis and haterade, jabbing while applauding. Was Mr. Farhadi, who received permission to make the film, in bed with the Iranian government? (Never mind that the government at one point pulled the plug on production after his vocal support of imprisoned filmmakers.) Was it another depiction of the unbearable heaviness of being Iranian? (Never mind that the film's meditation on divorce, Alzheimer's and middle-class family struggles should be filed under the unbearable heaviness of being human.) Even when you win, you lose so goes Iranian-ness.
Perhaps Persian-ness can fare better? Now little ol' Shahs of Sunset enters this complicated universe. This dreaded coming out of the disapora has for months spurred tweeting Iranians to tarring and feathering, as if no one had witnessed badly drawn reality-TV Iranians or seen a royalist-offspring comedy of errors before. Long forgotten was the 2004 E! show Love Is in the Heir, the goofy chronicles of the real-life Pahlavi dynasty princess Ann Claire Van Shaick and her country-music-star aspirations.
But now, in the shadow of political depression and artistic high, what does one do with Shahs and its particularly American specimens of Iranian descent?
When the show was announced last summer, a sick side of me rooted for the delicious worst: for years I've been writing about such a minstrel show, working on a novel about Iranian-American reality TV. Then I entered a period of deep Tehrangelena worry. Finally, upon viewing the new Bravo show, I couldn't bother to be bothered, as the Persian label proved far more troubling than the been-there-done-that Kardashian-Real-Housewives-Jersey Shore mash-up contents.
Plus, I wasn't above some giggle gags of recognition here and there: G G, the show's resident Persian princess whose baddest bitch spirit is a sham to all but her (we both have done time in impractical shoes, with boys, at shooting ranges); Asa, the earthy-mystical urban artist with a flair for higher callings of the imitation-Erykah Badu variety (I used to moonlight as yoga teacher by day, hip-hop journalist by night); Reza, the gay Iranian real estate whiz who deals only in funny and money (a sense of humor helped me cope with mannequins, living and inanimate, during my Rodeo Drive shop-girl days). Less personal but nonetheless expected: the clubby soundtrack, the racist Persian mother and the caged tiger at a pool party.
O God of Yahoo! Answers, who could ask for anything more? Here, you have it: the modern-day Persian.
Which eureka! rest easy, Iranians! is only American culture, mainlined and snorted to overdose, specifically, the new-money culture of Westside Los Angeles, where too many ethnic minorities fashioned their lives in the image of their affluent white predecessors. For Iranians, this means the '80s made them Dynasty extras. When G G and Asa get heated over an accusation of wearing insult of insults H&M, you find a generic all-American parable of new money and assimilation insanity.
In this way Shahs is dare I say? more daunting to deconstruct than A Separation. Who can capture a young diaspora doing as young diasporas do: huffing freedom and crashing and burning, playing hook-and-kick with selves made up of their parents' hand-me-down post-traumatic stress disorder?
For many, this show will come and go, but facing it is in order, depending on allegiance, of course.
For my fellow Iranian-Americans who are struggling with it: You doth protest too much, methinks. Ryan Seacrest isn't playing Columbus with Iranian-America: the secret of Shahs was out long ago in malls, clubs, salons and executive lounges around the country. The honeymoon period of immigrant invisibility is over; Shahs is part of the assimilation pact, as is appreciation for A Separation. The only way to fight Shahs is to travel back by time machine to your local royalist with a simple request: Hit up a therapist before the Armani outlet.
For Iranians in Iran: Have a good laugh. Or cry. Yes, these are your cousins who were rooting for you to risk life and limb and fight the Green Revolution for them as they watched on satellite TV, sometimes the very same ones who advocated invasion of your country to liberate you. It's unclear whether Shahs will explore the conservatism and reactionary side of the Tehrangeleno culture, but you know the subtext.
For Persians: I asked a cast member, Reza, about Bravo's Persian-label problem. His first answer danced around his hatred of the common pronunciation EYE-ranian, but then he said:
And things from Iran, whether they're people or objects, are all Persian. Food is Persian, rugs are Persian, cats are Persian, people are Persian. It's not because I'm ashamed or embarrassed. Mind you, I am very much more Cyrus and Darius than I am Islamic Republic.
Such outdated Orientalist misconceptions plus cracked psyche is a fiction writer's dream. It's also why you should not say Persian.
For all other Americans: I asked Mr. Seacrest about Bravo's New Persian-ness and he replied, As producers, we didn't impose any rules about referring to the cast one way or another, but more often than not they ended up using Persian' themselves.
Frances Berwick, the president of Bravo, said: I defer to you. I don't think we have called them anything. But it's an interesting question. I don't know.
Whether it's confused paralysis or convenient glossing, it's all tiptoeing in a time when awareness and education are critical. We're not going anywhere, but now our recognition and reception rest on your electing, viewing, awarding selves. You decide the extent of hiding and seeking that problem child, the Persian.
Porochista*Khakpour, author of the novel 'Sons and Other Flammable Objects, is the Picador guest professor for literature at the University of Leipzig.http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/ar...ref=television