Tehrangeles: How Iranians made part of LA their own

By Shoku Amirani
BBC Radio 4


Google maps recently recognised "Tehrangeles" as a neighbourhood of central Los Angeles. How did this upmarket part of LA become home to the largest community of Iranians outside Iran?

"We're on the map, I mean why shouldn't we be on the map?" says a girl at a hip Los Angeles cafe where young Iranians hang out.

"There's Koreatown, and Chinatown. Why shouldn't we have an area?"

Now they do.

Estimates show anywhere from 300,000 to over half a million Iranians in Southern California, with many living in Tehrangeles.

"Do not engage in any Iranian gossiping if you're not prepared to defend it," says Mahdis Keshavarz, who runs an LA PR agency. "Because everyone here speaks Farsi."

"The first time I came to LA as a student I was on campus and I heard Persian and I turned with that knee-jerk reaction, of 'Wow, cool, another Iranian,'" says Amy Malek, a PhD graduate at UCLA, who studies the Iranian diaspora.

"And the girl looked me up and down as if to say, 'Why are you staring at me, what's the big deal?'

"And that's when I realised, OK, you've got a lot of Iranians here."

The largest concentration of Iranians is around Westwood Boulevard, where most of the shop signs are in Persian and most of the voices you hear are speaking Farsi.

It is adjacent to the affluent Beverly Hills district where 22% of the population is of Iranian descent, and where Iranian "Jimmy" Jamshid Delshad was mayor in 2007 and 2010.

With almost 40% of the students at the renowned Beverly Hills High School said to be Iranian, studies show that Iranians are one of the best-educated immigrant groups in the US, and they are flourishing as entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurs, for example, like Farhad Mohit, who set up comparison-shopping website bizrate.com while he was still in business school and later sold it for millions of dollars.

Online giant e-Bay was founded by an Iranian and the current YouTube CEO is also Iranian.

In fact, plenty of non-Iranian residents of LA are signing up for Farsi lessons to make themselves attractive as potential employees to Iranian businessmen.

The first immigrants arrived in LA as students in the 1960s and prospered in the early 1970s, but the biggest wave came as people fled from the 1979 revolution which overthrew the Shah and ushered in an Islamic Republic.

Many never expected to stay long.

"We had a saying in our community, don't unpack your suitcase, we thought any day things would change and we would go back," says writer and broadcaster Homa Sarshar.

"But it's been 32 years and we are still here."

media captionA tour of the Bijan shop in Tehrangeles, central LA

Many more followed to join families, to escape the Iran-Iraq war of the early 1980s, or simply in search of better opportunities.

The climate was also a factor.

"They settled in LA because so much of it reminds them of Iran - the landscape, the car culture, the mountains," says Dr Reza Aslan of the University of California, Riverside.

But it has not all been plain sailing.

Iran-US relations sharply deteriorated in 1979, when 52 American diplomats were taken hostage in Tehran, and this had implications for Iranians newly arrived in LA.

"We would be playing on the drive way and neighbours would drive up to scare us and then drive away," says Sara, a child of Iranian immigrants.

Farhad Mohit, who arrived at the height of the hostage crisis, was called names at school.

Demonstrations by Americans against Iranians telling them to go back home were common.

"It wasn't a great time to be an Iranian, so when I went to university I changed my name to Fred," he says.

Iranians in the US have struggled to shake off the terrorist-fanatic image ever since.

"As a result of the prejudice Iranians would say they are Italian or Greek," says Amy Malek.

"Or they would refer to themselves as Persian rather than Iranian, as the identity that comes to mind with Persia is cats and rugs, but with Iran, the images are all negative."

"It's like if you say you're Persian, you're more cultured or posh," says Sara.

"But if you say, 'I'm Iranian,' people think you're enriching uranium in your garage!"

Every time new tensions arise between the two governments, the community fears the return of old prejudices.

"Americans are good people, they are just very uncomfortable with what they don't understand," says one young Iranian American who came to the US in the 1980s.

"You always realise that when you get out of California, but LA is like our safe haven."

But a generation on from the turmoil of 1979, most Tehrangeles residents feel completely comfortable with their dual identity.

Now in her thirties, Mahdis Keshavarz says she no longer feels she has to choose between being Iranian or American.

"We're not going to be fully Iranian and we're not fully American, so let's keep our names and not change them and be proud of who we are."