Iranian Americans are among the more misunderstood segments of our population, in part because of their adopted nation’s complicated history with their homeland.
Andrew Goldberg’s The Iranian Americans, airing Tuesday on PBS, is a worthy start at helping the rest of us get to know our Iranian-American neighbors. But it leaves so much unexplored that you can’t help wondering if the fact that it’s essentially an infomercial, funded by Iranian-American individuals and foundations may have blinded Goldberg to the full potential of this story.
The film is valuable as far as it goes, especially as it recounts the years when the U.S. essentially dismantled democracy in Iran and installed the late shah. The Iranian Revolution not only toppled the shah and installed the Ayatollah Khomeini, it also resulted in 1979 in a mass emigration of tens of thousands of Iranians, many of whom settled in the U.S.
Goldberg has assembled a nice mix of interview subjects, including comedian Maz Jobrani, former Assistant Secretary of State Goli Ameri, Citicorp vice chairman Hamid Biglari, former Beverly Hills Mayor Jamshid “Jimmy” Delshad and Funny in Farsi memoirist Firoozah Dumas.
The pace of assimilation has not been rapid among Iranian Americans, at first because many believed their stay in the U.S. would be temporary.
“We packed for two weeks — we stayed for 30 years,” Jobrani says.
Older émigrés never considered that they would die in the United States, says Dumas, but over time, Iranian Americans had to come to terms with the fact that they would probably live out their days in the United States.
While there was much about American culture that had attracted Iranians before they emigrated, Iranian Americans work ardently to preserve their own culture, with many families speaking only Farsi at home and preparing traditional dishes, even while making sure there is a Christmas tree every year for the kids.
Goldberg’s primary focus is to tell us how much Iranian Americans have achieved and how much we don’t know about them. For example, while many Americans automatically think all Iranians are Muslim, in fact, they represent a wide variety of faiths, including Armenian Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian and Bahai.
While Goldberg succeeds in his limited aims, The Iranian Americans makes us want to know more. While the first-hand accounts are informative and often moving, we’re left to wonder how much more perspective and depth could have been added by experts who could have, for example, discussed assimilation patterns among various ethnic groups, or compared ethnic prejudice among those groups at various points in our history.