An Iranian-American in Defense of Shahs of Sunset
The second season of Shahs of Sunset started airing on December 2. I know I’ll be the skunk at the Iranian-American garden party after admitting that I love the show. But I’m throwing down the gauntlet and challenging my fellow ex-pats (or anyone else for that matter) to refute any of the important points I’m about to make in defense of the flamboyant Reza Farahan and his Tehrangeles set.
To elaborate, I should explain that numerous Iranian-Americans, who seem to have even less objectivity after 30-plus years in exile, have whined about this show being an insult and/or a misrepresentation of Iranians-Americans: a Kardashianized disgrace, fabricated by the sacrilegious and intellectually challenged Hollywood producers.
In ’79, Iranians just flocked to Los Angeles and turned it into the hub Iranian enclave. They came because there had already been a thriving little Iranian community there since the ’40s; and also because the weather is nice. This is very likely what Iran would have looked like had the Khomeinist hordes not occupied the country. It’s basically Iran outside Iran, Tehran through the looking glass, a non-plus ultra.
It turns out that professors — even the ones with the authority to hire other professors — watch schlocky basic-cable programming. And from the Midwest to New England, curious members of hiring committees wanted to know: Does the show, which follows six Iranians in their 30s living in Los Angeles, accurately reveal what Iranian-Americans are really like?
Well, yes. This show offers so much more than just a snapshot of Iranian culture. It offers a glimpse of well-assimilated and prosperous Iranians.
In fact, I don’t see anything in the show that I don’t already know or cannot recognize as pretty darn Iran-American. In fact, some of these people could be my cousins and a perfect depiction of the Children of Cyrus, a man (the Achaemenids in general) who himself paraded his era’s bling-bling, not via reality TV but on bas-reliefs in the family "crib," Persepolis!
Iranians are hostage to their own set of dizzying dichotomies and paradoxes, and our long history adds a hefty helping of the maudlin and precious. We learn at a tender age to surf Persian social riptides and chart crosscurrents like an art form, deconstructed by a few like Omid Djalili.
One of the most wonderful things about Iranians is that, though we have no sense of humor and take ourselves entirely too seriously, we are comedic geniuses. We enjoy making ourselves laugh at our misfortunes and the misfortunes of others. Invaders, looters, sackers, and pillagers have come and gone, and our unique kind of humor has helped us remain immovably Persian. Holding on to one’s identity in the midst of turmoil and uncertainty is generally a good thing — and then the Persian conspiracy theory cauldron begins to boil and bubble.
We’re highly ambitious and hard-working people who love bling and all the goodies life has to offer, but, like the Dutch Calvinists and today’s Americans, God forbid some of us get ahead in a way that others deem crass. That’s when a self-appointed faction of the arbiter elegantiarum gets indignant and comes out in droves to proclaim the abject misrepresentation of the Children of Cyrus by opportunist Iranians who sold a bill of goods to some well-meaning but equally opportunistic westerner. They mobilize angry, insulting letter-writing campaigns denouncing the thing to the person(s) in charge (Ryan Seacrest got a raft of how-dare-you letters).
Iranian-Americans want our identity recognized as a minority of self-sufficient, modernist, and assimilating people who add a little cultural zest and sophistication to the American melting pot. So what better way than to be put on a common-denominator display such as reality TV?
One of the interesting factors in proving the fact that Iranians have nicely blended into the melting pot is that the main figures of the show (and their respective circles) show the same ethnic, religious, and even sexual diversities.
Another most fascinating aspect is Reza Farahan’s "gayness," which can be seen from space. The fact that it’s addressed openly in the show is something of a step in the right direction. Though homosexuality has very much existed in the Middle East (and been punishable by execution in some parts), it has been a topic swept under the rug. Reza’s open sexual orientation forces the issue.
Shahs of Sunset pokes a finger in the eye of the progeny of Khomeini and their thugocrats by showing the real Iranian vs. the scuzzy, ultraconservative Islamo-Imperialist perennially on the warpath with the entire planet. The show provides other Americans a snapshot of a slice of the Iranian-American landscape and offers viewers accessible characters to identify with, in stark distinction from the beardie-wierdies routinely force-fed to us by the mainstream media.
Another thing I do love about this show is that it depicts Iranians as comfortably assimilated, albeit attached to their "Iranianness." They relish that part of their background and yet they’ve very nicely co-mingled with the ideal of the American melting pot. I suspect this because Iran is a multi-ethnic nation, a patchwork of sister and cousin bloodlines that have all meshed together to create a striking identity.
Anyhow, from where I stand, if we cannot even tolerate the manifold aspects of ourselves, I wonder how we can push for a free Iran. Or do we want to just be eternally doing the regime’s dirty work for it by denying who we are? I say: put your money where your mouth is and live and let live.
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