The first thing you notice about Iranians is their language. Farsi is filled with soft a's, like the a in father, and sh's, as in shore. "Sh" occurs often because it appears in shoma, meaning "you," and in suffixes indicating possession: -- esh, for his, hers, and its; -- eshan for their. (Nan, bread. Naneshan, their bread.) "Sh" also appears in many prepositions. From a distance, Farsi speakers sound as though they're lulling a tired child, "Shhh, shhh, shhh..."
Listen closely and you might hear a few words you recognize. Farsi is an Indo-European language: madar, mother; pedar, father; baradar, brother; dokhtar, daughter or girl. There aren't enough familiar words for an English speaker to understand Farsi conversation, but its sound is seductive. You can understand why Iranians who've no hope of ever returning to Iran, even Iranian minorities -- like Jews and Baha'is -- who've been oppressed by the current regime, remain passionate about Farsi.
"When I was in elementary school," remembers 22-year-old Ghazal Badiozamani, "I'd come home filled with news. Things I couldn't wait to tell my mother. I'd run through the front door, and I start talking to my mother in English and she'd say, in Farsi, 'Wait. Stop. I can't understand what you're saying. Tell me in Farsi.' I'd get so angry, so frustrated, because I knew she spoke and understood English. My parents were adamant that my sister and I speak Farsi. 'But Mom!' I'd say. 'Don't speak to me in English,' she'd say. 'Speak to me in Farsi.' "
Badiozamani just graduated from Stanford and will attend the London School of Economics this fall. When she was a little girl her parents sent her to study Farsi at the Iranian School of San Diego. Shahri Estakhry Aghassi established the school in 1987 after she'd moved to San Diego from North Carolina.
Estakhry is a small woman who wiggles in her seat when she talks about Persian culture. Mention the 14th Century poet Hafez and Estakhry's delicate hands shoot into the air, "Oh, my! Hafez! Our greatest poet. Every Iranian knows his poems. They're so, so beautiful. If only you could understand them in the original! The man who cleans the streets, intellectuals, rich, poor, everyone has memorized some Hafez. In Iran it's common to keep a book of his poems by your bed. It's like a custom. If you have a problem, a question about your life, you open the book at random and where your finger lands, you read the verses to see if they offer some insight, some answer. You'd be surprised at how often they do."
Estakhry comes from Shiraz, a city in southern Iran famous for poetry. Hafez lived and died there, as did Saadi, another great Persian poet. Estakhry thinks, but does not know, that many of San Diego's 40- to 50,000 Iranians come from Shiraz. "The two cities," she says, "share a wonderful climate." Estakhry speaks of Shiraz with longing, but, she says, "There comes a point when you realize how happy your children are in America, when you realize that your children are American, and you understand that this is now your home. You're not going back. Iranians, you see, who've come here have gone through a revolution in their heads and adjustments in their hearts.
"The whole idea of starting the Iranian School of San Diego came to me one day when my daughter called to speak to her grandmother, my mother, in Iran. My mother told her, 'Listen, phone calls are too expensive. Write me a letter.' My daughter couldn't read or write Farsi. The idea of giving her classes myself seemed too difficult. I was teaching at All Hallows Academy in La Jolla at the time, very busy with work. So I put up a little note in a Persian supermarket in Pacific Beach announcing that I was thinking of organizing Farsi classes for children and that interested parents could meet with me on Saturday at the All Hallows library. I don't know what I expected, but 80 people showed up. From one tiny note!
"Very soon we had a board of directors -- wonderful people, professional people -- who wanted to donate their time to the project. We started our classes at All Hallows and have moved around from various locations ever since, renting classrooms from public schools on Saturdays. So far, more than 1000 children have attended our classes, kids from every kind of Iranian background -- Muslim, Jewish, Baha'i, Zoroastrian, Christian. We not only teach Farsi, but we also teach traditional Persian dance. We have Farsi classes and Persian history classes for adults. This is how the Persian Cultural Center grew out of the Iranian School of San Diego. There are now close to 2000 adults on the Persian Cultural Center mailing list. Each year the Center sponsors six or so cultural events -- poetry readings, Persian classical music, guest speakers.
"I am, of course, most proud of our students, of the children. Of all that have graduated from our program, I can't think of a single one who hasn't gone on to obtain at least a bachelor's degree. Almost all of them are professionals -- doctors, dentists, engineers, computer scientists, lawyers, microbiologists."
Estakhry has a point. Only one in ten Iranian immigrants holds a blue-collar job. In 1980, the last year for which statistics of this kind are available, 40 percent of Iranian immigrants held a bachelor's or advanced degree -- a percentage twice that among all other foreign-born immigrants, and two and a half times as great as native-born Americans.
"In that respect," says Badiozamani, Estakhry's former pupil, "I guess I'm pretty typical. We came here when I was two years old, and among the Iranian families I grew up with in San Diego, it wasn't a question of if you were going to college. It was which graduate degree you were going to take. There's considerable pressure to enter a profession. To become a doctor. Even I did two years of pre-med at Stanford, and I hated it. I could never stand the sight of blood. When I was little and had to have a blood test, I had to be literally dragged screaming and crying to the nurse. I screamed so loud, for so long, that every doctor and nurse in the clinic came running into the room to see what was being done to the poor little girl. I wasn't cut out to be a doctor."