'I love both
UI student says
Gazette Online - Wednesday July 4, 2007
'We choose to be American'
IOWA CITY — Nestled amid Eastern Iowa’s farms is a house named for a
garden in Iran, some 6,000 miles away. At an Independence Day party Saturday, rural Johnson County’s Safa
Garden, an informal community center for local Iranian-Americans, was
filled with laughter and discussion, voices flowing easily from Farsi to
English and back again. Apple pie and watermelon rested comfortably alongside Persian dishes
like rice cooked with eggplant and pitas with yogurt and cucumber sauce.
The food celebrated American freedom while reaffirming Iranian culture.
party offered a snapshot of Eastern Iowa’s small, close-knit
Iranian community. Balancing dual identities, at once Iranian
and American, they defy media images of an Iran seen through its
hard-line Islamic government, led most prominently by Supreme
Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Research by Mohammad Chaichian, a professor of sociology at Mount
Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, shows Iowa’s Iranians tend to fit a
certain mold. They are almost all financially well-off, and most are
highly educated, holding bachelor and graduate degrees at statistically
higher rates than white, African-American and Hispanic Iowans. They are
religiously diverse: Jewish, Christian, Muslim and atheist Iranians
‘‘We came here by choice, so we choose to be American,’’ said Dr. Siroos Shirazi, 67, of Iowa City, who is married to American-born Patti
Walden, 53. Yet it was Shirazi who in 1994 established Safa Garden, off Highway 1
north of Iowa City, as a gathering place for Iranians from across the
state. They may have chosen to be American, but they are not
relinquishing their heritage. ‘‘It’s a balancing act,’’ said University of Iowa senior Yashar Vasef,
23, of Iowa City, head of the UI’s Persian Student Organization in the
2006-07 school year. He came to the United States 15 years ago when his family fled the
Iran-Iraq war. ‘‘I feel just as much Iranian as I do American, and I
love both countries.’’
Shirazi (left) and Dr. Ali Rezai, both of Iowa City, are the chief organizers of
the annual IranianAmerican Fourth of July celebration. This year, it was held at
Shirazi's Safa Garden in rural Solon. Since 1994, Safa Garden has served as
place where Iranians from around the state can gather.
The 2000 U.S. census reported 709 people of Iranian descent living in
Iowa, a small portion of the 338,000 Iranians and Iranian-Americans
across the country. Some Iranians, like Shirazi, came as students or academics before the
1979 revolution that brought the current Islamic government to power. Many more came after the revolution, unhappy with the political
situation at home. Still others, like Vasef, came during the Iran-Iraq
war in the 1980s.
With high levels of animosity between the Iranian and American
governments, immigration from Iran to the United States almost has
halted, Chaichian said. Iowa’s already small Iranian community is
shrinking as its children grow, graduate and, in many cases, move to
bigger cities. Without a fresh wave of immigrants, the Iranian community structure in
Iowa could disintegrate in as few as 10 to 15 years, Chaichian
The political discord raises another issue for Iranian-Americans: how
to balance an often fierce pride in their heritage with the realities of
a sometimes harsh political conflict between the governments of their
A solution for some has been to sidestep the issue by eschewing the
term Iranian and self-identifying as Persian, the ancient culture from
which many of Iran’s people spring.
‘‘My inner being is not with that country or that government,’’ said
Dr. Ali Rezai, 65, of Iowa City. ‘‘I don’t even recognize that country; it has changed. My inner life
is with the culture I have brought with me.’’
Rezai is a de facto leader of Iowa City’s Iranian Cultural
Association, which, like the Persian Student Organization is meant to
avoid politics and focus only on Persian culture. When gathering for holidays like the Independence Day party or Norooz,
the Iranian New Year held in March, political discussions are for the
most part left at home.
‘‘I’m an American. Where I stand and voice my opinion — it is all in
America and directed toward American causes,’’ Rezai said.
‘‘But in my inner life, inside my heart — that is different. All that
culture, music, poetry; it’s a baggage I carry around inside me.
‘‘That’s what keeps me alive. My own inner heart is Iranian.’’
Contact the writer: (319) 339-3162 or