Belly dancers rehearsed to the beat of traditional Arab doumbek drums in Freud Playhouse.
This year’s iteration of the Iranian Student Group’s annual culture show Friday and Saturday will showcase such traditional and modern Iranian dances, along with singing and comedy skits displaying customs reaching as far back as A.D. 1100.
The show brings together students within the Iranian community while also promoting intercultural understanding on campus – a mission ISG members deem especially important in the current political climate, said ISG Vice President Denise Miresmaili.
Miresmaili, a third-year biology student, said ISG is a social group meant to bring together Iranian-American students from different upbringings, backgrounds and levels of familiarity with the culture. Miresmaili was raised in Oceanside, California, a community with few Iranian members, and said the club and show have allowed her to interact with those who share her cultural heritage.
Miresmaili has participated in each culture show since her first year at UCLA.
“It’s a special quality to be able to forge friendships with people who share a culture with you,” Miresmaili said. “It’s like a second home.”
[Throwback: Iranian students host 2008 culture night]
This year’s culture show is especially focused on reaching out to the public because of the travel ban placed on Iran, Miresmaili said.
2016 alumna and dancer Sepideh Parhami also said the culture show’s open sharing of song and dance exposes the humanity and sincerity behind Iranians. The show forges a welcoming attitude that is essential to display considering recent political events like the travel ban, she said.
“Each background has its own value,” Parhami said. “Persians are human too and they are just celebrating their own traditions.”
The show immerses the audience in three hours of rich dances, entertaining hosts and endearing messages about shared cultural experiences, Miresmaili said. The mix of artistic mediums can work to prevent misconceptions of Iranian culture based on the purely political front displayed through social media and television, she said.
Miresmaili said that ISG hopes to use the show to establish the importance of viewing one another as people instead of as political subjects.
“The show promotes understanding of a whole culture that people may not have been familiar with or even knew existed,” Miresmaili said. “Their views could change in a way they weren’t expecting them to.”
Fifth-year neuroscience student and ISG member Edward Novinbakht will be participating in the culture show for the first time as a dancer, actor and co-host throughout the event. Novinbakht was born and raised in America and taught traditional Iranian values at home, but he found a stronger sense of community in participating in ISG’s culture show, he said.
“At first I didn’t know a lot of the people, but the second I walk into the room I know everyone there is Persian and I feel like I already have a connection with the members there,” Novinbakht said.
The ISG showcase combines what Novinbakht calls more Americanized displays of Iranian culture with more traditional portrayals: While some songs in the show will be in Farsi, hosts are also careful to provide enough context for nonspeakers to follow the story, he said.
At specific points, hosts will pause and explain a tradition, or ask audience members to attempt to explain Farsi phrases in English – which often have a humorous outcome when they do not literally translate. For instance, “jigareto bokhoram” literally translates to “I’ll eat your liver” in English but means “I love you so much” in Farsi.
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Loyola Marymount University graduate student Sarah Fatemi joined UCLA’s ISG after watching videos of the group’s past culture shows. This year, Fatemi choreographed one of the dances for the show and directed one of the skits about racism in minority communities.
Fatemi’s dance will be accompanied by a 6.5-minute song that fuses together five musical styles from across the country of Iran, including Persian, Shomali, Bandari, Turkish and Kurdish music.
Iranian culture is a cumulation of vast subcultures, even though Iranian culture can be mistakenly construed as a narrow identity, Fatemi said. Bringing special attention to individual subcultures that make up the whole helps accurately understand Iranian culture, she said.
Though the Iranian community is diverse, some universal customs help tie together everyone within ISG, Fatemi said.
“During skit rehearsal I’ll make a joke about what my parents did at Mehmooni, which is like a Persian gathering, and everyone in the room will be able to relate to the joke and laugh about it,” Fatemi said.
Fatemi’s skit is centered on an encounter in which an Iranian boy brings home his Latina girlfriend to his parents. Fatemi said viewers of the comedy will take away the lesson that open-mindedness and acceptance of a different culture can be embraced.
Bringing dance and humor to showcase Iranian traditions helps humanize aspects of the culture that might be misrepresented, Fatemi said. Media tends to portray a single Iranian identity and gloss over the diversity of the subcultures within, she said. Drawing on witty humor and displaying a range of traditional and modern dances emphasizes the lively individuality of each subculture, she said.
Though she graduated, Parhami is returning to perform in dances in the culture show, an event she said makes exceptional efforts to cater to those unfamiliar with her culture. The show is geared to celebrate the diverse cultural backgrounds to a wider non-Iranian audience, Parhami said.
“The messages ingrained in the show are more relevant now than any other point of my years performing in the show,” Parhami said. “I hope people are able to experience our vibrant and thriving culture that we have worked to preserve.”