Twenty-four years ago today, the citizens of Iran experienced a
major political upheaval: The progressive, secular government of
the Shah was replaced by the far more rigid and conservative
government of Ayatollah Khomeini.
The new regime meant a mass exodus for thousands of Persians
fleeing the new government, ending their old lives in Iran to begin
new ones in the United States.
Many of the emigrants made their home in Southern California,
which at more than 300,000 boasts the country’s largest
Iranian immigrant population. Westwood has its fair share of the
community, with many Persian-owned businesses located south of
Muhamed Yazdin, owner of the Dekhoda Bookstore, is one of these
His store looks like an ancient temple dedicated to books. They
are everywhere, stacked from floor to ceiling as far as the eye can
see. There is a faint musty smell in the air; a smell that any
bibliophile is familiar with: old books. Ranging from philosophy
and politics to fairy tales and history, all are written in
“In Iran, one of my jobs was a bookseller with my own
store that I ran, and I just wanted to continue it here,”
He is calm in discussing the country from which he emigrated 22
years ago due to his wife’s medical condition, insisting the
move had nothing to do with politics. The only time he loses his
cool is when talk comes around to his business in Westwood’s
Persian area; then he sounds regretful and even a little angry.
“Before the store was doing good, but not now. People just
stopped reading books. People in this city do not read, they look
for money, not books,” he says.
Melanie Mortazavi’s music store, Sound City, located right
next to Dekhoda, does not seem to have that problem, with customers
coming in and out briskly.
Mortazavi and her husband both left Iran 25 years ago because of
the change in regime and have never been back since.
“When I come somewhere new, I never want to come
back,” Mortazavi says.
The inside of her store seems to be years removed from the
bookstore; posters of singers hang on every wall and rhythmic music
blares from the speakers.
She said life in the Iran of her youth was great for her and her
“Before we left, Iran was a second Europe, a second
Persia, beautiful life. There were tall, beautiful buildings
everywhere, stores, movies; we had everything,” Mortazavi
“We were secure then, too. I could go outside at three,
four o’clock in the morning, and it was very secure, but that
was before,” she adds with a sigh.
The revolution changed the secular nature of the country, with
the establishment of a new constitution just a year after the
Shah’s monarchy was overturned.
This constitution’s basic feature was to ensure that the
country followed an Islamic path under “Velayat-e
Faqih,” literally a “Supreme Jurisprudence,”
consisting of either a single leader whose qualities are
universally recognized by the people, or by three to five people to
be selected by an elected Council of Islamic Experts, according to
the United Nations.
Sunny Sadri, who came to the United States in 1987 at 16, can
remember her time as a high school student in Iran under the
“As a teenager I had no freedom; I had to cover myself all
the time, the boys and girls were separated. It was tough,”
Catherine Mirzaian, Mortazavi’s assistant in City Sound,
also remembers the changes she experienced after the new government
came to power.
“I had to wear the hijab, the traditional clothing, even
though I am not Muslim. But everybody has to go by the
rules,” she says
Iran has a majority Muslim population, with over 99 percent of
Iran’s citizens identifying as either Shi’ite or Sunni
Muslim; the remaining 1 percent follow the Jewish, Christian,
Zoroastrian or Baha’i religions.
Mirzaian said her Christian religion played a big part in her
decision to leave Iran three years ago.
“After the revolution, the new government was very
religious and strict, especially with those … who are not
Muslim,” Mirzaian said.
Even after deciding to leave, she added, getting into the United
States proved to be very difficult; she had to wait two years
before obtaining a visa from the U.S. government.
“I am lucky though,” she said. “I made it here
two weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, but my friends who were waiting
with me got stuck in Vienna for a lot longer, unable to get
Mirzaian stayed in Vienna for six months, a common occurrence as
many refugees stay in a European country on their way to the United
States; she said Vienna was a complete culture shock to her.
“I just enjoyed myself: party, party, party,” she
said, smiling. “Coming from Iran into a free country, I just
had to enjoy myself.”
Change has been coming to Iran, though, since 1997, when
Iran’s citizens selected their president in the freest and
most competitive election since before the revolution.
Sadri traveled back to Iran five years ago for her best
friend’s wedding and noticed the changes firsthand.
“Iran is much more modern now, you do not have to cover
yourself all the way now; the women there keep up with the fashion.
It’s much more modern, not as harsh to women,” she
She added that even though it is much improved, Iran still has
its share of problems.
“There are very few universities there, and even after
graduating people cannot find work,” Sadri said.
According to Gholamali Farjadi, an economics professor at New
York University, during the last five years Iran has had 3 percent
economic growth, which is inadequate to secure sufficient jobs for
the more than 700,000 additional job seekers entering the job
Yazdin, however, still misses his native country, where he
worked for many years as a filmmaker.
“I am sorry that I left. I visited once 10 years ago, but
that’s all. My life was good then, it was better back
there,” he adds.
Mortazavi said she also misses the Iran of her youth but
expresses no desire to come back.
“If not for the revolution, we never would have come (to
the United States), but we appreciate the chance to live in this
country, to work and talk freely without worrying, and also to keep
our heritage, our Persian culture,” Mortazavi said.