how the world sees america

Iranian Americans: Art Intimidates Life

Perhaps because he’s an artist Behn speaks openly even though his story is not an easy or a safe one to tell. “They could grab my father whenever they want...and start torturing him again,” Behn says. Even at home in Los Angeles, Behn fears Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. I watch as censorship transcends borders.

Behn_studio.jpg
His studio.
Back in May before launching off to England, I visited Los Angeles, or “Tehrangeles” as some interviewees called it. I wanted to practice video-blogging and hoped to visit Iran sometime soon. I figured they'd have strong perspectives to explore.

So I spent two weeks talking with taxi drivers, artists, comedians, fashion designers, politicians, communists, and tortured revolutionaries. I found America was central to their vision for a better Iran.

Now in DC planning which countries to visit next, I thought it would be a good time to publish this material and explore the sentiments of this unique community with you. Let's start with Behn.

In a back alley about thirty minutes southeast of Westwood, this artist toils away in an industrial studio -- a cross between an auto-mechanic’s shed and a New York painter’s loft. Behn creates vast works of modern art using acrylic and glass -- Buddhas, Geishas and hippies. Behn's wild gray hair glowing, he laments how disconnected he feels from the artistic traditions of Iran.

Over two decades in America, Behn's worked hard to distance himself from his country of birth. It hasn't been kind to him. He witnessed the worst of the Iranian Revolution growing up and tries to forget it, but his father's recent decision to return to Iran makes it impossible for Behn to shake his fear.

Back in 1975 Behn was ten years old and his father was colonel in the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's army. Sensing tough times ahead, Behn's father decided to send his kids to private boarding school in Britain. So from age ten to fourteen, Behn and his brother studied abroad. His father's premonitions proved true, and when the Shah was deposed in 1979 and Ayatollah Khomeini stepped in, Behn’s father, as a military man, lost almost everything and had to pull one of his sons home to save on tuition costs. Behn, the younger one, was picked to return. "From British private school to a Islamic public school -- it was hell."

The situation got worse. His father was arrested in 1984 in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war for his previous role in the army and spent a year in solitary confinement. Occasionally he’d be called out with other inmates and pressed brutally for information. Behn's mother read the paper each morning, checking for her husband’s name among the dead. It didn’t come to that. Behn’s father was released and moved his family to the United States. There it was calm and safe.

But Behn’s father couldn't shake the fear. He was constantly uncomfortable. His American story is a common one for wealthy Iranian Americans who fled Iran after the revolution (it's also the story of the movie The House of Sand and Fog). From being well known and well respected in his hometown, Behn's father became an anonymous driver, alone and disconnected.

Work-of-Art.jpg
His art.
In a back alley about thirty minutes southeast of Westwood. Unable to deal with his precipitous drop in status, he abhorred the "materialism of this place, the money and the fancy cars around him." By the mid 1990s, Behn’s father decided it was worth the risk of returning to Iran. He wanted to "live a simple life", what he remembered life in Iran to be -- with connection, friends and extended family. "His American skin made him uncomfortable," Behn explains. "And his Iran is --"

Suddenly, mid-sentence Behn stops. He tosses up his hands and says, “Anyway, I don’t want to get into all of this right now.” We take a break from recording, get coffee. He smokes. And then the camera comes back on.

“You know, my dad, he did nothing wrong. He’s harmless. He’s now out on his own farm tending to it, to the animals. He has many bees. He’s just living out the rest of his life in peace, you know?…He loves Iran. He has to be there. It’s a risk he’s willing to take...It's worth it...” Behn keeps on going, defensively, as if I am judging him. The conversation feels strangely different.

And then I realize Behn's no longer speaking to me. He's speaking to someone else, far off in Iran, someone who could be watching, and would be willing to torture his father again.

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Comments (19)

Amar:

Shahnameh,

This is the first of about 10 posts about Iranian Americans, so see how it unravels. As to the timing, it has to do with my being back in the U.S. and regrouping before pushing off overseas again. I'm using this material to spur debate as I plan some more overseas visits.

Aamir Ali:

If the Shah was such a nice guy, he would not have been expelled by millions of Iranians who came on the streets.

The US ruled Iran from 1953-1979, and made a mess of it. So Americans should stay out now.

Shahnameh:

Amar, if I were to really believe that you or Behn are not advocating war with Iran, what's with the timing of this article? According to Behn, his Dad moved back to Iran in the 1990's, so why write about this now. The timing of this post is extremely suspicious considering the rash of articles in the MSM about the push towards war with Iran.

Bill Dunn:

Imagine how bad you'd feel is you were still in Iraq, working for Americans who want to use you and not help you survive:

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/03/26/070326fa_fact_packer?printable=true

Hap Stokes:

Mr Baskhi--Thank you for that excellent article, I found it most enlightening. I mistakenly thought you were of Sub-Continent origin prior-(sorry). Regardless, you are a very good writer Sir.

Perhaps you could straighten out some of my confused historic grasping of how this present Iran/USA dispute began. Did the USA fully support Saddam/Iraq in that 8 year war with Iran militarily or was it only with an armaments supply, logistics and diplomacy? Some Iranian claims border close to the virtual impossible, in fact almost insane regarding claims of that war.

What on earth was the baffling new Revolutionary Iranian reasoning behind the US Embassy Hostage seizure and imprisonment of seemingly only mere low ranking Marines and staff members? I never understood even the basics behind that sad event.

How much does the CIA installing former Shah Raza back onto his Thorn in Iran bare on the present dispute? Aware that the Shah instituted a very severe and punishing regime forcing many of the young (especially students)into exile. I live in Western Canada and during the Shah's time, it seemed ten percent of our classrooms were filled with Iranian students escaping the Shah's regime.

Or did these political differences start even before the Shah was installed by the CIA? Back to 1953 when Premier Mossadegh was over thrown by the British Intelligence (with help from the CIA)?

What part do big British Oil Companies play?

For that matter, what part (if any) do the English play in all this past or present?--How deep is this quarrel between Persia and the western nations? Perhaps it goes back a few centuries, back to the time when the British Empire was at it's military zenith.

What is China's present role with Iran?

How is Israel involved beyond just Syria, Lebanon and it's own rightful preservation with Iran?
Again Thank You--HAP


Robert of Los Angeles:

Amar, I'm sure all dissidents and refugees from Nazi Germany also abhorred and feared the idea of war against their country. Other factors, strategic and global, are what must go into decision-making. So far, it is one step at a time. Surely, making the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist front and international sanctions against nuclear buildup are valid and proper moves. Perhaps if we had defanged the Nazi front organizations subverting Eastern Europe and sanctioned Krupp, etc, then no war would have been necessary.

Amar:

Quick point Shannameh,

Behn was very opposed to war, and told me in ominous terms how he watched CNN and heard Bush's rhetoric and was deathly afraid of another attack.

Throughout my experience in LA, where I talked to dozens of people from all walks of life, many of whom were fiercely opposed to the regime, some of whom recommended diplomacy, some of whom recommended non-engagement or support for internal dissidents, none of them advocated war.

An IHT Chance:

Just saw this in the IHT?
http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/08/27/europe/france.php
French prez says Iran risks attack. You think we're in for an Iraq re-run with France on board this time but Britain not (since Brits love Iranian mullahs)? scary indeed, not just for behn's dad...

Azarmehr:

I grew up in an anti-Shah family, where most of our relatives and friends were considered dissidents and anti-Shah activists. I just despair however when I read comments by the likes of Hass, who try to sound all knowing and knowledgable about Iran but have the complete wrong end of the stick and completely the wrong perspective of Iran during the Shah and now.
Lets put the record straight first. Hass read this:
http://www.emadbaghi.com/en/archives/000592.php
In a region full of tin pot dictators and brutal regimes, the Shah's regime was the most progressive there was.

The media in the West was full of mostly inaccurate stories about the brutality of the Shah, yet after the revolution in 1979, the human rights abuse in Iran was no longer fashionable. Thats why people like Hass probably dont even know about the 1988 massacre of Iranian political prisoners and executions of minors and pregnant women in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

It is true that political freedom was limited during the Shah, but there is no political freedom in Iran now. The Shah however did not interfere in the personal lives of Iranians. Women were free to choose to wear the headscarf, chador or neither. What we have now is a religious apartheid, where a citizen's right is determined by his religion and the adherence to the state interpretation of that religion.

Hass try to understand how reactionary a religious dictatorship is and how much Iran regressed after 1979, rather than trying to sound clever pretending you know about Iran by making empty comments like "The Shah tortured people too."

[Azarmehr is an established UK blogger who covers Iranian politics. You can find his site at: shttp://azarmehr.blogspot.com/]

shvitz:

Lonewolf: what the hell are you talking about? Your post doesn't even make any sense.

And Amar is Indian, you f*cktard.

lonewolf:

spare me ; you are a govt. mouthpiece for what we all know is a foriegn country. if you are so naive mr. bakshi as to belive that your fantasy homeland can be like the u.s you are fooling yourself and your readers as well. there is no democratic iran. especially after the '53 coup and the intervention of kermit roosevelt and his involvement in operation ajax. so knock it off with your propaganda towards your readers!!! we all know who you represent, but that doesn't change a damned thing. the reality is this; when the u.s. understands that they can't just walk into another country and STEAL it's natural resources at it's own PRESET prices; then we will all understand eachother. UNTIL THEN; quit cutting the throats of your own family tree to your own benefit. what you say is only money in your own pocket; and not a single dime more that your own cousins will see. but whatever is best for you my friend!! cut all the throats you like at your own financial benefit; as if no one knows the middle east game!!

Baaah Humbug...:

Wow....how dramatic, in a fake and phoney way!

In all revolutions, a percentage of people from that nation are spun out into exile or self-exile. The grounds of it is either political, economic or a combination of both. A large majority of Iranians abroad are in self-exile and the total sum of 1 million first generation plus perhaps another 3 million second generation immigrants all over the world (out of 70 million Iranians) is simply par for the course.

Did the Shah's army and his secret police tortured people? Yes, that is why Uncle Sam pulled the plug on him in the first place. Does the current regime practice it? Probably, they are the same Iranians in the same country doing mostly the same things!

So, some guy is stuck between two completely different worlds of Los Angeles/Hollywood and Tehran, which are also practically on opposite sides of the planet. Both are surreal, but only one of them does not accept that it is......guess which one?

PA:

I grew up in an anti-Shah family, where most of our relatives and friends were considered dissidents and anti-Shah activists. I just despair however when I read comments by the likes of Hass, who try to sound all knowing and knowledgable about Iran but have the complete wrong end of the stick and completely the wrong perspective of Iran during the Shah and now.

Lets put the record straight first. Hass read this:
http://www.emadbaghi.com/en/archives/000592.php

In a region full of tin pot dictators and brutal regimes, the Shah's regime was the most progressive there was.

The media in the West was full of mostly inaccurate stories about the brutality of the Shah, yet after the revolution in 1979, the human rights abuse in Iran was no longer fashionable. Thats why people like Hass probably dont even know about the 1988 massacre of Iranian political prisoners and executions of minors and pregnant women in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

It is true that political freedom was limited during the Shah, but there is no political freedom in Iran now. The Shah however did not interfere in the personal lives of Iranians. Women were free to choose to wear the headscarf, chador or neither. What we have now is a religious apartheid, where a citizen's right is determined by his religion and the adherence to the state interpretation of that religion.

Hass try to understand how reactionary a religious dictatorship is and how much Iran regressed after 1979, rather than trying to sound clever pretending you know about Iran by making empty comments like "The Shah tortured people too."

Hass you are an ASS.

Robert of Los Angeles:

Labelled as a terrorist affiliated organization NOT for the purpose of military operations BUT for the express purpose of restricting financial dealings as far as the US government can mandate to businesses.

Tell me, the Marines have their own bank account and funding??? Tell that to the Marines
-------------------
Huh, funny, I didn't know the Marines had a human wave "volunteers" division (Basij).
Huh, funny, I didn't know the Marines had their own CIA (Quds force).
Huh, funny, I think the Navy would disagree that the Marines have a Navy
Huh, funny, I didn't know the Marines contracted out their services to other countries.
----------------
"The designation of the Revolutionary Guard will be made under Executive Order 13224, which allows the United States to block the assets of those designated as terrorists and to disrupt operations by foreign businesses that "provide support, services or assistance to, or otherwise associate with, terrorists." (Wikipedia)

Kam-Korder:

Revolutionary Guards are modeled after US Marines. Declaring, unilaterally, parts of armed forces of a country as "a terrorist group" will set a precedence for all other countries to labels each others armed forces as “terrorist”; that would include all US's armed forces as well. Such declarations, assuming it is valid under International laws, should be done by UN and NOT George Bush and his gang of neo-cons.

Leslie R.:

I think there's a strong argument to be made that the Revolutionary Guard deserves to be a terrorist organization and the U.S. must intervene militarily. It's interesting to see that back in April war with Iran seemed almost imminent. Now it seems the U.S. is pulling back, what do you think? Is it? Or is this new terrorist label lining up for war? I'm very confused about U.S.-Iran right now. Looking forward to seeing how your experience unfolded.

Robert of Los Angeles:

Hass, you said the Shah tortured the colonel, that's not right, the Revolutionary Guard tortured him. Or are you saying the colonel was a torturer in the Shah's regime, unsupported and unfair. Is it OK for him to go back to live in peace, is it OK for a Baathist to live in peace, is it OK for anyone to live in his homeland in peace?

Jily:

Hass, the story is about one Iranian American's experience not all of them! But it's true America has a lot of explaining to do for supporting the Shah ever.

hass:

now lets talk about all the people that the Shah's regime tortured - people just like this colonel. Oh wait, they never counted. We never featured them in the news because the Shah was our man.

PostGlobal is an interactive conversation on global issues moderated by Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria and David Ignatius of The Washington Post. It is produced jointly by Newsweek and washingtonpost.com, as is On Faith, a conversation on religion. Please send your comments, questions and suggestions for PostGlobal to Lauren Keane, its editor and producer.