Sunday, March 30, 2008

The first Iranian-born mayor of an American city ...

... is Jewish. (And a Democrat.) Strictly speaking, I should put that in the past tense, since the man in question, Jimmy (Jamshid) Delshad, was elected Mayor of Beverly Hills in March 2007 and just completed his one-year term. Delshad immigrated to the US in his teens, became a computer engineer and then an entrepreneur, made a bundle, moved to Beverly Hills (part of greater "Tehrangeles"), went into politics, and now this--in short, a canonical American immigrant success story.

By all accounts, Delshad seems to have done a good job as Mayor. I just noticed a video about him, which you can watch HERE.

=> Overall, this is a charmingly positive only-in-America sort of story. As last year's Washington Post article about Delshad's election reported:
Jimmy Delshad promised in Farsi-accented English to faithfully serve as mayor, and a crowd of nearly 1,000 stood to cheer. And so Beverly Hills got its first Iranian American chief executive, marking the political arrival of an immigrant community that has quietly reshaped this famously posh city over the past 25 years. [....]

In his inaugural speech, Delshad spent more time on the intractable traffic problems in Beverly Hills than on his ethnicity. [....] But Delshad knows he is a cultural ambassador as much as a city administrator. "I wanted to open doors for others who would see me as an example," he said in his speech.

And Delshad, who is Jewish, chose a Holocaust survivor to swear him in. Going off script, Delshad said from the lectern, "Don't let anybody doubt the Holocaust, because if you do, I'll buy you a one-way ticket to Auschwitz."

"That was directed to [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad," he said the next day. "They put in the paper in Iran: 'Persian Jew Will Be Mayor of Beverly Hills.'" [....]
In the US, many city governments seem to have their own foreign-policy agendas (not unlike the current Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone). Yes, I know this sort of thing drives so-called international-relations "realists" crazy, but realists (without quotation marks) have to recognize that it has long been a part of US politics.
Delshad, a slight man with graying hair and a wide smile, sees himself as uniquely suited to bridge his native and adopted cultures. He immigrated with his brother 49 years ago, and when later waves of immigrants arrived, their cultural differences "hit me in the face," he said. As he earned a bachelor's degree and became a successful computer engineer, Delshad used his fluency in both cultures to mediate between them.

Among his fans is Mimi Rastgar, who stood in the back and wiped away a tear as Delshad took his oath of office this week.

"I am so happy that he is the mayor," she said afterward, "especially now that the Iran government is not positive about Jews. We are second-class people in Iran."

"This," Rastgar said, cocking her head toward Delshad, "is proof that if we have a chance, we can do anything."
=> At the same time, as is usually the case in the real world, the socio-political background to this story is not without some tensions and difficulties. The Washington Post article noted some of those, too:
Now, about 8,000 of the city's 35,000 residents are Iranian. They have made their mark -- and sometimes ruffled feathers -- in this sunny oasis of palm-lined streets.

Here the public schools give students the day off for Norouz, the Iranian New Year holiday in March. This month, for the first time, ballots were printed in Farsi as well as Spanish and English.

Some Iranians' preference for large houses with columns and gates has transformed streets of single-story bungalows with lush lawns in front, prompting an outcry from older residents, who scorn the new two-story flat-fronted houses with paved yards as "Persian palaces."

"We have lots of family gatherings, lots of parties," said Parvin Shahlapour, an Iranian immigrant and sociology researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles. Groups of 50 or more may congregate weekly in one home, so "we like big guest rooms, large dining rooms," she said.

The festive ways of Persian culture have also drawn noise complaints from neighbors. "Beverly Hills is used to going to sleep at 9 o'clock," Delshad said. "This is the time we get started."
Why does this all sound so familiar? One of the recurring themes of American social history is that successive waves of immigrants are always being criticized for being too loud, vulgar, and pushy--and, if they succeed, for being too ostentatiously arriviste, too. All through the 20th century, for example, those were standard stereotypes applied to my own ethnic group, Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. And I gather from things I've read that at least some descendants of those eastern European Jewish immigrants who live in Beverly Hills now feel the same way about those loud, flashy, vulgarly ostentatious Iranian Jews. So it goes ...
One of Delshad's tasks as mayor will be to respond to Iranians who want to bring late-night restaurants and clubs to the city, something other residents may resist, he said.

But if they are remaking Beverly Hills, their political engagement -- and acceptance -- has been slow. In Delshad's first campaign four years ago, he received death threats and felt he needed bodyguards. But reaction to his reelection this month was more subdued, though hundreds of people did call the city clerk to protest the printing of ballots in Farsi.
Incidentally, before you jump to overly easy conclusions, a number of those complaints about Farsi/English ballots came from Iranian-Americans:
Delshad said he opposed the bilingual ballots and tried to make clear he had nothing to do with them.
"The Iranian community is one of the most educated minorities in America and reads English well," he said. "The ballots only caused confusion, and were an insult to many Iranians."
At all events,
Delshad won a narrow victory.

Nooshin Meshkaty, who worked on that campaign and is now a member of the Beverly Hills school board, said persuading Iranians to vote was difficult.

"They have to accept that it's not stepping on anyone's toes to participate," she said. Also, Delshad said, many feared putting their names on any kind of official list, since in Iran such lists often meant "someone would come after you." [....]
On the other hand, in another touch that's not unusual in American ethnic/immigrant politics, Delshad appears to have gotten support from Muslim as well as Jewish Iranian-Americans. This is just one of several reports I've seen that agree on this point:
Iranian Americans of other religions have expressed their admiration for Delshad because he is also the first American of Iranian background to be elected to public office in the U.S.

"Mr. Delshad's work while mayor was very positive for all Iranians in the city and he proved that an Iranian is quite capable and can be successful while serving in public office," said Assadollah Morovati, the Iranian Muslim owner of "Radio Sedaye Iran" (KRSI), a Persian language satellite radio station based in Beverly Hills. "For every Iranian, he brought us an incredible sense of pride."
Maybe that sounds too nice to be true, but it actually makes quite plausible sociological sense. Here in the US, it seems, they're all Iranians together.

Yours for American ethnic pluralism,
Jeff Weintraub

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