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Walking Lightly: Firoozeh Dumas says radical politics has its place but her message is gentle.

Between Democracy And the Mullahs

If Iran is to be liberated in the name of freedom, where do Iranian-Americans stand?

By Najeeb Hasan

KAMRAN ELAHIAN and Firoozeh Dumas have more than a few things in common. Both were born in Iran: Elahian in Tehran, Dumas in Abadan. Both first set foot in the United States in early 1970s, Elahian as an ambitious 18-year-old, Dumas as a precocious 7-year-old. Both saw their American dreams fulfilled. Elahian transformed himself into a powerful Silicon Valley entrepreneur and venture capitalist; Dumas published her first book, Funny in Farsi, in 2003 and now finds herself writing commentaries for newspapers like the Los Angeles Times. Both, though born Muslim, have no problem celebrating Christmas with their families and friends.

But perhaps their most striking commonality—striking in that they are both first-generation immigrants—is their refusal to be pegged as Iranian-Americans. Rather, Dumas likes to speak of a "shared humanity," while Elahian, responding to a question about how it feels to be an Iranian living in the United States, flatly declares, "I have not been referred to as an Iranian-American for a long time. My goal is to become a citizen of the world. I've learned different languages, cultures and religions. I had my own personal experience that told me if you look past the veneer, under the different shades of skin, human beings are all the same."

It's this postmodern immigrant philosophy that has carried them through the last 30 years, through the ups of America's beckoning opportunity to the downs of the Iranian revolution and the ensuing hostage crisis. Yes, there were signs that read "Death to America," but, Elahian says, "if you put all the symbolic gestures aside and ask the question: How many Americans were killed, the answer you get is zero." It's a philosophy that could be challenged as the contradictions of the war on terror come closer to home, as symbolic gestures turn into reality. President Bush labeled Iran part of an "axis of evil." Meanwhile, post-9/11 immigration policies included rounding up and detaining an uncounted number of Iranians (among other Arabs and Muslims) for deportation, including Sacramento resident Kouroshe Gholamshahi ("Unsafe Asylum," April 17, 2003). And two weeks ago, The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh predicted that Iran will the be the next target of U.S. military action (though an all-out invasion is unlikely).

Hersh's story sparked a flurry of activity and analysis, including a commentary in the San Jose Mercury News by Stanford University's Abbas Milani. Milani, who had been imprisoned under the shah's regime and has also since been critical of the cultural and political suffocation under Iran's theocratic government, is a staunch supporter of democracy in Iran, but he squirmed at the prospects of military intervention. "If the ultimate goal," he wrote along with a co-author, "is to create democracy—one that would not fear the United States and therefore have less use for the bomb—then dual-track diplomacy with Iran's government and with its people is more likely to work than military action."

Milani's essay reveals an emotional predicament facing many liberalized Iranian-Americans: an overwhelming thirst for democracy juxtaposed with the very real prospect of spreading democracy by the sword. In the acknowledgements to Azar Nafisi's widely lauded memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, a book about struggling to find intellectual space under an authoritarian Iranian regime, she warmly thanks a "Paul." The "Paul," as it turns out, is none other than Paul Wolfowitz, one of the principle architects of the administration's current policy of "liberating" Iraq.

The question for Iranian-Americans would seem to be: Can you thank Paul and be true to your roots at the same time?

Fast Food

Dumas, for one, doesn't like the premise. "I can't answer that question," she says. "My main interest is not discussing politics. My main interest is how to make people not be afraid of each other. I get pigeon-holed. I've gone out of my way not to be a typical Middle Eastern writer. I do that because it's about a shared humanity. Radical politics does have a place, but so does what I'm doing. I don't want to talk about any other writer."

Dumas, a Berkeley grad who lives in Palo Alto with her husband and two children, has a kind face with features both soft and angular. She keeps her hair short and speaks unaccented English. She is someone who still stays in touch with her second-grade teacher and her elementary-school crossing guard. Her father first came to the United States as a Fulbright scholar, coming away so captivated by his experience that he had no qualms in moving his family from their homeland.

Her book, which she says has sold about 60,000 copies, is a collection of short, mostly humorous essays. She chronicles everything from taking family vacations to Disneyland to an Iranian uncle's struggles in losing weight after living on an American fast food diet, to her family being frightened by political protesters when they were invited to Washington, D.C., to welcome the Shah in 1977, to chancing upon seeing her university librarian nude during some late-night television surfing, all stories that, she hopes, build bridges of understanding between cultures. "I just spoke in Ohio, at a school there," she recounts. "It was a school where they had a lot of problems. After my talk, the students were telling me that they were so inspired by my stories. My message is a very gentle message. The flip side of that are people who only want to talk about the Middle East. But I had 700 high school students talking about our shared humanity."

Elahian's story, meanwhile, takes a different route. In 1981, he co-founded CAE Systems, a software company that was sold for $75 million three years after he founded it. He then co-founded Cirrus Logic, a semiconductor company that saw its revenue grow to $1 billion in just 10 years. But his public profile has always hinged on his third attempt. In 1989, after a string of successes, he co-founded Momenta, a company meant to capitalize on the untapped market for pen-based computers. In three years, Momenta flopped. Elahian was quickly fired. He took an almost yearlong traveling sabbatical, and it was during this time that he crystallized his attitude that he was a citizen of the world.

Elahian, balding and plump with a deeply tanned face, makes a conscious effort to remain nonchalant about his Iranian roots. When reminded that he helped fund Silicon Iran, he counters by saying he also helped fund Silicon Bangladesh. "Twenty-six years ago," he explains, "I was in America at the height of the hostage crisis. NATO sent me as one of 11 delegates to a scientific conference. This was, again, during the height of the crisis. They said fill out this form. People wrote that they were from places like Houston, Texas. I wrote that I was born in Tehran, Iran." He guffaws at the memory. "I was only 25 years old. The thought never crossed my mind that I shouldn't be a U.S. delegate."

Shahbaz Taheri, the publisher of Pezhvak, an Iranian-American newspaper that boasts a circulation of 14,000 in California, is not convinced a nonchalant attitude about his Iranian roots will accomplish anything in politically difficult circumstances. Taheri, a well known South Bay advocate, was alerted to the American war beat even before Hersh's article. "I got an email from an attorney in San Diego telling me there was an increase in FBI activity in interviewing Iranians," he says. "It was an indication that the United States had some sort of plan. They did the same thing prior to the Iraq war."

Taheri, while not speaking specifically of Dumas or Elahian, says Iranians have been reluctant to identify with their country. "After the Iranian government took hostages in Iran, a lot of Iranians living in the United States were hiding their identity," he says. "Some were saying they were from Turkey or other parts of the Middle East. But that has changed. Now, we see more Iranians willing to participate in society and politics as Iranians. Just recently, National Geographic mistakenly labeled the Persian Gulf as the Arabian Gulf, which led to many Iranians sending emails and letters of protest."

As for yearning for democracy, but watching it being spread by brute force, Taheri handles the juxtaposition with a sigh. "People [in Iran] have not been involved in politics. A lot of people came to the United States and realized that democracy is good. But, unfortunately, I think they are not educated enough to know the real meaning of democracy. Most of the Iranians are little dictators inside themselves. They weren't raised in a democratic country, and they have a problem with dictatorships."


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From the February 9-15, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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