Childhood escape from Iran turns writer into global citizen

It would be impossible for Angella Nazarian to remember every person she encountered while traveling to more than 60 countries on every continent except Antarctica.

Yet a taxi driver in Istanbul is one man she will never forget.

Angella Nazarian at her home in Bel Air.

“You Iranians will teach those bullying, pork-eating, Jew-loving Americans a good lesson,” the driver barked at Nazarian, who was traveling with her two young sons, Phillip and Eli. She had told the man of her Iranian heritage but chose not to reveal her American and Jewish identities. After his tirade, she decided it best to keep quiet.

“It was a shame that my kids and I could not openly say we were Jewish,” Nazarian said in a recent interview. “That was a teaching moment for my sons to show how ugly a lack of tolerance can be.”

Nazarian, who fled Iran during the 1979 revolution when she was just 11, chronicles the journey in her first book, “Life as a Visitor.”

Part travelogue, part journal, “Life as a Visitor” is a “hybrid book,” according to Nazarian, who weaves vivid images, poetry and stories of her travels with husband David and their sons (now teenagers) with details of her departure from Iran and life in Los Angeles.       

She also devotes several sections to recounting her childhood experiences as a Jew living in a predominantly Muslim country.

“At the time I went

to secular school, the Iranian government was very tolerant of Jewish people,” Nazarian said. “I was very lucky. My father’s generation had to deal with anti-Semitism. He told stories of being beaten up and being called a ‘Jew boy’ while he walked to school.”

Nazarian, 42, a former psychology professor at three Los Angeles–colleges, will be at the San Francisco Main Library Saturday, Dec. 12 as part of “We Are All Iran: A Literary Reading to Mark the Six-Month Anniversary of the Iranian Elections.” The event is free and open to the public. 

A member of the Association of Iranian American Writers, Nazarian, who blogs for the Huffington Post, will join Bay Area novelists, poets and essayists from the association who will read from published and recent works in recognition of those struggling for democracy and human rights in Iran.   

All of the participants are Iranian but come from different religious backgrounds. While Nazarian represents Iranian American Jewish women, she sees her identity as something greater. In a way, it’s a calling.  

“I am a global citizen,” Nazarian said. “Through my travels, I’ve found that by expanding our world view and not stereotyping any religion or ethnicity as two-dimensional, humans are more alike than we think.”

Nazarian lived the first 11 years of her life in Tehran. During the violent Iranian revolution, her parents decided it was not safe for her to stay, and her mother flew with her and her sister, Lida, to Beverly Hills to join Nazarian’s two older brothers, Kourosh and Jamshid.

She was told it probably would be just a two-week visit and packed one suitcase, assuming she’d return home to Iran when the chaos subsided.

But as the violence in Iran escalated, Nazarian’s parents determined their daughters should remain in the United States permanently. They didn’t know when they would be together again.

It would be several years before Nazarian saw her mother and father, who survived their own tumultuous and perilous journey to Los Angeles by way of Pakistan, Paris and Portugal, a story also recounted in the book.

While Nazarian’s mother, Maryam Maddahi, remains tight-lipped about her life in Iran (“She gets very flustered and cries about her ordeal,” Nazarian said), her late father, Nasser Maddahi, provided insight into how the Jews were treated during his childhood.

“The Jewish population was but ‘a glass of water in the sea,’ as [my father] referred to it, with only 80,000 throughout the country,” Nazarian writes. “Jews had secondary status and were targets of discriminatory practices and attitudes. People referred to Jews as najes, or ‘polluted.’”

After Reza Shah came to power in 1925, Jews gradually were allowed to integrate with the larger society in Iran, Nazarian explains in her book. Under the shah’s rule, relations with Israel were relatively warm.

Israel’s existence “was one of the greatest [advantages] we Jews had over [other] minorities,” said Nazarian, whose sons had their bar mitzvahs in Israel. “During the [1979] revolution, fewer Jews were killed because they knew there was the support from the U.S. and Israeli communities. I can’t say that for my Baha’i friends.”

“We Are All Iran” begins 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12, at the San Francisco Main  Library, 100 Larkin St. at Grove, S.F. Information: iranianamericanwriters.org.

“Life as a Visitor” by Angella Nazarian ($45, Assouline Publishing, 167 pages)

Amanda Pazornik