Los Angeles has the largest Iranian community in any city outside of Iran. The vast majority arrived in a wave of immigration just over 30 years ago after the fall of the Shah. A new digital book, “The Persian Square,” traces over a century of Iranian-American experience. It was written by “Tell Me More” senior producer Iran Davar Ardalan.
In the book, Ardalan found the first Iranian-American on record — Hajj Sayyah, a world traveler who went to New York, then to San Francisco.
“He was completely enamored by American way of life and thought, and learned about democratic values, and took some of that back with him to Iran,” Ardalan said.
Sayyah was later imprisoned for helping to support the constitutional movement in Iran. He ended up taking refuge at the American consul in Tehran as an American citizen.
“Some of the stories are just fascinating how Iran and America’s cultural ties and political ties go way back, centuries.”
Before being known for its political turbulence, Iran was known for its poetry.
“Ralph Waldo Emerson, back in the 1800s, helped popularize Persian poetry.”
Emerson wrote a book named after a famous Iranian poet, Omar Khayyam.
“It was just remarkable how Americans were enamored by Iranian culture, and especially Iranian poetry, so there’s hundreds of verses and song that are inspired by [Iranian poets].”
You can listen to one such song below, “Gems from In a Persian Garden,” performed in Camden, New Jersey on Feb. 19, 1915 by the Victor Opera Company.
The book’s name has a Los Angeles connection. In 2010, the L.A. City Council named the corner of Wilshire and Wilkins Boulevard “Persian Square,” named for the contributions that Iranian small business has made to L.A. The Nowruz Iranian new year festival takes place Sunday at the square, with thousands from around Southern California coming out to celebrate.
“Of course, the weather is beautiful, and Hollywood is here, and it was very attractive to Iranian-Americans who were leaving and having to live in exile, to be able to be here in Southern California, where, to a certain extent, some of the climate is similar to parts of Iran.”
Ardalan says she hopes to meet more Iranian-Americans whose stories can be included in updated versions of the book. You can see pages from the book in the photo gallery above.