A peek into the life of NYC’s Iranian Americans amid recent tensions
“As I was leaving it was midnight….I could hear the chanting and I heard a few really loud popping noises….I was like, here we go again. I left in a similar situation forty years ago. It’s pretty eerie.”
Nasim Alikhani describes her recent return from Tehran — which, at the time, was swarming with protestors and clouding with tear gas. The images from her trip evoke memories of when she first left Tehran for New York City during the Iran-Iraq War in 1983.
On January 3, the day Alikhani flew to Tehran from JFK Airport to visit her parents, President Trump ordered the assassination of the second most powerful figure in Iran. Previously unknown to many Americans, Qassim Suleimani was viewed by U.S. intelligence as the mastermind behind militia proxies across the region. He was, purportedly, the U.S. government’s greatest adversary in the Middle East.
Moments after Suleimani’s death was announced, Alikhani, who is the chef behind the acclaimed Brooklyn restaurant Sofreh, boarded her flight to Tehran. “My husband dropped me off [at the airport], and he contacted me two minutes later…He heard on NPR in the car . He said, ‘Listen, you have time not to go and you have insurance [to not lose your] ticket.’”
Alikhani refused to postpone her trip and stepped out of the Tehran airport 18 hours later into a wave of protesters. Tens of thousands flooded the city’s wide streets. High-rise buildings were plastered from top to bottom with photographs of Suleimani, “as if they had a whole army,” she said.
In a matter of hours, the entire city was coated with Suleimani’s likeness.
Alikhani’s reaction — unfazed, or rather, determined to carry on with her existing plans — characterizes a silent, steady resistance.
Though some Iranian Americans may be numb to the familiar motions of U.S. militarism, none are immune to its impact. For decades, the diaspora’s acceptance has jolted with the seesaw of U.S. foreign policy — up one year, down the next.
For many, today’s headlines conjure up memories of yesterday’s xenophobic convention.
Daro Behroozi is a Park Slope-based saxophonist for the brass funk band Lucky Chops, whose grandfather emigrated from Iran in the 1950s. He remembers being teased as a 12 year-old for “joining the Axis of Evil.”
Coney Island’s IS 239, like many other schools, required students to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and National Anthem every morning following the attacks.
“One time, I sat down early because I thought the song was over,” Behroozi recalls. “The assistant principal came in and started yelling at me, ‘If you don’t want to live here, you can leave.’”
According to Manijeh Moradian, assistant professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Barnard College, the impact of living on the edge of war between the U.S. and Iran “is a trauma that [the Iranian] community deals with, because we have been there again and again.”
Twenty-five year-old NYU law student Yosi Badie agrees. “War with Iran is what I’ve been fearing my whole life,” she says.
More shocking than military intervention for Badie, who has lived in Florida, Ohio, and Maryland, are “jokes” about World War Three from her peers on social media. Though Badie’s friends are aware she visits her family in Iran regularly, she says, “I was really surprised by the lack of awareness and empathy that my non-Iranian friends were showing. Everyone became an Iran expert overnight, which was really frustrating.”
While Suleimani’s assassination injected a new wave of panic, it was not unprecedented.
Professor Moradian explains that Suleimani adds to a running tally of extrajudicial killings orchestrated by the U.S. According to Moradian, targeted killings normalized during Bush and Obama’s presidencies laid the foundation for President Trump to follow suit. These killings “became a normal part of U.S. foreign policy…and a bipartisan, accepted part of the war on terror,” she says.
Targeted sanctions, one of the most consistent elements of U.S. foreign policy on Iran since 1979, are a tool of economic warfare and often a prelude to military war. According to the Atlantic Council, the price of medicine in Iran has increased by up to 75 percent in recent years, which — combined with economic downturn and rising unemployment — has prompted many Iranians to stop health treatments for serious illnesses such as cancer and epilepsy.
Before leaving Brooklyn, Alikhani filled her suitcase with basic pain relievers like Advil and Aleve for her family and friends, a common practice among those traveling from the U.S. to Iran.
Apart from material hardship, Professor Moradian is concerned with the impact of U.S. public policy on Iranians’ mental health. “[It is] destroying people’s lives, futures, hopes, and dreams…in many, many different ways,” she says.
Shahab Dehghani, a 24-year-old junior at Northeastern University, went home for the holiday break unaware that his return to the U.S. was at risk. Upon arriving at Boston Logan International Airport on January 20, Customs and Border Protection officers revoked Dehghani’s student visa and detained him overnight. He was deported just days before the start of his spring semester — with no explanation.
Dehghani’s case is not uncommon. A report by CNN shows more than 17 Iranian students have been deported since August 2019, despite holding valid student visas.
In an attempt to cope with news, Iranian Americans surface an inherited nostalgia for a non-physical home — the beats, melodies, flavors, and movements that travel from Tehran to StuyTown, from Isfahan to Park Slope, from Yazd to Morningside Heights.
After President Trump said the U.S. military was “cocked and loaded” for a strike against Iran — but reversed the order 10 minutes before launching it — NYU student Badie attended a Code Pink anti-war protest on Capitol Hill. “We were pretty disappointed to see…the turnout from our community was low.”
According to Badie, the event speakers were older, white organizers who didn’t represent the views of Iranian community. “It was a very heavy feeling being there…You could just see that look in each others’ faces of hopelessness.”
Just as the protest was dispersing, an Iranian demonstrator sprang up to play the traditional Persian tombak drum and, in response, Badie started dancing. The impromptu party inspired #GherforPeace (which, for lack of a better translation, means “Get down” for Peace), a series of events for Iranian Americans to display and celebrate their culture in a time when “action feels futile given the recklessness of our government,” Badie says.
But public exhibitions of Iranian culture were not always conceivable.
Professor Moradian grew up in Washington, D.C. during the Iran Hostage Crisis, when the U.S. was seething with anti-Iranian sentiment. Moradian says she did not have access to Iranian culture, knowledge, and relationships, in part due to the assimilation, racism, and wars that marked her upbringing. The Iran-Iraq War made it unsafe to visit Iran, cutting Moradian off from her family. “For eight years, we lived with the fear that we could find out our relatives were killed,” she says.
It wasn’t until after 9/11 — during a wave of racial profiling, hate crimes, surveillance, and detentions — that Moradian visited Iran for the first time to learn Farsi and connect with her family. “I really felt a deep sense of affiliation with others who were being targeted for being Muslim or looking Muslim, and that kind of violence and targeting forced me to contend with, ‘OK, well, what relationship do I want to have to the way I look, to where I’m from?’”
Behroozi, a 29-year-old woodwind musician with a different backstory, is subject to similar, forced ignorance ensured by geopolitical tensions. Unable to visit Iran with a U.S. passport, he finds sanctuary in music.
From his Brooklyn home, Behroozi takes classical Persian ney lessons over Skype and practices intensively every day. He finds solace in the simplicity of the ney — a hollowed bamboo tube with six holes — that connects him with the Iranian side of his family.
Behroozi describes his family’s December gathering for Shab-e Yalda, a Zoroastrian winter solstice celebration that predates Islam, during which his 92-year-old uncle began to sing poetic verses as he played the ney. Behroozi, soft-spoken and scruffy with a thin hoop in his left ear, lights up, “He just started singing! None of us had ever heard him do that before! He started singing the verses. I was like, this is why I’m doing this. That was so special.”
Behroozi uses Google Translate to communicate with musicians in Iran through somewhat unfiltered apps like Instagram and Telegram. He often prioritizes practicing the ney and sitar over his main, “Western” instruments, though Behroozi says he works against “Western” and “Eastern” categorizations.
“If you really look at the history and development of a lot of musical traditions that we now take for granted, there’s global flows of knowledge production and cultural production that go across boundaries that are created for political purposes,” Behroozi says.
Though Trump’s recent White House address eased some tensions, Professor Moradian points out that this is likely temporary. “The last month has shown us that at any moment, things could get to the brink of war,” she says. “We’re just a step away from that all the time.”
In the meantime, Iranians have found a home in New York City — nestled somewhere between the brink of war and Behroozi’s airy ney.
Badie sits in her Persian-carpeted apartment beside a traditional hookah, awaiting a coveted dinner reservation at Sofreh.
Across the river just before the evening’s first seating, Sofreh chef Alikhani says, “This is a time we just have to hug each other…the less I know, the better I am.”