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Iranians on Madison Avenue: Culture as Hope in the Absence of Politics

The hope is that not just political involvement, but also kabob, music, poetry and dance can forge a new unity, one that's less fragmented but no less diverse.
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This past weekend in Manhattan, three mounted NYPD officers led a procession of Iranians across ethnic, religious, and provincial groups (from Armenians and Kurds to Zoroastrians to people from Gilan to Shiraz) and Los Angeles recording artists. The officer in the middle carried a flag that has not been officially recognized by the Iranian government of the past three decades.

It was a surreal moment which kicked off a truly festive afternoon. Sunday marked the 8th Annual Persian Day Parade, a jubilant jaunt down Madison Avenue in which tri-state Iranian-Americans mark the end of weeks of celebration surrounding the Persian New Year and the arrival of spring.

In the wake of countless protests and brutal crackdowns in Iran and an ever-increasing domestic skepticism of people of Middle Eastern and/or Muslim dissent, the parade was a joyous reminder that a great deal of American hospitality for other cultures remains.

The event was organized by Persian Parade. Persian Parade President Kambiz Mofrad said an estimated 40,000-50,000 attended the festivities.

I also spoke with members of PAAIA, the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian-Americans, at the parade. According to its website, PAAIA "serves the domestic interest of Iranian-Americans and represents the community before U.S. policymakers and the American public at large." It works in step with IAPAC which seeks to help elect Iranian-American candidates for political office.

Shaheen Ensanyat, the NexGen co-leader for PAAIA New York told me the parade serves as "a unique cultural event to the New York area for uniting Iranian Americans in celebration of our rich and diverse Persian heritage." He describes the parade as "an occasion that transcends any religious and political divisions within our community, and the overwhelming support and massive attendance are both testaments to how united and proud we really are as Iranian Americans."

The community Ensanyat refers to found itself, in large part, in the United States either during or shortly after the 1979 revolution. As a result, even organizing a cultural celebration requires the parsing of many questions, not the least of which is the somewhat tense and political decision of choosing a flag. Does one carry the flag of the pre-1979 Iran, or that of the oft-vilified current regime? (The only flags seen on Sunday were the former and various Zoroastrian iconographies).

To see NYPD officers carrying the cultural Iranian flag was a surreal and complicated experience. On one hand, many Iranians I spoke with were touched by the welcome they received both on the parade route and at the post-parade festivities from the city and its civil servants.

But there was also a sense of unease, as the pre-1979 flag, while used here as a symbol of Persian cultural history as it lacked the crown which once adorned the lion, reflects a nostalgia for an idea that groups fighting for democracy in Iran are unlikely to share. Most students and young Iranians have only a dim recollection or familiarity with life before the Islamic Republic. (To be clear, pro-Shah statements or messages did not appear at any time during the parade.)

Politics is an ugly thing, both in Iran and for Iranian-Americans, the former of which is crippled by a labyrinth of pseudo-religious councils and the latter of whom often see politics as the baton with which nations are broken and rejiggered. Appearing in a cultural parade is thus a savvy way for a group such as PAAIA to organize (I'm told PAAIA signed up enough new members to increase its tri-state rolls by as much as 25 percent).

It's not surprising, then, that nearly everyone I spoke with at the parade was most pleased to see -- or convince me -- that there were no political themes in the execution of the procession.

Coming together is something that the Iranian-American community is still learning to do. It's true that Chararshanbeh Suri and Sizdah Be-dar have been practiced throughout the United States for many years, but these events are internal and often huddled. The Persian Day Parade and organizations such as PAAIA do well to bring an awareness of Iranians (personified through a recent campaign to get Iranians to self-identify in the 2010 Census) to the public at large.

What remains to be seen is if this sense of unity can carry over into the political arena.

A popular, if oversimplified, metaphor for the difficulty of wedding Iranians to a single institution is the existence not only of PAAIA and IAPAC but also the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC). The strength of these relatively new groups is laudable but dwarfed by the influence that the dominant pro-Israel lobby AIPAC enjoys.

As Nazy Nazhand, a freelance writer and the founder of Art Middle East who also works with PAAIA put it, "we as Iranians - like all great immigrant groups with the power and strength to effect change in the community - must join forces and share in our pride in our rich history and culture."

In short, cultural and historical memory becomes the predominant source of hope in a community that widely views Iran's domestic situation as one of the great political tragedies of the 20th century. The hope is that not just political involvement, but also kabob, music, poetry and dance can forge a new unity, one that's less fragmented but no less diverse. Perhaps events like Sunday's dance through the Flatiron District are among the community's best hopes.

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