Today, Iranians around the world are celebrating the passage of the Persian New Year, Nowruz. Like thousands of other Iranian-Americans, I flew to the greater Los Angeles area to spend the holiday with my family, visiting relatives, exchanging gifts, and soaking up strong doses of Persian culture.
Typically, the cultural component comes from older members of the family, who remind us of our roots by reading and reciting the poetry of Hafez and Rumi. They have a special fondness for passages that can be sculpted into New Year predictions, resulting in what may be the most highbrow horoscopes on Earth.
This year, however, conversation has been dominated by a much more current cultural artifact: Ryan Seacrest and Bravo's new "reality" TV show "Shahs of Sunset," which applies the "Jersey Shore" formula -- identify an ethnic community's most ridiculous characters, commence ridicule -- to L.A.'s Persian-American population.
Not surprisingly, the individuals featured on "Shahs of Sunset" fall on the superficial and materialistic end of the cultural spectrum, which is saying something in Los Angeles. They're not the kind of people most Iranian-Americans want representing our community. And yet I resisted at first when family members and others began imploring me to write a piece denouncing "Shahs." What could I say, I asked them, that hadn't been said by countless other Iranian-Americans at media outlets large and small? The show trades on stereotypes like a cheap trick, sure, but doesn't every reality TV show? If the caricature of Italian-American culture on "Jersey Shore" doesn't offend us, how can we blame Ryan Seacrest for extracting a profit from the most asinine members of our community?
But a week after the show premiered, following countless conversations with fellow Iranian-Americans, I've grown increasingly uncomfortable.
Here at HuffPost Entertainment, we've decried Bristol Palin's reality show and taken issue with celebrities who use wardrobe malfunctions as a marketing tool. Surely a reality show capable of defining an entire community against its will deserves some comment.
So while I may have scoffed that I'd rather be stereotyped as a giver of gaudy birthday parties than as a threat to national security, that's not a choice I -- or my grandparents -- should have to make.
The Iranian-American reaction to "Shahs" ranges from pure bafflement (like yours, our grandparents aren't really tuned in to the MTV/E!/Bravo wavelength) to outrage at what some characterize as a damaging fabrication that exploits not-so-latent anti-Iranian stigmas.
The title itself seems like a particularly cheap shot at a community that, for better or for worse, is still struggling to come to terms with a revolution that happened four decades ago. "Shah" is the term for the king of Iran, a monarchy which fell in 1979 to today's Islamic Republic. The Iranian-American community in Los Angeles was founded by those who immigrated to America as a result of that monarchy's collapse.
To take issue with "Shahs" is not to deny that the community has a fraught relationship with wealth and identity. I, for one, am particularly concerned with the self-segregating streak that characterizes some groups within our community. (I remember one occasion when a car full of my peers launched a volley of anti-Asian slurs -- in Persian, of course -- at me for daring to take an Asian-American companion to a Westwood drive-thru. When she asked what they had said, I couldn't bring myself to translate.)
So while cast members like Mike Shouhead may claim that the show "humanizes" Iranian-Americans and that anyone who has an issue with the show is "100 percent jealous," "Shahs" does not take a sharp look at these issues. It's not supposed to reveal anything. It's as vapid as the longing stares between teens on its reality-TV predecessor "Laguna Beach."
Still, there's a crucial difference between "Jersey Shore" and "Shahs of Sunset." The Italian-American community today occupies a relatively uncontroversial place in American society. Iranian-Americans, by contrast, have spent the better part of the last decade explaining that they're neither Arabs nor terrorists (while shaking their heads at the correlation itself).
For many, though certainly not all, Iranians who left their native country in the late '70s and early '80s, living in Los Angeles became a substitute -- a we'll-make-the-best-of-it perch. As so often happens, some people who had been doctors, professors and lawyers at home became fast-food employees or pastry-shop owners. And yes, some others carved out extremely successful lives in the United States. To this day, elderly men and women continue to warily follow the political developments in Iran with great concern. Many of these people, hurried out of their country for any number of reasons, have never gone home.
It's understandable, then, that a community hungering for a non-threatening, respectable image in American culture is devastated by the likes of H&M-phobic Golnesa Gharachedaghi, the 30-year-old, unemployed cast member whose favorite phrase is "charge it to my daddy."
Simply put, we can do better.
WATCH: Castmembers Fight Over Nothing On "Shahs Of Sunset":
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