When I look at the young Iranian-Americans today, living in a society that has reached the point where it knows where Iran is, how talented Iranians are, and how proud they are, I think back to my childhood in this country when none of that was known.
As members of the first generation of Iranian immigrant families to make a mass exodus to America, my family found itself in a country that was reeling from a hostage crisis, images of horrifically unfriendly clerical faces, and footage of a bloody war dotted with the huddled figures of black-clad Iranian women.
If the Americans in the neighborhood or at school knew anything of Iran, it was that Iran was a scary place with strange people. If they knew nothing, they just associated us with carpets and cats.
In the shadows of this complex existence, it was, bizarrely, one man who shone a light to life in America for a young Iranian-American: Bijan Pakzad.
We knew of no other Iranian-American who had succeeded in this country -- succeeded in being loved by so many Americans while still retaining his pride in Iran.
Unlike many of his fellow Tehrangeles residents, he hadn't changed his name to Bob or Bill. He was and would always be Bijan, the exasperatingly beautiful original Iranian name from the "Book of Kings (Shahnameh)," the masterpiece epic poem written by Ferdowsi, the poet many Iranians credit with embalming the Persian language into a land and people where it is still spoken today even as many of Iran's neighbors lost their ancient tongues to invaders and settlers.
Bijan! With a wholehearted smile that scrunched up his kind-looking face, we saw him on billboards, in print ads, and later, in television ads hanging out with superstars -- always beaming, always Iranian.
"The reason for my success is because I'm Iranian," he said once. We never doubted it, or forgot his words.
When we saw his perfumes in shops and in advertisement, he meant so much to us young Iranians -- we still didn't know we were Iranian-American, since we hadn't been here long enough to realize our families weren't going back.
And, oh, the moment those Michael Jordan cologne ads came out.
We gushed with such childish pride. Michael Jordan, the coolest dude in the world, the champion, the man lighter than air but more powerful than any other basketball player in living memory -- Jordan had chosen Bijan. He had chosen us.
He dressed President Obama, the Queen of England, Ronald Reagan, the Sultan of Brunei, Prince Charles, Bill Gates and any number of others of the powerful and wealthy of this world. But more than anything he dressed the soul of so many of us young Iranians in America who felt unwelcome and unsure of where we fit in within this massive country that had had so much to do with happened and was happening in our homeland.
His boutique on Rodeo Drive was by-appointment-only and was called the most expensive store in the world. He first opened it in 1976, when he was 32 years old, just three years after he landed in the United States. It went on to become the base of a multi-million dollar enterprise, complete with massive sales of award-winning perfumes and suits that famously were said to make customers enter the boutique as ordinary people and leave looking like Cary Grant.
He came from an extremely well-off Tehrani entrepreneurial family (he himself once said they were so rich that they were made of gold, and jewels ran through their veins), but with wealth did not come superiority. In the Iranian-American community, he was cherished for his benevolence to those in need and to the causes of his community. In Los Angeles and Beverly Hills where many other very wealthy Iranian-Americans were quick to forget their heritage, Bijan and his name embraced it.
Always seeming to be happy, he was once asked how he retains such youth and energy. "I learn something new everyday," he replied.
He has bequeathed his business to his three children, Daniela from his first marriage and young Nicolas Bijan and Alexandra from his second marriage to Irish-Japanese model and interior designer Tracy Murdock: The "D", "N," "A" in his award-winning triple-helix bottled perfume, DNA.
Extravagant though his life and his legacy are, the most valuable thing about Bijan Pakzad was his affection for his people -- his family in all senses of the word. It is said that he requested that his resting place be marked with an-all black stone with "Bijan Pakzad, Son of Mohsen Pakzad" engraved on it. Only in Persian.
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