The Persian Square: 101 Things To Know About Iranian-Americans
A Multi-touch Story Tablet on the Iranian-American Immigrant Experience on iTunes and Amazon
Exploring the early intersections between our two cultures and the unexpected places where American and Iranian tradition have embraced one another has been fascinating.
To understand ourselves as Iranian-Americans, we tend to look at history as we search for modern identities in America. While our experiences in the United States sometimes feels, comparatively, as short as a blink, we have an older and richer past in America than we might think.
The First Iranian-American Naturalized Citizen
It is believed that the first Iranian-American was naturalized as a US citizen in 1875 in San Francisco. His name was Hajj Sayyah. His experiences in America inspired him to return to Iran where he became a champion for human rights.
He was an influential backer of the Constitutional Revolution and among the most prominent supporters of the Persian movement for democracy. This research on Hajj Sayyah comes from Professor Ali Ferdowsi. Dr. Ferdowsi is also the father of Bobak Ferdowsi, also known as NASA’s Mohawk guy.
Bucyrus, Ohio named after Cyrus the Great
It turns out that the midwestern town of Bucyrus, Ohio was named in memory of Cyrus the Great. In February 1822, when surveyor Colonel James Kilbourne was plotting lands in Ohio, he decided to honor one of his favorite historical figures — — “Bu” for beautiful and “Cyrus” in honor of the Persian General who conquered Babylon.
The policies of Cyrus encouraged religious tolerance and he is credited with freeing the Jews from Babylonian captivity. Furthermore, The Cyrus Cylinder, sometimes called the first charter of human rights is a barrel-shaped clay object on which is written an edict of the Persian king Cyrus after he captured Babylon in 539 BCE.
The First Envoy to the United States
Known as Haji Vasangton (Haji Washington), (1849–1937), he was the first Iranian ambassador to the United States. Working to promote both the advancement of Persia (at the time Iran was named Persia) and bring good will between the two nations, in 1888 he sent lengthy correspondence to Persia detailing the American political system. He spoke well of America, noting, “the essence of the religion of the Prophet [of Islam] is found in the United States.” He later sided with Iran’s Constitutional movement, as he believed that government dignitaries were to be “servants of the people.” He was also known as Sadr-al-Saltana.
From 2013 to 2015, I spent two years researching and ultimately publishing The Persian Square, a multi-touch story tablet on the Iranian-American immigrant experience. Drawing on everything from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s odes to his beloved Persian poets to the Founding Father of eBay, The Persian Square culls together historical images and sound, weaving a modern, multimedia tapestry of Iranian American history over the centuries.
The book includes historic documents, handwritten letters, archival photos from Iran and over 30 media files including, music, videos and several audio recordings from 1912, 1915, and 1924 used with permission from Sony Music. The book contained links to NPR stories from 1995–2012 with permission from NPR.
For more than a century, the presence of Iranian Americans has animated great cities like Los Angeles and our traditions — from the transcendent poetry of Rumi, to aromatic kabobs to the Persian New Year celebration of the vernal equinox — have seeped into mainstream American experience.
In 2020, as Iranian Americans, we are finding our civic voice, with multiple generations of Iranian Americans becoming highly visible players at the forefront of virtually every field in America especially in technology, business, medicine, law, journalism and local politics from Silicon Valley to America’s heartland, Wall Street and Washington D.C.
More fun and interesting facts about Iranian-Americans
Years ago, Google hired Iranian-American Parisa Tabriz as their hacker. She teachers Google developers how to correct vulnerabilities in their products.
One of Silicon Valley’s top angel investors came to the US in 1992 with $700 to his name. In 2012, Forbes Magazine featured Pejman Nozad in “The Silicon Valley Cinderella.”
As a young girl in Tehran, Anousheh Ansari often gazed at the night sky and dreamed of being a scientist. In 2006, the Texas entrepreneur self-funded her $20 million eight-day expedition aboard the International Space Station. Today she is the CEO of XPrize.
On January 12, 2015 Cyrus Habib was sworn in as a Washington State Senator by his mother Iranian-American judge Susan Amini. Amini herself was the first judge of Middle Eastern descent in the history of the State. Senator Habib lost his sight when he was eight years old. He has been named “most influential” people in the Seattle by Seattle Magazine. Today he is the 16th and current Lieutenant Governor of Washington.
The primary source for the historical entries in The Persian Square comes from The Encyclopedia Iranica with permission from the late Dr. Ehsan Yarshater and Dr. Ahmad Ashraf. I also turned to the Library of Congress; Open Library and Wikimedia. The Editor-at-Large of The Persian Square is journalist and author Azadeh Moaveni.
Early Iranian-Americans in Los Angeles
In 1939, when the world was on the verge of World War II, Americans in Iran were told it would be best for them to come back home. My grandmother Helen and grandfather Abol agreed that she, her two oldest daughters born in New York City, and my mother Mary Nell, should travel to Los Angeles to visit Helen’s parents. My Aunt Lailee writes, “We arrived in Los Angeles on September 1, 1939, two days before Hitler walked into Poland.”
Helen and her daughters would live in Los Angeles for the next six years where Lailee eventually attended UCLA and later graduated from USC medical school. Lailee spent the rest of her life practicing as a physician in Los Angeles. After the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, Iranians began to migrate to Los Angeles in great numbers. One of the families to arrive was Manouchehr Bibiyan. My aunt Lailee helped Bibiyan launch one of the first Persian broadcast networks in the U.S called Jaam-e-Jam.
Author Iran Davar Ardalan is the Founder and Storyteller in Chief of IVOW AI, an early stage startup specializing in AI-driven cultural content. She is also the former Deputy Director of the White House Presidential Innovation Fellowship Program in Washington D.C. Prior to this, she was Director of Storytelling at SecondMuse and before that a journalist for two decades at NPR News.
In 2015, Ardalan’s last position at NPR was senior producer of the Identity and Culture Unit. Realizing that there is a gaping hole in AI algorithms that will define our future, she created IVOW AI, bringing together a team of journalists and technologists to design cultural IQ in AI. Ardalan, who has also served as Managing Editor at Hanson Robotics, has been recognized with a 2017 NASA Team Leadership award for Space Apps, a Gracie Award from the American Women in Radio and Television and a shout-out in the popular comic strip Zippy. In May 2014, she was the recipient of an Ellis Island Medal of Honor, for individual achievement and for promoting cultural unity.