Angella Nazarian is the author of two books: “Life as a Visitor” and “Pioneers of the Possible.” She is a professor of psychology, author and public speaker covering topics on women’s personal development, identity, travel and fulfillment. She is also a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, Maria Shriver’s “Open Field Network” and more.com. Angella Nazarian was interviewied for JIMENA’s Oral History project in October, 2012. Below are highlights and clips from her interview.
Angella Nazarian was born in Tehran, Iran in the late 1960s. Her father, who worked in a bazaar as a trader and importer, was born in Rasht, a port town in Northern Iran. Angella remembers her family blending both tradition and modernity in their daily lives. Believing in the traditional roles of women, Angella’s maternal grandmother wore a chador, a traditional veil worn by Persian women. While she had minimal formal education as a girl, at age 78 when she came to live in Los Angeles, Angella’s maternal grandmother hired a private tutor to teach her both English and Hebrew. Angella’s paternal grandmother embraced modernity in a different way; a widow who raised Angella’s father alone, Angella’s paternal grandmother loved western clothing and was known for sharing her thoughts and opinions freely and with self-assured candor.
Much of Angella’s upbringing for the first 11 years of her life in Iran was affected by the rule of the Shah, under whom Anti-Jewish sentiment was neither overt nor widespread. As the Shah was enchanted by western ideals and progressive tendencies, Jews in Iran were granted equality under the law and were integrated as participants in mainstream society. By 1960, Angella recalls that Jewish families were well-educated and well to do, by which they would take vacations and study at universities in Europe or the United States. Her family took joy in visits to the Caspian Sea, playing in nature and under the stars, watching American sitcoms, and partaking in the custom of visiting friends each year during Purim.
Angella recalls that many of her dearest friends were Zoroastrian, Baha’i and Muslims whom she met at her international school. While Angella was close with students of other minority backgrounds, she remembers that they were sometimes deprived of the privileges that Iranian Jews received. For example, while Angella was excused from taking an Islamic studies class, the Baha’i students were not.
However, below the surface it was evident that Jews in Iranian society were sometimes at the brunt of inequality by their religious counterparts. To avoid Anti-Jewish discrimination, Angella’s father changed the family name from Yacobzadeh to Maddahi. Some customers at the bazaar refused to buy his merchandise or shake his hand assuming that as a Jew, he was najas, or unclean. While Muslims were allowed to pass through the front entrance to visit the Tomb of Esther and Mordechi in Hamadan, Angella remembers that Jews were required to take the back door.
Such acts of injustice under the Shah’s regime seemed meager compared to the regulations and prohibitions set intact before the Shah. Prior to the reign of the Shah, Jews were permitted to walk on the side of the street, never through the middle. Jews were prohibited from painting their houses white, Jews could not ride on horseback, Jews were not allowed to touch fruit that was consumed by others because interpretations of Shi’a Islam considered Jews unclean. From a young age, Angella heard stories of when her father was beaten on his way to school for being Jewish.
Though Angella recalls the majority of her childhood as a Jew in Iran with fond memories, 1979 ushered in the threat of a renewed wave of Anti-Jewish sentiment under the new Islamic Republic. When the Iranian Revolution began, Angella had just begun the 6th grade at Ettefagh, a popular Jewish school. Ettefagh was near the University of Tehran, whose leftist students instigated many demonstrations aimed at overthrowing the Shah. Going home on a school bus one day, Angella heard explosions coming from the clashes between police and demonstrators.
The Iranian Revolution generated uncertainty in Jewish society, causing many Iranian Jews to flee the country. Angella left Iran with her mother and sister in 1979 for a predominantly Jewish community in Beverly Hills, California. Her family told her that she was going on a short vacation to visit her older brother for a few weeks. Never would she return to Iran.
Despite the assumption that the inequality would end once Angella had left Iran, she continued to face some discrimination after her sudden immigration to the United States. Graffiti on bathroom stalls in her public school read “Iranians go home,” although she, and other Iranians, had nothing to do with the hostage crisis or the new Islamic regime in Iran. Her family were victims of the revolution, just as the American hostages had been. She noticed that others labeled her differently for being foreign, although she strongly identified as an American.
When Angella’s mother returned to Iran the following year to liquidate the family’s assets, the Iran-Iraq War broke out. Angella’s mother and father were trapped in Iran for the next five years as a result. In 1985 her parents were smuggled out of Iran to Pakistan, where the Jewish Federation assisted them with returning to the United States.
JIMENA''s Oral History and Digital Experience Website Project was created in 2010 to record and preserve the testimonies and narratives of Jews displaced from the Middle East and North Africa. This project enables former Mizrahi and Sephardic refugees an opportunity to assert their history and document their stories of human rights abuse, denationalization, displacement, fractured identities, material losses, resettlement and integration in new societies. The project also provides an opportunity for participants to preserve their positive memories and document their rich traditions as practiced in the countries their ancestors lived for over 2,500 years. For many participants, this is the first time they have talked openly about their experiences as Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. All of JIMENA''s Oral History testimonies and associated materials are transcribed and digitally preserved for the benefit of researchers and to provide the public with access to information on Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.