A Multimedia Journey Through 'The Persian Square'

Mar 4, 2013
Originally published on March 4, 2013 1:51 pm

You may be used to hearing about Iran in the news — about its strained relationship with the U.S., or its internal political unrest, or the possible nuclear threat Iran poses.

But you may not hear much about Iran's impact on America's culture — from poetry to Silicon Valley entrepreneurship.

That's why Tell Me More's senior producer, Iran Davar Ardalan, decided to write the new digital book The Persian Square.

It's named after a spot in Los Angeles that honors the contributions of Persian-Americans to the city. And it uses text, music, audio and video to illustrate the rich history that Americans and Iranians share together.

Ardalan tells NPR's Michel Martin that the tactile feel of a digital book — the pinching and dragging and moving of media — was the best way to demonstrate the connection between Persian and American cultures. "I've loved being able to put together a little carpet," she says, "a little multi-touch tapestry of a little bit of this person's voice, that person's voice, and putting together a bigger picture of who Iranians are in this country."

This was a personal project for Ardalan. It was about coming to terms with her own Iranian-American identity. "I was 16 years old when I was in Boston during the hostage-taking crisis, and my name was Iran. I felt completely ashamed and out of place," she remembers. "I thought about whether there's another 16 year old girl today in Los Angeles, in Ohio, in Wisconsin, who is Iranian-American and who is ashamed of who she is."

Ardalan says the stories of Iran and America's tumultuous relationship and human rights abuses in the country have been well-covered in headline news. "As a storyteller, I try to look back at the story of my community," she says. "This is the story that hasn't been told — the cultural ties between Iran and America."

Telling the history of Iran was a collaborative effort. Ardalan enlisted the help of journalist Azadeh Moaveni, the author of Lipstick Jihad and Honeymoon in Tehran. But she's also asking readers to offer up their own personal Iranian-American profiles.

If you have a story, you can use the hashtag #PersianSquare on Twitter, or email it to story@thepersiansquare.org.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Switching gears now to another part of the world and another time, if you saw the Oscar-winning film "Argo," that might have gotten you thinking about Iran. That movie took us back to a dangerous period of political unrest and, of course, the country remains in the headlines because of concerns about a rising nuclear threat.

But while all of that is true, it's not the whole truth. The country has given roots to such diverse cultural figures as the beloved 13th century poet Rumi, the up-to-the-minute comedian Teron von Gostrie(ph), and authors like Firoozeh Dumas and the founder of eBay, Pierre Omidyar, have Iranian roots.

Now here at TELL ME MORE - a name you hear every week in our list of credits - our own senior producer, Iran Davar Ardalan has, decided to tell these stories in a new digital book. It's titled "The Persian Square." It explores many of the major figures in Iran's history with interactive video, art, and, of course, audio. And Davar is with us in the studio now.

Thank you so much for walking down the hall to talk with us.


DAVAR ARDALAN, BYLINE: Thank you so much, Michel.

MARTIN: This isn't your first book. You write a straightforward memoir in 2007. So why this topic and why this format?

ARDALAN: Well, I thought it was important to create a digital space. You know, many who came here in 1979 were living in exile and they weren't sure how long they would stay here. And it seemed 30 years on after the revolution that there was an opportunity to see who this community has become, who are Iranian-Americans. And the digital space let itself to that really well. I've loved being able to put together like a little carpet. A little, you know, multi-touch tapestry of a little bit of this person's voice, that person's voice, and putting together a bigger picture of who Iranian-Americans are in this country.

MARTIN: I want to talk a little bit more about the audio but I do want to talk about the stories. I'll just play the short clip and you can tell us who this is. Here it is.


HELEN JEFFREYS BAKHTIAR: I went to Iran many years ago as the wife of an Iranian physician. And I have lived off and on in Iran since 1931, so that I have become very much attached to the country.

MARTIN: And that's a name, that's a voice that you know very well. Who is that?

ARDALAN: That's my grandmother, Helen Jeffreys Bakhtiar. And she met my grandfather when she was 22 years old in Harlem, New York. She was a nurse. He was a doctor at Harlem Hospital. And he would take her to Coney Island and read her Persian poetry and kind of mesmerized her and she fell in love with Persian culture. The two of them went back to Iran together in 1931, opened one of the first private hospitals. And she is an example of an early Iranian-American.

MARTIN: I'm interested in your decision about how to talk about your own family and how much to talk about your own family because we live in a time when many people are encouraged to be and are very out loud and proud about their ethnic roots. But it's also true that this is a part of the world that many people have ambivalence about, that, you know, we know for a fact that say, during the revolution it was not an easy time to be an Iranian-American if you had a name that was Persian. And I just wondered was there hesitation on your part? Did you ever think maybe this isn't such a great thing to highlight your connection to this part of the world and to the story?

ARDALAN: Well, I was 16 years old when I was in Boston during the hostage-taking crisis, and my name was Iran. And I felt completely ashamed and out of place. And honestly, just a year ago I thought about whether there's another 16-year-old girl today in Los Angeles, in Ohio, in Wisconsin, who is Iranian-American and who is ashamed of who she is. So this was an opportunity to be able to explore the rich cultural traditions that the two countries have had between one another and not so much try to hide behind it because I'm almost 50 years old and it's like this might as well be my midlife crisis, you know, come to terms with the fact that I'm Iranian-American and be proud of it.

MARTIN: To that end, one of the interesting features of the book that I like - this is actually something that we at NPR avail ourselves of a lot. You have audio clips were people whom you've interviewed pronounce their names both in English and in the Persian way.


MARTIN: Do you mind giving us your name in the Persian way?

ARDALAN: Absolutely. So in Farsi my name is pronounced Iran Davar Ardalan. And so in English it's pronounced Iran Davar Ardalan. Like all different ethnic groups, we do grapple with how to present ourselves and our names, but I think that we also have to be understanding of the fact that not everybody can pronounce it the way of our birthplace.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for noticing that your English is so superior to my Farsi so I will not attempt to pronounce it in Farsi.


MARTIN: But the other advantage of the multimedia aspect of it is that you can hear music.


MARTIN: You can hear music. You can hear poetry. I specifically want to play one song by a woman named Dr. Pardis Sabeti. And I'll play - how was that? Did I do pretty with the pronunciation?

ARDALAN: That was pretty good. Yeah. Nice.

MARTIN: OK. OK. And let me just play a short clip and you can tell us a little bit about her.


DR. PARDIS SABETI: (Singing) All at once there her voice was gone as her daughter so passes on.

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit about this.

ARDALAN: Sure. This is a song called "Neda" and Dr. Pardis Sabeti wrote it in honor of Neda, the young woman who was killed in 2009 in the aftermath of the presidential elections. And she is a computational biologist. She studies evolutionary diseases at Harvard. But on the side she's the lead singer of Thousand Days. And so I think that's part of what's exciting about this interactive format, is that you can be on the entry on her page reading about what she's doing at Harvard, but at the same time you can tap on this song and swipe and pinch through the galleries and see her actually on stage performing.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, the title of the book is "The Persian Square." Where does that title come from?

ARDALAN: In February of 2010, the Los Angeles City Council designated the corner between Wilshire Boulevard and Wilkins Avenue in Los Angeles, the Persian Square. And it was basically to honor the contribution of Persian businesses to Los Angeles, to the city of Los Angeles. The first business started on the corner of Wilshire and Wilkins in 1974. And so I've actually been asked by one of the city council members press officers whether I would go and have an event at the Persian Square with my iPad, so I'm waiting to see if that'll come together.


MARTIN: That was NPR senior producer Iran Davar Ardalan. She is talking about her new digital book, "The Persian Square." You can get it from the iBook store starting today. And if you want a sneak peek, just head to our website@npr.org.

Davar, thank you for joining us.

ARDALAN: Thank you so much.


SABETI: (Singing) It matters this day. Neda.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "NEDA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.