The Shahs of Sunset… and the Rest of Us: “Persian Money” in an Era of FBI Surveillance

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Originally published by Ajam Media Collective on February 8, 2012.

After years of rumors and talk of a Persian version of the Jersey Shore, the nightmare is becoming reality this March when “the Shahs of Sunset” premiers on Bravo. The show will follow six wealthy Iranian-American graduates of Beverly Hills High School who live in Los Angeles, mostly work in real estate, and love to drink, party, and fight. Among them are A$A Soltan (whose music career I profiled briefly here) as well as what is probably American mainstream TV’s first openly gay Iranian, Reza Farahan. The rest of the cast is pretty forgettable.

So far, Bravo’s released only one two-minute trailer (which you can watch here). The clip begins with a quick history lesson (“when the Revolution happened, we had to flee the old country… we really didn’t get to take our wealth with us… so we ended up in Beverly Hills!”) followed by various snippets of them describing their love of luxury and all things gold. One particularly revealing highlight is when one cast member explains to the audience, “we don’t work in buildings- we own them.” Basically, every stereotype Iranians have ever had about rich Beverly Hills Iranians is now going to be broadcast for the world to see. Talk about airing dirty laundry!

The reaction among Iranian-American bloggers has thus far been cautiously receptive. Charlotte Safavi expressed her excitement over the show, noting that the average income of Iranian-Americans is 50% above the American average but also reminding Americans “in the Heartland” that the cast is not representative of all Iranian-Americans.

An opinion piece on Javan Radio, meanwhile, asserts that 90% of young Iranian-Americans do in fact look like the folks in the show and asks Iranian-Americans to look in the mirror, calling the show a reflection of the political and philanthropic inactivity that has characterized the community over the last 30 years.

And Fatemeh Fakhraie over at Racialicious has expressed her hesitation that the show would set up a binary between “good” Persian-Americans and “bad” Iranians that justifies our right to exist in this country (because we’re Americanized and love money) while vilifying our cousins overseas.

I would take this binary even further by suggesting that one of my big problems with the show is how it provides a monolithic narrative of vaguely ethnic, unambiguously wealthy Persians. This image obscures the very real social and political issues we face as a community.

As much as we have tried to “become white” and move past the anti-Iranian discrimination that dogged us in the 1980s, we are still investigated in our mosques, put on terror watch lists and stopped at the airport, deported en masse, and subject to the same kinds of surveillance and discrimination that target other Middle Eastern and Muslim Americans.

Additionally, despite the oft-repeated statistics about Iranian success (I’ve seen fights nearly break out between Indian- and Iranian-Americans over which group has higher rates of education!), our community is highly diverse and most of us did not leave our “wealth” behind, nor did we ever have much wealth to begin with.

As much as A$A tries to make Americans feel good about themselves by suggesting that Iranians came to America for freedom, most of us did not come here for “freedom” or because of ideological conflicts with the regime, but for the kinds of economic and educational opportunities that are sorely lacking in our homeland as a result of decades of revolution, war, and US-imposed sanctions.

The tired narrative that everyone comes to America for some vague idea of freedom- and not, say, to feed their kids by working in the heart of global capitalism – lets Iranian-Americans and Americans in general pat themselves on the back, but is a far cry from the truth. There are many Iranian-Americans working their asses off in this country to support their families and “make it,” and offering their kids a bunch of Iranian-American real-estate agents with drinking problems as role models, when there are already so few visible Iranian-American role models, strikes me as a step in the wrong direction for our community.

This show will be broadcast in Iran in due time and will doubtless become massively popular among the privileged youth of North Tehran. The export of Los Angeles-style (and specifically Tehrangeles-style) hedonism, misogyny, and crappy music has been ongoing for years now, and I shudder to imagine the pride some of the folks back home will take in the fact that not only are we some of the most plastic people on Earth, our plasticity is in fact celebrated by Hollywood for the world to see!

For years, we’ve been subject to Iranian-Americans trying to reassure Americans that back in Iran we have crazy parties, the women wear lots of make up, and that our orgies are somehow “political.” Watching this narrative of sex & drinking as the ultimate freedom regurgitated by Hollywood with a specifically Iranian bent (that of course legitimizes it even further for Iranians) is not something I’m looking forward to.

Ed: Listen to the author discuss the show in an interview on Southern California’s NPR-affiliate, KCRW

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