Half a World Away, Local Iranian-Americans Keep Close Eye on Home
Famous Kabab owner Sam Babaei
Iran’s contested presidential election and the protests it provoked are hitting home here in Sacramento.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
The region has a substantial population of Iranian-Americans; estimates range from around 7,000 to nearly twice that. Many of them still have family back home. We wondered how they’re reacting to the clashes in their former country. So we visited to a local Persian restaurant to find out.
Fear sent Sam Babaei to the hospital last week. He had just watched Iran’s Supreme Leader speak at Friday prayers. He heard Ayatollah Khamenei warn protesters that any further violence would be their fault. And Babaei felt sick.
Babaei: “It’s like, that revolution is in my heart and going up and down. So I had a heart beat – I couldn’t sleep. Made me sick. I went to the emergency room.”
He looked healthy enough two days later, though, holding court at his restaurant on Father’s Day.
Babaei owns Famous Kabab, a popular Sacramento-area restaurant. He moved here 25 years ago, not long after the Iranian revolution. He marched in that revolution – and now he regrets it.
Babaei: “I made a biggest mistake in my life. And I’m wishing my leg was broken and I couldn’t go to the street. Because many the people like me, we didn’t know what was going on.”
Today, he dislikes the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom the government says won a landslide re-election victory. Instead, Babaei supports the leading challenger, Mir Hussein Moussavi.
Babaei: “He is moderate and we don’t need the hard, hard liners in the government to causing problems for our country or bringing hate to the Iranian people.”
He blames Ahmadinejad for that – and one of his customers agrees. Nasser is a civil engineer who asked us to withhold his last name to protect his family in Iran.
Nasser: “We as Iranians in this country, we always were embarrassed to say we were Iranian. Because everybody, they say, oh, you are same as Ahmadinejad! How we gonna prove that we are not?”
Fazouni: “Ahmadinejad was really never liked by the Iranian community here.”
That’s Buzz Fazouni, director of the Iranian and Middle Eastern Studies Center at Sacramento State. He says the opinions we just heard are common in the local Iranian-American community – a community dominated by highly-educated professionals. They either support the reformist Moussavi or don’t grant any legitimacy to the current government at all.
Fazouni: “Moussavi represents the idea of change. It is the change that appeals to Iranians – rather than the persona. … The whole idea that excites people about the revolution is getting this process of change under way.”
Both Fazouni and the Imam of Sacramento’s SALAM Islamic Center, which has a large Iranian community, say they don’t know any local Ahmadinejad supporters. Neither did anyone else we asked.
Fazouni: “There’s no question that people who have come here, they’d like to see a change.”
Another Famous Kabab customer has waited 30 years for change. Mohamad Nejad lives in Sacramento but runs a restaurant in Lodi. And he’s eager to do whatever he can from afar.
Nejad: “If for example, if I can pay for money, I can help them, I want to help them. Because it’s a free country here, I can talk to my president, Obama, I tell to president, look what’s happen over there.”
Speaking of President Obama, the few local Iranian-Americans we spoke with generally support the White House’s decision to stay out of the fray. But some now want Mr. Obama to adjust his message in response to government crackdowns on the protesters. Meanwhile, they want the rallies to continue – both inside Iran and out. A young waiter at Famous Kabab named Soli says rallies in the U.S. – including Sacramento – are sending an important message.
Soli: “We are going here protesting to just show our support to people who they living in Iran, we supporting you and we believe in you, we have to keep going too."
And Soli, like the others, is holding out hope – that the protests will bring change to their homeland.