Raising Neem-Roonis- An Interview with Maz Jobrani

Leyla Shams
May 02, 2020

Maz Jobrani is the most well known Iranian-American comedian, though he is currently extremely active in many different roles- making regular appearances on NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, doing stand up comedy around the world, acting in movies and TV shows, and even hosting his own podcast, Back to School with Maz Jobrani. On top of all that, he's also the father of two half Iranian half Indian children, ages 9 and 11. Although his comedy isn't centered around being Iranian, he's well known in the diaspora, and he's very active with Iranian causes. So, I was interested to see how important it was for him to teach the Persian language and culture to his children, especially since they have another heritage in the mix as well.

We had a very lively conversation- take a listen or check out the interview highlights below.


Leyla Shams: Maz Jobrani, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Maz Jobrani: Thank you for having me.

L: Tell us about your background. Where were you born?

M: I was born in Iran. And I left Iran at the age of six late 1978 right around the time of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. We moved to Northern California, Marin County, and I grew up there from the age of six and then moved down to Los Angeles after college and I've been here the past, I guess, 27 years about.

L: Did you start off speaking Persian?

M: Yeah, it's funny you're asking because I just had this conversation with my daughter who's nine now. She was asking about it. She said, 'Why didn't you speak? You should have taught me Persian when I was younger.' I learned Persian in Iran. And then when I was in nursery or kindergarten, or whatever it was, I went to an international school. So we were learning English all day at school, and then I would go home and speak Farsi or Persian or whatever. So, by the time I left Iran, it was a first grade and we were doing half day Farsi half day English. And the truth is my reading and writing because I left it in the first grade was not that great. But my speaking was still really strong because I spoke it at the house with my parents. I spoke it with my grandparents who lived with us at different times. And so ultimately, it's just having be forced to have to speak it.

L: So was that something that your parents forced on you or were you interested in speaking it?

M: No, it wasn't even a discussion, that's how I had to communicate with my parents because they left Iran in their, whatever it was- my father was in his 40s, my mother was in her 30s. And their English wasn't that strong. As a matter of fact, when my mom first came to America, she took classes at a junior college to learn English and be able to communicate in America. So in order to talk to my parents, and even to this day, when I talk to my parents, I say, my father's passed away since but my mom and I talk in Persian. We don't even speak in English when we talk to each other.

L: And how is your reading or writing?

M: When I was in grade school, back then, my parents found a couple of classes where we would go either on weekends or after school. And to be honest with you was pretty tedious for kids to be sitting in a classroom learning Farsi when it's hot out and you want to be outside playing. And then later in college, I took a class or two. And that helped a little bit and I learned a little bit of poetry, etc, etc. And then I just didn't have to use the reading and writing that much until social media came around. And I ended up with all these followers from Iran who would message me in Persian. Now I start to read it and it's funny because if they write short sentences, I have the patience to try and get through short paragraphs. When they write me this long book, I just-

L: You text it to your mom.

M: Yeah, no, I delete it. Because part of it too is I'll start reading it and it'll say, dear Maz, and then you know, the next sentence it's either I love you or it's you're piece of crap. And I'm like, Oh, God. Yeah. So, you know, I learned to get in or out fast.

L: Okay. Well, so this this program that I'm doing this series of interviews is called Raising Neem-Roonis and I'm talking specifically with people who are married to someone who's not Iranian, which is a lot of us right now. So can you tell me a little bit about your wife, how you met her what her cultural background is?

M: Yeah, so my wife was born in India, and she grew up in New York since she was six months old. So we have similar upbringings in a way and that our parents are both immigrants. And we were both born in other countries, like neither one of us can be president. But we both grew up different coasts of the country. And it's interesting because my wife was born in the south of India. So it's called, it's an area called Kerala. They speak Malayalam. And what I've seen is my wife understands the language, but she doesn't speak the language. So that's another thing I advise parents when they're talking when they're trying to teach a language to their kids. I go make sure it's not going in one direction. Make sure that that your kid is either responding in that language or you're having them repeat. So what I do with a slight hope in the back of my mind, whenever I'm driving around with the kids once in a while, I just turn on my Farsi and I'll start saying things. So for example, we're going to the car, I'll say 'darō bāz kon,' which means 'open the door'. And then I'll tell them that's what it means. And then I'll say repeat it. And it's funny because my son tends to play along a lot easier than my daughter. I think my daughter has this mentality of like, I'm not your monkey, you know?

L: How old are they?

M: They're 11 and 9 now, so they're right at that age where I think as we go forward, it's going to get harder and harder. I really was hoping that there would be some kind of fun class for them to take. You know, there's a great school. It's a Persian immersion school in Northern California in Berkeley, it's called Golestān and I have done some fundraising for them in the past. I really wish we had that in Southern California when our kids were going to preschool because I went and I saw all these kids that were either half and half, or they were for whatever reason, they had a foot in the Persian culture. And I went and saw them. And I realized that they're they're speaking Persian fluently, and it was amazing. And I was like, Oh my god, amazing. And so immersing them in that is something and I wish we had that somewhere in LA, but I have not I never found anything, at least when they were younger.

L: Wow, even in LA. That's, that's crazy. I would have thought in LA, that would be the place to do it. You're a few years ahead of me- mine are one and three. So I try to talk to them in Farsi a lot. But it's hard when the family language is English. That's the thing that I'm surprised by. I thought I would be really adamant and teaching them as they were growing up. But, you know, I don't want to exclude someone in the family whenever we're talking. So it's been very hard for me, but what was your experience?

M: So my mom tries to speak Farsi to them whenever she can, but again, she kind of gave up too because at a certain point, you know, it becomes this situation of convenience versus trying to teach these kids what you're teaching them. Now, I think at that younger age, it's really the place to be. And it depends on how much time you spend with them. So for me, for example, when they were younger, I spent time with them at times throughout the day, but we had a Guatemalan nanny, she would show up at 7am and be with them till you know six or 7pm. Throughout the day, my wife and I'd be working and we would see the kids and in the evenings we see the kids and be with them, etc, etc. But a majority of their time being out and about was being spent with a Guatemalan nanny. Then they go to their preschool and now they're speaking English. So I remember when my son was probably one and a half or two or whatever that age was, he was learning a little bit, but unfortunately, it wasn't full on exposure.

You know, I ran into this girl- I did a stand up show at Stanford University one time, and this girl was probably 17/18. And she'd been born here. But she spoke pretty decent Farsi. And I said, how'd you learn to speak Farsi? So well, as she said, you know, she was my parents would not respond to me if I spoke to them in English, and she had both parents were Iranian. So that was a technique that was used, which I think is a good technique if you're able to. Or perhaps in your case, since you can't both be doing that, I would say as hard as it is right now, you should just be going 100% Persian and maybe having them repeat it. Or maybe having Nursery Rhymes like I used to do. I used to play different songs for them and back then they kind of were getting it but now it feels like you know, life gets busier and busier. And you just never find enough time. So I would say as hard as it is try and do it now.

L: Well, can your kids speak right now? Or can they understand? Where are they at?

M: You know, what happened was, again, I've been inspired by different people here and there. I ran into this other kid who was a teenager at a university and he said, he spoke pretty well. I said, What happened with you? I think he was half and half. And he said, you know, at a certain age, I got interested in it. So I went and got Rosetta Stone, and I just taught myself and I said, That's amazing. So I came home, and I bought Rosetta Stone. And, and my son was using it pretty often, and my daughter not as much and then I realized after a while that it stopped and so then I stopped my membership to Rosetta Stone, because the other thing about Rosetta Stone was that it's very formal speaking, so it's not at all like colloquial. But at the same time, it does get their ear used to it etc, etc. Now once in a while, they'll impress me with a word or two they know or a sentence they know. And I'm just trying as much as I can to kind of keep that going whenever I can. I'll you know, when I'm on the car, I'll call my mom and be speaking to her in Persian and have them hear it once in a while. Depending on my mood as we're driving around, I'll just start teaching my phrase here there. Look, ultimately, I wish I could go to Iran and have them spend the summer there. But that's just not possible right now, given the world.

L: Right. Well, so do you think it's you're mentioning you were talking to your daughter about this recently? Like, do you think it is important to pass on the language? How important is it for them to be able to speak?

M: Listen, there's multiple reasons why it would be great for them to learn to speak in Persian. Number one is it would be great just because of cultural reasons. You know, I mean, the one thing I've succeeded in passing on to them is Persian food. They really like Persian food a lot, which is nice. So that's a good thing. But beyond that, I think it's also learning another language is good to get your ear ready for future languages and your curiosity for future languages because I think unfortunately in this country, we just aren't as encouraged to learn multiple languages. We're not surrounded by a lot of other countries like you're in Europe. Obviously we have Mexico but even there, you know, one of my biggest pet peeves is hearing the American accent on a foreign language. It's just, you know, fingernails on a chalkboard. So I tell them I go listen, learn a little bit of Persian now and then maybe in high school, when you want to learn Spanish or whatever French or whatever you decide to learn, it's going to be easier and you can be more interested in it. So really, the more languages the better. You know, I think especially nowadays, things are more and more competitive. So they're running around doing different sports or activities that they think is going to help them in the future with college, etc. But you know what these languages are languages that stick with you forever and ever.

L: Right. Are they doing your word of the days at all?

M: Funny enough my kids don't to the word of the day- it's actually Word of the Week, the Persian Word of the Week. Yeah, once in a while I'll rememberMy Word of the Week because they're not on social media in that sense. So they're not seeing it. Uh huh. The irony that I'm teaching people over the world, my own kids aren't, I know, I love those things.

L: You mentioned food, but also, obviously your comedy is very Iranian. It has a lot of Iranian humor and things like that. So is that that's something you're passing on to them? Or what other ways are you passing on culture to your kids?

M: You know, food is the main way. Once in a while I'll find a song that's a Persian song that I've heard that you know- I grew up in America. I was exposed to American culture. Once in a while though, I'll find a Persian song I go this is kind of cool, and I'll share it with the kids. So there was a band called ābjees out of Sweden that had a really cool kind of Persian reggae mix. So I would play that for them. My stand up, you know, is all in English and once in a while, you know, I'll do the Persian accent. So it's kind of funny because if I'm doing my mom or my dad or something, I do the Persian accent. So they've picked up on that a little bit. But that again, is not like- I'm not telling jokes in Persian. It's not fables from the Persian culture. Once in a while they get you. you stumble upon something like for example, there's this guy out of New York, I Hamid Rahmanian on created a play based on the Shāhnāmé. And it was a kids play.

L: The shadow puppet show.

M: Exactly. The shadow puppet show. Yeah, so we took the kids to that and that was really cool. He had created this big shāhnāmé book and we bought it. And then for the longest time, my son and I would read that together. Now again, that's all in English, but it was a story of shāhnāmé. So I mean, that was kind of some exposure to the culture.

L: Well, what parts of the culture that you receive growing up are you purposely not passing on to your kids?

M: The main cultural thing I'm not passing on to my kids is this drive that our parents have. And I think it's not just Iranian, I think it's immigrants. I think a lot of Indian, Asian, all these parents, I think they all wanted us to be lawyers, doctors engineers that kind of pushed us in that direction. And so I have really emphasize to my kids, to find your passions and pursue those- don't listen to me or your mom or anybody else telling you what you should do. So that's really the biggest part of our culture that I'm not passing on.

L: How do your parents, your mom right now feel about what you're doing?

M: My mom has been here for 40 years as well. And I think that she has really come around to accepting all that- you know, my mom was worried. Because when I was in college, they thought I was gonna be a lawyer and then I was going to be a professor and then my mom was really worried for me for that. But seeing that I really pursued what I love doing, and you know, I've found success in it. I think my mom has definitely come around.

L: Oh, good, good. And you live in Los Angeles now- what's your involvement with the Persian community there? Or do you have a lot of Iranian friends?

M: Yeah, I have a pretty diverse group of friends. You know, in the comedy world, I have a lot of friends from all different backgrounds. And then there's a handful of us now in the comedy world that are of Iranian American backgrounds, and then a lot of my close friends from college were Iranian Americans. So we had similar experiences. There's a group of us that grew up that never felt Iranian enough, never felt American enough. We're kind of in the middle. And I think that probably happens for a lot of different immigrants and they feel like, Oh, I'm not really from the old country, I'm not from the new country, I'm in the middle. So I have a handful of friends like that. And then, you know, being the first Iranian American stand up out the gate going over 20 years ago, my involvement tends to be that a lot of times when there's fundraisers or events, I'll be the first one they hit up. They go, Hey, can you come home to this and that? And then I show up at these events, and I do my thing. And sometimes they go well, and sometimes people are disappointed because they go, Oh, I wish you had more Persian jokes. I have jokes about whatever is on my mind. And a lot of times, that's not just about being Iranian.

L: Well, to conclude, you know, a lot of us are here now. And like you said, it's very hard to go back and, you know, we're integrating into society. What is your hope for the future of the Diaspora? For those of us that are here?

M: I mean, look, the good news is the younger generation, yourself, you've probably come around and accepted the fact that this is your country, America's our place. My buddy, Tehran, is a stand up comedian- he's half black, half Persian. He mentions this a lot. And I like that he says, you know, if Iran were to change and become a democracy tomorrow, that's not an Islamic Republic, but a liberal democracy, how many of these people that are in the diaspora would get up and move back? Maybe some of the older ones would but I don't think a lot of the younger ones would. I wouldn't for sure, right. So as much as my heart is always breaking for the people of Iran, who are under this regime don't have the freedoms, I feel that in the diaspora, it's our duty to accept where we are and and participate in American society and politics and all of the above. And so I'm always excited when I see more and more young people getting involved in different things that you wouldn't expect from people in our culture. So when I see like a young Iranian dude who's Iranian American, but he's a DJ or he's singing or, or she's a painter or whatever it is, that stuff excites me. And I see it more and more, I think that a lot of us have basically accepted that. And at the same time, hopefully we keep one foot in the culture and continue to expose our children to that culture.

L: Right. And I'm just now getting more involved in social media and everything. And it seems like everyone's very well connected and very supportive of one another. And like you said, more involved in different things, but still really supportive of what everyone's doing. So I'm really excited about that.

M: Well, I would say to you, then you're new to social media, becasue eventually, you're going to start getting yelled at by haters out there. There's a big divide in the Iranian community, because there's a lot of people in the Iranian community who want this administration to somehow overthrow the mullahs and they don't care if we go to war and they go, let's just get rid of them. And then there's a lot of people go no war is messy. And so what happens is, if you speak up on social media about diplomacy and advocate diplomacy, they attack you and they say, oh, you must be working with the mullahs. So it's a pretty crazy thing that's out there.

L: Yeah, I was I was trying to take a break from Facebook and Instagram. And then I just got into Twitter.

M: But you're gonna see a lot of that. If you want to be attacked, then go on Twitter and say regime change is not the way to go, diplomacy is the way to go. And you'll see these people- it's crazy, they straight up attack you. Because the fact is, I start by saying- look, a lot of us in the diaspora do not like or support the government of Iran because we know it's a totalitarian government. There's people suffering under it. There's lack of freedoms, there's a lot of bad things about it. But then the debate becomes how do we get rid of them and is it through some force which I don't know- there's no bomb or anything that would just go and kill the bad people. And, you know, spare the good people. you know, it would turn into a messier situation than Iraq. So that debate starts and then people start attacking you and it's pretty crazy.

L: Okay, well, I'm not going to experiment with that. I'll leave that up to everyone else. Thank you so much for talking with me and I definitely appreciate your time. I have been a big fan for a long time and I can't wait to see you in your show in Austin.

M: Great. Thank you very much, and we'll talk soon. 

To find out more about Maz:

Maz does a lot- to find out more, and to see his Persian Word of the day series, follow him either on Instagram or on Twitter. You can also listen to his new podcast, Back to School with Maz Jobrani.

Maz also mentioned Hamid Rahmanian on the podcast- check out his gorgeous work on this website.