Raising Neem-Roonis- An Interview with Reza Aslan
Reza Aslan has in recent years become one of the most respected and recognizable Iranian Americans out there. He has many titles, but to name a few, he's the author of several books including his number one New York Times bestseller, Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, he's a commentator, professor, producer and scholar of religions. I met Reza at a podcasting conference last August shortly after coming up with the idea for this podcast series. He was there as a keynote speaker promoting his new podcast Metaphysical Milkshake. After his presentation, we met for coffee and he told me his experiences raising three, which has since become four, neem-Rooni children. He enthusiastically agreed to be interviewed for the Raising Neem-Rooni series and connected me with several other people I ended up interviewing. So I really thank him for his encouragement and for his help along the way with this project.
So for some context, we recorded this interview the first week after the lockdown was announced from COVID-19. So I was a little shell shocked, but Reza was certainly in good spirits. Listen to the interview, or see the interview highlights in the transcript below (edited for clarity).
Leyla Shams: So first of all, tell me about your background. Where you were born, and what has your relationship been with Iran and the Persian language.
Reza Aslan: I was born in Tehran. My father's family is mostly from the south of Iran, with a few Baluchis in there somewhere. And then my mother's family is mostly from Esfahan. They met at the university in Tehran and that's where they settled with my father's side of the family. That's where I was born. My middle sister was also born in Iran. And then of course, we left in 1979. And we've grown up mostly in California and then we also have another sister who was born here.
We were that sort of generation that so many first generation Iranians in the US are where we came here in the 80s. It was a very bad time to be Iranian because of the hostage crisis. I for one tried very hard to distance myself as much as possible from my culture and my heritage. And then also, the language issue where you're trying to learn English and the importance of trying to fit in. And because my parents were immigrants struggling just to get by- for them, if the day ended with everybody alive, fed, and in bed, that was a success. There wasn't this kind of overwhelming effort to make sure that we all knew Persian, that we all studied it and that we all maintained our fluency. So all of that contributed to the fact that by the time shigh School came around, I was completely illiterate in Farsi. I didn't know how to read and I didn't really know how to speak it. Obviously, like most kids like myself, I understood it, because my parents would speak to me in Farsi, and then I would respond in English. And so I would understand it, but I couldn't speak it.
L: So then pretty soon after moving here, I'm guessing you would speak English with your siblings as well, right?
Yes, absolutely. And the great irony of all this, by the way, is that the member that is the most fluent, can speak Farsi the best read and write it the best is my littlest sister who was born here in America. But you know, this created a lot of embarrassment for me, especially when I went to grad school and decided I'm going to study this stuff for a living. I have to take courses in Farsi, I had to sit in a beginning Persian class with a bunch of white people, relearning my language from scratch, how to write it, how to read it, how to speak it, and of course, getting constant shit from the professor who is like a white dude from Texas who spoke Farsi with like the eloquence of an Ayatollah. I mean, this guy spoke so well.
L: Oh, wow from Texas- so was he part of the University of Texas? That's actually where I'm at. I'm in Austin.
R: No, well actually, if your listeners are interested, his name is Wheeler Thackston. And he is America's premier scholar of the Persian language. If you go to university and you take a serious Persian class, you have a Wheeler Thackston book. He's also done some really cool translations of great books. And he would give me so much shit for what he would call my Tehrangeles accent. I would say things and he would be like, no, that's not how we speak. So, that was a really frustrating experience. And even to this day, three years years of intense graduate level training in Farsi, I can sort of write read and speak it like a fifth grader.
L: And was he teaching formal or was he teaching informal language?
R: No, if you accidentally said something in a colloquial, if you said 'meetoonam' instead of 'meetavānam', he would lose his shit- "No, that is not what we are studying here, Tehrangeles Farsi." But then, you know, of course I have this grand dreams that, "Oh well, when I have children- Oh, you wait and see. I'm gonna teach them from the beginning. That's what I'm gonna do."
L: Which brings us to our next question- how did you meet your spouse and what is her cultural background?
R: My spouse has no culture. She is a WASP. She is salt of the earth Midwestern white Anglo Saxon Protestant. It's funny, you know, we did our 23 and Me's, and hers came back a kaleidoscope of colors. It was every color on the rainbow, and mine came back and said 98% Persian, 2% other. I was like, okay, that's really the difference between Americans and Iranians. She's got some German, some Irish, like all white people in America, just an absolute mutt.
L: And then and you just had a fourth child. Congratulations.
R: Thank you! Yes.
L: What are the ages of your kids?
R: So we have eight year old twin boys. Again, it's one thing to have one kid and say I'm going to, in the middle of trying to figure out how to keep a child alive, teach that child a foreign language. It's another thing to try that with twins. Jasper and Cyrus, both Persian names. People don't realize that Jasper is a Persian name. And then we have a five year old boy named Asa, that comes from the Persian word Asha, which means truth and light. And then we now have our first girl Soraya. Just when I gave up just gave up on the idea that I could possibly have a girl, she shows up.
L: Well, congratulations! So how is it going with teaching them Persian?
R: So about midway through the year last year, I just gave up. I was like, you know what, this isn't good. This isn't going to happen. I can keep pretending that I'm going to teach my kids Persian, but it's just not going to happen. At a certain point, you just have to face reality, right? Say, I'm not doing that. And so I thought, Okay, well, what are my options? There aren't that many options. I live in Los Angeles, Tehrangeles, so there are a lot of courses. I have a really good friend who's Korean, and their kids on Saturdays and Sundays sit through like five hours of actual Korean class. And I mean, her kids are better than my kids- my kids would never do that. My kids would absolutely revolt with the idea of spending their Saturday and Sunday sitting in a classroom learning Persian. And then I found this great Persian instructor who five days a week does sit in the classroom and teach people but on the weekends, is willing to come to the house. When she first came, I told her I don't really care if my kids know how to read and write, that's not important to me. I just would like them to be able to speak it. I would like them to be able to carry a conversation with their grandmother or something like that. And so the first month or so that's what they did. It just didn't work. For some reason it wasn't working. And then just for fun, I gave them each their notebooks and had them write a few letters down, and then all of a sudden, everything clicks. So weirdly, they're being taught how to read and write. And they're just taking to it so well. They love the idea of learning to write a completely different alphabet, writing right to left instead of left to right. It's kind of been flowering.
L: When you speak to them, do you speak Persian or do you just speak English?
R: I really want to be that guy- I want to just be like, you know what? I totally practice speaking Farsi to them. But I don't. After class on Saturday, I will for like five minutes, and then I'll just forget. And you know, what are you going to do? At this point, my hope is that they will get this sort of foundational experience, this idea of the Persian script, and connecting these letters together and understanding how the language works. The very idea that the verb comes last in a sentence is so strange and exhilarating to them. That language can work that way. I feel like one step at a time. Like, this is where we we can get to, let's get to this first. And then maybe when they get older, and they want to do this more deliberately, come back to it more deliberately. It'll click for them in an interesting way.
It's fascinating because I left Iran at seven. And they started learning Persian at seven. So I stopped learning at seven, and they started learning at seven. And I feel like they're going to be in a better place, if they choose to pick it up again, when they're older than I was. Because when I was seven years old, that's the last time I wrote a Persian word until I was in graduate school, whereas they're now 7, 8, 9, 10, they're writing Persian words. It just makes a big, big difference.
L: I've spoken to several people now about this. And I feel like all of us who are married to a non Iranian had these aspirations of only speaking Persian with our kids or definitely keeping it up and every single person I've talked to has failed miserably.
R: I've heard of people who do that. They are out there apparently- they exist.
L: But then my question is, what is the family language? Is their spouse just left out all the time?
R: We had that same idea, even when it came to just my wife. She was like, yeah, I'm going to learn it too. We were going to learn it together, when we first got together. She learned a little bit, but it didn't work. And then I was like, well, you know what, she can sit in with the with the kids. When they get their instruction, she can too. That lasted about two weeks. And then it was like, the baby needs this- right? What are you going to do.
L: I am going say you sound the most at peace with it. Everyone else has said, 'I've had these aspirations. I failed, but this is what everyone should do. You should try doing this. But I haven't done it.'
R: Ha! I haven't done it. But you should.
L: Yes. So it's kind of refreshing to hear how at peace you are with with what you're doing. And I guess my question is, is it even important to teach the language? Why? Why are you even going the step of having the tutor? Why is it so important for them to know?
R: Yeah, that's an easy answer. I mean, look, there are a number of reasons. Number one, just a completely objective and neutral position. The learning of a foreign language fires synapses in the brain that are otherwise unused. And so the learning of a language isn't just about learning the language- it's about new ways of using your brain, new ways of thinking. Learning a foreign language as a young person allows for symbolic thinking. So it allows the person later in life to be able to draw and compare symbolic analyses, to use symbolic thinking to draw conclusions and lines between seemingly disparate ideas. The definition of genius that I've always thought worked best is the genius is the person who can draw connections between seemingly disparate and unconnected things. And that's what symbolic abilities awakened in your cognitive processes allow for. So just in a general point, any kind of foreign language training at a young age, no matter what it is, whether it's Persian or Spanish, it doesn't matter, unlocks abilities that are going to be hugely important to their success later in life. That's the first thing. The second thing is, language has always been the most efficient means of cultural transmission. We can we can have a million mehmoonees, we can celebrate nowruz we can do all kinds of activities. But culture, the stickiness of cultural really relies on the glue of language. And so the very notion that culture carries with it this kind of linguistic aspect, I think, is super important. So if you want your kids to be adept at multiple cultures, language is the opening for that. So, for many of us who have half Persian kids, if you want them to maintain adherence to their Persian culture, even the most basic, most rudimentary understanding of Persian as a language can become the most vital and immediate way of doing that. So in general it just trains the brain but more specifically, it is a culture transmission mechanism.
L: I love that answer, because I've always thought, I mean, there's music too, and there's food but I love what you're saying about language in particular. What is your relationship is with the Iranian culture. And with the Iranian diaspora in where you live, in Tehrangeles?
R: I do live in Southern California. We have 200,000 Iranians, the largest Persian community outside of Iran, but it also tends to be a fairly conservative group. It's a group that is riven by political disagreements. We have a lot a lot of right wing Shah supporters here. Every nowruz, Westwood Boulevard is covered in billboards with the Shahs face.
L: Wow, we don't have that in Texas at all.
R: And then if that weren't enough, we have sort of the opposite group here as well the MEK group, the sort of radical Marxists. And then we have the generational divide. It's really ugly here. It's really ugly. And it didn't take me that long to realize that I don't want anything to do with this. And so I really do anything with the Persian community in Los Angeles. I keep my distance from it. As much as possible I try my hardest not to get involved in the political infighting. But I think in so far as being in a place where I have access to the best chelo kebāb outside of Tehran is good. I definitely take advantage of that.
L: How do you feel that you're passing on Persian culture to your kids? Is that something you do deliberately more than through language?
R: So, beyond the language which I do think is super important, I think, obviously celebrations, holidays, those are really important. I show up to school once a year with a haft seen and I teach their entire second grade about the holiday and what it means and and they feel really special. There are actually four half Persian kids in their second grade. All four of them stand next to me and I think there's this kind of idea that this is me, this is about me, the four of us are different than everybody else in this class. And this day is for us. That idea of ownership that is so hugely important for young kids. And the idea that this is what makes them special and unique, this is what sets them apart. I think those are the kinds of feelings that you want to foster because those feelings will then encourage them to continue to explore their tradition. So that's a huge one. And then of course, you already mentioned the other one, which is food. Food is a big deal. You know, we like once a week, you know, we all eat chelo kabob here, and they know that that's what's happening and they know that it's Persian and they know it's special. It's different. It's unique that other kids don't do this. Again, that that idea of this is what makes you special. This is what makes you different? That's what you want to foster in young people.
L: And I think another question that I think you can answer very nicely what parts of the culture are you purposely not passing on?
R: The Racism.
R: Any Persian will tell you, we are the most racist people in the world. We're just, I mean, that 23 and me thing I was just joking about, but my dad would tell me all the time about how, quote unquote, pure we were. You know, you hear this all the time, right? That kind of language, or any language should immediately set up warning bells.The big joke in my house is that it turned out he was really right. I got the 23 and me thing and I was like, holy shit.
L: And you ruined it.
R: My mom would tell me all the time, have your fun with the white girls, but, obviously when it's time. So that part, you know, I definitely tried to avoid as much as possible sort of supremacy part. But I think for me it's a matter of just kind of giving them as much of a flavor as possible. The really heartbreaking aspect of it is that in our family, travel is not just important, it's a family value. We have family values that we've posted on the wall, like these are the things that make us who we are, and travel is a value. And we have been all over the world. We've been everywhere. You know, just a couple of summers ago we we went on an 80 day journey around the world to experience different cultures, different belief systems and you're in Turkey, you're in Palestine, you're in Jordan, you're in Egypt. And you're experiencing these sort of different ways, different Middle Eastern communities, Turkish and Arabic, and then to not be able to experience their own community, to not be able to go to Iran is heartbreaking. And not be able to say, this is actually yours. This is what you are, it is just devastating. I just don't see that changing anytime soon.
L: You'd also told me a story about how your mom introduces you as a professor still.
R: This isn't just unique to the Persian American audience. It's very common for I think most immigrants that you can't go around telling your parents, Hey, I know that you sacrificed everything in order to come here and start a new life, but I'm going to be a writer. I remember as clear as day, the day that I told my mom that I wasn't going to be a writer. She said, Who's stopping you from writing? What do you mean? Like go write all you want to go be a doctor and then write. Oh, no, Mom, I'm writing as a career like a job. And so you know, I was like, Okay, well, then I'll become a professor. How about that? Well, okay, can I still can I still refer to you as Dr. Reza? Doctor? Yeah, you could, you could do that. Sure. You know, she still does that. Every once in a while, like my son doctor, and I have to say, not that kind of doctor. That's like a totally useless, useless doctor.
L: For my last question, I just wanted to ask you: we're here now- the Iranians are here. And we're not really keeping this whole pure line, and we're integrating into different societies. It's obvious, as you said, we're not going back. Hopefully we can visit at some point. But who knows when that'll be. What is your hope for the future of the Iranian diaspora as we become more integrated? How do you hope this is going to go in future generations?
R: Well, I think that we need to learn from a lot of other diasporas and start to actually flex our muscles a little bit. I mean, this is our home. This is our country. And I understand that many of us came from a world in which the idea of political participation was laughable. But Iranians are among the wealthiest and the most high educated and successful immigrant communities in the United States. And we've done a great job of making money for ourselves. But we haven't done a very good job of using that money or the power that comes with it to actually affect change that benefits our community. And in fact, when organizations arise that tried to do that, they immediately get wrapped up in the whole sort of political infighting that I was just talking about. So I think that that's going to be a generational shift. I think you're going to see a new generation arrives, it's going to run for office that's going to become artists and writers and musicians, you know, all the things that their parents told them they couldn't be. And then what you'll what you'll see is a different, a different way in which the community is responded to- one that I think is much more commiserate with the power that we have and the numbers that we represent.
L: Right. I love that. And it seems like we're becoming more connected as a community as well. And I think that that really raises our profile. And you're on the board of NIAC. Are you still doing that?
R: Yes, I should say that NIAC, although it does do a lot of work for the domestic community, is still very much geared towards foreign policy towards Iran. So if you're an Iranian in the United States, and you are concerned about your family back in Iran, NIAC is a very good resource for you. And then, of course, there are a lot of cultural groups, the Farhang and the Hand foundation. Those kinds of organizations are still hugely important. But those are more about culture and heritage, art, things like that. So I think there there are definitely ways of connecting with the broader community. But nevertheless, there's no real substitute for food, music, culture, art, you know, those are the things that you can do yourself at home. You don't need a community behind you.
L: Well, thank you so much. I should have asked you this earlier. But I know you're working on Rough Draft with Reza Aslan, and you have a podcast with Rainn Wilson on the Luminary Network. Is there any other way that people can find you? You have a lot of projects.
R: Yeah well, you just go to rezaaslan.com and you can keep up with me there. I'm just kind of, you know, at home working on the next book right now, and it's kind of good timing for me.
L: Yeah. Are all the kids at home too? How are you getting any work done?
R: Oh, they are.
L: Hopefully you have a good home office set up there.
R: Yeah, thank goodness. They're gonna be home for the it looks like for the remainder of Second grade.
L: Oh my goodness.
R: The school sent a note today that said, prepare for the fact that your kids will not be going back to school. So, crazy!
L: An interesting time we're all going through. It's very refreshing to talk to you and I had a great time hearing your thoughts about this subject. So I really appreciate it.
R: Okay, thanks. Take care.
To find out more about Reza:
Check out his website at www.rezaaslan.com.