Though Shohreh Aghdashloo has achieved one-of-a-kind success, becoming the first Middle Eastern actress to be nominated for an Academy Award, her memoir, The Alley of Love and Yellow Jasmines, embodies the experiences of many immigrants who have come to the United States to escape abusive regimes. Born in Tehran in 1952, Aghdashloo, who now resides in Calabasas, was 26 years old when she fled Iran during the Islamic revolution of 1978. She left the day before Khomeini came to power, leaving behind her husband and country in order to pursue a life that would not be dictated by a restrictive government. She settled in London where she earned a B.A. in International Relations then stumbled back into acting after a friend showed her the script for a play about the Islamic Revolution. Aghdashloo accepted the part and went on to pursue an acting career.
As Aghdashloo chronicles her journey from Iran to California, her pages seep with details, from the saffron chicken in the Shah’s palace (which she visited as a young girl) to a comedy club in Encino, her writing speaks as much to her love of her native country as it does to her resilience and desire to fight for a new life in the U.S.
Have you noticed a difference in the way the Iranian and American communities have responded to your memoir?
The difference is the Americans are captivated with the atmosphere, the pictures of the life we lived back in Iran in those three decades from 1952 to 1979. My generation was born and raised in such an age in Iran, the progression years. Here they all know about 1952 and then they cut to 2011. My Iranian friends connect to each and every incident I talked about easily, because there are people who have been caught in the scenes I write about. It’s closer to their heart, to their home.
Why are flowers so important in Iranian culture?
There’s this one-ness with the land. In Iran since they are very young, everyone wants to own a house own a garden and put seeds in the garden and grow flowers. Houses in Iran, even in the smallest backyard, they have a rose bush, they have flowers. Every time you go to see someone in hospital you have to take flowers even if you’re taking a bottle of wine you have to have flowers as well. My mother used to say, "It’s mandatory." Every time I visited friend and I didn’t take flowers, she would say, "That is very rude. You have to take flowers." You’re bringing colors, beautiful scents into people’s houses.
As an actress you’ve traveled a lot. What made you want to settle in Los Angeles?
Iranians call California and Iran sister cities; they’re very much alike. Iranians feel at home here and the weather is so close to Iranian weather. You can dial a number randomly here and people would go ‘Hello, Salaam.’ That’s how it works, the grocery stores, the gas station, ‘Hello, Salaam.’ It’s amazing, it’s the fact they feel at home, they’re free here, and they can have their own businesses.
You write a lot about the Iranian community in the United States and in Los Angeles, specifically. How has the community evolved?
In general, Iranian Americans are totally different. They’re so aware of their rights. This country teaches you to learn about your rights and ask for it. I’ll never forget the day where I had a plane to catch in London and my airline flying out of L.A. was late. I got to UK an hour late and couldn’t catch my plane. They were telling me, "You’re going to have to find a hotel, fly tomorrow," and I said, "Can I see your supervisor?" She looked at me and said, "Why do you want to see my supervisor?" I said, "I come from America, I know what my rights are." My brother [who lives in London] was like, "Why did you do that? Why didn’t you call me? You didn’t have to go through all that." And I said, "I did it for the others, I didn’t do it for myself." This is what I learned in the U.S.
It’s amazing how fast the progress of this community in the last 30 years has been. Iranian women are now holding key positions in politics, pharmaceuticals. When playing in movies, they give me assistants, sometimes I have no idea they’re Iranian. When they’re finished they say it in Farsi, "I speak Farsi, you know. I’m Iranian." And I think, "Of course, I should have guessed." They’re out and about and I’m so proud and happy.
In 1968 when you moved to Los Angeles you said that pursuing acting in Hollywood was wishful thinking because you had an accent and jet black hair. You weren’t "the girl next door." What changed?
Cinema is a reflection of its own society. The whole world is global. With the internet, it’s like we’re all living in a small village. We’re starting more and more to realize there is no difference, we can work together, we can put aside our differences and work on our similarities and be successful in that way. This is what’s been happening to our society.
Jihadists have threatened to kill and rape you. You filed a complaint against them, but then you dropped the case. What changed your mind?
What I realized back then was I didn’t want to go to the level of the dogs who were calling in the dark. The caller was unknown, those people sending me these notes trying to harass me were all barking in the dark. You don’t want to stoop to their level, don’t put your pictures next to them. That’s what I’ve always been afraid of in my life, to stoop to their level, these people who were harassing me. It made me realize aware of the fact that if I take a step it would bring me to their level. It was not right for me. What you want to do is inform them, educate them, turn it into art, teach them through art that this is not the right thing to do. That’s my mission rather than fighting with them one on one.
In the book, you wrote that one of your proudest moments was performing a one-woman play about your life. Why was that so important to you?
Imagine that your mom is an immigrant coming from another country and gave birth to you when she was 30-something. You have no idea of your mother’s background, the kind of education she had, her background, her style of living. She tells you stories of her childhood and they all sound like mythical stories to you. When I told stories to my daughter when she was 5, 7, 8 years old. She kept looking to me saying, "Really, mom? You did that? You went mountain hiking, skiing, you danced in discos in Iran?" Oh, my god. Of course we did. All these daughters, young women, girls, teenagers came to me after the show and said, "Now I know where my mother is from, now I know what happened to her, now I know what childhood she had." It was amazing for me.
Despite the obstacles you’ve faced in your life, you never quit. What kept you going?
Resilience is there. When my life was put to a halt what I decided to do was work harder, get myself more educated. I only had a diploma. My father said without a higher education I couldn’t do anything in the Western world. Having a stopper in front of me made me not want to stop but move even faster and learn even more and try harder.