Growing Up Irooni- An Interview with Yara Elmjouie
Yara Elmjouie is a Webby Award-wnning, James Beard-nominated video producer, journalist, and host at AJ+. He's also a great voice in the Iranian American community, creating engaging videos explaining current conditions in Iran, and documenting the experiences of Iranian Americans. He was born in Los Gatos, California, but grew up visiting Iran often. By the time he got to high school and college, he had an insatiable thirst for deep diving into his language and culture. He currently lives in New York City, and much of his current work chronicles the experiences of the Iranian diaspora.
Listen to the interview below, or check out the unedited video of the interview here. Resources on how to find Yara can be found at the bottom of the page.
Leyla Shams: Tell me a little bit about your background. Where were you born? And what is your cultural background?
Yara Elmjouie: Absolutely. Both my parents are Iranian. They both immigrated from Iran to various places, but they setlled in California as the vast majority of our community did it seems. So I'm from a small town in northern California, an hour south of San Francisco called Los Gatos. Although, I should say I was raised, in a way, especially during my earlier years, between California and Tehran, because my parents shuttled back and forth. I was born after the Iran Iraq war had completed in 1991. So my parents were considering potentially going back to Iran in that time, and they'd be living there because they waited for the war to finish.
L: Why Los Gatos? Are there a lot of Iranians there?
Y: I don't know if I have the exact like the precise answer to that question. But I believe it has something to do with the public schools there. They didn't have a community of their own there. My dad came to the US first for college. As the revolution was brewing in Iran in 1978/79, he then went back to the states to start his education, and then went back to Iran, I think 80/81 something like that married my mother, and then they move back together. They kind of just went on a little journey for themselves, Utah, Nevada, Reno places and somehow Los Gatos, for whatever reason, they settled there.
L: I should mention here, you have a really good four part series about Iranian Americans on AJ plus. The second part of the series is all the story of your parents. It's a great series, I definitely related to it a lot. Growing up, what was your experience with the Persian language? Let's start with the language and then also talk about the culture.
Y: Definitely. Growing up as a kid, and this is a common experience, I think for maybe a lot of a lot of Iranian first start versus second generations, I guess I should say, immigrants and children of immigrants. My parents, their English was not that great when I was younger, and now it's great of course. But back in the day, I think they'd been in the states for, you know, a decade or so. They had jobs that were working, but their comfort language was Persian. So they would speak to me in Persian. That was the first language that I learned to speak. So Persian was the first language I learned how to speak. But it also then became this kind of comfort food for me, this soul food. Like, if I want to feel comfortable, and I want to be able to communicate whatever it is, that's on my mind, I'm going to just resort to Persian because that's just our comfort language. And so I learned to speak. And it's funny because I'd go to school, and my English was not that great. Kids, you know, Hank, John, Justin, Jake, English was their language. And I was coming in and I would accidentally say Persian words. And they'd be like, what? It was so embarrassing.
L: And then you would go back to Iran, and that would really notch up your language.
Y: Exactly. And so I think one of the reasons it was so second nature to me,obviously, it was the first language I learned. it was our little soul food language at home. But I spent a lot of time and the first five years of my life in Iran immediately after I was born, Just a few months after it was born, they put me on a plane we went to Iran because they're like, 'here's the baby, we need to take the baby to Iran,' and again in that mindset of maybe moving back to Iran as a possibility for that you know, maybe things will change a little bit in Iran we can move back have a comfortable life next to family.
L: What about growing up? Did you ever like rebel against trying to speak Persian? Like a lot of kids here do?
Y: Oh, that's a great question. So yes, growing up, of course, when at first obviously speaking Persian all the time. I'm not really thinking much of it. But then I'm going to school and there's peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. There's no lunchables and I'm coming to school with God knows what, like, my little Thermos back then. I can't even remember my mom making food for me packing it
L: Well, this isn't white bread.
Y: Yeah, exactly. It was not white bread by any means. Not the ham and cheese sandwich. It was not any of those things. And, and so eventually, because people would gawk and stare and you know, say things and it would smell a certain way. So in elementary school, I start to distance myself a little bit from it. Because I'm like, well, this is not accepted. I want to be cool.
L: Right, to fit in.
Y: Totally, fit in. And so that's when I start to move away from it and speak less of it. So again, it was my first language. It was the language I was strongest in perhaps for the first few years of my life when I could speak but then I start school, English obviously took over very, very quickly.
L: So then did you start to lose it? Or did you start to answer back in English?
Y: So that's something I never did. Again, it was the comfort food language. So at home I always speak Persian with my family. But again, I made sure at school it was just full English. I had just these embarrassing moments that leave an imprint on your on your brain, right? Your parents don't speak English as well or they're kind of different. And so, like my dad had said, 'Yara, I am an engineer.' He got an engineering degree, but he ended up buying a Subway sandwich store and that became his primary source of revenue. But, you know, when we would introduce our dads at school or something, what does your dad do Jimmy? What does your dad do Justin? And it came to me and my dad had always told me, like on these little car rides we'd have to a Subway, like father and son talks. He would say 'I'm an en-junior.' En-junior, I don't know, just because of his accent. So I go to school proud, what's my dad? And I'd be like, my dad is an en-junior, and everyone was like, what? I was mortified. Nobody knew what it was. And then the teacher, I think the teacher was trying to be very sweet. She's like, 'Oh, do you mean engineer?' And I was like, very resolute was like, No, he's an en-junior.
L: Yeah, it leaves an imprint for sure. Definitely. Okay, so then what about reading and writing for you?
Y: My parents definitely were interested in me learning it. So when I was born, we went to Tehran, and then I think we went back for a significant amount of time. So I didn't finish kindergarten in the United States, I went to Tehran where I enrolled in an international school. I think this was a legit attempt to try to make Iran our, you know, home. I went to international school, I think I kind of learned and got a little bit familiar, but I don't remember learning very much. It wasn't until eighth grade, I think or so seventh or eighth grade. My dad was very passionate. He loved Iran. He was like, when you're grown up, I'm moving back to Iran. And so he enrolled me in this Persain class. And I hated it. I did not want to learn- again, that sort of feeling of I want to be like Jimmy and Justin, or whatever. And I did not like the teacher. She was very strict. I didn't like spending my Saturdays learning the characters. But I did learn the characters of Persian. And then I kind of put it away. I cried. I think I was like, I really don't want to do this. And so my mom was like, he really is unhappy. We don't have to push this on him. So that stopped. And it wasn't until late High School, early college, that I started to pick it up again, myself. I developed an interest in it was not at the behest of my parents. It was just it was fully internally motivated.
L: First, do you think that that was the right decision? Like, is that something that you look back on and think, I wish they just forced me into it? Or do you think, Okay, I'm glad I did it myself.
Y: Here's the thing, as we're kids, a lot of our behaviors are knee jerk. Like, if they tell you to not watch the rated R movie, you're going to find a way to watch the rated R movie. Right? Yeah, you know, don't go to whoever's house, you're going to find a way. So I undertand that they saw that if they forced something on me, the reaction may have been, for something because they did try they pushed it. I'm wondering how I would do this if I were in their shoes. I would try to maybe skillfully talk to the child and be like, hey, this could be fun, let's do the homework together. Because I would really want them to do it at a young age. So it's kind of seared into their heads at that age, and they develop a natural understanding of the language. So I do kind of wish, but you know, in the end, it kind of worked out. So I think the thing that really sparked my interest in reclaiming my Iranian identity and really growing closer to what happened in I'd say, in high school, I was approached by a lot of teachers and friends of parents. Ahmadinejad, that conservative sort of firebrand president of Iran was in power back in the day, so he would generate headlines over nuclear things and what have you. And you know, a lot of my friends, parents, my teachers, even at school would be like, what do you think of this Ahmadi- Ahmadinejack. And I'd be like, I didn't know how to answer the question. I was like, Well, I don't know. I mean, I guess he's not good. Parrot something that I'd heard elsewhere. The father of Orientalism Edward Said talks about this a little bit, you know, you kind of become this reference point for a lot of Americans and Westerners for this culture that they don't know about. So I became that reference point essentially, and, and it for worse or better. I've talked to Alex Shams about this- it propelled me to learn more so that I could answer their questions. And one of the ways that I had to learn more was to learn how to speak the language and write it and read it and and learn about the history. So that happened. In 2009, there was a green movement protests in Iran against, you know, the re election of Ahmadinejad, which was marred by legitimate claims of fraud in that election, people broke out in the streets. And so I saw all these young Iranians in the streets, and I had traveled to Iran only to see my family at that point. I didn't have any cool Iranian friends that were my age. And so I was like, wow, if we had lived there, I would have been potentially one of those kids protesting. And, and so 2009 just, like, thrust me into this mood and into the sort of mindset of I need to learn everything I can about the Persian language, so that I can learn about my heritage and learn about where my parents came from and learn why all these young people that look like me and dress like me, are in the streets protesting and that just set me off on this like obsessive quest to learn about Persian culture and learn Persian and go to Tehran for the summertime. You know, I had the privilege of doing this to study at the University of Tehran Dehkhoda Institute language classes. And that became my pride and joy- learning Persian.
L: So now you can read and write easily?
Y: I can read and write easily. I've live translated. It really became an obsessive journey. And I was a budding journalist. And I wanted to cover Iran for Western media. And so because I'd seen it, all my teachers coming to me, my friend's parents coming to me with these questions. What is Iran? Oh, Iran is this, Oh, the women, they're so oppressed, blah, blah, blah. And I'd really wanted to apply this corrective of the Iran that I knew and saw and I traveled to see my family and the joy and the hope and the other side of Iranian. There's obviously suffering and sadness, but it's like any country, it's a country of 80 some odd million people, there's so many more stories, than what we see kind of often reflected, I think, in certain segments of the media in the Western world.
L: We have a lot of listeners like you who grew up in the United States who probably weren't able to travel as much to Iran to study but what would your tips be to become more proficient in the language? What resources did you find?
Y: I started taking Persian classes at NYU. I was very fortunate. They had a Persian language instructor- he had actually written his own textbook, which is fantastic. I highly recommend it to anyone - Mehdi Khorrami. You had little exercises in there, fill in the blank. It's a wonderful book. One of the other things I would do is I would watch the Persian language newscasts frequently. Honestly, I would watch BBC Persian like a maniac. I learned all the names of the reporters and I would watch them there listen to their elocution, listen to their intonation. They had a very newscaster voice.
L: And they speak with the formal- it sounds like they're reading right?
Y: Yes. So I would come back from class in college and we would just sit on the live stream and watch BBC Persian. I would try to sometimes even watch IRI, Sedayeh Seema. I prefer BBC Persian, frankly, it's just somewhat hyphenated Iranian, sometimes a similar experience. And yeah, I would watch that and listen and listen and listen. The other thing I would do, and that was for speaking, of course, and anytime I would come across a word, of course, they're speaking it's not subtitled. I would write it down. I would write it down maybe in English, or like English characters. Because if I didn't know the actual characters, I would call my great uncle, who's this amazing guy at like midnight and be like, 'I came across this word.'
L: Wow. He must have loved that!
Y: Yeah, he's a single guy in his like late 60s. He watches all the news channels.
L: So then you became proficient. Did you move to Iran?
Y: So basically, again, taking Persian classes in college while I was back in New York, and then the summertime, were all spent in Tehran, every summer of college.
L: And in school, you're studying Middle Eastern Studies. So in school, you're studying material about Iran, like what's happening, and you're becoming more and more knowledgeable about the history?
Y: Absolutely. So I did that. And then and then basically, I'm prepping so over the summertime, too, I managed to kind of freelance a few articles from Iran while I was living there. I did a few pieces for Time Magazine. But all the stuff I did back then was anonymous, because I didn't have a press pass. So the byline would read Time Staff. So I did a few of those. And then I was like, Oh, my God, this is my dream. I want to move to Iran. I want to be a correspondent for the West, one of these Western publications, whether it's the Associated Press, New York Times, Washington Post, whatever. And, and then sure enough, 2013 the year that I graduated was also the year of Iran's presidential election, you know, Ahmadinejad was on his way out. And you know, a lot of my young Iranian friends that developed over those summer times were curious to see what would happen though not very hopeful. They didn't really expect anything magic to happen right after 2009. 2009 had scarred a lot of them. So they were kind of have that sort of middle class, somewhat. Yeah, you know, urbanized educated middle class folks who Yeah, who definitely did not like at Medina shot. And so 23 2013 rolls on by I'm gearing up and like, Oh, my God, I know this editor of Time Magazine, but then that editor leaves and then time then later tells me that they've cut their freelance budget, so they don't have any money to pay me to do articles so that it was things fell fell fell through. I had a couple other stumbles. I ended up freelancing for The Guardian while I was there, long story short, tarok Bureau, I think is a new source that was and yeah, then I live there from 2013 to 2015. And really did not expect to live there that long. I was going only to cover the election for two months, then maybe popping back to the States. But then I started going, I started covering stuff and I started, got some translation gigs. I got some English language, you know, gigs, teaching English, made friends, one gig left to lead to another. I started subtitling, my friends documentary is a meta collective of documentary filmmakers. Yeah, it was just one one kind of experience flowed into the other and just two months became two years.
L: Have you been back since then?
Y: I haven't been back since I left in 2014.
L: Are you are you worried about going back?
Y: I will say yes, right now at this moment, especially because of the tensions between Iran and the United States and what happened to Jason Rezaian, The Washington Post correspondent. He was detained for I think two years or something along with his wife Yeganeh Salahi and so that sort of experience happened midway through my stay in Iran. And so it was just throwing all these things into question because I basically wanted to do something along the lines of what Jason was doing in reporting on Iran hoping to open Americans eyes to what life is like there and have this happen to him was just like... I mean, what a time that was. But now you see the tensions and there's all these political calculations of Americans going so I'm waiting to see if things are going to change if there's the kind of detente of some sort. And maybe then I'll feel more comfortable.
L: Going back to the present, so you came back, and you started working on producing films and now you're working at AJ plus, producing your own series and different videos for them. A lot of fun videos. I love your video with Najmieh Badmanglij. A lot of fun.
Y: Ghormeh sabzi on the pizza.
L: So now what is your community like internally? Do you hang out with a lot of Iranian friends? I realized in the in the series that you produced you were saying that you felt like growing up you really didn't relate with the stereotypes of Iranians. And I feel like I was like that I grew up in Texas, that I always felt that way. There were a lot of Iranians in my town. And I was always like, Okay, well, Iranians are like this, and I'm just not like this, until I came to college in Austin. And then I met all these people. And I was like, Oh, these are my people. These are my weird Iranians. So what's your community like?
Y: Like, it's very interesting. It's a mix of if I look at my friends, today, it's a mix. I have a lot of Arab friends from all over the Arab world lavonne to North Africa to you know, you name it. And I'd say probably right now, like in New York, like, you know, I have, you know, Syrian, Kuwaiti, Lebanese, Palestinian, Palestinian, Araki, and then a lot of South Asian friends, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, you know, Indian, and then I'd say what else and then obviously, of course, we have Iranian American friends who and even Iranian Iranian friends who have just moved here. So it's kind of very much a South Asian, Middle Eastern kind of group. And, yeah, that that would probably be my friend group today. And there's just something so nice, I've realized now looking back on it, if I had these friends, when I was younger, I would have been able to navigate a lot of different parts of my identity and feel comfortable with different parts of myself much earlier than I actually did. Like, if I had folks from again, I'm not a particularly pious person, but friends of mine Today, many of them are from Muslim background. And so like if if I'd had that and been able to talk to people and I didn't feel so alone, in whether you know, being called names on the playground are being made fun of for your appearance, so your skin color or your your hair or anything, you know, unibrow thing, all these sorts of experiences, right? Like if I'd had someone to share that with it would have been so much less lonely and so much easier to kind of just make it through then the torments and kind of the self questioning and the suppression of parts of my identity that that you know, who knows that led to but like, yeah, and and you know, now as an adult, I just feel like I can just float in the water, I guess. and not have to worry about it. This is like I am who I am and the other people who are like me who I surround myself with, and right,
L: What's your connection with the Iranian diaspora? And how do you see it developing the future?
Y: I think it's amazing- scholars like Neda Maghbouleh, you have scholars like Amy Malek, you have Alex Shams, all these folks- there's tons of them that are doing phenomenal work. Ajam Media Collective is one of my favorite sites. And I think it's just so amazing that we have this now we have folks studying the Diaspora because there's so many of us, I've seen a stat, I don't know if this is true, but something like five to 6 million Iranians live outside of Iran, I think is the last time I heard a stat like that, again, strewn throughout the world, a large plurality of them, obviously, in the United States. And I think this is really a product of how new our community is- if you look at Chinese Americans or Japanese Americans, Mexican Americans, these folks have kind of longer, I should say, older roots in the United States, like they their immigration patterns started much earlier than ours or their mass immigration patterns. Whereas ours kind of really started to kick off with 1979 in the revolution. And I just think it's a natural function of the time that we've been here in the West and our community, our communities grown and now we're starting to see those publications, precisely those voices. I just saw this beautiful documentary by someone I met recently via zoom, Julia Lee, who who lives in Los Angeles. She's a filmmaker, writer, director, and she did a piece that looked at the trauma of a young Iranian girl moving to the United States during the Iran hostage crisis in the early 80s. And being made fun of for her appearance, her unibrow at school, and like, the fact that we have this media and this literature and these stories, whether they're videos, films, articles, music, even heard of this amazing remix, like cool remix of a Goooosh song that was happening is- I'm glad that if I have kids or if anyone has kids, that they'll go grow up in this environment where they can surround themselves by diaspora media, and folks navigating their identities and their feelings of in between this with all of this stuff, to make them feel less alone. That to me is just so beautiful and so wonderful. And I think it's very inspiring. I can't wait to see what the second generation third generation kids are going to do. And ideally, let's see, the language and the culture is passed on.
L: That's my, that's my last question for you. So, in the future, if you do have kids, how do you think you'll navigate it with your children? Are you going to force them to speak the language?
Y: Here's the thing. I don't like forcing, but I like making something look cool. I think thankfully, thanks to all the folks that are in our diaspora community, there are a lot of ways. There's cool YouTube videos about beshkan, you know, whatever it is. There's cool podcasts like yours. I think there's a lot of stuff to help make our culture look and feel cool. When they're at school, they don't have to shy away and blend into something they're not. They can be like, okay, you're bringing this to the table at the age of five or six, look at this cool thing that I'm bringing to the table and they can be proud of it. So the answer to your question is I wouldn't force but I would do everything in my power to make sure they learn Persian and honestly, frankly, Arabic as well. I took a year of Arabic in college, and it improved my Persian so dramatically.
L: Why do you think it's important specifically to learn the language instead of just like being immersed in the culture in different ways, like food or music or art- why language?
Y: I think the language is just the key gateway to the culture. I learned so much more about myself and my heritage when I finally got a grip on the language because when you don't know the language, you're relying on interlocutors to basically tell you what it is that is happening in Iran or are telling you what the culture is. Even speaking and listening like those two skills even if you can't read or write but if you have a high level of comprehension, that opens up so much. That opens up this whole world of Iranian media of film of of YouTube videos of Instagram videos. Right now, there's all these Iranian Instagram stars. When you learn the language, and you can speak it yourself or understand it, then that opens up this whole world of the heritage you having to for example rely on Oh, well so and so told me in English this thing exists about Iran. Well, you can explore for yourself if you know it. I think that's the thing- you are accessing the source material yourself.
L: I love that.
Y: And that allows you to discover things- just think of all the YouTube possibilities, YouTube and googling you can do once you know the language.