Raising Neem-Roonis- An Interview with Arash Karami

Leyla Shams
April 24, 2020

If you're familiar with 'Iran twitter,' you've most certainly come across Arash Karami, a long time contributor for Al-Monitor. He offers some of the most astute and timely analysis of Iranian politics on the platform, and is followed and retweeted by the greats in the diaspora. He's also one of the reasons the Raising Neem-Roonis series came about. Arash wrote me on Twitter a while ago asking if I was teaching my children the Persian language, and we had a lively conversation about the challenges of passing on language and culture to the next generation. I knew this was a question many of us in the diaspora have, so I decided to take this question to other hyphenated Iranians with half Iranian children.

I was excited to do an actual interview with Arash and ask him about his experiences with his half Iranian children in California. Turns out- it's not that easy, no matter where you live. Check out our full conversation in the podcast, or read the highlights of the interview below:


Leyla Shams: Can you tell us a little bit about your background? Where you were born? And what do you do? What's your involvement with Iranian topics?

Arash Karami: I was born in Iran. My family and I came [to the states] when I was six. By the time I was in second grade, I learned the [English] language but I always knew Persian. So that was always something that was with me because we grew up at home speaking Persian with both my parents. That was just a part of our life. One thing my dad did that was really awesome, and I appreciate at this age, is that at home we had to speak Persian to our parents. That was something that always reinforced that weren't able to drop it because I know have friends who spoke English to their parents growing up. And they've completely forgotten Persian. For us, the fact that we've had that was awesome. But my younger brother and I speak English together just because it's easier and we're better at English. When I got to college, I wanted to learn how to read because I went to first grade in Iran, but I didn't remember much of it. So I just started reading things on my own. I got a private tutor for a while. And I just started reading and reading and reading. And then I found topics I was interested in, which was politics, and then now I know how to read. I can write basic emails in Persian and I am a contributor for Al-Monitor so I write about Iran on politics. And part of my job requires me to read a lot of what's going on inside of Iran on the Iranian news sites.

L: So you're fluent in reading, as in, reading an article is easy for you?

A: Yeah, I can read all the news articles. I still struggle with poetry. I can't read Hafez, I can't read Molana- but then, I struggle with English poetry, too. So it's not like my skill didn't transfer. So I just don't get poetry. I can't follow the rhythm of it.

L: And did you study Iranian politics? Or did you learn all this on your own?

A: I knew politics from an early age. I was born right in the revolution. So growing up, we were there in the early 80s. So as a four year old or five year old, I knew who Khomeini was. I knew who Reagan was. I knew who Carter was. I just remember scenes of men just sitting around talking politics, very heated, very passionate, because the country was going through a revolution. There was a lot of change. There was a lot of inflamed passion. So it was just something I always knew. I'm not that good at it, but like an athlete, I always knew how to shoot the ball. It just came naturally to me. So, of course, as I got older, I took it more seriously. And I started reading a lot of books on it, I started kind of engaging in the conversation. I mean, I had to learn it, but it was just something that I always enjoyed. And it was a part of growing up.

L: Got it, so you were immersed in it, and it's in your bones in a way.

A: It is. And even when I try to leave it, I can't. You know, sometimes I'm like, I'm done with politics. I hate this. This is killing me. It's going crazy. But you know, I always recommend people who write about Iran to emotionally distance yourself from what's going on, because it's really draining if you take it personally, or if you identify with what's going on inside the country. Or if you have family like I do there. I always have to distance like I have to create a distance, pretend I'm writing about a country that I don't know anybody there and it doesn't impact me and that kind of helps you keep your sanity.

L: Especially in the past few months, right?

A: Yeah, exactly.

L: Getting back to your family- you write a lot about your kids too I noticed. You do a lot of dad Twitter. So tell me about your family. Where did you meet your wife? And then how many kids do you have?

A: My wife and I, we just met through mutual friends, you know, she's white, or as we say, āmreekāyee. So, I got really lucky, too, that she really likes the Iranian culture. She really likes like Persian food. We got married. We lived in DC for a number of years, and then we had a kid. So we've moved back to California, which is where we are now. I have two kids now, one is five one is a year and a half. I got lucky in a certain respect that I married someone who's really interested in the culture. My wife, she cooks a lot of Persian food, and she doesn't do it out of a sense of love or loyalty to me. She genuinely likes it, so she just does it on her own. To me it's interesting to have kids that like Persian food. My son loves just regular kabob so much that there's times when we bought hamburgers for him and he's like, no, I want kabob. We have to, like cut up the hamburger meat and put it in rice. And say, No, this is kabob just eat it, please.

L: That's awesome.

A: It's hilarious to me how he still, he doesn't say kabob. He says kebab. So he says it like an American too. So it's like I'm dying, you know. So there's that aspect of it too. And now like my daughter's growing up, and she really likes it, and you know, they put like yogurt on it and they put sumac on it and like if you don't have the sumac, you have to go buy it and give him sumac because he won't eat it without without the sumac. So he's got his own system. It's hilarious to see my daughter totally pick it up too.

L: That's amazing. And so you wrote me about wanting to teach your kids Persian and how they're now speaking English. So how are you doing on that? Where were you at?

A: Oh, so- a lot of guilt. Let's say that. So my son was first born, I was like, Okay, I'm all in. I got my cousins from Iran. I'm like, send me as many children's books as you can, because I could read it. So it's easy for me. So they sent me all these books. And when my son was younger, they were great. My son loved that we used to read together, he understood what was going on. I used to exclusively speak Persian to him. And he used to respond in Persian as well.

L: So what age are we talking about here?

A: He started talking pretty early, just like earlier than a year and a half. You know, it's not like we're having like conversations, but he used to be able to respond or  tell me his requests in Persian. But then when he turned three, we put them in preschool. Immediately after the first week, he's like, I'm done with this- he just was done with Persian. It was like my what happened, did they say something to you, did they shame you out of it? I was totally like baffled. But then I spoke to other family members here and couples that were both Persian, couples that grew up in Iran. Even their kids stop speaking when they started preschool. So they're like, don't worry, it's natural, don't get panicked. But I did get panicked because you know, my wife is white. She doesn't speak Persian, and I'm the only one that's doing it. And they're like, oh, they'll come back as they get older, they'll respond in Persian, but I don't know. So preschool to us was a huge hit as far as him responding in Persian. And so what happens is, he starts speaking in English, and I, immediately just subconsciously, I start telling certain things in English. And now my son's got a pretty high vocabulary for his age. He just really likes words, and he's very curious. He always wants to know what big words are. So we're having kind of sometimes more in depth conversation. And so to me, it's hard for me now to try to enforce Persian on him when he's comprehending everything in English.

L: Well, does he still understand Persian? Like, have you tried just having regular like kitchen version talk with him?

A: He does. Yeah. He understands the very basic commands. But if I was to have like a conversation with him, he would just look at me with a blank stare, he wouldn't understand what I'm doing. So you can there's not full comprehension going on.

L: And your daughter now? Are you speaking Persian with her?

A: No, poor girl. So she's the second child, and the first one, all your aspirations all your idealizations that you have of, 'Well, my children are going to be this are going to be that.' So the second one, I'm like, Okay, let's just survive. So it's English. So again, basic commands, but a lot of it's in English.

L: I totally relate.

A: You can relate, right? So what's it like is that like with you?

L: Well, I told you when you asked me initially I said the secret weapon is grandparents. I moved here when I was three from Iran, and I learned English in kindergarten. And then I was on the speaking English path, but we lived with my grandparents in the US. And so then my grandmother couldn't speak English at all. So I just had to- if I wanted to speak to my grandmother, I had to speak Farsi. So now when my mom comes to visit I tell her , you can only speak Persian. This podcast is called raising Neem-Roonis, so we're talking about half Iranians. I think it'd be a lot easier if your spouse could understand and you're all standing in the same room and you can speak a common language, but I don't want my husband to be excluded every time I'm talking to my kid.

A: Right. Did you have to relearn Persian? Or was it just it come naturally to you because you're speaking with your grandmother all the time?

L: Well, actually, I will also say not only was I speaking to my grandmother all the time, but it became this really big source of pride for me that I knew Farsi and a lot of kids my age, were losing their ability to speak it. And so when adults would try to speak to me in English, I would respond back with 'I know how to speak Farsi, why are you talking to me in English?' Like, come on, give me more credit here. So for me, I'm sure my mom instilled this. That's another thing my mom she had the first class in Dallas teaching Farsi to little kids.

A: Ah, so there's so much pressure on you. There's no way you could have let it go.

L: Maybe. There's two ways it could have gone. I could have been a rebellious kid, but to me, the the rebellion was being like I am Iranian. I speak Farsi. I mean, I don't know how to get that to these kids. But that to me was very important growing up, like I have the secret power.

A: So does your mom today respect your like request to speak exclusively Persian to your children?

L: A little bit. She keeps slipping though- how about your parents, what's going on?

A: I can't get them to speak Persian to my children. And it's the most frustrating thing in the world.

L: You're like, Dad, what happened to that rule?

A: Exactly like everything's out the window and I'm like, wait, why I don't get it. And I've told them so much that I completely now at this point I've given up. It's exclusively on my shoulders.

L: Oh, man. And are they in California? And do you see them a lot?

A: They're in California and but we don't live like close. So they visit maybe once a month. So it's not a consistent thing, but even when they visit, what I kills me is, both of my parents speak English with an accent. So it's like, why are you guys talking to this kid with broken accented English? You'd be speaking fluent Persian with him. You're killing me. So every time I say it, they'll say like two sentences in Persian and on a subconscious level, they just revert back to English every single time. Like, how did it become non important to you guys? With your grandchildren? So to me, it's such a constant source of struggle.

L: Is it really important for us to teach our kids to speak Persian? Why is it important?

A: In my experience, talking to people who also had a parent from a different country, when they grew up, and they didn't know the language, they were always frustrated. They're like, why didn't you at least give me the foundation or the basics of this language? So that when I'm an adult, or when I'm in college, and I want to take Persian courses, I'm not taking at the same level as all these other the white kids or any other kids like, why didn't you give me the foundation for that? It's just one extra skill to have. It's not even about pride or heritage- it's just knowing a language opens a whole new world to. The number of songs that I can listen to, the number of emotions that I'm exposed to just through this language, it fulfills a part of your life. That's really hard to say because I love the English language, I write in English, all these things I enjoy. I like playwrights who write in English, but having access to the Persian language, and the way the language plays and the way the language unfolds. And sometimes there's a sentence in Persian that it just stops you and you're like, Ah, man, and you're grateful for those moments. Because if you didn't know the language that wouldn't exist to you, or that sentence in English wouldn't have the same impact. So it opens up a different world to you. You know, as a parent really like what's the goal- everyone has this idea of what they're the parent is to give him as many resources and opportunities and set them up. That's kind of what a parent wants to do. So why deprive them of this one? It's there. It's so at this moment, it's effortless, it's going to be so much harder for them in college, the chance to reconnect with a part of their roots or part of their interest or they want to know where their grandparents came from. So those are kind of the things that I think about when I'm like, No, I really need to take this seriously. I really need to work with him. I don't know if that was answered a question or not.

L: It was very motivating speech. But obviously, a lot easier said than done., right? In what other ways are you passing on the culture then, besides just language? You mentioned food.

A: Honestly my wife is really the one that's passing down the food. She likes the food. She likes the taste of the food. So she does that a lot. And you know, it's funny. I'm really bad at the Nowruz thing. I'm really bad at the Haft Seen. I don't know if it's because if I'm a guy and I associate that as like a female thing, I'm gonna get canceled for this interview, by the way, Do you get it though?

L: Oh, totally, totally. I mean, especially if in your family that was generally something that was covered by your mom, I totally understand.

A: Exactly. So I feel very like strange and to like even set up the Haft Seen because I'm like, Oh, that's woman's job, you know,.

L: That's a whole different podcast. That's a whole different issue that we have gender issues with Iranian culture.

A: Next podcast for sure though. The next series.

L: Next series. Well, so she's she's kind of doing the the cultural things and you're not really doing Nowruz. Are your parents doing things like that? Do you go to their house for Nowruz?

A: They do but for my son now this is the first age that he can comprehend it. I think in my mind, I tell myself well, as they get older, I'll expose them to it more and more. But realistically, is he ever going to set up a haft seen table on his own? I guess I want him to be exposed to it. But I don't know if it's something they'll carry on, you know, language will carry on. I hope the food carries on.

L: Well, another question that I have, what part of Iranian culture are you trying NOT to pass on to your sons? Like, is there anything that you got growing up that you were like, absolutely not?

A: Yeah, right. I mean, I'm sure there is but I don't know what. I don't want to let everybody know what it is. Because let's keep our dark secrets to ourselves.

L: That's true. Yeah.

A: I think on a very subconscious level, our generation, that just came here and grew up here after the revolution that left, we kind of discarded it on our own. So it's not like we're holding on to it or carrying it anyway.

L: That's true. I do feel like we've done a good job integrating and it's been an interesting few years. I feel like everyone's really well connected and really open and talking to each other. And it's an interesting generation. I'm excited about the future, our future.

A: Right. And I think you can see it online. Like in some ways, I think, even like I've talked about politically, we're a little bit more tolerant of opposing views. You know what I mean? You don't see like this crazy angry- I don't know, if you're, how much time you spend on Twitter.

L: More than I'd like to admit.

A: You see a lot of the angry tweets. These aren't coming from young people. These are coming from the older people who are carrying 100 years of anger and they're trying to unleash it on you in one tweet. We don't have that. We're like, okay, we disagree. We don't like your view but it's not that hostile. I think part of it is that we probably grew up in an open society where there's not that anger anywhere. So I think subconsciously we probably got rid of a lot of this stuff culturally that that we don't like, or we're not proud of. And the fact is that all of us, the people on this podcast series here, we married somebody outside of our own city and our own background, so that that in itself is like, okay, we want to integrate even more. But we still think about where we came from, and we want to pass on part of our culture to us.

L: Yeah, it's a really interesting mix. So that's your Twitter. You have a lot of you know, you talk about Iran a lot on Twitter, you have a lot of Iranian followers. What about in real life? Do you guys have an Iranian community like your friends or people around you.

A: Here in California, where we are there's not a huge Iranian community. So that to me is actually one of the things I always think about- I think it would it be more important for my kids to grow up in that environment or not. Because I grew up in Irvine, California, so that's multiple Persian grocery stores. There are Persian restaurants in Orange County itself- maybe a dozen Iranian restaurants. And so there's that constant exposure to it. We don't really have that here. And I always think, is it significant? I don't know. And I don't know how much it's going to help them to go to school somewhere where there's a lot of Iranians. They're always gonna have that last name. So that's always gonna follow them. But both of them look white. You know, they both have super white skin. They both have light hair. Because for me, when I went to high school, all my close friends were Iranian. And that helped us get along. We felt like we had a bond, we had a click and you never felt alone. You always felt like, okay, no matter what, we're one of the groups that rolls together, you know what I mean? So I never felt isolated. And I never felt like I need to hide who I am. And we actually took a lot of pride in it. You know what I mean? They used to call us 'the Persians.', you know what I mean? But, I don't know if my son's going to want that. I don't know how cultural or social groups work, but something I think about.

L: Right, right. Well, it sounds like we have a lot of questions and not a lot of answers.

A: That's what makes a good podcast honestly. It's like just explore conversations, explore topics.

L: And I'm hoping through the series maybe you know, we can we can keep this conversation going with our peers and and see if we can figure something- some way to keep the kids interested in the language maybe we can make some resources.

A: Or just pick up tips or you know, one thing I've always been interested in, and I guess there's a lot of similarities, but just like the Italian American community. There's a lot of Italians, especially on the East Coast, they claim Italian but do they really know Italian? Do they speak it? Just eat Italian food, all their friends are Italian, their moms are like half Italian or full Italian. So I think there's a lot of similarities to that where they want to claim it. But really, how much of it are they going to continue to pursue? So I don't know. It'd be interesting to see how far it goes.

L: Yes, Well, thank you again for for starting this conversation. So if people want to hear more from you, where can they find you?

A: Just hit me up on Twitter. I'm always there.

L: What is your Twitter handle?

A: That's a really good question. I didn't prepare for that. What is my Twitter handle?

L: Are you serious?

A: Yeah, I don't memorize it. You know, it's, I think it's @thekarami.

L: Yeah, there you are. And creeping up on you'll be at 50,000 followers pretty soon. Okay. You always have a lot of interesting things to say. I love following you. So follow Arash, if you want some really good news about Iran. I mean, not good news, you know, just the news. Or if you want to hear his dad jokes which he's constantly working on improving. So thank you so much for talking with us.

A: Absolutely, thank you for doing this, I really appreciate it.

L: Good luck with all of it. Of course.