Photo by Amber Procaccini
Jaleh Shambayati has been giving a lot of thought lately to her heritage-along with all the other matters that concern a 13-year-old.
Her mom, Sherry Johnson, is “kind of typical Minnesotan; she’s Swedish,” Jaleh said. Her dad, Arash Shambayati, is from Iran, a country whose cities are dotted with minarets and open markets, far removed from the tree-lined streets of St. Paul that Jaleh calls home.
Perhaps because Iran seems an exotic land, Jaleh is fascinated by that part of her heritage. But she speaks proudly of her Swedish great-grandmother who came to the United States alone as a teenager, married a farmer and settled down to raise a family. Having been here for several generations, Jaleh’s maternal relatives are fully woven into the fabric of American life. The only nod to Swedish heritage is in the food served on special occasions. “I really like lefse,” she said, “but lutefisk is disgusting. Ewww! It’s like fish-flavored Jello.”
Jaleh was born in the United States and has never visited Iran, but she plans to. In a recent essay, Jaleh wrote:
“Ever since I was little my dad and my grandparents have been telling me about Iran. Part of discovering Iranian culture is understanding the country’s politics. I’ve started understanding that not all laws are just and not all people are treated equal. [It’s] an issue I’ve become very passionate about.”
But Jaleh realizes that on a visit to Iran, she will have to rein in her indignation regarding the issues of inequality. “The dress would take a lot of getting used to,” she said. “You can’t show your arms, you can’t show your legs.” But she’s ready to cover up in order to have a safe visit in her father’s homeland “someday soon, I hope.”
Still, change is coming, she said. Her grandmother dresses in western clothing at home in Iran, covering up only when she goes out in public. In northern Tehran, young women have begun discarding the black hijab in favor of colorful scarves, “and some are not even covering all of their hair,” she said. “What they are doing is dangerous. They could be arrested,” Jaleh said, but it’s an indication that younger people are not complacent.
A taste of Persia
Jaleh gets in touch with her paternal roots with dinner every Friday at a Middle Eastern restaurant in St. Paul. She’s been going there since she was very young, and her menu choice never changes. “The waitresses all know what I’m going to get and they’re writing it down before I say anything,” she said, the dimple in her left cheek flashing. Her dinner of choice: choobideh (pronounced kubiday), which is ground beef, pickles, tomatoes and onions in a wrap.
The choobideh, no doubt, has contributed to the growth spurts that have propelled Jaleh to her current height of 5’7″. “I’m officially taller than my father,” Jaleh crows. “She likes to think so,” said her dad. “I think I still have an eighth of an inch on her.”
Jaleh’s feelings about Iran are a little conflicted. “Persia (the ancient name for Iran) used to rule the world. But there are people from Iran and other places in the Middle East who do really bad things-terrorism, al-Qaeda-and everyone gets a bad name for what a few people do.”
Jaleh says she has not faced discrimination here because of her Iranian heritage. “Mostly, people’s attitudes toward me don’t change when I tell them,” she said. But many do make assumptions. “A lot of people think I’m Muslim.” Actually, none of Jaleh’s close Iranian family members practice any religion. Jaleh doesn’t expect any discrimination against her in Iran as an American. “A lot of the people are very hospitable and they’re brought up not to say even if they didn’t like you.”
Until now, Jaleh’s mom has been reluctant to allow her to go to Iran. Johnson and Shambayati, who are no longer together, share custody of their daughter, an only child. Because they are not married, Johnson has been unable to get a visa to visit Iran. “I know his family would take great care of her, but if there were an accident or something, I would be sitting here helplessly,” Johnson said. “Now that she’s older, I’m comfortable with it.”
Jaleh speaks so knowledgeably about the politics of the Middle East that it’s easy to forget she’s only 13-a typical American girl who likes to read, swim, play the violin and is entering the eighth grade in the fall. She has set her sights on becoming a lawyer and eventually a judge.
“I come from a family of lawyers,” Jaleh said, referring to cousins who live in the U.S. and England. “I’ve grown up around debate, but friendly debate, and I’m pretty good at arguing.” Jaleh’s ultimate goal, to be a judge, is based on two of her strengths: “I am a good listener and a good decision maker.” And as a judge, “I would be an influential person who could help Americans learn what the people of Iran are like. Americans often think of Iranians as terrorists. I’d like to help them lose their fear of Iranians.”