Bravo's the Shahs of Sunset has set off some predictable replies among the Iranian community. We are not like that, we say, we're better.
Of course everyone knows reality TV exaggerates. The African-American community is not like the Real Housewives of Atlanta. The Italian-American community is not like the Real Housewives of New Jersey. The shows are all exaggerations (with some kernels of truth) - and thus entertaining.
I agree with my Iranian fellow critics that the Bravo show does not do justice to most Iranians, but I think these predictable blanket condemnations show something else about Iranians, something which I hope I can state without too much negative reaction by my fellow countrymen:
We Iranians are thin-skinned. We can't accept criticism. We are this way as individuals, and as a nation. One of our greatest writers, Muhammand Ali Jamalzadeh, made this point in his book Our Iranian Character. I know that many Iranian-Americans are sensitive because there is some stigma to being Iranian in the US, and it has been so for three decades. We are constantly in the news, and not in a good way. So the Bravo show just seems like one more criticism.
But we were sensitive to criticism long before the problems between the US and Iran after the 1979 revolution. Jamalzadeh's book came out in the late 1960s, and he was roundly attacked by all sides, right and left, monarchist and communist.
We are a great culture, that is true. The Oscars speech of the director of A Separation was classy and honest. But any culture has its flaws.
One of our flaws is that secular, Westernized Iranians can be rather materialistic. Not as extreme as in the Bravo show - but self-abnegating we are not. One of my southern California Iranian friends, who did his medical training in Harvard, went back to Orange County and arrived in his VW Jetta. Iranians who saw him said: You went to Harvard, and you drive a Volkswagen? He immediately rented a BMW 3-series.The response was: A 3-series? That's the lowest level you can get. He bumped it up to a 5-series, and everyone was happy. Of course, we can attribute it to California, southern California to be precise, but there's something about Iranians in the West that predisposes to this kind of thinking. There's a reason why Iranians flocked to Orange County and Beverly Hills, not Berkeley and Boston.
There are different Iranians: I grew up in the Washington DC area, the second largest Iranian community in the US, among many cultured persons. I live now in Boston with a rather intellectual circle of Iranians. And of course Iranians who live in the home country itself come in all varieties: Westernized and Gucci-toting, religious and chador-wearing, and everything in between.
Iranian cinema is almost uniformly existential, realistic - and depressing. There used to be good Iranian comedies like My Uncle Napoleon. I don't like many aspects of Shahs of Sunset, but it made me laugh.
Let's allow for a little laughter. That's also part of our culture.
(NB: This blog's policy, unrelated to any cultural traits, is to delete all personally taunting comments).