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Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: Pirooz Kalayeh on Making Films, Listening, and the Power of Healing

By Naazley Boozari, Center Intern, Los Angeles

The film, Sometimes I Dream in Farsi represents, in a way, the kind of activist filmmaking we so very much need in this country and at this time. This film, which is an outgrowth of Pirooz Kalayeh’s passion, is also an eloquent reminder of how much trauma Iranian Americans have buried in their collective and individual experiences, and how necessary it is to express and speak about them still. Sometimes I Dream in Farsi is an auto-ethnography if you will, and explores Kalayeh’s childhood and his efforts to revisit his old neighborhood, memories, and friends to make sense of a traumatic event that he says “still haunts him well into adulthood.” As a young boy living in Delaware in the mid-1980s, Kalayeh was denied a haircut because the barbershop owner identified him as Iranian. The man even told Kalayeh to “leave the barbershop or else he would be call the police.” That moment not only affected Kalayeh’s complicated identity as an Iranian American, but deeply scarred him and lingered long after the incident. While Sometimes I Dream in Farsi, tackles a myriad of themes and topics including displacement, family, racism, discrimination, and forgiveness, it is Kalayeh’s journey of healing that is the focal point and the story that guides his project. As viewers learn more about his family, and his upbringing, one cannot help but think about the many nuances and elements of being Iranian in the diaspora that the filmmaker captures and crystallizes for us.

As a child, Kalayeh grew up in the international housing complex at the university where his father had been teaching. His family lived in what he says was an incredibly diverse community of peers from different backgrounds and cultures. To Kalayeh, this microcosm of a global community felt completely safe and accepting. And, additionally, Kalayeh says that because he is Baha’i, he viewed it as normal to celebrate different rituals, faiths, and embrace each another’s unique cultures.

“When I would go to Baha’i firesides and those types of events, it was the same thing as the experience I had had in the international housing setting. I just thought this was normal. I think it really ingrained in me a vision of equality and acceptance—that everyone is human…until I was denied a haircut and the police became involved,” Kalayeh says. “Then I really started to fear for my own safety, to question things. The idea that I would face bodily harm—because a haircut involves someone physically touching your body—and, being so young, ignited a real shift in my thinking… that I was different,” he says.

Indeed Kalayeh thought of the barbershop discrimination experience as a trauma, however, his father—who was with him that day, did not see it the same way. Being a Baha’i in Iran, Kalayeh’s father would later recall his own experiences with discrimination and violence. Although Kalayeh could appreciate his father’s sacrifices and his own trauma, he experienced his father’s reaction as a challenge. In fact, one major takeaway from the film is that healing can often be a transmittable process—one that requires our loved ones to heal along with us.

Throughout the film, Kalayeh and his father have multiple moments of both disunity and great love. The film explores the often convoluted generational gaps within any diaspora that make conversations about social issues, mental health, culture, and other problems, quite difficult if not altogether impossible to surmount. Yet, at the center of every challenging encounter, Kalayeh tries to show his viewers something else. “There must be a forgiveness of our parents. And I’m not talking about just the forgiveness of the barber or the forgiveness of people who treat us badly. We have to come to an understanding of how difficult it is for our parents. That they’re going to make mistakes, and we need to accept that. I have a suspicion that this helps other Iranian Americans as well, [understanding] that their parents mean well, but that they’re not going to get everything right…They’re going to do the best that they can and you’re going to do the best that you can, but if we stop blaming them, we can actually communicate and that division of being Iranian and being American can lessen,” he explains.

Interestingly, Kalayeh’s relationship with his family was not the only one that became complicated—his understanding of his culture and its ties to his identity became conflicted as well. Kalayeh distinctly states in the film that, at one point, his father ordered him to stop speaking Farsi and told him to only speak English at home. In many ways, Kalayeh sees that this was a survival mechanism intended to shield him from the vitriolic attitudes of Americans toward immigrants, even if it came with its own difficulties.

“The idea of being able to communicate between generations and being able to talk about things that are difficult for us, goes beyond just the Iranian community,” says Kalayeh. “We really don’t have a culture that embraces mental health or an understanding of how to parent well and how to treat our children. And that’s a very difficult thing if we think about it—it’s completely understandable for first-generation immigrants. My parents came here, and suddenly were dealing with so much. They didn’t really have a support system, especially in a place like Delaware where there was no substantial Iranian community,” adds Kalayeh.

Despite his father’s initial directive about not speaking Farsi, Kalayeh and his family eventually resumed speaking their language at home. In the film, he explains that life for him meant being Iranian in the home and being American essentially everywhere else. And like many in the Iranian diaspora, Kalayeh was able to understand Farsi quite well, but speaking it was more challenging. On the occasions when Kalayeh encountered other Iranians (despite there being very few in Delaware) he met with another kind of exclusion.

“When we would meet other Iranians, it was this huge thing; like ‘oh my god the Persian community!’ When they would speak to me in Farsi, and because I spoke like a six-year-old, they would say ‘you’re not Iranian, you’re American.’” Kalayeh explains how this has only added to his pain and feelings of disconnectedness. “On the one hand, I would go to school and people would say that ‘you’re not American’ and then I would meet people in the Iranian community, and they would say ‘you’re not Iranian’. That friction, or that desire to find resolution, is probably what produces a lot of the art that comes from inside the diaspora,” he adds.

Kalayeh identifies how Iranians, especially of an older generation, consider therapy unnecessary or altogether off-limits. But Kalayeh’s film works toward the vulnerability, toward openness and honesty to show that healing —even for the most traumatized individual—is possible. Kalayeh’s biggest piece of advice was that in moments of deep conflict with others, be it loved ones or strangers, “it is vital to remember to listen.”

Kalayeh says that whether between fathers and daughters or mothers and sons—”we need to be able to hear people. When we hear people, when we hear our parents, or someone from a different culture, or a different perspective, we start developing a sense of trust.” Kalayeh explains explains a process that governed his healing: “when we start by holding a safe space for someone so they can voice their opinions, suddenly this magical thing happens where you have not said a word to your maman or baba and you just listen for a really long time, and they start getting very calm. Because they don’t feel the need to state their claim, defend themselves, because you’re listening. When you feel listened to, you feel heard. That is where empathy develops. And then suddenly, this incredible thing happens where they start listening to you too.”

For many immigrants, but especially for Iranians, Kalayeh says developing a positive relationship toward our mental health is a journey that sometimes requires opening painful experiences and attitudes that can make us feel judged or unvalued. Being able to take steps to advocate for one another, despite our political, social, cultural, and generational differences, “can open avenues to healing.”

Kalayeh’s advice to younger Iranian diaspora community members is this: “if you’re Iranian American and you’re feeling like you don’t fit in, trying to talk to someone about it. Try to have a conversation with someone you feel is going to be able to hear you and listen. And, if you can’t find that with a parent or a friend, don’t be afraid to ask your parents to talk with someone that might be able to help, whether it is a counselor or a therapist. If you don’t—and this applies everyone, not just Iranians—don’t be afraid to write down, draw, or play music to how you’re feeling. Find healthy ways to discover things about yourself and recognize that you are a beautiful person.”

On May 4th the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies will host a screening and a discussion wiith Pirooz Kalayeh and Dr. Taghi Amjadi, from the SFSU Counseling Center about the film Sometimes I Dream In Farsi. Register here for the screening and conversation:

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