Life as a Visitor

Angel­la M. Nazarian
  • Review
By – October 4, 2011
After the 1979 Iran­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, some 70,000 Iran­ian Jews fled the new­ly formed Islam­ic state and flocked to the Unit­ed States; it is esti­mat­ed that 45,000 Iran­ian Jews call Los Ange­les their home. In her poignant and grace­ful­ly writ­ten mem­oir, Life as a Vis­i­tor, Angel­la M. Nazar­i­an recalls escap­ing Iran as a young girl of eleven and start­ing a new life in Bev­er­ly Hills. The author illu­mi­nates the rel­a­tive­ly unex­plored life of Iran­ian Jews in pre-Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Iran, where they expe­ri­enced upward mobil­i­ty and assim­i­lat­ed into every­day Iran­ian life while hold­ing fast to their Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. We learn of the pain and guilt she felt leav­ing her par­ents behind while her elder sib­lings raised her in Bev­er­ly Hills. The mem­oir cap­tures the dilem­ma of being caught between two worlds, where immi­grants feel a long­ing to belong” and have the bur­den — and priv­i­lege — of defin­ing a new iden­ti­ty. Nazar­i­an leads us through her many adven­tures as she trav­els the world, real­iz­ing that through her jour­neys she is able to explore the van­ish­ing details of her past and con­front her chang­ing iden­ti­ties. It is through her wan­der­lust and her con­nec­tion to the peo­ple and envi­ron­ments she encoun­ters that Nazar­i­an comes to terms with the many hybrid iden­ti­ties she holds, rec­og­niz­ing that she is not a cit­i­zen of one spe­cif­ic coun­try but of the world. Pub­lished by Assouline — known for its pho­tog­ra­phy, fash­ion, art, design and lifestyle books—Life as a Vis­i­tor fea­tures Nazarian’s beau­ti­ful paint­ings, pho­tographs, and poems in addi­tion to her com­pelling nar­ra­tive.


By Nicole Azu­lay

At a young age, Angel­la M. Nazar­i­an was uproot­ed from her home in Iran and brought to her cur­rent neigh­bor­hood, Bev­er­ly Hills. Nev­er quite feel­ing at home, Nazar­i­an inter­twines her emi­gra­tion from Iran, immi­gra­tion to Amer­i­ca, and var­i­ous trav­els in her mem­oir, Life as a Vis­i­tor.

Nicole Azu­lay: Most Ira­ni­ans I know shut out their past and dif­fi­cult upbring­ings. What inspired you to write your per­son­al sto­ry? Was it a painful process?
Angel­la Nazar­i­an: Not talk­ing about neg­a­tive cir­cum­stances is part of Iran­ian cul­ture. How­ev­er, two things led me to be more open: One was the fact that I have a psy­chol­o­gy back­ground so talk­ing about things is in my nature. Also, I believe that every­thing mean­ing­ful needs to be heart­felt and full of pas­sion; hence, this sto­ry is some­thing I am extreme­ly pas­sion­ate about. My main moti­va­tion for writ­ing this book was my chil­dren. I think it is impor­tant for them to learn what their par­ents and rel­a­tives have gone through. Writ­ing the book was extreme­ly hard. I some­times would lit­er­al­ly break down and cry as I was writ­ing. Although it was dif­fi­cult, writ­ing Life As a Vis­i­tor was a grow­ing expe­ri­ence for me. In the process of writ­ing, writ­ers often explore feel­ings they didn’t know they had. 

NA: In the begin­ning of the book you men­tioned that while you were liv­ing in Iran you, along with all the oth­er chil­dren, would wait for a man who would walk through the neigh­bor­hood with a giant tin box.” For a coin, you could peer in the two holes he cut in the box to see slides of for­eign coun­tries. Was this what made you inter­est­ed in trav­el?
AN: Yes. How­ev­er, I was also great­ly influ­enced by my par­ents’ trav­els as well as what I saw on tele­vi­sion.

NA: I noticed that you fre­quent­ly referred to your pater­nal grand­moth­er. She seems to have made a pos­i­tive impact on your life. Can you elab­o­rate fur­ther on why she was your role mod­el?
AN: Although I nev­er met my grand­moth­er, I feel a strong con­nec­tion to her. She was the direct oppo­site of a typ­i­cal Iran­ian woman. Despite liv­ing in an envi­ron­ment where many Jews were ashamed of being Jew­ish, my grand­moth­er embraced her her­itage. She wasn’t afraid of being seen. She wore West­ern clothes when woman of her gen­er­a­tion were cov­ered up. She was assertive and didn’t mind not blend­ing in.

Nicole Azu­lay grad­u­at­ed from North Shore Hebrew Acad­e­my High School and is cur­rent­ly study­ing in Jerusalem, Israel. She plans to attend NYU Gal­latin to pur­sue a career in journalism.

Saba Soomekh, Ph.D., is a the­o­log­i­cal stud­ies pro­fes­sor at Loy­ola Mary­mount Uni­ver­si­ty in Los Ange­les, Calif. She also teach­es a course on Iran­ian Jew­ish his­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Los Ange­les. Her forth­com­ing book on three gen­er­a­tions of Iran­ian Jew­ish women will be pub­lished by SUNY Press.

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