Thursday, March 22, 2007

Spring is here

Looking north towards the Empire State Building from the penthouse of the Soho Grand Hotel. 7:50 PM. Photo: JH.
Spring is here. Although in name only for  the moment. The arrival of the Spring equinox also marks the start of NoRuz, the Persian New Year, the most important celebration in greater Persia. It started here in New York this past Tuesday night at 7:26 pm.

One of the great things about living in New York is our exposure to so much of the culture and the arts of the world. For example, last night I was invited to a celebration of NoRuz with dinner at the Temple of Dendur in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Americans have read a great deal about the politics of Iran in the past 30 years especially but, as I learned, our knowledge is often thin and even faulty, or at least poorly informed, fed by sensationalism.  But more about that later.

There is a large contingent of Persians now living in New York and in Los Angeles. In fact, in the most recent election, an Iranian was elected mayor of Beverly Hills. There are also a lot of prosperous and influential Iranians/ Persians here in New York, many of whom were at the dinner at the Met last night.

The guest of honor at the dinner was Farah Diba, the widow of the last Shah, and former empress of Iran.
In the Temple of Dendur for the NoRuz Gala Dinner
After cocktails in the Great Hall, we moved on through the Sackler Wing to the Temple of Dendur which was decorated especially to commemorate the Spring Equinox.  Once all the guests were assembled, a man named Bijan Mossavar-Rhamani took the podium and greeted everyone with a short speech.

Mr. Mossavar-Rahmani is a very prominent member of the Persian-American community in New York. He is a businessman with a private company engaged in international oil and gas exploration and production, focusing on West Africa. His wife Sharmin Mossavar-Rahmani is a managing director at Goldman Sachs. Two years ago the Mossavar-Rahmanis gave $15 million to his alma mater, the Kennedy School at Harvard, to assist the School in its long-term capacity for research, scholarship and teaching on some of society’s most challenging problems “at the intersection of business and government.”

In his speech, he mentioned the big hit film “300” in which 300 Spartans kill thousands of Persians, giving the impression that the people from Sparta were more powerful and greater warriors. Mr. Moosavar-Rahmani pointed out that two thousand years later, Sparta no longer exists and Persian (Iran) is still a vibrant society and a force in the world.

Mr. M-R was followed by Emily Rafferty, president of the Met who welcomed the guests and pointed out the Met has been collecting Persian art and antiquities since it opened to the public 135 years ago in 1872.

The menu was Persian. First course was Nan-o Panir- o Sabzi (bread cheese and herb roll), Dolmeye Barg-e Mo (stuffed grape leaves), Kukn-ye Sabzi (Herbs Kukn), Shami-ye Goosht (meat and split pea patties), Mast-o Khiar (Yogurt, Cucumber and Mint  Dip, Garnished with Rose Petals). The entrée was Boneless Veal Osso Buco, Baghali Polo (Green Rice with Dill and Fava Beans), Shirin Polo ba Morgh (Rice with Chicken, Orange Rind, Carrots, Almonds and Pistachios). Dessert was a Trio of Persian Sorbet and Ice Creams (Pistachio, Saffron and Rosewater, Pomegranate). Although I am mainly unfamiliar with Persian cuisine, it was all excellent and there was nothing left on any of my plates.

Almost everyone at my table was Persian by birth and nationality although all have lived in this country since shortly before or soon after the Fall of the Shah in 1979. Most of the Iranians I have met here in New York and in Los Angeles are prosperous, ambitious people, especially in business.

I first learned about Iran on a personal basis when I lived in Los Angeles, through my friend Hermes Pan who was Fred Astaire’s choreographer and dance collaborator, I was introduced to Princess Shams, the elder sister of the Shah, and her husband Pahlabad. Shams and Pahlabad had lived mainly in Southern California since the late 1940s. However, they also had a residence known as the Pearl Palace outside Tehran where Hermes visited a number of times. Through her Hermes spent time in the company of the Shah. Los Angeles, as I said, had a large Persian population and when the Fall came in 1979, there was much student protest outside the Beverly Hills residence of Shams.
Morad and Sima Ghadamian with Joe Moinian
The tables before the guests sat down for dinner
Last night at dinner, one of the guests told me that “the students” are a very powerful influence politically in Iran, which is the most Westernized of all the countries of the Middle East. Iran’s president, Mr. Ahmadinejad was once mayor of Tehran, and when he was he won over the students with his administration of the city and with his messages of national self-confidence. He continues to wield this influence with the students.

My dinner partner explained that the business of Iran having nuclear was explained thusly to the students: Israel has nuclear, other neighbors have nuclear, why shouldn’t Iran have nuclear. I was told that this is translated by our politicians and media as something bellicose but “Iranians are not terrorists,” that in their 2500-year history, it is not their nature. My friend’s observations were especially cogent because he is a naturalized American and very pro-American.

I left the magnificent museum and the Temple (a Nubian temple built during the Roman period around 15 BC) feeling enhanced by my limited but enlightening exposure to modern Iran, and feeling slightly optimistic about the possibilities in our future relations in the Middle East.

The majority of the Persian/Iranians present at the Met last night came here as exile of the Khomeini regime.  And, as Mr. Massovar-Rahmani stated in his opening greeting, they are now Americans living here permanently.

There were several hundred guests dining at the Temple of Dendur, including a number of familiar NYSD faces such as Leila and Henry Heller, Jimmy Finkelstein and Pamela Gross, Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia, Mr and Mrs. James de Givenchy, Mr. and Mrs. Fred Leighton, Dr. Patrick Stubgen and Dana Hammond Stubgen, Frederic Fekkai and his wife Shirin, Lady Henrietta Spencer-Churchill and her father the Duke of Marlborough.
Patrick Stuben and Dana Hammond Stubgen with Shirin von Wulffen and Freferic Fekkai
Lady Henrietta Spencer-Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, and Lily Mahtani
Henry and Leila Heller
Joe Moinian and Farah Diba, former Empress of Iran
Mrs. and Mr. Fred Leighton
Jimmy Finkelstein and Mrs. Kessler
Pamela Gross and Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia
Last night Andrea Stern celebrated the publication of her new photography book “Inheritance” at the Soho Grand. Among the guests attending were Allison and Leonard Stern, Eddie Stern, Georgette Mosbacher, Muffie Potter Aston, Debbie Bancroft Ghislaine Maxwell, Salman Rushdie, Simon Doonan, Nathan Bernstein and Katharina Otto-Bernstein, Peter and Jamee Gregory, and Ed Keating.
Inheritance by Andrea Stern. Call McNally Robinson at 212-274-1160 to order.
Andrea Stern with her brother Eddie
Allison and Leonard Stern
Ron Weintraub and Amanda Gordon
Jamee and Peter Gregory, Allison Stern, and Judy Stern Peck
Maria Snyder
Simon Doonan, Michele Adelman, Andrea Stern, and Rose Hartman
Ken DiPaola

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