He’s best known as a voice on the airwaves – the guy on Spokane’s community radio station who talks about life and culture in Iran while playing all the funky Middle Eastern music.
“Hi folks, welcome to ‘The Persian Hour,’ ” says Shahrokh “Shawn” Nikfar, launching into his weekly radio show on KYRS 92.3 FM. “Our goals for this program are to promote an understanding of Iran and Iranian culture and to provide diverse cultural entertainment.”
Since it was first created in 2004, “The Persian Hour” has become the best local source for all things Iran. The show not only informs listeners about Iran’s history, traditions, music and food; it also has played an instrumental role in bringing together the region’s Iranian population.
For the first time last week, more than 100 people of Iranian ancestry gathered for a celebration of Norouz, the Persian New Year, which is the most important holiday in the Iranian calendar. The party – which coincided with the third anniversary of Nikfar’s “Persian Hour” – united a group of people who, until recently, were never really aware of each other’s presence in town.
Metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and Washington D.C. have always celebrated Norouz, a holiday that began on the vernal equinox and continues through this week. In San Jose, Calif., for instance, this weekend’s festival was expected to draw a crowd of more than 18,000. In San Francisco, the city-wide celebration last week included the mayor and other dignitaries. And in New York, the occasion was celebrated by tens of thousands who participated in the annual Persian Parade.
But until this year, most Iranian families in the Inland Northwest observed the holiday only in their own homes, according to Nikfar, who moved to Spokane in 1981. “We didn’t know about each other,” he said. “We’ve never had an Iran Alliance or any sort of support structure like Seattle and other places.”
Based on the contacts he has made through “The Persian Hour,” Nikfar estimates that about 300 to 400 Iranian Americans live in the area.
As he became aware of others from his homeland, his mission became clear: It was time to throw a party.
And what better occasion, he thought, than Norouz – a time when Iranians and others throughout the world celebrate the coming of spring?
“It was so wonderful to see this community come together and celebrate,” said Sima Tarzaban Thorpe, who joined others of Iranian descent last week to dance, speak Farsi and eat traditional dishes such as the quiche-like kuku sabzi and fesenjon, chicken in a walnut and pomegranate sauce.
She and others say that such a celebration never would have taken place if it weren’t for Nikfar’s “Persian Hour.”
The radio show became a meeting place of sorts, a point on the airwaves where Iranians and others who care about Iran could go and listen and realize they weren’t alone.
“It was one of the ways for me to say ‘I am proud of my culture,’ ” said Nikfar, recalling the origins of his show. “I wanted to share the beauty of my culture with everyone else.”
Nikfar’s lessons on Iran’s history and culture also come at a crucial time, some say, especially with the growing hostility between Iran and the United States.
In recent months, Iran has made headlines for its escalated nuclear program. The country’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also has made headlines by threatening to “wipe out” Israel and calling the Holocaust “a myth.”
But Ahmadinejad and others like him in power do not represent the views of an entire nation, said Thorpe.
“Not everyone in Iran is an Islamic fundamentalist,” she said. “It’s a nation of individuals.”
Yet the lack of knowledge about Iran’s culture, history and even geography has made it easier for some Americans to view the country as an enemy of the United States, said Thorpe.
“I meet people who are shocked that I’m from Iran,” said Nikfar, who was born and raised in the capital of Tehran. “The image they have of an Iranian is that of a terrorist.”
Some people also mistakenly refer to Iranians as “Arabs” even though most are Persian, he said. Many also don’t have a clue about the brutal war between Iran and Iraq, which forced many Iranians like him to leave their homeland and resettle in the United States. Had he stayed, Nikfar would have likely been forced to fight in the war.
The misunderstandings inevitably fuel negative stereotypes, said Nikfar, who noted how the portrayal of Persian culture in the popular movie “300” has offended many Iranian Americans.
That’s why one of the goals of “The Persian Hour” is to promote better understanding of Iran – to show the complexity of its history and the diversity of its people, to broaden listeners’ perspectives by giving context to contemporary events and to humanize a nation that’s too often demonized, he said.
During a recent show, Thorpe shared a story of how she and other women in her family used to gather for hours grinding walnuts to make fesenjon. Her grandmother would bring her own mortar and pestle all the way from Iran to Thorpe’s family’s home in Eugene, Ore. She and Nikfar, along with Mimi Salamat of Spokane, also discussed the traditions surrounding Nouruz.
“We need understanding, not fear,” said Nikfar, the assistant director of Northwest Fair Housing Alliance when he’s not a volunteer at KYRS. “I see myself as an ambassador of good will who tries to create more understanding in our world.”