From Pop to Politics

Shahs of Sunset and the Accidental Revolution

In Kippahs+Keffiyas, Popolitics on December 31, 2013 at 11:59 pm

New Year’s is about new beginnings. But it’s also about the closing of chapters. And with that said, it looks like the played out dirka-dirka-Mohammed-jihad era may finally be coming to an end… Thanks to a hit reality show on Bravo TV.

Currently in its third season, Shahs of Sunset is a sensationally scandalous yet fascinating “portrayal” of a privileged group of friends, all children of Iranian immigrants and refugees. On the surface, it’s a show about living the high life in Tehrangeles, but if you look closer it’s about so much more.

Videocrat shahs

When it first came out, Shahs shook the Iranian-American community like a Bam earthquake. Even West Hollywood’s City Council passed a resolution (a resolution!) in 2012 condemning the show. The uproar was exacting and predictable: It’s foul. It’s negative stereotyping. It’s racist.

I wonder if the critics bothered watching the show beyond the glam-tastic first few episodes. Season 1 started off outrageously enough: Private jets, petty fashion squabbles, way too much alcohol and a Vegas hotel suite situation (butler included) that would make Sheikh Mohammed jealous. And that’s just it: It’s more of an oil-money-Arab-stereotype than a Persian one. Even MJ said it quite brilliantly when describing the opulence of her own strip-club-themed birthday party: “It’s so Persian, it’s Saudi”.

Like a Purrrrsian...

Like a Purrrrsian…

Back to the haters: Shahs is not an ethnographic documentary series about Iranian identity in America. It’s a reality TV show — a format that deliberately blurs the line between fact and fiction in a civilization-eroding, dirty-look-driven formula that has nonetheless proven to be wildly popular across the globe. And I think that viewers are discerning enough to know the difference. Sure, it’s filled with (staged) cat fights and enough gold jewelry to save Greece from its economic woes, but there’s something to be said about all the stuff happening in between. Stuff about us “Middle Easterners” that needs to be addressed: Homosexuality, girl power, interfaith relationships and class.

Most of the cast members come from wealth (especially Golnesa “charge it to daddy’’ Gharachedaghi) except for one key character: Asa Soltani, the self-appointed ‘’Persian Pop Princess”. The only thing that seems to connect her to the others is the fact that she’s Iranian, loves gold and went to Beverly Hills High. Otherwise, she’s a cultural mutt (in LA via Iran and Germany) lives and works out of Venice as a multidisciplinary artist. She also dabbles in music and dresses like an MIA back up dancer. So Asa really doesn’t fit in to the spoiled brat stereotype that critics are up in arms about. In one episode, we see her humble background; a working class family supported by her mother, a full-time nurse. And Asa has repeatedly stated on the show that her top priority is to take care of her folks financially… by way of a magical liquid called ‘’Diamond Water”!

Holy water?

Holy water?

Despite the hippie chic and artistic inclination, Asa’s got some serious entrepreneurial ambition. Throughout the show, we get to witness the inner workings of successully creating a product we have all been waiting for: A luxury bottled water “infused” with the “powerful vibes” of a six-figure diamond, and she says “every single drop has been blessed with my love energy” (a scene to behold in season 2). Sounds ridiculous, right? But this is America, the land of opportunity… And when you think about it, the whole thing is pretty genius from a marketing perspective. Asa’s precious Diamond Water- as well as her Shahs salary- is probably the main reason she agreed to be on the show in the first place.

So with her worldly outlook and penchant for spiritual reinforcement, Asa is a necessary grounding force on the show. She’s rarely at the center of the drama but when she is, she just cuts right through the bullshit: When GG calls her “ghetto” for her unorthodox fashion choices, Asa snaps back: “What’s ghetto to you? “[the fact that] my daddy doesn’t bankroll my life?”. Clash of the classes at it’s finest!

I invented "swimgerie"

Lilly Ghalichi: Inventor of “swimgerie”

Lilly Ghalichi is another noteworthy outsider. Don’t let her Persian Barbie looks fool you. She may seem like the polar opposite of Asa, but they’re actually more similar to each other than any other cast member: Lilly is a Texan transplant who decided to forgo her law career to launch a swimwear line. She doesn’t drink and is often floored by the rest of the group’s antics. Her “boyfriend” is never on screen and any way – much like Asa – it’s pretty clear she’s only on the show to promote her brand. Ultimately, it’s refreshing to see these beautiful Muslim women setting out in the world on their own and defying family expectations of becoming a doctor/wife/real estate agent. And the best thing is, religion is not part of the conversation! Which brings me to my next point:

Blogger Shana Weiss (from Jewcy.com) asked: Why don’t they ever discuss religion? The answer is simple: It doesn’t matter. Historically, the Middle East has been a melting pot of religions for millennia. It’s where Jesus, Mohamed and Moses made their world debut! So what ties people together there on the day-to-day is beyond religion. And one thing I love about Shahs is that it’s showing people that faith, for the most part, is not culture. Things like language and food are far more powerful on the social level.

When Mike Shouhed- a Jewish cast member- tells his beloved mother that he’s looking to settle down, she tells him ‘’inshallah’’ – the Muslim expression for “god willing”. Reza, an endless source of salacious one-liners, is the product of an interfaith marriage (Muslim mother, Jewish father). They divorced due to his father’s infidelities and we see Reza try to reconcile with him throughout the show.  In one episode, he invites the crew to New York to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with the Jewish side of his family. It’s so obvious from this meeting that what holds these people together is their Iranian – ahem, sorry Persian- culture. Aside from a couple of kippas and a Hebrew prayer, the get-together looks like any other on the show. And this is how I’ve seen it work in the Middle East and with my own multiconfessional group of friends in the West.

One of the more touching moments on Shahs– and there have been a few- is when Reza talks about how his parents’ divorce affected him. Because his father converted to Islam against his family’s wishes to marry his mom, he believes that the social pressure of the time made it impossible for them to have a fair shot as a couple. In one humanizing moment, Reza goes through old black and white photos of his folks in happier times and tearfully confesses: “I would trade all of it – the BMWs, the Rolexes the houses in Beverly Hills- for that peaceful home with two loving parents.” All that glitters ain’t gold, people. And that’s certainly the case on Shahs of Sunset.

Lately, one captivating storyline on Shahs has bolstered ratings by bringing up something we seldom discuss: While we (born and/or raised in the West) bemoan imposed stereotypes and the critical gaze of the white man in our “adoptive land”, we are also guilty of that very prejudice on our own people. To call someone “Fresh Off The Boat”, and we’ve all done it, is to judge a newcomer as a fumbling immigrant who can’t speak proper English, let alone understand “our culture”. An FOB is not clued in and most certainly is not cool. In this season of Shahs, we see this elitist nastiness in full force. When Reza’s boyfriend introduces him to their new neighbor Sasha- a gorgeous gay refugee from Iran – all hell breaks loose. Reza calls him an FOB, then kicks him out of his apartment. When they cross paths later at a nightclub, Reza loses his shit and calls Sasha and his brother another F-word: “fags”. The irony in all this is: While Sasha- with his toned physique and hip dress sense – fits in perfectly with the West Hollywood crowd, Reza’s retro-Saddam styling makes him look like… a well-fed Middle Eastern dictator.

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Sasha Fierce: Who knew they could come off the boat looking this fresh?

The two later reconcile after Reza sees a therapist to delve into his irrational behavior. He realizes that Sasha represents a painful time in his youth -growing up gay in a conservative community – and his disconnection from the motherland. Yes, it’s all so very pop psychology, but it’s an important subject to tackle within the context of a Middle Eastern viewers, and first generation audiences in general. And I commend Reza Farahan for outing himself on so many different levels.

On the cultural sensitivity tip, it’s also worth mentioning that the producers have made an impressive effort to enlighten viewers with some Farsi 101 in inserts like this:

Screen Shot 2013-12-24 at 4.27.22 PM

Nomar Elmi, the director of community outreach for the National Iranian American Council in Washington, D.C., put it well when he had this to say about the show: “(…) the silver lining for me is that it will get people talking. Usually we are depicted as terrorists from the axis of evil. At least this is another side to the community. It isn’t the most positive or accurate, but it will get the American public talking.”

I doubt that executive producer Ryan Seacrest had any of this in mind when he was first blinded by the bling on this crew, but I think Shahs may be paving the way for alternative representations of Middle Eastern people in Western media: They can be gay and proud, they can be successful, they can be Jewish and Muslim, and they can get drunk together and love each other for who they are as individuals. Caviar vending machines aside, this is the world that I (and other children of immigrants in the West) come from, and it’s refreshing to finally see it (sort of) portrayed on TV. So although I don’t think Shahs of Sunset is essential viewing, to me it’s proof that the pendulum of representation has swung – albeit to the opposite extreme, but that’s the only way for it to eventually strike a balance. And I’m not ashamed to say it: I’m a fan.

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