Traditional Persian music filled the green, red and black streamered chambers of the Center House this Saturday, June 20, for the third annual Seattle Iranian Festival. Dancers circled the main stage in brilliant costumes, and guests viewed "More that Unites," an Iranian photography exhibit internationally touring.
And all the while, attendees received the latest news updates from Iran on their wireless devices: More than 10 protesters were reported killed in Tehran, and 419 civilians arrested that same afternoon.
Festival coordinators' made significant efforts to emphasize the many peaceful and creative facets of Iranian culture through dance, song and narrative throughout the day. Even so, festival attendees, many of whom lived in Iran through the 1979 Revolution before emigrating to the United States, admitted that anxiety over the turmoil and violence currently brewing in Iran was palpable at the Center House.
"Absolutely the first thing in people's mind's [here] is the election", said Al Garman, a volunteer for the National Iranian American Council, and an advocate for Iranian-American political interests. "Everyone's following what's happening on their BlackBerrys."
In Iran, the civilian death toll has been escalating since Saturday, according to limited national media sources, as thousands of demonstrators take to the streets of Tehran to contest the disputed June 12 presidential elections. Voter fraud is largely suspected to have tainted the election outcome, and many protesters feel the democratic system did not work as intended. Iranian political factions have been sharply divided since the government announced President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's landslide victory, and the threat of political upheaval appears to be at its highest point since the 1979 Revolution, which toppled the reign of the Shah and radically altered Iranian civil society.
At the Festival, opinions on events abroad ranged from apprehension to tempered optimism. Kaveh Aminion, coordinator for the Children's Activities table at the celebration, and a Seattle resident who experienced the 1979 regime change before moving to the U.S to raise his family, stressed that the best outcome for Iran ought to be determined by Iranians.
"Iran democracy is a work in progress," he says. "What's happening now, it's similar [to the 1979 revolution] but people now are more cautious about changing something, they've grown to be more careful about participating in a democratic process."
Garman observed that political aims in Iran were more limited in scope, and that the most notable aspect of the latest unrest was the role of communication technology with the instant dissemination of information.
"I was part of the 1979 revolution in Iran...we didn't have Twitter," the text message blogging service, he chuckled. "In 1979, we were actually asking for a change in regime, we wanted the Shah out ... People now just want their vote to count."
He related this desire to his own experience at assimilating into American culture and wanting his vote to count here. "[In the U.S.] I actually feel more that I am [a] part of [political] life. After I got my citizenship, I've been doing lots of work for Democrats here. I'm involved in several campaigns [and] I'm getting more Iranian Americans here involved in politics too, because basically everyone's afraid of getting involved in politics," he said. "We grew up that way; after 1953, our parents didn't want us to get involved in politics."
That was the year the U.S. engineered a coup to install the Shah of Iran in power, a move that the current Iranian government condemns as an attempt by the U.S. to Westernize their society. Garman continued, "I'm hoping some young Iranian Americans here get involved in politics."
Many young Iranian Americans were indeed participating in events on Saturday, but they seemed largely to be at the Center House to enjoy the culture that their parents have raised them to appreciate as their own.
The richness of the performances inspired a number of native Iranians to bring their children born in the United States to the event: "I brought my son to expose him to Persian culture ... It is a literature of Sufi and non-Sufi poetry, music, traditional music and dance," said Ali Mahbobzddeh, one of the festival's attendees. "This is what I grew up with in Iran. I would like him to get a sense of where we come from."
Siovash Shiva, at 22, is one of the youngest board members of the Iranian-American Community Alliance, the group that put on the event in tandem with Seattle Center. "I was born in Iran, but grew up here. I identify with both Iranian and American cultures, " he said. "If there [is] one thing I would tell people about Iranian culture, it would be ... don't base everything you know about Iran off mainstream media. Come to things like this -- cultural festivals -- ask questions. We're really friendly people."