Images courtesy of the author
My forty-three-year-old female body has moved through the world with the broken heart of an eight-year-old Zoroastrian girl ripped away from her ancestral lands and brought to America to inhabit the wide-eyed optimism of an American dreamer.
I was born in Tehran, Iran, at the eve of the Revolution. My dad is from Mobarakeh province in Yazd, my mom was born in Kharaget colony in Bombay and her parents are from Aliabad, also in Yazd. They got married in Tehran, and the common language in their marriage was Dari. It was the common language in our household. We lived in Iran for eight years of my life. The seasons dictated so much of the beauty there. In winters when it was cold enough, the snow was cartoonishly fluffy, landing on branches and cars with rounded edges. We had a pear tree that would blossom in an exuberant burst of springtime blossoms, leading to the most fragrant pears in late summer. I remember our school bus driver giving us girls on the bus a piece of warm barbari bread as we boarded; I would gut the bread of its soft innards and roll them into a ball before popping them in my mouth.
In the midst of the Iran-Iraq War, at the age of eight, I emigrated with my family, my mom, my dad, my younger sister Nahid, to Southern California. There was a large group of Iranian Zoroastrians there, and we found a home there. Or, we carved out some spaces where we felt safe inside before having to put on our costumes to navigate the outside spaces.
In my years in the United States, I did everything to fit in, which means not only surviving, but also thriving. I learned the language and got rid of my accent, I learned to dress the part. I learned to excel in academics. And there is an inherent sense of betraying your own heritage as you adopt a new one. And I struggled with that a lot. There was a very heavy and acute sense of mourning for me as well, to be away from the motherland that I knew that for the rituals, that became my religion, that became a lot of my comforts.
The one place where I was always comfortable was at the Zoroastrian center in Westminster that Morvarid and Rustam Guiv built. I saw that place first exist as a house in the suburbs and evolve to a proper center built with a parking lot. It was a place you went to and didn’t have to explain yourself. It was a place you went to and the language was all the same. The food was all the same. The holidays were all the same. Nobody questioned anything. There was communal cooking, there was communal eating. And there was a very big comfort in that for me because that foundation was very safe: to be an individual, to be different, to be unique, to not fit the mold. I joined the Gorooyeh jaashnhah (“Events Group”) and remember planning things we had never ever celebrated before. Valentine’s Day; New Years’ Eve on December 31, in addition to our own Nowruz in March. The Super Bowl was surprisingly a big deal. We would put together all the proper snacks: pizza, wings, soda, chips and moosir. We would get a big screen and projector and watch the big game. To this day, I question whether anyone ever really understood a damn thing about football or if this was a safe space to “practice” being American.
From my twenties to early thirties, I stepped away from the community to spread my wings, taking all my practice with me. I studied literature and ended up becoming a finance lawyer based in New York City. I loved playacting the role of a female lawyer in Manhattan. I loved the big office buildings, I loved the suits, the shoes, the big important things I got to say—all costumes and sets and scripts to my heart.
As much as I liked to “play an American lawyer lady,” at home I was also playing the role of holding on to so much of our culture and foods and language. I would go out of my way to celebrate Yalda and Sadeh and the Ghahambars. I would wear shaval all over the place. I always kept in mind not just what my grandparents and my ancestors went through to hold on to the religion and our culture back in Iran, but also what my parents and my community in California were doing here.
I have felt the tight grip of holding on to two disparate identities; I have felt the ache of letting them rip me apart.
And this is where the yogurt becomes very, very relevant. When I was eventually laid off from the lawyer gig during the 2009 financial crash, I quite naturally, decided to make yogurt, and I make yogurt in a very traditional Yazdi style. I make it extremely inefficiently mimicking the process in ceramic bowls, and we wrap it up in blankets. I know that other Iranians have family members who do it just this way. But I was determined to make a business of this. This is an insane business endeavor to undertake when every other yogurt in the market is made within a matter of six hours and mine was made in a matter of three days. We named the business White Moustache after my dad’s white handlebar moustache. I worked with him, my mom, and my sister, side by side at the beginning. And this became a therapeutic process for me. It connected me to my ancestors, it connected me to my own history, but also to my own future. It connected me to my immediate family in a way that was very relevant and light. It didn’t have the gravity of survival or prestige or anything. It was just to make something with our hands, and to spend time together. I made flavors that were familiar to me, not altered for a Western audience. I made aloo-baloo (sour cherry), beh (quince), khormah (date), moosir.
It was a calling. And it really has saved my life. And it gave me a sense of validity and a sense of identity that I otherwise didn’t have here in America. I finally made sense as an individual—all the complicated different parts of me made sense.
I finally felt very strong in my identity as Iranian Zoroastrian living in America, which was extremely difficult. It was a combination of a lot of prayers, a lot of yogurt, and a lot of therapy.
And it was so liberating at that moment, that I realized my future was perhaps in better hands than I knew to imagine. With the freedom of knowing my identity as a Zoroastrian was secure and I was calm within myself, I felt free that my personal life could take any course laid before it. I could marry a non-Zoroastrian; I could marry Zoroastrian. I could marry a man; I could marry a woman, I could decide to be a single mother. At thirty-five years old, I could admit to myself the loneliness that felt too consequential to admit earlier in my life and I got very serious about finding a life partner. I approached Parsi matchmakers, I approached Iranian matchmakers. I assumed this would somehow be easy, that this was where I would find someone with the most in common with me. The hot Parsi baker from Bombay was confused by my genuine esteem for a good fart jokes! The brilliant Iranian man whose old soul I instantly connected with, who I knew would always keep one foot in the past for me! It turned out that religion, while the cornerstone of my identity, was not the communion I needed in a relationship.
To my own pleasant dismay, I ended up falling deeply in love with a white dude I met on OkCupid.com.
In Michael’s heart, for the first time since I was that eight-year-old girl, I found a home. And here, I am free to be silly. I am free to be sexual. I am free to be fun. I’m free to be complicated. I’m free to have the beautiful children that I never thought I would get to have. I’m free to exist in a very authentic way to myself.
But for so much of my life, I felt I had no one to talk to about that heaviness of being born into the Zoroastrian faith. There were no role models for my generation and I was too scared to forge a path I had not seen. I didn’t want to take a wrong step and be the last generation of Zoroastrian who just got it wrong, or desecrated our ancestors, or worse, ruined it for future generations. So for a majority of my youth, I felt that it was easier to be alone or noncommittal or casual. How could I take a wrong step, if I didn’t take any steps at all in my personal life?
Sharing my personal story has been really, really hard for me. One reason is that I feel alone as I tell my story. And that’s a remnant of how I grew up, and how I thought of carrying that burden—our identity—and how I felt like a lot of times we don’t talk about the pain and the suffering that we feel. Instead, we put a gloss on how lovely and fine everything is. And I don’t feel seen sometimes when I talk about my personal story; I feel like I am making a fool of myself talking about my feelings and no one gets it.
And the hardest part of all is I think that heaviness that is felt by the indigenous Iranian Zoroastrians who are born into this religion is often dismissed. And sometimes we do it to ourselves. We don’t talk about the difficult stuff. And it makes it very taxing to explore themes of identity and belonging that are personal to every individual—and to do that in an authentic way. In America, it feels like I had to either erase myself or exaggerate myself to survive, so as not to offend the host country. I would soften the harsh smells of my food and use chives instead of tarreh; tone down my fashion choices to blend in; speak in a soft measured voice to my mother so I wouldn’t sound screaming mad. Or, alternatively, I could play up the kohl of my eyes, the exoticness of my name, adorn everything with paisley and pomegranates and become the token Persian friend. And in the meantime, the real pieces of me would have disappeared. The real pieces of me, that I needed so desperately to rise up with and feel so alive in, they had no fertile future for flourishing within this system.
And while my journey may have been more unique than most, being a minority within a minority, it may provide a magnifying glass for many who’ve found their individual spirits also shoved and buried by systems that they can never quite touch but are nonetheless indispensable parts of.
Spring / Summer 2023
The Iran Issue
Homa Dashtaki is the founder of the White Moustache. Her artisanal yogurt has garnered acclaim from the New York Times, Vogue, Bon Appétit, and Food & Wine. She was born in Iran and now lives in Brooklyn, New York.