By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly
In the midst of the political turmoil taking place in the United States right now, one local Iranian group has kicked off a month-long celebration of their culture through food diplomacy with the help of Tom Douglas.
The first-ever bilateral event, organized by Seattle-Isfahan Sister City Association (SISCA) featuring two dinners from the United States and Iran, highlights Iranian food in the Seattle area.
Over 160 guests attended the community event on Oct. 12 at Palace Kitchen and enjoyed a traditional four-course meal prepared by Douglas and Iranian chef Najmieh Batmanglij. In addition, Douglas created a special Pacific Northwest menu that included salmon, and it was executed by chefs in Isfahan for the sister event.
“On this iconic and historic night, we’re all part of the first-ever Chefs without Borders and by hosting this dinner, we’re creating awareness of cultures through food and music. [SISCA Board President] Cathia (Geller) and I believe that these events are essential to the vibrancy of our community,” Douglas added.
The Seattle Guitar Ensemble also performed “A Piece for Guitar Orchestra,” composed by Isfahani guitarist and composer Ashkan Saberi.
SISCA is made up of about 500 volunteers — Iranian Americans and allies who have lived and traveled in Iran — who seek to reverse decades of hostility between the U.S. and Iranian governments. The organization seeks to build a community in the Seattle area that supports and incubates nonpolitical, people-to-people collaborations with Isfahan, Iran.
“Under the banner of food diplomacy, we’re trying to use food as a common denominator to bring the cultures of the U.S. and Iran to increase understanding,” Geller explained.
Washington state Solicitor General Noah Purcell was also in attendance.
Purcell, Attorney General Bob Ferguson (who was also invited, but couldn’t attend), Judge James Robart, and Gov. Jay Inslee played a major role in litigating President Donald Trump’s travel ban against seven Muslim-majority countries.
Purcell’s mother-in-law is an Iranian immigrant, so the ban had personally affected several of their family members.
“When the president issued the travel ban and affected a lot of Iranian Americans in Seattle and in the country, I’m just honored to spend time with these folks, I know personally many people who have been affected by the travel ban. I hope more people learn about Iranian culture because there are a lot of wonderful people in Iran,” he said.
SISCA board member Dan Smith looked forward to reuniting with friends who he had traveled to Iran with and seeing how the sister city program has grown and reached more people in the community.
“Iran is an incredible two and a half thousand continuous years of culture and they’ve seen a lot and they’ve had their ups and downs. I just hope that the politicians currently running our government don’t start some kind of war. I would hate to see people hurt when they just want to be friends,” he said.
“I just think that it’s our responsibility as chefs, as sister cities, as humanoids on this planet that we gather around the dinner table and have a conversation to decide that we’re all very similar to each other, even if we’re born in different countries,” Douglas said.
As part of the Food Diplomacy to bridge cultures, Geller explained that several Iranian restaurants in the area will offer discounts and sample platters throughout the month of November.
“We want to elevate Persian cuisine so that it becomes another first choice when people want to dine out.” Geller explained that Persian cuisine is a very complete and ancient cuisine that uses a lot of spices. including saffron and cardamom. Each dish is very complete with fresh vegetables, protein, and rice.
“We really want people to be familiar with Persian cuisine. We communicate with our food, if people try our food, they’ll learn about us,” she said.
Persian vs. Iranian
“Persia was the old name of Iran. At the height of the empire, it was called Persia, but Persian and Iranian are the same thing. One reason why a lot of Iranians refer to them as Persians is to make themselves more affiliated with the proud history, as opposed to the current misinformation and stereotyping of Iran and its government,” Geller said.
SISCA was founded by Fred Noland two years ago. Noland is a retired Seattle lawyer who had been in Iran in the 1960s as a Peace Corps volunteer and also taught at the University of Isfahan.
Geller said that he had seen the positive impact of citizen diplomacy in the downfall of the Cold War and Iron Curtain, so he proposed to start a nonprofit.
“The people who started this are not Iranians and they’ve been really passionate about the culture. We’re all doing this together and it’s been unique to share the facets of culture that you don’t hear about in the news. It’s been an awesome journey to go from a small backyard dinner to events like this. I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve done,” said SISCA board member Maryam Hosseini.
Danyal Lotfi, board member of two years, explained that Iranians and Middle Easterners have been left out of the Asian description, but if they’re asked where they’re from, they’re from the continent of Asia. It was a geopolitical term created by Western cultures to determine that area politically as the Middle East.
“Our community hasn’t fully answered the identity question for ourselves yet, we have to deal with the identity within the context of U.S. relations. Historically, racial groups have been defined by politics and history is constantly adjusting, especially with newer generations of Iranians. We’re trying to find our place and show our identity where it doesn’t just get washed down,” Hosseini said.
She also added that SISCA’s hope is to reciprocate sharing of culture with other Asian communities to create open borders in literally every sense of the word.
“Iranians are thirsty for that, given the political climate, it’s become more important to get to know your neighbors. By embarking on a food diplomacy mission together, we show that we have so much to offer to one another and its diversity that enriches us,” she said.
Nina can be reached at email@example.com.