28 October 2003

Iranian-Americans Seek Their Heritage at Persian Bookstores

Washington store also caters to non-Persian readers

By Edmund F. Scherr
Washington File Special Correspondent

Washington -- While the priority of most immigrants is to understand and integrate into their new home, the priority of their children is frequently to discover more about their family heritage. Iranian-Americans in this category are turning to books from Persian bookstores and publishers. Iranbooks in the Washington, DC suburb of Bethesda, Maryland and a closely linked publishing company, Ibex Publishers, are reaching this market of young Iranian-Americans who want to learn more about their Iranian and Persian background.

Nasser and Parvaneh Shizad opened Iranbooks in 1979. Ibex Publishers, headed by their son Farhad Shizad, also started that same year. Nasser is a former Iranian diplomat. His last position was Iranian Consul-General in New York City.

Farhad noted a shift from translations of English-language books into Persian, in the early years, to Persian literature and poetry published in Persian today.

It was the demand for Persian books in the late 1970's that encouraged the Shirzads to open Iranbooks. "More Iranians were moving to America. They needed books, and we provided them," Nasser said.

To capture the markets of both the young Iranian-Americans who grew up studying English and the growing number of other Americans and Middle East departments at American universities interested in learning about Iran and Persian culture, most of the new books he publishes today are in English. "They want to look for their roots, so they want to read about Iran and learn about their Persian heritage," Farhad said.

Iranbooks store in Bethesda may be small, but its reach is global and its book list overwhelming.

"We supply books everywhere," Nasser claimed. The store sells to customers throughout the United States, plus Canada, Japan and Europe. The Shirzads estimate that some 150,00 Iranians live in the Washington area.

Purchases through its web site (www.iranbooks.com) and by phone, mail and fax account for about 70 percent of the store's business, Nasser said. The store can supply any of 10,000 book titles in its inventory.

The store is especially proud of its selection of books aimed at younger readers. They include school readers in Persian for children living outside of Iran -- first through fifth grades, children's books in Persian including several Harry Potter books, many English-Persian dictionaries, including a dictionary of Iranian names, and books and audio tapes to learn Persian.

During the past ten years, Ibex Publishers (found on the web at www.ibexpublishers.com) has printed some 140 books. He said there is a "steady" market for Persian books.

The Ibex selections range over a wide variety of categories -- current events, dictionaries, fiction and poetry, history, art, children's books and cooking. "We publish anything that will sell," Farhad said, "while maintaining a high quality level."

He noted that more books are being published in Iran -- some books that in the past would have to be printed outside that country. "The Iranian government has loosened up on the publishing of books. It no longer sees books as a threat."

Book titles in the Ibex catalogue express a growing interest in the Persian-Iranian cultural past. They include books on Persian handwriting and Persian cooking, and also books on Persian literature and poetry past and present.

One of its popular culture books -- now in its third printing -- is "1001 Persian-English Proverbs" by Simin K. Habibian.

This book, aimed at the young generation, shows similarities between Persian and English proverbs. The book's message is that "both cultures have thousands of years of similar experiences and share in the wisdom collected over this time," Habibian writes.

The Iranian proverbs are printed in Persian and English translation and are paired with similar English proverbs. The English proverb "don't cry over spilled milk," has its Persian counterpart in "spilled water cannot be gathered again." And the American expression "seeing is believing" is similar to the Persian "When was hearing like seeing?"

Ibex has also published in English some of the travel diaries of Haj Sayyah. This Persian traveled the world for some 18 years in the latter part of the 19th century. He journeyed though Europe, the Orient and the United States. Sayyah became the first Persian to obtain American citizenship. He later returned to Iran and played a major role in the Constitutional Revolution there. The published diaries recount his European Adventures.

(More information about Sayyah and his American experiences can be found in a recent article on the web at

Thus, both the publishing house and the bookstore serve as a bridge between the two civilizations. Enabling each side to know and understand the other better.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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