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Savannah Persian still looking for answers

By Jane Fishman
Savannah Morning News

Every once in a while the question arises -- in crossword puzzles, Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit. What's another name for Persia?

The answer has four letters and starts with an "I."

Give up? Iran.

That and maybe the capital -- Teheran -- and maybe, with a little effort, the name of the upstart revolutionary from the late '70s -- Ayatollah Khomeini, the man who some say tipped the presidential election from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan -- are just about all I can bring up from the old memory bank when it comes to Iran.

I'm not proud about that.

Iran? Iraq? Like a lot of Americans, when it comes to that part of the world, I tend to get confused. Even though Iran is twice as large as Iraq and two-and-a-half times the size as Texas. Even though Iraq is Arabic and Iran -- neither Arabic nor Semitic -- is Aryan, descendants from an Asian people.

When I admit my ignorance to Iranian-born Kaveh Ehsanipoor, an endocrinologist at Memorial Medical Center, he doesn't flinch, he doesn't seem to pass judgment, he doesn't seem to mind. He does say that when he was in school, he was taught his homeland equaled the size of six European countries -- not one American state and then some.

Maybe he's used to people like me. After all, he's been in this country for 30 years, first a residency at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, then a fellowship at Emory University in Atlanta, then five years at Chicago's Cook County Hospital.

He's met a lot of people, most of whom, he says, would guess he's from India, followed by Israel, Greece or Pakistan. They don't know that his first name is pure Persian, or very old and that it means blacksmith or that there may be 100 Persians in Savannah, tops.

Most wouldn't know he is Jewish, all the more confusing if they knew Ehsanipoor spent 12 years in Catholic schools ("My mother was very pro-education") at all-boys' institutions with priests from Ireland, Switzerland and Italy or that his mother went to a French school, his father, an American one.

Or that in Iran the Bahais were and are a much more persecuted minority than the Jews, the Christians or the Zoroastrians.

Or that Ehsanipoor and his fellow Persians -- that's the preferred term, not Iranians -- celebrate the New Year on the spring Equinox, March 21. The holiday, at least 3,000 years old, Ehsanipoor said, is celebrated at home, much like Thanksgiving or Christmas. The more traditional New Year's celebration on Dec. 31 is optional.

Typically, on the spring Equinox, seven items starting with the Persian letter "s" are laid out on a table -- apples, coins, vegetables, goldfish, smoked fish, rice with dill weed. People spend the first week of the holiday visiting friends and family members, but always the elderly first.

Like a lot of Persians, Ehsanipoor came to the United States for medical training, intending to return to his country. But after one year in Teheran, when his ex-wife decided she didn't like Iran, they returned to the States.

Three years later, in February 1979, Khomeini overturned the Shah. In November, 52 hostages -- including Armstrong Atlantic State University professor William Daughtery and former U.S. Ambassador L. Bruce Laingen, who is speaking at Thursday's Savannah Council on World Affairs meeting -- were seized.

In 1980, Ehsanipoor returned to Iran without incident to retrieve his younger brother -- who suffered a stroke when he was 32 -- and bring him back to the States. Today, his father, who used to sell real estate and work for the Iranian government, and three brothers -- two architects and one CPA -- live in San Francisco, where there are more job opportunities and a larger Persian community.

But 20 years later, Ehsanipoor is still baffled about why the Americans were taken hostage.

"Up until then, anti-foreign sentiment had always been rare in Iran," he said. "Maybe I'll get some answers from Laingen," he said. "I intend to try."


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