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Persian persuasion
Unassimilated Iranian-Americans a largely-ignored voting block

By MICHAEL AUSHENKER
Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles
October 24, 2000


Jewish Journal
Marjan Keypour (left) and Mary Koukahb set up a voter registration booth outside a Jewish store in L.A.
LOS ANGELES—On any given weekday, Elat Market, the Pico-Robertson-area supermarket, is already a hub of hustle and bustle for the Persian community. So one can imagine the human traffic on the Friday morning before Yom Kippur-getting ready before Shabbat and Yontif.

Standing outside the market on this busy morning, it becomes apparent that Elat is somewhat of a de facto community center; an area nexus where friends-young and old-run into one another and splinter off into small congregations of conversation.

That is exactly why Marjan Keypour and Mary Khoukab were out there. The co-founders of the Iranian-Americans for Democratic Action (IADA), Keypour and Khoukab, both young Iranian-American professionals in their 20s, share another thing in common-their concern that not enough Iranian-American Jews are registering to vote.

From a small table set up in front of Elat Market, Khoukab and Keypour, sporting flashy sequined patriotic caps, approached shoppers as they entered and exited the market. It quickly became evident that Keypour and Khoukab had tapped into an important vein as, in the course of an hour, some 30 people registered to vote.

These registrants-members of Southern California's Persian community, which includes roughly 30,000 Iranian Jews-seemed to appreciate having these two energetic women reaching out to them in their native Farsi tongue.

"It's a fantastic idea," said Edna Radnia of the registration booth. "I was lazy to go to do this."

"It's very good," agreed Eden Faknim.

For Khoukab and Keypour, registering many of these newly-naturalized citizens also meant educating them about the voting process, as a lack of communication and information to their sector has hampered their ability to participate. For example, a man erroneously believed that the presidential election was on Oct. 7 until Keypour informed him that it was, in fact, a month later.

An older man in a kippah also came to the table for assistance-like many in the community, he was handicapped by his lack of command over the English language. As Keypour explained to the Journal, "He picked up the forms yesterday and brought them in to make sure they're right. The dates and signatures are still missing."

Keypour and Khoukab expressed mixed feelings over the fact that they were filling a void in political outreach.

"That's personally satisfying but in terms of community organization, it's disappointing," said Keypour.

"One would think that some organization would have already thought to the Iranian-American community but remarkably, no one has."

That's why IADA was formed. The Khoukab-Keypour cause had its genesis back in August, when Gore and Lieberman came to town.

"We both went to the Democratic National Convention and were so excited about the Democratic campaign platform," Keypour said. Soon after, Khoukab contacted an acquaintance, 1988 Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis, about becoming involved with the party. Dukakis suggested that Khoukab turn within her own community.

Keypour and Khoukab credit fellow volunteer Reuben Zadeh, active in Democrats for Israel, and the Westside headquarters of the Democratic Party, for assisting them in their outreach.

In addition to their Elat Market spot, Khoukab and Keypour have helped people register in front of the Democratic Party offices. They also supplied Persian-Jewish destinations-such as the Iranian-American Jewish Federation in West Hollywood and the Nessah Cultural Center in Santa Monica -- with registration forms, and dropped off registration forms at Iranian businesses, such as some of the book, music and rug stores in Westwood and Santa Monica.

The women had learned much over the course of their week-long campaign.

"I am surprised by the mere fact that so many people do not know the basic information. Almost everybody is a first time voter," said Keypour. "We have to inform them that by registering to vote they have not voted. We have to remind them to go and vote on Nov. 7th."

Some of the Iranian-Americans filling out forms at the IADA table voiced their support for the Gore/Lieberman ticket.

Explained Keypour, "People in the Iranian-Jewish community have been more receptive to the Democratic party because Lieberman is a Jew. It makes them proud. In Iran, Jews can not run for high offices."

Their second day in front of Elat Market, Keypour and Khoukab rapidly ran out of Gore/Lieberman stickers and buttons. And although Democratic Party literature was on display, the two women were more concerned that people vote, regardless of what candidate they support.

For Khoukab, who grew up in Michigan and has only been a part of the local community for four years, helping get the word out was at once exhilirating and satisfying: "I feel like it's an obligation to bring them into the process in a way that's comfortable to them."

Khoukab was heartened by the amount of Persian Jews that had been receptive to the idea of registering, once presented with the information and materials.

"Those who understand the significance are ready to jump on right away," said Khoukab. "People are realizing that it's important to them as they become part of the larger American society."

Said the registering Radnia, "It's important for us as a community to participate. We live here, we pay all our taxes, we should be involved."

© Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission
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