Little Iran in Lebanon?

“Persians are the best when it comes to beauty,” says 25-year-old Azadei Eslamy, who owns a beauty salon in Hamra, Beirut. Although she was born and raised in Los Angeles, she has regularly visited Iran since her childhood and speaks fluent Farsi. “My mom made a point to keep me in touch with my roots. My blood is 100% Persian and I’m proud of it,” she tells NOW.
Eslamy is just one of thousands of Iranians living in Lebanon. While some people might think that Iranians (or “Persians” as many prefer to call themselves) are here for political reasons, especially since the establishment of Tehran-funded Hezbollah in the 1980s, they have actually been in the Levant for centuries, and for reasons that are other than political. “Cultural, commercial and political interactions between the geographic areas that are today Iran and Lebanon go back to antiquity,” said H. E. Chehabi and Hassan I. Mneimneh in their 2006 book Distant relations: Iran and Lebanon in the last 500 years.

Eslamy moved to Lebanon, where her husband is from, six months ago after falling in love with the country while on vacation. But while she knows of another Iranian woman who runs a beauty salon here, she does not know of many Iranians in Lebanon and says she has not heard of any Iranian associations or group activities.

“I see no communities or associations of Iranians here,” agrees Mouzafar Zanganeh, who has been in and out of Lebanon since 1992 and currently works at the Iranian Ministry of Commerce. This is despite the substantial number of Iranians in Lebanon – around 4,000 – according to Zanganeh.

Lebanese and Iranians have been interacting for centuries. One notable example is the persecution of Shia in Jabal Amal – located in today’s South Lebanon – under the Ottomans, which prompted many Shia clerics to flee to Iran but then return later with their families.

Today, the majority of Iranians living in Lebanon are here for business, namely as carpet merchants, says Ibrahim Hershi, director of Information Affairs at the Iranian Embassy in Beirut.

Many have established households here and have more or less assimilated, rather than cocooning themselves in a “Little Iran.” Majid Jafarian has been living in Lebanon for the past 20 years. He is married to a woman from Nabatiyeh and has three children. His family, which has been in the carpet trade for two generations, has been doing business in Lebanon since 1982. While Jafarian goes back to Tehran every month for business, he says he loves Lebanese people and food, and his children only speak “the language of their mother,” in which he has also become fluent. He says he usually spends his free time at home with his family or gets together with his closest friends – all of whom are Lebanese.

Jafarian says he has only a handful of Iranian friends, whom he met through his business. He, like Eslamy and Zanganeh, has not heard of any Iranian associations or community events. He suspects one reason is that “the [Iranian] Embassy in Lebanon is political. Everyone knows that…In Dubai, Turkey, LA or London, it is different, and the embassy is friendly and encourages Iranians to stick together,” he tells NOW.

But even if many Iranians in Lebanon have assimilated and speak Lebanese, there are some who prefer to mingle with other Iranians they meet here, as they share the same native language and culture. Moustafa Asfahani, 75, an Iranian carpet trader who came to Lebanon in 1979, is married to an Iraqi-Iranian woman and has two daughters and three sons, who live in Iran, Lebanon, the UK and the US. Though he speaks Arabic with his children and considers himself to be a part of Lebanon, he constantly travels to his country and says he has many Iranian friends here, all of whom are carpet traders.

On a trip to the Bekaa Valley with his family, Mohammed Ataie, an Iranian student at the American University in Beirut, met an Iranian shopkeeper who came to Lebanon about 40 years ago and has a Lebanese ID. “When he saw my mother’s dress, he could tell we were Iranian and started speaking Farsi to us,” he says.

While it may be difficult to find a community of Iranians in Beirut, in the Bekaa and the South it is a different story. “I heard Iranians have their own communities in the South. They have their own Husseini Mosque, where you commemorate the third Shia imam,” Ataie tells NOW. He says he has come across many Iranians in South Lebanon, especially in Nabatiyeh and Tyre, and was shocked at how many of them could not speak either Arabic or English, but only Farsi. “When you see them, you think they are in Iran, not Lebanon,” he says.