A Yearning for Home

Using herself as but one thread in the tapestry, Shavarini has woven together the stories of her parents, grand-parents, brothers, and husband.

There’s no place like home,” says Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz. Who among us hasn’t suffered from a little home sickness? Those moments of longing for something lost have touched me throughout my life.

So when introduced to the word ghorbat, I instantly connected with it, although it is outside my cultural reference points. I came across it in the first chapter of a beautifully evocative book, Desert Roots: Journey of an Iranian Immigrant Family, by Mitra Karbassi Shavarini, who graduated from URI in 1984 with a degree in business.

“Farsi is a language of subtleties,” writes Shavarini, “thus there is no exact English translation for the Persian word ghorbat; nostalgia, exile, longing for homeland, feeling yourself a stranger is close to the idea. To truly understand ghorbat, one must live the word, feel its burden. It is one of those intangibles, like heartache, or when you realize you are lost. Yearning.”

A native of Iran, Shavarini moved to the United States while still a child. Her father, Reza Karbassi, was a successful bureaucrat with the National Iranian Oil Company. Karbassi had prospered under the Shah and landed a series of lucrative positions abroad. One such coveted appointment in the early 1970s led the Karbassi family to move first to New York City and later to Narragansett, R.I.

Karbassi uprooted the family because he knew that an American education would place his children in high standing when they eventually returned to Iran. What he hadn’t factored in was the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Practically overnight his country unalterably changed, leaving his eldest son trapped in Iran while the rest of the family were stranded in Rhode Island without resources or green cards.

Mitra Karbassi Shavarini and I met for the first time at a coffee shop in Wellesley, Mass., on a warm, rainy afternoon in May. As we chatted, I was struck by the many parallels in our lives. Both in our 40s, we share many of the same memories of the Narragansett school system from which we both graduated—at one time Shavarini had even lived in my neighborhood. We both began attending URI in our senior year of high school. We have both had life-changing experiences with cancer as well as with family estrangements. And now we live not far from one another outside of Boston. But as we talked, I became aware that parallel experiences can hide a world of differences.

As Iranians in America, Shavarini and her family experienced profound losses; they also found it prudent to hide their ethnicity. Anti-Iranian sentiment was rampant after the Shah of Iran was ousted and Ayatollah Khomeini took power; even at age 12, I was aware of the scenes on the news showing Iranians chanting “death to the Great Satan.”

And then came the hostage crisis: “People were swearing at Iranians,” recalled Shavarini. “It was a very vocal time to hate Iranians. Those experiences played a role in how I became Americanized. I would always say that I was Italian or Greek if someone asked my background. Even years later it was still very hard for me to admit I was Iranian.”

Shavarini’s family experienced some truly dark times after the revolution. Her father’s assets in Iran were frozen, but he was not a legal resident of the United States so could not work. Their friends in Iran were losing their lives to the “cleansings,” and it was difficult to get news of the family’s oldest son, Keyhan Karbassi ’76.

“We were so tight for money. Phone calls to Iran were very expensive so we could only make short calls and relied on letters. I couldn’t go out and be a normal American teenager,” said Shavarini. At one point, the only income that came into the house was through Shavarini’s mother, who baked breads and cakes for URI’s International Coffee House, which used to be located in Taft Hall. The café manager, Thea Etzold ’71, a native of Germany and widow of a URI math professor, would buy the cakes for $5 or $7.

The hostility the family experienced wasn’t only relegated to the time of the revolution. Even before that point, Shavarini’s second brother, Kambiz Karbassi ’80, was nearly blocked from being his class valedictorian. The principal did not think it right for a foreigner to be awarded this honor (Kambiz Karbassi is the president and co-founder of Commonwealth Engineers, Inc., in Providence). Sadly, the legacy continues. Shavarini’s son, now 15, had to be home-schooled after 9/11 due to anti-Islamic sentiment.

It was for her son, Neemah, and daughter, Donya, that Shavarini first started to chronicle her family, but then the project blossomed into something more: “I meet with a writing group that focuses on academic journal writing,” she said. “But when they found out what I was writing, they asked me to read it to them. They were so encouraging that I decided to seek my parents’ permission to share their story in a book.”

Using herself as but one thread in the tapestry, Shavarini has woven together the stories of her parents, grandparents, brothers, and husband. The result is an unflinching portrait of an Iranian family: “There are parts that were painful to write and that family members did not want included,” noted Shavarini.

She talks of her father’s anger at her for marrying an Iranian revolutionary and his resentment that she chose to return to Iran to teach in the 1990s. That trip ultimately led to her parents’ return to Iran. Shavarini’s father died there from Parkinson’s disease in August 2011, before the book was published but not before he had seen a galley proof.

Desert Roots: Journey of an Iranian Immigrant Family transcends cultural differences because it is a tale of family in the fullest sense of that word. It is humanizing, compassionate, and courageous—a tribute of love.

By Jennifer Gaul ’89