On an unusually sweltering recent Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles, more than 600 elaborately dressed guests piled into a Beverly Hills hotel to celebrate the grand nuptials of an Iranian-American couple. As the wedding party walked down an aisle lined with cream colored roses and chiffon, dozens of aerialists lined up downstairs to practice for their trapeze act later that night. An eight-tiered cake towered over the ballroom as two bar tables, sculpted completely from ice, were quickly assembled.
“Have you ever been to a Persian Wedding?” one guest asked another, while an officiant welcomed guests to a 'celebration of love.' “It's quite specifically unusual.”
The decades long trend of oversize, extravagant weddings has been winding down in Iran, where a generation of young people pressed by inflation and unemployment are increasingly opting for smaller, more intimate celebrations. But Iranians in Los Angeles, the diaspora's largest home base, celebrate a culture that prizes scale over intimacy and wow-factor over moderation.
With lavish catering and full-fledged entertainment that could rival any show on the Las Vegas strip, Persian weddings have steadily grown in grandeur and size, turning into carefully orchestrated productions with little sense of proportion. They are still centered around the two-millenia old tradition known as the Sofreye-Aghd, but the urge to outdo has reached such heights that appearances of exotic jungle animals and acrobats have known grown commonplace.
The reputation for extravagance has even trickled out of the tight knit Iranian community and into more mainstream popular culture in California and beyond, thanks to polarizing reality shows like “Shahs of Sunset,” which follows well-to-do Iranians in L.A. living on equally high amounts of gold and drama.
What does the Persian wedding industry say about Iranian life in the diaspora, and indeed the culture of 'cheshmhachesmi' that Iranians brought to them to the shores of the Pacific when the migrated en masse in 1979? Is a trend that should be bemoaned as a sign of a community where material status is pursued at any cost and social values are out of kilter, or a reflection of modern success seeking out traditional modes of expression?
What's clear is that despite an economy still reeling from a recession, many couples remain determined to hold which on average costs couples anywhere from $100,000 to half a million dollars.
With invitations being extended to entire communities and growing pressure to host expensive events in a bid to glamorously outspend and out-entertain the 'competition,' couples often find themselves under stress, according to Leora Soleymani, a Southern California bridal planner who co-founded “Best Bride,” specializing in “day of coordination” for Persian weddings
“They borrow money, they take out loans, they do what they have to do,” she said. “It's a lot of pressure.”
The Persian wedding is not just a celebration between two people. It is a symbolic exchange of respect for an entire community, where an invitation ensures the social standing of a family and attendance accomplishes the same. Spending large amounts of money with the possibility of going in to debt is a small price to pay to guarantee that “aberoo,” the culturally complex and powerful notion of 'reputation' that dictates social life on multiple levels, hasn't been tarnished.
The regal festivities, thrown in posh venues that can accommodate hundreds of guests, are sometimes the opposite of what modern brides crave for their big day. But smaller, more intimate weddings tend to get sidelined - inviting one or two people from a large, extended family is the ultimate sign of disrespect, and many feel it will not bode well for the couple's future. The pressure to go big isn't just external – couples often have their own anxieties about how their preference might impact the social structure around them. “You know people are going to say things, even if you don't care,” Soleymani says.
Nahid Farhoud, a planner who specializes in Persian, Indian and other ethnic weddings and eventsin the Los Angeles and San Diego areas, says that while Persian weddings are still known for their enormity, they aren't as big as they used to be as couples try to save on expenses. Many are attempting to take their weddings in their own hands, switching the role of their big day to an affair with community input to a more personal, independent one.
“They are cutting the guest list, or cutting back on the décor, or if they have more people, they cut down on the budget,” she says.
That might mean trimming your guest list to just over 150, which still hits the high end of the range for most Americans. Often planning leaves no room for drastic changes that stray from established traditions. And with Iranians notoriously unpunctual and indifferent to customs like the RSVP, couples who are seeking some self-expression through their weddings rather than just community standing find themselves trumped on the day.
A recent bride Farhoud worked with wanted to keep her guest list to 250, but ended up with 320 people, some of whom had showed up having given no notice.
Shideh Shahraies, a veteran wedding and events planner whose work is well known and constantly sought after by the Iranian-American community in L.A. says it's not just Persian weddings who have continued to grow in size, but Southern California's wedding industry, thanks to its proximity to Hollywood, bridal expos and reality shows like “Brides of Beverly Hills.” In this way Persian weddings are in danger of being subsumed in the American wedding industry at large, a vast commercial enterprise that in 2006 amounted to $161 billion of the US economy.
“It's a major production,” she says. “People really take it seriously, they definitely spend a lot of money.”
Shideh, who plans 60 or more each year, disputes the notion of the impending pressure and frustration associated with living up to community standards when it comes to weddings. She says cultural authority has shifted, and that younger couples are making their own decisions about both who and how to get married.
“I have realized that most of our clients are professionals and a lot of them have paid for their own weddings, they've worked hard in their lives, they like to do it,” she says. “If somebody doesn't want to have a great big event, they just won't do it.
Despite the tendency to super size going strong in some circles, there's also a growing trend of brides who are choosing smaller, more intimate affairs, too.
“I think that many Iranian couples are more conscious of doing things their own way,” said Mahdis Keshavarz, an Iranian-American media strategist who got married last year. “We have incredible traditions in our culture around wedding ceremonies. However, growing up as part of the diaspora and traveling the world, has given many of us the desire to diversify the nature of our wedding ceremonies.”
Part of the diversity that new generations have brought include incorporating their Persian heritage in multicultural weddings. Farhoud, who has seen fusion weddings rise in the last few years has planned Persian weddings that incorporate American, Indian and Nicaraguan elements. Recently, she planned a Persian-Sikh wedding as well as a Muslim-Jewish wedding, where a chuppah, or Jewish altar stood next to the Sofreh-Aghd spread.
With second-generation Iranians growing up in the diaspora, inter-ethnic and inter-faith marriages are increasingly more common, though they have come with their own unique set of challenges that have altered Iranian social customs and notions as compromises are reached.
Emily and James Ryan threw a Persian-Cuban wedding earlier this year in Philadelphia, incorporating elements of both their backgrounds for their big day, including the Sofreh Aghd with items that were family heirlooms. “It was special to us because it allowed us to display gifts from Emily's Iranian family, the vast majority of whom live in Iran and were unable to attend,” said James.
In addition to the Cuban elements in the ceremony and food, their wedding also included a reading from Rumi and traditional Iranian music The couple was conscious of being all-inclusive when it came to their day. “We wanted to make sure that both of our cultures were represented and that we created a unique experience for our guests.”
Some, like Kesharvaz, hope that the growth or reduction in the size and scope of Persian Weddings doesn't determine the disappearance of the heavily symbolic and traditional elements that make them so unique. With the Iranian diaspora growing and its roots to Iran inevitably fraying with generations, customs like the sofreye aghd remain a crucially binding tie to that cultural heritage.
“Historically Iranian weddings took place in our homes and in the homes of our loved ones and there is a simplicity to that which I hope remains at the root of our intentions,” she said. “The couple, their love, family, friends are what matter most.”