Aram and his brother Artin, both born in Kenya, are Iranians who are also African. But they are not Afro-Iranians – descendants of African slaves shipped to the old Persian Empire and who have lived in southern Iran for hundreds of years. Aram and Artin are Iranians who are ethnically Persian and culturally African, something that is different, and quite new – and their story only started some decades ago.
Aram and Artin Laloui, 26 and 21 years old respectively, grew up in Nairobi. Their father, Arsalan, left Iran in 1972 to study in the United Kingdom; in 1987, after a spell in Canada, he settled in Kenya.
Arsalan is from a Baha’i family, and Iran’s government has systematically persecuted members of the Baha’i faith since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Two of Arsalan’s brothers-in-law had been imprisoned for five years because of their Baha’i activities.
“That inspired [Arsalan] to go somewhere he could teach and be of service,” Aram says, explaining how his father chose Kenya instead of settling in the UK or Canada.
Africa was so central to Arsalan’s plans that it overrode other parts of his life. “When my dad was in Canada,” Aram says, “he was very popular, and he could have proposed to several women he knew, and each one would have said yes. But whenever he would have told them that he was traveling to Africa, they each would have said no.”
Arsalan later met a young woman named Mojgan, who was also from Iran but living in Canada, and who, Aram says, played a “pivotal role” in his father’s life. Arsalan and Mojgan married two weeks after they met.
Arsalan spent two years looking for a job during the 1980s, before finally joining the Computer Science Department at the University of Nairobi. “He helped build the department for over 20 years,” Aram says, “[and] he had a great impact on computer science in Kenya because a lot of the innovation coming out of the country stems from the university.”
The job was no gilded expat assignment; it was a local appointment. “Working at the university really was service,” Aram says. “The pay was bad, the housing was bad, and I really admire that my mother stood by my father [during those years].”
Growing up in Kenya, one of Aram and Artin’s kindergarten teachers was Barack Obama’s stepmother. “One thing that I really appreciated from my parents was that I was never tied to my [Iranian] culture,” Aram says. “I was raised with a Kenyan identity – there was never any issue of race.”
The family’s Kenyan housekeeper played a key role in developing this identity within Aram and Artin. “Mama Coleta was like a mother to us,” Artin says. “I would go to Mama Coleta’s home, [which was] just a room in the servant’s quarters, and eat ugali [a traditional Kenyan maize meal].” He adds, “And that’s where I learnt Swahili. She was with us since we were born. That element of language is so important.”
Artin is currently at the University of Toronto – studying sociology and African studies – and plans to return to Kenya after finishing his degree. He also facilitates study classes with young Kenyans and helps at local orphanages in an effort to serve the local community. “Speaking deep-deep Swahili really breaks down barriers,” he says. Artin is even learning Kikuyu – one of Kenya’s tribal languages – to communicate with people from the largest ethnic group in their own language.
A family visit to Iran in 2004 showed the brothers a glimpse of how Africa was seen by many Iranians. “When Iranians look at us, they don’t see us as Kenyan, they see us as Iranian,” Aram says. “But our relatives would ask us to shout like Tarzan! Iranians think Africa is a crazy place,” he adds, while also acknowledging that his Iranian relatives respected his parents for their choice to live in Kenya.
Aram spent two years at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada before dropping out to start a property development company in Nairobi. Part of this was because Canada was just too alien to him. “In Canada, I became aware of the stereotypes that revolve around Africa, a place that was so precious to me. It was tormenting. I recall waking up every day, reading the Kenyan business news, and it felt like a calling.”
Now Aram is working with his Kenyan friends on an affordable housing project. “About 17 percent of people in Kenya own property or housing,” he says, “and in a country of more than 40 million people only about 20,000 people have applied for mortgages.” The government wants to see a million homes built in the next five years and is offering infrastructure help and tax rebates to meet the target.
“Our goal is to build a house that looks good and is green,” Aram says. “One of the reasons we’re going into sustainable housing is so that both the social and material well-being of Kenyans are addressed.”
Aram and Artin have relaxed manners, but they also have an urgency about them that filters beyond these first impressions. The Iranian diaspora is famous for its contributions in Canada and the United States, or across parts of Europe. Now in Kenya, in Africa, where the need is still great, Iranian-Africans, like the Lalouis, can go far.