Free to express

Kaveh Dadashzadeh: The art of elderly Iranian immigrants


Free to express
by Majid Naficy

Today a good portion of first-generation Iranian Immigrants to the US have reached old age. Comparing the conditions of these elderly Iranian immigrants to their counterparts in Iran leads us to two contradictory conclusions: Loneliness and estrangement have made their adjustment to the old age more difficult, and compared to patriarchal Iran, the individualistic society of America has lowered their social prestige as carriers of old traditions.

By contrast, because they enjoy the same legal rights and social and medical benefits that the American senior citizens are entitled to, the elderly Iranian immigrants can potentially be more creative and active than their counterparts in Iran.

I. Old Age: Iran vs. the US

The border line of old age differs between Iran and the United States. According to “international Data” from the “Bureau of the US Census” for the year 2000, the average life expectancy in Iran is 69.7, and in the United States is 77.1.(1) Of course, we should consider 65 the beginning of old age in the US because this is the legal age for the American citizen to receive SSI. Nevertheless, there are still many men and women who have maintained jobs beyond the age of 65, not only because they don’t want to loose their financial independence but also because they find themselves creative and useful in the work place as before.

In 1970, Maggie Kuhn (1905-95) founded the “Grey Panthers” organization because she had been forced to retire at the age of 65. One of the goals of this organization is to fight against discrimination and prejudice against the elderly.

It is obvious that new medical achievements and progress in public hygiene, especially in gerontology and geriatrics play an important role in keeping the elderly creative and active. But one should not forget the importance of organizing and raising consciousness in this respect.

Being old does not mean sitting home, longing for the good old days and waiting for death. Contrary to the cynical Persian proverb “sar-piri va ma’rekehgiri!” (old age and new tricks!), one can fall in love again, change jobs or professions, return to school and like a living person enjoy life during this period. Therefore, medical progress, economic independence, support of a social network and struggle against age discrimination can be considered as the four pillars of the elderly movement in the United States.

In Iran, social life is still based on extended family and the role of the elderly is defined within this framework. If after the death of a spouse, an elderly father (or ,as happens more often, an old mother) cannot maintain his or her financial independence and social network, they usually have to move in with one of their children, or like nomads move from the house of one son or daughter to the other. This method of dealing with old-age challenges seems fine as long as tensions have not built up between the elderly parents and the younger members of the family. But usually this is not the case and individual differences and generational gaps make the home environment unbearable for both sides, as reflected in jokes related to the relationship between “brides” and “mother-in-laws”.

In the US, the elderly do not have to impose themselves on their children because after retirement they can receive social security benefits and stand on their own two feet. In addition, there are many organizations such as elderly centers which bring the senior citizens together to go hiking, or to the jims, movie theatres and concerts, creating a social network which reduces their dependency on their children.

Of course, the financial and social independence does not mean that the elderly should lose their role as grandparents or break their ties with their children and grandchildren. On the contrary, independence allows them to have quality time with their grandchildren, imbibe their passion for life and in turn share lessons of their own lives.

Ultimately, struggle against ageism is not limited to old people but includes other age groups such as children and the adolescent who might be discriminated against because of their age. Since both children and the elderly have limited physical strength, they are more vulnerable and subject to harassment by the young and middle-aged groups.

Child abuse and elderly harassment are two sides of the same coin, and legal achievements such as legislations against child labor and for paying social security benefits to old people results from the same struggle.

II. Paintings and Writings of the Iranian Elderly in S. California

One activist in struggle against ageism and the organizer of Iranian elderly movement in Southern California is Kaveh Dadashzadeh, who has been teaching painting as a volunteer for a few years at one of the senior centers, called “House of Sultan” in Orange County. Most of the members of this “House” are Iranian elderly men and women from the nearby area who come together to draw pictures, write poems, dance, play chess, eat meals, drink tea, and chat, Monday through Friday from 8 am to 2 pm.

Kaveh has selected samples of the paintings and writings of almost 100 Iranian senior citizens belonging to “House of Sultan” and three other elderly centers in Los Angeles and Orange counties, in order to publish them in an anthology, called The Life Goes on: Paintings and Writings of Iranian Elderly in Southern California.

Since this artist and social activist taught painting to children and teenagers for a few decades in Iran before immigrating to the US and assisted them in presenting their artworks to the public, we should, indeed, consider him as an activist against age discrimination for both the young and the old.

Kaveh Dadashzadeh was born in 1930 in Astara, Iran in a Tourkish speaking family. Because of his love of freedom and independent-Leftist tendency, he was imprisoned during the Shah’s regime both before and after the 1953 CIA-coup in Iran. One can read Kaveh’s memoir of seven years in political prison in his book, Padeshah-e Zendanha (“The King of Prisons”) which was first published in Los Angeles in 2005, and was recently released in its third edition.

After being released from prison due to the pressure from the Intelligence Service, Savak, he could not find a position in public schools and only thanks to his prison friend, the well-known writer, Parviz Shahriari he was finally hired in the prestigious private school, Kharazmi, where he taught the art of painting to children and teens for more than twenty years. During these years, he selected four volumes worth of his students’ works which he entitled Paintings and Writings of Children published by major publishers, Kharazmi, Gutanberg and Donia. He is now planning to publish the fifth volume, called, Half a Century from the Children’s Point of View.

After the establishment of Islamic Republic of Iran, Kaveh taught no more then 3 years before he was fired under the pressure from the new Intelligence Service, Savama.

As a result, in 2000, Kaveh and his beloved wife, late Mahin Shahbazi, known as Zari, were forced to immigrate to the US and resides in Los Angeles.

Now, the majority of Kaveh students are women, because, first, the population of the elderly women is greater than men, and second, women who suffer from gender oppression in Iran, more eagerly break their silence and start to express themselves once they come to the United States and enjoy the support of the law.

Some of these artist and poets are master of their pens and brushes, but the majority are novices. Nevertheless, everyday their teacher tells them that “do not imitate, but feel free to express yourself and dare to experiment”.”

The subject-matters of these artists are of two types:

The first relates to the past and is the product of nostalgia and contemplation about “a revolution usurped by mullahs”. The second relates to the future and is often filled with apprehension regarding death, doubt about divine justice and the mystery of being.

A small portion of their works reflects the present situation of their artists living in Southern California, and this is a shortcoming which needs to be addressed.

By making art and literature, the elderly immigrants not only create beauty but they also, in the process of this creation rekindles their “spirits. Their artworks will be viewed as historical materials by historians who want to write the social history of Iranian-Americans in Southern California.

Even though our traditional Iranian culture is anti-child and patriarchal in which gray-bearded men and gray-hair women play pivotal roles, it also paradoxically holds a negative view toward aging. In this culture, old age usually implies physical and mental disability, decay and death instead of a natural and beautiful period of four seasons of human life. When old, the bard, Rudaki (858-940s) only laments his “lost pearls” of teeth, and the epic poet, Ferdowsi (935-1020) grieves for his fading “lamp of eyes”, and the exile poet, Naderpour (1929-2000) feels depressed, when instead of a young face, finds an “ugly skeleton” in the mirror. Longing for his lost homeland and bygone youth, Naderpour called his last collection of poems zamin va zaman (The Land and the Time) published in Los Angeles. (2) However, the elderly creators of paintings and Writings in Kaveh Dadashzadeh’s book have a different view. By creating these works they are telling themselves and others that: no! Old age is beautiful just as winter is beautiful. Although, as the contemporary poet, Shamlu (1925-2000) writes “The snow does not stop, the snow which falls on our hairs and eyebrows”, one should not give way to grieve. In the last season of life, men and women are still worthy of praise and love.


1. See:
2. For more details see my essay “The Odyssey or the Aeneid?” in I Am Iran alone and Thirty-Five Other Essays (man khod Iran hastam va si-o-panj maqaleh-ye digar)  Afra-Pegah publishers, Toronto, 2006

My gratitude to Mohsen Mirhoseini who originally rendered this essay into English. The Persian version of this essay was first published in Shahrvand magazine at:


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Nilo Siavashi

PW, No you may not

by Nilo Siavashi on

Dear PW, only part of my comment; the part about people possibly e-mailing me afterwards, was meant as a joke. 


persian westender

Dear Nilo, May I take the

by persian westender on

Dear Nilo, May I take the whole comment as a joke, not just part of it :-)?! Thank you so much for your kind words.


Nilo Siavashi

PW is always so impessive in his writing

by Nilo Siavashi on

PW, your parents are lucky to have you as their son but since they raised you, I guess credit goes to them.  You are one of the most thoughtful contributors to this site.  Please, no one should send me an e-mail writing that they heard from other people that they think I am crushing on PW.  All joking aside, the quality of PW 's comments, poems, writings are always very high, at least in my opinion.

persian westender

Your concerns are

by persian westender on

Your concerns are understandable.  I think the adult children who have concerns about their older parents or take care of them are kind of paying back at least some of the concerns that their parents used to have when they were younger,.. and it is a rewarding feeling.

I personally just want my missions to be accomplished when I’m ready to say good bye no matter at what age I am. The thing is that my missions are impossible ;-)



anonymous fish

this may be true

by anonymous fish on

in the larger scope.  i can only speak from my personal experience.  but it IS an-ever increasing concern on my parents behalf, and ours of course, of where they will be in 5-10 years.  right at 80 years of age, we know how fortunate we are that they enjoy good health... physically AND mentally.  but the day will come and decisions will have to be made.  i can barely think of it.

me?  i don't know that i WANT to live till i'm 90...:-)

persian westender

Dear anonymous fish

by persian westender on

Not really. That might be an overstatement. I rather to say that, there are more challenges for elderly to claim for their rights and fight against ageist attitudes. The other day I was reviewing a magazine and surprised to see that how many ads were there to sell, Botox and other anti wrinkle materials. What’s the message behind those ads: We don’t want to see anything related to old age. There is a great fear of becoming old as everyone is looking for fountain of youth these days! This is in contrast to the fact that the population of elderly is growing worldwide, particularly in west. At times, some authorities in the field of health policy or economy, blame growing population of elderly for overwhelming costs of health care expenditure. That puts the elderly on spot; while the fact is that current older adult’s cohort is the healthiest comparing to the previous cohorts. Older adults are more physically active and more knowledgeable about benefits of healthy life style. today’s elderly may have more self –esteem and independence, but at the same time they are faced with more challenges. Since they live longer, the chance that they live with disability may increase in very old age. Moreover, it is more likely that their relationships with family members decline and they live in isolation (or institutions). So independence and ability for self-management is a crucial factor for their well-being.  



anonymous fish

a wonderful read...

by anonymous fish on

thank you.

PW... i'm surprised you think the social status of the elderly is declining.  i would have thought just the opposite.  but perhaps i'm seeing it from my parents perspective which may not be typical.  they have actually become more involved in social and political issues.  but there is no doubt that our parents and the older generation store a vast richness of experience and knowledge.  we need to tap into that!


اقای نفیسی عزیز


I am glad to see your translated piece here. I forwarded your original writing in Farsi to many relatives of various ages and professions. Arts in various forms have been found to have valuable impact on the brain and the aging process.

As a member of the so called "Sandwiched Generation", I am involved in caring for my younger daughters and my older mother. Being in touch with some of the challenges and rewards in both realms, I feel great admiration and respect for Mr. Dadashzadeh, who models compassion and genuine wisdom in helping all ages of the Iranians in diaspora. In my next trip to OC I will make a point to meet "House of Sultan" to pay Mr. Dadashzadeh my gratitude and respect, in person. My hope would also be to learn further from his wisdom, so that I can (in the future) incorporate his model, in similar centers in few parts of  Northern California. 

Thank you again for both articles.


persian westender

Declining social status of

by persian westender on

Declining social status of elderly is more apparent in modern western societies, whereas younger age is constantly idolized by media in contrast to old age, or older adults more likely are viewed as rejected, useless and isolated layer of the society. The movements for reclaiming the lost status of elderly now is enhanced due to the claims of more expenditure of health care resources on growing older population in western countries. Contrarily, in eastern culture including Iran, at least traditionally, older adults are venerated by younger generations and taking care of elderly has been an undeniable responsibility of children as it is defined by filial piety. Older adults usually do not feel financial burden as they generally have saved for rainy days. The picture that you have illustrated for current elderly Iranians as the ones involved in “brides and in-law relations” or moving back and forth in to their adult children’s homes, might not be very accurate.

It would be interesting to see the reflection of ageism in the literature.

Referring to literal resources (as you exemplified by a proverb), a higher status of elderly and values put on more experienced and wise older people can be implied from the available proverbs of:

-          Dood az kondeh boland mishavad

-          Kareh har boz nist kharman kooftan, gaave nar mikhaahado marde kohan

-          In mooha dar asiaab sefid nashode ast

In more ‘serious’ instances of Persian literature especially the ones which influenced by Sufism, older people are represented as Masters, Wisers, Guiders, and most valued ranking of spiritual endeavors are represented by them: (pire moghan, pire kharaabat, Pire meikadeh,..)


Vs. popular American phrase of :

You cannot teach the old dog new tricks.


Within Iran there are plenty of older artists who are still active, and their creativity is on-going in different venues of art. If there are restrictions in their artistic expressions, it is not necessarily due to their older age, but their political or ideological orientations over the course of their life. In general, status of elderly can be very unique across cultures.




Great Work

by hossein.hosseini on

Mr. Naficy, thanks for a great piece,
I have heard great things about Mr. Dadashzadeh and the work this group is doing. I have not seen the art works but hear that they are great.

One sad thing that I hear mostly from our elderly in America (nasal-e-deerooz-e-Iran) is the fact that it is hard for them to get around, especially around southern California where public transportation is lacking.  They also tell me that we keep talking about the ‘youth’ and ‘younger generation’ and seem to forget the old and elderly.  Glad to see at least in this instance much talent and skills are being used.


Follow up: Pat...

by A Hassan Danesh (not verified) on

Of course in order to make sure that this multi generational social structure is to become fully functional and completely intergrated in its daily functioning-- the option of execution should be always on the table toward the effective and swift redistribution of power in favor of the older geneneration hoping that the rule of barbarism & cruelty is replaced by the rule of merci and compassion--

Believe it not ...


Pat Hartman: See if this is another way to look at same animal

by A Hassan Danesh, Sociologist (not verified) on

...perhaps one's aging experience could be defined and reflected upon in relation to one's children (of course if you got one).

In time of modernity and modernization unfortunately the new generation quickly separate themself into a crude barbaric with extreme exclusionary practice (caste?) tightly knit in groups and gangs away from the reach of the old generation.

I nnight clubs, sports, and all the other forms of intermingling the new generation keep the old one at bay at all levels as if the parents are not the same people who held them from behind when they tried the first experience of bike that they know how to bike to speed up faster and faster in the generation-gap-paradigm withut ever looking back to see if their parents are still present in the distant horizon.

What is needed in modern society such as in America is a radical reevaluation of the power structure of new generation in way to strip them from the most iif not all they power they often have and crudely exercise in their closed door exclusionary practices.

I say the best way to make the aging experience as humanely as possible is to bring the new generation to their knee begging for merci for inclusion in the aging society of their of their parents and grand parents-- This way their long over due barbaric dictatorship rule will be ovethrown in favor of muti tiers generational new social structure in which al generations are in continuous interaction and dialogue where grace is the absolute authority in charge.


(of course editing is needed for this rough draft)

Maryam Hojjat

Thank you!

by Maryam Hojjat on

for this beautiful writing of this blog.  I am really glad for the elderly in CA who are involved in such a way.  I hope one day in our beloved IRAN people be involved at older age and enjoy themselves.



Very Difficult

by MiNeum71 on

I´m sure that it´s very difficult for the elder generation for get along with the new situation. It´s true, they shouldn´t sit at home and long for the typically Iranian customs, but that´s easier said than done. I guess only their kids cn help them to feel comfortable and beloved, although the circumstances are different.



Interesting indeed

by Pat Hartman (not verified) on

It's always good to hear from another perspective. I wish more Americans who were born here would listen to the people who moved here and voluntarily became Americans.


Perspective: Time is circular

by Abol Hassan Danesh, Sociologist (not verified) on

Interesting piece...

However, the old age also should be defined in relation to one's sibling's aging history-- another way to look at the aging phenomenon--

Beyond the youngest brother I am finding myself now being the oldest brother way beyond the traditional threshold--

My oldest brother passed away at age 47 and the middle one at age 53 and now that I am 56 years old I am 9 years older than my older brother who "used to be" 6 years older than me--

Baby the way I am aging soon my both brothers will be my sons and then grandsons...and my grand father my brother,,,en route when I will be hitting 60's ...70's ...80's?


Thanks for the piece

by Abarmard on