Boozing, boasting and frivolous spending. That's not what Long Island Iranians were expecting when they heard Persians would be featured in a reality TV show.
"I now know what any normal Italian-American feels like after watching shows like 'Jersey Shore' and 'The Sopranos'," says Steven Dann, a Persian-American who owns a high-end shoe store on Middle Neck Road in Great Neck. "The show is repulsive, offensive and embarrassing."
"Shahs of Sunset," a Bravo reality show on Sunday nights at 10, features six wealthy Persian friends in Los Angeles. Their antics have included a night in Las Vegas, where one of the women got so drunk she had to be tossed in the bathtub to sober up.
One of the show's main players -- Reza Farahan, who will visit his family in Great Neck during the April 8 episode -- fires back at critics, saying in a phone interview that it's "ludicrous" to think anybody would stereotype all Persians based on the show. And if he is going to be a symbol of Iranian Americans, Farahan says he prefers "successful" and "wealthy" as opposed to other, more negative stereotypes about Iranians. "We're not terrorists, we don't have camels and Uzis," he says.
Most of the cast members are in their 30s and attended Beverly Hills High School. Some are Muslim; some are Jewish.
The show is supposed to be entertaining, Farahan says, and that's why it focuses on partying and glitz rather than showing, for instance, Farahan's volunteer life delivering meals to people with AIDS. "The stuff that's fun, that's what people want to watch," he says.
The show is the talk of the tight-knit Persian community. Close to one of every four people in Great Neck and Great Neck Estates is Persian-American, according to the U.S. Census; 4,500 Persian families live in Nassau County, according to the database of AHA Inc. in Great Neck, the company that publishes the Iranian Yellow Pages. Many of those families emigrated from Iranian cities such as Tehran and Mashhad in the '70s and '80s, congregating in areas of Los Angeles often referred to as Tehrangeles and the North Shore of Long Island.
Some Long Island Persians agree with Farahan's lighthearted take, enjoying the characters' escapades and personalities.
"I think it's addicting," Malka Kohanim of Great Neck says of the show. She sneaked upstairs during a party at her sister's house one Sunday night so she could catch the second episode. "I think it's a little bit trashy maybe, but these shows usually are."
Collette Hakimian, of Great Neck, gets together with three friends on Sunday nights to watch. "We get together to laugh," she says. "It's self-deprecating humor."
But now isn't a great time to portray Iranians as rich and arrogant, say the show's detractors, citing the political tensions among Iran, the United States and Israel. While the show isn't political, it does begin each week with the words, "When the revolution happened, we had to flee the country . . . " referring to the 1979 revolution that ended the monarchy rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, replacing the government with an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
"Shah means king. That's the definition of it. It's really more commonly associated with the last shah. To even use that word in the title of the show, it's just disrespectful," says Raymond Davoodi, who owns Atlantis National Services, a real estate title insurance company in Great Neck, with his brother, Radni. "I understand it's a TV show. But they're taking a beautiful, rich culture with so much to give, and they're treating it like clowns."
The show comes to Great Neck
The "Shahs of Sunset" will become the "Shahs of Great Neck" for the April 8 episode, when Reza Farahan and Mercedes "MJ" Javid head to Long Island for a Shabbat dinner with Farahan's family.
"Great Neck Persians live a super-glamorous lifestyle," Farahan tells Javid as they head to the gathering. "My cousin's house is a multimillion-dollar house on Long Island on the water, chock-full of super-expensive antiquities. . . . They are the supersize version of the L.A. Persians."
Farahan and Javid stop at Bruce's Bakery on Middle Neck Road to pick up dessert. Just before dinner, Farahan confronts his estranged
father, who moved from California to Port Washington 16 years ago, after divorcing Farahan's mother.
"You cannot check out from your children and your ex-wife," Farahan tells his dad, Manoochehr, as both of them cry. "It is still your responsibility to make sure your kids are OK. As long as I'm alive and you're still alive."
"I am here for you now, whenever you want," Farahan's father replies, kissing his son.
Farahan said in a phone interview that the emotional conversation shows "Shahs" isn't scripted, as some critics contend. "If you don't think the show is real," he says, "then I deserve some Academy Award."
Stars of the cast
Golnesa "GG" Gharachedaghi, 29, is fully supported by her father. She lets the swearwords fly more than any other character. She says: "Two things I don't like -- I don't like ants, and I don't like ugly people."
Mercedes "MJ" Javid, 30-something, is a real-estate agent whose two dogs have Facebook pages. She says: "I might spend more money on my handbag than I do on my rent, because more people are going to see my purse than they will my crib."
Mike Shouhed, 33, was a bigwig in the Las Vegas real estate market before losing everything and moving back to Los Angeles. He says: "We don't work in buildings, we own them."