The Iran-Hawaii connection goes back centuries, and is now more vital than ever

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Navid Najafi. Photo: Ethan Caldwell

If the escalating conflict with Iran feels distant, you’re not alone. Iran is, in fact, on the other side of the planet — Tehran is 8000 miles west of Honolulu. Travel the same distance in the opposite direction and you’ll end up in Rome. 

Yet there is a meaningful connection between Iran and Hawaii. Of course, the prevalence of military bases means that whatever conflict that occurs there could very well have repercussions here. But that’s not the only connection between these two seemingly disparate places. Na Hoku Hanohano Award-winning rapper Navid Najafi is a living testament to this.

Born in Iran, Najafi fled with his family when he was 7 years old.

“I was born right during the revolution in Iran, in the summer of 1979,” Najafi said. “That was the Islamic fundamentalist overthrow of the Shah of Iran. The revolution was a people’s uprising because the Shah was a brutal dictator. It was spearheaded by the mullahs, or the clerics. The clerics in Iran were outspoken critics of the Shah’s regime, and they framed themselves as freedom fighters.”

The revolution was ultimately successful, and the Shah was exiled in early 1979.

“This was my parents’ generation, and they all say for a few months it was like utopia in Iran. People were working together, taking care of each other. It was a beautiful time, and then the religious fundamentalists took power.”

After the expulsion of the Shah, rival factions within Iran sought power, but ultimately Ayatollah Khomeini — with indirect aid from the United States — consolidated his leadership through bloodshed. Iran became an Islamic Republic, and in December 1979, Khoemeini became the Supreme Leader. He instituted sharia law, but not all Iranians supported their country’s new direction.

Cover from Najafi’s most recent album, Second Language. Photo: Zenbu Records

“When Saddam Hussein attacked Iran,” Najafi explained, “it galvanized all Iranians. It gave them a common enemy. That war lasted 8 years. The reason the radicals were able to gain such a strong foothold was a direct result of that war. The government has always been legitimized by foreign powers.”

Najafi and his family fled at the height of the Iran-Iraq War in 1986. They went to New York to live with Najafi’s uncle. There, he learned English through hip-hop music. When he was 18, he moved to Hawaii, where he’s lived ever since.

This gives Najafi a unique perspective on the current tensions between America and Iran. He is well-aware of the horrors that recently-killed General Soleimani unleashed on the region — mass killings and detentions of sunnis in Syria, for starters — but he also understands the repercussions of eliminating a high-ranking leader like that.

“Soleimani was definitely an evil dude who was killed by evil dudes in a country that neither of them should’ve been in. Iran and US shouldn’t be in Iraq.” 

The Iranian economy has been severely strained for decades; virtually every US president since Jimmy Carter has imposed sanctions on Iran. This has led to general unrest and dissatisfaction with the Iranian government, but a hot conflict with the US could potentially galvanize the Iranian people in a similar way that the Iran-Iraq War did in the 80s.

“Every decision that Iran has made is by the clerics. There’s no political system. If we go to war, it’s only going to solidify the government’s standing. I feel bad for everyone – the civilians and the soldiers.”  

What is particularly troublesome for Najafi is President Trump’s threat to target cultural sites if Iran retaliates — a threat that Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo both have assured will not come to pass. Nevertheless, it’s a disconcerting reality to hear an American president make such threats.

“In Iraq,” Najafi said, “ISIS and other terrorist groups have blown up ancient temples and Babylonian sites. But I’ve never heard a world leader say ‘we’re gonna bomb these historic sites.’ There are so many historic sites. Iran is one of the oldest places in the world, and Persian civilization influenced so much of the world, including the west.”

Entry gateway of the Sheik Lotf Allah mosque, completed in 1619. Photo: Amir Haghighat

Though Najafi still has family and friends in Iran, Hawaii has always felt like a second home. The warmth and welcoming of Hawaiian culture reminded him of his country of birth.

“When I came to Hawaii and started meeting Hawaiians and learning about Hawaiian culture, there were so many similarities with Iranian culture.”

In fact, the ties between Hawaii and Iran go back much further than Najafi, or even America’s foreign involvements. 

“The Hawaiian kingdom had diplomatic relations with Iran when it was Persia. In 1886, King Kalakaua and the King of Persia wrote letters to each other, written in Farsi and Hawaiian and translated to English and French. Kalakaua was trying to establish Hawaii as a world power, and Persia was trying to do the same thing. They were both non-european countries establishing connections to strengthen their status.” 

Ultimately, as tensions escalate and conflict looms, Najafi wants to emphasize the difference between the Iranian people and the Iranian regime. 

“Iran has gone through a lot of invasions and dictatorships, but even though it has been dealing with messed up governments, the Iranian people and the roots they have are so deep and so old that their humanity and culture isn’t affected.

“Anyone who has been friends with Iranian people or has been lucky enough to go there will tell you how friendly Iranian people are. It’s part of our culture, we love talking to people. If you’re a tourist in Iran, people will come right up to you and talk to you. It’s not because they’re nosy, it’s because they’re genuinely curious and want to help. They’ll fight over whose house you get to stay in and whose house you get to eat at. The guest is the most important person in Iranian culture.”

He’s wary of the potential for American military involvement in Iran, and hopes that the lessons from American history will allow cooler heads to prevail. Regardless of America’s intentions, military presence could create the perception of a common enemy of the Iranian people, which would validate an otherwise weakening government.

“No one thinks America is this savior that’s going to come in and liberate them from an evil government. They know what American imperialism comes with. Change has to come from within.”

For more information on Iranian and Islamic culture, visit Shangri La Museum of Islamic Culture, Art & Design. Navid Najafi’s most recent album, Second Language, was released in September 2019 and can be heard and purchased here.

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