Iranian-American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo is strikingly beautiful, but it’s her voice that is truly distinctive and unmistakable: deep, smoky and influenced by the accents of at least three different countries, it is a voice that belongs to a performer, a cadence you’d want to listen to no matter what she has to say.
Fortunately, Aghdashloo has a fascinating life story to tell, which she recounts in her memoir, The Alley of Love and Yellow Jasmines. The title recalls the narrow lovers’ lanes and fragrant spring blooms of Aghdashloo’s native Tehran. “Once, an interviewer asked me what I missed most about my birth country, and I closed my eyes and saw the love alleys and yellow jasmines,” Aghdashloo says.
In the US, Aghdashloo is perhaps best known for being the first Iranian-American actress to be nominated for an Academy Award in the best supporting actress category (her loss to Renée Zellweger is noted in the book) for her work opposite Ben Kingsley in 2003’s House of Sand and Fog. Aghdashloo works steadily in film and television, including a recurring role on 24, and won an Emmy in 2009 for her portrayal of Saddam Hussein’s first wife in the HBO mini-series House of Saddam.
Aghdashloo’s story began with an affluent, happy childhood with loving parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and brothers in the 1960s. Born in 1952 and the eldest of three children, Aghdashloo enjoyed a close relationship with her maternal grandmother, American movies (Gone with the Wind made an early impression; Aghdashloo later named her daughter Tara after the estate in the story) and trips to the beach. Against her parents’ wishes (they wanted to send her to Germany to become a doctor), Aghdashloo became a model and later an actress. She married her first husband, Aydin Aghdashloo, a painter and official in the Ministry of Arts and Culture, in part because he promised to allow her to continue acting. By the time the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Cultural Revolution occurred in the late 1970s, Aghdashloo was an established actress in Iranian film and theater. Because of the recently instituted, harsh restrictions on performers and women, Aghdashloo decided to leave Iran and Aydin for the West. It’s the book’s—and Aghdashloo’s—defining moment.
“I needed to leave Iran, even though the idea broke my heart,” Aghdashloo writes. “I was too much of a danger to my family and my husband… I had no idea if my film work or my political beliefs were going to haunt me in the new regime.” Aghdashloo describes crossing into Turkey by car with Aydin and a friend. Though her language skills were limited and she’d left her homeland, Aghdashloo’s flight is one of grace and gumption. “Being young means being blessed when it comes to fear,” she says. “Why should we fear the unknown when we don’t know what’s going to happen next? From Tehran, we went to Istanbul, to what was back then Yugoslavia, to Germany, to the South of France not even thinking how dangerous those roads could be.”
Eventually, Aghdashloo arrived in London where she had relatives. She worked for several years in England and earned a college degree, before acting opportunities led her to the United States. There she met her second husband, Houshang Touzie, an Iranian-American actor and playwright. Aghdashloo speaks romantically about the American Dream, even though she struggled when she first arrived in Los Angeles, trying to find acting jobs.
“I respect Americans for all their hard work,” Aghdashloo says. “And [Iranian-Americans] have a lot in common with other Americans. Our community is fairly young, and I want to bring it to light. I wrote the book in part for my American friends. They’re very educated, they know who Ahmadinejad is, but they have no idea what went on in Iran during the Shah’s reign.”
Much of Aghdashloo’s work is socially and politically informed. She helped secure financing for 2008’s The Stoning of Soraya M. in which she plays a woman in an Iranian village who tells a visiting journalist about her niece’s death by stoning. Recently, Aghdashloo completed the short film Silk. She stars as Rani, a woman who was forced into marriage at 10. And since her arrival in the US, Aghdashloo has continued to perform and speak in Farsi, because, “hundreds of thousands of Iranian-Americans don’t speak English properly, and speaking Farsi helps them feel less alone and brings them into society.”
“It took me a couple of years, maybe decades, to understand that what I desire is for the world to be a better place, and to export this dream to the whole world,” Aghdashloo says. “I’m most proud that I never gave up.”
Adele Oliveira is a journalist based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she writes for The Santa Fe New Mexican, the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi.