Like many of Shohreh Aghdashloo’s non-Iranian fans, I first became aware of her in 2003 when House of Sand and Fog was released. Her performance garnered a well-deserved Academy Award nomination, and she’s been working steadily in Hollywood ever since. But before being cast in House of Sand and Fog, Aghdashloo was already a beloved personality in the Iranian American community, working nonstop with her playwright husband to produce his Iranian-themed plays around the world. And before that, she was an established actress in Iran, fleeing the country and starting over in the United States after the Islamic Revolution.
The Alley of Love and Yellow Jasmines recounts Aghdashloo’s life growing up in pre-revolution Tehran (the title is a reference to this happier time and remains a symbol of her hope for a free Iran). Although “Shohreh” means “famous” in Farsi, her parents wanted her to be anything but: acting wasn’t considered an appropriate career for a young woman of her affluent upbringing, and she was expected to become a doctor. Still, she knew she wanted to be an actress ever since she was a child. Though her parents expressly forbid her from pursuing an acting career, her first husband, Aydin Aghdashloo, a worldly and forward-thinking artist, was supportive of her acting aspirations. They were a perfect match for each other, and both of their careers took off.
Then, in 1978, the Islamic Revolution began. Artists, actors, students, and educators were all disappearing or being taken in for questioning under the new regime, but her husband loved Iran and refused to leave. As someone who vocally opposed what was happening to her country, it was becoming increasingly apparent that Shohreh needed to leave; to stay would mean putting her husband, family, and friends in danger. She made the difficult decision to leave her husband behind in Iran and escaped to Europe, then eventually made her way to the United States to try making it in Hollywood.
One of the things I liked most is how she close she’s always stayed to her cultural roots. After arriving in the United States, she began hosting a radio show spoken in Farsi, and since she was already a known actress in Iran before the revolution, she was able to provide her fellow Iranian immigrants with some kind of connection to home. The same could be said of the plays she stages with her second husband, Houshang; the plays they produce are in Farsi and deal with topics that resonate with the Iranian immigrant experience. And, of course, there are her film roles. She takes great pride in being the first Iranian to be nominated for an Academy Award and talks about how frustrating it is that people from the Middle East are often typecast in stereotypical terrorist roles. She refers to her recurring role on the television show 24, in which she did play a terrorist, but discusses her reasoning for agreeing to play that character: she saw her as a complex, well-developed, strong woman rather than a stereotype.
Surprisingly (and refreshingly), only a few of chapters in The Alley of Love and Yellow Jasmines are about Aghdashloo’s Hollywood career; most of it is about the journey she traveled to get there. I know I say this as a fan, but I really enjoyed this mesmerizing memoir. It’s so easy to be pulled into Aghdashloo’s remarkable life story.
The Alley of Love and Yellow Jasmines was released today by Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.