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BaltiLor: a Study of the Lor Diaspora in Baltimore

January 4, 2017

Introduction

During the 1970’s, many Lor men from Khorramabad, Iran and the surrounding areas in the province of Lorestan migrated to the United States. They settled in Baltimore, Maryland, and they nicknamed their settlement “BaltiLor.” Approximately 30 years later, in 2000, I immigrated to BaltiLor from Khorramabad as well.  Since immigrating, I have been deeply interested in researching my culture and background as a Lor. In my sophomore year at the University of Maryland, College Park, I conducted research on ethnic Lor music. Ever since that, I have wanted to incorporate my identity as a Lor migrant into more of my studies.

At a Roshangar meeting, I brought up the term BaltiLor and to my surprise, none of the other group members had heard this colloquialism. I decided to write a brief piece introducing the large population of Lors in Baltimore and explore my own diaspora community. As I conducted research and interviewed Lor women and men, I realized there is no way to encompass the extensive information I have found without writing a complete ethnography. The following is a synopsis of the information I found, which I will later relate to an ethnographic article to be published through the Anthropology department at the University of Maryland.

 

Methods

To start my project, I began conducting ethnographic research of the Lor through a variety of sources including linguists, anthropologists, and ethnomusicologists. Their findings helped me understand a great deal about the Lor as a minority ethnic group. As a whole, the Lor reside in Lorestan, a province in the Western region of Iran. According to Mohsen Hajarian, a Lor ethnomusicologist, the history of the Lor people and their migrations transcends over a thousand years. He states: “Historical records attest of about 1400 years ago thousands of Indian musicians were brought to Iran as entertainment…. On their way to Teesfon, the capital of Sassanid Empire, some of them settled down and inhabited the mountain area of Lorestan; they were called Lors. The name Lorestan is a derivative from their name.” The language of the Lors is Lori, classified as an Indo-Iranian language cluster with over four million speakers.

After research was conducted on the Lor as a group, I began interviewing various community members using these questions:

  1. Why did so many Lor people migrate to Baltimore? In other words, what made Baltimore the destination of choice?

  2. What neighborhoods did they live in? Where there any neighborhoods that the Lor avoided?

  3. How did the term “BaltiLor” get coined? Who coined it?

  4. What was most common occupation?

  5. Where there an equal number of men and women? What caused this?

  6. What cultural activities did the diaspora community engage in? Were they politically active?

  7. Does the community still exist or did they disperse? Why? Where are they now?

  8. What distinguishes the Lor from other Iranians? How was this reflected in the “BaltiLor” community?

  9. Which years did “BaltiLor” exist?

The responses I was given varied from person to person, and many interviewees ignored parts of the questions I asked. However, I have pieced together the interviews as a conversation between the interviewees and myself.

 

Results

The first person I interviewed is a family friend, Mohammad Khishtan, whom I affectionately refer to as “Uncle” or “Amoo.” He migrated to the Baltimore-Washington area in 1970, and he currently works as a financial advisor in Rockville. Emma Minnis and myself were invited to his office to interview and photograph him. He welcomed us into his office, offered us tea and coffee, and then we got settled in a conference room for the interview. 

In response to my first question about what made Baltimore a destination of choice, he gave a response, which I would later hear from all the other interviewees. He stated: “The main reason was when someone goes somewhere and they are well known (back home) others follow. Baltimore was more suited for many because it is less expensive and was easier to find jobs.” He implied that because Lors have a close-knit community, there was a lot of influence from families making decisions about where their children would immigrate to in accordance with where other Lor people were. Khishtan went on to mention that when someone would arrive in the United States, other Lors who had been there longer would help them assimilate. “For example, I helped 6 kids come. I helped them come, let them stay with me a few days, helped them open bank accounts, etc.”

Khishtan explained that the Lors in Baltimore all lived near each other so they could easily get together. He went on to state: “They were in Baltimore County scattered around Interstate 695 in Lutherville, Parkville, and around White Marsh.” When I went on to ask about the occupations of the many Lor who migrated, Khishtan emphasized to us that as many of the migrants were supporting themselves with little to no aid from family, they needed affordable housing and many worked odd end jobs. Before trailing off about the various jobs Lors held, he proudly mentioned his friend John Saki who currently owns and operates the renowned Louisiana restaurant in Baltimore’s Fells Point.

Pictured above: Hajarian interviewing Khishtan

By the end of our interview, Khishtan suddenly took over the interview. He started mentioning the community events he had attended and helped host. “We started inviting couples and single people, many people would make food and play the tombak and kamancheh.” Khishtan went on to talk about a short pamphlet he had created of lyrics to 30 folk Lor songs that he distributed to the other Lors. The kamancheh as mentioned earlier, is an Iranian instrument, however, the Lor version of this instrument is shaped differently. The back of the oval shaped bottom portion of the instrument is opened and this creates a different range of musical sounds. Anthropologist Amanolahi comments on Lor instruments, stating that they “consisted of a small drum (tombak), a large drum (dohol), a long wind instrument (saz), and a three-stringed violin (kamancheh). The large drum and wind instrument provided dance music and the violin and small drum were generally used to accompany singing.

Pictured above: man playing sitar

My next interviewee was Reza Hatami, who moved to the DC-Baltimore area in the early 1970’s. He explained to me that he “came because the madreseh’i zaban[1] was here. Also, my family wanted me to go somewhere where I would know other people and other people would know me.” He went on to mention that many wanted to send their kids to Baltimore because of chishm-va hamchishmi, a one upper-y of other community members. Interviewing Hatami was much different that interviewing Khishtan, as he provided a great deal of insight into his personal experiences. Hatami explained that during the peak of Lor immigration, most migrants were men. He said that many like himself married American women. However, he noted “many people wanted relationships to be able to stay in the states.” Hatami made sure to mention that some of the men wanted to respect their families’ cultural values and find women from home. When I asked what he meant by this he said that many wanted hamzaban[2],” However, Hatami quickly mentioned that many people wanted marriage in order to be able to stay in the United States, and thus they married Americans.

Pictured above: a man playing sitar next to man playing tombak

Finally, I interviewed Nahid Toulabi, the first Lor woman to immigrate to the US. When I asked for her opinion on the lack of female migrants, she stated: “It was cultural, especially with the Lor and especially before the revolution. It’s our belief that it’s not ‘right’ for a girl to go somewhere alone. When I came here to Baltimore in 1989, I think I was the first Lor woman to come. And I came with my family, not even by myself.” She explained to me that many of the immigrants had known each other back in Khorramabad, and that many of them were even childhood friends. She cited her reason for migration as family and related to me that although many of the community members weren’t blood relatives, they were all family to her.

In the final steps of my research, I contacted my uncle, who is also a renowned Lor ethnomusicologist, Mohsen Hajarian. Throughout most of my interviews, the participants cited Hajarian as the person they had known in Baltimore and one of the reasons they immigrated. My interview with him was amazing, as it tied together many of the loose ends of my project. He explained to me that the first Lor to immigrate to Baltimore was Sekandar Amanolahi, an anthropologist who would later publish a book through Harvard University entitled Tales from Luristan. Hajarian told me that he immigrated in 1968, and after Amanolahi a few other wealthy and/or educated Lor men did as well. My uncle told me that in 1970 he was in Arkansas, but decided to follow his friend to Baltimore in search of summer work. Hajarian stated: “I came to Baltimore and then I never left. After that, everyone came to follow me.”

 

Conclusion

Writing this piece was not only a study of the Lor migration to Baltimore, but it was an introspective research project that helped me understand my own background as a Lor woman, immigrant, and American. I found that like most immigrants, the Lor settled somewhere they knew others and had prospects of jobs and homes. They maintained their identities through their pursuit of ethnic Lor music and community gatherings. I found myself captured by the stories my interviewees told me, they not only faced immigration into a new, strange country, but they became isolated from their ethnic culture and families. They became further removed from home after the Islamic Revolution, but they remained united as a community. A point of disconnect for me however was the interviewees’ refusal to acknowledge/answer my questions about their political activism. None of them were willing to discuss community and political activism they participated in while in the US and at home. I hope to further explore this subject in the lengthier, more developed ethnography I am continuing to work on.

 

 

Bibliography

Amanolahi, Sekandar. "A note on ethnicity and ethnic groups in Iran." Iran & The Caucasus (2005): 37-41.

Amanolahi, Sekandar. "The Luti, and Outcaste Group of Iran." Trans. Edward Norbeck. Rice University Studies 61.2 (1975): 1-13. Print.

Anonby, Erik John. "Update on Luri: How many languages?." Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (Third Series) 13.02 (2003): 171-197.

Hajarian, Mohsen (2015, November 2). Phone interview.

Hatami, Reza (2015, October 13). Phone interview.

Khishtan, Mohammad (2015, October 1). Personal interview.

"The Lurs of Iran." Cultural Survival. Cultural Survival Inc, 17 Feb. 2010. Web. 10 May 2015.

Toulabi, Nahid (2015, October 13). Personal interview.

 

[1] ESL classes needed to attend university and prepare for the TOEFL

 

[2] Someone who shares your language

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