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Ariana Delawari: Somewhere Between Kabul and Los Angeles

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Each week, Jeremy Rosenberg (@LosJeremy) asks, "How did you - or your family before you - wind up living in Los Angeles?

This week we hear from musician, actress, and filmmaker, Ariana Delawari


"I was born in Los Angeles just after the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan.

"I grew up in La Cañada Flintridge, a quiet, conservative, Caucasian town of Spanish haciendas and English Tudor houses. Perfectly mowed lawns of green grass, gardens that were out of Architectural Digest. Kids went to Cotillion. Parents were members of the Rotary Club.

"Though dreadfully boring, there was a certain charm to La Cañada. The sort of `70s time capsule of architecture. The proximity of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to our High School. The beauty of the San Gabriel mountains up above our home. And within the walls of our home there was love and there was noise.

"There were Afghan refugees and live musicians. Rabab, harmonia, tabla, Afghan ghazal singers, journalists, Ahmad Zahir songs, one hundred cousins of every single religion and nationality stopping by, bohemians, L.A. theater center actors dancing to the Afghan music. One painter from Venice had a pet parakeet she would bring by. There was a spirit of togetherness.

"My older sisters Soraya and Yasmine introduced me to everything that was amazing about the birth of MTV - the Cure, Madonna, Madness, Prince. My dad would play Ravi Shankar bootlegs. My Sicilian grandmother would quote Joseph Campbell and have me slow dance with her to Elvis Gospel Music. We were eating home cooked Afghan potluck meals of lamb stews, spinach, rice, cardamom, cumin, coriander, saffron.

"My mom, Setara Delawari, would pack my lunches with homemade baked ziti or sabzi chalau leftovers. It was actually even more colorful and exciting than it sounds. So you can imagine the grave disappointment kindergarten was, and the subsequent years of my childhood as my relatives moved on with their lives and dispersed about the city. My kindergarten teacher would yell at me for falling asleep in her class. In hindsight I realize how boring that class felt coming from my magical home of adventurous adults.

"I guess this is why I became an artist. I needed colors and textures. I needed to hear stories and songs, and to tell stories and play songs. So I have essentially created an adult life somewhere between Los Angeles' esoteric bohemia misfits and the artists and international community of Kabul. I am basically re-creating those perfect years of my childhood... and it's somehow even more amazing. And the dance party rainbow music caravan is circling the globe. However, the potlucks are usually vegan in L.A. these days.


"My mother was the first to arrive in Los Angeles in 1959.

"Her father, Mirza Mohammad Beg, was an Afghan Pashtun from Jalalabad who came to the U.S. when he was nineteen-years-old because of a penny. He thought Abraham Lincoln was a 'Holy Man' and was amazed by a country whose currency read, 'In God We Trust.'

"He ended up at the ports of Boston, took a train to Jersey, and stumbled into an Italian Cafe where he met Pauline Restivo. She was a Sicilian who would become my grandmother, Pauline Beg. It was practically unheard of for an Afghan Muslim man to marry a Sicilian Catholic woman, but my grandfather was a charmer and my grandmother was a rebel. They had twelve kids. My mom was the sixth.

"When she was finishing high school they moved to L.A. for warmer weather and my mom started school at UCLA. Westwood in the `60s was full of excitement. The counter culture was buzzing and UCLA was a hub for new ideas.

"One day my mother went to see an African American Muslim man by the name of Malcolm X speak at the student union. As he was speaking my mother took offense to his view of Islam. She raised her hand and said to him, 'Malcolm, what you are preaching is racism, not Islam. How come you can come to my Mosque, but I can't come to yours?' At the time he laughed it off. He said, 'Well sister, I think my skin is lighter than yours,' holding his arm out in mockery.

"Two years later, when my mother was in London visiting a mosque, she was walking down the steps and looked up to see Malcolm walking up towards her. He pointed at her and said 'UCLA.' He had just returned from the Hajj and apologized to my mother for what he had said to her two years prior. Apparently, it had stayed with him. And during his time at Mecca he had been welcomed by so many Arab Muslims that he had a new realization about his beliefs. He also told my mother that he would be killed by his own people, and, sadly, a few months later he was. When my mother had asked him if he was afraid of being killed he said to her, 'Never fear your destiny.'

"My mother's family history rooted back to Peshawar, the very seat of today's Taliban, and has continued to be deeply rooted in Islam through my mother's marriage to my father, yet it has also branched out into the most all encompassing universal family tree one could possibly imagine.

"My Uncle Ahmed started the very first Islamic Center in Los Angeles in the early `60s, yet he married a Norwegian woman himself. Each of my mother's eleven siblings married into and believed in their own unique belief system or mix of culture.

"One became a Mormon and moved to Utah, another married a Lebanese man, another married a Muslim Persian man but became a devout Christian, another married a Mexican woman, another married an Irish man, another married a Chinese woman, another married a French Jewish woman and converted to Judaism.

"My Sicilian grandmother, their mother, raised her children and grandchildren to embrace every faith and race known to man. She raised us believing that America belonged to the Native Americans and not to trust our history lessons. She read every holy book, wore every holy symbol. She was a modern thinker with a rebellious nature.

"In Los Angeles she lived next to the Philosophical Research Center where she was Manly Palmer Hall's assistant (a fact that I just learned last year after my own excavation into his teachings of universal spirit).

"She quoted Shakespeare, Henry Miller, Joseph Campbell, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, and Buddha. She wanted us to understand where these roads met, rather than where they were divided. My mother raised my sisters and I with the thought that one day California will belong to Mexico. She would say, "You see these workers? Mowing the lawns? Preparing your meals? They will one day be the rightful owners of California."

"So this is the global rabble rousing family of my mother... all from the seed of Mirzah Mohammed Beg, a young Pashtun Muslim man who came here because he believed that Abraham Lincoln was a Holy Man and America was a country of God.


"In 1963 my mother made her first trip to Afghanistan and finally got to experience her father's roots: the old world which she had always dreamt of visiting.

"This was a magical time in Afghanistan. Some refer to these years as the 'golden years' of Afghanistan. It was considered one of the most beautiful places on earth. They would swim in Carga and Band-e-amir, picnic in Pagman and Panshir, ride camels in Gazni, watch Buzkachi matches.

"My mother was working for US AID, but she really wanted nothing to do with the westerners in Kabul at the time. She was mostly interested in the Kuchis: Afghan nomadic people who have been living in tents and migrating throughout Afghanistan for centuries.

"One day she was finally going to meet them, but she needed a translator who spoke Pashto. Her friend suggested my father, Noorullah Delawari, a young Panjshiri man from Kabul who was a teller at Da Afghanistan Bank at the time. My father showed up at my mother's apartment dressed to impress the American: he was wearing an ascot scarf, sunglasses, and blue jeans.

"My mother -- whose name before she met my father was Setara Begum -- opened the door, took one look at him, and said: 'I just want you to know, I cannot stand western Afghans.' They visited the nomads, the chief wanted to by my mom for three camels, my dad got jealous and pretty soon after that they were married in London. My father finished his studies at London School of Economics and they moved to Los Angeles in 1969.

"My father loved Los Angeles. He loved the mountains, they reminded him of Afghanistan. And he loved the palm trees. My mother says it was much cleaner then. The air was clean, the streets were clean.

"My parents got their first apartment in Glendale. My father's banking career took off pretty quickly, and they started a family together. My sisters were born in 1971 and 1972. They were living a very quiet suburban life. My mother had a toy shop, my sisters were in ballet class. Then in December of 1979 the Soviets invaded my father's homeland.

"I was born ten months after the invasion, and just twenty days after my dad's entire family fled Afghanistan and moved into our home as refugees. It was bittersweet. We were celebrating the union of our family, yet we knew the tragedy that our people were living. Carpet bombings, toys planted with bombs so that children would lose their limbs, land mines, millions of refugees flocking to the borders. And so my father's quest began to help free his people. And my life began in the suburb of La Cañada Flintridge, but with Afghanistan always in my heart.

"My Afghan grandmother used to tease me and say in Dari, 'Are you an Afghan girl? Or an American girl?' I would laugh and say, 'I am an American girl.'

I grew up in these two worlds, the 1980s and `90s of La Cañada and the world of Afghanistan in our home: Its sadness, its celebration, its beautiful color and texture, its ancient complexity. The worlds were one. I grew up acting in theater, playing guitar, taking dance classes, studying cinema. I grew up watching my father's entire preoccupation with the war in his homeland, doing everything that he possibly could do from Los Angeles, losing huge banking jobs, almost losing his marriage. Everything for Afghanistan. It was only a matter of time before my art started reflecting my family and my culture.

"September 11th changed our lives forever. My parents moved back to Afghanistan to be part of the reconstruction of the country. I was in my last year at USC** School of Cinematic Arts. I made my first trip to Afghanistan on my birthday, October 21, 2002. I looked down at the mountains and knew that my life was going to change.

"I began a ten-year documentation of Afghanistan, my family story, and eventually the making of my album. The rest of this story of arrivals and departures is in my film We Came Home." It encompasses all of my travels and what these last ten years have been like for my family.

"It was a penny that brought my Pashtun grandfather to the U.S. It was curiosity for her roots that brought my mother back to Afghanistan. It was love that brought my father to Los Angeles to be with my mother. And it was an answer to our calling that brought all of us back to Afghanistan after 9/11.

"Who knew that my father would become the Governor of the very bank where he was once a teller? Who knew that Abraham Lincoln's face had to bring my mother's father to New Jersey where he would meet my Sicilian grandmother? Who knew that one day my father's signature would be on the Afghani?

"In this life we arrive and we depart. We leave home to find home. The borders are an illusion. The only barriers that truly exist are the ones in our own hearts. Perhaps it is the way my parents met on a journey to find the nomads. Or perhaps it was the gatherings at our home with live Afghan music and one hundred international cousins. Or maybe it was my two grandmothers: one spiritual of many faiths, the other a devout Muslim, both full of grace.

"Whatever it was, somehow I have become me. I live my life in circles. My arrivals are my departures. I plan to orbit eternally. Like the music of my people, which compositionally has no beginning and no end. We do that on purpose. It is the ultimate surrender to the infinite. I hope you join me on this caravan through space and time. There is no beginning and no end. And the only thing to fear, is fear itself.

"Somewhere between these homes we will find each other in peace, our days will be filled with celebration, and war and violence will be a faint ghost of the past..."

-- Ariana Delawari
(as emailed to Jeremy Rosenberg)

Do you or someone you know have a great Los Angeles Arrival Story to share? If so, then contact Jeremy Rosenberg via: arrivalstory AT gmail DOT com. Also contact or follow Rosenberg on Twitter @LosJeremy

WE CAME HOME - Official Trailer via Vimeo.

Ariana Delawari's documentary film We Came Home won the grand jury prize for Best International Documentary at Sao Paulo International Film Festival in October 2012 and had its U.S. Premiere at AFI Fest in November 2012. Her debut album, Lion of Panjshir, which the film tells the story of, was recorded both in Kabul and Los Angeles and was released by filmmaker David Lynch who produced one of the tracks on the album.

**Jeremy Rosenberg works at USC

*a photo caption in this story has been updated

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