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Wednesday, March 24, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Iranian radio host helps his listeners bridge culture gap

Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — It is one hour into Farhang Holakouee's daytime radio show, and a caller reveals a Persian version of "The Scarlet Letter."

The woman is 33, unmarried and six weeks pregnant. Her boyfriend refuses to marry her. Should she have an abortion or become a single mom? Her own horrified mother, meantime, is staging "typical Iranian mother theatrics."

"My dear, you need to think realistically," Holakouee says, gently probing the woman's ethical position on abortion and her financial ability to raise a child alone.

In a calm voice, he walks her through some costs of keeping the baby: It will be harder to find a husband. Her family might not be willing to help. He suggests she weigh that against her reluctance to end the pregnancy.

"Find some solitude, talk quietly with your God, and decide which pain is easier to bear," he says.

Then he takes a moment to stick up for the maligned "Iranian mother": "Theatrics?" he asks. "Isn't it possible she's simply upset?"

Six days a week, Holakouee offers thousands of Iranian listeners advice on how to balance their traditional values with U.S. culture. He preaches a sympathetic realism in dealing with shifting gender roles, homesickness, mental illness and the conflicts between generations over premarital sex and cohabitation.

Holakouee has helped to make it respectable to discuss such concerns outside the family and with a stranger, a significant break from Iranian tradition.

Since 1980, Holakouee has transformed himself from a teacher of classes on self-esteem and anger management into a radio star in the Iranian community through his show, "Needs and Mysteries."

His seminars pack hotel ballrooms in Los Angeles, New York, Washington and Europe. He speaks on cruise ships bound for Mexico and Alaska. His radio show on Los Angeles' Persian station KIRN-AM reaches thousands of Iranians living in Southern California. He also draws listeners via satellite and the Internet from Iranian expatriate communities around the world.

Holakouee grounds his thinking in history, philosophy, literature and psychology. He sprinkles his lectures with references to Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and 11th-century Persian Sufi poet Mevlana Jalaleddin Rumi.

His critics, who include husbands leery of psychology who can't fathom why their wives listen to his show, accuse him of dispensing advice that runs counter to Iranian culture. They say such ideas as a person's "inner child" and attention-deficit disorder are Western notions Iranians must avoid to retain cultural purity.

But such criticism often is overshadowed by praise from his devotees. "He's insightful, funny and makes a point of keeping you engaged," says Ferial Sarrafian, of Beverly Hills, who regularly listens to him on her commute home.

Holakouee says he is trying to find a middle ground, where Iranians shed the worst of Persian and U.S. cultures and forge more humane values.

"If you're wise, you don't believe culture is holy."

His callers' dilemmas are commonplace: an immigrant teenager obsessed with Internet chat, a girl frustrated with her father's traditional reserve, a husband estranged from a rapidly assimilating wife, a meddling mother- in-law.

Some need coaching to relax their hold on daughters so the daughters can leave home to attend college or get jobs. Others might struggle with prejudice if their daughters date men of other backgrounds.

Holakouee's followers see him as a catalyst for change.

"It's rare that one person can change a culture," says Homa Mahmoudi, a psychologist who has practiced in Los Angeles for 35 years.

Holakouee, 59, grew up in the Iranian city of Shiraz, where the great national poets he quotes are buried.

He taught collective behavior at the University of Tehran until 1977, when he anticipated the Iranian revolution and moved to the United States.

He earned a doctorate in sociology and a master's degree in marriage and family counseling at the University of Utah and began teaching classes and seminars.

Along the way, his marriage ended and he raised his two sons alone.

When asked by a listener how he can advise on marriage when his own failed, he replies that he prefers to keep his life private.

Rarely does Holakouee dispense harsh advice. But his tone can drip with dismay, such as when he chided a mother for being concerned about her tot's choice of outfit: "Dear lady, a 3-year-old cannot distinguish from chic."

Often, callers are perplexed by the dizzying array of choices of life in the United States.

Holakouee's biggest lesson is that freedom has consequences. "Having options is certainly progress. But when you're free, it's your own choices that can confine you."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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