These Persian Jewish Sisters Are Uncovering Their Grandfather’s Mysterious Escape from Iran

Danielle and Galeet Dardashti recently chatted with Hey Alma about their podcast "The Nightingale of Iran."

Iran, the 1950s: Mohammed Reza Pahlavi had recently been reinstalled as the Shah, the country was rapidly modernizing and a Jewish man named Younes Dardashti was becoming an Iranian cultural icon. Dardashti, nicknamed “The Nightingale,” gained renown for being a master singer of Persian classical music with an unparalleled vocal range. He became a celebrity for his weekly primetime spot on Radio Iran and sang at venues from prestigious concert halls to the Shah’s palace.

And then, at the height of his celebrity, Younes Dardashti suddenly left Iran. His granddaughters Danielle and Galeet never knew why. Their father Farid — a ’60s Iranian TV teen idol in his own right — never spoke about it.

Until now.

“The Nightingale of Iran,” a new documentary podcast from co-creators Danielle and Galeet Dardashti, and which is presented by JTA, a publication of Hey Alma’s parent company, 70 Faces Media, reveals the untold, painful and unmistakably Persian Jewish history of their family. Over the course of six episodes, listeners will hear a remarkable (and recently unearthed) collection of Dardashti family recordings, interviews with subject experts and commentary from Danielle and Galeet to finally understand what caused the Nightingale of Iran to fly free of his homeland.

Danielle Dardashti (L) and Galeet Dardashti (R); Photo courtesy of Danielle Dardashti

Danielle Dardashti and Galeet Dardashti recently chatted with Hey Alma about the treasure trove of tapes they found in their parents’ basement, cultivating Persian Jewish identity and how “The Nightingale of Iran” is a story that will resonate with everyone.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

When did you realize that this project was more than just your own personal journey? When did it become an audio documentary series? 

Galeet Dardashti: We originally thought it was going to be a documentary film. We started during the pandemic; we had more time than usual.

Danielle Dardashti: Well, it was a combination of having more time than usual and also Zoom started becoming a thing. People started interviewing people all over the world and having conversations and recording them. I’ve made video documentaries and so I automatically assumed we were making a film. But then two things happened that kind of pushed us in the direction that it was going to be audio instead.

GD: First, we couldn’t really find any video.

DD: We had all this amazing, amazing, amazing audio, this treasure trove that gives us insight into the past. But no video. And then also, I got a fellowship for The Digital Storytellers lab through the Jewish Writers’ Initiative. They fund untold stories finally getting told.

GD: So it kind of crystallized for us. We hadn’t thought about making it a podcast until then.

The audio is incredible. Hearing your saba’s voice really stopped me in my tracks. What does it mean to you to have these recordings?

GD: It’s amazing. I’ve been kind of obsessed with my grandfather’s voice for a long time. I just released an album in September where I sing with recordings of him singing — I literally started that project like 15 years ago. I’m an academic and I use his body of work all the time in my academic world and in my performing world.

DD: For me, I totally don’t. Normally, I’m not in that world. But I’m in the world of telling great stories. And we were like, “Why don’t we collaborate?” Galeet tells of the music of our family, but the story of our family has not been told. And that’s what I do.

Finding these tapes and being able to collaborate with Galeet on it… we keep texting each other just being like, “Oh my God, I’m so glad we did this.” It’s an incredibly emotional and meaningful thing for us. I was so nervous for [our father] to hear the [second] episode and what he would think about us talking about Persian Jews not loving his father, and just some of the things that we’ve never talked about with him. And he loved it. He said to me that he cried five times. I’m crying! Seriously. The feeling that my dad is so proud of us telling the story is lovely. I already feel like I got what I was looking for out of this project. My kids are also so excited about it.

I was almost crying listening to the episode. There’s just something about being Jewish, and hearing Jewish music, that I just feel in my body. And your story of essentially searching for your grandfather is just so poignant. 

DD: We have a very diverse staff of Jewish people — a very small staff of people — that are working with us on this. But we have a Persian Jewish person, a couple of Ashkenazi Jewish people, we have a non-Jewish person, and they all see themselves in the story in different ways. I think everyone, whether they’re Jewish or not, can hear and see themselves in this story. That’s what’s been really amazing for us. A friend who’s Muslim and from Turkey texted me yesterday and she was like, “Oh, my God, this is my family too.”

GD: What we were hoping and we are seeing happen is that people are connecting to the podcast in all different ways from where they’re coming from, and from really diverse places.

In the first episode, you say that you’re not able to travel to Iran. Obviously, that logistically complicates things. But how did that emotionally complicate making the podcast? 

GD: We knew that was never ever gonna happen. When I applied to graduate school a million years ago, I thought I would be able to go to Iran. I was going to write about my grandfather and I started studying Persian. Then it quickly became clear that I couldn’t go to Iran. I think that’s the only time Daddy ever said, “Over my dead body, you’re gonna go to Iran.” It just would have been so dangerous.

DD: I’ve never thought about going to Iran. It’s so out of the realm of possibility, our family name is pretty well known in Iran.

GD: So it wasn’t disappointing that we couldn’t go because we didn’t think we could. So it was almost like we discovered this secret way in.

DD: I’ll tell you, we did interview one guy as a resource. He’s a grad student living [in the U.S.] from Iran, and he was very tight-lipped. We can’t mention his name in the podcasts, not even to thank him in the acknowledgments or anything, because it’s dangerous for him to be associated with this story, because it’s about Israel and Jewish people. That’s how serious of a situation it is, even though we’re not being critical of the government. But still, he was like, please just don’t mention my name.

If you could go to Iran, are there certain places you would want to visit?

GD: I would love to see Tehran. I’d love to see where our dad grew up. We’ve heard all these stories about his childhood. I would love to see the house where he lived and where he peed on the… Has she heard that yet?

DD: That will be done today, actually. We’re just putting minor tweaks on different episodes. But the tapes are pretty crazy with the amount of detail they get into. There’s this one tape where I was really obsessed with it, because my grandmother kept saying this word that I couldn’t figure out what she was saying: “cloob.” And I was like, was that a nickname for Israel? The Persian translator didn’t know what she meant by that. And I won’t give it away, but we figured it out.

There’s so much content that we didn’t even know about and there are even hundreds more tapes in my parents’ basement that we haven’t even converted yet.

GD: We didn’t have time to go through everything.

It’s funny to me and feels like a peak parent moment that they had all these tapes just sitting there and they didn’t realize.

DD: They’re in Florida for the winter right now and they’re getting all these emails from their friends being like, “Did you know the tapes were down there? Were you hiding the tapes?”

Our mom thinks that it was a combination of disorganization and anxiety of like, there were just too many tapes and my dad just didn’t know where to begin with digitizing them. And then part of it, maybe, is that he didn’t want to in case there’s something there that’s painful. We’re not sure, but she thinks it’s mostly the first.

Is there a notable recording from the tapes that didn’t actually make it into the series?

GD: There’s so much good music that I wanted to include. There are so many songs that my parents are singing that they’re sending to Iran or Israel. I would have loved to include that.

DD: For me there are all these very weird, mundane scenes that happen in the house in Iran.

GD: We had to cut a lot.

DD: And in my parents’ apartment in New York. Like the day they first got their first telephone. Actually in episode one, there’s one line from my mom going, “Farid and I got a telephone!” And then there’s so many things like that.

GD: And our other grandparents.

DD: Maybe we’ll do another 10 episodes on this. I don’t know. It just killed me.

GD: It’s so much work.

DD: It’s emotionally draining. But I think that doing follow-up little snippets would not be that hard. And if people sign up for our mailing list, there will be a lot of bonus content.

I was describing the podcast to my partner and she was like, this should be a Netflix series. This should be a movie. Do you have any hopes or plans for that? 

DD: Tell the world! Yeah, we would love to. It’s a story that is very personal to us. It’s an amazing story. You heard the moment that he was discovered in the dark!

Yeah, that’s incredible. 

GD: Our dad didn’t know about that.

DD: Our dad forgot it was in the dark. Over years, the story had gotten watered down because no one had heard my grandfather actually telling the story.

GD: He wasn’t a storyteller, our grandfather.

I love that the story in Iranian culture is that this famous woman discovered him in the dark and went and gave him this big kiss. But in your family it’s different. 

GD: Yeah, the kiss is not included.

DD: My son googled it. He googled it a year ago or something, and he was like, “Mom, do you know that people say that they made out?”

GD: No!

DD: Oh my God, it says that she passionately kissed him uncontrollably.

GD: Also we don’t know if that’s true.

In the first episode, you talk about how you didn’t really grow up with a sense of Persian Jewish identity because you’re also half Ashkenazi and more so grew up with those traditions. Do you feel like you have cultivated that more since making the podcast?

GD: So I definitely have a Persian identity. And I have cultivated it because I’ve sought it out.

DD: She’s studied it. She knows more stuff than some people, but it’s in an academic way. It’s a different thing than growing up totally, culturally with something.

GD: Neither of us have memories of doing Persian things growing up. So the things that I do are because I’ve had to be like, “Dad, how do you do this?” Chanting Persian trope has become a really important thing to me, but I didn’t do it until I was 30.

DD: And I don’t do it. Although my dad taught my kids Persian trope for their bar and bat mitzvahs. But that’s mostly because Galeet started asking my dad because she was studying it. And then he started realizing, “Oh, maybe this is something I should teach some of the other kids.” So it is something that has kind of gradually crept back in.

Evelyn Frick

Evelyn Frick (she/they) is a writer and associate editor at Hey Alma. She graduated from Vassar College in 2019 with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. In her spare time, she's a comedian and contributor for Reductress and The Onion.

Read More