My Grandmother is a Gangster… a Spiritual Gangster by Valentina Khan

My grandmother is a gangster… a spiritual gangster

I recently attended a funeral for a relative-in-law. The grassy patch at the cemetery was filled with many familiar faces as well as unfamiliar. My side of the family was asked to come. My father, mother and even teeny tiny little 4 foot 9 grandmother showed up. I emphasize her height because it has nothing to do with her stature… and this is where my story begins.

My grandmother aka “Mama Shamsey” is from my maternal side. She grew up in Tehran, Iran. She was a young bride to a handsome intellectual who was French educated but a deeply spiritual and passionately religious Iranian Shia Muslim. He truly believed people should never discuss politics or religion. He knew how to be open and compassionate with people of differing opinions than his. They married, had 5 children, my mother was the eldest. When she was just entering her tender teenage years, many of her peers were flocking to Europe to be educated in Germany or France. She however had the dream of going to school in America, so in the 70’s this family of 7 made the great migration over to America.

My grandmother was pretty much on her own, with 5 children ages ranging from 17 to 5 since my grandfather didn’t move over immediately. My mom took control, enrolling her siblings in school, getting her drivers license, learning the ropes, as a young teenager in Teaneck, New Jersey— and she did an amazing job as the leader of her pack.

But my grandmother wasn’t going to to sit at home, cooking and waiting for her kids to come home for the rest of her young and brand new life, in this exciting new place. Soon enough, she enrolled in ESL classes, got her drivers license (and a pretty red Cadillac to go with it), and even a GED… a GED?! In the 70’s, for female from Iran, with God knows what kind of prior education was mind blowing for me when I heard this story! Why did she take the time to study and get a highschool diploma I asked her. Her reply “I didn’t want my kids to think I couldn’t do what they were doing”. Well OK, you go girl.

Fast forward to today. The post 70’s. The Information Age. You think her learning has stopped? She asks me to text her! She has a fancy iPhone, rolls around town in Mercedes Benz (although I really miss that huge boat of a car, Cadillac), she is probably 4”8 now and rocks her chunky heels. This is my grandma.

Anyway, back to the the funeral, I saw her walk in. One of the last guests to attend. Under the canopy all the ladies stood to greet her although a handful had no clue who she was. The mourners nonetheless made room for her, as if Don Corrlioni walked in, and she sits as the funeral ceremony continues on. She barely makes eye contact and does her thing. Her thing is the following: opens her purse, pulls out reading glasses, her prayer book, zooms in on the pages and her lips start to move. I can’t make out what she is reading, but I know it’s her mandatory prayers to say at someone’s funeral. Whether she knows the person or not, she has a job, and her job is to recite her prayers.

The man finishes speaking. There is a moment of silence. Heads are bowed. When it’s time to break the silence and look back at the speaker, I instead see my grandma behind the podium. I sink a little deeper into the grass with my ill choice of shoes, stilettos (eye roll- I eventually took them off and stood on the grass in fishnets tights -double eye roll). I don’t feel embarrassed but I got a little anxious. Why? Because I know this crowd of Iranians aka Persians are not “religious”. As a matter of fact they are lovers of the Shah regime and if anything the types of people who are sort of anti- Islam because in their view of the world it was “Islam” so to speak and the Ayatalullah’s regime change that led many of these people standing here to flee from a place they loved so much, the good days, better times, to a foreign country and start over. So it’s not that I’m worried about my grandma speaking, I’m just nervous about the ears her words will fall on…

And so she speaks, in Farsi, with a ton of confidence, like the President delivering the State of the Union, “Hello everyone. My name is Shamsey Said. I am the wife of the late Mr. Said and the grandmother of Valentina, who is standing over there (oh my God she didn’t just do that) the daughter -in- law of so and so, the wife of so and so.” Wow, what an introduction Grandma as I slightly smile and nod my head in her direction.

And so she continues, “Many of you do not know me. I’m sorry to be up here, but when I come to a funeral I have a duty and obligation to say the appropriate prayers aloud since the deceased was a believer. If you prefer not to join that is not a problem, if you’d like to join me, please do. Either way, I’m going to say these prayers before he is buried.” She smiles charmingly and calmly begins her prayers.

And so, we all stood and opened our hands in prayer, and started to recite Surah Al Fatiha, the first “surah” or chapter in the Quran. During that time I noticed almost everyone but one person join in. My grandmother didn’t see him leave and walk toward the cars, and it was a relief that he was the only one. I was relieved because I didn’t want her to feel rejected. But I don’t know why I was so worried about, she would have continued even if everyone walked away, and that’s what makes Shamsey’s bond with God so so so special. She is so committed and devoted, she doesn’t waiver. She is the same lady who will pray in a public park, in an airport, convention hall (took her to the LA auto show once…yep she needed to pray and found a corner). And I admire this about her so very much.

How does this little lady do it? She is a foreigner, although she has lived in Orange County now a majority of her life,well over 40 years…she has not diluted her beliefs one bit. I can’t say the same for myself. Albeit I’m American born, and have a totally different context than hers. But she pretty much raised me and has influenced me a lot. It’s probably why my faith never shakes, rather I just negotiate with God regarding my five obligatory prayers, or why I should wear that bathing suit at the beach, or why I should enjoy a fun girls night out even if that means dancing the night away…so yes, my practice of my faith is tailored for me, but someone like my grandma she doesn’t pick and choose. She isn’t “guilty” of that. She does things as she was taught, as she was inspired, and she believes she should and has not once messed up, not once,at least not in my eyes.

That is why she is so gangster. Such a cute, passionate, unwavering, faultless spiritual gangster I will forever hold to the highest pedestal. What an honor it is to be the granddaughter of a fearless, compassionate, dedicated, social butterfly who loves life, loves travel, food and entertainment, but loves her God and her faith before anything else. She is such a champ. And her public speaking really needs to be recorded for youtube…I truly think she would love to be a youtube star and might even take me up on it if I asked her. That’s just who she is.



Valentina Khan, JD, MA is the Managing Director for Investors Philanthropic. She was born & raised in Orange County, California. She grew up in North Tustin, a supportive and kind town to which she attributes her love for diversity & doing community work. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California Bachelor of Arts, received her Juris Doctorate at Taft Law School, & continued her education with a Masters of Arts degree from Claremont School of Theology. She is the visionary and co-founder of I Am Jerusalem, & was a contributing member to the Interfaith Youth Council of Orange County, both of which are non-profit organizations that focus on building bridges of understanding, compassion, and friendship within the interfaith communities. Valentina is  the creator & teacher of Dance Barre ® a fun ballet barre fitness method, a yoga enthusiast, and lover of fashion and travel. She speaks five languages: English, Spanish, Farsi, Urdu, and (semi-fluency) French.

Author: Valentina Khan

Valentina Khan received her Masters of Arts in Muslim Leadership Context at the Claremont School of Theology. She also a law student graduate from Taft University. Valentina is a co-founder of I Am Jerusalem, an interfaith organization which promotes friendship, understanding, and striving for the "greater purpose" by dedicating time to community service and social justice. She was born and raised in Southern California, to an Iranian mother, and Indian father. Valentina has a diverse background that helps her identify as a "citizen of the world". She hopes to mediate conflicts between intra-religious and inter-religious groups and cultures, via conflict resolution, as well as promote the peace she knows can exist between people if they just put in the effort. Valentina is currently the owner of UpLift- body, life, community. A center for health, fitness, self-empowerment and community give back. In her free time she enjoys teaching yoga and Dance Barre, a method of ballet barre she created that combines ballet, various genres of dance, toning, stretching and cardio all in one. Her passion for the mind- body connection is a big part of her daily life in order to be able to be an effective bridge-builder and peace-maker in her community.

6 thoughts on “My Grandmother is a Gangster… a Spiritual Gangster by Valentina Khan”

  1. I love your Mama Shamsey, Valentina. Please let us know when she makes her appearance on You Tube. Thank you for sharing her with us.


  2. Oh, I fell in love with your grandmother reading this narrative! Wow, what a tribute you made to her – and how wonderful that she is such a remarkable model for you. What moved me the most was the way you portrayed your grandmother’s faith in her tradition… this is where we see that religions are not ‘bad’ – it’s what people do with them that’s the problem.


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