Faculty Interview: Jinoos Yazdany, MD, MPH

A Conversation with Jinoos Yazdany, Assistant Professor in the ZSFG Division of Rheumatology

What does your surname mean? Did you have a diminutive or nickname?

Jinoos Yazdany
Jinoos Yazdany,
Assistant Professor

My name is Iranian. My surname means, “of God,” or “knowing God.” I have a love/hate relationship with my name because I love my culture and I love that my parents preserved it through my name, but in everyday life, I have to explain that it’s not a man’s name and often have to help people pronounce it. I have never had a diminutive or nickname.

Is there a phrase in Farsi that you wish translated well into English?

The word that I wish could be translated well into English is “taarof,” which means “excessive, kind offering,” and is something that all Iranians do on a daily basis. It is a constant offering of food, drink, and hospitality, a type of deference that is completely ingrained in all of us. It is an amazingly powerful force that you feel the second you are in the country. There is no direct English translation.

Tell me about your family and share an early childhood memory - a smell, a taste, an image…

jasmine plant
A picture of the jasmine in Jinoos’s front yard in San Francisco.

I was born in the capital city of Iran, Tehran, and raised there until I was five. We then immigrated to the United States in 1978, before the Iranian revolution. My parents came here for academic sabbaticals but, once the revolution broke out, ended up staying. Both of my parents are scientists: my mom was a microbiologist and my dad was a pharmaceutical chemist. Because my parents were in academic careers and working, I spent every day at my grandmother’s house where she had a beautiful fence with jasmine growing all along it. I recall the overwhelming, amazing, calming smell of jasmine and associate that smell with my childhood in Iran. Jasmine now grows in my front yard in San Francisco but, for some reason, the Iranian variety seems much more potent and the smells of my childhood are not replicated here.

Would you consider an oral history of your family worthwhile? If you could interview your great-grandmother, what would you ask her?

Many immigrants have incredible family histories and mine is no exception. My grandmother was married when she was thirteen years old to my grandfather, who was thirty years old. They had six children, and my mom was the youngest. I would love to talk to my great-grandmother about what it was like giving away her daughter to be married when she was just a child, something that seems difficult to comprehend now but was not unusual for her generation. The grandmother who was married at thirteen raised three daughters of her own and strongly encouraged each to pursue education: one aunt received PhDs in English and French, another was a teacher, and my mother has doctorates in both veterinary medicine and microbiology. I would love to take the oral histories of these women. Iranian culture has many contradictions and one of the most fundamental is around women in society. Iranian women are among the most educated in the world, they are active in the workforce, and they are often matriarchs in the family - this in a formally patriarchal society that has much tension between the sexes. There is a long tradition of female strength and values in our culture and it is fascinating to me.

When is a special occasion in your family? How does your family celebrate?

Haft seen table
Norooz “Haft-seen” table in 2018

Norooz is the big Iranian holiday on March 21, the first day of spring, and we have many beautiful traditions around it. My kids are 10 and 13, and it has been so fun for me to share this tradition with them. There is so much to celebrate: the symbolism of rebirth and new beginnings, being around family, and there are presents involved. Through a child’s eyes, Norooz is wonderful. The other Iranian holiday that my family loves is the winter solstice in December, “Yalda.” That is when we read poetry, and eat pomegranates and nuts and, historically, watermelons that had been preserved for the occasion.

What is the distinction between Iranian and Persian?

You will get different answers to that question. Persia was the name of the ancient empire that was very vast and became modern-day Iran. Some believe we honor the prime of the empire, its art and culture, by identifying as Persian; others feel that we should embrace our current identity and accept its place in the world.

What is the passion that drives your work?

One of my aunts, who helped raise me in Iran, was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and I watched her struggle from a young age, before there were effective treatments. She was severely disabled over the course of twenty years. During medical school and residency, I learned how autoimmune diseases disproportionately affect women and I found it interesting and personally fulfilling to work in this area. Things have changed so much in the last few decades and avoiding disability is now possible for people with rheumatoid arthritis. This makes it incredibly rewarding to practice rheumatology. Outside the clinic, I am very interested in population health, meaning that I would like to improve health for people with rheumatic diseases more broadly. I love the public health aspect of my job, working to better health disparities and improve outcomes and quality of care.

To whom do you turn for guidance, comfort, or uncomfortable truths?

There have been two particularly influential people: John Imboden, the Chief of Rheumatology at ZSFG, as well as my husband, Arash Anoshiravani. Dr. Imboden has been a defining figure in my work for the past eighteen years. I look to him for inspiration about being a good doctor and a good person. He is incredibly dedicated and, I don’t use this word lightly, altruistic. He puts his patients and faculty first, and he doesn’t care about what’s in it for him or furthering his reputation. He is incredibly kind, generous, and loyal in his leadership role. Also, my husband, who is an Adolescent Medicine physician and works with maybe the most vulnerable populations in our society: teenagers in jail and in safety net settings. He is driven by a passion to do what is right and to make a positive impact on the lives of others. In life, both of these people help ground me, guide me in making decisions, and inspire me to be a better person.

When you host, what is your showpiece entrée? Who makes up the best company of an evening around the dinner table?

I love to cook and, when I am feeling motivated and have time, I make Iranian food, which is time-consuming because it is somewhat complex and is a labor of love. I make dishes like Chicken Fesenjan or Ghormeh Sabzi, but those are for special occasions. More often, I just want to cook healthy meals for my family and friends. Our friends, who come from different phases of our lives, are good company; our common threads are shared experiences and being able to laugh. That’s what happiness is to me.

How many ways are there in Farsi to say “thank you?” Which one would be appropriate for me to say to you now?

There are many ways, depending upon the relationship and level of formality. The most formal way might be, “Moteshakeram,” and the less formal would be the French, “Merci.”

In that case, Jinoos, Moteshakeram.

Interviewed by Oralia Schatzman