- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 26, 2005


By Roya Hakakian

Crown, $23, 227 pages


Roya Hakakian was just 12 in the year the Shah fell from power and the banished Ayatollah Khomeini triumphantly returned to Iran, but she was old enough to fall in love. “For the children of that era,” she writes in the historical note that introduces her memoir, “Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran,” “1979 was not only a year but also a love affair, the most alluring love of their lives. In time, it proved to be the cruelest, too.”

Writing with eloquence, humor and verve, Ms. Hakakian evokes the warmth and comfort of her early years, her youthful efforts to understand what was happening around her as tension built towards the revolution and her exhilaration as its historic events unfolded. Fury, disillusionment, fear and, finally, flight mark the end of the affair.

Even the Tehran address where she lived as a child speaks to the comfort and solidity of Roya Hakakian’s childhood. Her prosperous family lived at number three Alley of the Distinguished; there a tree and flower-filled courtyard surrounded the substantial house where she lived with her mother, her father a respected school-master and poet, and her three older brothers.

The Hakakians were Jewish, well enough integrated into their neighborhood that passersby would greet Roya’s father as “Mr. Haji,” (meaning “a fellow Muslim fortunate enough to have been to Mecca”) and he would obligingly reply “May Allah keep you safe,” using the Arabic name for the deity not in an effort to hide his identity but, rather, “to express his appreciation for living at a time and in a city where a Jew could mingle with others so freely that he was mistaken for a Muslim.”

There were at that time 100,000 Jews in Iran making it the second largest Jewish community in the Middle East after Israel. Writing of a Passover seder from her childhood, Ms. Hakakian notes that the ritual declaration of longing for “Next year in Israel” had, in her home, a hollow ring. “The family dreamed of the land of milk and honey but wanted to wake up in Tehran. Business was booming, and my uncles, the entrepreneurs, did not want to be fettered by a history that seemed distant now… .Iran was at its most welcoming to Jews in all of its history.”

Against this backdrop of family conviviality and culture, Ms. Hakakian evokes the mysteries that, as a child, she struggled to understand. Why, she wondered, did her oldest brother, Albert, the family “genius” whose “exuberance alone populated our house,” leave Tehran for university in New York City rather than study in Tehran? Why was the humor magazine to which Albert had contributed cartoons shut down? Why had a visitor to an exhibit of his art written in the guest book “Love your stuff, but be careful?”

And what was SAVAK, the mere mention of which caused grownups to bite their lips and say “Shhhh!” The acronym for the Shah’s secret police was “ubiquitous and omnipresent in the national imagination…[it] gave Iranians yet another reason to aspire to the vague.” Why, after a big political demonstration against the Shah, did her two remaining brothers suddenly leave for America?

And why, wonders Roya, do her parents not share in the excitement of the night when “Agha,” the banished Ayatollah Khomeini who people are whispering will somehow save them from the Shah and SAVAK, exhorts the residents of Tehran to go to their rooftops at 9 pm and in unison shout “Alahu-Akbar?”

To Roya, the dark, warm night is magical; she feels envious of the way her Muslim friend’s family has gathered on their roof to share in the event. “My heart was fluttering in my chest and everywhere else. Excitement pulsated in my ears. It throbbed in my belly. I feared something unknown. I was brimming with the thrill of something unknown.”

The something, when it comes, initially means work stoppage, angry demonstrations and the closing of school. While her parents argue over a relative’s advice to them to leave the country, Roya struggles to understand. She revels in the city’s suddenly festive mood, she watches on television, wide-eyed, as Khomeini returns from exile, remembering that a friend’s older sister had told her the man was “an angel.”

She sees graffiti in the alley opposite her house that says “Jehoud (Jews) get lost” and watches as her father’s dignity turns into a stunned dance of despair. Only writing seems to offer her a way to deal with the powerful and seemingly irreconcilable feelings.

By 1982, when Roya is 16, the revolution has brought war with Iraq and a new law mandating the Islamic uniform for women: “a scarf, a long, loose-fitting overcoat, pants, and closed toe shoes.” Roya and a girlfriend join a Jewish student group that takes regular hikes on a mountain north of Tehran. One day a handwritten sign appears in a nearby caf declaring the mountain, the Alborz, “closed.”

The students ignore it; they walk and picnic, read poetry and wade in a stream until their fun is curtailed by teenaged policemen wielding kalashnikovs and walkie talkies who round them up and take them in for questioning. The students are not related so their socializing violates the Islamic morality code; the girls had removed their headscarves.

They are released but Roya no longer feels safe. “In the heart of our republic, in our sanctuary, in the heart of the great Alborz, we had become captives.” A year later, when friends have been arrested and the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is sending guards into the streets looking for men in short sleeves or women showing a hint of hair or make-up, she has come to see that she no longer has any identification with the revolution, that all previous divisions of people into groups have been replaced by just one, them and us, which she describes in a passionate litany worth quoting at length:

“They were the oneswith guns. We were the ones without,” she writes. “They had the power to arrest us, on a whim. Woeful was their rule of claw! …They wore their black veils as naturally as a second skin, held the two corners by their teeth, leaving their hands free to frisk us. We were the ones, forced under veils, mummified. They were the superfluous salt-and-pepper turbans in every landscape. We were the bitter, watching. They, poorly educated mostaz’afeen (the downtrodden), were suspicious of anyone wearing prescription glasses. We were the ones with weak eyes… .They called themselves ‘the faithful.’ We called ourselves Iranians… .They apprehended anyone with a cello, guitar or violin case in hand. We were musicians mourning the ban on music… .They sent their sons, fathers, and brothers to the war fronts wearing a plastic key to Eden’s gates for a dog tag. We dodged the draft, if we could. They referred to their veterans with two or four missing limbs as the ‘fortunate forty percent or eighty percent heroes.’ We referred to them as double amputees and quadriplegics. They were the overnight entrepreneurs eager to export their brand of salvation first to Baghdad, next to Jerusalem, and then to the rest of the world. We only wanted Tehran back.”

That this was not an easy story to tell, the author makes clear. “When you have been a refugee,” she writes, “abandoned all your loves and belongings, your memories become your belongings…when you have nothing left to guard, you guard your memories.”

The energy needed to start a new life means putting aside the still smoldering passions of the past. There is danger, too, of being turned into “a poster child for someone else’s crusade.” Finally, though, a colleague’s astute questions and her own instincts as a journalist prompted her to tell her story, to bear witness to what she experienced, and to do so, not in Persian, the language that “could summon the teenager at sea,” but in English, which had “sheltered the adult survivor, safely inside a lighthouse.”

Both the universal puzzlement of the transformation from childhood to adult life and highly specific and fascinating recent events are evoked here. This is a lovely book.

Stephanie Deutsch is a writer and critic in Washington.

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