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02.11.09

What I Saw at the Revolution

Thirty years after the Shah left Iran, Tehran-born novelist Porochista Khakpour recalls the Ten Days of Dawn.

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This week the Iranian Revolution turns 30.

I lived through it. But let’s be clear: I was one. While I can say it’s the one historic event that has made me more me than anything, I never really felt comfortable claiming the “child of the Revolution” tag. For the first two and a half decades of my life, my inner life was devoted to rehearsing for American Girl roles—working the mercilessly flat-ironed hair, generic pale-olive skin and “brown-eyed girl” for “passing” glory— while an impossible Po-ro-chis-ta cultivated credible Valley Girlese that would eventually put even Moon-Unit to shame. Like many immigrants, I focused adamantly on looking forward and never back; like many “hyphenates,” I felt the existential confusion of a two-pronged identity.

My father even changed. He tiptoes around the word “Royalist” today, but I grew up with a living room filled with more pictures of the Shah than my own family and relatives.

I focused on all the pretty things of ol’ Persia: Kings, Cyrus and Darius and the Persian Empire; Persepolis (the ruins! the Satrapi graphic novel! ); saffron-and-pistachio Persian ice cream!; rugs!; mystical Avesta chants mashed-up against hokey, hooky Googoosh lyrics back to back and backward even.. . . did I mention Persian cats?!

But the one thing I could not speak was “Iranian Revolution.” It was a name that always sent shivers down my spine; it made up the paragraphs of history books that I always skimmed, cringing.

At quarter life, when my novel made me go there—like a film noir debt-collector, cornered me in a dark alley and grabbed me by the collar—I finally faced it. This is how today I can even tiptoe around this story that is two parts my parents, one part mine .

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As is the annual tradition, at 9:33 a.m. on February 1—the exact date and time Khomeini’s plane landed in Tehran after his 15-year exile—bells tolled and footage of the 76-year-old exiting an Air France plane was played throughout Iran. The next 10 days are called the Ten Days of Dawn, highlighting the week and a half it took for Khomeini to arrive and the 2,500-year-old monarchy to buckle.

Every Iranian in the US—particularly those who go by that purry, zhizzy, Persian—will tell you their family was royalty or linked to the Shah somehow. But the truth is, they probably weren’t and we certainly weren’t. We were, however, well off.

My parents were the youngsters of the '60s, the young adults of '70s Tehran. They were city kids who wore secularity like a status symbol, holding it up to their multiple degrees, their well-traveled worldliness; they were the nouveau riche who felt more in common with American Hollywood icons than their own hired hands and their destitute families just around their corner. In 1978, after my birth, they bought a new Dodge Dart—Dad, now: "Trust me, it was a nice car then!"—and put half the money down on a plush, three-bedroom condo on Gandhi Street, in a still-tony upper-class enclave in northern Tehran. Oil production was booming and the upper echelon could feel it. It was news to them, the lower-case-R Royalists, that their government was managing the economy poorly.

When the Revolution hit, Dad was 35 and Mom 28, and they both worked on different floors of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. It was a company of 5,000 where my mother’s uncle was president (and is now known as “the father of the Iranian nuclear-weapons program” by the international press) on top of being the country’s deputy prime minister. She was an accountant, my father a researcher of theoretical nuclear physics— "Not bombs! Theory!" Dad always had to emphasize to a suspicious teenage me—and they loved their jobs.

All my childhood, they described this period as paradisal—when we got older we were told the one exception: SAVAK, the Iranian secret police of 1957-1979. Ask any Iranian about that era’s “domestic security and intelligence team” and they will laugh at the words security and intelligence. The CIA-trained SAVAK was arguably the most thuggish secret police in history, with almost limitless powers. All around Tehran, the Shah’s “dissidents” disappeared at their hands or else suffered fates their friends and relatives could barely even whisper about.

But hey, aside from pesky SAVAK, the '70s in Iran were a blast, my parents always insisted. Multi-course dinners out every night at the Hilton and Intercontinental! Fancy parents dripping designer garb! Fetching maids in hand-me-down Chanel! My infant goods that consisted of Paris-bought rabbit-fur capes and giant life-size stuffed animals and more dolls than I’ve ever seen outside a store. And parties, constant parties. Even parties made of just the three of us, parties for my sake—parents singing and dancing to disco-fevered Googoosh at full blast... eventually to drown out the new, alien bellows that filled the night air, post-10 p.m. curfew: the old neighbors' Allah Akbar! from the flanking rooftops that... eventually replaced by the air-raid sirens of an impending eight-year war with Iraq.

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Last week’s celebrations involved Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Khomeini's mausoleum as well as the grave sites of martyrs of the Iran-Iraq War. Ahmadinejad declared, "Today, the revolution is moving forward stronger than before!"

And yet the Islamic Republic, its citizens, the Iranian Diaspora and my family have all undergone so many changes that commemoration today feels confusing and conflicted. The promises of 1979, and even 1989 and 1999, are no longer: Nobody’s looking to the mullahs to solve homelessness (Khomeini’s old promise); renewed- fatwa or not, Salman Rushdie has been out partying in New York for years; and Khatami’s two steps forward—attempts at a freer, more democratic Iran—still ended with Iran two steps back (Ahmadinejad). The most startling revolutions seem to have occurred in the hearts of its participants, whether active or passive.

My father even changed. He tiptoes around the word “Royalist” today, but I grew up with a living room filled with more pictures of the Shah than my own family and relatives—to the point that classmates who’d come over would coo, “Wow, your dad sure got a lot of medals, right?” But he often likens his 1979-self to old American Republicans who crave a conservative status quo more than anything. And since my father was educated for grad school at MIT, and my mother studied English in Britain, the West that divided the left and the right in Iran held neither threat nor allure for them.

Around them, everyone in AEOI-land was in the quintessentially Iranian proverbial-faction hizb-i bad or “the party of the wind”—they’d sway with the majority, whichever way they swung. But my parents remain proud of the fact that they were not swept away by the romanticism of revolution. My father spoke quietly against the Revolution in the office, as did my mother whose last name matched the Shah’s deputy prime minister. Dad’s friends urged him to give up and give in, if only for safety, but he politely declined. One day he went to work and all the many photos of the Shah on his desk and in the office were gone. I asked my dad why he even went to work during this time and he laughed. “What looked worse: if you showed up or if you were in hiding?”

On February 11th’s Islamist “victory”—the Pahlavi dynasty’s collapse—my father was alone against the wind of AEOI. But by the end of the month, as beloved political leaders and key activists were executed and demonstrations grew more bloody, the first tides against the Revolution turned among his friends and colleagues. For the first time he heard—still among a minority of course— my God, what have we done? Some had already left the country, and more started to leave. “I’d say it was still a velvet revolution for a while,” he insists. “The bloodshed began once the Revolution became an institution.”

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Last Sunday there were helicopters pouring flowers on Khomeini’s initial procession route from the airport to his first stop at the martyr’s cemetery. On his plane ride to Iran, a Western journalist asked Khomeini how he felt when he returned to Iran after such a long exile and he said simply “Nothing.” I, like many Iranians, never quite appreciated this outside a brackish joke, but when I call my parents in Los Angeles to ask them how they feel about the 30th anniversary of the Revolution, I am taken aback by my father pulling a Khomeini and simply, genuinely answering, “Nothing.”

Just like the Iranian people and their government couldn’t be more different, neither could the Iranian Diaspora of Los Angeles and Iranians in Iran then or now. Remember that '80s sitcom convention where the young rich sitcom darling would suddenly be confronted with a long-lost relative? And the long-lost relative would be down-and-out and scrappy, street-smart and acrimonious, which would inspire horror in the uppity darling, and thus a whole episode of antics involving coterie, ancestry, pedigree, etc.? This is how it would be if the astronomically affluent, often neo-conservative Tehrangelite met their mainland counterparts who were either a) too poor; b) too proud (too in love with their country and that lifestyle to leave; c) believers of the new regime; or, d) believers of political fickleness, who pooh-poohed the fanciful Revolution phase, waiting for a counterrevolution that would set things “normal” again, with a few tweaks and twists—or a combination. Homebase-Iranians and their satellite cousins now, 30 years later, still do not comprehend each other. How do Dubya-er-than-thou Irangelenos phone their Tehran aunties and dish about their Teacup Yorkies, their indoor pool, and, oh yeah, their pro-US invasion stance? Of course, these are people who often claim they don’t even have relatives in Iran anymore.

I envied the glamorous-life-living Tehrangeles Iranians of Westwood, Brentwood, and Beverly Hills—a good half-hour from us in quaint-when-not-cruddy Middle-American Pasadena where we were one of a few isolated lower-middle-class Iranians—who easily fit in. Their flash and trash made sense in LA—hulking hairdos, blinding bling, chichi couture, froufrou wheels, rococoocoo estates, etc. Here all the base materialism purged by the Islamists could upchuck ebulliently like a Disneyland-lit confetti-bomb blitz. They were safe.

I always gave my family the dippy tag of “academic aristocracy,” whatever that meant, but it was my way of explaining our riches-to-rags condition. Deep accents, slim savings, and a resistance to assimilation—like many they believed their stay here was all temporary, an idea that still lives on in my father—isolated them from Americans as well as the overeager assimilators of the Diaspora, but they still held onto some of the old glory. I shared a room with my little brother in our modest apartment in the lower-middle-class apartment district in town, but I was overdressed to the point of princess-parody for school ( I dreamed of Cali-staples like soccer shorts and Billabong T-shirts while I was stuffed into layers of poofy formalwear daily like life was a perpetual bat mitzvah, all sent from our relatives in the European bureau of the Diaspora). We were taught impeccable manners—to this day I neurotically affix too many pleases and thank-yous to everything. My dad even made us supermarket-caviar-butter-and-Wonder Bread sandwiches to take to school, to remind us “the real stuff is simply our culture.” (I was horrified until I witnessed my Chinese best friend’s mortification at being picked up in her immigrant father’s magnificently garish, mildly beat-up, sputtering '50s Rolls Royce Silver Wraith.)

So what did I do: I became that girl, and luckily got it out of my system in kid-dom.

I remember, for instance, the Ayatollah was not just “a nightmare” to me in the way he was to my parents—he literally appeared to me in horrifying dreams the way Freddy Kreuger cameos in American kids’ sleeplife. So I battled this with a total baby Royalista move: the all-black-wearing white-beardo Ayatollah and his Evil-Santa bad looks were cancelled out by hours of pre-bedtime perusal of more aesthetically pleasing Iranian mugs via the numerous Pahlavi family coffeetable photo books in my dad’s collections. I’d swoon over Empress Farah’s Jackie-O chic, her honey hair and complexion, her “almost American” resplendent style. I admired their bejeweled medals and dazzling crowns and archaic castles. What’s not to love about that fussy life! I decided I wanted to be like their youngest, Leila Pahlavi, with her pastel plaid shirts and carefree feathered hair that was not so unlike my own. How like a real princess to play down princesshood! (Sadly, she grew up to be a troubled depressive, and was found dead in a London hotel in 2001, having overdosed on Seconal—Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland’s final poison of choice.)

By age sevenish, I began calling myself a “Republican,” which to me smelled like Royalist American-style. I adopted my father’s warm-ish support of Reagan, but with quadruple the zeal. My lexicon was littered with just say no-isms, I wore sweater vests a la the Keatons, I challenged students at school to heated politically charged debates (I was pro-life before I knew exactly how babies were made), and I crushed on only the most American of icons, like the Marlboro Man. I once even got detention for telling a new male classmate with an ear piercing he probably had AIDS.

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While Ahmadinejad talks to the Ten Days of Dawn crowds, the usual obligatory “Down With America” posters bob before the cameras. It’s a reminder that there is an air of negation and opposition in this celebration—it’s the anniversary of an upheaval, not simply the birthday of an Islamic fundamentalist state...

In the end the true manifestation of “revolution”—a protest—was what saved me from turning Iranian-Ann Coulter... an event which also made me demote my parents from semi-divine sages to something of the just-like-me sort. It was truly chilling. In September 1987, our family went to one of the many Iranian protests of that era, a demonstration at the Westwood Federal Building against the visit of the Iranian president to the United Nations and US involvement in the Iran-Iraq war. It was your usual thousands all shouting and getting all heated up and cars honking in solidarity (or plain mischief) and I—with a head full of My Little Ponies and my new favorite show Rags to Riches and playground politics and first boys to crush on—really didn’t care. But then something got my attention: Suddenly, the speaker in the spotlight set himself on fire. Right in front of all of us. I later found out it was Iranian writer and antiwar activist Neusha Farrahi, a young man exactly my age now. He died two weeks later.

I could not stop thinking about it.

Around this time, I began to devolve into a nervous person. I started having insomnia episodes. Then I began sleepwalking. Then I had some condition where my limbs would shake uncontrollably as if I was being electrocuted at nights. And worst of all, I began having panic attacks about death. My father tried to console me with the promise that when you get older, you stop caring about dying so much. “Adults joke about wishing they were dead! Maybe the even mean it!” It was then that I started to pray. I prayed—truly godlessly, mimicking the generic gestures and treacley platitudes I had learned from those quivering kids perched by their windows in movies—for time to pass by fast.

I avoided Iran topics and deep conversation with my parents—I mostly avoided my parents!— until my mid-teens really, when we studied Iran in a few pages in our World History book. Suddenly, I saw a picture of a guy that my parents had never mentioned—an old stern man with a tragic expression. The caption told us he was crying. My Japanese-American study buddy was intrigued—“Mooooooooos Degaaaaaaaaas,” she pronounced his name as if he was a ballerino MC, “what in the world happened to Mr. Mos Degas?” I shrugged and we took the textbook to my father. And then he told us that he was a beloved former prime minister of Iran who had been democratically elected and then ousted by a UK- and US-sponsored coup in 1953 once he tried to nationalize the Iranian oil industry. He was also Time's “Man of the Year”—the only other Iranian ever was Khomeini.

That did it. The ancient crying superstar stayed in my head—finally, an Iranian good guy!—and I began to get interested in Iran again. In the '90s, I had that trendy fixation with “my roots,” and I began obsessing on my parents’ plight and '70s Iran. When The Smashing Pumpkins released the Gen-X-sexy 1996 hit “1979,” I wormed my way into the lyrics, determined to claim 1979 Revolution references ( We feel the pull in the land of a thousand guilts!). In my head I always had my own alternative-music video renditions and in this one I saw my parents’ journey here: my mother, played by the young Rapunzel-locked waify Cher, and my father, a burly porn-hunk Tom Selleck (in reality my mother was more Funny Girl-era Streisand, while my dapper lanky-nerd Dad resembles Obama). They were running through a vast, barren sci-fi Land of the Lost landscape full of bloodthirsty overgrown lizards, but somehow by the chorus finale, they were beamed up all shimmying, hustling, bumping in Halston and Qiana atop a Solid Gold platform in glittering le-freak-ing America.

My change was something, but my father’s change in our family was the most drastic: a complete departure from right to left by the post 9/11 era. The change seems to have come from conversations with our family’s sole US citizen at that point: my little brother, whose Near Eastern Studies training led him to finally chip into some of our family’s most impenetrable contradictions: Parents, how could you have believed in the monarchy? SAVAK, hellooo?! Also: Parents, how the hell are you effing Republicans?

It seemed like overnight my father changed. Suddenly Dad—who used to champion the lunatic-charm Americana of his beloved wisecracking musical-belting Danny Kaye, whose used to glorify this land of good ol’ American apple pies and upstanding Puritan ethics—went from a guy whose only criticism of the US had been Carter’s failure to back the Shah when he fell, to a very West-wary liberal. My brother started preaching to us three completely confused Iranian immigrants. He was the one who got me to shriek Orientalist! at grad-school friends who thought I should put more spices in the titles of my stories. He was the one who turned my dad into a left-wing, Trader-Joe-frequenting Air-America-addicted Naderite—my dad, who dubbed me “Dubya” when I questioned him on his whole No More Prisons! mantra.

But my mother, most Royal of us all in blood, had trouble giving up that old Iran. The veil infuriated her but nothing was worse than remembering all the very much they left behind in her golden era. “It was like heaven,” she describes their old lifestyle, in contrast with her first weeks in Europe: “I remember I had a hard time at the butcher in Paris because I didn’t know the English or French word for ‘beef,’ and he actually made me draw a picture of cow! Of course, he knew from the beginning what I meant—the jerk wanted to flirt!” And in contrast with her first moments on US soil, where a smirking Customs officer rolled his eyes at their visas and hissed, “Your country holds our people hostage and you have the guts to come here?”

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The Ten Days are almost up but still there are rallies, there are speeches; there are film festivals, gallery openings, special exhibits, the works. In the streets everything is lit and red, white, and green. This is a big party.

My first birthday party fell on the night of January 16, 1979, the day the Shah left Iran never to return again (a year and a half later, he’d die in Egypt in exile from complications of non-Hodgkins lymphoma). That evening my father was rushing from one of the poshest bakeries in town—where he had picked a giant rabbit-shaped chocolate cake—when suddenly he found himself stuck amidst shouting crowds. He shielded the cake box as people threw candy into crowds, danced with their kids, embraced friends and family, congratulated strangers. When he finally made his way to our home, our few relatives and their kids were all hovering over oblivious-infant me. My father remembers feeling scared, he remembers adults muttering grimly about the celebration outside, he remembers some worried faces and some vexed sighing, but still our little party went on in spite of that other big party outside. My mother remembers directing the focus to her little birthday girl and without the slightest hint of exasperation laughing it all off, That whole thing will blow over, blow over soon enough, just wait...

Porochista Khakpour was born in Tehran and raised in Los Angeles. Her debut novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects (Grove/Atlantic)—a New York Times "Editor's Choice," Chicago Tribune "Fall's Best," and 2007 California Book Award winner—is out in paperback. She is a visiting assistant professor of English at Bucknell and can be found at porochistakhakpour.com.