You lived through the days of the shah, then you saw the revolution, you lived in exile, you had this incredible life in Hollywood. As you were writing your memoir, was there one particular part of your life that was the hardest to go back to or remember? Or was there one that was the most pleasurable to remember for you?
Oh, yes. Leaving my German shepherd, my dog, behind—Pasha. That is still the hardest one of all. My daughter just finished her studying at Chapman University. She’s now a graduate of Chapman and she wants to be a film director. She was ... living away from us for three years. I was bringing her home yesterday, and all of a sudden ... she turned around looked at the door of the home that she was living in for three years, and she started crying. And she said, “Oh, Mom, I’ve gotten so emotional and I don’t know why.” I said, “Tara, I was your age when I left not only my home, but also my country and my beloved dog, and just as you did, I turned around and looked at it when I was leaving the border ... Imagine, you have to leave your home, your parents, your family, your friends, and basically start a journey that you have no idea what is going to happen in this journey the day after.” But you just hit the road and start a new life.
You left Iran just after Khomeini came to power. How long has it been since you’ve been back to your country?
It was actually the day before he came.
Because they closed the airport?
They closed the airport, and then they opened the airport for him, and I thought, as soon as he arrives, they may close the airport again. That’s why I had to leave in a hurry. But I went back a year after to see if I could get student help [for tuition]. And in one week, I knew I couldn’t live in Iran. It was like high noon in Western movies. People were wearing these questionable faces. You were wondering what’s happening in their minds. They wouldn’t tell you ... I couldn’t anticipate living like under such a religious regime.
That was the last time you were back?
That was the last time, 33 years ago. Yeah, ’81.
What do you miss the most about Iran?
The alley of love and yellow jasmines. Those tiny alleys in Iran, like in Italy, like in Egypt, I’m sure you’ve seen these alleys. They are tiny, only two people, supposedly hand in hand, can fit to go through these alleys. The generation before me called it the truth alleys; my generation called it the love alleys. Because we could take our friends to those alleys and recite poetry to them. I did.
Watching the events of the Arab Spring, they’ve eerily mimicked some of the events that happened in 1978, 1979 in Iran. First there was a popular revolt. Then in some countries a fundamentalist religious party is starting to come to power. Is it strange for you to watch the events in the Middle East right now?
I’m afraid not. You’re right. Yesterday I was watching the events unfold in Turkey, and I was watching it in horror, thinking, I hope it’s not going to fall into the same trap. It all started the same way. Somebody somewhere says something, and then somebody decides to shoot this person or to stab this person to death, or the person themselves decides to put themselves on fire, and then it just triggers it all. Egypt was the same. I was worried about Egypt, too. I was talking to a dear friend of mine who’s a great Egyptian actor, really famous in Egypt, and I told him what my worries were, and he said, “Oh, no, Egypt is not going to take after Iran. Egypt is different. We’re different.” And I said, “Well, I do believe that the Muslim Brotherhood started from Egypt.” And he was like, “No, it’s not going to happen to us.” But I can still watch them on the news, how they are dealing with this new hard-core fundamentalism that is taking over the Middle East.
In your opinion, why didn’t we see a Persian Spring in 2009, when there was this green revolution and then it was quashed? And do you think we’ll see one at some point in the future, or do you think Iran is going down a completely different path from that of its neighbors?
Well, I do believe that, in comparison to its neighboring countries, Iran is a far bigger country and therefore far more complicated. It has its own supporters: Russia, China, Brazil, and then so on and so forth, and all the Muslim countries in the Far East. And it has its own friends in Europe, Germany, and France. We cannot compare it to Syria, by any means. Therefore, any uprising that could bring us any sort of results that ... the liberals of Iran are looking for, this is not as easy as it can happen in other countries. Interference with Iran, into its internal affairs, is really hard nowadays. Most of the time, impossible. That is one reason.
It sounds like an absolutely beautiful country. I wish I could see it one day.
I wish you could see it one day. Honest to god, I wish I was ... one day I would be so rich, that I could take my American friends—they wouldn't even have to buy tickets, I would send a private jet, bring them to Tehran, and take them to see Persepolis, take them to the Caspian Sea, and let them see how beautiful, how vast, how green, how gorgeous this country is, and how much Iranians love Americans. I cannot even tell you, when we were young, when I was a teenager, we used to go to public pools, which were usually located at big hotels where Americans used to stay. And we would go around the pool, and we would say to anybody with blue eyes or green eyes—and we would say out loud, “Hey, stranger, are you American?” And they would say, “Yes.” “Oh, very nice meeting you, we love your country.”
Are you still in close contact with your family in Iran?
I got all my brothers out. They’re all out now, three of them are out. One of them is a doctor in San Diego, the other is in IT for a Trump hotel in Honolulu, and the other one is an architect who’s working with the City in London. So they are all out, except for my mother, whom I call Mother Courage, after my favorite play ... I call her Mother Courage because every time I ask her to join us or to come out, or maybe that it’s too dangerous for her, she says, “I just want them to come to my house, to see what they have to tell me, and then I will take care of them.” I go, “OK.” She knows she has a better life in Iran, and I don’t blame her. She doesn’t speak English, and we don’t have that many friends here. It’s not like Iran. We don’t have parties every night here.
And your ex-husband is still there, and you talk to him sometimes.
Yes, sometimes. I don’t want to put him in trouble, so any time either he’s in London or out of the country, I will call him. Like when I was writing the book, I had a couple of questions, like how long did it take us to get from Tehran to Istanbul ... You know, I’m always worried for him. He’s such a nice man, such a nice man. Such a pity he has to live in that country.
But you said that was his choice—he wanted to stay there.
He did. I agree with my colleague on X-Men. I was working on X-Men, and one of my peers asked me why my first husband left me, and I said: “He didn’t leave me, I left him. He wanted to stay in Iran, and I wanted to leave, and, you know, get myself educated in a democratic country.” He didn’t say anything. Two days later he got back to me and said, “Now I know why he dared to leave you. He preferred Iran over you.” How beautifully put, sometimes you need friends to make you snap out of it and realize what the truth is. He’s right.
My ex-husband was partially educated in Europe, and day one, he didn’t want to live in Europe. Day one, when we met, I was like, “You were in Europe, you were in Switzerland, you were in England, and you came back to Iran? How come you didn’t stay there? You didn’t like living there?” And he said, “Shohreh, I’m a painter. I’m inspired by our rich colors, in our foods, in our carpets, and in our nature. I can’t live anywhere else.” And I’m beginning to understand what he meant, watching all of my favorite directors leaving Iran, trying to work abroad, and I see the flavor is not really there anymore. Once I met with a poet in Oklahoma, a very famous Iranian poet, and I asked him if he was working, and he said, “I can’t, I can’t. I have to be close to Damāvand Mountain, so I would be able to write those poems again. I can’t do it here, not in Oklahoma.”
This is a good segue to talk about art and the revolution. As you mentioned, you left but many actors stayed, and they were banned from acting. Do you think the revolution impoverished Iran’s artistic community—both the people who stayed and the people who left?
Absolutely, because what happens when the revolution is not beneficial to its own people—what happens right after the revolution, the religious tyranny takes over and basically does not want you to move or do anything. They would rather you not go to school—for many years, the universities were closed down, the colleges were closed down, kids didn’t go to school because their parents were afraid they would get killed. So it’s like a huge [halt on] whoever was thriving at that moment or was driving to get to a place or was trying to become somebody, it’s a huge [halt]. For some people, 10 years, for some 15, for some 20 years, they couldn’t work, they weren’t allowed to work. I’d heard it before, when I was young ... that people who were deprived of their work, gradually they die for no good reason. And some of these people did die for no good reason. They were really young, in their late 40s or early 50s, and they were dying of heart attacks, brain stroke ... Imagine, you’ve been deprived of your work, even if you’re wealthy, if you don’t need the money, you just have to go home and close the doors and be careful not to say anything [because] they would take you to jail and torture you. What they do, basically, they take hope away from you. For those who stayed, their hopes were taken away. Whatever they wished for the future had vanished overnight.
What is the state of Iran’s cinema scene or theater scene today? Are things still heavily censored?
Quite heavily. But the situation is far better now. Before, they used to censor the films, and then all the directors [and] producers, they said, “For God’s sake, if you want to censor the film, why don’t you censor the screenplay before we make a film?” ... One out of 100 movies is censored [now]. But screenplays, 90 out of 100.
Would you ever make a movie out of your memoir?
I would love to!
When you look back on your career, is there a movie of yours or a play you did that was your favorite?
My favorite play is the one that saved our life in the U.S., The Sweet Scent of Love. My husband, Houshang Touzie, wrote it and directed it. The three of us, and another prominent Iranian actor, Daryoush Irani-Nejad, also portrayed my uncle in that play. We started with the play knowing there were no places for us in Hollywood, with our accents and our jet-black hair. We started our own theater company with this first play, The Sweet Scent of Love, thinking, OK, we’re going to have a few performances and at least save it for a couple of months. But then it went on for four years. It was on the stage for four years, and we took it on tours around the world three times. And there is still demand for it—we just heard from our friends in Canada, saying, “Don’t you want to celebrate its 25th year? If you bring it over we can put it in a 2,000-seat theater” ... We want to do it.
Is there a role for a woman—either on stage or on screen—that you haven’t played and would love to play one day?
Indira Gandhi ... She is amazing. Right after her, if possible, Benazir Bhutto. Those two women, oh, my God.
In an excerpt from The Alley of Love and Yellow Jasmines, Aghdashloo describes traveling to Amsterdam for her film Guests of Hotel Astoria, about a group of persecuted Iranians seeking asylum. There, she meets a young woman who has come up against the worst abuses of the regime—and faces a wrenching moral dilemma.
Next up was Amsterdam, where the last piece of the movie was to be shot. This time we did have a proper permit to film, and the airport authorities did their best to accommodate us.
During a break, I was asked by the airport immigration police if I would talk to an Iranian passenger who did not speak a word of English, or any other language except Farsi. They did not have a Farsi-speaking translator on hand and were wondering if I could help them.
Two policemen took me to where the Iranian woman was waiting for a miracle to happen. I saw a young pregnant woman in her early thirties with her five-year-old son clutching his mother’s skirt. It was as though my character had jumped out of the film and was facing me in real life.
I explained to the young woman that the police wanted to know which country she flew from, and why she did not have a passport. She was shaking, and her son was crying. The child was hungry. I asked the police if we could give them some food from the film’s craft services, and it was soon delivered to us. The poor kid took a large bite out of his ham sandwich and gulped it down with a Coca-Cola. He wouldn’t take his teary and puffy eyes off of his mother.
She then started to whisper to me in Farsi: “Please do not tell them this. I tore my Iranian passport into pieces and flushed it down the toilet on the plane. I was smuggled into Pakistan. The opposition helped me. They gave me some money, and I bought a fake Pakistani passport and a fake visa to Holland to get on the plane. I am coming from Pakistan now. But please do not tell them what I told you or I will be deported to Iran.”
She was told by her opposition friends that the authorities in Holland would not deport her as long as she did not have a travel document on her that indicated her country of origin. She told me that her husband had been a member of an Iranian opposition called the Mujahideen Khalq. It was the Islamic Republic’s most infamous opposition group. The mujahideen believed they were engaged in a long-term guerrilla war against the Islamic Republic. Her husband had been executed at Tehran’s Evin Prison shortly after being captured at their home. She said she would be killed, too, if she went back to Iran, for she was a member of the group as well. I was speechless, and knew she was right. Hundreds of mujahideen, mostly young people, men and women, had been tortured, raped, and killed in prison.
Women of Iran were deprived of their basic rights. Many had been jailed, tortured, raped, and hanged for being members of ethnic or religious minorities or being involved in political activities.
Mona, a sixteen-year-old Baha’i girl, was hanged in July 1984 for refusing to conform and sign a petition for mercy, in which she would denounce her birth religion, the Baha’i faith, and convert to Islam. Her tragic death made a huge impact on concerned citizens all over the world.
In 1985, the United Nations’ special representatives to Iran began issuing regular reports documenting allegations of sexual violence and rape in Iran’s prisons. A 1987 report noted that six sympathizers of Iran’s mujahideen testified about experiencing and witnessing many forms of torture. One woman, Mina Vatani, reported that she witnessed seventy people being executed in Evin Prison in early 1982, and that the victims included a pregnant woman and women who had been raped.
In 1988, the same year we were filming Hotel Astoria, representatives held informal hearings at which sixteen former prisoners testified about their experiences in prison, which included torture and rape. Seven were Baha’is and nine described themselves as sympathizers of the mujahideen. One witness testified that a woman in her sixties had been raped and executed; another stated that she witnessed Revolutionary Guards raping young girls.
I was torn between the truth, risking the woman’s life, my conscience, and my responsibility as a translator. Then I remembered what my old friend Shamim once taught me.
He had been at our place in Tehran when my first husband and I were arguing over something. I turned to Shamim and asked him who was right. He said my husband was right. I looked at him in disbelief and said I thought he was a fair-minded intellectual. I asked him, “What would you stand by, the truth or your friend?”
He said he would stand by his friend regardless of the truth.
I knew the woman was going to be killed if deported to Iran. So I gathered all my strength and stood by her.
I told the policemen that she refused to tell me the truth and that I did not understand a word she said, as she spoke a different dialect of Farsi. I never knew what happened to her, but I heard from the policeman who escorted me back to the set that she was going to be taken to the city of Amsterdam for further inquiry.
I hoped she was able to obtain political asylum without having a passport. I wished she could stay in the Netherlands, that peaceful country and beautiful land of magnificent tulips. Its democratic law would treat her as a human being and give her child a chance to grow up in a civil society, where his mother would not be tortured, raped, and hanged for having a different ideology.
I left Holland as soon as possible and joined Houshang in Germany.
Excerpted from The Alley of Love and Yellow Jasmines by Shohreh Aghdashloo.