I am a child of the coup d'Ãƒ©tat, born in Iran a few days after the CIA helped overthrow the popular, democratic government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953.
Not long before my birth, facing nationwide protests, the Shah of Iran was forced to abdicate his power and flee the country. My mother used to tell me how men and women celebrated in the streets, how strangers gave flowers and sweets to each other. "The Shah left," they cried with joy. However, the celebration did not last long. In just a few more days, the political landscape changed again. Men paid by the U.S. government began to roam the streets of Tehran, armed with truncheons and chains, assaulting Mossadegh's supporters. Soon the Shah returned and Mossadegh was put under house arrest. That was when I was born.
A witch-hunt for the followers of Mossadegh, communists, anyone who opposed the Shah and the coup d'Ãƒ©tat now began. Many were jailed -- and tortured. Some opposition figures went underground or left the country; the rest lived in fear of the Shah and, within a few years, the SAVAK, his brutal secret police (also set up with CIA help).
Even as a child, I knew about the SAVAK. I remember adults whispering about it at family gatherings. The fear was palpable. I drew the obvious conclusion: The SAVAK was more powerful and far more horrible than Zahhak, a legendary Iranian monster with snakes growing out of his shoulders that I feared as a child.
My family did not respect the Shah or America; they feared them. My father forbade us to mention them at family gatherings. "Politics is not any of our business," he would say. It was his mantra. He feared being spied on by the SAVAK, our neighbors, or strangers. Later, I learned how the Americans helped create the SAVAK, trained the Shah's torturers, advised the Shah, and closed their eyes to everything that happened in his political prisons. I was told how young men and women were tortured in these jails and I came to agree with my father; politics was not any of my business.
When I was in the fifth grade, I first saw tanks, soldiers, and angry protesters -- at the intersection by my home. Sticks in their hands, and throwing stones, these men broke the windows of our local phone booth and of the stores around the intersection. They were shouting, "Death to the Shah," "Death to America." I heard the gunshots -- many of them. Scared, yet curious, I went to the rooftop of my house to watch the chanting men. "Come downstairs," my father shouted. "This isn't any of our business."
My home was near the main army barracks in Tehran, the elementary school I attended only a short walk away from the scene of serious street riots. The school was somehow an extension of my family: my uncle was the principal, my mother and aunt teachers. I understood the seriousness of what was happening on the streets only when, in the middle of taking an arithmetic exam, I noticed the vice principal and my aunt in our classroom, whispering to my teacher and glancing at me. I was only half-done when the teacher walked over, examined my test papers, and whispered the remaining answers to me.
Joining my aunt, I raced home through the tense, half-deserted streets of my neighborhood, leaving the other students struggling with the exam. "Too dangerous to be out. Everyone was worried for you," my aunt said. I did not leave home again that day or the next.
In the streets in those days -- it was 1963 -- people talked about a man they called Ayatollah Khomeini. Some liked him; others did not. I was too young to understand any of the adult discussions around me, but I could grasp the meaning of the tanks on our streets. Later, I learned that they were in my neighborhood to quell a rebellion by Khomeini's supporters. As a result, he was exiled to Iraq.
In high school, I would see police officers in helmets, swinging their truncheons outside the campus of Tehran University; sometimes I even saw them beating protesting students. But I would walk away, staying out of trouble just as my elders had advised me.
Onto the Streets
Then, one day in February 1970, I didn't walk away.
At six in the morning, my mother woke me and sent off on the chore I hated most, buying fresh bread for breakfast. In the neighborhood bakery, I was dawdling, enjoying the heat of the fire from the glowing oven, the intoxicating aroma of fresh bread, when a young man in black trousers, a suit jacket that didn't match, and a brown, hand-knitted V-neck sweater pulled over a shirt of a different color approached me. Short and unassuming, he had an instantly forgettable face that I remember vividly to this day.
"Sorry for intruding," he said politely, introducing himself as a student from Tehran University. I can't claim to recall the details of our conversation, only his question, the one that intrigued me, but left me uncomfortable and scared.
"Do you know about the student strike over the bus-fare hike?" he asked. I did not, I told him, but I certainly knew about the Shah's recently announced plan to increase fares by 150%. Everyone did. This threatened to make my life far more difficult. I was born to a lower middle-class family and the fare hike would have meant taking the bus to school, but walking forty-five minutes to get home. Like many in my school, I was, until that moment, prepared to do exactly that. End of story.
Quietly but passionately, the young man told me of the student decision to force the government to retract its new policy. "Will you come out and join us?" he asked, encouraging me to boycott my high-school classes that day and do just what I had always feared: protest. Although there were no other customers in the bakery, the pervasive fear of being watched by the SAVAK left me feeling uncomfortable. As soon as my bread had been slipped out of the oven, I paid the baker, shook the young man's hand, and rushed home -- not, of course, mentioning a word about my unexpected encounter.
I took the bus to school that morning and was attending a lecture in physics when a sudden uproar in the hallway disrupted my peace. Stamping feet, banging on doors, hundreds of students were marching through the corridors, shouting, inviting everyone to join them in the school courtyard. The teacher, hoping to maintain order, continued his lecture, but his students simply packed up their books and stormed from the classroom. Following them without hesitation, I joined the protest. For a brief moment, my fears, it seemed, had vanished.
From that courtyard, we poured into the streets -- against the Shah, against America, against everything that had once terrified me -- disrupting traffic, joining others from nearby schools. Rumors circulated in the crowd. Arrests had been made at Tehran University. Students had attacked the Iran-America Society Cultural Center, breaking windows and chanting anti-American slogans. Later that day, we rode the bus home -- free. The next day, the government announced a policy reversal: The bus fares would be left unchanged.
A World of Silences
In college in the early 1970s, some of my classmates would disappear for weeks or months at a time. No one asked why. Everyone knew they had been taken away by the SAVAK. When they returned, we still did not ask questions.
This happened to a classmate I respected. Like the young university student I met at that bakery, he was provincial. Most of the other students in the school wore jeans or more stylish Western outfits; he wore trousers and suit jackets, the typical outfit of provincial folks. Different as we were, he often engaged me in conversations about life and our studies.
One day, he stopped coming to school. A week passed, then another and another; still, his seat remained empty. There were whispers about his whereabouts, but no one discussed his absence openly. Soon, other students began disappearing: a petite woman, a tall bearded fellow, and a youth from a far-away province.
Three months passedÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ and then, one morning, I saw him sitting alone on a bench in the main lobby of our school, thin and frail. I embraced him, said a few words, and departed. I wanted to ask questions; I did not. He wanted to tell me stories; he did not. And life went on in that silence.
"No Gas for Iranians"
I left Iran for graduate studies in the United States in 1976. On February 9, 1979, an Islamic government replaced the Shah's regime. I watched the mass protests and shootings in Tehran from New York on television. Once again, there were those tanks in the streets and people chanting "Death to the Shah," "Death to America." Once again, they were joyously shouting "Long Live Khomeini." The Shah fled the country. I was happy to see him go, happy Iran was free of America.
I read how students and ordinary citizens stormed the Shah's prisons, unlocking every cell, freeing all political prisoners. Some had been in jail since the 1953 coup d'Ãƒ©tat. Those opening the prisons fancied turning them into museums, which would educate future generations in the wrongdoings of the Shah and his American supporters. No longer, they dreamed, would Iranians be tortured for opposing them.
Such hopes, unfortunately, did not last. By the time I returned to Iran in the summer of 1979, the country was already facing life under a repressive theocratic state, albeit an anti-American one. Iranians who took part in the mass movement in the streets which, miraculously, overthrew the Shah were now dealing with a government that wished to control every aspect of their lives. It promptly banned all music, foreign movies, and theater; subjected women to what it considered an Islamic hijab, forcing them to cover their hair and wear baggy robes in dark colors; it had no hesitation about shutting down newspapers and magazines that questioned its policies. Government militias and paid thugs raided the headquarters of oppositional political organizations, attacked bookstores, and burnt books.
By that fall, the Shah's political prisons were once again being used to jail and torture Iranians. Many of the freed political prisoners had been returned to their cells. Ironically, this time around, they were charged with being friends of America, aka "the Great Satan." Anyone who challenged the government was accused of helping the United States to undermine the Islamic Republic, the cold war with the Great Satan was now a convenient pretext for imprisoning journalists, writers, and student activists -- anyone, in fact, who dared to disagree with the reining theocrats. They were labeled "enemies of the state," "agents of America." It was the beginning of a new era.
And yet much remained eerily the same. With many still being jailed and tortured, this time for liking America or being considered its voice in Iran, we Iranians remained hostages to the strange, entangled, never-ending relationship between the two countries.
In the U.S., Iran now underwent a similar transformation from ally to enemy after a group of student backers of Khomeini seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, holding 50 of its residents hostage for 444 days. I was back in the Bronx, attending Fordham University, when, during that crisis, Ronald Reagan termed Iranians "barbarians." If I was hurt by the label, the Iranian government welcomed it as the best proof of America's "animosity towards the Islamic Revolution."
The hostage crisis opened a new chapter in the Iranian-American relationship, evoking anger among some of my fellow students at Fordham. A long banner, for instance, hanging from a wall of one of the dormitories read: "Save Oil, Burn Iranians." Hoping to offer a sense of the Iranian grievances against the U.S. that lay behind these events, I agreed to be interviewed by the student paper. I explained the way the effects of the CIA's covert action in the 1953 coup had rippled down to our moment, how Iranian democracy had been a victim of American support for the Shah.
A few days after the interview was published, in a letter to the paper's editor, a group of students wrote, "The Iranian student must watch his back when he walks home alone late at night." Similar threats continued, along with occasional physical harassment. Meanwhile, Iranian students in southern states were reportedly denied service at restaurants and gas stations -- "No Gas for Iranians," was a gas-station sign of the times; some were even beaten up.
The Reagan administration only increased its rhetoric against Iran in this period, matched phrase for phrase by the Iranians, as the war of words between the two countries became ever more intense. Action replaced words after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980, starting an eight-year bloodletting between the two countries that would leave hundreds of thousands dead and wounded.
Hoping to weaken, or perhaps topple, the Islamic Republic, the U.S. and its regional allies -- Saudi Arabia and the Arab Emirates -- aided the Iraqi war effort, providing Saddam with large grants and credit. Later in the conflict, the Pentagon provided Iraq with invaluable operational and planning intelligence as well as satellite information about the movements of Iranian forces, even when it knew that Saddam would use nerve gas against them. Meanwhile, the besieged Iranian government continued to persecute its domestic critics, accusing them of being the agents of the "Great Satan."
Loving the Great Satan
Like many Iranians studying in universities in the West, I stayed away from Iran, later applying for U.S. citizenship and making this country my new home. In May 1995, after sixteen years, I returned as a visiting university lecturer, part of a special United Nations program. The Iran of my childhood was all but gone. Large murals of the "fallen martyrs" of the Iran-Iraq War, and anti-American posters were everywhere. The security forces and the bassij -- the "moral police" -- patrolled the streets in their jeeps and station wagons. The war with Iraq had long ended, but Tehran remained visibly under its shadow -- a city of martyrs and anti-American warriors, the authorities proclaimed.
Even the street names had changed; many were now named after the martyrs of that brutal war. There was nothing left of my old neighborhood. My home, the bakery, my elementary school, everything had been razed. In their place were a freeway and new residential projects. I recognized only four homes at the far end of the alley where I grew up. On a discolored and bent plaque nailed to a wall was the name of one of my childhood playmates: "Martyr Ali Sharbatoghli."
Inside Tehran homes, behind closed doors, lay another Iran, startlingly unlike the faÃƒÂ§ade so carefully constructed by the government. In the streets, women covered their hair and wore long, baggy robes to disguise their curves; inside they wore Western clothes -- jeans and revealing dresses. They lived two lives.
A version of America, as filtered through Hollywood (and Iranian exiles in Southern California), was in every home. Through bootlegged music from LA, or the songs of Pink Floyd, Metallica, Guns N' Roses, and other Western rock icons of the time, Tehranis embraced what the government called "the infidel." They danced to his music and imitated the lifestyle they absorbed from satellite TV and pirated Hollywood films. Tapes of American movies sometimes made it to the Iranian capital before they were commercially released in the U.S. Even those who opposed the U.S. politically and could not forgive or forget its role in the 1953 coup and the Shah's prison state found joy in American pop culture. In private conversations, relatives, friends, even absolute strangers inquired about my life in the States or the possibility of somehow escaping to America.
It appeared that Iranians could not live without America. Even the government needed the Great Satan to repress its opponents, while Tehranis took refuge in American pop culture to escape the life created for them by that very government.
In 1997, two years after my visit, a smiling reformist cleric, Mohammad Khatami, became president. Iranians were energized. Hope returned. And when I visited in July 1998, it seemed that a new Iran was truly emerging. Khatami was but one of many original architects of the Islamic Republic who were now calling for a change in direction: a reversal of foreign policy, a freer press, and the expansion of civil liberties.
Khatami himself championed a radical change in Iran's foreign policy, advocating what was called a "dialogue of civilizations." He set a new tone, calling, in fact, for a rapprochement between Iran and the West, especially the United States. Khatami's presidency helped bring into the open deep divisions inside the country: between the government and the people as well as within that government itself. It also highlighted the touchstone role the U.S. continued to play in Iranian politics and society.
Now, however, for the first time in a quarter-century, many believed an opportunity existed to end the hostility that had only hurt the Iranian people. Young and old, Iranians seemed to welcome this chance. Even some among the former Embassy hostage-takers expressed regrets and became a part of the growing reform movement, while advocating rapprochement with America. Four years after Khatami was elected president, a poll administered by Abbas Abdi, one of the student leaders of the hostage-taking, revealed that 75% of Iranians favored dialogue with the American people. Abdi was subsequently jailed.
Despite resistance from conservatives, an independent press was emerging; old taboos were being questioned. There were political rallies that not long before would have led directly to jail; there were informal meetings, debates, protests, art exhibits, theater openings, and a burst of other forms of political and artistic expression. The fear and anxiety I had sensed everywhere two years earlier seemed to have abated. Young men and women openly defied the government through their body politics, their recurring protests, their fearless confrontations with the police. They broke taboos, expressed their feelings openly, and risked beatings and arrest. I encountered a small group of such young Iranians during my overnight detention in Tehran -- a vision of what a new Iranian society might have felt like and a painful reminder that the forces of the old order were still alive and all too well.
My Night in Jail
It was a mild evening in February 1999. I was sitting on a park bench with a female friend when two members of the security forces walked towards me. By the time the thought of escaping crossed my mind, it was already too late. I imagined the worst. There I was in the park in the dark with a woman not related to me by blood or marriage. In those days, that was still a crime in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
"Get up, get up, let's go," one guard demanded.
I asked for an explanation.
"Shut up. Let's go," he insisted, demanding my identification card. All I had was my faculty ID from Ramapo College in New Jersey. Uneducated, the guards could not read the card.
"What is this?"
I responded that I was a professor from America visiting my ailing father in Tehran.
"AmericaÃ¢â‚¬Â¦" the guard repeated the word, still holding my card, but now staring at me. Had I thought about it, I would have realized that an American ID card would be used against me, and my appearance -- I was wearing a fashionable winter coat and a long scarf -- a cause of envy and anger.
My friend and I now had no choice but to follow the guards to a building on the north end of the park. We were ushered into a room where there were other arrested young men and women, a few uniformed officers, and a middle-aged man in plainclothes behind a desk.
"Against the wall! Stay right there!" shouted the arresting guard.
The man in plainclothes asked about us and the guard showed him our identification cards. "A professor from the United States," said the guard.
"Get over here!" the man shouted.
Approaching his desk, I began, "Why am I Ã¢â‚¬Â¦?" but his heavy hand crashing into my face cut my question short. I hit the wall behind me.
"What's that fuzz under your lips?" the interrogator asked, pointing to the small patch of hair. "Did your mommy tell you to grow this?" Laughter erupted.
"I'll break you into pieces before I let you go," said the man. "Do you think this is Los Angeles? We'll show you where you are. This is Iran not America. We'll show you!" And he struck my face again with that heavy hand. Having nearly lost my balance, I leaned against the wall.
"I'll show you where you are," he kept repeating, staring at my faculty ID card, then turning and hitting me. By now he was smiling triumphantly, while armed, uniformed men kept wandering into the room to stare at me, inspect me from head to toe. "American," they would say, with a mixture of wonderment and contempt, looking at each other, laughing. My face was throbbing, my ears literally ringing from the repeated strikes. I remained silent, wishing this were a bad dream.
Two hours of insults and beatings followed before the interrogation ended. I was then handcuffed and two soldiers took me to a nearby temporary jail for those committing "moral deviance." A metal door opened. I entered. "Take off your belt and shoelaces," said the prison guard. I handed him my keys and other sharp objects. The metal door closed behind me. I was officially jailed.
"This is your home for the night," the guard said, opening the door to a small, stuffy, windowless cell. It was packed with young men, sitting on the dirty carpet, leaning against the wall. "Welcome," a number of them said.
"Please, hereÃ¢â‚¬Â¦" a thin man in his early twenties squeezed aside to open a space for me.
"What are you doing here? You don't seem to belong," said another man. Without hesitation, I told my story. Intrigued and excited by the presence of a visitor from America, they seized the moment. In no time, I was flooded with questions about life, music, girls, about all that was officially forbidden in Iran.
"Have you been to Los Angeles?" a talkative young man inquired. "I would do anything to go there!" Others floated the names of Iranian singers living in Los Angeles -- the exiled singers of the Shah's time and new pop stars. "Have you ever seen Sandy in person?" a very young inmate asked about a singer I had never heard of. "How many times have you gone to Dariush's concerts?" he asked about the most popular singer among the young before the Islamic revolution. "How does he look in person? Give him my regards."
Another young inmate quietly inquired about Pink Floyd and Santana. "Have you ever gone to a Pink Floyd concert?" he asked in an awed whispered. I remembered my own youth, those long hours listening to Pink Floyd and Dariush, that same longing for a chance to see them in person. A generation later, in an Islamic republic, what had changed?
"How can I emigrate to America?" a man, who hadn't said a word, asked from across the room.
Suddenly, an older inmate began singing a popular song associated with Hayedeh, an icon from the Shah's time. She had died in exile in Los Angeles five years earlier. The cell fell into silence.
My night in prison ended and I was taken to court the next morning. As I left the cell, the inmates embraced me one by one, promising to remain in touch. "Say hello to Los Angeles," an inmate said jauntily. "Write about us in the newspapers. Tell people about our conditions. Don't forget us."
I was handcuffed, put in a van, and driven away to court. Later that day, I was released on bail; many of the men in my cell undoubtedly didn't have the same luck, remaining behind closed doors, dreaming of their favorite singers in America. My moment among them was a reminder of the gulf that separated our worlds. Soon enough -- far sooner than I wanted -- I would return to the U.S.; they would remain in embattled Iran, only dreaming about America.
How I left
My departure was unexpected. It came after a week of nationwide protests against the government. On July 8, 1999 -- just as in my youth -- a small contingent of students left the housing compound of Tehran University, marching in protest this time against the closure of the reformist newspaper Salam. It was a peaceful demonstration which ended without a confrontation with the authorities as the protesting students returned to their rooms that evening. In the early morning hours of July 9, however, the anti-riot police and plainclothes thugs burst into the housing compound, assaulting sleeping students with chains and batons, even setting rooms on fire. One student was killed; many were injured and taken away to jail.
By midday, news of the attack had reached university campuses all across the city; hundreds now joined the embattled students of Tehran University, setting up barricades, occupying the housing compound. By the time I arrived, ordinary citizens had already joined in, while the student protest had moved out of the university and been transformed into a full-blown street riot.
On July 10, thousands of students and youths gathered at the entrance of Tehran University, chanting slogans against the Supreme Religious Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, shouting "Death to the Dictator" and "Freedom Now." In the streets around the university's historic entrance, scenes reminiscent of the 1979 revolution were taking place. Stores were shut down for fear of violence.
On July 12, Ayatollah Khamenei responded by calling the protesters "agents of America" and ordering a clampdown. "Our main enemies in spying networks are the designers of these plots," he declared. "Where do you think the money that is allocated by the U.S. Congress to campaign against the Islamic Republic of Iran is being spent? No doubt that that budget and a sum several times larger are spent on such schemes against Iran."
Two days later, swinging their truncheons and thick chains, anti-riot police and bearded men in slippers attacked the demonstrators. More than two thousand of them were jailed. The student uprising was put down. Soon after, I received a call from a journalist friend.
"Do you have an exit visa on your passport? Leave Iran quietly and soon," he said.
A cell within the Ministry of Intelligence, he informed me, had compiled a "thick file" about my activities in Iran. The government was now looking for scapegoats, people they could blame for the student protests. My profile fit the bill perfectly for the Islamic Republic. After all, I was an American citizen, gave lectures on political economy, wrote weekly columns for reformist papers, traveled in and out of Iran, and had close ties with the students. "Spying for America" was a common charge for people like me in those days. I was to be framed and displayed to the public as an enemy of the state.
Fearing for my life, I went into hiding and, on July 19, flew to Dubai. A week later, I was back in New York. My short rendezvous with even a limited democracy in Iran had ended.
Dreams of War, Dreams of Peace
Many things have changed in Iran since 1999. The reformists have largely been pushed out of the government. The new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the people around him have been working hard to reverse whatever progress was made in the areas of foreign policy and civil liberties during Khatami's presidency.
Changes no less important occurred in the United States, which, of course, got its own fundamentalist government in 2000. In 2002, President George W. Bush declared Iran an official member of his "Axis of Evil," and, in the past few years, the anti-Iranian rhetoric has only escalated. Iran is now viewed by the current administration as the main threat to American interests in the Middle East, the premier rogue state in the region, a supporter of international terrorism, and enough of a menace to warrant war planning on a major scale. Officials in Iran have been using similar rhetoric about America. The war of words has reached dangerous levels. A real war seems conceivable.
For two years now, respected investigative journalists like the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh have been reporting on the existence of elaborate Bush administration preparations for a full-scale air campaign on Iran, possibly including the "nuclear option." The administration's obsession with Iran's nuclear ambitions, its rhetoric about the danger of a nuclear Iran to Israel and to world security, and its orchestrated efforts (and relative success) in referring Iran's case to the Security Council all seem like the prelude to a war against Iran. Adding to this impression are the administration's drumbeat of claims about Iranian "interference" in Iraq, its contribution to American casualties by supposedly supplying advanced elements for the making of roadside bombs to the Iraqi insurgency, as well as its support for terrorist movements in Lebanon and Palestine (as Mr. Bush repeated in his 2006 State of the Union Address). In addition, the dispatching of more aircraft carrier task forces to the Persian Gulf and the arrest of Iranian diplomats in Iraq only increase my fears of war. Is it truly possible that this administration could launch such a war against my childhood home, creating a new, more horrific version of 1953, another half-century-plus of bitterness, another half-century-plus of an Iranian obsession with America?
The specter of war is haunting me now. Recurring nightmares interrupt my sleep. I see those last houses in my old neighborhood reduced to rubble and dust, bridges destroyed, homes burned to the ground. In my solitude, I wonder how my neighbors in New York will treat me if a war breaks out. Will they display American flag decals on their windows? Will they tie yellow ribbons to trees? I think of my students, and wonder whether they will see me as an enemy the day the United States begins bombing Iran or will they think to consol me, to ask how my family is coping with the war? Will they sooner or later be dispatched to Iran to aim their guns at my loved ones?
I wish to tell my students and neighbors of the dream I have been carrying with me for years. I dream, someday, of returning to the place I've kept so close to my heart, of breathing the fresh air in the mountains surrounding Tehran, of drinking tea in the humble teahouses on the bank of the narrow stream that gives life to those barren hills. I dream of buying fresh parsley and tomatoes from the old man on the street corner next to my mother's home, greeting the baker with a smile.
Will American bombs kill my dream?
Behzad Yaghmaian is theEmbracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West author of (Delta Trade paperbacks 2006) and Social Change in Iran: An Eyewitness Account of Dissent, Defiance, and New Movements for Rights. He is a professor of political economy at Ramapo College of New Jersey.
Copyright 2007 Behzad Yaghmaian