In Khomeini's Shadow

Roya Hakakian's story of growing up Jewish during the Iranian Revolution.

Revolution. Everything in Iran changed on February 1, 1979, the day Ayatollah Khomeini returned to our country a few days after the departure of the Shah. Suddenly, millions were demanding an end to 2,500 years of monarchy--including hundreds of young Jews who joined the revolution against the wishes of their elders, hoping to recast their identities as secular Iranians who could assimilate seamlessly into the fabric of the promised utopia. Khomeini quickly took on the status of an "imam," only a step away from prophet in the Shi'ite tradition, and within two months, an overwhelming majority of Iranians had voted for the establishment of an Islamic republic.

For most Iranians, the period following the advent of the Ayatollah became the most memorable time of their lives. Especially in Tehran, it was a period of unparalleled freedom. For the nation's youth, the revolution was a love affair, the most alluring love of their lives.

Yet the love affair would end, cruelly. By the close of the second year, Ayatollah Khomeini had broken nearly every promise he'd made. Every underground group that had joined in coalition with him to overthrow the Shah was banned once again. Control of all civil and political facets of life was invested in a group of young radicals called Hezbollah, Party of God. Women could not appear in public without a veil. Abortion was declared illegal. By September 1980 the world enforced severe sanctions on Iran to condemn the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran and the taking of fifty-two American diplomatic hostages. That same September, Saddam Hussein declared war against Iran. Doom overtook our nation, its most telling sign the plummeting of the rial from seventy rials to the dollar in 1978 to more than ten thousand in 1984.

For the 100,000-member Iranian Jewish community, the reemergence of the Ayatollah was the beginning of the end. The new regime's condemnation of Israel as Iran's greatest enemy reawakened antisemitic sentiments. Though in several major speeches Khomeini had recognized the Jewish community as belonging to the people viewed by the Koran as legitimate "People of the Book," Jewish social, economic, and educational opportunities declined rapidly, setting off a wave of emigration from the country in which Jews had lived for hundreds of years before the first Muslims appeared.

My family lived at the exotic address #3 Alley of the Distinguished--home to the most magnificent junipers, the most fragrant honeysuckle, the most colorful arrangement of pansies, the most velvety imperial roses.

And yet, our home was the spirit of modesty. Perhaps this modesty, which Father extended to all people and objects, is best encapsulated in a couplet he composed, etched in calligraphy, and hung above our hallway door:

The Hakakians' is a home of dervishes

Without a care for the world's riches

No one's a stranger in our home

Everyone's family under our dome.

Father was well-respected by Jews and non-Jews alike. He would saunter down the street, hands clasped behind him, chest forward, always in a suit and tie even if he was only going to the corner grocery. Perfect strangers felt compelled to acknowledge him with the only term of reverence they could bestow on a regal passerby: "Mr. Haji (meaning a fellow Muslim fortunate enough to have been to Mecca), good day!" In turn, my obliging father would reply, "May Allah keep you safe!" And when he invoked the name of God, he did not call forth "Khoda," Persian for God, but the Koranic equivalent, 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.

Among Jews, Father received an even warmer reception. He earned 60,000 rials (the equivalent of $900) a month as a headmaster, but this lowly figure was subsidized by Jewish community respect. At communal celebrations he would be introduced to the guests with such words as "The presence of Mr. Hakakian, the poet, the conscience of the community, and the tireless educator, ladies and gentlemen, blesses every couple's future." At circumcision ceremonies, the howling baby was passed to Father to be soothed.

Yet in the midst of our wonderful life in Iran, there was also veiled antisemitism. Our family became cognizant of it most in the weeks preceding Passover. Every year, three weeks before Pesach, to honor the ancient Israelites' hasty departure from Egypt, we waged our own crusade: against chametz. We armed ourselves with an arsenal of brooms, rags, mops, scrubs, and sprays; and in a vat over the gas burner (which we wheeled out of storage), we boiled water and dipped perfectly clean dishes to scald away any trace of non-"kosher for Passover" foods. We cleaned with far greater zeal than we celebrated the freedom of the Jews. And since our life teemed with metaphors, the cleaning frenzy, too, had meaning greater than what met the eye. Passover was a time for our neighbors to witness our cleanliness, for however far Iran had come, even by 1977, some Muslims still called Jews najes: dirty.

While most of our family expressed our Jewish heritage with pride, my Uncle Ardi was another sort altogether. At only twenty-seven years of age, he was the talk of the crowd as soon as he entered a room: "What a solid, solid man!" With consummate posture he would strut around, greeting everyone, embracing some, shaking the hands of others, freshening their drinks. In his eyes was a volcano that, when active, drew the female kind to the path of its hazel lava.

Everyone in the family had daily dealings with non-Jews and made friends with a few along the way. But Uncle Ardi barely mingled with members of the Jewish community. In his retinue there was always an Ali, a Hassan, or a Mohammad. He boasted, "If I have twenty friends, nineteen of them are Muslims."

Uncle Ardi was the Jew who had shed the "ghetto speech," Persian peppered with Hebrew. Even Jews mistook him for a Muslim, and behaved as they did in the company of one, offering him the best seat in the house and waiting cheerfully on him. They watched their manners and spoke to him in flawless Persian. He was an insurance man. He had a BMW. Nightlife was flourishing, and between tending to clients and romancing women, he was also the official family gourmand. The hosts of the upper Pahlavi Avenue restaurants cleared their best table for him. He had shed fear. He said simply, "I know how to live."

And so it was that every year, when Father asked Uncle Ardi to read the Ha Lachma at the Passover seder, an uproar ensued. Obeying, he would read it, but not without a bit of mischief: "'This is the bread of affliction'--some affliction!--'that our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt. This year we are slaves.' May this slavery never end! 'This year here and next year at home in Israel.' Pardon me for not packing!" Tissues passed hands as the guests wiped their eyes and roared with laughter. "Bondage," "affliction," and "suffering at the hands of a bad majority" meant little to most of the family. For nearly half a century, the 100,000 Jews of Iran had been sending a representative of their choice to the Majles (the Iranian parliament). They were living in any neighborhood they chose to. Iran was at its most welcoming to Jews in all of its history.

One day, shortly after the Ayatollah's return, the word spread that Agha, Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini, Ruh-Allah, the spirit of God, had ordered everyone to go up to their rooftops that night and at the stroke of nine shout, "Allahu-Akbar" for ten minutes. Neighbors proclaimed: "We're all doing it."

At 8:45 p.m. the lights in the homes began to go off one by one. By 8:55 p.m. the neighbors were on balconies and rooftops, even those with no intention to chant. In the dark the eye could make out only the outlines of the crowd. Father was repeating under his breath: "Helen, do you see this? For as long as the eye can see. One stinking mullah can do all this?" "Shhh," she said, elbowing him. He teased her: "Try to say ' Allahu-Akbar,' Helen, or we'll risk irking the goyim." Joking, my parents were scared.

At 8:58 the Alley of the Distinguished stretched like a common alley, dark and desolate. But at nine o'clock it came to life. Moans of " Allahu-Akbar" billowed through the night.

By 1978, the revolutionaries were no longer specters on rooftops, but crusaders on the streets in broad daylight. The city was under martial law. Schools and universities were closed. Life in Tehran had come to a halt. No one worried how the months of work stoppage or loss of productivity would reflect on them in the future. After all, there was rage, which in 1978 was not considered just a feeling, but a highly regarded occupation.

By September, kerosene lines began to form. The anti-Shah National Oil Company workers went on strike, creating a severe oil shortage for which customers blamed the Shah. They blamed the Shah for all wrongs: poverty in south Tehran, the lack of an open press, the devastating earthquake that year in Tabas, power outages, the single-party system, illiteracy among the poor, the cold in the north, even the colds in their chests. Every sneeze now invoked a "Bless you" and a "Damn that Shah." "Down with the Shah" graffiti adorned every wall. The army imposed an even harsher martial law in a last effort to restore the old order, but on January 16 the Shah himself fled, "on a short vacation." His departure ended more than 2,500 years of monarchy.

Overnight, we were living in a new world. The flag remained green, white, and red, but an Allah insignia replaced its old sword-bearing lion. Stamps were redesigned. New bills were printed. Portraits of bearded faces and turbaned heads took the place of smiling faces and crowned heads. Censorship was abolished. Newspapers and magazines mushroomed. The calendar changed. On February 12 in 2537 (the year dating from the coronation of King Xerxes) we went to bed. When we woke up the next day, it was February 13 in 1357 (the year of the prophet Muhammad's migration from Mecca to Medina).

Was the turning of the tides good or bad for the Jews? To many people, including me, it was a wonderful, hopeful time. My friends at the Teenage Jewish Girls of Raah-e Danesh Hebrew Day School and I wanted to sign on to the revolution. We, too, wanted to deface the royal inscriptions from the stone entrances of bridges, paint a slogan on the wall, hoist an Imam Khomeini likeness onto a vacant pedestal. To our way of thinking, the ubiquitous "looters" were really "revolutionaries"; "robbery" was "the swift delivery of fairness," serving to distribute the wealth among the deserved.

Uncle A. J., a gold merchant, was worried. "My house is worth half what it was this time last year," he told my parents. "These looters won't stop at the monarchists. They'll rob us all. A Jew who doesn't sell now, doesn't pack and run, belongs in an insane asylum."

Mother and Father weighed A. J.'s advice. Mother believed Father had to heed it and sell our house. She called him a man who could not guide his family in a prosperous direction. "We'll learn," she said, alluding to America. Father saw it differently. "We're old...."

Then antisemitic grafitti appeared across the street from our home. On the wall of a building by Crown Prince Square, next to the typical to "Down with the Shah" graffiti, new words surfaced: "Johouds Get Lost!" In the Mo'in's Persian Dictionary, Johoud is: 1. a Jew; 2. the yellow piece of cloth Jews sewed on their garments to distinguish themselves; 3. an assiduous person; 4. fatty intestinal refuse. The graffiti was punctuated by a swastika.

Then came the summary trials of the Shah's army generals, ministers, and associates. The accused were asked not to speak but to itemize their acts of "disservice." Most were found guilty on charges of "sowing corruption on earth." And since justice could not be delayed, by dawn they were executed. Among the executed bodies lay the corpse of Habib Elghanian, the wealthy Jewish philanthropist on whose donations all Hebrew schools had thrived.

And one day, in our Hebrew school, our principal was gone. A black-veiled woman named Seyedeh Fatemeh Moghadam had taken her place. She admonished us: "Whenever you hear the mention of the prophet's name, you must salute him and all his kin by saying the salivat" (the salutation attesting that Muhammed was chosen by God, and praising the prophet's decendants).

Within days, the Jews of Tehran decided to seek an audience with the imam and receive his personal guarantee that the community was as safe as ever in Iran. An ad hoc assembly consisting of six men--two rabbis, one of them Father's best childhood friend, and four fiery young intellectuals--was selected for the job.

The young among them had long dreamed of meeting Agha. They believed in his message of equality for all. This was their revolution, too; as university students, they'd taken to the streets and demonstrated against the old regime. Agha had to learn that the Jews of Iran were not Zionists. Or, as they wished to clarify for him, they were not political Zionists. It was a distinction they had fashioned on their own, meaning that they saw no other homeland for themselves but Iran.

The rabbis, on the other hand, merely wished to plead with Agha to be good to the Jewish community. They wished to tell him one of the lesser-known pillars of Judaism: true Jews are ones who share in the wishes of the society in which they live. Now that Iranian society wished to establish an Islamic republic, so did every good Jew.

At last, the day arrived. Face to face with the imam, one of the rabbis began, addressing him as "Bism Allah al-Rahman al-Rahim" and invoking the name of God in Arabic, both to show deference and to remind him how conversant the Iranian Jews were with Muslim tradition. Congratulating the imam, he expressed the community's joy in the new order. Every Persian speech concludes with a poem, and so he ended his with a verse likening the prophets to the sun and the moon, and the wise clergy to the brightest of stars.

Then the imam spoke. "All three prophets were sent by God to guide mankind. All those heretical religions on earth never tended to the soul of mankind. But the three monotheistic religions do. They are the only religions to descend directly from heaven."

How, the assembly wondered, did the imam's words relate to the Jewish community, the execution of Habib Elghanian, or the takeover of a Hebrew school?

The imam continued: "In the holy Koran, Moses--salutations upon him and all his kin--has been mentioned more than any other prophet. Prophet Moses was a mere shepherd when he stood up to the might of Pharaoh and destroyed him. Moses would have nothing to do with these pharaoh-like Zionists who run Israel. And our Jews, the descendants of Moses, have nothing to do with them either. We recognize our Jews as separate from those godless Zionists."

Word quickly spread of Agha's meeting with the assembly. How did the Jews of Iran respond? By nightfall, the words Imam Khomeini were painted on the walls of every Iranian synagogue.

The promise of a better life in the New Iran was short lived. The war with Iraq continued. Though the military had driven the invading army back to the original borders, the Ayatollah vowed that there would be no peace until Iranian troops had freed the city of Baghdad and gone to conquer Jerusalem, where he would lead a prayer at the Temple Mount.

The city as I knew it had died. Bookstores displayed only religious or college preparatory texts. War and international sanctions had imposed severe food rations. Most restaurants had closed or offered a limited menu. People stood on line for hours to buy the staples that had become delicacies: milk, eggs, bread.

Geographically, too, I could not recognize Iran. On one map of the city, Map #255, which touted itself "the most complete atlas of the new Tehran, planned, produced, and lithographed by the Geographical and Cartographic Society," there was no sign of my old neighborhood, Alley of the Distinguished, the schools where I had studied, the places I had known. All the street names had been changed from those extolling the Shah's dynasty to those commemorating heroes of the Islamic revolution. It was then that I realized what I had to do: to commit every detail to memory, so I could do in words what the cartographers had not done in their maps--attest to the existence of a time, an alley, and its children whose traces were on the verge of vanishing.

To cleanse the city of any lingering "decadence" of the old monarchs, the Ayatollah declared the greatest jihad of all: the one against the "self." He expected each citizen to master, by way of annihilation, every desire. His Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice arrested men in short sleeves, women with a hint of makeup, girls whose bangs peeked from under their scarves. Rosy-faced students waited in line to have their cheeks rubbed to ensure their blush was natural.

The cleansing also applied to separation of Muslims and non-Muslims. At my non-Jewish high school, a new regulation stipulated that non-Muslim students could only use designated water fountains and bathrooms. Another regulation mandated that all non-Muslim business owners display signs in their windows: "This store is operated by a non-Muslim."

Some Jews still held out hopes that a second meeting with the imam might reverse their social fortunes. And so, five years after that first meeting, a large delegation of Jews paid a visit to the imam at his northern Tehran residence.

It was a vastly different experience. Agha's men removed the visitors' clothes and conducted a thorough body search, combing through their heads and fingering them in unmentionable places. Another slew of handlers instructed them on how to welcome Agha: when to sit, bow or rise, and how many times and when to give the final shout: "We are all your soldiers, O Khomeini. We all obey your orders, O Khomeini."

When the imam finally arrived, he sat above the visitors on a balcony surrounded by armed guards. Once again, he failed to address the delegation's concerns. Instead, he expounded on some points of Muslim law, leaving his Jewish callers frustrated and perplexed.

Life under the Ayatollah became increasingly oppressive. My brothers had foreseen the dangers; all three had left for the States before the Revolution. In our immediate family, only my father, my mother, and I remained. Finally, and reluctantly, my father agreed it was time to go.

It was a long journey. In 1982 my parents and I flew to Switzerland, where we applied for visas to America. We were told it would take several months, and given how expensive it was to stay, my parents decided to return to Iran to wait until the visas came through. But after we returned home, the Iran-Iraq War broke out. Nobody was permitted to leave.

Eventually, we found refuge, but not without pain and hardship. My mother and I made it to America first, through Vienna; but my father elected to stay in Iran in order to sell our house. During that time the borders tightened. It took him three years to escape. Eventually he paid a smuggler to get him past the Pakistan border. My father, who is six foot two, had to disguise himself as a Muslim woman, wear Islamic women's accoutrements, and pretend he was married to a Pakistani man. He did it, stayed in Pakistan for a few months until his visa came through, and then flew to the United States.

Happily, our whole family is now in America. My brothers Albert, Javid, and Bez are married and scattered over the East Coast. Albert is a Jewish artist. Mother attends English classes at a Jewish center in Queens. Father's poetry airs regularly on exile radio stations, and he contributes to several expatriate magazines. He refuses to travel and insists that the only place worth visiting is his native village, Khonsar, where not a single Jew remains.

This article is derived from Roya Hakakian's book, Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran, and from an RJ interview with her brother, Albert Hakakian.