As The Shah Fell

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The next afternoon, a crisp, clear winter’s day, all the evacuees met at the embassy; the cars and vans in its motor pool had been bulletproofed four years earlier after a few terrorist attacks on Americans. We milled about nervously, waiting for word on what would happen next. One family had brought their myna bird, hoping to take it with them. Finally our convoy, with a Marine guard escort, set off for Mehrabad Airport.

The streets were absolutely still because everyone was already at the airport. I was not prepared for the crush of desperate humanity trying to get a seat on any of the planes out. Most of the commercial flights into Tehran had long since been canceled; Pan Am had been chartered to work the evacuation. Planes staffed by volunteer crews were landing, boarding, and taking off every hour. Sadly, while other nations were doing what they could for their citizens, there were not many choices. Iranians who wanted to leave had to persuade their countrymen to let them out and a foreign government to let them in. Desperation mounted, and I saw rolls of rials change hands a number of times. Some families had camped out at the airport for days, putting their names on every list for a flight out. Rumors were flying about Khomeini’s imminent return. I found out later many of the evacuation flights did not have proper clearance, and everyone feared trouble.

On the plane I found three or four classmates, which was not surprising since the entire expatriate population was trying to leave. Everyone was quiet as we took off. Soon the magnitude of what had happened started to sink in, and the adults talked about whether they would ever be back and what they had left behind. In many cases whole households had been sacrificed for the chance to leave before the anti-American sentiment burst into violence. When we left Iranian airspace and began flying over Turkey, the adults cheered, after which everyone perked up. I left my seat to play cards with my friends. We all congratulated one another on being part of something so exciting and wondered if anyone outside Iran would believe us.

 

Barely aware of the commotion the revolution had caused in the rest of the world, we were surprised when a flight attendant asked us if the rumors were true, if the shah was on the plane. We laughed and said that if he were, everyone would know it. She explained that there had been talk that he would try to leave the country in disguise. Hearing that, we jumped up and set about looking for him. Since his picture had been everywhere in Tehran—in shops, in homes, even inside the cover of our school notebooks—we figured we had as good a chance as any to discover him.

We debarked in London expecting to stay with friends for only a few days. But following an initially peaceful demonstration, order in Iran swiftly and completely broke down. Although not politically sophisticated, I understood momentum, and on some level I knew that the momentum was not in our favor. We waited in London for two weeks with growing uneasiness and then, relinquishing all hope of returning to Iran, flew to my grandmother’s house in Indiana.

Three weeks after we left, the shah fled and Khomeini returned triumphant. Iran became an Islamic republic. Diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran deteriorated, then disintegrated. My father stayed until June of 1979, avoiding being taken hostage by a few months.

Some days a slant of light, a languid camel at the zoo, or a mercantile transaction of exuberant proportions reminds me that politics can become very personal.