May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
I was eleven, and my family had been living in Iran for more than three years while my father was attached to the American Embassy in Tehran. In its Middle Eastern way, both lazy and exuberant, Tehran had been good to me. But that was about to change. In early November of 1978, after months of escalating tensions, my school became engulfed in an anti-shah demonstration that broke its bounds and turned into a riot. That afternoon on the soccer field, we dropped to the ground when a nearby building blew up; a fire set by rioters had ignited the big diesel fuel tank in the basement. Though shaken, our teachers tried to maintain a normal schedule for the rest of the day, even though we could hear the crowds growing outside the school compound. At day’s end we were told via loudspeaker not to go to our buses but to return to our homerooms and await instructions. Our room was on the second floor, and my classmates and I rushed to the window to look over the compound wall to see what was happening.
As far as we could tell, it was chaos. Everyone was waving a sign and yelling angrily. A few people lay scattered on the street and sidewalks; we couldn’t tell if they were hurt or dead. Finally we saw tanks approaching the crowd, apparently to contain the riot or cut off escape. At the age of eleven one doesn’t think of danger, only adventure, and we crowded around the open window—an eager audience to the unfolding drama.
As the tanks moved closer, an Iranian friend of mine, Neda, started to pray. This scared me. Did she know something we didn’t? We all knew her father had something to do with SAVAK, the Iranian secret police, and we waited nervously for something to happen. We heard the low-flying helicopters before we saw them, and although we suspected that the yellowish gray smoke billowing in their wake was not a good thing, we had no idea it was tear gas until we were overcome. We could barely see or speak as we stumbled downstairs into the courtyard. Outside we managed to find a few adults, who hurried us back inside to wash out our eyes. That just made the stinging worse.
Finally my bus number was called. Our principal boarded after us and ordered all foreign-looking students to lie on the floor with our coats over our heads until we passed through the worst of the rioting. Ours was an international school, but there were enough Iranian students sitting up so as not to raise suspicion. With our bus driver yelling at each roadblock, we managed to make it to the northern suburbs where most of us lived.
Rather than snow days we began to have riot days, and we spent the next two weeks at home while unruly mobs surrounded our school. This was fine with us, and we arranged “curfew sleepovers” to alleviate the boredom. During one such sleepover I learned to belly-dance (sort of). At another, in an apartment on the main north-south road through Tehran, we watched from a window at two in the morning as hundreds of the shah’s troops rumbled ominously past.
It happened two more times; we would go to school only to be sent home to wait another two weeks. Each time we returned to class more friends had left. First the Iranian students fled, then the students from other Middle Eastern nations, finally the Western Europeans. The last to be pulled out of school were the American, British, and Norwegian students. Neda was one of the first to go, and she vanished without a trace. I walked over to her house one day during our enforced holiday to find it empty. The neighbors would tell me nothing.
Every evening I’d go up to the roof with my father to watch the riots, which grew bigger and bigger, defying the curfew. He would radio the embassy, letting them know what was going on in our neighborhood. Some nights the military shot up huge flares, like fireworks, to aid in their work; other nights the demonstrators set large buildings on fire. Every night was quite a show, and given that I was stuck at home, it was the most interesting thing I saw all day.
One day my mother sent me to the corner store for eggs. Anti-American rhetoric was getting worse and worse, but my mother thought that since we had lived here for almost four years, everyone knew us and we would be safe. She was wrong. I had my first lesson in mob psychology that day, when my neighborhood friends threw stones at me on my way home from the store. Although none of them hit me, the message was clear: We were no longer welcome in this country. I did not go out alone again.
Soon afterward an embassy official telephoned our house. Because of the increasing death threats against Americans, and in anticipation of a demonstration to mark Ashura, one of the most holy days of Shiite Islam, all nonessential personnel were being evacuated in forty-eight hours. We could pack two suitcases each. If the situation improved, we would be able to return, maybe before Christmas. My father would stay behind, but not in the house. My sister, then five, screamed that she did not want to go, this was home, she would stay. I—amazed and thrilled, truth be told, at the turn our previously peaceful life had taken—began packing.
I don’t remember what I took with me; it was nothing special. Later, when we knew we would not be able to return, I remembered vividly what I had left behind: my stuffed animal collection, jewelry box, photo albums, books, drawings, records—in short, my life.
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.