The End of a Childhood
03 Apr 2009 18:44
By KAMIN MOHAMMADI in London
I liked London. The summer preceding the Iranian revolution, we had holidayed there. It was a place of pale sunshine, big green parks and fancy restaurants. I fed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square and petted the goats in the children's section of London Zoo.
It was 1978, I was eight years old and oblivious to my country's turbulent political problems. We were in London where my father had business and we were busy. More of my parents' friends than ever were also there - part of the great exodus of the revolution that had already started. The adults were tuned into an Iranian radio station, listening to reports on the demonstrations that had taken over Iran. With each protest, the troops shot into the group, violence would follow and there would be fatalities. The dead would be buried and more demonstrations would follow to mark the ritual 40-day period of mourning. Each protest led to more fatalities and more protests, a chain of events that had stitched its way through the last few months in my country.
By the time we got back home to Iran in September 1978, martial law had been imposed. My father worked for Iran's national oil company and so we lived in Ahvaz, a town in the oil-rich west of the country. We returned from our London trip to a different world. Although my parents tried to protect us, the power cuts caused by the workers' strikes and the rushing back from evening visits to beat the curfew had their effect. The violence that had taken the streets burst into our lives when three senior managers of the oil company were shot on their way to work.
At school every day more of our friends would be missing - spirited away by their parents to fractured but safe lives in the west - and after school, we found ourselves restricted to playing indoors, the rooftops and streets we had roamed suddenly out of bounds. Our parents told us nothing but we, the neighbourhood kids, would gather on the street corner and exchange whatever information we had managed to glean from the adults who were trying so hard to shelter us from the storm. Every morning more of our neighbours would have disappeared, either stealing away in the night or being taken away by revolutionaries, never to be seen again.
After the day we came home from school to find all the furniture in the front room pushed to one side away from the windows, we started living in the back of the house, moving the television into the back room. What I didn't realise then was that a firebomb had been lobbed at our neighbour's house that day and so we retreated. We had nothing to be ashamed of but fear taught us to hide and from then on, fear became part of the daily fabric of life and my constant companion.
On television we watched the Shah and his family leave Iran and even us children, locked up in the house and not allowed to go to school, felt the wave of elation that swept the country at this immense victory, this historic moment. Shah raft - the Shah left! We were free, our country could finally be its own master, and justice, equality and freedom would prevail!
On television I also watched Ayatollah Khomeini come back to Iran, greeted by a million jubilant followers. The next day on the street corner, we whispered his name to each other, us kids, and we all repeated the word that had shocked us all so much: asked what he felt on returning to his country after so many years in exile, he said he felt nothing. Nothing. For all the slogans of the revolution that we had taken to chanting when we managed to escape to the roof, holding our own version of the revolutionary demonstrations, this one word had such power that it obliterated all else. He felt nothing and soon, that was all we were left with.
In June 1979, we arrived again in London, this time not for a holiday, but for life in exile. And this time, we were no longer the glamorous Iranians so generous with their petrodollars, courted by shop assistants, hoteliers and maitre d's, but now we came from a country that had, in full view of the world, rejected what looked like affluence and modernity in order to shroud itself in black, burn the American flag and career backwards in time.
Iran's struggle for freedom had been televised across the world; my country had staged the first mass media revolution of the age and the stark images that characterised the upheaval - Khomeini's turban and religious robes, the black all-enveloping chadors worn by women - were burnt on western minds. The hostage crisis and the film Not Without My Daughter cemented our image as crazed religious zealots who wanted to destroy the west and lock up women.
My beautiful country where I had grown up in the midst of a loving extended family, where my ancestors had lived for 3,000 years and which had given the world not only peaches, chess and the word "paradise" but also its first declaration of human rights was reduced to these few unrepresentative images. It broke my heart.
Kamin Mohammadi's first book, a family memoir and modern history of Iran, is slated for publication in the spring of 2010.
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