Archive for the ‘Revolution’ Category

The End of a Childhood

April 3, 2009

Tehran Bureau | personal history

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.

Related reading:
Personal History: The House in Shemiran

Why the Islamic Republic Has Survived

April 1, 2009

A cleric in his car on February 11, 1979, day of the victory of the revolution. (Abbas/Magnum Photos)

A U.S.-based Iran scholar argues it was not the eight-year war, a reign of terror, oil revenue, or the strength of Shiism that sustained the regime — but populism.

Middle East Report

“Upcoming decades will test the regime’s ability to juggle the competing demands of these populist programs with those of the educated middle class—especially the ever expanding army of university graduates produced, ironically, by one of the revolution’s main achievements. This new stratum needs not only jobs and a decent standard of living but also greater social mobility and access to the outside world—with all its dangers, especially to well-protected home industries—and, concomitantly, the creation of a viable civil society. The regime may be able to meet these formidable demands if it finds fresh sources of oil and gas revenues—but to do so it will need to markedly improve its relations with Washington so that economic sanctions can be lifted. Without the lifting of sanctions, Iran cannot gain access to the technology and capital needed to develop its large gas reserves. If new revenues do not materialize, class politics will threaten to rear its head again. For 30 years, populism has managed to blunt the sharp edge of class politics. It may not do so in the future.”

Continue reading…

Three Decades in the Wilderness

March 2, 2009

Photo/Iason Athanasiadis

After three decades in the wilderness, Iran has emerged as one of the world’s most independent countries.

Tehran Bureau | comment

The West and its Arab allies have tried to quarantine the Islamic Republic in the longest and most dramatic containment policy since the effort to hem in the Soviet Union. What’s more, the USSR and the United States came together during the eight year Iran-Iraq conflict in an unprecedented Cold War alliance to ensure that the Islamic Republic did not alter the regional balance by erupting beyond its borders. Saddam was helped with financial aid, weapons transfers and satellite intelligence, all in the name of containing Tehran. For a regime fighting for survival both at home and abroad it was a baptism in international relations by fire.

I lived in Iran from 2004 to 2007. The paradoxes of Iran’s post-revolutionary mindset were on view whenever I strolled past the day’s headlines at my local newsagent in Tehran. On the front page of the Kayhan governmental daily would be a blockbuster headline along the lines of, “Gaza was Liberated, Tomorrow the Turn of Jerusalem.” Alongside the bombast — which for Iranians was as much background chatter as the building-high murals of martyrs deceased in the Iran-Iraq War staring out at them in the suddenly-Islamized public spaces — was the real news. For an Islamic Republic situated in one of the world’s most traditional regions, the announcements were surprisingly modern: ‘New High-Speed Train Reduced Tehran-Mashhad Route to 7.5’ ran one memorable title, alongside an image of a bullet-nosed train. Repeatedly, mullahs would preach about the importance of embracing modernity without abandoning Islamic principles.

With this mindset, it is little surprise that the segregation has not been all bad for Iran.

Sure, Iran’s isolation meant that it couldn’t overcome battles in international bodies such as the UN. It missed out on billions of dollars of potential trade and financial sector development. And it has suffered from being locked out of the market for valuable additions to its defense sector.

Iranians also lost face. When in the West, many duck and obfuscate when asked where they are from, often describing themselves as “Persians,” the appellation of the country bequeathed the world by the invading Greeks. (Reza Shah Pahlavi changed the name to Iran in 1934.)

On the other hand, its leaders argue, Iran was not as isolated as the Bush White House would have had the world think. The ‘international community’ is nothing but a pseudonym for a cabal of Western powers claiming to represent the world, its diplomats protest. Accordingly, Iran has heavily focused its diplomacy on engaging with Muslim powers, wooing the Non-Aligned League and buttressing its ties with Beijing and Moscow as counter-weights to Washington’s regional dominance.

Iranian politicians argue that the UN deck is impossiblely stacked against countries refusing to adhere to the status quo. They point out that the international body did little to protest Iraq’s poison gassing of Iranian citizens during the Iran-Iraq War.

Isolation breeds self-dependence, they continue, pointing to the leaps and bounds made by Iran’s indigenous sectors in the industrial, space and nuclear technology fields.

Iran has got around being excluded from the kind of advanced weaponry that the Shah developed an appetite for by developing the Middle East’s second largest arms industry after Israel. Centers of technological excellence in Tehran churn out home-grown talent who work on their own designs or reverse-engineer Chinese, Russian and North Korean designs. In February, Iran joined an even more exclusive technological club than the nuclear powers, when it became one of a dozen countries to launch its own satellite into space. Some of the same engineers working on that project might have had a hand in developing the electronic warfare capability that allowed Lebanese Hezbollah to fight Israel to a standstill in 2006.

Isolation has not been bad, Iran’s politicians rejoin. It has been character-forming. So goes the Islamic Republic’s narrative on a generation spent behind closed doors, restricted borders but horizons stretching from Karbala to MIT.

Countless times, frustrated Iranians of the older generation spoke to me wistfully of the respect they had been accorded when traveling in Europe or the United States during the Shah’s time. The Iranian rial was accepted everywhere and the Imperial passport guaranteed entry to countries outside whose embassies long, dejected lines of frustrated Iranians queue today.

Equally many Iranians argued that respect and a good reputation were some of the rewards of playing by the Western rulebook but did not reflect anything but a form of hypocrisy. Since Iran decided in 1979 to go off on its own tortuous way, these little luxuries are no longer available. But other advantages are at hand. Iran today is more independent and sovereign than at any time in its recent history.

Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, made this point in a public lecture at Tehran’s Center for Middle East Studies. U.S. pressure on Iran has nothing to do with its human rights record or nuclear program, he said, but “reflects the fact that Iran is capable of emerging as a regional balancing power that can affect U.S. designs on the region. Their ultimate aim in the Middle East is that an asymmetrical power not rise against Israel.”

Rather than bombastic, Larijani was calm and collected. Later proxy conflicts in Lebanon and Gaza between the United States and Iran proved him right. Yet the Western media loves to report Ahmadinejad’s rantings over the mostly level-headed analysis of the Islamic Republic’s strategists. It’s all part of the demonization game: portraying another country as crazed and irrational as a prelude to striking it.

The real struggle in the region has little to do with ‘soft’ issues like human rights or democracy. Rather, it is about Iran’s search for regional hegemony at the expense of the U.S.-administered regional status quo.

Last week, Iran proved that it was inching closer to full self-sufficiency when it launched a space satellite it claims is entirely indigenous. The launch was clearly timed to coincide with the thirtieth anniversary celebrations and caused shivers of tension to run through Western capitals.

Shortly after the 1979 Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini said that “The Revolution was not about the price of watermelons,” the implication being that a new moral order was to be constructed in Iran. The Shah’s rule was overturned violently because Iranians needed to re-instill their country with religious fervor and a morality that they felt had forsaken them in the oil-boom scramble. Thirty years later, a poor economy and the Islamic elite’s rampant corruption have turned a generation to unemployment, drug addiction, prostitution and petty crime. It’s true: the Revolution was not about the price of watermelons. It wasn’t about space technology either. It was about morality. What has come out of all this however is a strong sense of independence.

Iason Athanasiadis is an Istanbul-based writer and photographer. He is currently exhibiting Exploring the Other: Contemporary Iran Through the Lens of Iason Athanasiadis in Los Angeles. It is the first show of political photography from Iran to have been featured in an American museum since 1979.

The Revolution in Retrospect

February 9, 2009

Top photo: On 12 Bahman 1357 (Feb. 1, 1979) Ayatollah Khomeini returns to Iran from exile. Bottom: Tehran’s philharmonic orchestra marks that day’s 30th anniversary at Mehrabad International Airport earlier this month.

Children of the Revolution

Tehran, Iran
Tehran Bureau | dispatches

Ruholla, a young man in his late 20s, owes his very name to the essence of the revolution—Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. His family’s revolutionary credentials are impeccable. From the basement of the family compound on Iran Street, in Tehran, his father dubbed cassettes of Ayatollah Khomeini’s speeches and distributed them along with anti-Shah pamphlets to the masses he helped mobilize. His father was badly injured in a demonstration, and even to this day, according to his son, the scars remain visible. Contrary to many former revolutionaries whose fervor may have faded over three decades, Ruhollah’s father’s remains strong.

On the other end of the spectrum, Simin, 45, who skipped classes to take part in the demonstrations, grew disillusioned long ago. “If I knew what just the first five years after the revolution would have looked like,” she said, “I would not have supported it.” At that time however, she admits there was much to protest: “Under the Shah, there was no political freedom. Class divisions were sharp. The Shah had no knowledge or understanding of the lives of the people over whom he dictated. And more importantly, he had no bond with them, he had no respect for them or some of their religious values.”

As the Islamic Revolution marks its 30-year anniversary this week, what do Ruhollah and those in his generation think? Most of them were not around or too young to remember the revolution. But they came of age when the first 10 days of February were marked by nationwide celebrations. In school they made newspaper clippings of their own articles hailing Ayatollah Khomeini’s return and the Shah’s departure. Many in this generation know by heart this poem by Mostafa Rahmandoost: That day was like a blossom, a blossom that flowered even in the cold of February, on a dried up tree… With more than 60 percent of Iran’s 75 million population under 30, the revolution’s future may well be in their hands.

“I love Khomeini intimately,” said Ruhollah. “I have never wished for a moment that there had been no revolution.” But, he adds, “I may not endorse some of the things that happened afterward. I may not be in agreement with some aspects of those events, some of the details; but, I believe this is a revolution that had to take place.”

Some of the biggest problems Iran faces today may have been as a result of certain excesses and hard-line policies implemented, he said. “I still believe with all the difficulties we have today, we are better off than we would have been under the Pahlavis. From a cultural and international standpoint, I’m happy the revolution put an end to that dynasty. At least today we’re not at the mercy of some foreign power.”

Ruhollah said if he were old enough in 1978, he too would have joined the ranks like his father.

Omid, a 25-year-old electrical engineer, wasn’t around for the revolution either. But he gets an earful from his older siblings about those days. Upon Mr. Khomeini’s command, that Iranians “should not watch the Shah’s television programs,” their father had purged his household of its TV set. Omid’s father was a bread-maker. He was arrested for refusing to shut down his bakery on the orders of royal authorities.

“Iranians are highly emotional people with many beautiful and lofty ideals. Sometimes, under certain circumstances, those emotions overflow,” Omid said, referring to those days. “With the charismatic leadership of Imam Khomeini, I too would have probably been moved to action.”

Omid, whose name means hope, continued, “The past is the past. 30 years have gone by. I believe we should try harder to achieve the goals that my father and so many others paid a price for. We should try to convey the ideals and reasons for the revolution to my generation, and to the people of other nations, in a more dignified manner, just as our former President Mohammad Khatami tried to do.”

Because of certain excesses after the revolution, there are those among this generation who have reinvented the image of the Shah in their own thinking and speak wistfully of some of the social freedoms that existed under his rule.

But Alireza, who is 47, and a beneficiary in his youth of those social freedoms, did not think it was a viable alternative. “The Shah was very self-centered, members of his government were supremely arrogant and foreigners had a strong hand in our affairs. This was unacceptable,” he said.

In the years 1978-79, Alireza was very active in his local mosque. When the oil refinery workers went on strike, he joined the economic mobilization front which distributed food and provisions to the needy. As the revolution picked up steam, he and neighborhood pals were tasked with collecting old tires and getting themselves to Maydaneh Enghelab (Revolution Square). “We ignited the rubbers and hid behind them as we shouted revolutionary slogans,” he said.

As Alireza explains, revolutions are a major upheaval that shatter an oppressive status quo. In the mayhem that follows, anything can happen. The future of a revolution is unpredictable. Even though Alireza has immigrated to Canada with his family, he says he would rebel against the Pahlavi regime again, if given a chance.

“The revolution was a monumental movement 100 years in the making,” he said.

The House in Shemiran

February 5, 2009

Photo of Polaroid: The author, her mother and neighbor Pamela, in Illinois.

A look back at the Iranian revolution.

Tehran Bureau | personal history

My great-grandmother, Madar Joon, had electricity, but she preferred to read by the glow of a kerosene lamp. She was always up before dawn, hunched over her prayer mat lost in morning prayers, or fingering a string of prayer beads, as she glided her eyes over a verse in the Koran, perhaps for the thousandth time. Wrapped in the dark house, she hummed in a soft, hushed voice, rocking gently back and forth, sometimes side-to-side. In the throes of prayer, she did not always immediately notice me. I sometimes tiptoed in and arranged myself cross-legged on the floor next to her.

Her room was long and rectangular; it ran the full length of the ground floor of a spacious two-story Shemiran house tucked in a quiet Ghaytarieh alleyway. The room was simple, with high ceilings and paisley-specked wallpaper. Large Persian rugs covered the cold tiled floors underneath. There were very few items of furniture, all antique, not by design. The decades—and regime changes—never altered anything.

Madar Joon sat facing the garden. A set of large glass doors framed in sky-blue metalwork looked out on to my grandfather Baba Zarbaf’s roses and fruit trees in the summer; flower blossoms and a sweet aroma of narcissus wafted through in spring; tawny autumns doused the room in hues of yellow and orange; in winter, with snowflakes heavy on even the narrowest branch, the yard seemed to be lit from within.

At the end of her prayers, or as she came to a pause in a verse, Madar Joon would acknowledge me. “It’s a little early for you,” she might say, with a quiet smile around her eyes and lips. I would lean in to kiss her soft cheeks. “Would you like some tea?” she would ask, turning even before I had nodded to a steaming samovar on a short side table next to her prayer mat. I sat in anticipation as a ceramic teapot with a drawing of a red rose warmed, soaked and sunk a spoonful of fragrant tea leaves to the bottom, turning the water a perfect shade of brown, a touch golden as it poured out of the spout and tangled with the sunlight coming over the horizon.

Tea was served to order: thick and potent to the adults, and ceremoniously, containing only a hint of color, to the great-grandkids. Madar Joon would cover the bottom of a tiny, paper-thin tea glass with a drop or two of the dark concoction. Boiling water from the samovar reduced the intensity even more. As the tea was set in a dainty saucer and placed in front of me, she asked if I wanted some breakfast. I knew better than to accept. It was one thing to accept tea, and quite another to accept a meal, knowing how many extra dishes she would have to wash afterward.

Madar Joon had what resembled a broken back. Her first baby, Abbas, died when he was nine months old. A pot of boiling water turned over on him. It’s as if she had bent down in horror to take the little baby in her arms and was never able to stand up again. She was permanently bent at the waist and had to kneel forward when she got on her feet and tried to walk.

For her daily supply of water, she trudged across a wide hallway to a stripped-down kitchen underneath the stairway. There, she managed to knock off a huge block of ice from the freezer, fit it into a bright red thermos, then drag it back to her room. Throughout the morning, the glacier melted, a drop at a time, and by early afternoon, she was able to break it into smaller pieces and pour a little water through it. Nothing tasted better than a glass of Madar Joon’s ice water on a hot afternoon.

She insisted on doing her own dishes, and hand-washing her own clothes in a small, dank cement yard in the back of the house. There was no arguing with her. Cleanliness was a matter of religion, in her case deeply rooted, as if to the core of the earth. Madar Joon held what I assumed was her own peculiar interpretation of what rendered something najes, or unclean. Most of her personal effects, including everything in her kitchen, and especially her prayer mat, and particularly her water thermos were off limits—to everyone. To her, being wet was one of the surest way to spread najes-ness all around, to make something dirty, which until being touched by the corner of a wet object, had been perfectly clean. On summer afternoons, Madar Joon lifted her gaze from her prayer book and fixed it momentarily on the screaming children playing in the freshly filled cement pond with a chipped swan spouting water from its mouth. It was one of the few times she got nervous.

Madar Joon’s second son, Mahmood, was fatally stabbed in an argument when he was twenty-two. His killer was known; there had been many witnesses. A conviction was a certainty, but she didn’t press charges. Because of the death penalty, he would have been executed. “Why did you let your son’s killer go?” I once asked her. She responded after a painful pause. “I’d already been deprived of my son,” she said, her gaze never leaving her prayer book. “What would I gain by depriving another mother of hers?”

About once a month, Madar Joon’s room would be cleared of furniture for roseh-khani, a prayer ceremony and memorial service for a martyrdom that happened centuries ago. Every inch of the floor would be taken up by visiting ladies covered in thick black chadors seated on the carpets with their little glasses of tea nearby. Plates of halva—a soft fried confection of flour, sugar, oil and a touch of rosewater—were passed around as they chatted. A cleric would soon arrive in a brown robe and turban, a rare sight for me in the 1970’s. As he prepared for his entrance, the room stirred with the ladies cutting short their gossip, rustling their chadors as they were pulled forward to reveal only an eye here and there. The Agha would take his place in a corner of the room and start singing sadly of one of the martyred Shia Imams, most likely the third, Imam Hossein, and the bloody battle of Karbala, in present-day Iraq. The women would start to cry, often very loudly, drowning the house in sorrow.

I wandered in with my bare head and tight jeans, seeking my great-grandmother among the black waves. From underneath her chador, Madar Joon would wrap me in her arms and I would lay my head against her chest. As the cleric’s story got sadder, the crying got louder and louder and the women shook more strongly. I shook as my great-grandmother shook. Just as my heart grew so sore it wanted to burst with their suffering, Madar Joon would look down at my untouched glass of tea and remind me to drink it before it got cold.


In the wintertime, when I am in a place where the snow falls hard and the ground is cold enough to let it build, I dream of Shemiran. At Madar Joon’s, a korsy occupied a corner of the room. The korsy, a cozy contraption to keep warm, consisted of a large bulky cotton blanket laid over a low square table with coal in a metal bowl emanating heat underneath. To partake, you sit around it, place a corner of the blanket over your legs, and soak up the heat. Many families congregated around the korsy to take their meals and sip hot tea from small clear glasses. In between meals, dads and granddads unfurled the newspaper, as the children sat in warped postures to scribble dreaded homework assignments. At night you can also anchor yourself there and go to sleep. But even after heating lamps replaced the burning embers that spewed carbon dioxide, no one but Madar Joon did.

In elementary school, I drew a picture depicting a family scene around the korsy. I was a student at the Tehran American School—or T.A.S.—and my drawing was one of twelve selected to be featured in the school calendar the following year. I was very proud. T.A.S. was massive and the number of artwork created by its student body over the course of nine months, even more so. The calendar was printed en masse and hung in every elementary, middle and high school T.A.S. classroom. I couldn’t wait to showoff.

Two years earlier, another of my drawings had captured the attention of my teachers. It was 1976 and we were living in Illinois, in a town not far from Champaign that no one has heard of. My drawing of a colonial schoolboy and schoolgirl was to mark the bicentennial of the American Revolution. When much to my dismay, I couldn’t find my drawing hanging with those of my classmates in the hallway, my teacher explained to me that it had been sent off to a regional office to be entered in a state-wide competition. I was very proud. I loved Americans as I loved the people who cried for Imam Hossein.

Appropriately enough, my korsy drawing had been chosen for the month of December. But it was 1978 and Tehran American School shut down and disappeared into oblivion before I could see it hanging in every classroom. The little picture of the Shah I had drawn on the wall of the home of my imaginary Iranian family was a portent of things to come.

When we returned to school that fall, our bus driver would no longer tune into the N.I.R.T. American radio station in Tehran, or play our homemade cassettes of American and British music. He was preoccupied with his own tapes: inaudible mumblings of an old man—or the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as it turned out.

Several weeks later, our obnoxious unaccompanied-by-music singing in the back of the bus was drowned out by a chanting sea of demonstrators—I looked out at them in awe, fright and excitement from the window. “Death to the Shah!” “Death to America!” they shouted and echoed as our driver made a quick getaway through a side street. Under cover of night, our family—like many others—huddled around a short-wave radio and listened to the BBC to piece together what we saw happening.

In the heady days of revolution, I was oblivious to the Islamic undercurrent. The masses were rejecting the Shah, not embracing Islam, I thought. The religious element had been present, to be sure. But having grown up among neighbors and relatives who donned chadors and headscarves, it was not viewed as a malignant threat to be quashed. In some respects, it put a fuzzy grandmotherly face to the demonstrators. That sentiment was reinforced in the image of Ayatollah Khomeini whose grandfatherly features peered down from oversized banners bopping above the heads of demonstrators everywhere. The uprising, I thought, grew with a fiery burst, primal and spontaneous. Except for a thin sliver at the top, no clear class line divided proponents and opponents of this great revolution. The right to be heard—whatever that point of view—was what fueled it. We were clearing the way for democracy, I thought. But in revolutions, it’s never the liberals who end up on top.


Faced with the prospect of Iranian school for us, my father took a long vacation and taught us to read and write Farsi. Algebra, geometry, and trigonometry were other featured topics of those tutorials because the Iranian schools covered those subjects much more widely. We had only the summer to catch up, so the days began at 5 a.m. and extended as long as my father could keep us going.

I returned to school that year in the newly mandated headscarf and a long flowing gray manteau. It was a drastic departure from the shorts and flip-flops. Having never been to Iranian school, there were other adjustments to make. We had three classes, six days a week; by the end of the week we had covered more than a dozen subjects. Friday was the only “weekend” we got. Instead of pretty paper-dolls and Star Trek figurines, I now spread Madar Joon’s room with my textbooks, notebooks and impressive array of colored pens. Madar Joon poured my tea thicker.

She felt sorry for us, she told me as I was doing my homework. “Our childhoods were so much more joyous,” she explained. “We had no care in the world, none of your stresses.” Even though her holy book was as thick as my Webster’s Dictionary, and more lovingly worn, Madar Joon never set foot in a classroom. She was never taught to read or write. It was her father’s deathbed wish that his daughters never receive an education.

With his blessing, however, Madar Joon and her sisters attended maktab, a place Muslim children go to learn to read and recite only the Koran. Persian calligraphy borrows heavily from Arabic. As I told Madar Joon, if she could read the Koran so well, she could read Farsi too, despite the great lengths she went to stay illiterate. Madar Joon denied it, or let the argument taper off without an earnest protest.

Madar Joon didn’t admit it, but she was also good in math. When her husband was alive, he turned over his paychecks to her and she ran the household finances. To stay true to her father’s wishes, Madar Joon engaged in arithmetic without the symbolic accouterments. Instead of writing out numbers, she kept count marking sticks on a straightened brown paper bag and did division in her head. Whatever sins she may have accrued this way, the many times she read the Koran cover to cover, had to have erased them. Madar Joon began each day with verses—she fell asleep repeating them, and fit them in between the day’s chores.

“Savab dareh, naneh” she would say, referring to the rewards of the afterlife, when I teased her about it. “You have no sins to forgive,” I would say. “We all do. We sin without even knowing it,” she replied. “What if after all this, there was no God, no heaven, no hell,” I asked. Instead of being horrified by my audacity to ask such a question, Madar Joon calmly replied that there was no such possibility. “Then please pray for me, too,” I asked, kissing her soft cheeks. She said she already did, often.

Madar Joon descended from the Bakhtiari tribe, and in her early years, her family may have led a semi-nomadic life. Her favorite story, recounted briefly, but with great relish, was about bathing in open streams with her sisters while a brother stood watch nearby. She had long, beautiful hair “that came all the way down here,” Madar Joon used to say, marking her waist with one hand, holding her place in her prayer book with the other.

Her hair was then thin and gray, but still long. She wore it in a bun underneath her yellow headscarf. She had her hair covered at all times, even in the privacy of her own room. Because so many people passed through the Shemiran house, a white lightweight chador rested on her shoulders. Every time the front gate buzzed open, she tossed the chador over the yellow headscarf, regardless.

In the 1920’s, when in the process of sweeping modernization, Reza Shah banned the hejab, Madar Joon stayed indoors for months. She made her first trip out to get to the public bathhouse. Donning the illegal chador, she left early in the morning when the roads and alleyways were dark and empty. She operated with great stealth, running from behind a wall, to behind a tree, until she was near her destination. In that last dash, one of Reza Shah’s men spotted her and tore the chador from her head. She ran screaming for cover, and never went out again, not until she devised some other method.

When it became imperative to go out, she rode in a carriage flanked by two people who could cover her covered head. Another time she wore so many layers of kerchief that if she were to get caught again the soldier would have to keep pulling layer after layer until she got to a safe house.

After the revolution, the hejab was forced back on. It seems we never learn. When I wanted to escape, I retreated upstairs. My grandmother’s tiger-patterned furniture, glass tables, gilded mirrors and fancy souvenirs stood in stark contrast to Madar Joon’s bare timeless space. What lured me there, however, were the hundreds of photographs of their many European trips. A black-and-white photo book gave me my first glimpse of Paris. They captured my imagination and filled me with wanderlust, especially at the height of Iran’s isolation during the war with Iraq in the 1980’s. One day I would get out and live among the world in all the great capitals, I thought. Somehow it did all turn out that way.

It was on a summer’s day, ten years later, on a walk in La Jolla, California, that my mother broke the news of Madar Joon’s death. She had passed away a month or two earlier, but it had been kept from me because I was in the middle of law school exams. I walked away, alone, in anger, toward a quiet path leading to the ocean. It had not occurred to me that I would never see Madar Joon again.

Golnoush Niknejad is the editor of Tehran Bureau.

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