About the Author
Aria Minu-Sepehr moved with his family to the United States following the fall of the shah of Iran in 1979. He is an adjunct professor of English, founder of the Forum for Middle East Awareness, and a public lecturer in fields related to Iran and the Middle East. He lives in Oregon with his wife and two daughters.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
We Heard the Heavens Then 1
“Corrupter of the Land”
For as long as I could remember, my father had been a general. Growing up in the air force, around armed forces, I had become adept at recognizing ranks. One look at someone’s uniform, at their silver stripes, bronze asters, or gold stars, and I could tell exactly where they stood, who obeyed whom. In the last four years, Baba wore two stars and an imperial crown on his epaulettes; he was a major general, commander of a sensitive base in Isfahan. All eyes were on the operation: The king considered it a glowing achievement to bring the most sophisticated fighter jet in the world to Iran. On the American side, handing over a national secret to a country bordering the Soviet Union was risky. Could Baba establish order? At the height of the cold war, would one of our pilots be lured by communist propaganda, defect, and give away an American technological advantage? Every move, even my grade-school life, had to be scrutinized.
The barren setting of the base, on the high plateau of a forbidding desert, was unlike the city it bordered. Isfahan, the city, was fed by a river, nurtured for centuries, tree-stippled and verdant. In contrast, our air force base was a wasteland situated at the foot of towering, azure mountains. If one traveled in the direction of the mountains, the desert terrain quickly turned rocky, pocked, and undulating. The strewn fragments of basalt and obsidian were signs that in this land monumental calm periodically gave way to sudden, convulsive upheavals.
The infertile landscape of our home had a formative influence on me. My desert: a vast carpet of undifferentiated barrenness stretching away in serene quietude. My mountains: impassive overseers of my youth. Against this backdrop the sun revealed its various faces like clockwork—starlike at dawn, canary yellow by midmorning, a diffuse blaze in the afternoon. One glance at the sky and I could tell when school would end, when the guards outside our driveway would change shifts, when my father would arrive, or when supper would appear on the table.
A month before everything changed, Baba moved to Tehran, the capital city, to assume a new post with a new star. My mother, my caretaker, and I were to follow during the New Year’s break. Along with school, the entire nation would shut down in March, on the first day of spring. A weeklong celebration would ensue—presents, picnics, Grandmother’s house a revolving door of guests. But that year, in the dust of the revolution, spring’s tender blossoms came and went without notice.
On the day the regime fell, we left the base in a hurry and with hearts pounding. My mother packed two satchels, swept up our poodle, and told Bubbi to leave whatever she was doing and get in the car.
“Your dad’s already with Mamman Ghodsi and your brother is safe in America. The rest can go to hell,” she explained to me.
“What’s going to happen to my toys?” I asked.
“Room, house, this goddamn air force base ... it can all go up in flames. What precious years I sacrificed. From ruin to ruin. And this is my thank-you.”
“But Missus, I left stew bubblin’ on the stove,” said Bubbi, puzzled.
“They’ll come looking for the baby only to find a peed-in bed.” My mother was engaged in some heated mental dialogue, just not with us.
Arriving in Tehran the way we did was disorienting; the revolutionary fervor was at its peak. But even in good times, the capital was a disaster compared to the base: tortuous streets, reckless drivers, ceaseless neon lights. Islamic architecture stood next to glass-clad buildings or European neoclassic designs, an occasional Chinese pagoda appearing out of nowhere. Billboards advertised Indian Darjeeling tea, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, “as white as snow with Snow laundry detergent,” and Sakura Mikado—the latest craze in Japanese wristwatches.
Overlaid on this visual jangle, political graffiti turned every blank wall into a revolutionary message board. The plastered-on slogans were austere, even didactic. “The triumph of the worker!” a Marxist slogan celebrated. “One person, one vote,” preached the National Front. “The anus,” declared an inscription in neat calligraphy, “should never be wiped with the right hand. [Signed] Imam Khomeini.” There was a private dialogue in these messages, a war of wits, and a particular faction’s street cred could be assessed by the permanence of its markings. The mujahideen might start the week strong. By Wednesday, the Marxists would have the upper hand. But by week’s end, all would be smeared by the Party of God—“War / the only way to liberty / Faith, jihad, martyrdom / the only way to prosperity.”
Entering a new school two-thirds of the way through fifth grade was a worry that paled in comparison to the threat of my father’s execution. And as though Baba anticipated the inevitable, he went out of his way to spend each afternoon with me, running pointless errands before dinner.
“Where are we going?” I wanted to know.
“Oh, to see how things are coming along.”
“It’s interesting that we immediately put value on the things and not on the act of seeing. The verb, I’m thinking, is more worthy of our attention. How do you see? What things do you choose to see? Whom do you see it with?” he mused.
This was the revolution’s lasting result—you could ask the simplest question and receive a cryptic, off-the-wall answer.
We arrived at an excavated site, a hole big enough to swallow a house.
“Future site of a building. Aren’t you glad you came?” my father said.
“A house. Technically yours and your brother’s. Consider me your contractor.” My parents’ dream house. Their luck in buying property in a neighborhood before it became chic. So this, a hole in the ground, was what my mother billed as our new home overlooking the city? Stacks of architectural plans, the nightly fussing over the placement of windows, doors, and closets. Weekends comparing different styles of banisters and newel posts forming a Gone with the Wind staircase. The groundbreaking. The recent quagmire of unsettled legal issues, as anyone with “official” capacity had abdicated his position.
“What do we do now?” I asked. How was anything possible in the chaos of the revolution?
“Good question. We go and drag the little mice out of their hiding holes and send them back to work. Or find someone bold enough to say, By the power vested in me ...”
We got back in the car and headed into Tehran’s perpetual rush hour. Standstill traffic made me restive. The blare of a revolutionary song on someone’s radio shivered my spine. I couldn’t tell if I was terrified or excited by martial rhythms, the catchy tunes about resistance, brotherhood, and martyrdom. One by one, men left their cars to see what was holding up the flow. Back and forth. One crowd leaving, one returning. Baba wore a face of ultimate calm, like we were cruising at ten thousand feet, clear skies. I remembered his flight experiments that always proved we were in control. What do you think would happen if we lost power now? he’d ask hypothetically. Say we go through a cloud and the carbs freeze. Would we drop like a rock or glide like a feather? Whatever I answer, he doesn’t say whether I’m right or wrong. Hold the stick, he says as he slides the red-buttoned throttle all the way in. The prop slows to a purr. The nose sinks. Earth. I pull hard on the controls. Don’t fight it, he says without intervening; Go with it, let it fall.
Here on the ground, there was only one question: What will I do if they take him? That it didn’t come up meant the answer was dire.
Winstons flared up all around us. Smoke rising from dangling arms. Between drags, adept fingers counted prayer beads. Traffic still not moving. A conversation of sorts was taking place through the open car windows, but no one was addressing anyone directly. We were all looking ahead.
“Maybe there’s a demonstration up there,” someone said.
“Demonstration this, demonstration that,” said another. “Okay already. We get the point. I’ve got six kids to feed.”
“It’s the will of the people.”
“They’re burning it all up.”
“There’s nothing left to burn. They’ve burnt it all. A nation with raised fists and soot on its face.”
“Maybe there’s a hanging,” someone piped in with derisive cheerfulness.
“For all this delay, there better be.”
No one dared respond. The revolution ran on blood. Heads were rolling.
Now somebody cut loose and peeled into the opposing traffic. The approaching cars veered madly to avoid a collision. The crazed driver was bolting for that empty pocket right before the rise in the road. I was watching a suicide. Tons of mangled steel, fragments of skull and guts. But the disaster didn’t occur. Up and over, he’d made it! People ran back to their cars and followed suit. Soon, our side of the road had completely overrun one of the opposing lanes, and traffic was no better for it. “Unbelievable,” said my father, shaking his head. “This is what our country has come to.”
There were many unbelievable things. But were they true? Watching my father go about his days as though nothing had happened, as though the revolution was simply a nuisance, was to say home was still home. Revolutionary people were the same old folks, just a bit rankled. Meanwhile, the TV, radio, and newspapers made you think we were caught in the vortex of a great storm.
Unlike at any other time, the last years of the shah’s reign were vexed by social turmoil and violence. Charged by the period’s ethos of armed struggle—by the examples of the IRA, PLO, by Che Guevara and Castro, by the scathing riots that shook France in 1968—militancy was on the rise in Iran. Guerrilla groups decried Western capitalism, the dependence created with consumerism, and the steady loss of traditional values. Since 1970, three hundred people had lost their lives to acts of terrorism, and with car bombs that targeted American military personnel, the regime raced to show control. The public trial and execution of several opposition figures had the unintended result of radicalizing the entire political spectrum; in the aftermath, you were either a pro-government chum or an antiestablishment extremist. The ongoing debates over democracy or reform or even the meaning of Iran’s nominally constitutional monarchy were wiped off the table. Substantive change would come only when one person could point a finger at the king and still stand. The exiled Ayatollah Khomeini called the shah “a U.S. serpent whose head must be bashed with a stone” and knew that he’d either come out of it a martyr or a hero—or a tool to those who thought the endgame between the one who was “sign of God” and the one “ordained by God” would free the political process. Somehow, people assumed that after defeating the wicked emperor and his evil empire, the turbaned superhero would recede into his underground hideaway.
The shah perceived dissent as an invasion of ideologies. Marx was strictly banned; Thomas Paine was seditious; Khomeini’s sermons about an Islamic government were illegal. He paid little attention to the battle for the heart and soul of the nation. The court, the dominant class, and indeed anyone who looked to the West as a model believed in modernity’s self-evident superiority. Who would want to give up a twentieth-century life? Could anyone conceive of women surrendering their right to vote or choosing to be forced to wear a veil? Was it even possible that the judiciary would abandon law books for the Qur’an? How was an arcane cleric who’d devoted a lifetime to the exegesis of a religious text capable of assuming leadership of a country woven into the economy of the West, a state that in the 1970s single-handedly accounted for a quarter of all U.S. arms sales?
In January, the front-page spread in the national paper made every outlandish notion conceivable: a teary-eyed king boarding a jet, a loyal general kneeling at his feet. The headline read, “Shah Gone.” For us, for anyone committed to the structure of the military, the king’s departure was a devastating blow—the commander in chief conceding to a thin-necked, mustached civilian. But bowing out to a National Front candidate could hardly settle a year’s struggle. Clerics and the bazaar class sided with Ayatollah Khomeini. An intellectual cadre backed the Communist Party. And a half-dozen splinter groups saw this as their chance. By February, the revolution had crushed any vestiges of a government, the National Front prime minister had gone into hiding, and Ayatollah Khomeini had laid claim to it all. It was then that the killings began.
Televised court trials introduced us to turbaned judges and foregone conclusions. Familiar personalities defended themselves. Some caved in, pleaded. As a counterpoint to Islamic justice, other postrevolutionary programming stressed the suffering of the shah’s foes. Grisly documentaries about Evin, a notorious prison for “politicals,” replaced my nightly fix of Laurel and Hardy. Ex-prisoners came from all walks of life. “There, right there, they tied me down and ripped out my teeth,” slurred a toothless middle-aged man, accusing shah-era secret service agents of acts that made me wince. A younger man with flowing hair like one of the Bee Gees described “the black box.” “They wanted me to give ’em names, you know, people I worked with, the ones who told me what to do, but I didn’t know anyone like that—I was working at my uncle’s dairy store. Sure I complained. We all complained. I couldn’t even buy a beat-up car. Back and forth, solitary, pushing a broken bottle in my face, they smashed my thumb with a hammer, see? And then this”—he revealed a marred patch, the size of a coin, off-center on his abdomen, and a second wound on his back—“this is what happens to you when you’re hooked to the box.”
The voice of the commentator came on louder as the camera zoomed in on the man’s face. “Can you describe the feeling, Brother?”
The man’s eyes dropped, no words, just the rustle of the camera crew and a pale green wall.
Evin required no commentary, just a jittering camera poking into one darkened cell after another. The cavernous echo of slamming steel doors. Padded rooms with no windows. Shiny surgical tools arranged on a black-topped table. A chair with cuffs for ankles, wrists, and head. Rows of hospital beds. “Yes, dear viewer,” said the announcer, “this is the hell we’ve emerged from.”
Was this the plight of the average citizen? I wondered. In and out of Evin? Complain about the price of tomatoes and you get your fingers smashed? At ten, it was clear to me that I belonged to a class with means. The inequities were never hidden. Privilege was a fact of life. And while I knew I was nothing, it was painfully evident that I still commanded respect. I’d try to convince myself there was a reason I was swinging a tennis racket rather than racing around collecting balls. Maybe entitlement had something to do with the way you spoke, walked, or looked; maybe it was because your hair was soft, limp, and partable. But then you’d see a silk-haired servant or an official with nappy hair. Now I faced the horrifying prospect of a system devised to keep us safe and privileged.
A year earlier, it would never have occurred to anyone to ask why the gardener, chauffeur, or cook did what they did. But with Evin, every burdened social stratum could perceive itself a prisoner. They had ...
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