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An Iranian Jew's Tales of the Revolution

By Nora Boustany
Wednesday, September 29, 2004; Page A22

R oya Hakakian, a lyrical storyteller and gifted poet, never wanted to leave her native Iran. The only daughter of a Jewish family in Tehran who was lured by the idea of a revolution that ousted Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979, she finally woke up to its ugly reality. In 1984, Hakakian felt compelled to leave for the United States, via Europe, with her mother. Two years later, her father left through the Pakistani border.

Hakakian has now written a memoir and a coming-of-age story, "Journey From the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran."

Roya Hakakian, a poet, has published a memoir of her youth in Iran and how she turned against the revolution. (Photo Heidi Gutman)

Read Nora Boustany's previous Diplomatic Dispatches columns.

Hakakian was in Washington last week to talk about the book at the Middle East Institute and the University of Maryland at College Park.

Her moving narrative swings from funny to sad, capturing idyllic scenes of her parents, aunts and uncles picnicking and interacting with Muslim friends. She describes the pilgrimage of Jewish community elders to the holy city of Qum, seeking Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's reassurance that they would be safe after the execution of a prominent Jewish philanthropist. During a meeting much later in Tehran, the same elders were shown less respect and had to salute the religious leader with cries of "Allahu Akbar," or "God is Great."

Her three brothers left for the United States before she did. Modern secular-minded Iranians were driven out by a fundamentalist regime that could not tolerate those with another worldview, she writes in the book. Jewish families had to abandon homes, possessions and careers.

Some fled to avoid being sent to the Iran-Iraq war. Artists and activists like her brothers, who produced controversial art or who demonstrated on campus, also had to leave the country.

"Whereas Jews had lost the opportunities to thrive academically and professionally, secular Muslims, who didn't share in the new regime's outlook, were losing their lives," she wrote in a recent op-ed piece for the Forward, a Jewish newspaper.

"I thought writing a memoir was important to show what happened," she said in an interview. "I wanted to say this secular class once existed and maybe it should have known better.

"Its presence was very important for the health of civil society. Now this class has to reinject itself into the scene," she added.

Hakakian was a scrawny, perceptive young girl, and one of many students attracted by the promise of the revolution.

Against the wishes of their elders, Hakakian writes, hundreds of young Jewish students joined the revolution, hoping to recast their identities in the fabric of the utopia the revolution promised.

Many Iranians, recognizing that there was an oppressed class in the country, were seduced by the Islamic revolution, she said. But eventually her family was forced to sell their house and move to a safer neighborhood when anti-Semitic graffiti were scrawled on the walls.

She transferred from school to school, as religious minority schools were taken over by zealots who enforced a strict code of Islamic dress.

In her book, she writes about a beloved literature teacher who encouraged her students to think beyond the isolation they found themselves in. For the class, Hakakian wrote an essay and her teacher gave her the highest grade achieved in the class in 13 years. But the teacher then pulled her ear, and wanted her to understand that the notebook had to disappear for her own safety.

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