Roya 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."
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.
When she recognized the cruelty and deception of the new leaders of Iran, she finally summoned the courage to leave.
Jews have lived in Iran for 2,500 years. Christians, Muslims, Assyrians and Armenians and Bahais also have long histories in Iraq. Now, although Iran's 100,000-member Jewish community has dwindled to 20,000 and many of its synagogues and schools are closed, it is still the largest in the Middle East outside of Israel.
"Jews have so much history in Iran, you don't know where the Jew begins and the Iranian ends and vice versa. We are fundamentally blended and inseparable," said Hakakian, 38, a Persian beauty with long, silken red hair.
The book is written in English, but Hakakian said she longs for the sound of her language. "I miss the constant romance that Persian gives us," she said. She was ecstatic when two of her books published in Persian were included in an anthology of Iranian women's poetry.
"It does not matter what they do to you," she said. "So much of how you put yourself on the map in a culture is via language. If you do that, they can never exile you, even if you are no longer there physically."
Hakakian now lives in Connecticut.
The youngest in her family, she grew up in a household that revered books and ideas, where writers and intellectuals came to pay their respects to her father, a headmaster and poet. Her father resisted leaving until the day he felt compelled to burn Hakakian's books and diaries to protect her.
Hakakian recalls in the book returning to her old neighborhood to look for a childhood playmate, a Muslim, whom she identifies as "Z." The girls first caught wind of the impending revolution when they spied on Z's elderly uncle and an older sister furtively listening to a tape of Khomeini's voice.
The girl's brother, Reza, once helped the Hakakian family observe the Sabbath by turning the lights on and off, without being asked. He was now in a wheelchair, paralyzed and slurring his words, a casualty of the war with Iraq. Z's older sister was in jail with purple scars on her skin, punished for having shared a subversive essay she had written for school.
"In four years, Z had lost an uncle to grief, a brother to war, a sister to prison and a mother to insanity," Hakakian wrote. Z urged Hakakian to leave Iran without looking back. Hakakian has done just that.
"I don't believe in countries anymore, they are highly overrated," she said. "It is human beings and your humanity that roots you more than geography itself."