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Revolutionary Fever

As a teenager, Roya Hakakian fell hard for the Iranian Revolution. It may have betrayed her, but you never forget your first love.

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Raised in an intellectual, integrated Tehran family, Roya Hakakian was 13 years old when the Iranian Revolution began. Early on in her memoir, Journey From the Land of No, political events compete with her own personal dramas—slights received at school, sexual experiments with a neighbor girl, an uncle who wants to marry a Muslim—but gradually the national upheaval encroaches on her life. Muslim fundamentalists take over her Jewish school; the derogatory Farsi term “Johoud” is scrawled on the wall of her home; and her father burns her poetry and journals out of fear for her safety. In 1984, the family fled, ending up in the United States, where Hakakian now works as a poet, journalist, and documentary filmmaker.

photo by Marion Ettlinger

You describe the Iranian Revolution as the most significant love affair of your life. Why was it so compelling?

Westerners saw something about Iran that Iranians didn’t see themselves. As far as I can tell from what you observed on TV and the radio, the revolution was seen as religious. From inside Iran, it was really a revolution with all its traditionally historical mandates for freedom, civil liberties, and equality—which in the 1970s wasn’t an outdated notion, as it has become today. To have been moved by a common aspiration as a society all together was to experience a great love. It is rare to experience that along with many millions of people and when it does happen, it is such an enormous experience that it eclipses anything else. We cast off our selfishness even though we were teenagers. We surrendered our personal wants, desires, and demands. 1979 convinced us all to be in service of something bigger than ourselves. We bought into it, and it was beautiful.

Knowing the outcome of the revolution, did Western reporters get the story right after all?

They happened to have done a bad job of reporting, and that bad job turned out to have elements of truth. So much of what was reported was a reaction to the hostage crisis; thereafter everyone had formed an opinion about what was going on that was shaped by justifiable feelings of hostility. That doesn’t mean it was true.

As a Jew, were you ever apprehensive about joining the revolution?

I had trepidation about belonging to a particular group—many political groups were trying to recruit in those years and I never took membership, because I worried that I’d make the wrong choice. But about the revolution, I had no trepidation. That’s what Jews do: We follow our hearts into idealistic promises! We are suckers for revolutionary ideas and ideals, and I was no different.

Did your parents feel the same way?

The elders never bought into it, while the younger generation was bolder and more willing to take chances. People under 30 were sold, people over 30 felt more ambivalent.

Your excitement before the revolution coincided with adolescent sexual experimentation with a neighborhood friend, Zaynab. Do you make a connection between those events?

Iran and I, as a girl, were coming of age together. I believe there was a parallel happening. A natural part of coming of age as a young girl is the desire to have sexual experiences and all of that was entwined with the intensity the revolution had brought into our lives.

In Journey From the Land of No, your freedoms as a woman and as a Jew erode at a similar rate. Were those things bound up together?

Whenever I try to describe how things began to deteriorate in Iran, I resort to that old saying that “First they came….” The revolution unraveled in the same fashion. First they came, certainly, for the women, and at least half of the country—men and women—didn’t say anything. That was the harbinger of a lot of things that began to go, including minority rights and political parties’ right to exist and freedom of expression.

It’s always important to me to remind people that even though life deteriorated for Jews in Iran and the quality of our experience began to diminish, it was not a result of anti-Semitic policies towards Jews alone. It was part of a broader attack on the entire society that was unwilling to fall in line with the new regime of Islamic fundamentalism. We became victims in many ways just as secular Muslim Iranians became victims. We suffered along with ordinary Iranian Christians who wanted to continue their practices and couldn’t support a theocratic regime. We suffered far less than the Baha’i community did, and it’s important to keep that in perspective.

How did Muslim fundamentalism affect your life?

The Jewish school where I was a student was shut down because it was first taken over by a Muslim fundamentalist woman who tried to convert us all. After that failed, we all went to other schools, and I went into a non-Jewish school for the first time in my life. Also, in 1983 or 84, an unofficial order came for bathrooms and shared facilities, like water fountains, to be segregated.

As a woman, life really changed after 1981, when the Islamic dress code was imposed.

What was the dress code?

A scarf that had to be a dark color—dark brown, navy blue, or black. Then you had to wear a kind of long raincoat of the same color and, underneath that, a pair of pants and closed-toed shoes. I was 14 when I had to start wearing it. I grew up dressed the way we dress ourselves here, so the dress code was a significant difference. Many things weren’t available to us because of the way we were dressed—bike riding, for example, and other athletic activities.

One theme of Journey is the power of literature: people are killed for it, books are confiscated; your own writing was burned. How did this influence your decision to become a writer?

I feel very old-fashioned saying this, but I still believe in the idea that was introduced to me in 1979 that literature is the equivalent of religion for secular people. If you are someone who doesn’t want to go and actively pray, what you do is read literature and poetry. This is really in some ways the basis of my conversion. I always remain a Jew, but since adolescence I haven’t been a very religious Jew. My explanation is that I instead do literature.

You’ve published a few books of poetry in Persian. Why did you write the memoir in English?

There are many answers for that. English lends itself better to prose writing than Persian does. I’ve gotten flak from Persian scholars after having said that, but especially after having written this book, I think Persian is better when it comes to writing poetry and English is more available to writing in prose.

In terms of emotional and philosophical reasons, I thought it would be easier in English. I was worried I’d be wrapped in my feelings from my teenage years if I were to use the language in which I experienced them. If I wrote it in Persian, I would have been Iranian again. It would have been turning my back on the past 18 years I have lived in America. To use English was a sign of loyalty to this new life and new place.

Courtesy of Roya Hakakian

Two decades passed before you wrote about your life in Iran.

Ever since I left, there had always been two stories about Iran. The broader story about Iranian politics was always easy for me to talk about. What I had witnessed, that was the story I had never told and thought in some ways that I must not tell. Having left Iran had been such a, for lack of a better word, devastating, traumatic experience that I thought that talking about it was betraying it. In the opening chapter, I say I was proved wrong; one can go back to memories of the past and show commitment to them by publicly talking about them. After the book was finished, I thought it was a very Jewish thing to do. To show such a devout commitment to the notion of memory and history was one way in which I could exercise what I understand about what it is to be a Jew. When it was done, it occurred to me that my intention was to keep a memory and a narrative alive and keep them from dying away and that lies at the heart of Judaism the way I understand it to be.

How is writing your own story different from journalism?

I went about writing my own story with as much diligence and attention to details as I did with other people. Friends were laughing at me, saying, “It’s your story, you don’t really need to research it.” But I took weeks to interview family members to see what they remembered about something we had all experienced together. I spent days in libraries poring over magazines. I could have said that what I remembered was just as valid, but having been a reporter, I was trained to feel respect for facts and data and information, and went over facts several times. I had a history professor go over historical facts when I was done; I had a language professor go over Persian translations. Even though it was a creative project, I went about creating it, in some ways, like a reporter because I wanted it to be valid as a historical document, too.

Have you been back to Iran?

I cannot go back there for legal reasons. I came here on political asylum, which means unless the government in Iran changes I cannot go back.

Do you dream about it?

I think about Iran. I would like to be able to travel there, but I don’t dream about going back and living there anymore because the place I knew doesn’t exist.

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Revolutionary Fever

As a teenager, Roya Hakakian fell hard for the Iranian Revolution. It may have betrayed her, but you never forget your first love.

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