My father, the revolutionary

Iran's revolution 20 years ago sparked hopes of democracy for many exiles. But their dreams of return were soon destroyed.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Twenty years ago, I was lying in bed at home in north London, pretending to be ill in order to miss a maths test, when my father came bursting into the room. "The revolution - it's happening!" he exclaimed. "We can go back. We can go back to Iran!"

He told me he had been offered a post in the government led by Shahpur Bakhtiar, a liberal politician appointed by the Shah to keep the Ayatollah Khomeini from taking over. Dr Bakhtiar wanted my father to be either a minister or an adviser on education, which was his passion. I told my schoolfriends that I would soon be leaving for Tehran.

For the rest of that week, I came home every day from school and sat on my father's sofa as we listened to BBC World Service reports from Tehran. There were massive demonstrations against Dr Bakhtiar's government. On his return from exile in France, the Ayatollah had been greeted by 2 million people. Friends in Iran told of mobs shouting "Death to America", attacking anyone wearing Western clothes. The new government was virtually powerless.

In the evenings, my father was constantly on the phone to friends and relatives in Iran. By the end of the week, I kept hearing the same, doleful snatches of conversation. "So is it really getting that bad? You think Bakhtiar's going to go? You really think he has no chance?"

A couple of days after that, the Ayatollah announced his own government. The following day, 20 years ago next Wednesday, Dr Bakhtiar resigned. I realised by the look on my father's face that we were never going back to Iran.

Almost every member of Dr Bakhtiar's short-lived government and the establishment that supported it were hunted into exile. Several have been assassinated. Some of those who fled have been attacked, or have lived their lives under permanent guard from police and private detectives.

My father did not set foot ever again in the land he loved, and the memories I had of Iran when I was 10 are the same ones I carry with me now; faded and yellowing like a series of snapshots in an album.

We moved to London when I was two, and we went to Iran on holiday every year before the revolution. I remember walking across central Tehran with my father to get a haircut at a barber's shop where they served us black tea and sweet biscuits. My father chatted with the barber for an hour about the Shah and why he had to go before democracy could come to Iran.

I remember the craggy, stubbly, intelligent face of Gholam-Hossein. He was my father's servant in our house, and had been for 20 years. He and his family lived in three rooms on the ground floor, and their living- room was piled high with Persian carpets smelling of mothballs and tea. I used to play football in the courtyard every day with Gholam-Hossein's three beautiful teenage daughters, Sedigheh, Tahereh and Assam. When Khomeini took over, my father comforted us with the fact that people like Gholam- Hossein might be running the country.

After the revolution, I would climb up every evening to my father's study at the top of the house and draw pictures at his desk while he sat with his head in his hands, listening to the World Service. Often, the Ayatollah's voice would boom out, urging the people on to greater sacrifice. There would be news of the latest politicians who had been executed or exiled.

At my parents' dinner parties, the conversation, always in Farsi, revolved around the word enghelaab - revolution. Among my parents it wasn't a dirty word, as it was in some Iranian expatriate households, but it was always said with a sense of wistfulness and incomprehension.

There's a Farsi expression, Eh vaah, which means roughly "Oh my God". I didn't hear the details of many of the conversations, but numerous times I heard my parents and their friends mutter the name of a family acquaintance, shake their heads and say, Eh Vaah, again and again. If I asked, they said it meant this person was in trouble in Iran - murdered or disappeared. Our house was taken over, our car taken away.

One spring day in 1981, I was on holiday with my father in Paris when he said we were going to Montparnasse to have lunch with Dr Bakhtiar, by then living in exile in constant fear for his life. My memories are of a quiet, kindly-looking man, picking at his steak frites in a cafe, looking as if there were nothing left in the world for him. As well he might, a man who spent his life persecuted and continually jailed by the Shah, only to find himself labelled a traitor by the Ayatollah and chased from his country. I remember my father berating him about education, his pet subject. Dr Bakhtiar left us with a sad smile, preoccupied, it seemed.

After six years of worrying, stress, depression and constant smoking, sitting in his study in north London and agonising over the latest news from Iran, my father had a stroke. He lay for months in the Royal Free hospital, unable to speak or write, before suffering a cardiac arrest and dying in September 1985.

Life as an exile never suited him. Unlike some Iranians, he hadn't smuggled huge sums of money out of the country. Until the day he died, I think he was depressed by the fact that his children would never have the chance to go back to Iran. His idea was for us to be educated here, and then to go and live there "when democracy came". An Iranian nationalist, he could never understand why his son and daughters preferred listening to The Clash to reading Hafez, one of the Persian lyrical poets.

In 1991, an Iranian visitor bluffed his way past the security guard at the entrance to Dr Bakhtiar's apartment in Paris, and stabbed him to death. He cut off Bakhtiar's hand as a souvenir, and escaped.

I still haven't been back to Iran. Things have changed a lot since the early days of the revolution. I have cousins and friends who go back and forth from Tehran all the time. Some of them have lived in London or LA all their lives and tell me Tehran is now a much livelier place. The latest regime is relatively liberal, and they are keen for Western-educated Iranians to come home.

I would love to go home: to see the great mosques at Esfahan; the ruins at Persepolis; the mountain town of Hamadan where my father was born. In the Behesht-e-Zehr cemetery, in the poor part of south Tehran, lie the bodies of hundreds of thousands of young Iranian men killed in the war with Iraq, many of them used as "human shields" on Saddam Hussein's minefields. They all have names like mine, looked like me, and were born at around the same time. Part of me cannot stop thinking that my idea of Iran died with my father; that it is really a sort of fictional place from childhood, like Narnia.

The reality is somewhat harsher. If I were to go back, I would be drafted into the Iranian army to do military service. Like millions of the people of my country, the Iranian diaspora which is scattered across the world from Stockholm to LA, I shall remain an exile for quite a while longer.

Comments