This week we learned about the Iranian Revolution and spent time reading Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.
I found the entire discussion fascinating. The shah is thrown over for being perceived as too Western and the only regime that is there to take over is the Islamic state, the Ayatollah Khameni. They went from what they considered one extreme, to the next—all of a sudden being forced to veil if you were a woman, go to war if you were a boy and seeing things such as music, soda, nail polish and other western ideas banned.
I couldn’t help but think of an Iranian friend of mine while engaging with all the readings.
I had never spoken to her about her experience as a girl in Iran, so I decided to interview her to get her point of view on what happened.
Here’s my interview with Demetra Talighani:
BB: Deme Taleghani, I’ve know you for awhile now and I have never asked you about your life in Iran.
DT: What do you want to know?
BB: When did you leave?
DT: We left Isfahan when I was 10 years old in 1979. Me and my sister and two brothers left with my Mom. My Dad wasn’t able to come with us, because it would have looked suspicious, so we left him behind hoping he would be able to join us.
BB: Tell me about your life in Iran.
DT: I loved my life there. My father was very prominent and started a university for medical students. He was educated in the U.S. and was one of the leading Cardiologists in all of Iran. We had 2 beautiful homes. Our primary residence had a pool that we would cover in the winter and turn into a flower garden. We had many people helping us in the home.
My mother had parties every weekend. I just remember everyone at our house. All the adults would sit around in the big sitting room talking while the kids were running around the garden playing soccer.
BB: Describe your family make-up and where you lived.
DT: My Mom is Greek, so religiously we are all Greek Orthodox. My Mom was born in the US, so we all had US passports. My father, of course was Iranian and identified as a Shia Muslim but wasn’t really practicing. I had an older brother Alex, and then Perry, my sister Desi, and I was the youngest.
BB: What were the truths your family believed about the revolution. Where did they fall politically.
DT: My parents loved what the Shah was doing. He was educating Iranians in a western way and then having them come back to Iran to make it great and cutting edge. The Shah wanted Iran to thrive and wanted to bring Western learnings into the Iranian world. My father of course profited from this, because he built the university to train doctors in the same way he had been trained in the U.S.
My father knew the Shah and just this alliance coupled with our US passports put us in danger. People were getting hanged for being associated with the Shah
BB: When did you decide to leave?
DT: I remember being scared. I remember us hiding under the dining room table and listening to bombs go off. I remember my parents whispering about things. Our way of living represented what they wanted to throw over, so we knew we would need to leave. Especially after the US embassy was taken over, my parents knew this is when they needed to leave everything behind.
To not look too suspicious, my Mom took all of us kids first. We had a one bedroom apartment in Greece near her family. We went to the airport and guards separated the men from women—so Alex and Perry went away and my Mom, Desi and I were strip searched. I remember the woman in front of us had gold hidden in her bra and they took her away right in front of us. They kept demanding that my Mom take off her boots and she wouldn’t do it. Finally, she took off her boot and they found $10,000 American dollars that she was taking with her. They started yelling at her as to why she had American money. We were so incredibly frightened that my Mom would get killed in front of us. Alex ran over to our side of the line and begged the guards to just take the money and let us go. They took the money and let us on the plane.
BB: What happened to your Dad?
DT: My Dad stayed behind. It was an awful time. The 4 of us shared a room and my mom slept on the living room sofa. She never smoked but during that time I used to find her on the balcony smoking. One night the phone rang. My Mom went into the bedroom and started packing her suitcase. She said our father had had a heart attack and that he had a disease where he would only live six more months. She had to go try to get him even though she knew she could get caught and never be able to come back for us. My parents are a love story for the ages…. She went back and begged the establishment to let them leave for surgery for My dad’s heart. My Mom was in Iran for a month. Time never moved so slowly as the month when my Mom left for Iran to bring my father back. But after a month, they both arrived back. It had been two years since I had seen my father.
BB: When did you decide to move to the US?
DT: We moved to New York not too long after his return. We moved with absolutely nothing. We had no money and we had left all our possessions in Iran. I had to learn English. I remember my Dad being made fun of for his accent. My Dad, a leading surgeon in Iran had to start as an Intern again. He worked three jobs to support us. He used to do medical visits for welfare patients in Harlem for extra money.
BB: How do you think of Iran and the US now?
DT: When we first arrived, people would yell things at us like, “Go home Arabs”. They didn’t understand that we weren’t one of “them”, we were the ones who fled, that left with nothing because we too didn’t believe in that system. This always surprised us, this lack of connection between that thinking. But now America is my home. I’m grateful for everything it has done for my family and my kids. My brother is receiving Immigrant of the year in May at Ellis Island. My parents built some amazing kids with their perseverance and drive for us to have a better future. Iran is not the Iran I fondly remember as a girl. Now it’s America that owns my heart.
I had never thought of my friend as a refugee before, but she was. And her personal story, which has become very important for me—also shows how many stories are out there. Not just Iranian, but all the other refugees out there walking away from their lives. We need to hear their stories.
We are no longer one country, race, culture or ethnicity. We are just one global community.
If I could distill the Bible into one phrase it would be, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The portrait of Demetra above is an environmental photo that I took. I liked the painting in the background of the blurry girl. It reminded me of her story and the uncertainty she faced as a child. I also liked her pose, which shows how strong, successful and independent she has become.