Tags: lonely war | struggle | modern iran | nazila fathi

Excerpt: 'The Lonely War: One Woman's Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran'

By    |   Monday, 02 Feb 2015 01:46 PM

The following passage is excerpted from the book The Lonely War: One Woman’s Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran by Nazila Fathi

In the winter of 1979, when I was nine and my sister was six and a half, the incessant drumming of a bouncing ball triggered utter boredom in me. Schools had been closed on and off for weeks because of anti-regime demonstrations, and my sister, Golnaz, whom I called Goli, had grown fond of a small rubber ball. While I busied myself rearranging my Barbie dolls, Goli walked around our apartment, dropping her heavy ball on the parquet floor, grabbing it when it sprang up, and letting it drop again in a monotonous, hammering beat. For me, the sound had become synonymous with the disruption of the world around us.

People were flooding the streets of our hometown, Tehran, and staging rallies against the king, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, demanding that he step down. Our parents had told us that the demonstrations were so large that Pahlavi—whom everyone referred to by his Persian title, shah—had brought out the army, with tanks and machine guns, to confront the protestors. The soldiers had opened fire, killing scores of people. The demonstrators reappeared, dressed in white, the color of shrouds in Iran, to symbolize their readiness to die.

Because of the demonstrations, our parents took us outside only for quick and urgent trips. My parents feared that shooting could take place at anytime, anywhere. A tragic fire at a cinema had deepened the fear. In August 1978 a fire broke out in a movie theatre in the southern city of Abadan. Someone had locked the doors from the outside, and four hundred people, including many children, burned to death. It was clearly not an accident but unclear who had been behind the massacre—the shah’s men or the opposition?

Secular, middle-class opponents of the shah had united with leftist intellectuals as well as Muslim activists. Together they’d launched a campaign of civil resistance that attracted civil servants and oil industry workers, who went on strikes and took part in demonstrations. The opposition had initially called for more political liberalization, but then as the strikes and demonstrations paralyzed the country in the final months of 1978, they demanded that the shah abdicate.

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We often felt lucky that we lived in a gated housing complex, an oasis in the middle of the capital called Behjat Abad. A cluster of fourteen twelve-story buildings, the first high-rises in the country, Behjat Abad housed some four hundred middle- and upper-class families on seven acres of land. Right in the center a lush garden surrounded a pool. The garden was our own private world where in the warmer months we played with dozens of other children. Now it was too cold to play outside, and most parents were too nervous to let their children out of their sight.

As I waited for normalcy to return, Goli bounced the ball in the background. When I complained about it, she simply looked at me. Her pleading black eyes were fringed with long curling eyelashes, and her pale face was framed by straight black hair that barely touched her shoulders. The ball was her companion, her comfort. It was the exact opposite for me. The beat of the ball hitting the floor mimicked the countdown to our unknown future and served as an awful reminder of the sound of gunfire that we’d heard echoing through the city on some evenings.

One afternoon, my mother, Azar, finally gave in and agreed to take us out for ice cream. Goli and I grabbed our coats and dashed out the door. The department store that sold ice cream was only a ten-minute walk away. I remember the date: January 16. As we stepped onto the street, we heard a racket in the distance—a kind of devilish celebratory roar. My mother, who’d been jittery at every sound, quickened her pace and pulled us by the hand on either side of her toward Pahlavi Avenue, the tree-lined street that stretched from south Tehran to north.


When we reached the avenue, the street was packed with people and cars. Men and women danced in a frenzy, clambered on top of cars and buses, pounded their feet on the roofs, and swung their arms in the air. A young woman gave us candies. Drivers stopped their cars in the middle of the street, honking their horns in a singsong tone. We walked up the street and saw that the traffic had halted. The city was in ecstasy. Many of the people we passed held up the day’s newspaper or rolled it around their heads like a hat. The two-word headline in bold and stark print read: “Shah Raft,” meaning “The Shah Left.”

That night my parents and I watched on state television as the shah, teary-eyed, headed toward a plane. His wife, Farah, wrapped in a fur coat and hat, stood at his side, along with their four children. Men in dark suits bowed to them continuously; a few raised the shah’s hand to their lips. The shah looked uneasy. As opposition against him had peaked, he had learned that he was suffering from lymphoma. No one knew if it was the seriousness of his illness, the effect of the pills he was taking, or the rage on the streets that had weakened his will. But he had decided to leave the country he had ruled since World War II and hand over his duties to a regency council and an opposition-based prime minister. He flew with his family and a small entourage to Egypt, for what he called a vacation, on a plane he piloted himself. Later, the pilot who flew with him would return with the plane and join the revolutionaries.

On February 1, two weeks after the shah left, a newscaster announced that the revolution had triumphed. A seventy-eight-year-old cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had just returned to Iran after fourteen years in exile—first in Baghdad and then in a town near Paris—to take the helm of the revolution and complete its overhaul of the nation’s political system.

“Ayatollah,” a title used for senior Islamic scholars, means “sign of God,” and Khomeini’s arrival in Iran had the air of a religious spectacle. The historic day was broadcast on television, as millions of Iranians marched through the streets of Tehran to get a glimpse of the man who’d been the spiritual inspiration for their resistance to the shah. “Once the monster left, the angel appeared,” people chanted. Khomeini descended from an Air France plane, leaning against the arm of its pilot, showing no visible sentiment despite the crowd’s outpouring of emotion. He wore a black turban, a sign in Islam of a sayyid, a descendant of Prophet Muhammad through his two grandsons, Hassan and Hussein.

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Filming from a helicopter, the state network TV camera captured a human river flowing down the wide avenues leading from the airport to the capital. The people waved their fists in the air and smiled broadly. Men in tight-fitting suits, some sporting thick mustaches, tried to reach a Chevy Blazer surrounded by the crowd. Inside, Khomeini was on his way to the city. People tried to climb over the moving car, but the vehicle continued to move through the throngs.

Then the television showed Tehran’s vast Beheshteh Zahra cemetery, crowded with people. On his first day Khomeini went to pay his respects to those who’d given up their lives for the revolution. The television showed Khomeini’s men push back swarms of fervent followers to make room for the Ayatollah’s helicopter to land. At some point he’d been put on a helicopter to reach the cemetery in southern Tehran. A few moments later, Khomeini was seated on a platform with a group of supporters. Scuffles broke out as Khomeini’s bearded guards roughly pushed back people in the audience who wanted to get close to the cleric. Eventually the guards cleared a space between the crowd and Khomeini, and he began to speak.

Khomeini’s voice sounded dry, and his words were strange to my ears. He came from a rural background, and he wasn’t as eloquent as the officials in the former regime. As an eight year-old, I was amused by his accent, the way he dragged the words out and added an extra a at the end of every sentence. My parents, who had never heard Khomeini before, were immediately shocked that many of their educated friends had been captivated by his passionate speeches against the shah. The camera zoomed in on the faces of his supporters as they sat crossedlegged in the dirt, mesmerized by his words, their eyes unblinking.

“We are going to elevate your financial status as well as your morality,” he said, in a singsong tone. “Don’t think that we will only build you housing. Electricity and water will be free too. Public transportation will be free.”

“Good luck,” my father said with a chuckle, breaking the silence in our apartment. “He probably thinks that he can run the country like he would run a seminary. Free electricity and water for a population of thirty million?” My father was a senior manager at the Ministry of Power, responsible for expanding the electric grid.

But the crowd on television took the ayatollah at his word. As he made these outlandish promises, the people at the cemetery burst into applause. They’d struggled to overthrow the shah and his dictatorship, and a freer country finally seemed within their reach. Khomeini had led their revolution to victory, and now that he was promising to deliver more, they believed him.

People were still clapping, cheering, and whistling when a fullbearded man sitting next to Khomeini rose. “Allah Akbar,” he chanted from the top of his lungs—“God is great” in Arabic.

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Khomeini deemed clapping perverse, too Western, and not at all Islamic. From the outset of the revolution, he had been determined to introduce the nation to a realm of sin and virtue, the parameters of which would be his to determine. This new chant was the first indication to many Iranians of these grand designs—and of just how different this new regime would be.

On television, we could see people look at one another in confusion. The bearded man raised his arms and invited the crowd to chant with him. After a brief commotion, they joined him: “Allah-o Akbar, Allah-o Akbar.”

Excerpted from The Lonely War: One Woman’s Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran by Nazila Fathi. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2014.

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People were flooding the streets of our hometown, Tehran, and staging rallies against the king, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, demanding that he step down.
lonely war, struggle, modern iran, nazila fathi
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2015-46-02
Monday, 02 Feb 2015 01:46 PM
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