BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
When the war in Artsakh erupted on September 27, many families — an estimated 80,000 residents — fled the region to find safety in Yerevan or other cities. They had to give up everything they owned — their homes, their livestock, their crops, not knowing what the future holds for them. Unfortunately, such stories are commonplace for us Armenians.
Many of us have been forced to leave our homes, perhaps not as dramatically as the Artsakh families did, but more or less we’ve been uncertain about the uncharted waters that we were about to step into. Here is my story of how 42 years ago, (to the date) my husband, my daughter and I left Tehran and never returned to our home. The details are engraved on my memory.
When, on December 1, 1978, my husband, my four-year-old daughter, and I left Tehran through the Mehrabad airport for a three-week vacation to London, I could have never imagined that it would be our last flight out, and that we would never return. We had no idea that we were among the few who would leave the country freely and easily. Nor did we know that the opposition, headed by the clergy with Ayatollah Khomeini at the helm, would mount a successful revolution and oust the Shah within the next few months.
The following day, on December 2, in the wee hours of the morning, I woke up in a dark room at the Kensington Hilton in London, to my daughter’s low voice calling me. The digital clock next to my bed read 4:30 a.m. — London time. My daughter’s internal clock was still working in Tehran’s time zone, which was 7:30 in the morning. Although I could hardly open my eyes, I dragged myself out of bed. I didn’t know it yet, but I was pregnant with my second child, and that was the reason I was so exhausted.
In the kitchenette of our hotel room, I prepared a little something for my daughter to eat and, after playing with her for a while, I returned to bed and left her to play. At that early hour there was nothing on TV, so I turned on the radio to hear some music. What I heard was a total shock…
The news was from Tehran; a mob had defied the existing curfew. A reporter said that overnight masses of people had gone into the streets, dressed in long, white robes. They were in defiance of the existing martial law and chanting slogans against the monarchy.
“Down with the Shah,” they shouted. “Azadi, Istiglal, Jomhuri-ye Eslami,” which means Independence, Freedom and an Islamic Republic.
In Islamic tradition, the dead are wrapped in white shrouds before they are buried, so wearing those long, white robes symbolized the protestors’ willingness to be martyred.
I could hardly believe my ears. I was stunned to hear so much detailed news on the radio. I realized there must be a very serious problem back home.
I cautiously stirred my husband and with a calm voice I said, “Please wake up. Come listen to the radio. He quipped, “I’m too tired. Not now.”
My voice quivered. Holding back emotions, I said, “Havaah passé,” which in colloquial Farsi means the situation is out of control. I continued, “The news on the radio says that a mob has defied the curfew in Tehran and has taken to the streets.”
He bolted up… Now both of us sat on the edge of the bed, listening to the radio and looking at each other in dismay. We were deeply distressed by the news. As I glanced at my daughter playing on the floor, I had no idea yet that we would never return to our home. My heart pounded in my chest. I can still feel the desolation and the fear that settled in. It was an out of body experience.
The situation in Iran had literally changed overnight. My husband called his parents who told us we should extend our stay in London because the civil unrest continued to worsen minute by minute.
Let me step back a little and tell you that many years later I learned that the BBC radio (British Broadcasting Corporation) had helped the Ayatollah Khomeini to gain power by giving him Persian-language broadcasts. The BBC had been called a loudspeaker for Khomeini, providing him with a platform to launch the Islamic Revolution. On that day, I had no idea about that arrangement.
In our comfortable life in Iran, we didn’t have a clue and couldn’t imagine that the Shah and his family would be forced to leave the country. My family and the people we knew didn’t have anything against the Shah. We thought he was a decent ruler. We lived a good and carefree life. Oil money, the “petro-dollars,” as they said, gushed into the country and trickled down to every home. Iran seemed to be in an upward swing, gaining respect on the international stage. We vacationed in Europe, drove luxury cars and wore designer clothing. We spent summers by the pool or the Caspian Sea. We had a wonderful life, and we considered the Shah a friend.
As an ethnic group Armenians had thrived in a Muslim country for over 500 years. We had lived peacefully under the succession of Persian rulers. We enjoyed religious freedom and, by having our own schools, kept our language and culture. No caste system, no roadblocks or prejudice impeded us. We enjoyed social mobility with plenty of opportunities.
Growing up I had heard a story about a distant uncle, named Qazar, who was a communist. His brother owned a printing shop where, without his brother’s knowledge, Uncle Qazar had printed literature about their group’s communist activities — it was around 1936 or 38. At the time, there were only one or two printing shops in Tehran, so it was not difficult for the authorities to find out where the flyers came from. The Shah’s men came and closed the shop, cutting off the brother’s livelihood, and imprisoned the communist uncle for a few years. While in prison, Uncle Qazar studied English literature. He already was well-versed in the Russian, Armenian and Farsi languages; when he got out of prison, he became one of the most prolific translators in Iran. Uncle Qazar translated Anna Karenina from Russian and had his hand in many other translations and in the making of dictionaries. Ironically, one of his nephews became a Minister of Urban Planning in Iran and another nephew was a journalist working at the American Embassy in Tehran.
Growing up, within my six degrees of separation, I had never heard of someone being tortured, whipped or hanged. On the contrary, it was the Islamic Revolution that brought all of that to the foreground for those I knew in Iran.
Opposition to the Shah was nothing new – it was part of the fabric of our society. When the riots got more frequent, we thought the agitation would fade away as it always did. Nobody believed the government would not be able to handle the situation, and that we would end up with a revolution.
Now allow me to take you 25 days before our departure, to Sunday November 5, when the most violent riot broke out. The day came to be called “Black Sunday.” On that Sunday, the opposition gathered momentum and the unrest spread throughout Tehran. Mobs burned, looted and vandalized cinemas, banks and public buildings.
On that day we had gathered at my parents’ home at the outskirts of the city for a late lunch, as we did every Sunday. (Sunday is not a “weekend” in Iran but a regular workday.) A few hours earlier, when I left home around noon to pick up my young daughter from her nursery school, I didn’t notice anything unusual in the streets of Tehran. However, by the time I arrived at my parents’ home, the news announced that thousands of people had taken to the streets demanding the Shah to step down from power.
Although my parents resided away from the center of the city, in the distance we could see the sky turning black with fires set by protestors. Black Sunday marked a turning point in the history of Iran. It was the beginning of the end for the Shah. For us, it was a surprise.
That day, we realized the implications of what was happening around us. We had witnessed a few previews of opposition to the Shah, however, the big picture still looked to be in favor of the status quo.
Our anxiety was high, but even then, we didn’t realize that we were on the cusp of a revolution. The evening of “Black Sunday,” martial law was imposed and, in an effort to stave off disaster, the Shah addressed the nation. I can still remember his words coming from the car radio.
“I, too, have heard the voice of your revolution,” the Shah proclaimed. sounding contrite. “As the Shah of Iran and as an Iranian, I will support the revolution of my people. I promise that the previous mistakes, unlawful acts and injustice will not be repeated.”
He wanted to find a way to dialogue with people and work out a solution, but it was too late. The king was checkmated. The West, including America, wanted the Shah to leave and to hand the country over to Ayatollah Khomeini and the religious fanatics.
How had the Shah, who was such an important ally to the West, suddenly become so unpopular? In those days we looked to the Shah as a tower of strength in the Middle East. He had created a strong economic growth. He had established great relationships with both East and West, and he was in the process of modernizing and Westernizing Iran. And he had many more dreams to implement for the betterment of the country. Why? Why did he have to leave his job unfinished? I think fate was unkind to him.
Queen Farah Pahlavi in her biography, “An Enduring Love,” writes: “Western journalists, who were so punctilious about respecting freedoms, seemed to see Ayatollah Khomeini as the incarnation of the spiritual…” Yes, it was the West who stood shoulder to shoulder with Khomeini to bring about the Islamic Revolution. Even President Reagan later said, “What we did to the Shah is a black page in American history.”
I can’t recall much between Black Sunday and the day we left for London. How exactly did we go on with our daily routines? What was in our thoughts? Did we send our daughter to her nursery school? I wonder how such an important period of time has escaped my memory.
However, I do recall the celebration of my husband’s 30th birthday on November 15, ten days after the riot. We had over 40 guests, but they dispersed early because of the curfew. Otherwise, it was like any other party – a good spread of food, drinks and dancing to European music. At the party there was a lot of talk about the riots and the general unrest in the country, however the consensus was that things would return to normal. We were blindsided.
A few factors prompted our trip to London. First, it was the imposed government curfew. Second, we were heading into the Muslim mourning month of Muharram, during which there was no regular TV programs or music. We felt that the coming weeks would be cheerless and gloomy, and we also thought: “We could spend Christmas in London and return to Tehran when Muharram was over and everything had settled down.” We held active passports and visas, which made it easy for us to travel on the spur of the moment.
I remember I was standing in our bedroom when my husband called to tell me that he had secured tickets for London. He said, “I’ve got three airplane tickets. We’re going to London in two days. Start packing.”
When I hung up, after that short call, I didn’t know what to do, so I called my mother-in-law. “We’re leaving for London in two days!” I said those words, almost panicking. My mind filled with everything I needed to do to get ready.
“Oh, do you want me to come and help you pack?” she asked. “Yes, I do!” I said, relieved.
As I was packing, I was overwhelmed by a strange feeling. I sensed that this departure was different from all others. I kept asking myself, “Should I empty the refrigerator, should I take a few pieces of jewelry with me?” I was at a loss. In the end, we left carrying only two suitcases, thinking we would return in a month. We never did.