Roya Hakakian Explains the Iranian Jewish Community

Story by Devin Windelspecht | windelspecht.d@husky.neu.edu

Photo by Yasmeen Al-Haj | alhaj.y@husky.neu.edu

It was 9:00, on what would have been an ordinary December night had the country of Iran not been in the midst of a revolution against the then-ruling Shah. Driven by Khomeini’s call to protest, thousands upon thousands of Iranians extinguished the lights in their houses, and defying curfew, climbed to the rooftops of their homes and spilled out onto the street to declare one simple phrase: God is Great. Allah-u Akbar. For the people caught in the storm of the Iranian Revolution, it was a cry that demanded the abdication of Shah Mohammed Pahlavi. For 12-year- old Roya Hakakian, it was perhaps one of the most defining moments of her life.

“From that moment”, she says before a small crowd gathered in the top floor of Renaissance Park, “I knew that everything had changed”. Unlike the thousands who had extinguished their lamps and cried out that one simple phrase over and over that fateful night, Hakakian was not Muslim- she was Jewish, part of a small community within Iran whose future seemed more and more uncertain even as the Revolution became more and more powerful. Hakakian recalls trying to utter the same words as those around her- many of whom were her childhood friends- but found that they stuck in her throat, refused to come out.

Now, some 36 years after the Iranian Revolution ushered in a new era not only for Iran but also for the entire Middle East and, many would say, the world, Hakakian remains still intrinsically tied to the country of her ancestry, despite now living in New Haven. A poet in Farsi and a contributor to influential publications like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, Hakakian is also the author of two novels: one, Journey from the Land of No, is a memoir that recounts her time living as a Jew in Iran, the other, Assassins of the Turquoise Palace, a nonfiction account of the infamous Mykonos restaurant assassinations of 1992. Her talk at Northeastern University presented the opportunity to see Iran from a perspective rarely granted through today’s headlines of nuclear deals and diplomatic tensions: that of Iranian’s ethnic and religious minorities, still very much Iranian yet living in a country that so often discourages anything but, as Hakakian explains, Shia Muslim Men from feeling fully welcomed and accepted.

But Hakakian explained that it was not always that way. Showing us a picture of her grandfather as a member of the Iranian army, she explains that when he was a child he was often not allowed to go to school while it was raining, for fear of contaminating other Iranians from the supposed filth that was feared to wash off him in a rainstorm. Yet one day, a visiting superintendent sat down with the young Iranian Jew and, telling him to first drink out of a glass of water, before proceeding to finish the glass the young boy had just drank out of. “If it is good enough for me, it is good enough for everyone”, he told the child.

For Hakakian, this moment- as life changing to her Grandfather as the December night of 1979 was to her- shows an aspect of history that is quickly being forgotten: a time when Iran was “moving on”, where the status of minorities such as her family was shifting towards equality. Crucially, she gave a different perspective of the Pahlavi Shah than that of an oppressive dictator that is often expressed in history books. Rather, she saw him as a progressive, a leader moving towards change in Iran- sometimes forcefully so, she admits, recalling tales of his soldiers stripping the hijabs off women during the years before the Revolution. When challenged as to the discrepancy between her perspective and that which American students are taught, Hakakian claimed that leaders such as the Shah cannot be looked at in merely black and white terms, and should be remembered with perspective as to “what hampered them historically, and what they had to work with”.

Regardless, Hakakian said that today, the Iranian Jewish community is on the verge of extinction, not because of overt persecution, but because of a sense being separate and unwelcomed from the Iranian state- most importantly because of “a sense of futurelessness”. “I see a place that has lost its place as a pluralistic society,” Hakakian said, “as a model for a Muslim community that is all-inclusive”.

Hakakian’s own family left in 1985 due to the “shabby state of the nation” that followed the Iraq-Iran War, but even as the lifting of sanctions that followed the recent Iran Nuclear deal may signal a new economic stage for the country, she doesn’t see a future for herself in the place she once called home. “I assure you I wouldn’t go back,” she said, “because I, as a citizen, desire more than just economic growth.”