An exiled author remembers her dash out of Tehran

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World. For many Iranians, it’s hard to forget what happened five years ago -- Iran held a presidential election in 2009, and after that election, thousands of people took to the streets to protest what they said was a fraudulent vote. Here in the West, we saw the images from those protests in the news -- bloody street scenes as Iran’s hard-liners cracked down on demonstrators. Those days marked a big transformation in the life of author and journalist Nazila Fathi, a lifelong resident of Tehran. But after Fathi found out that security forces were after her, she and her family had to flee the country. Fathi writes about that experience and about growing up in Iran in her new book, “The Lonely War.” 2009 was a decisive year for you and for Iran. That said, I’m curious to know how you see the current wave of protests here in the US. Have your thoughts been turning to those chaotic and paranoid-filled days in Tehran?


Nazila Fathi: It’s such an interesting question because as soon as it broke out, I was thinking about the same thing. The protests here in the US seem to be part of a very informal unofficial civil movement that has been there for years and years, and every once in awhile you hear them, they appear on the surface, and then after awhile they disappear again. I think the protest movement in Iran was very much like that, a civil movement that became vocal in 2009 and after about 6 months you didn’t hear anything about them. Did that mean that the movement was dead? I don’t think so, because as you see it here, the movement doesn’t die. Most of the people’s demands, the protesters demands are revolving around justice and it was the same thing in Iran.


Werman: You make that point in your book, that what happened in 2009 were issues that were laid out on the table from the beginning of the revolution in 1979. As a girl, you knew from a young age that saying the wrong thing could get you and your family in deep trouble. What was the first lesson of that? How did you learn that?


Fathi: I gradually learned the lesson from the stories I heard that grownups were telling each other, how people were getting into trouble. There were a lot of teenage children of my parents’ friends who were arrested. They were quite young; even for a 9-year-old, it was quite unacceptable to hear that 14-year-olds, 15-year-olds had been arrested only because they had become slightly interested in Marxism or leftist ideas. And they were horrifying stories that I was hearing. Even parents of my friend were arrested, some of them were executed. So, when you hear those stories, that one wrong word, one wrong comment can get your family into huge trouble...


Werman: A life-changing experience in your own family was your father getting his job taken from him as part of a cleansing. Tell us about that and what became of his life after that.


Fathi: My father was part of this very small community of Iranians who had studied overseas, he spoke English. He never supported the revolution, he was not a very political person at all. So, when a lot of his employees, people that were working with him, were going to the demonstrations against the Shah, he never joined them. So, pretty much very early after the victory of the revolution, he became a target. He was the one man who always stayed at his desk, did his job. He was probably the only one at his office who spoke English and this was not considered a value in the beginning of the revolution. Very early on, he got a message that he was fired, he was cleansed, and my father had served in the civil sector all of his life. For him, there was no more life after that. It was a couple of difficult years before he started working on an orchard that my father had inherited from his family. But there was no way that he could go back to his old job.


Werman: At one point in your book, you write that the Islamic revolution in Iran had held such great promise but it had become a tool of oppression. What do you think it offered Iran that it had promised so much?


Fathi: Well, a lot of people came to the streets -- first of all, they believed in different things, but they all had one goal in common, and that was to get rid of the Shah. But they actually did not have a plan for what they wanted to do after the fall of the Shah. They had believed that if the Shah was gone, they could easily build a democracy from scratch and that didn’t happen. There was an institutional breakdown, a huge sense of insecurity and instability, and the one group, which was Khomeini’s group, they were the most organized ones. They had a good network around the country and they managed to hijack the revolution.


Werman: You have two children. How do you talk to them about home? Do they ask about family and friends, and what do you tell them?


Fathi: They definitely ask about family and friends. My son is sort of having an identity crisis. His name is Shian but he goes by the name Jack now because he doesn’t want to be affiliated with Iran. For awhile, the news was just focused on Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s defiance towards compliance with national demands, so they sort of know that Iran is a pariah state that defies international regulations, so sometimes they don’t want to be affiliated with that country that has also dismissed them, rejected them, sent them away, and they cannot go and easily visit their grandparents. But then we observe our own Persian traditions at home, which they like very much. I was very surprised that both of my children sat and watched Anthony Bourdain’s report from Iran with huge interest. My son watched it twice and was asking questions.


Werman: What was he asking?


Fathi: When people were having food, he asked about some of the dishes and there was footage of people on the street, people were dancing sometimes and he asked if people were like that in Iran, because you don’t see people just dancing for no reason on the streets here in the States. So, he was a little bit surprised to get a glimpse of inside the country that he doesn’t remember much of anymore.


Werman: Do they know about what happened in 2009 and the uprising that made you leave the country? Do they associate, in a good way, protest and civil disobedience with Iran?


Fathi: They don’t have much memory of the protests and the disobedience that happened. But even my daughter, who was very young then, still remembers that the way we left was very stressful, was very traumatic. She had an interesting story when she was in second grade about how we left Iran, she wrote that we drove all the way from Tehran to Toronto, in Canada, which, of course, is not true.


Werman: How old was she at the time?


Fathi: She was three-and-a-half-years-old, she was very young. I think she remembers the ride to the airport, which felt so long. To her, it was that period that was the most stressful part probably.


Werman: Nazila Fathi, former correspondent for the New York Times in Tehran. Her new book is called “The Lonely War.” Great to speak with you, thanks for the interview.


Fathi: Thank you so much Marco.