Returning to Iran by Farideh Goldin (EXCERPT)


September 1980

        My lungs burn as I struggle to inhale the humid, exhaust-filled air of Tel Aviv. Five months since our rushed exodus from Iran, since a revolution that has turned our lives upside down, and I am lost, sleepless, dazed. I miss the crisp dry breeze sweeping down from the mountains to the valley that has been home for my ancestors for thousands of years.  Taken into their Babylon slavery after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, they were set free by the Persian King, Cyrus the Great and followed him to Persia. Like my forefathers, I had prayed for a return to Jerusalem every holiday, every Shabbat, every day. Now that I am here in the Holy Land, I yearn to return to Iran. 

       I walk along the narrow alleyways of the central bus terminal in Tel Aviv, where time has stopped; modernity doesn’t dare encroach. Travelers try to find their connections in winding, confusing maze of alleyways lined with kiosks and shops. Shoes, bolts of fabric, household knickknacks fill the small dark stores and pour onto the sidewalk, where shopkeepers sit uncomfortably on metal chairs or low stools and chat with each other or the familiar faces in the crowd. The smell of falafel, kabab and herb polo, fresh-squeezed juices, orange, pomegranate, carrot, blends with the pungent odor of Noblesse and Marlboro.  I reach into my shirt pocket for a cigarette, the last of a packet I had brought from Iran, hold it between my fingers, but resist lighting it. 

       Avateeachhhhh, tu’t sadeh, venders scream, watermelon, strawberries.  My little daughter, Niloufar loves strawberries, a new, exotic fruit for all of us. 

       Waiting for buses to take them to the beaches or to Jerusalem for sightseeing, tourists speak loudly in languages unfamiliar to my ears. Their laughter exacerbate the look of gloom hanging over other visitors whose language I understand, whose pain I share.  We don’t laugh or bargain at the gift stores or linger at the cafes. We look haggard, withdrawn to a deep pain within. 


       To us, the wandering Iranian Jews who have been forced into exile, the scene looks surreal. In our country hejab is mandatory for women, but here young women scurry around in shorts and tank tops beside khasidic men in long black overcoats, in heavy black garbs of bygone eras of East European winters. Beads of sweat dripping from their earlocks, they avert their eyes from the semi-nudity displayed so brazenly.  Pasted on walls and buses, posters of apparently famous actresses or models sell one thing or another with their nakedness, adding to the shock effect of the country we, the displaced Iranian Jews, have regarded as holy grounds. 

       We are the lost people who come here every day, trying to get comfort from other confused refugees. Fearing the future, no longer knowing what HOME means, we seek advice from our fellow-countrymen. Having lost the sense of purpose, feeling defeated for no longer being able to provide financial or emotional support for our families, we anxiously ask the familiar questions. Is it time yet? Is it safe enough to return to our homes, to businesses left behind? What is the danger? We are running out of financial resources but too proud to admit the unspoken shame. We miss home, the routine of our everyday lives, the family members left behind, and our Iran that has been ours for good or bad.


       In the beginning, the Revolution didn’t seem to be anti-Semitic. After returning to Tehran on February 1, 1979 from his forced exile in Paris, Ayatollah Khomeini decreed that he’d protect the acceptable religious minorities, Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians—but not the Baha’is.  Yet many minorities, apprehensive about the possible danger hidden underneath these conciliatory words, took cautionary measures by leaving Iran, hoping to return soon.  The execution by a firing squad on May 9, 1979 of the well-known and wealthy businessman and president of the Tehran Jewish Society, Habib Elghanian, made us feel even more insecure. We tried to rationalize his demise. He’d known people in the palace; he’d given financial support to Israel; he had been a millionaire, when many suffered in poverty in Iran; he’d kept a high profile, forgetting that Jews have to show humility. In contrast, we had no special importance, no ties to the palace, no substantial fortune. If we follow the laws of the land, such as adhering to the hejab for women, if we know our place as Jews and act in meekness, maybe we will be safe.  

       During that first year after the Revolution, Mehdi Bazargan’s appointment as prime minister established certain liberties and stabilized the conditions for Iranian Jews, who slowly managed to get used to the new Islamic rules, and lived without much fear. Many of us were granted passports similar to Moslems, seemingly without any bias toward our religion. Most of us had believed that this was indeed a holy revolution that ended the Shah’s suffocating dictatorship, and maybe we would enjoy more freedoms under the new government.

       Several of us had left during this period of Bazargan’s reign, legally, with Iranian passports and exit visas. Some had left when the Shah was still in power, when there were bi-weekly nonstop flights from Tehran to Tel Aviv. When the new government stopped these flights to Israel, the Jews flew with Iran-Air to Istanbul or Athens and bought round trip tickets through small companies to Tel Aviv. The Israeli authorities were conscious of this disobedience of Iranian laws and did not stamp their passports, allowing Iranian Jews, Baha’is and a few Moslems too, the pretense of having visited Greece or Turkey. 

       Iranians traveled to Israel for commerce, pilgrimage to the holy sites, visiting family, or medical reasons since Israeli health care was superior to Iranian medical practices.

       I brought my family to Israel just as Khomeini returned on February 4, 1979. Schools had closed down. My children were cooped up at home, fearful of sporadic gunfire and the chanting of revolutionaries marching on our street. Coming home one day, I noticed their chewed nails, wringing hands, lackluster eyes, and perpetual silences.  It wouldn’t be a bad thing to leave for a while, I thought. We would return soon.

       Then the situation in Iran changed rapidly. On November 4, 1979,  the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was attacked by the so-called Iranian students, who took Americans hostage. Consequently, Bazargan resigned from the government in protest. “Don’t expect me to act in the manner of Khomeini,” he said later in a speech at Tehran University, “who, head down, moves ahead like a bulldozer crushing rocks, roots and stones in his path.”*  His successors, including Mohammad Ali Rajai had deep-seated prejudice against the Jews.  Rumors circulated that about seventy Jews, after receiving their passports and exit visas, had boarded Iran-Air to leave the country. After ten minutes of flight, the pilot was ordered to return to Mehrabad airport. The pasdaran, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, that had opened an office at Mehrabad airport, entered the plane and asked the Jews to disembark before allowing the plane to take off. They confiscated the Jewish passengers’ passports and labeled them mam-nu-ol-khoruj, forbidden to leave the country. 

       The pasdaran continued to interrogate Jews returning to Iran, claiming that they had all visited Israel; that they were all spies for the “Zionist entity.” Even those who had never visited Israel were not spared. Then the Jews were denied new passports.  The doors closed on Iranian Jewry. Many felt that they were not wanted; yet they were not allowed to leave. These unprecedented events marked the beginning of the change in a government whose policies of hatred would destroy many innocents of all religions along with the guilty. Fear spread its shadow on Iranian Jews like the darkness created by the flight of locusts on a sunny day. 


       And this is our story, the story of those of us who have had every intention of returning to Iran. We wander the streets of Tel Aviv seeking each other, asking advice, reevaluating our situation, but never finding a comfortable solution. I am one of those wanderers. My name is Esghel Dayanim, the son of Mola Meir Moshe Dayanim, who was the chief Rabbi and judge of the Jewish community of Shiraz, who like his fathers before him, was revered by Jews as well as many Moslems.

       As autumn promises a new year, as we enter the season of Jewish holidays, a gentle wind slowly replaces the intense summer heat in Tel Aviv. Around Yom Kippur, September 22, 1980, the war between Iran and Iraq sets the area on fire.  Mehrabad, Tehran’s international airport shuts down. The war adds another layer of worry to our lives, intensifying our anxiety for the welfare of dear ones we have left behind. 

       This year the holidays hold deeper meanings. The Rosh Hashanah prayers repeat in my head, “Who shall perish by fire and who by water; who by sword, and who by beast; who shall be brought low and who shall be exalted.” The ground underneath me has shifted, and I am uncertain about my future—feeling stomach cramps and nausea; my chest feels heavy.  Once again, I experience the anxiety of the year my father passed away, when barely out of my teen-age years, I suddenly found myself to be the sole provider for my mother and seven siblings.  I pray that I would not be left alone in my old days, and I cry for I have abandoned my elderly mother in Shiraz.

       After fasting, praying and asking God for forgiveness for my sins this Yom Kippur, I meet again with other refugees at the central bus terminal. Although the Iranian shopkeepers provide us with a place to gather and a sense of community, they aren’t unhappy about our miseries. They immigrated to Israel years earlier out of hopelessness.  They don’t hide the long-held opinion that those of us who remained in Iran had believed that Israel belonged to the desperate, to the needy, to the disposable. They resent that we had not helped to improve their lives in Iran. Instead we had encouraged them to leave for ghorbat, for a life away from home, for exile.  And now we, too, are displaced.  

       From time to time, someone yells from across the street, from the open window of a crowded bus, “Here you are. Behold how the mighty has fallen!” And of course, they have fared better than us; they have already made Israel home; they have survived the shock of displacement. We have much to atone for. Although I have always helped those in need in the  Shirazi Jewish community, the sins we ask God to forgive include our collective, communal transgressions as well.  Maybe I could have tried harder to help the poor remaining in Shiraz, but not knowing the pain of ghorbat those days, I had believed that Israel could support them better; that Israel held a solution to all Jewish problems, including poverty.


       In the post Yom Kippur excursion to central bus station, Mr. Pouldar reveals a plan. “Negah konid,” he says, fanning his folded fingers in excitement. “See, there is a war going on and the pasdaran must be busy.” He sucks on the sugar cube between his molars as he sips his color tea. “Let’s go to Iran by bus through the Turkish border. Who is going to know where we are coming from? People go back and forth, taking vacations in Istanbul all the time.”

       “He is right,” someone says.

       “He has a valid point,” we all agree. “What a good idea.”

       Suddenly the air clears. What a relief to be able to act. We’ll fly to Istanbul in groups of ten, spend the night, and hire buses to cross the border. The first group will contact us as soon as they enter Iran to signal the next group’s departure. I choose the safest, the last group, the largest with 24 people, and composed mainly of families.  

       I hope to find my homeland hospitable enough to have my family return and resume our old lives. Otherwise, I’ll have to sell my poultry farm and the vast land I have turned into fruit orchards—the culmination of forty years of love and labor—and, of course, the house, the car, and if lucky, the furniture and Persian carpets.  Unsure if anyone would buy the land at a time of such uncertainty, it pains me to think of letting go of my business, my home, and, most importantly, my country.

       The first group leaves Tel Aviv for Istanbul. Through an acquaintance residing in the United States, we hear about their success crossing the border without trouble. The second group leaves; they don’t contact us; we assume that no news is good news.  Putting my faith and my family’s well being in God’s hands, during the week of the holiday of Sukkoth, I leave Tel Aviv. For the first time in my adult life, I do not build a Sukkah, our shaky hut in remembrance of our wanderings, our destined homelessness as Jews. The world is now my Sukkah.  I leave my wife who has never lived alone, a daughter at Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem, recuperating from major surgery, and one who is just a child—not knowing that I will not see them for six years—that when I see my little one again, she will have little memory of her father; that she will not speak to me in Persian which she will choose to forget in my absence. That I will be a stranger to her for years to come. 

       Our group boards Turkish airlines to Istanbul. Eight of us, the Shirazis, have known each other for many years:  Basiratmand, his wife and 12 year-old son; Bashi and his wife and the family Rason. The rest are from Tehran, Kermanshah and Isfahan, who I have come to know only through other acquaintances during our meetings at the central bus station. 

       In Istanbul, we pile up in a few taxis to find a recommended modest hotel. Its owner, suspicious of a group of Iranian refugees, demands to keep our passports and the payment for two nights in cash advance.  The eight Shirazis create our own small cluster. Basiratmand and I volunteer to buy dinner. In a coffee house we order tea and watch in fascination and delight the crowd of hookah-smoking, backgammon-playing customers. The scene reminds me of all those lazy Saturday afternoons in the hot summers of Shiraz, when after attending Shabbat morning services, the extended family packed the steamy khaleh-bibi that had cooked all night and headed to one of many gardens in the outskirts of the city to spend the afternoon playing Rami and takhteh nard, drinking araq with mazé, salted cucumbers sprinkled with lime juice.  Silently, both thinking of Shiraz, we leave to buy Iranian flat bread, yogurt and cheese for our group from a small kiosk, the best we can do to keep kosher. 

       We choose an Iranian tour company, Mihan Tour (homeland tours) to take us over the boarder. We pay cash for 24 passengers and two drivers to leave on Friday morning—maybe not a good omen traveling on Shabbat but what other choices do we have? 

       We are jubilant yet anxious, happy to return home but worried about the crossing. Women look frightened. What kind of men are we who can’t comfort them? We are all impotent in the face of danger; their protector and ours is God alone. So we wait to face our fate. 

       We recognize the driver immediately. A young man accompanies him, and we assume that he is the second driver, just to discover later that he is the muscle man, there to help with the luggage. He hoists the suitcases to the top of the bus and ties them with ropes. Then he says goodbye and leaves. We question the driver, and he promises that a second one will join us in Ankara.  That’s a lie to be compounded by a second. Being all Jews, we have on purpose chartered the bus not to encounter other passengers, not exposing ourselves to possible jeopardy. The driver stops on a side street and allows a middle-aged man with long beard and worry beads in hand to join us, calling him Haji Aqa. Haji is a title for someone who has made pilgrimage to Mecca, a religious man. Haji-Aqa boards. Pulling on his scraggly beard, he stares at us for a few seconds, examining us before sitting next to the driver. Their heads together, they chat all along in a hushed voice. 

       We pass by the Black Sea, its waters dark, ominous, beautiful, before entering Ankara at sunset. The driver doesn’t stop as he had promised and heads straight for the Iranian border at Gozargah-e Bazargan. The closer to the Iranian border, the more desolate the landscape.  The bus struggles up the mountains of Ararat through narrow and twisting roads.  I wrap my jacket tighter around my torso to keep away the chill and to stop my persistent coughs.  My lungs burn. We fear bandits at our many stops, during which one or two policemen enter the bus, checks us out, speaks to the driver in Turkish and receives a carton of cigarettes as bribe before allowing us to continue. 

       Not having taken enough provisions with us, we are starved, but the bus driver refuses to stop. Hungry and thirsty, we worry about the driver who has been behind the wheel now for over 14 hours without a break. We fear that, exhausted, he’ll plunge us into the ravine. Half past midnight, we start to complain and request to stop by a coffee shop. He pulls the bus to the side of the road disgustedly but refuses to disembark. “Whoever wants to go, go now,” he waves us off.  A few of us volunteer to check out the place, which reminds us of Haji Baba, the One Thousand and One Night stories. Big men with bloodshot eyes and long mustaches stare at us from their seats. Frightened, we quickly use the bathrooms and leave without eating. 

       Shivering, we return to the bus just to realize that it doesn’t have a heater. The driver and  Haji-Aqa wrap themselves with blankets, and when we protest the conditions, the driver at first feigns sleep, then he chastises us for having forced him to stop in a place that is the den of thieves and murderers. The previous week, he tells us, two Iranian buses were robbed and a few passengers killed. We must leave, he says emphatically, without any stops before reaching Van. There, he adds, we’ll be able to find a hotel. When we tell him that we are worried about him since he has been driving without any rest, he says that he is used to it. Cold, frightened, and exhausted, we have a sleepless night. At dawn, we still can’t see anything but the vast expanse of uninhabited land. Again and again, at the many stops, other policemen enter the bus for their cigarettes. Around four o’clock, we finally see greenery from a distance and enter Van before sunset. 

       By the time the bus stops at the hotel, we look like half-dead people, exhausted, hungry, cold, and filled with anxiety. The driver informs us that he will pick us up at 9:00 a.m. the following day to head for Barzargan border in Iran. If everything goes well, we’ll leave for the Iranian city of Tabriz, spend a night, and then leave for Tehran. “Goodnight,” he says and leaves with Haji-Aqa. The group takes refuge in our trenches for the night, battle-fatigued.  Some shower, some go in search of food to share with others too weary to seek sustenance. We retreat into our own heads. I don’t know if the night is too long or too short. It is a restless night that mercifully ends. The following day we look as if we have just left neila services after a long day and night of fasting, barely able to wish each other a good morning. After grabbing a quick breakfast of tea, bread and cheese at the hotel lobby, we see the driver and Haji-Aqa, realizing that they had shared a hotel room that night. 

       The bus arrives at the border at 11:30 a.m. The driver lets us out by a large salon that serves as customs and immigration, and tells us that he’ll wait in the parking lot on the Iranian soil. He and his guest disappear behind the gates, and that’s the last time we see Haji-Aqa.

       Our passports stamped by the Turkish authorities, we enter Iran, where our luggage has been unloaded for scrupulous inspection. I have nothing but my clothes; nothing to worry about.  As we pass the passengers on the opposite side leaving Iran, a few dare to whisper, “You are all crazy.” They are escaping the war and the harsh life in Iran and don’t understand why we are returning. 

       We decide not to go as a group and scatter among other travelers, sometimes spotting one another from a distance. Now I am even more suspicious of Haji-Aqa. Why doesn’t he go through the customs? Is he a representative of the Islamic government, traveling back and forth, reporting to the central government? My heart pounds; my lungs struggle to pull in air from the crowded hall.  I see my friend and his family a few rows in front speaking to immigration officials. They leave without a problem. I am relieved.

       When I reach the front, I greet the man in uniform with a slight bow. My right hand on my heart, I give him my passport with both hands in a show of humility and respect. He passes it to another policeman in a narrow dark room behind him, who opens a large ledger, looking for my name. He passes it to a third person to double check the information, and then again to the first man who stamps it. As I am about to receive my passport, a man in civilian clothes approaches the customs inspector and whispers something in his ear. Although my passport is already stamped, the policeman leafs through its pages again. Once in a while, he stops and stares at me. He finally sets it aside without speaking to me and continues to process other passengers. My heart is in my mouth. After a while he stops again, and without looking at me, he hands the passport back to me. My color returns. I smile and bow as I reach for it. I am about to put it back in the inner pocket of my jacket when someone grabs my hand from behind. I turn around. A grim, bearded young man around the same age as my oldest son scrutinizes me with hate-filled eyes. He demands to have the passport, and without waiting, snatches it from my hand. Grabbing the back collar of my jacket, he shoves me behind the metal bars, locks the gate, and tells the two pasdars to watch me. He takes a few steps, pauses, and turns around. “Are you Jewish?” He spits the words at me.  “Yes.” What else can I say but the truth? “Are you coming from the occupied Palestine?” Frightened now, I say “No!” He hisses, “Liar!” A few minutes later,  I hear him announce in a loud voice to other travelers, “Jews, raise your hands.” No one does. This time, louder, he repeats his demands. No response. No one moves. He asks the Moslems to separate themselves. They don’t. A third time. No one. He announces that he will take care of this situation himself. I see my friends, the Rasons, stopped. One by one, my travel companions are singled out, their passports confiscated. I don’t know how we are recognized so quickly. Aren’t we all Iranians, even brothers, all sons of Abraham? We all look Semitic, dark hair, brown eyes, olive skin. Then, maybe we are recognizable for our body language, the humble curve of spines, lowered heads, downcast eyes, trembling hands. I feel as if I am in one of the news clippings I have seen about the Nazis. We have committed the crime of being born Jewish. All but one family is eventually picked up and thrown in a closed room, where we remain for hours. Interrogating us, they discover two Christian Armenians and release them.  

       They ask me why I had visited Israel. I tell them that I had not done so illegally. I had a valid passport and an exit visa in order to take my daughter for surgery. I had bought my plane ticket in Tehran. The interrogator’s angry eyes could shed blood tears. He uses expletives I have only overheard from drug dealers, drunks, and hoodlums on the streets. I have a feeling that if the customs were not so busy with so many witnesses, he would kick me on the floor until I became chopped meat. Hatred burning his eyes red, his hands clenched into tight fists, I sense that he struggles to control his impulse to strangle me. We are brothers, Cain and Abel. 

       He makes me take off my clothes, standing there naked and humiliated. He finds a one-hundred dollar bill in the pocket of my jacket and slips it in my passport and orders another man to tear my shoes apart for evidence, all along calling me an Israeli spy, deserving to be hanged. They tear my belt and my clothes, but don’t find anything—intensifying their anger. They ask me to identify my luggage. It takes hours for every item to be scrutinized, every lining torn, the hem of clothes inspected. We are there until nightfall. Finally, a man escorts us to the waiting bus. Our passports, the hundred-dollar bill inside mine, are confiscated, and we are told to report to the revolutionary court in Tehran.  Having seen each other’s nakedness, we are ashamed to make eye contact with one another. 


Contributor Notes

Farideh Goldin is the author of Wedding Song: Memoirs of an Iranian Jewish Woman. Her second memoir, Burying Yehetzkel, chronicles her father’s life as he returned to Iran from Israel after the Revolution of 1979.

Farideh was born in 1953 in Shiraz, Iran, to a family of dayanim, judges and leaders of the Jewish community. Farideh's family moved out of the mahaleh, the Jewish ghetto, to a Moslem neighborhood when she was eight years old. There, she experienced both friendship and anti-Semitism. Later, attending an American-style university in Iran, she was torn between her loyalty to her family, who obeyed strict social, cultural and religious mores, and her western education that promoted individualism and self-reliance. Wedding Song reveals Farideh's struggle in balancing her two worlds. In her later essays, she confronts issues of identity as she searches for a place in American society as an Iranian immigrant.

Many of Farideh's lectures give her audiences a better understanding of Iranian culture. In talks and workshops, she conveys her cross-cultural perspective on issues and leads participants to interact and shape their own skills for recording life narratives. Farideh has spoken at churches, synagogues, women's groups, book fairs, universities, Junior Leagues, libraries, international conferences and numerous other venues both in the United States and abroad. Her book and essays have been part of the curriculum in many universities.

Farideh is the director of Jewish Studies and Interfaith Understanding at ODU and a 2013 recipient of Schusterman fellowship in Israel Studies.

For more information, please visit her website.