Tehran Student Days Revisited
By Tara Bahrampour
The New York Times
August 7, 2000
More than 50 years after their high school graduation, a group of men
huddled around a television set showing old Technicolor footage of the
streets where they grew up. ''The jubes!'' cried Joseph Elder, as the
camera lingered on an open ditch carrying water through the city.
''Oh, wow, kharbozeh!'' said Raymond Fort, spotting oblong Persian
melons stacked against a brick wall. ''Can't get them better anywhere else.''
''Those are the Alborz Mountains in the background,'' another man said.
''They were 13,000 feet high.''
The reunion was in New York over the weekend, but the city in the film
was Tehran. In an often emotional three-day reunion at the Roosevelt Hotel,
more than 500 alumni and teachers remembered two American-run international
schools as idyllic cultural crossroads where children from any race, religion
or ethnicity felt at home.
The Community School of Tehran, started by American Presbyterian missionaries
in 1935, weathered a world war, a coup and a revolution before it and its
counterpart, Iranzamin, closed in 1980, a year after Iran's Islamic revolution.
Alumni from North America, Europe, Australia and the Middle East who attended
the schools between 1935 and 1980 extolled the academic standards, saying
that when they moved elsewhere, they were often years ahead of their peers.
But the highest praise was reserved for the schools' multinationalism,
with the children of ambassadors, businessmen, teachers and exiles representing
more than 50 countries.
Like similar international schools around the world, the Community School
reflected global political tides. As war and then communism spread across
Europe and the Far East, and anti-Semitism surfaced in nearby Arab countries,
refugees spilled into Iran. With its Western-looking shah and growing international
community, it was considered a haven, and the English-language school was
a magnet for new arrivals.
''There were professors from the Sorbonne teaching us French and Latin,''
refugees from World War II, said Kamel Bahary, a 1949 graduate. He also
recalled swimming at the home of H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who attended the
school while his father was helping to train the Iranian police force.
''There were people from Norway, Sweden, Romania, Iraq,'' he said. ''We
had Chinese, Japanese.''
In 1953, Community's headmaster, a missionary named Richard Irvine,
limited the number of Americans to preserve the cultural balance. A separate
American school opened and other international schools followed. Iranzamin,
which means ''the ground of Iran,'' was founded by Mr. Irvine in 1967 to
prepare students for a university education in any country, not just the
United States and Britain, as Community School did.
The Iranian government had once discouraged Iranians from attending
foreign schools, but by the 1960's many families of the upper middle class
were enrolling their sons and daughters in hopes that a Western education
would afford greater opportunities.
Each era had its own political and social flavor. In the 1940's, American
soldiers taught students to square-dance. In the 1950's, as Americans and
Soviets competed for influence and the shah of Iran was overthrown and
then reinstated, students peered over garden gates at the street fighting.
Yearbooks from the 1970's show long-haired teenagers in flare-legged jeans
skiing, playing guitar, and wandering through the ruins of Persepolis,
the ancient Persian capital. But by the end of that decade, those students
were crouching in their school buses to avoid stray bullets as revolutionaries
burned down banks and cinemas.
By then, the bicultural experience had grown complicated.
Ronnie Rabbie, a 1975 Community School graduate, described himself and
his fellow Iranian classmates as a ''lost generation of imperialism,''
who liked pizza and were more fluent in English than in Farsi. But after
the revolution that deposed the shah in 1979, Mr. Rabbie said, he was kicked
out of the Iranian Army for being ''foreign educated,'' and Iranian children
he had known all his life turned against him. ''They told me: 'It's time
to go, Ronnie, it's time to go. It's not your country any more,' '' he
In 1980, amid mounting restrictions on curriculum and student activities,
the two schools closed. Revolutionaries made a bonfire out of Iranzamin's
library, but negotiated a bizarre compromise over Community's. ''They said,
'O.K., we get half the books,' '' recalled Bardia Askari, a student at
the time. ''So they took the A through M encyclopedias and we got the N
As foreigners and many middle-class Iranians left the country, the Iranian
students who stayed on were eventually sent to Farsi-language schools.
''We were all good students,'' said Niloo Momtazi. ''But we felt like total
idiots trying to decipher the textbooks.'' Today, Iran has a few foreign
schools, but Iranians must attend Iranian schools.
On Saturday night, after dining on pomegranate and walnut stew, kebab
and rose-water ice cream, alumni danced to pre-revolutionary Iranian and
American favorites and pored over old yearbooks.
Paul Kooros, a Community alumnus who is half Iranian and half American,
was in ninth grade when his family left for the United States in 1979.
''Everyone was expecting to come back and pick up where they left off,''
he said. ''So none of us traded addresses, not that we had any to trade.''
But on this night, as Mr. Kooros exchanged stories with excited long-lost
classmates, he was beaming. ''It's a cathartic experience,'' he said, ''to
come back and complete these childhoods.''
Photo: As Ab Korine, right, and his brother Michael recaptured memories
of the past during a reunion in New York over the weekend, fellow Community
School alumna Edna Meer captured the present. (Frances Roberts for The
New York Times)