Exile, Part II
Vive la France! Vive la Republique!
September 6, 2005
I finally decided to move from Tehran -- once more.
The first time I had made such a decision I was fifteen. I found
myself a boarding school in Massachusettes and decided that Tehran
was too small for me and that it was time to follow in the path
of my brothers, friends and most people sharing my youth and social
background, and go abroad.
It was the seventies. Iran was booming with newly acquired OPEC
riches and the Shah was taking the nation with blinding speed down
a highway towards a place called “modernity.” Those
were optimistic and confident times for both me and the nation.
The prospect of seeing the world, living alone and shedding the
lethargic comfort of the maternal nest filled me with excitement.
When I left, the first time, I was tearful about leaving my home
and family and friends. But I never thought that I would not be
going back. It was the fashion for the children of the well to
do, and increasingly the middle classes, to go abroad for education
and come back equipped with university degrees and fluency in English
Not knowing that the Revolution of ’79 would toss me into
exile my departure from home and country, at the time, did not
carry the heavy sense of finality and permanent rupture that it
This time I have lived there for three years after a twenty-six
year absence. I packed my two suitcases and took my two children
back to Tehran because I fell in love with a man who wanted to
go back. All my family’s property and my inheritance was
confiscated by the government after the Revolution. I was, therefore,
not too keen about going back.
It is hard to rent an apartment
where before one owned gardens and swimming pools. I remember
as a child asking my father why none of my friends had a house
big as ours. It was hard to see my own children live surrounded
by concrete instead of the beautiful garden where I grew up falling
asleep to the song of nightingales at night.
Also, because I wrote rather loudly against the regime, I literally
feared going back. I remember feeling fear physically, in my tummy,
for the first time, the night I took the plane to Tehran. Only
blind love made me make the move. I did think of the children.
But I reasoned, I believe perhaps rightly so, that it would be
good for their sense of identity to spend some time in their ancestral
home and learn her beautiful language -- especially after 9/11
made Muslims and Middle-Easterners into a hated minority. I thought
that it would do them good to be part of the majority, somewhere,
for a while.
After two years in Iran my marriage with the man I followed there
ended. Rather badly. Leaving me feeling used and abused. The quest
to recuperate part of my property came to naught. And the country
which we all were hoping would move towards secularism turned,
instead, away from it. The last straw came when Ahmadi-Nejad, the
most radical Islamist of the candidates won the presidential elections
on a platform that promised a tightening of social strictures and
a hardening of Iran’s stance vis-à-vis the international
So now I have decided to stay here in Nice, France, where my
parents bought an apartment two years before the Revolution thinking
it would be a nice summer retreat. Instead it turned out to be
the home in exile for them and now us.
Since I made my decision to leave Iran for good, I wake up every
morning and look at a most incredible view, from my balcony, of
the azure colored Mediterranean which gives this coast its name
and breathe. The sea salt crispiness of the air is in sharp contrast
to the automobile exhaust smell that permeates the horribly polluted
Tehran. Here freedom comes wrapped in the scent of Mimosas and
This small city, here since the time of the ancient Greeks, has
a history of welcoming exiles and foreigners from all over the
world. I feel at home here. Here, I do not have roots but I have
freedom. I know that no one will chastise or punish me for what
I think or write or what I do in my bedroom or what I wear in the
street. Here, I know that I am considered equal to a man in the
eyes of the law. Here, in the land of Montesquieu, Danton and De
Beauvoir, I know that I walk safe down a path of life paved on
the foundations of civil liberty and respect for the individual.
The past three years in Iran were not altogether wasted. I gathered
much material for my writing. The kids learned Farsi and how to
taarof. Perhaps most importantly I lost that nagging longing that
an exile feels for her motherland. This time when I left Iran,
even though it was perhaps forever, I did not shed tears.
I am happy to leave Tehran which has become an unlivable quagmire
with unbearable traffic jams and over-safety-limits pollution.
I am happy to leave a country were the once warm and generous people
have hardened into either con artists and prostitutes or intolerant
fanatics. I am happy to leave a country whose current government
robbed my family of everything we had without bothering to give
us a reason. For twenty years I have chased my case and have not
been able to get a hearing with a judge or anyone else who is responsible.
They refuse to even open my case.
I still think of myself as an Iranian. But as one who is happy
to live in exile in a part of the world that will give me and my
children the opportunity and respect that all human beings deserve.
I can no longer shed tears for a people and a place that refuses
to hear me, who speaks literally another language. Free civil societies
are all my home and my mother tongue is the language of secularism.
Freedom is something one takes for granted until it is taken away.
Here, I have developed a ritual of standing on the balcony every
morning and breathing freedom deep.
In these past three years I did not attend a single party without
feeling a slight trace of fear, in the gut, of getting arrested
by the morality police. Never did I get over that fear.
Every time I traveled and went back I was afraid of getting arrested
at the border. Every time I came home late, since my separation
from my husband, I felt a slight sense of shame towards the head-tilted-downward
glance of the doormen of my apartment building. To them I was nothing
short of a whore. No matter how much I tipped them and how much
gratitude they showed me I could not help feeling that they saw
me as a harlot all be it a generous one.
I never reconciled myself fully with the locals view of who I
was. No matter how tough or liberated one is trained to be one
cannot live amongst people who consider one dirty and corrupt and
not be touched by it. The Iranian societies’ perception of
a liberal woman like me started to eat away at my sense of identity
and confidence as a woman. It never kept me from coming home late.
But it did start affecting me.
Living in Tehran I felt like an
old whore. There, any woman over thirty-five feels old. It does
not help that the population is largely under twenty-five years
old and that most men even those not much younger than myself refer
to me as, “mother.” I am so happy that from now on
only my children can call me mother. Something sick about a guy
calling you ‘mother’ all the while he is checking out
My second husband went through what many women have told me is
a classic transformation. Iranian men, democratic and enlightened
in their rapport with women when living in the West for a long
time, return home and find refuge in their misogynistic roots.
He came to Iran after twenty-five years a Ralph Nader-voting-feminist.
But it did not take long before he was telling me not to talk to
the caretaker when he was there because it would belittle him.
He used his superiority over me in that Islamic society to strengthen
his own fragile sense of identity as a man. He used the full brunt
of the advantages that Islamic law and society give to men to nurture
his own sense of identity that had, I suppose, been badly bruised
living in the U.S.
He has his side of the story, like people often
do in break-ups and divorces but the problem is that in Iran
I have no right to defend myself with my side of the story of
relationship. I feel wronged and he feels wronged but I have
no court to appeal to, I have no way to defend myself. He can refuse
to divorce me or block my departure or simply turn me in for
I write. In any society, even an Islamic one, I would have a
right to appeal to some higher authority. But I have no rights
as a woman who uses her pen to oppose the regime. Anyone who
knows my pseudonym can threaten me. I am not just a second class
because of my gender but an outlaw because of what I think and
Not any more. Not in France. Where the law protects me. Not in
France where the law understands the plight of a woman with two
children twice exiled from home and country whose only crime has
been to voice her opinions loudly. Here, in this beautiful country,
where women twenty years older than me still enjoy the right to
a sex-life not to mention liberty, I feel like a woman again. Like
a person, a citizen, a full human being with ambitions and aspirations.
Here no one can threaten me. Here I walk on the firm foundations
of a Revolution, much older but better than ours, that helped define
civil liberty and responsibility. A revolution that rejected religion
as superstitious and abusive. Here, were secularism is so sacred.
Here, I breathe free. Here, I am Setareh Sabety, the writer in
exile and single mom. Here if an ex-husband believes that I owe
him money I can fight him in court with a lawyer without fear of
being arrested as a traitor. I will forever be grateful to them,
my host nation, my home away from home, who make me feel like a
full person again. It is with eyes brimming in sincere tears that
I repeat this cliché that now rings so pure: Vive la France!
Vive la Republique!