High on freedom

This second excerpt from my memoir is about my parents in a demonstration during the revolution. In 1982, at the age of 12 my family and I escaped through the mountains to Turkey. We were caught as soon as we crossed the border by the Turkish guards and spent two weeks in jail while our fate was being decided.

Recently I began recording our experiences in a memoir: “Facing Iran: A family's struggle to survive
“. It begins with
September 8, 1978
, follows the events in our lives during the revolution, Iran Iraq war, our escape and ends with our arrival to Australia where we currently live. See
first excerpt here

The 10th of December is the holy day of Ashura. In November, the Shah had declared religious demonstrations illegal. The previous night the BBC had announced that the ban was lifted for the holy days of Ashura.

Kamal and Nina woke up early, placed quick kisses on the kids sleepy heads, and rushed out the door.

In the car Nina warmed her hands close to the car's heater.

“How many people are they expecting today?”

“I'm not sure,” Kamal shrugged. “Rumour has it there are going to be a few thousand people.”

Up ahead the traffic had slowed down as each car was stopped at a barricade. Some cars turned around and went back in the direction they had come from. Most were waved through.

At the barricade a soldier flagged them down. Kamal rolled down his window. The cold wind stung his face.

“Where are you going?” The soldier looked in his 20s. From his accent and his dark skin, Kamal placed him from the southern part of Iran, close to the Persian Gulf. He had pulled up the collar of his khaki jacket to protect his ears against the chill. His machine gun hung loosely on a shoulder strap by his side.

“We're going south towards the university.” Kamal's voice sounded as if rising from a dried well. He cleared his throat.

“Are you aware there are going to be demonstrations today?”

“Yes we are.”

The soldier pushed back his hat and leaned his face through the car window. His voice weary from long hours at his post.

“Agha, you realise you probably will not be able to come back tonight.”

“Yes we are," Kamal answered without hesitating. His eyes locked with the soldier's.

The solider straightened. He pulled his cap down tight over his ears.

“OK then.” And waved them through.

Almost as soon as they passed the barricade, Nina reached into her handbag and pulled out a black scarf she had borrowed from her mother. She placed the folded scarf over her head and drew the ends into a tight knot under her chin. She wore no makeup or jewellery, only a defiant look in her eyes. She caught kamal looking at her with soft eyes.

They parked the car in an alleyway and followed the people around them towards the voices in the distance. They walked in quick steps, half running. By now the sun had risen high in the sky. The snow of a few days ago had all but melted, leaving behind an icy residue blackened by dirt and pollution. There were slogans of “Death to Shah” and “Death to America” graffitied on buildings. The shell of a burnt car stood as a reminder of the events of the past few months.

They reached the demonstrators after having to walk for almost a kilometre. All along Pahlavi Boulevard people walked side by side with fists punching the air. The men were unshaven and the women wore the black hejab over their heads. There was no beginning and no end just a sea of people, all dressed in black with voices that cracked like thunder along the tree-lined street.

Death to Shah! Death to Shah!

Allah-O-Akbar! Khomeini Our Leader!”

Above the crowd a military helicopter hovered. Reporters had climbed the trees, clicking pictures, which would be on the front page of every International newspaper by the morning.

Nina stared at the crowd with her mouth slightly open. Her fingers tightened around Kamal's arm.

A couple broke away from the crowd. They were smiling as if greeting a close friend. The woman carried carnations in her hand. She walked straight to one of the soldiers lined along the street. The soldier tensed, firming his grip on his rifle. He shot a nervous look at the soldier standing a few meters away from him. The woman pulled out a white carnation from her pile and slipped it in the muzzle of the rifle. The man accompanying her cupped the soldier's face in his hands and kissed his face on each cheek as if greeting a brother. They then turned and disappeared back into the crowd.

Nina looked at the soldiers face who was trying hard to blink back his tears.

Kamal and Nina walked side by side in the middle of the crowd like a silent bubble carried along on an ocean of noise. Kamal's stomach felt as tight as a knot. A cold sweat hung to his back. He opened and closed his hand repeatedly by his side but had not raised it above his head.

Next to him Nina had started chanting with the others, her small frame almost lost in the crowd. Her chin raised up to the sky was streaked with tears.

Kamal's heart pounded against his heavy coat. He lifted his face towards the sky as if in prayer. He opened his mouth ”
Death to Shah!” The words sounded like a whisper hardly audible even to himself.

He swallowed hard. His mouth felt like sandpaper.

Death to Shah!” This time it came out louder, stronger.

He raised his fists over his head and shouted out the words again.

Death to Shah!

Relief washed over him with every word. He had finally dared to utter the chants in defiance to the system. Each step, each chant, each fist he punched into the air, further lifted the heavy burden he carried for so many years in his heart.

They marched past the soldiers. Kamal watched demonstrators kissing, hugging and placing flowers in the soldier's guns. He wanted to do the same. He gathered his strength and broke from the crowd. He walked up to a young soldier. In the soldiers face he saw the face of his son, his brother and his own youth. Tears streaked his face as he hugged the younger man.

“God be with you brother.” The soldier had responded.

In 1978, less than 5 million souls lived in Tehran and over a million walked in the Ashura demonstrations. They held hands and sang revolutionary songs. They held up banners with revolutionary slogans. Thousands carried pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini, which until then were illegal.

They walked with the belief that the change has come. That Iran would finally be the master of her own destiny. They could taste freedom and had become high on it.

After the Ashura demonstrations, the military took a passive interest in the demonstrations. Each day more and more soldiers defected from the Shah's army and joined their countrymen in the movement.


On January 16, 1979, after numerous ministerial changes and failing to maintain a military stronghold, the shah and his family fled to Egypt.

His departure saw the end of the “Peacock throne” that had began by his father in 1925.

Kamal sat in his office behind his large mahogany desk. A cigarette burned in the ashtray next to him. On the wall a single nail, which once held a picture of the shah, stood naked. He rested his forehead in his hand as he scanned his paperwork.

Outside a commotion had started in the street. As if on cue all the cars in the street had started beeping their horns. Kamal lifted his head out of his hand and looked in the direction of the window. He dropped his pen on the table and was about to walk to the window when one of his partners burst into the room.

“Have you heard the news Kamal?”

“What news? What's going on out there.”

“The Shah's gone! His plane just took off for Egypt.”

Kamal felt his heart beating faster. Shiver ran down his spine.

He walked to the window and pressed his palms against the glass. He stared down at the scene below with a mixture of disbelief and joy. The corners of his mouth slowly turned upwards and into a wide smile.

“Oh my god, it's true. It's finally happened. He's gone for good.”

Kamal turned away from the window and pulled his jacket off the back of his seat. He pushed past his partner and walked quickly out the door. The office was almost deserted. A few staff were still in the building kissing and congratulating one another. One of the secretaries, a well-dressed woman in her mid thirties, sat behind her desk with her head in her hands. Her shoulders were shaking under her silk shirt.

He did not stop to talk to anyone as he ran down the flight of stairs to the street.

The roads were jammed with cars and people. All the cars had their wipers standing upright, waving from side to side. The sound of their horns was deafening.

Kamal stood there allowing it all to wash over him. He thought of his
Time magazines that arrived torn or blackened in ink whenever there was any articles about the Shah or Iran.

“No more,” he thought. “He's gone now.”

He loosened the tie that felt like a noose around his neck. He started to walk with the crowd towards the university. On the way strangers hugged him, women offered him flowers and sweets and children danced around him. People hung posters of Ayatollah Khomeini from their buildings. All over Iran statues of Mohammad Reza Shah and his father were pulled down.

A man was handing out newspapers to people. The headline covered half the front page. It screamed “THE SHAH HAS GONE” It showed a tired and defeated shah, accompanied by his wife and three of his four children, saying goodbye to Prime Minister Bakhtiar.

Closer to the university, some people had set up stalls selling books and journals that were previously banned in Iran. Kamal stared hungrily at the titles. He bought Lenin's biography and another on CIA's involvement in overthrowing Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953. He carried them under his arm as he walked back to the office. He had been walking for two hours but he didn't feel tired. He was buoyant. With each step, he dreamt of the Republic of Iran. He allowed himself for the first time to fantasise of the day he will finally get to vote for a democratic parliament.

As he reached his office he saw some of his staff celebrating in the foyer. As he walked past them one of them called out: “Your lot will be next.”


At 9.15 am, February 1, 1979, bitter cold, a chartered Air France jetliner landed at Tehran's Mehrabad airport. As the doors opened, a victorious Ayatollah Khomeini stepped off the plane. Holding on to the flight attendants' arm for support, the Ayatollah descended the steps to the tarmac. He dropped to his knees to kiss the soil as the international media jostled to take footage.

The Ayatollah rose to wave triumphantly to the crowd of supporters before being lead to a blue Chevrolet Blazer.

We woke up excited. Dad had bought Behzad a poster of Khomeini mounted on a stick. Behzad waved the poster about proudly around the house. There was still a lot of unrest on the streets of Tehran.

We were no longer allowed to roam freely in the rubbles behind our apartments. Many of our neighbours whom had fled the country had released their dogs into the streets. The dogs fought with one another for food. The lucky ones were used as targets by the local youths with guns. Others died a slow death from hunger, and heartache.

Our school had remained closed all winter.

Behzad and I looked forward to getting out of our apartment.

The radio had confirmed that the Ayatollah's plane had left Paris. The newly set up national Television station showed footage of people lining the streets of Tehran chanting ”
Freedom; Imam! Khomeini; Islam!” People were smiling into the camera. Men and women cried with joy. A mother carried a photo of her 18-year-old son who had died during the revolution.

A live telecast from the plane showed a French journalist interviewing the Ayatollah.

“Ayatollah Khomeini, what are your feelings going back to Iran after 14 years in exile?”

Khomeini looked back at the reporter with eyes like coal.

“I feel nothing.”

Mum paled.

She walked up to the television and switched it off.

Mum refused to come with us that day. We drove towards the university. Dad parked the car and we walked as far as we could until the crowds stopped us.

The atmosphere was electric. People climbed over cars in the hope of getting a better view. Above us the trees cradled children and men on their branches.

Behzad tugged at Dad's shirt.

“Daddy, I cant see a thing.” Dad propped Behzad on to his shoulders. Behzad beamed from where he sat wrapping his small fingers proudly around his poster of Khomeini.

From the distance we could hear the sound of beeping horns. The crowd pushed forward, stretching their necks to get a better view. I stood on my tiptoes, holding on to Dad's arm for balance.

The sound of the horns got louder, people around us started to cheer. Some chanted raising their fists into the air.

The blue Chevrolet drove past and all I saw was the people who were sitting on top of it. Behzad had raised his arms as far as he could over his head waving his poster of Khomeini. Dad had to tighten his grip on Behzad's legs to stop him from falling.

The crowd cheered as Khomeini's entourage drove past heading towards Behesht Zahra cemetery where the Ayatollah planed to make his first speech. Standing amongst the graves of thousands who had died during the revolution, the Ayatollah raised his fist in the air and declared the Bakhtiar regime as illegal.

“I will slap the mouth of this Government. From now on it is I who will name the Government.”

The crowd rose to him with chants of ”

On Friday morning, February 9th, Kamal woke up and turned on his short wave radio to BBC.

“Shapour Bakhtiar still holding the post as Iran's Prime Minister,” the BBC announcer's voice filled the room. “Despite this, within a week of arriving, Ayatollah Khomeini has appointed his Islamic provisional government. Supporters of the Ayatollah have formed revolutionary committees around Tehran declaring themselves as the enforcers of law and order. Sources say street fighting has become fierce between the Ayatollah's supporters and loyalist soldiers. This is BBC World Service, in other news: In Britain 19,000 workers again went on strike at the Birmingham plant…”

Kamal shut off the radio and stretched. He looked over to where Nina was still pretending to be asleep with her back to him and the radio. He straced his fingers along the lace of her night gown.

“I'm starting to think it was a mistake to support this revolution,” Nina spoke, turning slowly to face him.

“Anything will be better than living under a dictator,” Kamal replied. “When the demon departs, the angel shall arrive.”

Nina sat up and reached for her dressing gown. She climbed out of the bed, pulled the gown over her shoulders and pulled the belt tight around her waist.

“It's very well to quote Hafez. But who's to say that this angel won't bring with it a bed of nails?”

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