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 or French.
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 does now.
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 as 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 community.
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 the sea.
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 your body.
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 our 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 what 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 in Iran 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 citizen because of my gender but an outlaw because of what I think and write.
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!