As I was looking through my stuff in the garage recently, trying to find my last year’s tax returns, I found a small box full of old letters from my high school classmate Garsha. I don’t know why I had kept his letters for all these years, but somehow they managed to survive the passage of time. They were all light blue, airmail, Par Avion letters; the kind that you fold two or three times after you write on both sides. There was one letter from the mid-80’s that caught my eyes. In that letter he described how he escaped Iran.
Garsha and his older brother got too deep into the politics of the revolutionary Iran and at the end, the regime came after them. They had to hide at friends’ homes and finally, it got so dangerous that they had to flee Iran. His parents sold the nice Persian carpet in their living room to raise the money for their counterfeit passports. Garsha left Iran through Azarbaijan province. He paid the smugglers to get him over the border to Turkey. He wrote in his letters that he walked for two days with a Sheppard and his herd of sheep to get to Turkey. The Sheppard gave him a sheep skin (Poostin) to put on his head so that he would blend with the herd! Whenever a military jeep drove by, he got on his knees and crawled with the sheep to hide. He eventually made it to Istanbul and with the help of his relatives made it to France.
Garsha and I were buddies ever since we were 12 years old. We walked home from school almost every day and shared many of the life experiences. His older brother was a student at the Polytechnic University right next to our high school. I saw his brother only once and that was during the university strikes of the 70’s. At the time, the government had raised the bus fares in Tehran from 2 to 5 Rials. All the universities in Tehran went on strike. The students told the public not to ride the buses and as the empty buses passed by the universities, the students threw rocks and broke their windows. The Imperial Guard and the police soon moved in and went after the students.
In one autumn afternoon, as we were playing soccer in the school yard (picture), Garsha’s brother and a few other university students jumped over the wall from Polytechnic and tried to hide behind our school buildings. Garsha pointed his brother to me and said, “That’s my older brother, Siroos.” The Guards looked over the wall but did not come in. Instead, they gathered around the front gate of our school. Their commander, a colonel, asked our principal to open the gate so that they could come in and get the students. Our principal refused and reminded him that he was on the high school grounds. The Guard commander backed down after a while. He knew that he could not cross that line. He showed respect for the sanctity of our high school.
Garsha and I stayed in touch after I left Iran. We wrote each other occasionally and talked about our experiences. He was a student at Tehran University and as things started to heat up in the late 70’s, I got more letters from him. It was clear to me that he was getting caught up in what was happening around him. He seemed optimistic about the movement. He wrote about how his brother and he were delivering kerosene to the needy families of the south of Tehran every week. They would bring cans of kerosene and give them away out of the trunk of their Aria-Shahin (Rambler). I generally wrote about what was happening in the US and on our campuses; the dogmatic and inflexible leftist students, and the few Islamist who travelled to Texas regularly to get instructions from a guy named Ebrahim Yazdi who was a long time US citizen. Nobody knew who these people were or where they came from. There was one guy on campus who had heard of Khomeini. He was the son of a retired army colonel. He used to say that his father was the one that put Khomeini in a potato sack (Gooni) and threw him over the border to Iraq when he was deported! Over the years, I heard many different versions of that story from other military people. It must of have been quite a large crowd at the border on that day!
I wrote to Garsha about how you could not trust many of these people, but he was very dismissive. He thought that the movement was so large and popular that it did not matter if these people were a part of it.
After the revolution I did not hear from him for a quite a while. I was busy with my own life and assumed that he was either sent to the war or was married or something! On occasions, I sent him brief notes telling him about my change of addresses, but he never replied. Then one day, out of the blue, I got a letter from him from France and we started communicating again.
He wrote about how his brother Siroos went into hiding in Kordestan where they had some distant relatives. His wife and his 3 year-old daughter were with him too. They had paid the Kurdish smugglers a lot of money to get them over the border and into Turkey. Then finally, on a cold autumn night, the family got on a horse, Siroos in the back, his wife in the front and the little girl in the middle and followed the smugglers through the treacherous mountains and the valleys. Every few hours, the smugglers passed them from one to the next. In the middle of the night, the little girl, tired from the ride and the cold started crying. The smugglers told them to shut the girl up. Her cries were ricocheting through the mountains and were making it very dangerous for everyone. But she wouldn’t stop. The armed smugglers told them that if she didn’t stop soon, they would have to kill her. Her mother, in tears, gave her some cough syrup and pressed her face against her body. The little girl fell asleep after a while.
They made it to Turkey and eventually ended up in Istanbul. Siroos sent his wife and daughter to France but he stayed behind. He hoped that things would change for the better in Iran and he could go back. But everyday there were more and more bad news about arrests and executions. After more than a year in Istanbul, he finally gave up and flew to Paris to re-unite with his family.
In one of his letters, Garsha described the scene at the airport in Paris where Siroos arrived. His little girl was so excited to see her dad that she kept going back and forth and kept asking her mom when her dad would come. Her mother kept telling her to be patient. She would put her face against the glass window and kept looking for her dad. The people at the airport who were waiting for their passengers were all curious about the little girl. They were wondering who she was waiting for. Finally, when Siroos arrived at the baggage claim area, the little girl saw her dad. She jumped up and down and kept telling everyone in French, “Mon Papa…Mon Papa!” Siroos’s wife just stood back and wept quietly. The French bystanders looked at the emotional scene and smiled at the little girl. They had no idea what this family has been through. The family’s long journey out of Iran was finally over.
I put Garsha’s letters back in the small box in my garage. I just didn’t want to look at them. But I know that one of these days, when I have more free time I will sit down and read them again. They are in a way the story of the hopes and the disillusionments of many of the Iranians of that time period.