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Longing for liberty
Then AND now

February 11, 2002
The Iranian

Today is the anniversary of the Iranian Revolution and I am thinking to myself, do I wish it never had happened?

The Iranian revolution saw the exile of my parents and the loss of all our wealth and belongings. It was a devastating blow by any standard. I did not lose any close friends or relatives, I did not even witness any violence except on TV, thousands of miles away, but I did none the less become an exile and lose everything I had grown up believing belonged to me.

I was only eighteen at the time of the revolution. But I was one hundred percent behind it. I had become sick to the stomach of the corruption and excesses of the regime. To me, the Shah was a repulsive dictator.

Largely because of my cousin's insistence that we all go on a trip, I had been one of the students that Iran's consulate in San Francisco sent to Washington D.C. to welcome the Shah on his official visit to America in November 1977 -- a year or so before the revolution.

Instead of cheering the Shah, however, I became even more disillusioned about the regime. I became instead, impressed by the opposition.

No matter how "secular", one could not ignore the impact of those Laa elaaha el allah (There's no God but God) banners. To us it was a sign of defiance. It meant that no man was greater than any other. That is all it meant back then. Those splendid banners represented the collective will of a people who had had enough.

They were the most organized, large group of Iranians I had ever seen. The students of the opposition were so determined and dignified that they inspired awe and respect. It was not a small thing opposing the Shah in those days. You risked torture and imprisonment, for you and your family. No two ways about it. Those university kids who made the revolution had guts. I admired them instantly and I wished I had been in their ranks. Their daring was infectious.

I remember standing quietly, ashamed of having accepted my cousin's proposition to go on this embassy-funded trip. I knew that what those students wanted was right. I remember standing on the pro-government side of the lawn in front of the White House and looking at the scene around us. One look at that and you could see which side would win.

On this side were people like me children of ambassadors and others connected with the government or part of the elite, the who's who of pre-revolution elite, or the SAVAKIs all dressed in suits and sunglasses and their families, and other university students on government scholarships, and a few air force pilots sent to Texas for training.

Most of my friends, spoiled rich kids from well to do and prominent families, were hung over and did not like the Shah that much either. But we were just too busy going on ski trips to think of changing the system.

We had spent the entire night before the Shah's arrival in some D.C. disco and took a limo late the next day to the demonstrations. We had told the driver to stand nearby so we could make a quick get away should the atmosphere turn from mere tension to actual violence. We were no revolutionaries. I was seventeen and more preoccupied with boys than much else. I spent much of my youth in love and fashionably jaded about politics.

There was a stage and a loud speaker through which some SAVAKI with Ray Bans was yelling, "Shah Javid ast" (The Shah is Immortal). Often I thought of that slogan booming through the microphone. In retrospect, it was the echoing symbol of the incredible arrogance of both the Shah and the regime.

A woman in high heels -- that kept sinking into the lawn -- kept screaming, "Javid Shah, Shah, Shah" to the rhythm of an electronic keyboard. They punctuated these lame attempts at rallying the crowd with pop music. I stood there frozen like some double agent afraid of getting caught -- never, repeating the slogans.

The other side was a sea of bodies, carrying anti-Shah banners. Amazon Honor SystemThey walked and chanted in unison: "Marg bar Shah" (Death to the Shah). If our side's chanting was to the rhythm of the electronic keyboard, easily disconnected by pulling the chord, theirs was to the rhythm of drums that beat the cry of centuries of pent up anger and yearning.

Marg bar Shah was not just a slogan it was the unleashed longing for liberty, the desperate need for reclaiming an identity, of millions put into three simple words. More than a wish for someone's death, it was the collective cry for freedom, for release from the suffocating prison of thousands of years of tyranny and colonial domination.

I went back to my boarding school clear about which side I wanted to succeed. I was a republican from that day on without knowing what that really meant.

By the time the revolution was in full swing I was writing, "Marg bar Shah" on the walls of my California high school. My father, having been the only person who badmouthed the Shah in front of me, was also on the side of revolution. He detested the Shah.

My mother was the only loyalist, prophetically warning us not to listen to words from any molla, and assuring us that they were all anti-women.

The day the Shah left Iran my father and I opened a bottle of champagne in our Palo Alto rental home (Read his poem about the revolution written in December 1978). The fact that nothing seemed incongruent about that gesture to us then, is testimony to how unaware we were of where the revolution was heading.

We believed Khomeini when he promised that his was a mission of freedom and not conquest.

We were delighted and proud of the Iranian people who had decided that they would not take one more year of tyranny after all these years. For some of us those 2,500 years of monarchy were chokingly burdensome. We were happy to turn to a republican page in our history. A great people like ours, we believed, deserved self-determination.

"Enough of Kings" was the collective cry, the common denominator of all of us who supported the revolution. Even though I was finishing high school in California the contagious euphoria of overthrowing a great dictator caught me. Never before or since was I as proud of being an Iranian.

We were a great nation. We had overthrown that despot despite all those expensive arms and army. Despite all that huffing and puffing he was running away scared. Despite all those ugly medals and generals kowtowing to him, the Shah had fled like the CIA puppet we all knew him to be. He had acted in character and confirmed for us the reason why we had ousted him.

In those heady days of the revolution ninety-nine percent of the population was incredibly happy and confident.

Of course the disillusionment that followed was devastating. My father, who had ceased to be a senator years before the revolution, abandoned his happiness the minute his property was confiscated by revolutionaries. To this day I have not been told what his crime was in the eyes of the revolutionary courts despite my frequent visits for that purpose alone.

I turned against the revolution after the veiling of women became mandatory and the women's march was broken up with knifes and force.

I have become more and more disillusioned with the theocracy ever since. I am now not only disillusioned but impatient as well. I, not getting any younger in age, feel a deep need to see a free Iran before I go to eternal sleep. I long to take my children to my father's orchard and have them taste the fruit. It brings tears to my eyes when I think that I may never be able to take my children for a donkey ride on the dirt roads of our ancestral farm in Khorasan.

The loss of Iran, of my patrimony has been hard for me. But when I sit here today, robbed of land, wealth, home and country, and ask myself if I would wish for the Revolution not to have taken place? I answer with a tearful no.

That uprising is something I am proud of. I am proud that we had the revolution because despite all that went wrong, even the lives that were lost, it gave us a collective identity.

Just because the revolution was hijacked by the clerics does not mean that the initial stage, the uprising itself is not, worthy of our continued respect and admiration. We do not dismiss the entire legacy of the French Revolution just because of the bad record of the Robespierrists.

The revolution in Iran gave us a revolutionary legacy. An event that in and of its self symbolizes our collective will to rise against injustice. That legacy is priceless: it is the common denominator of all great democracies.

I believe we should be proud of the revolution we made. I also believe that we have learned all the great lessons that revolutions have to teach. And we have had enough. Let us now strive for that Republic without anything in front or back of it that many of us, initially hoped to create.

Let our present leaders remember the force of a people who, when they have had enough, rise with white robes of death and do not budge. This is for them, those very first martyrs of one of the great revolutions of twentieth century. They taught us then that freedom was worth death, and they should remind our leaders today that people, when pushed too far, do rise and stand up for themselves.
Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Setareh Sabety

Fly to Iran

By Setareh Sabety

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