The Reluctant Revolutionary
An Iranian student’s adventures
lost in middle America during the hostage crisis of 1979
"With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion"
—Steven Weinberg, Nobel Laureate in Physics
In the moment that I wrote death to Khomeini, I wasn’t thinking about how I might be prosecuted or even executed for my actions. If I had, I wouldn’t have done it. I wasn’t an unusually brave or serious-minded young man. I wasn’t a radical or an idealist, and I certainly wasn’t interested in sacrificing myself for a cause. If I had any goal at all, as a foreign student from Iran, it was to embrace the American philosophy of freedom and opportunity—meaning in more practical terms that I wanted to have as much fun as possible while maintaining passing grades in college.
I suppose that somewhere beneath my fun-loving exterior, I harbored a smattering of convictions. Something I hadn’t known until I committed that impulsive act. The few seconds that it took to write those three words came to define me more than all the many hours of partying that I had done previously and continued to do thereafter.
I was sitting in the study hall at Purdue University on a cold December day, shortly before Christmas break, when my moment of truth occurred. The year was 1979, and Jimmy Carter was President. The previous year had seen the overthrow of the Shah and the rise to power of the Ayatollah Khomeini, while one month earlier, on November 4th, a group of Islamic students and militants had stormed the American Embassy in Tehran, initiating the hostage crisis that would last 444 days and forever change the face of American-Iranian relations.
I was studying electrical engineering at Purdue, not because it was my dream to become an electrical engineer, but because it was a career where I could expect to be successful and make money if a I had to go back home and live there. Back home in Tehran, my dad was respected as the head of the house, and the family members deferred to him. I did what I thought was best for the good of my family.
Purdue is in the heartland of America, far from either of the more cosmopolitan coasts. I had grown up in a sophisticated environment, in a city that was not that much different from Paris or London. It shocked me how ignorant the people of West Lafayette were about the world. If asked, most of them could not find Iran on a map and were convinced that it must look like something out of the movie Lawrence of Arabia. They assumed I was an Arab who had grown up in the desert, wearing flowing robes and riding on a camel. To be called an Arab was insulting to me, not to mention shocking. Arabs had invaded Persia in 600 AD, resulting in Persians’ disdain for Arab culture and resistance to its influence ever since.
This lack of understanding of such fundamental and important facts led me to conclude that Americans were generally ignorant about the history and cultures of other countries, harboring a naïve faith that they were enlightened while the rest of the world was not. It seemed to me that the United States government and its people arrogantly believed that the years of history, rich cultures and deeply engrained traditions of other countries were of no consequence and that all peoples everywhere, once they realized how wonderful American ways were, would happily embrace them as their own.
But of course, this was foolishness—a foolishness not much different from that of my own country. And what happened in Iran was one of the most significant examples in modern history of how ingrained and prevalent this disastrous mindset had become.
The hostage crisis put Iran on the map in the most negative way possible. Beforehand, most people at Purdue didn’t know where I was from nor did they care. And once they found out, I put aside the insulting manner in which my homeland was viewed, because it was a perspective of ignorance rather than hostility or prejudice. Most Americans I found to be friendly and eager to make me feel at home. I embraced this new world with enthusiasm, reveling in the freedom and spontaneity. I liked the parties and most of all, I loved the girls.
It was an obvious and effortless choice to focus on my pursuit of girls, rather than the cultural misunderstandings. I quickly realized that I had certain attributes that gave me the advantage over the local boys. Number one: my exotic looks. It was impossible at a glance to tell what part of the world I was from. I could have been Spanish, Italian or French, all of which were countries that girls associated with having sophisticated, sensual men. Number two: my sexy accent. I only had to sidle up to a girl at a bar, stare at her with my dark eyes and say the most obvious and mundane thing, such as, hello, would you like to dance, and she all but fell into bed with me. As far as I was concerned, I was in paradise.
My fun-loving affair with America and its female inhabitants lasted until my last year of college. Before that, I was a foreigner of no special significance, happily lost in Middle America and under the impression that I could do what everyone else had done before me and find my version of the American Dream. But then the revolution came, along with the hostage crisis, and suddenly everything shifted; undercurrents of suspicion and fear that had always been there but had been suppressed, broke through and swept across the United States like a great plague.
So it was that two weeks before Christmas, I walked into the library, just as I always did, and headed for one of the huge study rooms, where the Iranian students congregated. It was open 24 hours and we were able to smoke in there and newspapers were provided from around the world. I sat in my usual spot, taking off my coat and draping it over the back of my chair.
Over the course of a few weeks, I had been noticing the uncomfortable shift in the attitudes of my Iranian peers. We had always felt a sense of connection to one another, despite differences in personalities and political opinions, simply because we were from the same country. But once the American Embassy had been occupied, it awakened a romantic zeal amongst most of the youth who had always despised the Shah and his government, turning them into overnight revolutionaries who naively believed that Khomeini would usher in a utopia. I suppose in a way it was similar to the idealism that college students felt in America during the Vietnam War, which had served to shed light on the corruption and hypocrisy of the Establishment. In Iran, most young people despised the self-serving life-style of the Shah and his ministers and looked to Khomeini as someone who would restore the country to a rule of the common people, not the wealthy elite.
I was part of a small minority who disagreed with the revolution. I thought that the students who embraced it so blindly were fools. Even some of my sisters and my brothers believed in Khomeini, creating a gulf between us that had never before existed.
It was with a sense of surrealism—because, after all, this was America—that I found myself surrounded by Iranian revolutionaries. Whereas before, we had been culturally united, relating to one another on a benignly superficial level, almost overnight, that superficiality was stripped away. Now, passing in the halls or sitting in the library, we eyed each other with suspicion, wondering where the other’s loyalties lay. Friend or foe became defined by religious and political beliefs and, daily, the pressures mounted to take a stand for Khomeini and the revolution.
Sitting in the study room, the tension and fear in the atmosphere palpable, I picked up the Iranian newspaper that was supported by the radical youths at the school. It was called Cherik, which means Gorillas, and it was a communist paper, dedicated to the “People” who opposed the Shah. It was very popular with all of the Iranian students, regardless of their beliefs, since it gave news of home. I was worried about my family, especially my dad, since he could be outspoken and might unwittingly get himself into trouble. As I opened the newspaper, these thoughts were on my mind, mingled with thoughts of anger and disgust towards those around me who had stupidly embraced the madness of the new regime. I could see them eagerly devouring the words of the newspaper, agreeing with the violence that was taking place back home, where many of the Shah’s ministers and generals had been tortured and killed just the previous week.
I personally knew some of the people in government and I worried every day that I would see their names on the list. One woman, in particular, who I found out about later, was Dr. Farokhroo Parsai, the Minister of Education. She was the first woman to be executed by the regime and it happened in May of 1980, around the time I graduated from Perdue. Her nephew and I had been friends back in Tehran. When I heard of her execution, it made me look back on what I did that day with a pride that I did not feel at the time. There are different versions of Dr. Parsai’s death, but I heard she was put into a big rice bag and dragged through the streets to torture and humiliate her before being shot by the firing squad.
Dr. Parsai was a wonderful woman; a dedicated scholar and an advocate of education and women’s rights. We so easily forget about the many martyrs from that era who aren’t as famous as perhaps, someone like Martin Luther King, but who gave their lives, as she did, in even more horrific and courageous circumstances.
Her death and those like her were reported in Cherik as if the executions were something to be proud of. Reading the list of those who had been executed that week, I was sickened by how easily my own people were being manipulated by those in power. Surreptitiously eyeing my peers, it appalled and frightened me that those whom I had thought of as my friends could flip so completely so that I no longer recognized them. They resembled vultures perched upon their chairs, watching the evil deeds play out and waiting until they could join in and tear some pieces from the slaughter for themselves. Greedily, they envisioned returning home to become a part of the regime and benefit from it.
Yet, every one of those young revolutionaries sitting there that day, embracing Khomeini and approving of the deaths ordered by his regime, were executed once they returned home, due to the fact that they were deemed intellectual traitors who had studied in America. None of them suspected their nightmarish fates. During those early heady days, Khomeini allowed all groups to participate in his revolution, including communists. He was clever to unify everyone against the Shah. Once his power was assured, he slaughtered with impunity those who thought outside his claustrophobic box.
The centerfold of the paper was devoted to information about the most recent executions, along with a picture of our most glorious and enlightened leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini. Once I had finished reading, my focus turned to the face of Khomeini staring out at me from beneath those heavy brows as crazily as Charles Manson, and I felt nothing but rage. In that moment, the world and my life beyond that page shrank to nothing.
I took my pen and in the blank margin at the top of the page I wrote the incriminating words death to Khomeini. And once done, I tossed the paper onto the table and left.
That was two weeks before my escape from Purdue on Christmas Eve. During the ensuing two weeks, the campus morphed into a hotbed of political activity, as Khomeini’s official control of Iran was established. Unbeknownst to me, the paper with my blasphemous scrawl had been noticed and sent to the headquarters of the revolutionary movement in Chicago, where the newspaper was printed. Word circulated around campus that a delegation was being sent to Purdue to conduct an investigation into finding the blasphemer and shooting him.
I was terrified and angry at myself for being so indiscreet. One, unguarded moment of honest self-expression had the potential to end my life just when it was getting interesting and fun.
It was in the summer of 1977 that I met my girlfriend, Sandy, in Milwaukee. She was everything I dreamed an American girl would be—blond with green eyes, outgoing and fun. She loved having sex. She had no inhibitions. She was my focus, not this insane stupidity that surrounded me.
Bahram was my nemesis on campus; a tall young man, heavy-set, unhappy, resentful, a good electrical engineering student with a chip on his shoulder. He was named after a Persian prince and somehow felt that it entitled him to a prince’s arrogance. All part of the hypocrisy and contradiction, since as a “revolutionary” he should have despised his name and changed it. And, contrary to the life of a true revolutionary, he lived safely, following the status quo, adhering to the directions that were given to him; one of those people who can be found anywhere, obeying the rules and obsessively trying to fit in. If left alone they are the backbone of society, working hard at mundane jobs, but if their normalcy is threatened they are easily swayed and manipulated, to the point where they will do anything to protect their safe lives, even betraying a friend.
A couple of days after I scrawled those words in the newspaper, I ran into Bahram and we talked about casual stuff and then he told me how somebody had written this blasphemous thing against Khomeini. On campus, I was classified as pro status quo, “taaghoot”; a phrase in the Koran referring to the people who still want to maintain the old regime, and therefore suspect. This ironically meant that I was considered a conservative, while people like Bahram were the revolutionaries propounding change and a new era. They were blinded by propaganda, not realizing they were actually aiding the insane religious fanatics in returning Iran to the repressive dark ages.
We were all young, hotheaded, and naïve in our own ways. I was naïve in that I still did not completely understand the huge gulf that now separated us. I reacted as I would have done only weeks earlier; with trust. I told Bahram I had written the incriminating words.
His eyes lit up with that self-righteous fanaticism I so despised and he said with a blatant eagerness, “Tonight is a meeting and if they ask, I will have to tell them it was you.”
I knew it was useless to try to convince him to keep quiet. He walked off with determined resolution, leaving me standing uncertainly in the middle of a snow-filled parking. Suddenly, I noticed how empty the campus was. Everyone had gone home for the holidays except for the few foreigners, loners and outcasts, who had nowhere to go.
In that moment, I became truly terrified. I wasn’t prepared to spend my holidays defending myself in such a futile battle. I could never win against these guys or convince them that what they were doing was crazy. I didn’t want to get beaten up or perhaps even killed for scrawling something on a piece of paper.
That my life could be in danger here in America was too mind-blowing for a young man who had come here simply wanting to have a good time.
I hurried back to my dorm room to figure out what to do. Catching my reflection in the mirror, I wore the guilty, harried look of a fugitive. Looking past myself and out the window, a lone student walked slowly along the pathway; I recognized him, an East Indian who looked like he weighed about 7 pounds, always carrying a calculator, a genius. If I stayed, that would be my company. Certainly, he wouldn’t be any fun and he would be useless in a confrontation.
Back at my reflection, I said, “Okay, I have two alternatives. I can stay here and regret it ’til my dying day—which might be tomorrow—or I can visit Sandy.”
I checked my wallet. Sixty bucks.
I packed a small bag, grabbed my jacket and was out the door. I had a little Fiat, cute but unreliable, although fortunately, it started up that day. I drove to the Village Pantry and bought the necessities: a twelve-pack of Little King (beers) and four cigars. I also had two joints, nicely rolled, in the glove compartment. What more could I need?
I filled up the gas tank and headed onto the open road, for what should have been a four-hour drive: two hours to Chicago and two hours to Milwaukee. No matter that a storm was brewing; an easy drive—what could possibly go wrong?
It was late afternoon when I started out, the sun setting beneath a flurry of clouds and casting a golden aura across the sky. By the time I left the gas station, it was snowing hard, the lights of the Fiat illuminating the darkness ahead of me, the windshield wipers flipping back and forth at a furious pace.
But the heater was working, I had a beer in my hand, and I was feeling great. As I turned up the ramp onto the 65, I vaguely noticed a man hitchhiking, nothing more than a dreary, huddled shape standing forlornly as if he had lost all hope of a ride. I didn’t help him. Maybe that’s why I had bad karma that night. Or maybe things would have turned out worse if I had picked him up. We just don’t know these things. But an hour later, I did help a fat guy who needed gas. Why I helped one and not the other, I don’t know, except that I started feeling guilty about the first one so that by the time I reached the second one, I probably stopped to assuage my guilt.
From the gas station where I dropped him off, I called Sandy to tell her I was on my way.
“Don’t get lost. I can’t wait to see you,” she purred into the phone, knowing exactly the kind of effect her tone would have on me. I assured her that I had a map to guide me. No more detours, no more picking up strays along the road, I would head in a straight line for my girlfriend.
Thoughts of delicious Christmas dinner and Sandy’s warm, sexy body filled my head as I merged back onto the freeway.
And that’s where it all went wrong.
Somehow, I had gotten onto the wrong freeway, going in the wrong direction, and the next thing I knew, in the middle of what was now a blizzard, on a lonely road, my car inexplicably died, and I coasted to the side of the road. So began a nightmarish adventure that would take me roughly forty-eight hours instead of the anticipated four, leaving me more vulnerable than if I had stayed back on campus. Instinctively, I hid my nationality from everyone I encountered along the way, which included, but was not limited to, a slew of red-neck truck drivers, a wedding party (chased out of a Holiday Inn by the bridegroom), a toll-booth operator, a pimp (the nicest of the bunch, he invited me to a barbeque) and a mugger on a train. Fear was my constant companion. Lost in Middle America, the small-town folks who I had always thought of as friendly turned sinister, like caricatures from a horror movie.
By the time I’d smoked the last of my weed with the pimp, my money supply almost drained, my thoughts were racing in a paranoid loop along the lines of What if they find out that I’m an Iranian? There are fifty-two American hostages in Tehran right now, and I am stuck in the middle of the country where the hostages are from! Somebody could bury me in a snow bank by the side of the road and my body won’t be found until spring.
Only at the very end, when I had reached my destination, and I was buying a donut with my last pennies, did I blurt out “I’m from Iran” to the trucker who had driven me.
There was no courage in my admission. I felt safe enough, I could see Sandy’s car pulling up, and I was curious to find out if my fears had been justified. The way his expression changed from acceptance to open hostility showed me that I had been right to keep quiet until then. When Sandy jumped out of the car and hugged me, I was never so happy to see a friendly face.
In her last letter from prison, Farrokhroo Parsa wrote to her children, “I am a doctor so I have no fear of death. Death is only a moment and no more. I am prepared to receive death with open arms rather than live in shame by being forced to be veiled. I am not going to bow to those who expect me to express regret for fifty years of my efforts for equality between men and women. I am not prepared to wear the chador and step back in history.”
She was a hero, and here with this writing, I hope to do my small part to make sure she is remembered. I, on the other hand, was a foolish young man only beginning to consider that my convictions might run deeper than simply having a good time. It was months later, when I read of Dr. Parsa’s death, that I was able to fully appreciate her sacrifice and look back on the words I had written as more than just a thoughtless action.
Sure, I would have been crazy to admit to everyone on my journey where I was from. Still, I will never forget how it tore at my humanity to have to lie in order to survive. It was only for a few hours, I cannot image what it does to people who live day in and day out in stifling oppression. No society is immune. People from the most intelligent to the simplest can suddenly become irrational. Lurking inside all of us resides fear of the unknown, which translates as fear of death. Those in power know it, and they play on our fear. It is good to remember that the powerful are no less afraid than the rest of us. And what they hate more than anything are those like Dr. Parsai who do not fear death, for they cannot be controlled.
I don’t know the secret of true courage. I don’t know what makes someone like Dr. Parsa stand up while most of us give to fear. But I did come to be proud of what I had written. Where others, even my own family, believed the lies, I saw through them. And I know I became a wiser person because of that journey from Purdue to Milwaukee.
The hostage crisis ushered in a dark time for my people and my country lost its way. Thankfully, there are always those few courageous ones who fearlessly shine a light on the right path. Where would we be without them?
I lost my way, trying to get to Milwaukee on a stormy Christmas Eve. I lost my way and then, with great thanks to Dr. Farrokhroo Parsa and others like her, I found it again.
Editor’s Note: Just last month, a declassified CIA document acknowledged that the agency was involved in the 1953 coup in Iran that overthrew democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and installed the Shah, thus beginning a brutal dictatorship that was overthrown in the Iranian Revolution.