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First Person a Child’s Exodus from Iran Remembered 25 Years Later

It’s an unusually mild February afternoon in the waning days of the shah of Iran’s rule some 25 years ago. My family — I’m 12 years old — is at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport, eager to board the El Al plane, the sole flight leaving Iran. The airport terminal is a slab of concrete that resembles a bunker. Inside is a crowd of hopeful passengers whose expressions range from anxious to weary.

A collective anxiety hangs heavy in the air and, though I’m standing next to my parents, I find myself short of breath. Nearby, a foreign television crew, maybe French, begins to set up. The passengers who take note are not at all pleased: They fear that if the new footage is aired locally, they may be identified and the safety of relatives staying behind in Iran may be endangered.

Despite the language barrier, the irate passengers have little difficulty conveying their displeasure to the journalists. Tension mounts as voices get louder and uglier. An intervention by airport personnel would help, but they’re on strike. In fact, the operation of the entire airport is dependent on the skeletal crew of the El Al airliner that has made a brave step in transporting its load of uneasy passengers.

Our departure from Iran, though seemingly chaotic and haphazard, actually was in the offing for a while, predating the political unrest that resulted in the shah’s ouster.

As far back as the 1950s and 1960s, my relatives, spurred primarily by Zionism, had begun to make their way to Israel.

By the time the rumblings of the Islamic Revolution started in 1978, my parents and I were the only members of our sizable extended family still in Iran.

Over the years, my parents frequently spoke of immigrating to Israel. But we were partially stymied by success: My father, who had won a scholarship to study abroad, was able to advance from a life of poverty to the growing ranks of the Iranian middle class.

As an accountant employed with Iran’s nationalized oil company in the city of Abadan, he had attained the equivalent of the American Dream. It wasn’t easy to leave behind.

The Islamic Revolution changed everything. Though the uprising against the shah was spearheaded by students with a mostly leftist bent, the struggle rapidly became infused with religious fervor.

In a nation that only months before seemed largely secular, religious identification and practice gained increasing prominence. Before long the demonstrators began to carry posters of an exiled cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, proclaiming him as their leader.

The unthinkable emerged when people began to talk openly about a future in which Khomeini replaced the shah.

With great longing and conviction, my family’s domestic help predicted that the country would be transformed into a paradise in which the deserts would bloom and everyone would have good jobs. Such views were not held only by a narrow segment of the population; they became the norm.

One evening, we heard the unremitting sound of car horns, and learned the following morning that the collective honking was the jubilant response of multitudes who claimed to see Khomeini’s image on the surface of the moon.

By the fall of 1978 the economy had ground to a virtual standstill as businesses and companies went on strike in defiance of the regime. It was about this time that I began feeling my Jewishness more — not because I identified in a more profound way with that aspect of my identity, but because others were calling attention to it.

Before a soccer match, for example, I suggested to my teammates that a peer, who also was Jewish, be allowed to play on our team.

“You Jews are always looking out for each other,” one player immediately shot back.

As the shah’s overthrow became inevitable, my parents recognized the need to leave the country. Frantic calls from our relatives in Israel only reinforced this view. Fully anticipating a religion-based regime, we purged much of what had been accumulated in our home; my father requested a leave of absence from his job; and my parents made airline reservations to various destinations.

For the most part, I found the experience of preparing for departure exhilarating, a terrific adventure.

Our plans suffered a setback when the international airport in our town closed as a result of the political strikes. The only other option for air travel was to make it to the capital, some 700 miles away, in order to fly out.

So we boarded a bus through the Zagros Mountains on our way north. The journey also took us through Iran’s social terrain: Assuming that most bus passengers were from lower socioeconomic classes and had more traditional values, we made efforts to blend in. I left my blue jeans in the suitcase; my mother covered her hair for the first time since visiting a Muslim shrine years before.

We arrived in Tehran tired but heartened that we held reservations for a plane scheduled to depart in three days. Yet political events had little regard for our travel itinerary: Tehran’s airport closed as well.

The closure reportedly was a desperate measure by the shah’s crumbling government to prevent Khomeini from returning from exile in France. Meanwhile, the shah already had fled the country.

The airport closure left us stranded in Tehran. We stayed with friends for one week, and then another.

Despite the political unrest, life in the capital seemed to proceed in a curiously normal fashion. Our hosts’ eldest daughter was preparing for her wedding, as was as a good friend of the family.

Our host, who also was Jewish, took a more hopeful view of the future. It was likely that the economy would thrive under a government that had the support of the people, he said. He also believed that Jews would continue to reside peacefully in Iran as they had for thousands of years.

Besides, he argued, all that was irrelevant, because it was quite likely that the Americans would intervene as they had during previous unrest in 1953, and would foil the revolution. After all, with its vast amount of oil, Iran was of great strategic significance to the United States.

“The Iranian soil is like gold to America,” our host would say.

But after Feb. 1, 1979, when the airport opened just long enough for Khomeini to make a triumphant return to his homeland, an American intervention seemed highly improbable. An ecstatic crowd of 3 million people jammed Tehran streets to greet Khomeini.

We watched live on television with a mixture of awe and fear. The mass of people reveling in the presence of an opposition figure was virtually unprecedented in a dictatorship like Iran. The public was asserting its democratic will, yet they were casting their lot with a fundamentalist religious authority.

While Khomeini represented hope for a better future for many Iranians, our collective history as Jews told us otherwise.

After two weeks in Tehran, there was still no indication when the airport would reopen. Feeling that we were overstaying our welcome at our hosts, my parents considered returning to our hometown. The decision to leave Iran had been so effortless, and we had taken to it with such zeal, that the idea of turning back was dispiriting, to say the least.

Fortunately, however, if the political events were not working in our favor, El Al was. Three days after Khomeini’s arrival, we got word that the airport would open for a day.

At the airport, after the irate passengers had managed to scare away the journalists, it was time to continue with the important business of fleeing the country. Customer satisfaction was not a priority: Male passengers had to load the cargo, and everyone had to use a wooden ladder to board the plane.

Children sat two to a seat, and some adults sat on the floor. When the plane was finally airborne, we broke into a loud cheer.

A week later, the shah was deposed. The rest, as they say, is history.

Eli Isaacson is a psychologist living in New York City.

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