Night has fallen
A revolution puts friends on separate paths
February 10, 2000
Sky: A Life Between Iran and America" by Gelareh Asayesh (Beacon
Press, November 1999). Asayesh grew up in Tehran. Her family moved to the
United States in 1977, shortly before the Islamic Revolution transformed
Iran. In 1990, after fourteen years of absence, she returned to Iran for
a visit. Since then, she has returned almost every year, most recently
for three months this past spring and summer. "Saffron
Sky" chronicles both her trips and the emotional landscape of
the immigrant, describing her struggle to bridge two irreconcilable worlds.
Asayesh is a longtime journalist who has worked as a staff writer
for The Miami Herald and The Baltimore Sun. She has also
written for The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The St. Petersburg
Times and other publications. She lives with her American husband and
two young children in St. Petersburg, Fl. In the next few months she will
be traveling to promote "Saffron
Sky". For information on her speaking schedule, to order the book,
or to read reviews and excerpts accompanied by photos, visit Saffronsky.com
on the web. Also see more experts (1)
From Elham's house, we take a cab north into the foothills of the Alburz
mountains. As we approach Jamaran, the streets become narrow and empty.
The leaves on the sparse trees are golden. We pass the occasional dry goods
store, a dry cleaner's, the hospital that was built when Ayatollah Khomeini
moved here from the holy city of Qom. His doctor recommended the cleaner
air of the mountains after a heart attack. At last we arrive at the house,
just down the street from the modest mosque where the Imam sat on a balcony
and waved a limp, tired hand at the masses below, his image broadcast around
an incredulous world.
The house is small and nondescript except for the revolutionary guards
who still protect it. They are polite, humble young men, a refreshing change
from so many of their peers across the city. I produce my letter from the
Ministry of Islamic Guidance, which oversees the activities of newspaper
reporters. While we wait, I look around the tiny garden, peering through
sliding glass doors at two rooms containing a bed, a couch, a bookcase,
and a telephone. From here, Khomeini challenged the West. From here, he
made the decision to prolong the war with Iraq. From here, he left for
the hospital where he drew his last breath, the whole world waiting to
hear that he was, indeed, dead.
Soon, an old man in a vest, shirt, and pajama pants is climbing laboriously
up the steps. Haj Issa Jafari bows in greeting as I introduce myself and
my friend. He was the Imam's servant, he tells us. He looks curiously from
me to Elham. We are both veiled, but Elham wears her flowing black chador
as if it were a part of her. "It's like a badge of support for the
revolution," she told me in the cab coming here. I spent most of the
time stealing covert glances at her, trying to reconcile this dedicated
fundamentalist with the girl who flirted with the boys in the school yard
of Iran-Suisse Academy, with the intrepid woman who joined he Mujahedeen,
with the prisoner who spent four years in a cell block. A few moments later,
when the Haji starts showing us around, I hear Elham sniffling. I look
at her and see that she is wiping away tears. "Why are you crying?"
I murmur. "Well, I loved him a lot," she says of the man whose
minions sent her to prison.
The Haji looks at her approvingly and continues the tour. "This
is where they would sit," he says, referring to his master in the
plural, both out of courtesy and awe. "These are their shoes. The
people would sit over here."
I look at these scant relics of Khomeini's life intently, as if they
can reveal to me the mystery of the man. Khomeini, the uncompromising voice
of conscience raised for decades against the Shah. Khomeini, the leader
of the revolution, whose return to Tehran in February 1979 marked the end
of more than two thousand years of Iranian monarchy. Khomeini, the zealot,
who urged mothers, during the bloodbaths of the early 1980s, to turn their
children in if they opposed the regime. Khomeini, the ascetic, who was
mourned as far away as Rockville, Maryland, because, as one Indian woman
told me, he had restored pride to Islam.
"Two or three thousand people a day came from all over the country
to see the master," the Haji is saying. Clerics just graduated from
the seminary came to receive their turbans from his hands. Scholars came
to confer with him. Couples came to have him inscribe their marriage contract.
Many came just to kiss his hand.
"You see, the Imam had a love that was something else," the
Haji says. "Because, afer centuries, suddenly a light shone from the
heavens that illuminated the whole world. It was something like that. Because
Islam was about to be destroyed."
He shows us the carpeted room next to the bedroom. "This is where
they waited, " Haji says. "When the holy Imam rang, they could
go in. Khamenei. Rafsanjani. Ardabili. All the leaders. Every day the master
would listen to the eight o'clock news, then call them in."
He tells us his master's schedule ("He did not waste a minute of
the day"): prayer, the study of the Koran, the work of the nation,
meals at the adjoining house of his wife, visits with his beloved grandchildren,
naps, and daily walks. "When he was walking around the garden, he
would do three things at once," Haji says. "He had his radio
in his hand, listening to the news. He had his worry beads in the other,
saying the name of God. And he was walking."
He old man disappears for a while, returning with a tray of tea. He
sits on the carpet in the room where the leaders of Iran waited to speak
with the Imam. Elham and I sit beside him, taking the tiny glasses of tea
in their saucers with a word of thanks. Haji is telling us how he fell
and hurt his neck, trying to collect persimmons from the top branches of
the tree in the garden. He strapped two ladders together to reach those
branches because the Imam could not tolerate waste, he says.
He talks for a long time of his master's final days on earth, telling
it like an epic tale. By the end, his eyes are shining with tears. "Tell
the world," he says to me, looking as if he wishes to trust me but
cannot be sure. "Tell all humanity."
Then he glances through the window at the sky and says: "It's time
for prayer, and I'm keeping you're here."
Elham quickly takes the cue. "We've delayed you," she says.
"Please, go ahead and pray, we'll wait." She turns to me, explaining
as if I might not understand: "It's important to him to say his prayers
She asks the Haji for a mohr so that she can pray as well. The old man
walks to a ledge in the wall. "Please help yourself," he says,
lifting a bundle from the shelf. "Here is a janamaz. Whenever Ahmad-Agha
visits he uses it."
Elham's eyes widen at this mention of Khomeini's son, an ayatollah himself.
"This is Ahmad-Agha's janamaz?" she asks, awestruck. Haji nods,
spreads it for her, and collects the tea things. "We've put you to
so much trouble," I say. "It's my pleasure," Haji answers.
"You just tell all this to the world."
I watch Elham pray, her black veil obscuring her face, the colorful
red and blue prayer rug beneath her feet, the cloth for the mohr embroidered
silver on black. I think about following her example, but it feels like
hypocrisy. I sit on the edge of the couch instead. My camera hangs heavily
around my neck, giving me the distance I seek.
Night has fallen. We walk in the narrow street next to a gully of rushing
water that gleams faintly in the darkness. The neighborhood is suffering
one of Tehran's frequent power outages, and oil lamps glow from the dim
interiors of the stores we pass. Just as we are wondering how to get home,
a driver gives us a ride to a nearby thoroughfare. "Here you can get
a cab or a bus into the city," he says. He refuses to take our money.
Elham leads me to the bus stop, her veil flapping in the breeze. I climb
into the smelly vehicle behind her. The driver jerks his head toward the
back of the bus, the women's section. I sit down with a sigh of relief,
glad I wore my veil to Jamaran. Even so, when we stopped by the mosque
where Khomeini preached, the women who politely searched my bag could see
hat I was not of them. My lack of faith was as visible to them as their
devotion was to me. I could see it in their direct and guileless gaze,
in the humbleness of their bearing. It made me feel small, as if they trod
a higher path.
I shake off these fancies and return to Elham. The interior of the bus
is illuminated, and in is yellow glow I can see my friend clearly, the
piercing dark eyes, the long, strongly marked eyebrows. I am remembering
when I first met her, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Her parents were
studying there, just as mine were. They lived in university housing, as
we did. We played blindman's buff in the room she shared with her sister,
their prison-striped bunk beds identical to the one my sister and I shared.
When her family returned to Iran shortly after we did, Elham came to Iran-Suisse.
She was an instant hit among my classmates, with her long hair and slim
grace and the touch of American sophistication that had somehow eluded
me. Though we were the same age, she always seemed older perhaps because
she was the oldest of three children, used to responsibility.
Our paths separated when my family returned to America. I heard that
she organized demonstrations at school, that she had joined the Mujahedeen,
that she was on the run. When I was in college, she was in prison. When
I was working for the Baltimore Sun, she was enrolled in university in
Ahwaz, struggling to make up for lost time. She is a medical student now,
close to attaining her first year of residency. It is a wonderful achievement,
but her family rarely mentions it. The well-traveled, educated parents,
the beautiful sister, the young brother with his skeptical eyes, seem subtly
distanced from Elham. Elham and her black veil stand out in a household
that is as Western as any I have seen. But it was not the family that changed,
it was Elham.
Our school friends look at me askance when I mention her name. They
nod with polite skepticism when I suggest that her conversion from enemy
of the revolution to its ardent follower is genuine. They do not seem to
find any mystery, as I do, in the way Elham's passionate idealism changed
Now, on the bus, I find the courage to ask how it happened.
Elham seems happy to talk about it. "When I went to prison, I expected
to instantly go to the torture chamber," she tells me. "Instead,
they picked me up at 2 p.m. and I sat there until eleven at night. Then
they took me to a room and talked to me. It's true that it was prison,
but in reality I came out of bondage. I had time to think."
She decided the ideals of the Mujahedeen were an illusion, she says.
The group had no tolerance for dissent; members were not even allowed to
read or watch Iranian newscasts on the grounds that they were propaganda.
"When did you come to believe in the government?" I ask.
"It wasn't one particular point in time," she says. "It
The bus pulls to a stop. Elham hurries to the front to pay. "How
many," the driver asks. "Two," she tells him. She ends the
transaction with brisk efficiency as I trail in her wake. We descend into
a brightly lit square where merchants are hawking bananas, colorful sweaters,
lighting fixtures, and bolts of fabric. Our paths part here. "I'm
going to Khomeini's tomb on Friday," I say. "Do you want to come?"
She does. I watch her disappear into the crowd, a black form swallowed
up by so many others. ***
At Elham's suggestion, we take a cab to the south end of town and a
bus from there. As we rattle through the fumes of South Tehran, Elham is
telling me about Khomeini's funeral. She was among the masses who followed
the body in a spectacle that seemed bizarre to the Western world. "You
just wanted to do it," Elham says. "I was upset. It was like
Ashura (the most important Shi'ite day of mourning, when Imam Hossein was
murdered). All these people, beating their chests. A lot of people were
"Walking barefoot?" I ask. "Why?"
"It was symbolic," Elham says. "People do the same kinds
of things for movie stars. Like, what value is there to movie stars?"
I want her to decode for me her love for Khomeini, but she shakes her
head helplessly. "I can't say I loved him for these reasons, here's
one and here's two," Elham says. "Whatever I say can't do justice
to it. It's like anyone you love. Like if someone asks why do you love
your mother, what can you say? Do you know what I mean?"
We're in the kavir now, barren except for a lone water tower and a field
of stubby pines, just planted and dusty. "Greenbelt Plan," a
city sign proclaims. At least they're trying, I think to myself. In the
distant haze, a gold dome and minarets rise from the desert. Khomeini's
tomb is on the sprawling grounds of Behesht-e-Zahra Cemetery, several miles
south of Tehran on the way to Qom. We travel past the oversize hands holding
a red tulip aloft, past the fountain of blood (water dyed red), which is
mercifully silent. The bus turns off into a gigantic parking lot and pulls
to a stop. We climb out and join the straggling crowd moving toward the
The smell of grilled meat wafts on the air, floating from a nearby concession
stand. A few rosebushes are dwarfed by a sea of concrete. Revolutionary
chants flow from a loudspeaker. Elham looks around her with distaste, both
of us thinking of the simplicity of Jamaran. "If he were here, I don't
think he'd care for all this formality," she says. "Maybe the
people think it's their duty."
Our bags are searched before we go in; Khomeini's tomb is a prime target
for bombings of the sort that claimed the lives of hundreds of government
leaders in the 1980s, when the Mujahedeen were most active in their battle
against the mullahs. Vast marble floors alternate with carpeted spaces
under a ceiling that reminds me of a warehouse. The tomb lies at the center,
marble covered by a green cloth the color associated with Islam. It is
surrounded by a metal grille. The marble slab is a foot and a half deep
in crumpled bills. A woman folds another bill and thrusts it through the
grillework as I watch, pressing her lips against the metal and murmuring
Elham searches out a prayer rug while I go about my interviews. I approach
a family; the parents sitting next to their young son while a baby sister
crawls on the smooth floor. They watch her play, seemingly in no hurry.
The man says the usual things about Khomeini how he delivered Iran from
the corrupt moral influence of the West and renewed Islam. His tanned face
is calm, his eyes surrounded by laugh lines. He speaks with quiet sincerity.
"When we made the revolution, I believed Iran to be in truth diseased,"
he says. "I went to war to save my country, to save my honor."
His son was born while he was a prisoner of war, he tells me. "How
old was he when you saw him for the first time?" I ask. His poise
wavers. "Ten," he says. I look at the boy, who listens quietly,
at his mother, who has the face of a woman schooled to patience. "Was
it worth it?" I ask her. She hesitates, searching for the right words.
"Yes, it was worth it," she says in a shy, soft voice. "It
was for God. To please God, anything a man can do is still too little."
I repeat my question to the boy. He pauses for a long time, leaning
against his mother's knee, and I wonder if he is too shy to answer.
Then he says: "My uncle was martyred in '61." That would have
been 1982, in the early years of the war. His parents look sad, remembering.
"If my baba had been martyred too, it wouldn't have been worth it,"
the boy says. He speaks with a touch of defiance, sudden tears in his eyes.
He is twelve years old and has only known a father for the past two years
of his life. "No, it wouldn't have been worth it."
His parents look away, their eyes damp. We share the silence. After
a moment, I thank them and leave.
A few minutes later, I am interviewing a teenage boy who is memorizing
verses for a Koran recitation contest. A grizzled man in army fatigues,
walkie-talkie in hand, marches up to me. "You!: he barks, using the
familiar form of speech in an unconscious or deliberate? act of rudeness.
"Go over there. This is the men's section."
"I'm just asking some questions," I say. I show him my letter
of authorization. He insists on escorting me to the women's section nonetheless,
scowling the whole way. Elham comes up as he leaves, and I tell her what's
happened. "What a jerk," I say. "He was so rude."
Elham is clearly disturbed. "Let's go talk to him," she says
firmly. I follow in her wake, intrigued. She goes up to the man and engages
his attention with a polite greeting. "It's a good thing that his
lady is Iranian," Elham tells him. "I would suggest that next
time you be a little more congenial. It would be nice to say a greeting.
I think it would be better for Islam and Iran." The man refuses to
look at her, though her black chador keeps him silent. "Insha'allah
in the future it will be so," she says.
As we leave, I feel a wave of sympathy for my old friend. Not because
the girl I knew has been reincarnated as a dogged woman, whose most cherished
possession is a sample of the earth from Khomeini's grave, collected from
as close as possible to the actual tomb. Not because her choices have turned
her into an outcast among her family and friends. But because she struggles
to maintain her ideals in a cynical world.
That, at least, we still have in common.