Roya Hakakian: "Journey from the Land of No"

Revolution as Love Affair

Due to political pressure, Roya Hakakian’s family was forced to leave Iran after the revolution of 1979. Today the Iranian-Jewish author lives in the USA and recently published a memoir of her childhood. Rasha Khayat reports on the book

Due to political pressure, Roya Hakakian's family was forced to leave Iran after the revolution of 1979. Today the Iranian-Jewish author lives in the USA and recently published a memoir of her childhood. Rasha Khayat reports on the book

Roya Hakakian (photo: &copy Marion Ettlinger)
The beginning of the revolution as the spiritual sense of togetherness: The Jewish-Iranian writer and journalist Roya Hakakian (photo: &copy Marion Ettlinger)

​​Nearly thirty years after the Islamic Revolution, a veritable flood of new Iran books has appeared examining the events surrounding the overthrow of the Shah Alireza Pahlavi - from the autobiography of the Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi and the highly successful memoirs of literature professor Azar Nafisi, "Reading Lolita in Tehran", to the graphic novels of Marjane Satrapi, which have since been filmed. Now the Jewish-Iranian journalist Roya Hakakian has continued the theme with the "Journey from the Land of No", a memoir of her childhood that rounds out the picture with new aspects.

Hakakian calls the Islamic Revolution her "first great love". A startling and disconcerting phrase – but perhaps not, if one listens to her explanations: "For us it was not an Islamic Revolution. It was only called that afterwards. For us at the time something was happening that was greater than ourselves. We experienced the zenith and the freest moment of Iranian culture; everyone had the sense that they could finally breathe freely after being oppressed by the Shah", Hakakian explained in an interview with Qantara.

Roya Hakakian was twelve years old when Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran in 1979 and forced the Shah to flee into exile. The family was affluent, and well-regarded due to her father's status as a prominent intellectual. What can a child from a good house have expected from a revolution, as it announced itself?

The first love's betrayal

"It was a spiritual sense of togetherness, belonging. Euphoria spread among us young people because we had the sense that everything was possible, and we were experiencing this moment. That was very valuable, even looking back." Young Roya was slow to grasp the notion that this first great love could betray her one day. Still a child in 1979, she was only diffusely and uncomprehendingly aware of the fact that, one after another, her older brothers all had to leave Iran with no hopes of returning for the time being.

​​Then schoolmates disappeared, never to return. "I was too young, too naïve to understand the meaning of these empty chairs in the classroom. Only later, when we had to flee ourselves, die I realize what we had experienced." According to Hakakian, the reintroduction of the veil was a moment early on in which she and her female friends realized that the grand emotion might, after all, turn into a great disappointment. "At first we enjoyed wearing the veil. We saw it as a kind of new fashion trend, an attribute that made us into real Iranian women."

Thus Hakakian, as a Jewish girl, initially wore the symbol of the Muslim woman with pride and devotion. "But the increasing repression, compulsions and prohibitions soon made the fun into a serious matter, and I began to ask questions of myself and the people around me." In 1984 her father, who until then had clung to his belief in his homeland, decided that it was time to leave Iran after all. He sent his wife and his daughter on ahead, traveling via Europe to Hakakian's brothers in the USA. He himself followed a year later.

"Am I a 'bad American"?

Fittingly, "Journey from the Land of No" ends with this young woman's flight from Iran, the end of her first great love. The Iran that is the focus of her book no longer exists. Since her escape, she has not set foot in the land of her childhood. Why did it take her so long - nearly fifteen years - to write down these recollections?

Mehdi Bazargan and student activists on the campus of the University of Teheran in 1979 (photo: AP)
Taking a deep breath between two dictarial regimes: in the very beginning, the Iranian Revolution inspired a sense of hope

​​"I always knew that I wanted to be a writer. I had published articles and various poems, but in the face of the anti-American propaganda I grew up with, the thought of writing my memoirs at my very young age seemed somehow absurd. I kept asking myself whether I had become one of those self-infatuated Americans who think nothing is more important than their own selves, the 'Bad Americans' we learned about back in school in Teheran who care only about their external appearance and are not interested in the people around them. Am I taking myself and my story to seriously? Is it presumptuous to write a book of recollections?"

It took much encouragement from outside, discussions with friends, to convince Roya Hakakian that her story was indeed worth telling. In "Journey from the Land of No" she has pulled off a very personal, tender book that attempts to revive the force of immediacy, of experience, rather than relating a piece of history in retrospect. Does she glorify Iran, the time of the revolution and her own story after the fact?

"That may be. We all have a tendency to idealize when dealing with our childhood." However, Hakakian feels that western journalists often report one-sidedly about the people of Iran, heavily politicizing people's personal experiences. "It was important for me to show that back then this time in Iran meant something different to us than what is written in today's history books."

Rasha Khayat

© 2008

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

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