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Lifting the Veil

After 17 years in the United States, an Iranian-American alum returns home to find that the Khomeini revolution, which promised so much, has delivered so little.

Richard Downs

By Goli Ameri

An evil man dies and journeys to the gates of hell. The gatekeeper tells him he must choose between the American and the Iranian sector. When he asks about the difference, he is told that the Americans will pour hot tar down his throat once a month, while the Iranians will do it three times a week. "Well, this is a no-brainer," he thinks and heads to the American side.

At the end of the first month, his throat and tongue scalded, he staggers out and finds himself in the Iranian sector, where he sees some old friends singing and drinking. "I thought you were supposed to get the hot tar three times a week," he says, surprised. "But you all look healthier than if you'd spent a month in paradise." Laughing, his friends reply, "Your mistake was choosing the American sector, where things are done efficiently. Here, one day the tar is available but they can't find the funnel. The next day they've found the funnel but no one's delivered the tar. And finally, when both the tar and the funnel are here, the administrator is gone for the day!"

It's one of the many jokes I heard in Iran, but so symbolic of the cynicism people feel about their government and the idealism they feel about the United States. "You live in America?" I was asked so many times, suggesting I resided in a place so efficient that the citizens are even punished in a timely manner.

Accompanied by my American-born children, I returned to Iran after 17 years to observe for myself how the revolution has changed the country. I wanted to see firsthand, to feel the place, to engage the people in dialogue instead of being the docile viewer of two-minute television news clips. I learned very quickly to distinguish the Islamic government's belligerence toward America from the pro-U.S. sentiments of the Iranian people.

The trip was a bittersweet experience. People are still the same: funloving, hospitable and kind. Their faces, however, reveal a deep sadness. They are disappointed, not only with a revolution that promised so much and delivered so little, but also with themselves for believing in it and supporting it.

In 1979, when the Shah was overthrown, people marched in the streets and stood in front of bullets demanding freedom of speech, equality between the social classes, and the elimination of poverty. Too much money had poured into the country too fast after the oil boom, and not enough of it had trickled down to the masses. The revolution was marked by a continuing struggle between the clerical forces and the Westernized intellectuals and liberals. The Islamic government emerged as the winner and vested final authority in the Ayatollah. In November 1979, Iranian militants seized the U.S. embassy and took 62 American hostages, vowing to stay there until the Shah returned to stand trial.

Taking part in the revolution gave people hope that they could change their circumstances. Many have succeeded. An estimated 80 percent of the adult population is now literate; 20 years ago, it was 44 percent. The best part of the news is the increase in the literacy rates for women -- 67 percent of them can now read and write. If there is one area where Khomeini and the Islamic government deserve any credit, it's right here!

Snippets of Khomeini's speeches advocating education are painted on the walls in the large cities. I was told that private companies had been given a mandate to enroll their employees in night literacy classes, and they had a year to comply. Huge fines were slapped on those who ignored the edict.

Schools are now open for three shifts to accommodate the population explosion. It is both a boon to Iran's future prospects and a potential threat to the current regime's future. Today, children of porters (a common curse term in Iran) and servants are attending universities and commanding respectable jobs. Amir, the general manager of an engineering company, is the son of Hossein, a chauffeur, and Khatoon, a housekeeper. I saw him standing tall and proud in front of the American educated children of his parents' employers. His eyes sent a barely concealed message: "We are now equals."

Changes, however, have come at a very high cost. The people of Iran have inherited a ruined economy and an authoritarian theocracy that has hijacked the ideals of the revolution in the name of religion. Taxicabs are debating societies where people try to outdo each other with the most outrageous anecdotes or jokes about the regime and its leaders. The predominant topic is the rapacious pockets of the mullahs. Some say millions, even billions, of dollars have been siphoned off by the mullahs or their sycophants.

The revolution also has taught Iranians the meaning of long hours. A taxi dispatcher who already had a full-time job as a midlevel government bureaucrat told me he worked 20-hour days. "When do you sleep?" I asked. "On my government job," he responded matter-of-factly. "I tell the people who're there today to come back tomorrow."

The effects of the dismal economy are evident everywhere, but nowhere are they more poignantly displayed than in the manicured city parks. Groups of young men occupy every shaded corner chatting all day long, yawning or playing with pebbles. Unemployment is rampant. "What's the percentage?" I asked. "A thousand percent," they responded.

Exact figures are hard to come by, but Le Monde Diplomatique , a reputable French daily publication, claims that one working-age person in three is unemployed. High inflation dramatically reduces purchasing power. Sumptuous fruits from the fertile plains of Khorassan are grown for export only. New cars are a rarity in Iran, and most people still drive the pre-revolution chrome-bumper automobiles of 20 years ago. The brand new Boeing jets of the past have given way to third-hand Russian Topoloffs.

Even those who have jobs struggle to survive. Taghi, a taxi-driving refugee from the western part of the country, put it succinctly: "I work 18-hour days and I know I will never be able to marry. I make enough to take care of the car and put enough food on the table for my parents and my sister. If they had not forcibly retired my father from the army, things might have been different."

While I was visiting, a new government decree was published, stating that all vacant houses or apartments would be confiscated. "They have taken all there was to take from the wealthy," a middle-aged man told me during a ride in a taxicab. "Now they are down to the middle class." I saw one of these expropriated houses (it was owned by a relative), and it reminded me of the movie, Dr. Zhivago . Luxurious living had given way to ruin. All the toilets had been removed because they were signs of Western decadence.

Oppression hangs in the air like the sultry summers of the Caspian littoral. The "Black Crows," those black-veiled mustachioed security women who physically inspect female travelers in airports, hold the strings of your immediate destiny in their hands. Any sign of lipstick or strands of extra hair showing is sufficient to loosen their tongues and bring on a barrage of obscenities. One wrong word and you're sent to the revolutionary guards and, before you know it, your pocket is lighter by a few thousand tomans and you've missed your flight.

Iranian women still wear scarves and "manteaus," the long overcoats; but out of sight of the airport inspectors, they make certain their hair stands out like James Dean's pompadour. The "manteaus," in fact, are so exquisitely crafted with large shoulder pads, trendy buttons and stylish designs that they may soon become the rage of the Paris fashion scene. Despite the traditional dictates of the government, many women work as doctors, nurses, engineers and government bureaucrats. Because of the massive brain-drain from Iran, the government has no choice but to close its eyes.

Young people are the most creative rebels. On the eve of the martyrdom of Imam Hossein (Prophet Mohammed's grandson), boys and girls congregated in Mohseni Square to lament this tragedy in the Shi'ite sect. But instead of mourning, they exchanged names and phone numbers during the singing of the traditional religious chants. The Pasdaran were finally tipped off. They arrested a few and dispersed the rest.

Iranians seem to have resigned themselves to abide by the government's sometimes inane social dictates. On a trip to the Caspian Sea, my 10-year-old son was miffed when he was sent back to the villa because he was too old to swim with his girl cousin and aunts during the female wading hours. "This is ridiculous, Mom," he seethed. "I don't even know what it's supposed to feel like to look at a woman." Everyone else, however, accepted the rule, laughed and went about their business.

The average citizen doesn't hesitate to use the famous Iranian sarcasm to describe some of the more absurd actions of the government. On a visit to the splendid city of Isphahan, I had lunch at the exquisite Shah Abbas Hotel. The name has been changed to Abbasi, because "shah" is now completely eliminated from the Persian language. The hotel was famous for its beautiful Qajar-era paintings of dancing women serving wine. I asked the waiter about the carafe in the painting. "It's pomegranate juice," he explained with a wry smile. "And I don't know if you've noticed," he added, "but the ladies felt slightly chilled so they were ordered to wear extra clothes." Upon further observation, I noticed the ladies' gossamer blouses had been painted over; now they wore opaque tops.

The Islamic government, according to the people I spoke to, has brought nothing to Iran but shame and backwardness. A bittersweet joke illustrates this point. The stewardess comes on the airplane's loudspeaker and announces the plane is now in Iranian air space. "For those of you interested in adjusting your watches, please set them back 100 years."

I must have asked at least 20 people why they didn't do anything about their misery. From all walks of life -- the bazaar merchant, the hairdresser, the shopkeeper, the intellectual, the university student, the tourist guide, the high government official -- they all had the same response. People are afraid.

Massive riots in Qazvin and Mashhad have already been forcefully quelled. Giant pictures of a stern-looking Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor, Khameneii, hang on the sides of buildings, reminding people daily of their allegiances. Big Brother is definitely watching.

Beyond fear, their inertia stems from a feeling of helplessness, fueled by the archaic Iranian xenophobia. They are convinced the Islamic Republic came to power because the Western world, led by the United States, planned it that way. A government official told me, "The day the United States decides that this government's time is up, those in power will be thrown out by their tails."

Ruled by internal tyrants for nearly two decades, Iranians have neither the experience nor self-confidence to shape their own future. After centuries of foreign intervention, Iranians, perhaps understandably, have fallen into the classic trap of avoiding responsibility for a huge national tragedy. The harsh fact is that they must stop pointing fingers at everyone else and start looking at themselves as masters of their own destinies.

Ameri, '77, MA '79, is a freelance writer living in the United States.

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