The 1979 Iranian Revolution: A Personal Story

13 06 2009

We were all set to move to Tehran, Iran in 1978. My (then) husband was a software engineer with Ross Perot’s Electronic Data Systems (EDS) and we had the opportunity of a lifetime to move there (and him to work there) with our one-year-old baby girl.

Shah Pahlavi and Queen Farah 1977

Shah Pahlavi and Queen Farah 1977

Iran seemed stable then.  Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was the leader and had been since he came to power in 1941. He had put in place a lot of positive reforms, called the White Revolution, in Iran such as giving women the right to vote, advancing the country technologically and economically, guaranteeing children the right to go to school, allowing share croppers to own land, etc.

There was no Internet then, but I researched Iran the best I could. EDS gave us a packet of information on what to expect about living there and I learned more at the library. I knew it would be really different from living in the U.S. Things like celery and iceburg lettuce and other foods were hard to get and expensive when you could find them. I wouldn’t be driving there, but would have some freedom of movement. There was no email so contact with my family would be mostly through letters and the rare (and expensive) phone call. Still, I was ready for the adventure.

Ayatollah Khomeini

Ayatollah Khomeini

Things happened to change all that. Previously the Shah had Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was critical of his regime, imprisoned for 18 months and then deported in 1964 after Khomeini’s release and criticism of the U.S. government. Khomeini continued to speak out against the Pahlavi regime from exile. The Iranian (also called the Islamic) Revolution began in January 1978. A few months later, EDS asked if we would consider going to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia instead of Tehran. We didn’t really understand why, but they explained it would be safer. We changed course and agreed…and my research began anew. I became pregnant with our second child and had to hold back on going to Jeddah. Their father went around the beginning of November 1978. I, and our two children, didn’t go over until July 1979.

Amidst the backdrop of our changing personal saga, chaos had broken out in Iran and the Shah and his family had to flee the country in January 1979. His regime collapsed two weeks later. EDS employees fled the U.S.-friendly regime with the clothes on their back. Many of them came later to Jeddah and we were regaled with harrowing and heroic stories.

Khomeini returned from 15 years of exile and on 4/1/79, the people of Iran voted to become an Islamic Republic. In December of 1979, the people approved a theocratic (where God is considered the supreme civil ruler) constitution and Khomeini became the Supreme Leader, the highest ranking political and religious figure in the country. He has authority even over the president of Iran. Tens of thousands of loyalists to the previous regime were executed after Khomeini took office.

At this point, the U.S./Iran relationship deteriorated. On 11/4/79 Iranian students seized U.S. embassy personnel, accusing them of being CIA agents plotting to overthrow the Iranian government.  Khomeini supported them. Most of the women and African-American hostages were released after a few months, but the remaining 52 hostages were held captive for 444 days. They were set free in January 1981 in exchange for promises that included the U.S. removing a freeze on Iranian assets and not interfering with Iranian affairs.

While my family and I were spared the drama, tension, and danger in Iran, we were living in Jeddah when the Grand Mosque was seized and held for two weeks by Islamic terrorists on 11/20/79.  I wrote about this in a post entitled “Pilgrims to a Deadly Hajj.” I witnessed on the streets what an area under siege in a Middle Eastern country looks like.

Once again we seemed to escape potential danger unwittingly. We returned to the United States around mid-September of 1980. On 9/22/80 Saddam Hussein and Iraq invaded a weakend (from the revolution) Iran and thus began the Iran-Iraq War. It lasted until 1988 when Khomeini begrudgingly accepted a truce negotiated by the United Nations. 500,000 – 1 million Iranians died in this war; 100,000 of them from Iraqi chemical weapons.

Ali KhameneiKhomeini reigned as Supreme Leader until he died on 6/3/89. Ali Khamenei became Supreme Leader in 1989 and remains so in 2009. Iran had two additional presidents before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005.

I was a 25-year-old, wide-eyed, ready-for-anything young woman when my family was going to move to Iran. Things were pretty peaceful then. It seemed really exciting.

Today, in the aftermath of what looks like a rigged election, there is rioting in the streets of Iran. The people are crying out for freedom and representation and being heard. It’s a dangerous place to be. I could’ve walked amongst these people 30 years ago, but it would’ve been a different Iran, an Iran that was making progress and restoring rights to women and children and peasants.

Today, and the last 30 years, seem to have been a setback for the Iranians. I wonder when their country will be restored to peace and to being a place where another wide-eyed, brave young U.S. mother would dare to go undaunted with her family to have the adventure of a lifetime.

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Pilgrims to a Deadly Hajj

7 12 2008

I lived in Jeddah during the violent 1979 Hajj. I’m reminded of it because the 2008 Hajj began on Friday and ends Wednesday. Muslims are fulfilling their command to do a pilgrimage to the holiest Islamic city of Mecca at least once during a lifetime. Jeddah is about 40-50 miles from Mecca and is the gateway to Mecca. Busloads of  Muslims with meager belongings wrapped in a blanket are transported out of Jeddah to Mecca to participate in the pilgrimage. The traffic at that time of year is just unbelievable with the influx of 3 million people, and there is an increased risk of disease.

hajj1

One can imagine that 3 million people descending into Mecca this year on the heels of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai is a concern. Saudi Arabia has 100,000 security people in place during the Hajj to keep it peaceful.

The 1979 Hajj was far from peaceful. On November 20, 1979 the Grand Mosque was seized. The Grand Mosque surrounds the Kaaba, the place that Muslims turn toward as they do their 5-times-a-day prayer, and Muslims consider it the holiest place on Earth. Muslims circle the Kaaba seven times as part of the ritual of the Hajj.

Wikipedia says that the Grand Mosque seizure:

…was an attack and takeover by armed Islamic fundamentalist dissidents of the Al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holiest place in Islam. The insurgents declared that the Mahdi, or redeemer of Islam, had arrived in the form of one of the insurgents’ leaders, Abdullah Hamid Mohammed Al-Qahtani and called on Muslims to obey him.

The story of what happened would make a good thriller movie. Just as prayers were to start, about 500 insurgents took out guns from under their robes, chained the gates shut, took the 50,000 worshippers hostage, and killed several policemen. They released most of the hostages, but put snipers in the towers and held off attempts by security and the army to retake the Mosque. A special fatwa was issued so that the Ministry of Defense could use deadly force because the Qur’an forbids any violence within the Grand Mosque. The city of Mecca was evacuated.

The insurgents, who were anti-Western, broadcast messages constantly during the siege over the loud speakers and demanded that oil exports to the U.S. be cut off and that all foreign civilian and military experts from the Arabian peninsula be expelled.

Many attempts were made to storm the insurgents and finally, after two weeks, grenades were launched and the surviving insurgents surrendered.

Wikipedia gives these casualty numbers:

The battle officially left “255 pilgrims, troops and fanatics” killed “another 560 injured … although diplomats suggested the toll was higher.” Military casualties were 127 dead and 451 injured.

A half-brother of Osama bin Laden may have been involved in the siege and may have actually transported the guns in before the siege through trucks being used in the ongoing Mosque renovation.

It was a very tense time. Armed soldiers with machine guns stood guard about every 15 feet on every street in Jeddah. I was the music director for “The Princess and the Pea” and we were in rehearsals at that time. We were stopped while traveling the streets at nights, asked where we were going, and told to get off the streets.

The immediate aftermath of the siege continued to be violent, as described in Wikipedia:

Muslim anti-American demonstrations followed in the Philippines, Turkey, Bangladesh, India, eastern Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emigrates and Pakistan. Anger fueled by these rumors peaked within hours in Islamabad, Pakistan, and on November 21, 1979, the day following the takeover, the U.S. embassy in that city was overrun by a mob, who then burned the embassy to the ground. A week later, this anger swept to the streets of Tripoli, Libya, where a mob attacked and burned the U.S. embassy there on December 2, 1979.

Perhaps the most disturbing development to come out of the 1979 takeover of the Grand Mosque was the eventual revelation of prime organizer al-Utaibi’s connection to the Saudi Arabian National Guard.

The rebels’ leader, Juhayman, was captured, and he and 67 of his fellow rebels—”all the surviving males”—were tried secretly, convicted and publicly beheaded in the squares of four Saudi cities.

Wikipedia goes on to say that after this attack happened,  Saudi Arabia implemented stricter enforcement of Islamic code. Crackdowns were made on shopkeepers who didn’t close at prayer time, pictures of women in magazines, etc. I got caught in the back of a shop during prayer time when the store closed down. The owner didn’t know I was there and was very upset when he found me. He told me to get, with my children, down on the floor so he wouldn’t be found out. I also remember that if magazines showed a woman with a bare belly, the belly was blacked out with a marker. I could quote many more strict examples.

The Hajj of 1979 was very violent, perhaps the 9/11 for Muslims and Saudi Arabia. We hope for a peaceful pilgrimage this year.