Iranian Revolution anniversary: My parents almost stayed in Iran for too long.

How My Parents Accidentally Got Caught Up in the Iranian Revolution

How My Parents Accidentally Got Caught Up in the Iranian Revolution

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
April 2 2014 10:11 AM

How My Parents Accidentally Got Caught Up in the Iranian Revolution

And almost stayed longer than anyone should.

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They rented their apartment unfurnished, so Lynne spent most mornings reading the expat newsletter, the Shiraz Times, for announcements of foreigners moving away. She visited their homes to ask whether they were leaving any furniture behind, and could she have it. With so many foreigners around, she never wondered why so many were leaving.

The center of their social life was St. Simon the Zealot Anglican Church, the only Christian church in Shiraz. It sat within a walled compound, next to expat housing and a huge Christian hospital. The compound had been founded in the early 1940s by Christian missionaries who had set up social services for the poor. Since then the hospital had expanded to offer treatments and surgeries to patients from the neighborhood and the tribal areas and mountain villages just outside Shiraz. It was administered by the Anglican Church of Iran, but few of the doctors and nurses were Christians, and even fewer were missionaries.

Next door, the church was busy. Christians, like everyone else, weren’t allowed to proselytize but were left alone when it came to worshipping. This was fine with Dave and Lynne; that wasn’t the kind of missionaries they were anyway. They started attending the English and Farsi services—every Sunday evening, back to back—to get familiar with the language. Within weeks they were spending most evenings with Iranian or expat friends, taking Friday drives with an Iranian-British couple, Parveen and John, who had met in the United Kingdom and moved to Shiraz to start a family.


Eventually a routine set in. Dave woke up early and biked to the university. He got to know the staff and students, got comfortable enough to tell jokes. “Let me get my two rials in,” he would say when he expressed an opinion. Lynne took Farsi lessons in the morning and taught English at a nursing school in the afternoons. In between, two times a week, she took a public taxicab to pick up their mail from a P.O. box across town, their only connection with the outside world.

The rides to and from the P.O. box were how Lynne met ordinary Iranians, the kind she and Dave wanted to meet. To catch a public taxicab, she stood in an intersection with her arm out. An unmarked car, often already full of passengers, would slow down and Lynne shouted her destination. If the driver was headed that way, he stopped and picked her up. If not, he sped up again. Lynne got good at it, waiting at the intersection, watching some cars speed through, others slowing down, swallowing passengers and spitting them out again.

Eventually Lynne’s Farsi was good enough to make small talk. The other passengers asked her where she was from, what she was doing in Shiraz. Whenever she said she was from America, the response was always the same: “Oh, my brother studies in Los Angeles!” “My cousin is a chef in St. Paul!”

Lynne and Dave knew that there was unrest in Iran, and that the Shah was not as universally liked as the streets named after him and the photos of his wife and family in the newspapers made it seem. Some days Lynne’s visit to the P.O. box took the entire afternoon as the main boulevards filled with anti-Shah demonstrators. She looked at the demonstrators out the window, and all she could see was that they were young and that they were angry. As they passed, Lynne tried to read their bouncing banners, tried to remember what she had read in Time magazine about this man named Ayatollah Khomeini, the stern face on the hand-painted portraits they carried.

No one in Shiraz seemed particularly concerned about the demonstrations. The anti-Western chants never spilled over into Lynne and Dave’s new friendships or taxicab small talk. Jeannie, one of their new expat friends, told Lynne that she had seen kids on her street chanting, “Yankee, go home,” and that afterward one of them had stopped her and asked, in English, “What’s a Yankee?”

On the way to Iran, a ferry between Italy and Greece, after traveling in Europe for 6 weeks.
On the way to Iran, on a ferry between Italy and Greece, after traveling in Europe for six weeks.

Photo courtesy Michael Hobbes

Dave and Lynne attended meetings at the Iran-America Society, where the U.S. State Department answered questions from nervous Americans about the political situation. The answer was always the same: The demonstrations will either fizzle out on their own or the police will crack down on them. The Shah has it under control.

Lynne and Dave’s letters from this period barely mention politics at all. They’re mostly focused on the cultural differences. Dave had never before had to ask a female patient to remove her chador to look at her teeth, and he was not used to having his patients’ male relatives observe their treatments. Lynne had never seen so much male-on-male handholding and cheek kissing. They invited an Iranian couple over for dinner and the first thing they said was “What a nice apartment! ... How much is your rent?”

Lynne and Dave both marveled at the cheating. During the first (and only) test he gave his students, Dave was walking between desks.

“Can you move?” asked one of his students. “I can’t see my neighbor’s answers.”

It was the same in Lynne’s job teaching English at the nursing school. Sharing answers was like sharing food; it was rude to keep them all to yourself.

The new social norms also contained hints of things to come, threads of the political and economic grievances that Lynne and Dave, as relatively wealthy foreigners, had the luxury to ignore. Once, when an Iranian colleague complained about all the graduates of the university leaving Iran to practice medicine elsewhere, Dave joked that the Shah should send some police to America to bring all the doctors and dentists back home. Dave’s colleague bolted from his chair and slammed the office door shut. “You can’t talk like that here!” he said. Dave knew about SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police, but he could not feel their presence in the silences between friends and colleagues, not like Iranians could.

There were signs, too, of the tensions left by Iran’s still-sprinting modernization. On a drive to a small village north of Shiraz, Lynne asked Parveen why the road was so nicely paved while most of the others were still gravel. “One of the Shah’s advisers comes from here,” Parveen said. “He doesn’t want to drive home on a rutted road.” In July Lynne was barred from the university pool and told women were no longer welcome. “That’s not actually a rule,” Parveen said, “just a power play by the Muslim students.”

Dave stopped bringing up politics with his Iranian colleagues. If Lynne wanted to write anything about the Shah or the unrest in her letters, she waited until an expat friend was visiting home and asked them to send the letters from London or Amsterdam.

Bit by bit, Lynne and Dave were cut off from the politics of the country where they lived. Letters from home went missing. The media, controlled by the government, was a reliable source of weather forecasts but little else.

Lynne and Dave knew this was happening, that their sources of information were being winnowed down to conversations with expats and English-speaking Iranians. It was troubling, but not a deal breaker. Dave and Lynne were planning to stay in Iran for at least five years. These were just quirks, something you get used to. Whatever country you live in, you expect it to have injustice and corruption, for the politicians to be out of touch, for dissidents to be unhappy. You don’t expect the dissidents to win.

October was the first time their caution turned to fear. In August a packed theater burned down in Abadan and 470 people died. The fire was almost immediately blamed on SAVAK and the Shah, and Lynne and Dave could hear demonstrations in the streets outside their apartment. In Shiite Islam, tragedies are followed by a 40-day grieving period. Forty days after the fire, there was another huge demonstration. Then another 40 days, then another.

Between protests, Dave and Lynne were walking home from a movie when they turned a corner and saw a tank sitting in the intersection like an elephant in a bathtub. The tank was silent, still, more a museum exhibit than a threat, the soldiers surrounding it almost children. They looked terrified, small in their uniforms, holding their AK-47s so tight they might have been shaking. Lynne and Dave looked at the soldiers for a long moment, then turned around and walked back where they came from.

* * *

It was Christmas Day 1978. About 20 people—mostly expats, some missionaries—were gathered in a small apartment in the shadow of the Christian hospital. The hosts, Martin and Helen Gilham, had prepared a full Christmas lunch, complete with mince pies and plum pudding. Carols played on the reel-to-reel.

The party started early. The curfew under martial law was 10 p.m., so everyone had to leave by 9. The guests went back and forth between the apartment and the roof. Up there it was cool, clear; you could see every last wrinkle in the mountains. The roof looked out over the compound wall to the street, but there were no demonstrations that evening, no chants, no smell of tear gas.

Dave and Lynne were glad to be out of the house. In September the university had called and told Dave the school year would be postponed for a week due to the demonstrations. It was delayed another week, then another. By November the university didn’t even call anymore.