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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Lynne stopped teaching English when the nursing school stopped paying her. She called to tell them that if they didn’t pay, she wouldn’t work. “So don’t work,” the receptionist told her. “No one likes foreigners anyway.” Dave’s salary continued to come, but with inflation at 30 percent, it got smaller every month.

Dave didn’t bike so much anymore. In November a driver had tried to run him into a ditch, yelling, “Death to Americans!” as the car sped away. Lynne still went to the P.O. box, but without the small talk, just the radio playing cassette tapes sent from Khomeini in exile. The scariest thing was the quiet. Fewer cars on the streets, fewer pedestrians. The silence made it seem like the chants, the gunshots, were everywhere.

That couple Dave and Lynne had taken daytrips with? In November Parveen told them that Americans were sucking the blood out of Iran, that an Islamic Republic was the only way for the country to renew itself. John sat in silence, listening, Parveen growing angrier with each breath. That was the last time Dave and Lynne saw them.


Martial law—once you get past the fear, the curfew, the shoot-on-sight orders—is mostly just boring. Dave and Lynne stayed inside, playing Scrabble, reading the Bible, the Shiraz Times, and James Michener, writing letters, stocking up on beans and flour, practicing a flatbread recipe they learned from the Baha’i shopkeepers before their stores were ransacked and shuttered.

They listened to the BBC World Service to find out what was happening in the country where they lived, repeating the scraps of information to each other. It reminded Lynne of being on a military base again, all the social life in daylight living rooms, clumps of people narrating events they couldn’t control.

The community of expats was dwindling. Every week more people left, the congregation of the church smaller every Sunday. Dave’s Jewish colleague left the university in November, telling him, “It’s only a matter of time before they come for the Jews.” The Israeli dean of the dental school dressed up as a Bedouin and escaped by bus to Turkey.

The conversations at parties had once started with “Where are you from?” The question became “Why are you still here?”

Everyone had a story about how things had changed and how quickly. The endless postal strikes, the shops closed because Khomeini’s tapes told them to. Insults, sometimes stones, thrown from cars or balconies. Most of the women wore chadors when they left the house now. Dave and Lynne’s friend Jeannie adopted two Iranian kids, the children of a Baha’i neighbor who disappeared, rather than let them go to an Iranian orphanage.

Martin and Helen had been there the longest, but they had never seen it like this. Helen was a housewife, and their four daughters went to the international school. Earlier that year the family left Iran for six months to return home in England. By the time they came back in September, nothing was the same. The hospitality, the tolerance of difference, the courteous men who helped Helen carry her stroller over the potholes in the street—they were all gone.

Martin and Helen’s flight from London to Tehran had just 12 people on it, almost as many flight attendants as passengers. When they landed the first thing they noticed was the tanks everywhere, then the burning tires, then the soldiers at the intersections. Helen stopped walking into town with the stroller at all.

Helen and her daughters began to stay home during the day. The public schools closed, then opened again, but no one seemed to attend. Helen could hear the students chanting in the streets nearly every day. The demonstration passed each school, shouts of “Death to the Shah” or “Death to America” over and over again. Groups of students came out in a trickle, joined the demonstration, then marched to the next school to gain more recruits.

The demonstrations, as huge and angry as they had become, would still go silent when they walked past the Christian hospital. Many of the demonstrators had been born there. That was where their mothers and sisters had gone to get their flu medicine or their appendixes taken out. The demonstrators filed past, then started chanting again. That was how Helen knew it wasn’t time to leave yet.

For Dave and Lynne, it was the same: The reasons to leave were not yet stacked as high as the reasons to stay. Part of it was ignorance. They did not know the fragility of the place, the tensions the Shah papered over in his rise to power, the bargains he made to keep it.

December sunshine on the roof of an apartment building. This is the roof from which Dave and Lynne watched demonstrations in the streets below.
December sunshine on the roof of an apartment building. This is the roof from which Dave and Lynne watched demonstrations in the streets below.

Photo courtesy Michael Hobbes

In November Lynne attended a meeting at the Iran-America Society where the guy from the State Department said the same thing as always: This was a blip, a detour, nothing to worry about. If it got really bad, he said, the U.S. would evacuate them—for a fee. Besides, wasn’t this why Lynne and Dave moved there in the first place? To demonstrate Christian values through turmoil and peace, in political sickness and in health?

But the real reason they were still in Shiraz was that the scary days were outnumbered by the not-scary days. The shops were still open, the restaurants were full. Lynne gave haircuts to kids from church in her kitchen, caught up on novels, and practiced her Farsi. Dave filled up sketchbooks, visited the university for lunch or tennis with his colleagues, and jumped rope in the backyard on days when the demonstrations kept him from jogging. During the power outages, they stood in the backyard and could see every star in the sky.

Just after dark, everyone sat down for Christmas dinner. They held hands around the table, they bowed their heads and thanked God for his protection. They knew he would tell them when it was time to leave.

* * *

Almost immediately, he did. Every day after Christmas, the knot tightened: Larger protests, harsher crackdowns, popcorn gunshots, bonfires obscuring the night sky.

Dave and Lynne had flights to Jerusalem (via Amman) on Jan. 10—a holiday they had booked months earlier. “If we can hold out until then,” they told each other, “we can just stay in Israel or Jordan until this blows over.”

That is why, when Dave burst through the door that afternoon, nine days after Christmas, and shouted to Lynne that she had an hour to fill a suitcase and leave, her first thought was “Wait, this isn’t supposed to happen until next week.” But with the airport closed, the unrest destroying the normalcy to which they were waiting to return, Lynne and Dave could no longer tell themselves that this was going to blow over.

The company plane took them to Bahrain, and from there they made their way to Israel. In Tel Aviv they read in the newspapers about the destruction of the world they had known. The Iran-America Society, the one where they had attended meetings and asked nervous questions, was burned to the ground, as was the English-language cinema. The reverend at their church was murdered in his office six weeks after they left. Later, the Christian hospital would be taken over by the Revolutionary Guard. Some of their Iranian Christian friends would be arrested and imprisoned.

The only letters they received in Tel Aviv were from Martin and Helen. Martin stayed in Shiraz until after the revolution but stopped leaving the house or seeing patients after the reverend was killed. He finally left in mid-February. He caught a flight through Tehran and spent the night in a hotel where the Revolutionary Guard had rented most of the rooms. He made it out, back to London, where he and Helen still live today. Martin told them he felt lucky: He got to say goodbye before he left.

The compound is still there. Lynne looks at it sometimes on Google Earth. The church still holds worship services every Sunday night, just like always, though no longer back to back with English ones. The hospital is still there too, but it’s not Christian anymore.

Lynne and Dave stayed in Israel for 18 months. Dave got a job at Tel Aviv University and finally got a chance to teach some dentistry. Their first child, my older brother, was born there in December 1979.

The last reminder of their Iran experience came on June 23, 1993, 14 years after that flight. Dave and Lynne had filed a claim in 1982 with the U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, a little-known outpost of the Department of Justice that negotiates settlements with foreign governments after upheavals impact U.S. citizens. After the revolution, the commission filed a sort of class action on behalf of all the Americans who had lost property in Iran. Lynne read about it in the newspaper and sent in documentation of some of the things they had left behind: their plane tickets, bank accounts, the rest of Dave’s contract. Fourteen years later, through the magic of inflation and compound interest, they got a check for $20,000.

Lynne spent the money taking me and my brother—then 11 and 13—to Paris. She brought a copy of Little House on the Prairie in French in her carry-on. Dave stayed home.