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Book Excerpts: 'My Name Is Iran'

I was six months pregnant and translating at a medical conference when an African American Muslim living in Iran came up to me and told me about auditions for a new English news program at the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. A week later, I was sitting in front of a camera and crew. I got the job of anchoring the four p.m. news every day. After my first appearance, the phones at the television station rang off the hook with men wanting to propose marriage. One day, my co-anchor Judy Garland (yes, that was her real name) came out of the studio after reading her segment and answered a phone call for "the broadcaster." The woman on the phone asked if Judy was the young one or the old one. "Geez," Judy thought, "I'm only thirty." She told the woman if she wanted me for her son, she should get permission from my husband first. Needless to say, the woman hung up. One day, without realizing that the network camera was on, I walked on to the set with a pregnant hobble. The phones stopped ringing.

Judy Garland was from Oklahoma. She was married to an Iranian university professor and was the mother of a little boy when I met her in January 1984. At first, she came across as cold and standoffish, but eventually we became the best of friends and shared many weekends together with our families.

A practicing Muslim, Judy was as American as she was Iranian, taking great pleasure in putting together a great Thanksgiving Day meal, albeit with the lean turkeys available in Tehran at the time. It is interesting how the two of us never really discussed the irony of our jobs as broadcasters of English news. Here we were, two American-born women, dressed in the veil, anchoring the afternoon news on Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. I was only nineteen years old and thought of the job as fun and easy money even though I resented the fact that Judy got paid more than I did because she had a college degree.

Every day around two p.m. a yellow jeep from the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting would come to my apartment to pick me up for work. I was driven up Vali Asr Boulevard, formerly known as Pahlavi, to get to the station, which was located on top of the hill. Built in the 1970s during the Shah's time, it housed many of Iran's most famous news anchors, producers, and engineers, who had decided to continue broadcasting the news even though it was clear they were not fond of the Islamic regime. You could detect a certain rebellion in the way the women working behind the scenes wore their head scarves, ensuring that a bit of hair showed at their forehead. The atmosphere at the station was very collegial until the managing editor and the director of news appeared, both of whom were at some level connected or related to the ruling clerics and founders of the revolution.

The English broadcast newsroom consisted of one room with a large oval-shaped table in the center shared by translators, anchors, and production assistants. Our news director was responsible for pulling wire copy from the noon newscast aired in Persian, which would then be translated and handed to us to read verbatim. We had no say in the editorial content of the material we were given. For Judy, the newsroom was not as glum or foreboding as it was for me. Perhaps because she was older and fully American, she was able to cautiously laugh and joke with the young translators. I felt as though I was being watched more carefully, especially by the senior news managers, whose offices were down the hall.

On camera, we came across as just a bunch of amateurs trying to put on a fifteen-minute news program. We were stiff as boards sitting there in our scarves, afraid to smile or show any type of human emotion. We were perhaps an excellent propaganda point for the regime. Article 175 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran says, "The freedom of expression and dissemination of thoughts in the Radio and Television of the Islamic Republic of Iran must be guaranteed in keeping with the Islamic criteria and the best interests of the country." Furthermore, the constitution indicates that the head of the broadcasting station would be appointed and/or dismissed by the supreme leader and that "a council consisting of two representatives each of the President, the head of the judiciary branch, and the Islamic Consultative Assembly shall supervise the functioning of this organization."

The idea was to promote to an English-speaking audience not only the accomplishments of the Islamic Republic but also to highlight news from the Islamic world. This news was of particular interest to those Iranians who continued to wage an ideological battle with the United States following the revolution. With the Iran-Iraq war in full force, the news often began with the number of Iranians killed or wounded by Iraqi chemical weapons.

In February of 1984, Iran's foreign minister spoke at a disarmament conference in Geneva and reported at least forty-nine instances of Iraqi chemical attacks in dozens of border regions resulting in the deaths of 109 Iranians and the wounding of hundreds of others. It was at this time that Iran began a massive offensive toward Basra, Iraq, where it was alleged that poison gas was being used by Saddam. Eventually, the United Nations sent a team of experts to Iran and verified and condemned the use of chemical weapons by Iraq.

In addition, in 1984, the International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed that 160 wounded soldiers in hospitals in Tehran "presented a clinical picture whose nature leads to the presumption of the recent use of substances prohibited by international law." That statement by the ICRC was followed by a United States State Department statement that said: "The U.S. Government has concluded that the available evidence indicates that Iraq has used lethal chemical weapons." But Iraq continued to dismiss these international condemnations, calling them "political hypocrisy."

Although the news from the Iran-Iraq war dominated the news coverage, there was also great emphasis on news from the Middle East, particularly on the continued Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The civil war in Lebanon and the tensions there between Shia Muslims, Christians, and Israeli and Syrian forces were another constant source of news. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was also in full force at the time. Across the border from Iran, thousands of Afghan civilians were killed and entire villages were leveled by relentless Soviet bombings, while crops and irrigation systems were also destroyed. The news focused on the plight of the Afghan people and in particular the news of Afghan resistance fighters standing up to the Soviet occupiers.

And then there were the weekly, sometimes daily, stories of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and their fight against the Contra rebels who were backed by the United States. In 1984, Daniel Ortega won the presidential elections in Nicaragua, but the United States government saw the Sandinistas as a left-wing organization and were assisting the opposing group, known as the Contras. Based in neighboring Honduras, the Contras waged a bloody guerilla war against the Sandinistas.

The most unnerving aspect of the job was the fact that the television station was an obvious target for Saddam's aerial bombings. When the sirens, signaling an imminent aerial bombing, went off, we would take cover in the basement of the television station where the actual studios were located. These incidents became so ordinary that after a while we would go outside ourselves to look for the planes above.

It was on these occasions, when we had "down" time, that I got to know some of the other female employees at the station. Several were veteran television producers and directors from the Shah's time who had stayed on for the love of their careers and to continue earning an income, not because they liked the Islamic Republic. The revolutionary news managers tolerated them because they were good at what they did. So long as they didn't cause trouble, they held on to their jobs. We never spoke about politics—just about our children, or where to buy the latest manteau, the long jackets that we wore over our clothes to cover the shape of our bodies. One of them convinced me to try highlighting my hair. Even though we couldn't violate the standards of Islamic dignity by showing our hair in public, the blond streaks in our otherwise jet black hair lightened up our look and made us feel attractive when we lifted our veils at home.


I continued to be intrigued by the philosophy of Shia Islam less as a reflection of my integration into life in Iran and more because I sought a true understanding of the pillars and traditions of my faith. In the spring of 1986, on the occasion of the birthday of Fatima, the Prophet's daughter, we celebrated Women's Day. Judy and I were still anchoring the English news and were invited to visit the Ayatollah Khomeini on this day. This was not a private visit but rather a public viewing at his home in Jamaran, Tehran, for a couple thousand other women who had been invited to make this pilgrimage.

There was an electrifying feeling in the large hall next to his home as we waited for Khomeini's arrival. He was to appear on the balcony directly above us, the spiritual leader of millions of Iranians. As we waited, several hundred women led us in a chant, "Allah-o-akbar, Khomeinirahbar" ("God is Greater and Khomeini is the leader"). It was a chilling moment to hear the slogans all around you yet it did inspire me to say his name even louder and louder. The sheer power of our voices energized me. Then he appeared, somewhat shorter than I had imagined, waving his hand, and setting off more chants by the audience. Women began throwing extra scarves at him. I felt lost in that moment of the Islamic dream in which nothing could be more powerful than standing before the Ayatollah Khomeini. Many women had tears in their eyes, others wept incessantly; as he walked the narrow balcony and sat down to begin addressing the crowd.

He said as women we were to struggle just as Fatima "struggled to the best of her ability, during the short span of her life, addressing the government of the time and passing judgment on them." He said we were to imitate her life and follow the example of her virtuousness. As I sat there and listened to the man who had single-handedly changed the course of history, bringing a revolution to Iran in the name of Islam, I was asked to do as Fatima had done in seeking fairness and justice for her loved ones.

I strongly believe that the founding members of Islam, the Prophet and his descendants, had every intention to follow the principles of justice and fairness, but by 1986 many Iranians felt the erosion of justice in the public sphere. In October of 1986, one of Iran's most powerful religious bodies decreed that the supreme judicial council would be authorized to hire judges with "minimal experience." The law was as follows: "The Supreme Judicial Council is authorized to appoint persons who have been working in Revolutionary Prosecutors' Offices in judicial positions for more than three years as judges of the Prosecution Offices and Courts, without regard to the Legal Bill on the Qualification of Judges, provided that they possess at least the High School Diploma or are approved by the Supreme Judicial Council, and provided that the candidates of either category are able to pass an examination on the Civil Procedure Code and the Islamic Penal Code."

This meant that more and more judges came from the ranks of the hard-line revolutionary government, each harboring his own old cumbersome and patriarchal customs. Increasingly, the penalties imposed were gruesome and brutal. Under the penal code, the penalty for adultery for unmarried men and women was a hundred lashes of a whip. Married men and women accused of adultery could be stoned to death, a man while buried up to his waist and a women up to her neck. Newspaper articles printed reports of women being stoned from the holy city of Qom to the deserts of Kerman. Here and there I would hear of the execution of teenagers, not to mention of hundreds of prisoners, after summary trials.

After six years Iranians were growing weary of the Iraq-Iran war, but daily life became difficult as well. More families took on second or third jobs as poverty was on the rise. The revolutionary morality guards, or Komitehs, added a further element of intimidation and fear into our lives, pressuring society to conform to religious morals while they amassed tremendous amounts of wealth within their own private Islamic foundations. As religious observations increased, I noticed a rise in prostitution and addiction to heroin and opium, especially among the young.

In the span of our lives, my grandmother, mother, and I had circled back and forth between Iran and America. In our personal journeys, whenever we found the possibilities in Iran limiting, we chose to invest in the other culture where our roots might take and actually blossom into fruit. While my mother and I both had sought out our Islamic heritage and were proud to have learned so much of its rich history, I had to admit, as my mother had, that the lens through which it was filtered and interpreted through the governance style of postrevolutionary Iran did not follow the principles it had taught us. I had learned from the Holy Koran, "There is no compulsion in religion" (2:256). But no matter how hard I tried to immerse myself in this Islamic Iran, while I had grown in consciousness and awareness of my surroundings, I was never going to be accepted as being "pure Iranian."

I sensed a kind of intolerance in others when they were faced with anything that did not fit into the exact patterns of what it meant "to be Iranian" or "to be Muslim." The culture wanted a woman to be childlike, helpless, and passive, which is how a female is accepted as being "pure Iranian"—obedient, submissive, someone who does not step out of her role. This realization came right out of the Shahnameh, the great epic poem of Iran, where a distinction is made between "foreign" wives and "Iranian" wives—Iranian wives have been persuaded to believe that they exist only to serve men. I had just enough "foreign" blood in me; my independence and "fieriness" would not let me fit the cultural mold.

Meanwhile, problems were brewing at the television station, where the director of the news division commented that I was too attractive. In an unrelated move, the station changed the veil that women anchors wore so that it covered more of the face. I began to see more hypocrisy in this new life I had chosen for myself. Having submitted myself in an effort to save myself, to be happy, I doubted that, in fact, I had been saved because in reality I was drowning in sorrow. Over the next year, life as I had come to know it would end. As I continued to be true to the tenets of my faith, I found that my husband was not.

In my letters home to my father and sister back in the States, I declared how happy I was to be a submissive wife. In truth, I was starting to dislike my husband and I wanted to escape. My husband had begun to change his opinion of me as well, developing a resentment of my Western upbringing, including the fact that I had had other boyfriends. I was always ridiculed about my parents' and grandparents' divorce. Where was the exuberance I had expressed in my letters and to my "self"? I thought I must redouble my efforts and lift myself out of my misery.

I went to the U.S. Interest Section at the Embassy of Switzerland in Tehran to renew my American passport. After the revolution, this was the office that looked after the interests of U.S. citizens in Iran. There, a counselor recognized me as the anchor of the English news and gave me some advice—quit your television job. She never said my citizenship was threatened but she did say that as an American, working as a mouthpiece for the Islamic republic might not bode well for the future. So I quit my job at the television station.

By the end of 1986, just three years after I arrived from Boston, I confronted my American grandmother's spirit. Knowing that there had to be more to my life, I turned once again to the Shahnameh, which taught me that women could act on their own desires and speak their minds. One story, that of Tahmineh and Rostam, came to mind. Perhaps shockingly, Tahmineh goes to Rostam's bed in the middle of the night offering herself to him. Those who love Ferdowsi and recite his poetry on all occasions do not object to this kind of behavior. On the other hand, Ferdowsi points out, there is a rule in the Shahnameh: "Our daughters have to behave, even if foreign daughters may not, and may be encouraged to kick over the traces in order to join 'us.'"

Perhaps my husband and his family did in the end see me as a foreign woman. Probably with this in mind they talked Karim into going to the United States with Saied and me on the pretext that we could both begin studies at a university. My uncle Jamshid had moved to New Mexico and invited us to join him there. My mother and brother had simultaneously also decided to move to America. In the meantime my sister was getting married in Boston and I wanted to be able to attend her wedding. I realized that God was everywhere and I longed for my family to be in an environment in which I felt we could grow. I needed to move on.

A state of tranquility overcame me, one of free will. I did not have to give in to what I perceived to be my fate. The alternative now was to leave Iran—taking the archetypes I had come to love with me—and continue my education in the West. Now I would lose Iran but I would gain America. Once I realized this, the rest was easy. I left Iran for America in 1987 and never looked back.

Excerpted from My Name Is Iran Copyright 2007 by Davar Ardalan. All rights reserved.

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Davar Ardalan