Coming to America
“Memory resides not just in brains but in every cell.” — James Gleick. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood.
Recently, a colleague used these words to introduce me in a meeting: “Ben was born in Iran but left prior to the 1979 revolution, moving to the US with his brother, on their own, when they were still kids.” I thanked him, half in jest, for the intro and the pseudo-biographical sketch.
The truth is much more complicated than that — and already seems like another lifetime. What follows is a brief attempt at the story.
I was indeed born in Iran and spent the first thirteen years of my life there. I have almost no memories before the age of nine or ten, which leaves me with about four years worth of mostly happy memories of childhood. That would have to do, as the revolution would soon bring an end to any such frivolities.
I was an introverted bookworm from the start, my happiest hours spent under a blanket with a flashlight and a book, reading late into the night. I used to eat nothing but the cheapest food available at school so I could save my pocket money for books. I was always most content when I was alone with my own thoughts or reading those of others.
My parents had lied about my birth date on the official birth certificate, declaring me to be a month older than I really was, in order to meet the government-decreed minimum age requirement for starting school. Apparently this was a fairly common practice in Iran back then as I’ve heard others tell the same tale. I was also allowed to skip first grade based on test results and was put in the second grade at age five! Suddenly, I was attending the same grade as my brother who was a year and a half older. The emotional and psychological scars that this left on him could be the subject of a whole book.
I was lucky enough to go to a top notch private elementary school and later attended Alborz high school, by many accounts the preeminent high school in all of Asia at the time and hands down the best in Iran — this being the early seventies, in a country flush with petro-dollars and a nouveau riche upper middle class as well as a new cadre of university educated professionals. Many of the teachers at Alborz were university professors. What a privilege it was to spend four years in that environment — years that were interrupted by the Islamic Revolution.
No one in my family spoke English so I was on my own when it came to learning the language, attending classes at the American and British language institutes then available in the country. My older brother and I spent the summer of 1978 living with host families in the UK and improving our English language skills. At the end of the summer, he opted to stay in the UK but I wanted to go back, knowing full well that I was getting the best possible education at Alborz.
When I returned to Tehran in the late summer of ’78, the revolution was already in full swing — with protests, chanting in the streets, million man marches, tanks and helicopters, Molotov cocktails, tires burning, banks looted, schools closed, political prisoners paraded on TV, tear gas and gunfire at every street corner… you name it.
The peaceful country we had left a few months ago — the “island of stability in the Middle East” as proclaimed by President Carter just a few months earlier during a state visit — was smack dab in the middle of a violent and bloody revolution. Not an Islamic one, mind you. What started as protests against the political repression of the Pahlavi regime included everyone from communists and nationalists to illiterate villagers and university students. And yes, religious folks too. But almost no one expected the country to turn so religious. That happened later; the early days were pure chaos.
Schools opened as usual in September of that year but were interrupted on an almost daily basis as clashes continued in the streets. I remember spending many days that fall walking the streets of Tehran, chanting slogans, marching with the throngs, at first without even fully understanding what was going on politically. It was impossible not to be swept up in the emotional upheaval that the country was going through.
It’s hard to believe the Shah was toppled in such a short span of time. It’s also hard to believe we packed so much violence in so little time. Of course, the embers were hot for many years but, as an adolescent, I lived a fairly sheltered life and was unaware of them. State controlled media and strict censorship meant we only saw and heard what the authorities wanted us to know, even going so far as completely erasing major historical events and political personalities from books.
All around me had seemed peaceful and serene, the idyllic streets of Tehran not very different from those of any Western metropolis. What I had no way of seeing as a child were the repressive methods used by the Shah and his secret police to suppress dissent, the religious orthodoxy of the villagers and the merchant class, the many decades of resentment building up and finally bubbling over into armed conflict.
The revolution had torn the veil from our eyes in one swift motion and exposed us to the ugly truth. As a thirteen year old coming back from the UK, I gobbled it all up — everything from communist books to nationalistic histories to religious speeches to political pamphlets. It’s amazing how much a thirteen year old brain can absorb in just a few months.
In the end, the Shah didn’t put up much of a fight. He and his family opted to leave the country after a few months of unrest, hoping that the US would help bring him back to power like they had done under similar circumstances in 1953 — when the CIA helped stage a coup d’etat, toppling the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and putting the Shah back in power. This time around, though, the US didn’t blink and the Shah was gone forever. I remember walking the streets of Tehran that day as millions celebrated like it was Mardi Gras, brandishing newspapers over their heads with a simple two word headline: “Shah Left!”
By February 1979, a mere two weeks later, Ayatollah Khomeini was back in Iran. In a repeat, perhaps, of both the French and the Russian revolutions that preceded it by several generations, what started as a powerful and earnest popular mass uprising became, in the end, a repressive regime hell bent on enforcing its own dogmatic and reactionary beliefs.
By sheer coincidence, I left the country the day after Khomeini arrived back there so I was there to see his return first hand as millions came out to greet him as the savior. I clearly remember climbing a tree near the main entrance to Tehran University as his car slowly parted the massive crowd, reported by the BBC to be five million strong that day. That’s the closest I’d ever get. I didn’t see him in person, nor did I see the repressive Islamic regime in action after his arrival.
I didn’t live through the devastating and meaningless eight year Iran-Iraq war, either. Unlike members of my family back home, I didn’t get bombed by Saddam Hussein nor did I have to go to the front. I was privileged and didn’t even know it.
My parents had somehow finagled an I-20 (required paperwork for a Foreign Student visa) to a high school in Boston. I still had three years of high school to finish. So it was that, at age fourteen, I found myself in Boston with a suitcase in hand and roughly $5000 in my pocket. That would have to be enough for tuition and rent and food until my parents could send some more. Meanwhile, the Iranian currency had collapsed and a few thousand dollars was suddenly a hundred times more expensive to acquire on the open market.
I suppose the whole idea of shipping a fourteen year old across continents to live on his own is too bizarre to contemplate. I mean, how would he rent an apartment? Pay for a hotel room? Open a bank account? To be sure, the same story happens even today. Every time there is a revolution or a civil war in a country somewhere around the world, armies of adolescents are sent forth to study in the US or UK or other European countries. Most of them arrive to a dormitory or the home of a relative, either way with someone to greet them and take care of the logistics. This is the part of the story that no one seems to have explained to my parents.
So there I was on a blisteringly cold Sunday in February ’79, “fresh off the boat” if you will. Thankfully, I could speak English fluently by then and had no trouble navigating the mazes I had to run through. Many others arriving daily were barely able to make themselves understood and some didn’t speak a single word of English. Now that would have been scary!
After taking a cab to my pre-booked hotel near the school, I went out for a walk. Like any self-respecting teenager free of adult supervision, I walked boldly into a grocery store and picked up a pint of peach flavored brandy and a box of cheap cigars. No one even raised an eyebrow or asked for an ID.
Back in my hotel room (and with the window cracked open), I smoked the entire six pack of cheap cigars and drank the entire bottle of brandy over the next few hours. To be clear, this was not my first time drinking. While in the UK the previous year, I had spent many a night at pubs. No one in the UK seemed to want to see my ID, either. I can’t imagine getting away with the same thing today.
Monday morning, bright and early (well, maybe not so bright given the massive hangover), I showed up at the school where I was supposed to finish the last three years of my high school education. Later I would learn that the school specialized in bringing kids from traumatized countries to the US. At the time, this meant that 303 out of the 306 registered students were escapees from the Iranian revolution. I would return for a visit a dozen years later to find the building jammed with teenagers from sub-Saharan Africa.
The school did offer dormitory living at a nearby community college as an option but I had little cash left after paying the tuition and needed to preserve as much of it as possible. So, instead, I opted to stay in a series of dilapidated apartments with anywhere from one to half a dozen roommates.
The assistant principal at the school pointed me across the street to a bank where I could open an account. I presented my passport as identification as well as the cashier’s check I was carrying and was promptly given a checkbook. Now I could pay tuition and rent, buy groceries, etc. Again, no one batted an eye at a fourteen year old walking in and opening a bank account on his own.
Eleven months later, in January 1980, I entered University of Massachusetts as a freshman. Somehow, I’d managed to finish the entire curriculum for grades 10 through 12 of an American high school in less than a year, passed the SAT, and gotten myself accepted to college. I’m sure my excellent education at Alborz was responsible for this, making the academic requirements a breeze. UMass was not the best school possible, but I didn’t have too many choices given my financial situation.
Two and a half years later, at age seventeen, I graduated with two Bachelor’s degrees — one in Psychology and another in Computer Science. Friends and family all made fun of the speed with which I was plowing through classes but I didn’t feel like I was doing anything special at the time. I was doing what everyone else was doing; I just happened to be doing it a little bit faster. The honest truth is that the university didn’t charge any extra tuition if you took more than four courses a semester, so I took seven or eight instead. It was an obvious way to save money.
Now that I think back on those years, though, the experience seems surreal. Somehow, in the span of three and a half years, I’d finished the requirements for roughly eight years of education! And I’d done so after living through a bloody revolution and emigrating to the US on my own as a fourteen year old. How the hell did I do that? What the hell was I thinking? Okay, I didn’t know any better. But what on earth were my parents thinking? If necessity is the mother of invention, then stress — in all its forms — must surely be the father of achievement.
I’ve been back to Iran a few times in the past forty years but I have no plans to return there again any time soon. It saddens me to admit that the country feels alien to me. The first time I returned, the authorities took my passport away upon entry and temporarily “misplaced” it. The second time, I was summarily arrested while taking photographs in a village near Tehran, trying to enjoy a hobby as I had done in dozens of other countries.
It turned out the president of the country was due to give a speech at that same exact spot the very next day and, yahoo American tourist that I was, I’d stumbled onto the scene with a huge telephoto lens looking like a spy sent by the CIA. The fellow in the photograph below tipped off the authorities who promptly arrested and interrogated me for several hours before letting me go.
A case of mistaken identity, a clueless tourist, a potential international incident waiting to happen. And I even happened to speak the native tongue fluently. But that wasn’t enough. I was clearly an outsider and not welcome.
No, thanks. I don’t need the James Bond 007 adrenaline rush trying to deal with the Iranian government just to visit relatives.
My younger brother? Oh, yeah! That was just a misunderstanding. He did leave the country but that was seven years later, also as a fourteen year old, trying to avoid getting conscripted into the army during the Iran-Iraq war. Hey, if you can pick up a gun and go to war at fourteen, why not live in a foreign country on your own at fourteen?
He had to spend a couple of years in Turkey waiting for a visa and working odd jobs. By the time he arrived in the US, I was married with a child, barely out of grad school, and working three jobs just to pay the bills. But that’s a whole other story.