Article Thumbnail

Frozen in Exile

For the Iranians in the U.S. longing for home, Soleimani’s assassination has once again thrown their status — and sense of identity — into question

On the night that Iranian General Qassim Soleimani was killed by a U.S. drone, I was on my way to have dinner at my dad’s house. There, atop a green marble shelf, sits a black and white image of my great-grandfather — a decorated general in the former Shah of Iran’s army — standing, immaculate, in his military uniform. There, the former national Iranian flag, adorned with a lion and sun, hangs lifelessly in the shadow of a closet. There, a quiet history of everything that was, and remains, lost in the revolution clings to the surface like scentless mildew — visible only to the heightened sensibility of other exiles.

On this night, amidst the dissonance of politics, pundits and a news cycle that had found its latest carcass to feast on, there was also the near-constant barrage of WhatsApp messages sent to my dad’s phone from members of a mostly defunct, student-led group of Iranian exiles — an organization known as the Movement for National Independence of Iran, or GAMA (an acronym for its Farsi translation). In the immediate aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, GAMA was one of the most prominent groups of Iranian exiles in America pushing for regime change, with their ultimate goal being to pressure the U.S. government to help reinstate the Shah of Iran.

The giddy, youthful fervor that had, in 1979, inspired some members of this group to actually return to their home country to fight the Islamic regime, seemed, at least for one night, resurrected. Like sparks of a firework crackling in his hand, the messages my dad received were mostly of the celebratory variety. “Best 2020 news,” one of the members wrote. “2020 free Iran,” wrote another. Others noted that if, in fact, the news were true, the assassination of Soleimani is “bigger [news] than Bin Laden. Bigger than Mughniyeh. Bigger than Baghdadi.” Perhaps the most exuberant message came from a woman in the group who proclaimed, “Happy 2020 to you and the rest of my friends. Imagine the moment all of us are in a plane together and above Iran’s skies.” 

Never mind the potential global consequences of the assassination of the second most important leader of a sovereign nation, inside the borders of a different ostensibly sovereign nation. For this subset of Iranian-Americans living in the U.S., news of the killing was self-validating. Whether it was an actual sign of a weakened Islamic regime or a mirage didn’t matter much: The people in this WhatsApp group — all exiles — took the opportunity to voyage to the past, transporting themselves to a time when the possibility of a return home still seemed possible. 

But for this group, such a return is, by definition, impossible. The events of the 1979 revolution transformed their country to the extent that if they went back, it would be unrecognizable, turning it from a pro-Western monarchy to an anti-Western theocracy, irrevocably altering their Iran from an actual place to a chapter in history. It’s been so long that there are now 40-year-olds living in Iran who have never known anything but the current regime.

You can understand some of their passion for this lost world. Prior to the revolution, Iran was a country in a period of rapid transformation. Reza Shah Pahlavi — the last monarch of Iran — wanted the Iranian state to be a society with secular ideas and a Western outlook. He gave women the right to “divorce on the same grounds as men,” along with other more forward-thinking ideas like legalized abortion, family planning and daycare centers for working women. The Shah’s vision for Iran was, at least on the surface, closer to today’s secular European nations than the theocratic regimes often associated with Middle Eastern countries. 

It takes some serious rose-tinted glasses to dwell solely on this aspect of the Shah’s regime, though. Most notoriously, under his rule, the Shah employed secret police — the dreaded SAVAK, a 5,000-member force accused of having “murdered thousands of the Shah’s opponents” — and employed torture and executions to stifle political dissent. So while the Shah’s commitment to progressive ideals intended to propel his country into the modern era seems laudable, it was ultimately stained with the blood of his own citizens. 

This regime came to an end in 1979, when a conjunction of Islamist organizations, student movements and leftists, frustrated with the Shah’s reforms, overthrew his government and replaced it with an Islamic republic under the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In doing so, it created exiles of Iranian citizens who’d never expected this change to last — who’d never expected to stay exiles. “It was always supposed to be temporary,” Nooshin, a member of GAMA who came to the U.S. to study just a short time before the Iranian revolution, tells me. “From what I was personally hoping for, I was hoping that this will change within six months,” she says of the Islamic takeover of Iran. “I was looking to still go through college before I go back and help build my country again. So I wasn’t looking at it long term.”

Nooshin’s husband, Shahryar — who was also in the U.S. when the revolution broke out, and who met Nooshin through GAMA — tells me that he joined the movement six months after it was created in 1979, when he was 27 years old. “The average age was basically 20,” he says of the group’s membership. “Most of us were in school, maintained full-time jobs and still dedicated eight hours a day to the movement.” One of the projects Shahryar is most proud of, he says, is the issue of the flag. “Nobody remembers it now, but it was a major issue in 1983,” he explains. “A majority of Iranians started carrying the flag with the lion on it [Iran’s national flag until the 1979 Revolution]. It was similar to how after 9/11 everybody had a flag in their car.” According to Shahryar, it’s because of GAMA’s efforts that Iranian-Americans are given the choice between the former national flag and the current Islamic flag at places like the DMV and Triple A.

Most radically, members of the movement participated in hunger strikes to stand against the Iran-Iraq War. “When the Iran-Iraq War was going on and millions of people were being killed, Shahryar and I were watching the news and listening to how these kids were being sent to mine lines [series of explosive charges connected in a line],” Nooshin says. “So we’re talking and I said, ‘We’ve got to do something.’ And he said, ‘Hunger strike.’”

Said, one of the founding members of the group, admits that in some cases the young activists were in over their heads. “It wasn’t just emotions — we were trying to learn things and put ourselves into spaces and into environments that none of us could have even imagined a year before,” he tells me. “You’re talking about a time when students [Iranian political exiles] would deny their own parents who were affiliated with the Shah’s regime, just to be safe. We were all little kids, but we didn’t think we were.” 

Another obstacle they faced was figuring out a way to reach other Iranians. “We got a phone line,” he says. “We put an answering machine on it with a one-minute recording, and every day we changed that recording with some news, information about protests and asking people to join us. There were no Iranian programs at the time, so that phone line was the only point of information for people who were hungry to hear something about what’s happening.”

Their view of what was happening at the time, of course, was largely shaped by the fact that they’d immigrated to the U.S. either just before, or just after the revolution, according to Kevan Harris, a historical sociologist whose first book covers the welfare state and politics in Iran. While this group’s experiences are no less valid than the wider group of Iranian migrants, they aren’t necessarily representative. “Most people come for economic reasons, because, you know, you’re making more [money], [you have] more prestigious higher education opportunities,” he says. “Obviously at the time, people thought they’d go back and forth, but then all of a sudden they couldn’t go back. But that doesn’t mean that the whole thing was political: Most people, most of the diaspora in any of these instances, left for a reason. The minority are the real political exiles, the majority are economic migrants.”

To his point, Mateo Farzaneh, an expert on modern Iranian history, believes that those who came to the U.S. as political exiles had a vastly different relationship to the Shah’s regime than other members of the Iranian diaspora. “The people who came to the U.S. in the 1970s to study were very diverse economically and politically, but the majority of them weren’t the people that would want to revolt against the monarchy,” he says. “The monarchy was very kind to them. They came from mostly secular families, and they didn’t want to be represented by a theocratic regime.”

Indeed, one of the main motivations for this subset of Iranians was their belief that the vast majority of those who joined the revolution didn’t actually want a theocratic regime. “[The revolutionaries] were naive and that’s not what they were looking for,” says Said. “More than anything else, we believed that we were robbed. We believed that the stories about the previous regime [the Shah] and its atrocities were false. We believed that it’s a false narrative and that we need to correct the record.” 

Objectively speaking, it should be noted again that the Shah’s regime was riddled with atrocities. Though historical accounts of the number of demonstrators and political dissidents killed in the years leading up to the revolution differ drastically, there’s no denying that hundreds of Iranian citizens were killed during this time. But for political exiles — especially those who supported the Shah’s regime — editing Iran’s historical record and championing its more liberal facets is inextricably linked to preserving their own identity. For members of GAMA, this has always meant differentiating their Iran with the Islamic Republic. 

“Many of us refused to be described and defined by the revolutionaries,” says Said. “I wasn’t going to allow a bunch of leftist revolutionaries or Islamic fundamentalists to define me as who I am — as an Iranian student in the U.S. We knew who we were, we knew where we came from. We were proud of who we were, we were proud of our heritage. We were aware of our shortcomings, but we knew that the narrative that’s being told about us and about our country was false. So of course, we weren’t going to sit down and just be quiet.”

Part of speaking up, according to Shahryar, meant working tirelessly to separate themselves “from the brutality and backwardness of the [Islamic] regime, to the people in our host country.” “I had to convince my American neighbor that I’m not a terrorist,” says Shahryar. “I’m not a hostage taker. I’m, if not more so, against a regime that’s conducting themselves against all international laws. I’m a law-abiding human being that respects other humans and respects other religions.”

For some of these exiles, this mangling of personal motivations with the political reality of the situation clouded their expectations, so much so that even an objective as glaringly futile as overthrowing the Islamic regime from more than 7,000 miles away often appeared to be just within reach. What else explains why, for the remainder of his life, my grandfather kept a fully packed suitcase ready, so that at a moment’s notice he could board a plane back to Tehran? Or why, according to my dad, he would buy new clothes and before ever wearing them, he’d pack them away in that same suitcase, preserving their newness until he was back home?

It’s precisely this species of delusion that explains why news of an Iranian leader’s assassination can compel exiles — ones who’ve spent more of their lives outside of their homeland than in it — to envision their return as though it’s destiny. Sociocultural anthropologist Amy Malek examined similar scenarios in her book on Iranian exiles, Displaced, Re-Rooted, Transnational Considerations in Theory and Practice of Being an Iranian outside Iran. In it, she quotes Hamid Naficy, an early scholar of the Iranian diaspora, to explain the way in which memory of a pre-revolution Iran maintains its grip on exiles: “What turns an émigré, expatriate, refugee, immigrant or a person in diaspora into an exile is [a] double relationship to location: physically located in one place while dreaming of an unrealizable return to another.”

This limbo, marked by a feeling of being in two places at once, and as a result, stuck in time, is, according to Harris, a common symptom of “exile life.” “Edward Said [a professor of literature at Columbia University] wrote about this as the Palestinian exile,” says Harris. “He said that you feel torn between multiple spaces, you don’t feel like you belong, but you know in many ways that what you left is actually never going to be there when you get back, if you’re honest about it.” 

To that end, Harris tells me that the point of Naficy’s book was to “reflect on how exile culture freezes history, and freezes these things in amber. So obviously, over time, when the homeland starts to change, that creates a lot of emotional tumult. You can blame the change on whatever, but the fact that it’s changing alone is a source of discomfort.” 

Perhaps subconsciously, then, and over time, the objective of regime change for a group like GAMA is almost besides the point. “These things help bind people together,” says Harris. “When you’re an immigrant or in a diaspora situation, you have identity crises all the time. So I really think it’s about binding people together and recognizing someone else is just like you. That makes you feel that you belong somewhere.” 

To Said’s credit, he says that he’s under no illusions that Iran hasn’t drastically changed since he was last there in 1978. “Of course, it’s changed,” he says. “Just like I’ve changed.” Some things, however, never change. For members of the Iranian diaspora and their sons and daughters, the decor inside Nooshin and Shahryar’s current home in L.A. is so familiar, it might as well be ritual. In the corner of their living room, vaguely hidden behind holiday cards and framed pictures of their family on vacation in Cancun, an Iranian flag with the lion and sun is unfurled, but not displayed. In the other corner, a large coffee table book titled Iran Modern, with an image of the Shah and the Queen, rests on a book stand. Below the TV, a series of black-and-white images — all of which feature the Shah, the Queen and Shahryar’s father, who was a diplomat in the Shah’s regime — enshrine a past that’s come and gone like a dream you often talk about so as to never forget it. 

In this context, it’s important to note just how hard the members of GAMA threw themselves into the cause during the early years, and that such devotion and the hours spent building a grassroots political movement didn’t come without its cost. “A lot of us lost a lot of opportunities in terms of education, in terms of income, in terms of everything,” says Said. “But I don’t think a single one of us ever sat down and regretted it. I mean, I know I lost 10 years of my life, but I never regretted it.” 

Still, such urgency inevitably fades with time. What was once a movement of 400 active members, several of whom dedicated eight hours a day to movement-related activities, slowly dispersed into smaller, less virile factions once the former students became husbands, wives, mothers and fathers. “We got up one morning and noticed we don’t have milk for our daughter,” says Shahryar. “So that, for me, was the turning point — [the sign] that I have to create a balance.”

By the early 1990s, according to Malek’s book, there was an increasing acceptance among Iranian exiles that their conditions would likely never change. “Many finally chose to unpack their metaphorical (or, in some cases, literal) suitcases and begin the work of settling in their new homes with a fresh, if reluctant, sense of permanence,” she writes. “Poet Majid Naficy expressed the experience of this eventual acceptance after years of exile in his celebrated 1994 poem, ‘Ah, Los Angeles!’: ‘Ah, Los Angeles! / I accept you as my city / And after ten years / I am at peace with you.’”

For his part, Said tells me that he no longer feels like an exile, having decided to become a U.S. citizen following 9/11. “I was on my way to LAX to take a flight, to go to Boston for a meeting, and I got a call from my brother-in-law and he was crying,” says Said. “He lived in New York. I remember my emotional state that, goddamn it, those sons of bitches are following us here. And at the time that I felt that, [I thought], You know what? This is my home. I lost one home. I’m not going to lose a second.

Said says that even though he was already married with a son, he still hadn’t wavered in his ambitions to return to his country of birth until that day. “From that day onward, the issue for me was that I have two faces,” he says. “There is one that belongs to the past as an Iranian in exile. And there is another as an Iranian-American. I do look at it in different ways.”

Nonetheless, both Shahryar and Nooshin claim to be “very active” in other “international groups.” “As an obligation to help at least to be the voice of those people [Iranian citizens],” he says. “Beyond being an Iranian originally and it’s our motherland, we’re also human beings. As human beings, we can be the voice of another individual or person being punished and killed. So that’s the obligation we still have.”

All of which brings me back to the night of Soleimani’s assassination, and the frantic, jubilant group texting that followed. Though, as Said cautions, “Let’s not lose sight of the jungle because one tree has fallen.” He unequivocally believes that the killing of Soleimani was the right thing, while also conceding that “the Islamic Republic regime is full of Qassim Soleimanis.” 

Whether you agree with his stance or not, one thing is evident: For these political exiles, their Iran, the Iran before the revolution, continues to endure. Although, with each passing day, its memory decays like stucco, the illusion still reveals itself in fractured pieces that are cast in gold. A flag, a song, a black-and-white image, the smell of scorched rice. Or, most palpably, a flurry of text messages between fellow exiles who see the news of this latest assassination not as a sign of the end of the world, but rather a way to once again feel unbound by the limits of space and time.