The New York Times –
THE news of the exhibition of Holocaust cartoons in Tehran took me back to a moment in my childhood. In 1974, his first year at Tehran’s Academy for Visual Arts, my brother mounted an exhibition of his own cartoons. The drawings were a novice’s best attempt at political satire, but they were enough to alarm my law-abiding father into sending my brother away to America. Our family was never whole again.
Back then, I thought my father had made the decision out of fear of Savak, the shah’s intelligence agency. Years later, I realized that it was not really fear but gratitude for all that a Jewish man had been able to achieve in Iran that prompted him to send my brother away.
Born and raised in the largely Muslim town of Khonsar, my father was admitted to the university against all odds, got a master’s degree, joined the military as a second lieutenant, went back to his village dressed in the first Western-style suit the locals had ever seen, then moved to Tehran to become a leading educator.
His childhood stories remain the most memorable features of our family gatherings. Once a bad mullah came to Khonsar, intent on making trouble for the Jews; two mischievous Jews drove him out by secretly spraying his prayer mat with liquor. Then there was the time a local fish peddler realized that my father had touched a fish, thereby dirtying the whole load. The peddler threw the rest away, providing a feast of free fish to the Jews of the town.
And the best was this: When it rained for eight consecutive days, my grandmother stormed into the office of the school superintendent to protest the rule that Jewish students had to be kept home on rainy days. Moved by my grandmother’s plea, the superintendent escorted my father to his classroom, had him sip from a glass of water, then took the glass and gulped down the rest. He turned to the class and said: If this water is good enough for me, it is good enough for all of you. From now on, Hakakian will come to class in all kinds of weather.
More than any religious instruction, these stories shaped my understanding of what it meant to be an Iranian Jew. In Persia, the land of Queen Esther, whose virtue overcame evil, one could, by wit or by wisdom, overcome every bigot.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric about the Holocaust may terrify people who don’t know Iran. But those who do, find it, above all, tragic. By resuscitating symbols like the swastika and other Nazi-era relics, he is contaminating the Iranian social realm, where such concepts have scarcely existed. No doubt Jews have been mistreated in Iran throughout their long history, but to a degree incomparable to that suffered by Russian and European Jews.
Throughout its 2,000-year presence in Persia, the Jewish community has helped shape the Iranian identity. Some major Persian literary texts survived the Arab invasion of the seventh century because they had been transliterated into Hebrew. Traditional Persian music owes its continuity to the Jewish artists who kept it alive when Muslims were forbidden to practice it. Yet Iranian Jews have had to hide their identity and restrain its expression.
Of all the pain that Muslim Iranians have inflicted upon the Jews, the most persistent is obscurity. We have always been admired for being completely Iranian, the euphemism for being invisible, indistinguishable from Muslims. We speak Persian. We celebrate the Iranian New Year with as much verve as the next Iranian. Our kitchens smell of Persian cuisine. At our Jewish festivities, we dance to Persian music. In the United States, we have often angered our American counterparts for not wishing to pray in their temples, because we insist on conducting our services in Persian.
Yet Muslim Iranians, even those who have loved and befriended us, have never known us as Jews: in our synagogues, wrapped in prayer shawls, at our holiday tables recounting the history of our struggles. They lack even the proper vocabulary by which to speak about the Jews: What shall I call you, Kalimi or Johoud? They sometimes ask. These words are the Persian equivalents of Jew and kike. And occasionally, as if to inflict punishment, they ask: Do you consider Iran your real homeland?
Iranian Jews remain obscure to non-Iranian Jews, too. Sometimes they are shocked when I say that my generation was on the streets chanting Death to the shah! But 1979 was a blissful, egalitarian moment when young people shed everything that defined them as anything but Iranian.
Four years later, the regime did its best to instate policies and practices hostile to religious minorities. Water fountains and toilets at my high school were segregated, some marked with signs that read For Muslims Only. But by and large, Iranians were not receptive to such bigotry. We crisscrossed among the stalls until the signs became meaningless.
The post-revolutionary regime has had the misfortune of ruling a people reluctant to embrace its radical message. That is why Iran remains home to the second-largest community of Jews in the Middle East second only to Israel.
My father barely ventures out of his Queens apartment these days. When my siblings and I scold him for not getting out enough, he says that there is nothing here he wishes to see. Tell me we’re going to Khonsar, he says, and I’ll see you at the door.
Roya Hakakian is the author of two books of poetry in Persian and the memoir Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran.