By Nilofar Shidmehr
I was nine in 1978 when the Iranian Revolution broke out. We were all caught off guard, even intellectuals like my father who were against the Pahlavi autocratic regime. My father had a dream of a free and independent Iran. In the early 1950s, he joined the leftist Tudeh Party, supporting the oil industry nationalization movement led by Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Even though he came from a cleric family, as a secular judge in the early 1970s my father believed in women’s emancipation and socialism. To showcase his independence and progressiveness, he changed our family name from Akhoundi, which means “clergy,” to Shidmehr, which means “sunlight.” He supported the 1975 Family Protection Law which immensely improved the rights of women and curtailed men’s unilateral prerogatives regarding polygamy, divorce, and child custody — the law that disarmed the clergy jurists from their power and authority.
Since I was a young child, my father planted the seeds of his dream in me: the dream of a time when we would be free of both the despot and foreign powers. Thinking that the revolution would bring the shah down and would establish a democratic regime based on principles of liberty, equality, and justice for all, our family took part in it. Participating in demonstrations was a real sensation. Even after forty years, I can still feel the thrill of being surrounded by thousands of charged bodies together in solidarity.
After the Black Friday, when the shah’s government ordered the army to open fire on demonstrators in Jaleh Square, the waves of protests breaking one after another became increasingly more massive. There was no separation between protesters: men and women, rich and poor, laborers and government workers, civil servants and bazaaris, the cleric and non-cleric, religious and secular, Muslims and non-Muslims, Persian speakers and non-Persian speakers, members of illegal political parties, Islamists and leftists, different factions of Islamists, and veiled and non-veiled women, all gathered together. There was no separation between people’s major demands: independence and freedom.
I stood between my parents, and my little sister was hoisted on my father’s shoulders. On some days my overweight grandmother who could hardly walk on her swollen feet accompanied us. Loyalties were aligned among the voices of the discontent. We shouted, “Shah must go!” When the shah appeared on the TV on November 6, 1979, to say, “I heard the voice of your revolution,” it was too late. His own resigned tone suggested he knew there was no hope for him.
The shah left Iran for good on January 16, 1979, and Khomeini returned from exile on February 1. On both occasions, people were beside themselves with jubilation. Boxes of sweets were passed around. Drivers honked their horns and pedestrians hollered victory, dancing in the streets. The next step was to dismantle the Bakhtiar government. To prevent another coup, everyone remained in the streets. The victory was near. At this point, nobody could think of any future disunion ripping them apart. Except a small minority, we were all joyful.
The division came as a result of the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran; in its constitution differences between people and their rights were directly or indirectly entrenched. I intuitively felt the danger of this division on February 10, 1979, when from my grandmother’s house in Saltanat-Abad (meaning “Built by the King”), I saw Kalashnikov-brandishing revolutionaries on motorbikes driving up Cyrus the Great Street. We heard gunshots in the street and my parents decided to take us to a safer location at my other grandparents’ house. The revolutionaries were heading to the SAVAK headquarters. The guns had fallen into their hands on the days before when they’d taken over military bases. My parents, one holding my three-year-old sister and the other dragging me who was shaking with fear, picked up their pace. A woman suddenly stopped them in their tracks to warn them that I’d gone completely white in face, jolting with every step. “Go get salt from a store and put it on her tongue,” the woman instructed my mother, which she did. We waited for a short time with a small group of others hiding in my favorite doughnut shop until the sound of the shooting receded. By the time we reached my grandparents’ house, the gun blasts were deafening. I became suddenly brave though, as was my character. The salt had worked. By then, the person who was shaking hard with fear wasn’t me but my teenaged uncle, who ducked under his desk, covering his ears with his hands. He came out only after the SAVAK Headquarters finally fell and a huge celebration ensued outside.
My mouth remained salty until the next day, which was the day of victory of the revolution. I sat on the couch beside my grandmother holding my sister on her lap, while other family members stood around. On February 11, 1979, a man’s exalted voice came on air from the main TV station, announcing, “This is the true voice of the revolution. This is the voice of the Iranian people.” At this memorable moment, the sweet sensation I’d felt during the demonstrations returned to me.
My research tells me that this voice belonged to Ahmad Kasila, a poet and a literary program host. It also reveals that some people, including the current Supreme Leader of Iran, Kahmenei, heard a different voice broadcast one hour later from a smaller branch of the same radio station. That second voice announced: “In the name of God. This is the voice of the Islamic Revolution.” It belonged to Sheikh Mahalati, a cleric who, after the establishment of the Islamic regime was appointed as Khomeini’s representative in the Revolutionary Guard. These two voices display the split between parties that compromised the revolution. One party consolidated power and suppressed all other voices. No record of the first radio broadcast exists on the internet.
The party that silenced other voices coined the Iranian people’s revolution in the name of their ideology; founded a theocratic, totalitarian regime that executed and purged all opposition over the last forty years (including some of their own factions, e.g. reformists); and sent thousands into exile. It made wearing hijab compulsory and abrogated the progressive 1975 Family Protection Law and replaced it with Shia Sharia civil and penal codes that discriminate against women.
My family and I are beneficiaries of the revolution and its achievement in overruling the attempts made by the United States and Britain to meddle in Iran’s affairs and to control and exploit its oil, resources, and people. We are also the victims of the domination of the one voice that deprived multiple others of their share of political, social, and cultural power. As a child, I was forced into wearing the veil; as a young mother and divorcee, I was forced to give up custody of my daughter; as a writer, I faced censorship; as an Iranian citizen, I was forced out of the country. The history of my motherland after the inception of the Islamic Republic of Iran is the history of a divided and oppressed people — the same people who, in their unity, had demanded social justice, independence from colonial and imperial powers, and freedom for all.
In my book Divided Loyalties, I tell stories about people’s lives after one totalitarian regime replaced another, and the impact on their sense of truth and falsehood during the last forty years of censorship, erasure, and propaganda. My fiction is informed by the story of the revolution, of the real people who wanted and still want an Iran for all Iranians, and whose multiple voices can converge and still each be heard. The voice of the first broadcast on the day of victory still reverberates in my memory: “This is the true voice of the revolution. This is the voice of Iranian people.” To this day, my loyalty to this voice, to the real spirit of the 1979 Revolution, and to my father’s dream for a free, autonomous, and just Iran, remains undivided.