by: Ali Rezai, MD
There are days in your life that you may laugh at yourself and there are days in your life that you cry for yourself. But if there ever was one day in my life that I both cried and laughed at myself heartily, it was the Thursday June 3, 1982. On that day I found myself riding atop a huge camel that was taking its sweet time to cross a deep river in Baluchistan desert very slowly and very methodically. To be exact, I was one mile inside the border of Pakistan with Iran and exactly in the middle of nowhere. It was a depressingly hot and dry day in the middle of the desert and I felt all the sorrows of the world pressing on my heart. I had just crossed the border out of my homeland into Pakistan and I believed I would never be able to go back.
Our journey had started in Tehran at 5 o'clock in the morning where we boarded a plane to Chah-Bahar near the border and thereafter had been riding in a Toyota van all day long through the hot desolate desert that stretches across the border of Iran and Pakistan. The van proved quite adept at desert traveling and early in the morning when it came across a small river near Chah-Bahar it readily crossed it. We then disembarked in a small Baluchi village where we changed our clothing into the attire of the local people and tried to blend with them.
Calling that place a village was a gross exaggeration. It merely consisted of a handful of huts alongside a shallow river dotted with 20 or so palm trees. No young men were to be seen in the village. They were all out busy in their smuggling trade. For centuries that had been their profession. The land in that part of the world does not support agriculture nor any other significant human activity because of the dire scarcity of water. There were a total of 11 people in our group comprised of three families. There were five women, two men, and four kids. I and the other man changed our clothing quickly behind a hut and joined the group of village elders seated under the shadow of a Palm tree, while the rest of the crew were ushered into one of the huts.
The group of elders greeted us and we sat down amongst them. It was hard to guess their ages. Their leathery faces had been roasted in 120-degree desert sun over the years and were marred by deep furrows. They immediately sent a young boy to fetch fresh water for us, which was the dearest thing they could offer to their guests. The boy ran to the muddy river stream that we had just crossed and filled a pitcher and brought it over to the oldest man in the company. He took a sip and passed it along to the next man on his side, and so on, till my companion traveler received it. He who was an older physician from Tehran looked at the murky water and politely said he is not thirsty. Then I received that token of a prize gift that those nomads could offer in the middle of that destitute barren land and I did not pass over it. I took a sip from that murky water and gratuitously I passed it on to the next fellow. Thereafter I felt content in my own heart and gratuity in the eyes of those elders. We had bonded.
At 2 in the afternoon we passed some rocky outcroppings in the otherwise flat desert that according to our driver marked the border with Pakistan. Some among our travelers cheered, but I sank deeper into my ambivalent sadness about leaving my country. Ten minutes later we reached this rather deep river for which our Toyota van was no match. The age old means of crossing the river had been and still was camels. There were a couple of them on each bank of the river leisurely awaiting passengers. They were resting on the ground with their arms and legs tucked under their bellies and ruminating their undigested food while also wearing a sheepish smile on their nonchalant faces.
My two daughters, three and seven years old, were scared of those animals and immediately raised hell that under no circumstances they would mount a camel to cross the river. But, of course there was no alternative. I went first to show the girls that it was safe and I reached the other side in no time at all. Then sat down and rested while my wife and daughters crossed the river too. The girls soon made up their minds that there was nothing to be scared of and if anything that was fun!
Pleasant Perfume of Friendship
Both girls had been born in USA while my wife and I were undergoing specialty medical training in that country. Four years ago as we were finishing our studies a social turmoil had erupted in Iran aimed at ousting the Shah. My colleagues at the University of Chicago threw a sizeable goodbye party in my honor, as I had served them to my best while there, but also whispered in my ears that I better think twice before going to Iran at that perilous time. They predicted the Shah would topple and there will be drastic changes after him. I on the other hand was blinded by my love for the ancient land and naively believed that Shah would weather this storm too, like many others he had done so in the past.
I brought my daughters back to Iran so that they would not be deprived of the Persian heritage that I longed for them to have. It is hard for me to define Persian heritage, but let's put it this way: I wanted them to live in peaceful little houses that had brick courtyards and also had little gardens full of fragrant flowers. Then at night when the heat of the sun was gone and only moon shined with its ethereal mystery, they could let go of everything and immerse their soul in a piece of classic Persian music and the poetry of our greatest poet, Hafez, greeting them: "A salutation, like the pleasant perfume of friendship."
Once in Iran though I realized the "pleasant perfume of friendship" had vanished. People were angry and stirred up in daily street demonstrations demanding the fall of the Shah. In my view this movement was inevitable, but premature. In my judgment the Shah perhaps was the best ruler Iran could have for another ten years or so during which he would further modernize the Iranian system of government and economic administration. By and large he had done a lot single handedly, and could do some more. But on the other hand who could blame a nation who had risen up to rid itself of a dictatorship. That is human nature.
Upheaval in Iran
Dictators of course don't permit development of parties and political systems under their reign, and the late Shah was no exception. The only group he had to tolerate was the clergy who had a well developed pyramidal structure in place with the grand ayatollah at the top, and all other clergy under him down to the level of mullahs in villages. Thus when the time came for transition, we ended up with a system of theocracy ruling the country. It is not democracy, but a step in that direction. It is somewhat akin to communism, a system based on a belief system.
Inherent in the upheaval of 1979, though, was the warfare of Iranian petite bourgeoisie against educated elite. During the Shah's reign technocrats were the elite and grossly ignored the rest of the nation who were less educated and more religious. Now that the non-elite had taken over they took their sweet revenge. They did not trust the technocrats and sent them home in waves. They also imposed their own way of life over everybody else, which was more or less the mentality of the medieval times when Harun Al-Rashid ruled in Baghdad. Women had to be cloaked, daily prayers in government offices, banning ties for men, and reworking of the university curricula to fit Islamic Sharia. Soon it became apparent that free thinking is also forbidden. All human thoughts should conform to God's teachings as revealed by his prophets, and in our times, as revealed through the Supreme Ayatollah.
I was a new comer and not directly accused of any wrong doing, but I could clearly see the road ahead of me. My line of medical practice required that I procure sophisticated imaging instruments from abroad at considerable cost and set them up in a specially equipped location with specially trained technicians, among other things. I had to see a mullah and capitulate to his whishes for each and every one of these steps. It was just too much for my free spirit. We discussed the matter in the family and decided to go back to America, this time forever. In those days airports were closed for foreign travel and I had to exit the country on land. Hence here I was sitting on a river bank in Baluchistan, watching my family cross the river on camel back, and wondering what else lies ahead. I knew I would be lonesome in the new country, missing the old ways and the old days in my heart all the time. But I was willing to pay the price in order to live in freedom, and to see my family flourish in a free society.
By night we arrived at a village near the Pakistani town of Gwader which was to
be our home for the next five or six days, at least for the two men. Every day
our tour operator could procure 1 or 2 airplane tickets to Karachi and send off
some of the women and children. The first night was specially heavy on my heart.
I was thinking I have simply abandoned my ancestral land forever. I got up and
started walking in the courtyard. It was pitch dark everywhere and only the light
of millions of starts lit the desert sand under my feet. Then in the midst of
the dark night I heard music. Somebody had a radio on. It was a lovely piece I
had heard so many times back home, but on that fateful night, it went straight
into my soul. I listened and in the solitude of the darkness of the night I cried. You can hear it too.
Just For Humanity
In the next 10 days we all reached Karachi and bought tickets for Europe. Our entire group and some other Iranians happened to book on Air France for the 15th of June, knowing little what funny episode awaited us at the airport. On that night we duly fell in line to have our passports stamped and then board the plane for Paris. I was third in line behind two women from our own group, both of whom were US educated and fluent in English. But we had been forewarned by our smugglers that Pakistani immigration officers at the airport might find some flaws in our passport and attempt to collect a bribe from us. Best remedy, according to them, was to pretend we don't know English and they will let us go. The immigration officer who was a second lieutenant checked the passport of the girl ahead of me and said: "ma'm this stamp is forged, where did you get it?" The girl threw her arms in the air pretending not to understand English. The officer then repeated the question again, but this time in fluent Persian! The poor girl who didn't know what to do, again pretended she did not understand. The officer somewhat indignant and frustrated turned to me standing behind the girl and said: "This lady is Iranian and yet can't understand Persian?" I had to come up with some logical explanation in order to cool him down. I said: "Sir, she is from Azerbaijan and only understands Turkish." Needless to say I was hoping he wouldn't retort back in Turkish this time!
We were collectively told our passports were no good and we could not leave that night. We all gathered in a corner with broken hearts to discuss what to do. A whole hour passed and the plane's departure time was approaching fast. So, I collected all the passports and tucked in each one some money from the respective family. I made them into a tall stack and approached the desk of an assistant to the officer who was a sergeant and had been smiling at us all the time. I placed the stack in front of him and pointed to him to look inside the passports. He did and then passed the whole package to the immigration officer. He quickly collected the monies and laid the passports out in front of him for exit visa stamping. He of course needed some excuse for his change of heart, so asked aloud: "why should I do this?" In response to which, somebody in our group said: "For Humanity, Sir." The officer apparently was very pleased with that answer. He went through the whole stack of passports, stamping them one after another and loudly proclaiming after each stamp: "For humanity.... just for humanity."
It was nearly 2:30 in the morning when we finally made it onto the tarmac. Outside air was relatively cool and refreshing. The Air France plane was parked on the tarmac with its tail illuminated against the dark sky. I looked at the red and blue colors of French flag on it and told myself: 'my long ordeals and uncertainties are over, I have reached the civilized world again.' Ten minutes later the plane took off and started flying towards Paris within the free and unencumbered space that engulfs all humanity. I called on the stewardess and ordered drinks for everybody in our group.
En Route to Paris
The flight to Paris was a long one. I settled down in my seat, and having no more worries started sipping on my drink and reviewing the events of the past four years in Iran: why I came and why I was leaving. I loved my country and its people immensely, but there was no denying that they were years and years away from even a rudimentary understanding of democracy and societal etiquette. Shah gave them prosperity and they in turn plunged into decadent consumption. They would brag about their luxury cars or their underwear by Gucci. Alternatively, they would narrate to you at length about their trip to Paris over the weekend just to see the movie 'Last Tango in Paris.' Aim here was to impress you with their dedication and deep understanding of fine arts. Deep indeed. They would insist that the best scene was when Marlon Brando used some butter from the breakfast table to perform anal sex on the movie's starlet.
By the Fall of 1978 Shah was still nominally in power, but the government was crumbling. Most high ranking officials were fleeing the country like rats jumping a sinking ship. Nearly all government employees were on strike and their agencies were thus paralyzed. They would only show up at the end of each month to collect their paychecks.
My own institution was a University Medical Center that had been founded only four years ago in order to compete with likes of Mayo Clinic. It had a hospital with about 30 - 40 specialized physicians who had been freshly recruited from top institutions in USA or Europe. My colleagues and I were determined to carry on the mission of the Medical Center and specifically to have the hospital provide services to the Iranian people in those critical days. Our own director fled town in late October of 1978. An emergency session of physicians was convened and by unanimous vote I was elected to be the new director of the hospital. During the next year and a half I did my best to manage the affairs of that hospital and I am proud to report that during my administration it flourished and matured into a fully established university hospital. I turned it over to the country's university system after the turmoil had subsided. Nowadays it is one of the best medical universities in Tehran.
I readily admit that managing a large hospital, especially in those days of uncertain societal conditions, was quite a challenge for me. I had no prior experience in it and by the time I was done, the ordeal had left indelible marks on my psyche, making me mature up far beyond my age. Certain events were funny though. Our patients were mostly covered by insurance that would pay most of their hospital expenses. Those without insurance, however, would try to avoid paying out of their own pocket. One day a mullah entered my office and started a long soliloquy about how benevolent we the physicians of that hospital were that were serving the poor and sick population without any material expectations, etc! I asked him to get to the point. He said he is the main clergy in a remote village and had brought over a young girl of 13 years from that village for a vital surgery in our hospital. The operation had been done successfully and she is about to be discharged, except that she does not have even a penny in her name to pay for the hospital bill.
I reminded him that in those early days of post-revolution period everybody was trying to help and a special Islamic Committee had been formed in Baharestan Square just to help patients in need of medical help. The mullah said "I went there, Doctor, but they rejected me". He continued he had told them: "you call yourselves Moslems, but are unwilling to pay the medical bill of a sick Moslem girl... you are not Moslems" Then he dealt his punch line: "I will go and get this money from a gentleman who shaves his face, ... doe not do the daily prayers, ... and not even washes his rear-end after the toilet calls!!"
As you can imagine I was so hard laughing my heart out at his compliments that I signed the girl's hospital bill to be free and told the mullah: "here, get your patient and go, because I am afraid if you stay any longer, you will claim my suit off my back too."
The actual transition of regimes happened on February 11, 1979. On that day it so happened that my wife and I were moving some delicate household items from our residence in Northern Tehran to my parent's house in city center. We passed by a military camp in Eshrat-Abad area several times that day. The first time, around 8am, people were gathering in front of the military camp. By noon they were on top of the walls, and by 2pm, the gates were open and a lot of young men were roaming about each carrying a rifle. A young boy of about 22 waved at us to give him a ride and we obliged! He settled in the back seat and pulled in his G3 rifle with some difficulty into the car. He was very cheerful and quite talkative. I asked him what had happened, and he said that he had been a prisoner and just the day before street mobs had opened the gates of his prison and released them all. Today he had joined the mob that was liberating the military camp on our way. My wife asked him why he had been imprisoned in the first place, to which he answered nonchalantly: "I don't know... they said I had killed somebody."
The plane was approaching Paris and the Eiffel tower was becoming visible from afar. I remembered that the French had a major revolution too a couple of hundred years or so ago. They went through a rough course afterwards including several republics, a monarchy again, and the dictatorship of Napoleon. They are now in their fifth republic. I hope my beloved country finds its way sooner. Our final destination was Barcelona, which is an historic and lovely city on the East coast of Spain. We stayed there for 45 days while our US visas were being processed. The picture below shows the family there in an amusement park.
After the Shah and the technocrats the country has plunged into a state of poverty and chaos. There is no grand economic plan and there are no checks and balances. A small oligarchy of rich people are amassing wealth in billions and the remaining masses of people are struggling hard to make a minimum living by serving those rich classes, i.e., a revival of the medieval times of Harun Al-Rashid in Baghdad. The country needs to establish a system of rule of law and a strong set of societal checks and balances, including basic human rights, before it can start reaping the benefits of freedom that it so badly strived for. How long will it take? Maybe fifty years, maybe longer.