“In the name of God the most merciful, the most benevolent,” the pilot announces as we touch down at Iran’s Mehrabad Airport. It’s nearly 3 a.m.—a damp and sultry summer morning in central Tehran. Yet even at this hour, the airport is clogged with people.
I have few memories of Iran; I was 7 years old when I left, and the trauma of the experience seems to have erased all the images of my childhood in this country. But I have never forgotten this airport. It has been 25 years, and I can still recall the bleak whitewashed walls, the immaculate marble floor, the stench of sweat and cigarette smoke wafting over my head.
The last time I was in this airport was February 1979—a few days after the fall of the shah, Iran’s weak-willed and incompetent monarch. I have a clear picture in my mind of being awakened by my father early one morning and told to grab my things. A taxi waited for us outside. I understood that we were going on a trip, but I had no idea where to or for how long. I’m certain we had discussed it. After all, we were already packed. Arrangements had been made. We must have had tickets. Surely we weren’t planning on simply showing up at the airport and fleeing the country in the midst of a revolution? Yet I have no memory of any of these things.
This is what I remember.
Arriving at this very same airport before dawn. A crush of people pushing through customs, desperate to escape Iran before the borders closed. Watching the customs officer rip open our suitcases one by one, helping himself to our valuables. When my father protested, the officer fingered my mother’s pearls and barked, “Would you prefer to stay with them?”
I remember linking arms and shoving our way through the frantic crowd, trying to board the last plane to London before it left. “Don’t lose your sister,” my mother cried out to me, her voice breathless, her face as white as the walls. It was a command she’d given me thousands of times before. But this time, there was an urgency to her voice that terrified me. I felt as though she were warning me that if I let go of my sister, she, like our valuables, would be left behind. I gripped my sister’s hand tightly and dragged her toward the gate, kicking at the crowd around me as if protecting her from a pack of wild animals.
Twenty-five years later, I stand calmly at passport control, trying not to act suspicious as I wait my turn to be called forward for inspection. Having spent the post-revolutionary years as an exile in the United States—land of “the Great Satan”—and having skirted my duty to fight for the Islamic Republic during its eight long, devastating, and ultimately pointless years of war with Iraq, I have been dreading the moment when I have to stand before an official to explain myself. I hand over my passport and smile innocently. He requests my birth certificate. I don’t have one.
“Why are you here?” he asks.
“Visiting family,” I say.
I have no answer for him. I don’t remember anyone who weleft behind. I don’t remember the home I lived in, the city I was born in, the relatives who raised me. I barely remember the language. At this moment I remember this airport and nothing more.
Actually that’s not entirely true. On the day the shah left Iran and the Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile, triumphant and ready to force his will upon the anti-imperialist, democratic revolution that ended 2,500 years of monarchy, I remember going downtown with my sister to join in the raucous celebrations taking place throughout the city. We carried with us two pitchers of Tang and a bag of Dixie cups that we filled and passed out to the hundreds of thousands of people marching and dancing in the streets. It was an apocalyptic moment. Everywhere I looked there were posters and placards of the brooding old ayatollah—the man they were calling the messiah.
I want to tell the passport official that I have nothing to declare but these two memories, unlinked by any narrative. Two episodes in a child’s life that could have happened back to back or could not have happened at all.
The official is annoyed, but he allows me to pass through. There are a few hundred people clamoring behind me, and he is no mood to waste time on me. I gather my luggage and step out into the muggy morning air. The sun has yet to peek over the massive Alborz Mountains, but already the city is bursting with life. I can smell corn roasting over open flames. Across the street, old men sit in a cafe drinking tea and smoking flavored tobacco. Everywhere there are families embracing. A walnut seller bumps into me; he bows and apologizes profusely, and suddenly I am flooded with memories I did not know I had.
I will be in Tehran for a month interviewing friends and family, clerics and politicians about the Iran I have only read about in newspapers and books—the Iran I myself have been studying and writing about for more than a decade. I’m here to find out what happened to Iran’s electrifying reformist movement. How, after 10 years in power, did they allow themselves to be unseated in the parliament by the tremendously unpopular hard-line clerical conservatives? Is the dream of transforming the Islamic Republic into an Islamic democracy still alive, or has it faded away like the recollections of a child? If the latter, then is it possible to revive the dream the way a memory can suddenly return simply through a scent, a sound, an accidental bump on the shoulder?