Profile: Roya Hakakian
As rumblings of crisis again emanate from Iran, one woman’s harrowing journey out of that country provides secular Western eyes with a cautionary perspective
The dying Navy veteran in rural Georgia asked the CBS news producer if she understood what it meant to be bearing a story never told. His words registered like a thunderclap.
Roya Hakakian, the producer working on a segment for 60 Minutes II in 1999, understood perfectly; there was one significant story she had yet to tell. Although it had influenced her the most, she had spent much of her adult life avoiding it. That story was her own.
“Up until then I had kept everything private,” Hakakian, 38, explains. “I felt like it was the right thing to do to show my loyalty to that past.” However, the encounter forced her to realize that she could no longer keep her own history buried deep within the privacy of personal memories. And not long after, she quit her job at CBS and spent two insomnia-filled years, writing it down. The result is the lyrical, deeply felt Journey From the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran (Crown) in which she describes the exhilarating first moments of freedom during a revolution that turned to stifling suffocation under a cabal of mullahs.
Hailed by the Boston Globe as “a spectacular debut memoir,”Journey has earned Hakakian a shelf full of accolades and praise. Her poetic excursion into the past offers an unflinching firsthand account of what happened during those tumultuous years in Iran. Told through the eyes of a girl teetering on the edge of adulthood, the book takes place between 1977 and 1984. As she herself goes from a girl to a woman, Hakakian’s country transmogrifies from a modern, secular nation into an autocratic theocracy. And practically overnight, Iran’s 2,500-year-old Jewish community, one that predated Islam, is eviscerated, branded a pariah. But at its heart, Hakakian’s tale is the story of a sensitive and precocious young girl’s search for her own voice during a time of cultural, social and political repression.
At a time when Islamic fundamentalism once again dominates the headlines and America has declared war on terror with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hakakian’s elegiac portrait has resonated far and wide, embraced by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Says Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Elizabeth Frank, who had encouraged Hakakian to write during a nonfiction class at the 92nd Street Y in New York, “I’m not surprised that the book has received such a wide appeal. Roya has interwoven these stories about a young woman in a culture that seemed to be opening up but then fell to a harsh regime, the destruction of the Jewish community, a coming-of-age story and a revolution by people that today are both a source of great fear and fascination. And it is written in beautiful prose with great detail and poignancy.”
Journey has struck a particular chord in women. During readings in Los Angeles, which has the largest population of Iranians outside Iran, Hakakian says women have erupted in crying jags. “I was the greatest hero in their lives,” she says. “Especially for the women who left Iran and came here and were invisible people without a past. Suddenly they were mothers and everything was forgotten. It gives them a document that they weren’t invisible.”
Hakakian, whose oval face and impossibly large brown eyes have been likened to a Modigliani painting, is part of the recent movement of exiled Iranian writers who have pulled back the veil on Iran. The list includes Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran(Random House) and the two-volume graphic-novel memoirPersepolis (Pantheon) by Marjane Satrapi—both of which have become best sellers. That Iran’s literary confessions are being voiced by the nation’s most muted members, its women, comes as no surprise to Hakakian. Folding her long legs beneath her on a worn velvet chair at a New York café during a break in her cross-country book tour she says: “In some ways writing and words are the poor persons choice of art. As a woman in society where so much is denied to you, it is the easiest form of direct expression. It became my means of survival. It was a weapon. Early on the world turned against me but I always had a notebook.”
An accomplished poet, she has published two collections of poetry in her native Persian; the first, For the Sake of Water, received an honorable mention in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World. Recently, she became a guest commentator on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, where she has expounded on the misperceptions and racial tensions between new immigrants and blacks, the American hostage crisis in Iran 25 years later and the nuclear standoff between Iran and Israel. Last year, her UNICEF-commissioned documentary on children soldiers,Armed and Innocent, was released to global acclaim.
Now at work on a novel that examines what she calls “the decadent underbelly of Iranian society in Tehran,” Hakakian says she hopes that in exorcising her past in Journey she has tapped into a deeper and more universal cautionary tale. “Among the many things I convey is that a secular society can transform overnight into a fundamentalist society. I hope readers understand that this is not something happening elsewhere, but a society can be very modern and secular and in a matter of weeks and months can totally transform itself.” The great tragedy of the Iranian revolution is not that it happened but rather how it manifested itself. “Nobody regrets it,” she says. “It had to happen. Most people regret that we went from where we were to a religious theocracy, not a democracy.” And when she looks at the events unfolding in the Middle East today, she observes that “this is not a small threat. Religion is an alluring concept. It is easy to succumb to it because it makes grand promises. The whole world is struggling with religion and how much of a role it should play in our lives.”
Hakakian’s story puts a nuanced face on what it was like to experience the events that changed not only Iran and the region but countless lives. Hakakian says that Iranian Jews note that Journeyis the first account to recognize the role of Jews in Iran and the revolution. “The community is really heartened and excited that these are stories we all know. They are not history but our own little secret,” she says. Moreover, Hakakian has validated the story not just of Iranian Jews, but of millions of average Iranians. This is the chronicle, she says, not of a person of the Iranian elite who lived a life of privilege but “of the girl next door who saw it fairly and squarely.”
The only daughter of an intellectual Jewish family, Roya, whose name means dream in Persian, was seduced by the promise and hopes of the Iranian revolution that deposed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979. However, Hakakian, like the rest of the world, soon learned that the promise of liberation from the elitism and oppression of the shah would be crushed by the reality of the violent, vise-like grip of Islamic fundamentalist rule.
Hakakian grew up in a mixed neighborhood of Muslims and Jews. Her house, No. 3 on the symbolically named Alley of the Distinguished, stood out not so much because of the mezuza on the doorpost but because of the famously abundant spray of juniper trees. While paradoxes abounded for a Jewish family living in a Muslim country, Hakakian says that during her childhood, “It seemed like being Jews didn’t really affect my relations with the kids in the neighborhood. We kept kosher, I didn’t eat at my friend Zayneib’s, but her brothers came to turn off our lights on Shabbat.”
She lived among a colorful extended family whose life followed the Jewish calendar but also remained firmly planted in the larger society. “I grew up in a very observant home. Our lives revolved around the holidays and rituals,” she recalls. But at the same time, her family took great pride in an uncle who was an assimilated Iranian. “He was the coolest, he was the most adapted Jew who passed so effortlessly into Iranian society,” she remembers.
A passionate, committed Iranian citizen with dreams of becoming a writer, Hakakian became a political exile at 19, fleeing to the United States in 1985 with her mother. Fearing the wrath of the shah, her three older brothers had decamped for America years earlier, while their father followed last, escaping through Pakistan.
Growing up under the restrictions of being Jewish and female in revolutionary Iran remain powerful forces in Hakakian’s life. Having watched as the defining factors for the women in her family (and Iranian society at large) were “motherhood and sacrifice, there was no individuality,” she has carved out a decidedly independent path. A graduate of Brooklyn College and Hunter College in New York, today she lives in Connecticut with her boyfriend of 12 years, also an Iranian, without children. “In my twenties it concerned my family,” she says. “But now that I am in my late thirties, they are happy I am with someone.”
And while her own family has remained observant in America, for Hakakian Judaism has come to play less of a prominent role than it did in Iran. “I seem to be mostly moved by Jewish aspects of history and less by the religious aspects of Judaism,” she says. “I am more fascinated by the way we seemed to have remained a nation and a culture across centuries. In those ways I feel the most Jewish.” It is, however, the decidedly Jewish concept of remembering to which she remains the most attached. “It is the one Jewish value that resonates the most with me. The part that makes us Jewish and enables us to survive as a nation is the fact that we remember.”
It is a theme that has reverberated throughout her work and life. “When you become a refugee what remains of your past is your memories,” she says. She now wants to apply this value to other areas of her life. Last year, Hakakian helped found the Iranian Human Rights Document Center in New Haven. “I want to contribute to the cause of human rights in Iran to make sure the victims are not forgotten,” she explains. “The idea is really to act as a witness.”
In many respects, Hakakian’s journey has delivered her not to a place but a state of mind. “The fact that I ended up in exile and the last 20 years of my life have been spent in the United States where I found refuge, convinced me at least that countries aren’t very reliable places,” she says. “Despite an emotional commitment to Iran, I ended up in a completely different place. Nationalities come and go. They shift more than values. Values and principles can’t be taken away like countries can.”