02/03/2016 01:19 EST | Updated 02/03/2017 05:12 EST

The Trauma That Shaped Today's Iran

photo by dasar via Getty Images
view of Tehran

Excerpted from Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran

I started visiting Iran in 2004. The atmosphere was more oppressive than I'd imagined. The excitement over reform had obscured the conditions that rendered reform so necessary. What I encountered probably would have been familiar to anyone who visited the old Soviet bloc in days gone by, and it was undoubtedly less severe than in some neighbouring Arab countries. Still, this was a closed country, and no honest accounting for its politics could fail to acknowledge the fact.

Even ordinary Iranians made the practical assumption that their phones were tapped and e-mails read. Sensitive meetings were best arranged through elaborate chains of in-person contacts. Some of my interview subjects were routinely followed; others received harassing phone calls or were forced to report continually to the men who'd interrogated them in prison. A merchant I met in the bazaar slipped me a note to see him privately, which I did, on a busy street corner, where, sotto voce, he explained the layers of political control within his workplace.

This was a story that spanned the revolution itself as well as the three convulsive decades that followed.

Anxiety was a way of life in Iran, and you couldn't report on the country without sharing in it. Iran was not a place where one undertook any kind of opposition, even loyal opposition, lightly. And yet, to my never-ending amazement, this was also a country with a civic spirit that refused to die. The engagement of the Iranian citizenry, against all odds and in the face of pervasive surveillance and often violent repression, suggested lessons for the complacent democracy from which I came.

By the time I started going to Iran, the reformist experiment was apparently over. Many Iranians I met spoke of people like the hostage takers turned reformers and the outgoing President Khatami with bitter disappointment, as vehicles for little more than dashed hopes. I would spend the next ten years and five visits trying to piece together the story of how reform had coalesced, fallen apart, and surged forth as the Green Movement in 2009 -- what it stood for, where it fit into the stream of the country's consciousness, and what Iran was left with in its wake. This was a story that spanned the revolution itself as well as the three convulsive decades that followed. What Iranians lived in that time -- what they channeled through their intellectual salons and prison letters, their dreams and childhood memories -- felt to me like an epic novel, replete with calamities and reversals, crescendos and epiphanies, and a sweeping arc of history that cut through its core.


In Tehran in June 2005, I met a young blogger who had recently been released from a harrowing stint in prison. I wrote about Roozbeh Mirebrahimi's ordeal with the Iranian justice system in the New Yorker that fall. When he arrived on American shores a year later, speaking not a word of English, he came to live with my husband and me until he got settled and his wife, Solmaz Sharif, also a journalist, could join him.

We had strange days, sitting at my kitchen counter of a morning and comparing the Persian and English words for objects we could point to: garlic, banana, pepper. How easy, but inadvisable, it might be to say "chicken" when you meant "kitchen," and vice versa. We stayed up late at night with a dictionary between us, talking about Iranian politics, the one subject that could pull Roozbeh so far out of his shell that he became determined to communicate. The more fluent he became, the more I yearned for another fluency -- in the history of Iran's revolution and its aftermath that would allow me to truly absorb his life's story.

Roozbeh seemed to share an originary trauma with nearly every Iranian I got to know inside or outside the country. He spoke of a forbidden graveyard in his home city and of his childhood fascination with its provenance, which no adult would explain.

The revolutionary decade had been a violent one: street battles, bomb blasts, political executions, the brutal war with Iraq, and, finally, a seemingly senseless state-sponsored massacre of political prisoners. The country ostensibly moved on. But for Iranians who were children then as much as for those who were old enough to fear for their lives or question their own complicity, the 1980s were a repressed memory that gave the country no peace.

Excerpted from Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran by Laura Secor. Copyright © 2016 Laura Secor. Published by Allen Lane, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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