When the Shah fled, Jewish life changed forever

The Forward has this unusual account of 16th January 1979, the day the Shah fled Iran. It’s by a US Jewish woman, Karen Pliskin, then living in Shiraz.

“Twenty-nine years ago, on February 1, 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini landed in Tehran after a 25-year exile. Ten days later, he dissolved the monarchy and established the Islamic Republic of Iran, nearly four weeks after the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, sick with lymphoma and unable to control his kingdom, had fled the country.

“For months before Khomeini’s arrival, millions of Iranians demonstrated against the Shah. He had dominated Iran since the CIA’s 1953 coup that ousted the nation’s first democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq. While the army, trying to impose order, killed thousands of demonstrators, and strikes of all kinds were crippling Iran’s economy, Khomeini consolidated power from his perch of exile in France. By November 1979, Iranian student militants took over the American Embassy in Tehran and kept its personnel hostage for 444 days. That event has marred American policy toward Iran for nearly three decades.

“I lived in Shiraz, Iran, as a doctoral student in cultural anthropology from September 1978 until the day Khomeini arrived. I kept a journal then, in which I recorded conversations I’d had with Shirazi friends about the political situation, and maintained transcriptions of BBC’s coverage of Iranian national news. Most of my Iranian friends were from religious minorities who feared Khomeini and an Islamic state. The Pahlavi regime had abrogated the centuries-old discriminatory laws against religious minorities (Armenians and other Christians, Baha’is, Jews and Zoroastrians), which enabled them to participate in civil society, move out of ghettos, pursue university educations, and socialize with other ethnic and religious groups. Although the minorities dreaded that an Islamic state would re-institute the restrictive laws against them, they did not hold monolithic views about the Shah. This was evident the day the Shah took flight, January 16, 1979.

“Several hours before the Shah’s exodus became known, two of my Jewish friends discussed rumors of a coup d’état occurring that week. I, skeptical, asked one of my acquaintances, the American consul in Shiraz, his opinion.

“I don’t think there’ll be a coup for another nine to 12 months,” he predicted. “But if there is one, the United States won’t support it.”

“Maybe they’ll instigate it, I thought at the time, as I sat across from him in the consulate.

“After my conversation with the consul, I walked to the house of my close Jewish friends, the Hakeem family. Mrs. Hakeem, a 50-year-old mother of seven, opened the gate. Her eyes were swollen, her nose red.

“The… Shah… left,” she said, stammering. She wiped her eyes with a moist handkerchief. “I was listening to the 2:00 p.m. news. They announced that the Shah departed with the Empress Farah. He piloted a 727 by himself.” Mrs. Hakeem sat down and wept as if she were mourning the death of a close relative. “Our lives in Iran — after 2,600 years of being here as Jews — are finished.” She stood up, found another handkerchief and dabbed her eyes.”

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Commentary and pictures by Karmel Melamed

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