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Q & A with Neda Semnani

In 1979, Iranians living abroad, Neda Semnani’s parents among them, rushed back to Tehran to enjoy the fruits of the Islamic Revolution—only to find Khomeini an even more repressive leader than the Shah. Nursing a young family, Semnani’s mother gave up politics, detaching herself from the increasingly dangerous underground leftist opposition network. Semnani’s father hesitated to do the same, kept in touch with insurrectionists, and, on a hot morning in 1982, was tracked down and arrested. More than thirty years later, Semnani has pieced together the events that followed; you can read about them here, in our latest issue.

We asked Semnani  how her family’s story relates to Rudyard Kipling–style colonialism, America’s first coup, and foreign students’ activism at U. S. universities.

Lucie Elven: You condense an entire personal and political history into a few paragraphs of introduction to this one day, the day of your father’s arrest, in your essay “Memoirs of a Revolutionary’s Daughter.”

Neda Semnani: The essay is an adaptation of a section of a much longer memoir. The part I reworked for The Baffler is about the day my father was arrested by the “brothers,” the Revolutionary Guards of Iran, after the Shah was overthrown and Khomeini swept to power. It is a tick-tock of that last day—the last time my mother, my aunt, and I saw him alive. However, in order for the stakes to be set, for the tension to build, the essay begins with his execution the next winter—so the reader knows from the beginning that my father was executed and, since I am telling the story in the first person, they can assume at least some of us escaped. The question through the piece is “how”?

How did my parents, who met as students at University of California, Berkeley, and grew up in the United States, find themselves facing execution and exile? How did these two people who grew up together and loved each other arrive at the moment where they would have to separate in order for the family they created to survive? How does a person, how does a family, survive the complex trauma of revolution? Another question could be: how does a whole people do that?

So although there are no secrets—he dies and we escape—hopefully there is suspense, even mystery. And in answering the “how,” perhaps I can try to get at the “why.”

LE: For context, could you explain the relations between Iran and America before the narrative starts?

NS: My quick disclaimer: I am not an Iran scholar, an academic, or a historian. This is not an easy piece of history to unpick and depending on whom you ask, you will have varying opinions about the facts. 

Most people will agree that the geopolitical fates of the United States and Iran have been intertwined since 1953, which was the year of the coup d’état that ousted Iran’s then-Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. The coup was important for the United States, and for Cold War politics in general. It is generally touted as America’s first coup—the CIA was about five years old then, and for many reasons, including having to do with oil and a struggling United Kingdom, the Agency was tasked with Mossadegh’s overthrow. The senior agent in charge was a character called Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt, who fancied himself a Kipling-type hero. In other words, he believed in a heroic imperialism where the wealthy, adventurous Westerner, someone like a Kipling’s Kim, who he nicknamed himself after, or Lawrence of Arabia traipses into various Eastern nations in order to break them for the betterment of Western powers. In short, he thought of himself as a character in a 19th century epic.

Not only did Roosevelt help plan and execute the coup, but he was also one of the founders of a group called the American Friends of the Middle East, which was partially funded by the Agency. The AFME established the first iteration of the Iranian Student Association, which had its very first meeting in Denver, Colorado, three weeks after the coup. That first national meeting of Iranian students studying in the States had seventy-something participants and was reportedly contentious, because of the politics back in Iran. It foreshadowed all the difficulty to come. By that I mean that Iranians were divided between those who supported the Western coup and those who were against. By the end of the 1960s and throughout the 1970s, the political divisions between Iranians became more complex—no place was this more true than amongst the anti-Shah movement.

LE: Both of your parents, who were Iranian, studied at UC Berkeley. Why did so many Iranian students go west?

NS: One of the elements of foreign policy people overlook is the migration patterns of international students into America—at least, during the Cold War. By training the best and brightest, America could ensure their interests abroad were protected for a generation or two. The U.S. mainly saw an influx of students studying in the sciences and technology fields, like my father who was a mechanical engineer. My grandmother was trained as a linguist and spent her career at the Defense Language Institute, which is an educational facility run by the U.S. Defense Department. I had an uncle who was an officer in the Iranian military who spent some months in Washington, D.C., during the 1950s being trained by the U.S. Air Force.

So there was a policy aspect. But there was also a practical aspect. In Iran at the time there were something like eight universities, which didn’t have room for all the country’s smart young people. Young Iranians went to universities in Europe and the United States. There was a certain cache to be able to say you went to a U.S. university. Eventually, a sort of for-profit-university model popped up. According to a then-secret report commissioned by President Lyndon Johnson, by the late 1960s some Iranian families paid a ton of money to bogus universities to come to the United States to study, only to arrive and realize it was a fraud.

LE: And why were foreign students so engaged in politics?

NS: Well, the sixties came for everyone. It was the last gasp for the colonialist nations. All over the world, the colonies were declaring independence. In the United States, there was the Civil Rights Movement, especially in the south where many international students found themselves. There was a globalism to the sixties—there was something in the water, in the culture. Young people were creating and shaping popular culture, philosophy, and politics. For western youths, there was an element of fury and elation—they were changing their world, or that’s how it felt for many. For young people from nations without certain political freedoms, nations like Iran, coming to the United States, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, especially to places like the Deep South or Berkeley, California, must have been a heady experience. “Our minds were blown,” I was told more than once.

LE: Did your mother go back to being politically active later, back in Berkeley?

NS: Not in the same way. She was thirty-four, a widow and was raising two kids. She was also—politics becomes complicated after you live through the consequences, I think.

LE: The piece ends on a cliffhanger; could you say a little about your mother’s escape from Tehran?

NS: I can tell you she was very pregnant, and two of my aunts, my uncle, five-month-old cousin, and me, nearly three, left together. We, or the adults, thought we were leaving Iran by car, but we found ourselves on horseback and on foot for most of it. We were abandoned a couple times, but then basically limped into a town on the Turkish border. 

That was the first four days. Turkey was another situation and then we—my mother, aunts, uncle, cousin, and I—were separated.

LE: There were sections of your family’s story you didn’t want to tell in this account. What concerns did you have, when writing about the Iranian regime in the ’80s?

NS: Well—just by telling this story I am hurting people, figuratively. I’m pulling at scar tissue in a way. It’s been really, really hard. So that’s one thing. There are others, but that’s what I feel comfortable saying now.

Read Neda Semnani’s “Memoirs of a Revolutionary’s Daughter.”