Friday, September 15, 2006

Roya Hakakian and SAVAK: another changer

When I was writing about the 1979 Iranian revolution I asked the following question:

The Shah's secret police--SAVAK, usually referred to with an adjective such as "dreaded" or "hated" before the acronym--was active in Iran to stifle those who would oppose him. There is a great deal of controversy over just how dreadful SAVAK actually was in the larger scheme of things. Was it a wide-ranging and indiscriminate effort to track down, torture, imprison, exile and/or murder all those who dissented, or who even were thought to dissent, much like the operations of the Soviet KGB? Or was it far more benign, only dealing with those who would violently overthrow the government (such as Khomeini and his henchmen), and using torture only sparingly?

Recently I read the book Journey From the Land of No by Iranian-American writer and poet Roya Hakakian. She was raised in Iran in a Jewish family, and as a twelve-year old she experienced the 1979 revolution. Her book is a meditation on the profound dislocations of that time for herself, her relatives, and her friends.

Hakakian touches on her childhood memories of whispers about the dread SAVAK, which became a sort of boogie man to her. She writes:

Like God, SAVAK was ubiquitous and omnipresent in the national imagination...Dignity was what SAVAK deprived the nation of most...To escape its ominous attention, every citizen hid what was on his mind and learned to talk in a way that his true thoughts would not be obvious.

Certainly a frightening portrait.

Right before the Revolution she listened to a revered young woman friend named Bibi talk about the wonderful Ayatollah Khomeini (she refers to him as "Agha"). As in a fairy tale, he would make everything better:

Agha is the one who will set us free...Agha is the angel who'll chase the devil away...He'll not have cronies like the evil Shah...A revolution is on the way. Agha will make poverty history. We'll be free to say and write anything we want because when Agha comes, SAVAK will be history too.

A sensitive and literary child, Roya loved the renowned Iranian children's classic The Little Black Fish, which she read over and over. But Bibi told her a terrible tale of what had happened to its author:

SAVAK killed him...They snatch you away, torture you, even kill you if you say something against the shah. That's what they did to the writer of The Little Black Fish. They put his feet in a block of cement and dropped him into the River Aras in Azerbaijan.

Of course, as we now know--and Roya learned--the Revolution betrayed the trust of Roya's friends and family. Roya reports that by 1984, at the time of Iran's war with Iraq, she dreamt every night of murdering the Ayatollah. And by then the Shah's SAVAK had been replaced by the even more dreaded and intrusive SAVAMA, secret police of the mullahs.

And what of Bibi and her veneration for Agha? Kakakian meets an old friend who tells her the news. Just a few disillusioned months after the Revolution, Bibi had joined the People's Mujahideen, an opposition movement. She's written a protest essay and read it in class and was reported by a fellow student, imprisoned, and tortured.

Roya suggests visiting Bibi in prison and bringing her a copy of The Little Black Fish, a book they both had loved. But her friend explains that wouldn't be a good idea. It might depress Bibi too much, because of what she'd learned in prison, to wit:

[The book's author] Samad Behrangi had not been drowned. There had been no cement blocks. No cruel interrogation by SAVAK. A poor swimmer, he had drowned on his own. When news of the drowning reached several leading anti-shah intellectuals of the time, they saw it as an opportunity to pin it on the shah to fuel the public's resentment of him. One of the pivotal legends that had tormented a generation and ignited the revolution had been nothing but a hoax. A strategic maneuver! A little lie between revolutionary friends! What of it?

What of it, indeed? Fake but accurate, no doubt.

And I wondered what happened to those anti-shah intellectuals who'd thought up the brilliant deception. Did they end up like so many others, swallowed by the revolution they helped bring about, perplexed at the strange and horrific turn events had taken?

[NOTE: I tried researching the story of the death of author Behrangi to see if I could determine the truth. It was impossible to do so. Different versions are offered, depending on the politics of the writer. Perhaps Wikipedia summarizes it best:

Behrangi drowned in the Aras river. It is rumored that he was killed by the agents of the Pahlavi government of Iran, because of his outspoken manner regarding the corruptness of the regime, while others believe that his death was accidental.]

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