After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini’s secret police executed and imprisoned tens of thousands of dissidents in a sweeping attempt to destroy all opposition to the regime.
UT doctoral student Nastaran Kherad was one of many who were imprisoned after the revolution.
More than 20 years after her brutal incarceration and flight from Iran, she has decided to share her story in the memoir “In the House of My Bibi: Growing Up in Revolutionary Iran” (Academy Chicago Publishers, 2008).
Born in Abadan, Iran, Kherad was raised by her maternal grandmother, Bibi, a gifted storyteller and wise woman of the local community. But as she grows up, Kherad feels the pull of the modern world, represented in the ideals of her brother Mohammad, a political activist.
After her brother is imprisoned and placed on death row by the Ayatollah’s government, the secret police mount a search Kherad, accusing her of sympathizing with the anti-revolutionary movement.
At the age of 18, Kherad makes the choice to turn herself in, believing it will help reduce her brother’s sentence to life in prison.
Instead, Kherad was tortured and imprisoned for a year in the women’s cellblock of Adelabad Prison. Her brother Mohammad was eventually executed for his political beliefs.
“In the House of My Bibi” offers a powerful account of Kherad’s imprisonment, juxtaposed with the peaceful memories of her childhood that sustained her during her ordeal.
In the following interview, she reveals why she decided to tell her story, what it means to live in exile, and her hopes for the future of Iran.
Q: Why did you decide to write “In the House of My Bibi”?
A: “In the House of My Bibi” is a tribute to my maternal grandmother, and to my older brother, Mohammad, who was arrested for his liberal ideals, tortured and executed after 28 months of brutal imprisonment, at age 24.
All I left Iran with was my memories, which haunted me quietly wherever I went. When my grandmother died in 1996 and I wasn’t able to return to Iran and say my farewell, it seemed that suddenly the old wounds opened and the pain gushed through me all over again.
The only way I could cope was through writing, seeking, perhaps, solace and reconciliation. Writing, at that stage, was a form of mourning in ink. I had to write and tell my story on paper to keep my brother’s memory alive, and many people like him whose only crime was demanding the basic human right: freedom.
Q: What do you hope readers will learn from your story?
A: Today Iran is considered an Islamic country in the Middle East, a much controversial and misunderstood country in the West, yet one of the most ancient civilizations of the world. My hope is that “In the House of My Bibi” will help many curious readers who wish to explore Iran and to understand its recent history, its people, its culture, and its politics.
By telling my story of struggle and survival, I also hope to depict Iranians’ struggle for justice and democracy, especially women’s resistance against an oppressive regime, with the hope of furthering justice and liberty for those still suppressed and subjugated.
Q: What helped you get through your imprisonment? Did you always have hope you would be released?
A: Being imprisoned as a political prisoner who has no rights whatsoever, and under such tentative, horrifying conditions, one does not know what will happen next. With the thought of death hanging over your head at all times, one does not have much choice but to live life day-by-day and even hour-to-hour. Your verdict could change and be increased, for instance, from one year to 10 years if the prison guards were displeased with your attitude.
What kept me sane was seeing many others in prison who had to suffer much worse than I, and it seemed that my sufferings were nothing in comparison to theirs. By the time I was released from prison, in addition to my brother, six of my cousins and relatives, all under age 25, were already executed. So, maybe that had an effect on the prison official’s decision in letting me go. I guess God had mercy on my mother who had already buried her young son.
Q: What is your favorite memory of your grandmother?
A: What I cherished the most was our time spent over the rooftop under the stars on the summer nights. I loved and value so much her sense of compassion and respect for others regardless of what social class and background or ethnic group they belonged to. My grandmother was a natural storyteller who had a wealth of oral history, which she shared generously with so many around her.
There are so many beautiful memories, but what I always love to remember is her easy laughter and her chubby, high cheekbones and the way she always reminded me in her beautiful idiom: “babam, it doesn’t matter what others decide to do, you choose to be good!”
Q: You had a special relationship with your brother Mohammad—what do you cherish the most about his life and memory?
A: I don’t even know who I would have been without my brother Mohammad. I look back and feel so blessed to have known someone like him. He was very protective of me, kind to everyone, and compassionate and sensitive towards the deprived and the oppressed. He opened a new world of ideas to me and introduced me to literature and art.
He had such great sense of justice from early on. If my grandmother taught me to see the world with an intelligent eye, Mohammad taught me to stand up for justice and what is righteous. I am not nearly as brave as he was, and I always think of him when I find myself helpless in a situation and seek his strength.
Q: Do you consider yourself to be living in exile? If so, what does it mean to be an exile?
A: Since I cannot go to my native country, Iran, for fear of the government, I feel very much in exile. But even before leaving Iran, I felt marginalized and exiled in my own home country. Because of my political beliefs, and the fact that I was imprisoned, I was banned from attending the university or working in public businesses.
After my release, I felt the watchful eyes of Revolutionary guards everywhere. Before long, I among thousands and thousands of other dissidents, were forced to seek exile. Torn apart from my own culture and language, I began a new life in the West.
Since leaving Iran in 1986, I have experienced an unremitting life of migration and at times a sense of loss and displacement. But, I believe that living in exile has its advantages, it offers the individual a profound sense of growth, compassion for all, and a worldly outlook.
Q: What do you think is the future of Iran under the current regime?
A: I must have asked myself this question a thousand times. In the past 30 years the government has managed to eradicate the entire opposition groups, imprison and execute thousands of young people, and brutally crush the student movement. The Iranian people have become impoverished, and the Iranian government continues to violate human rights.
My only hope is that there would be concrete and constructive changes within the country through the young people, intellectuals, and academics. I also hope that Western nations will help the Iranian people achieve freedom and democracy, and hold the Iranian government accountable for violating human rights. The Iranian people deserve to live a peaceful, democratic life.
After fleeing to the United States in 1990, Nastaran Kherad earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree at California State University. She is now a doctoral student in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, focusing on Persian studies and exile literature.
Kherad will discuss and sign copies of “In the House of My Bibi” at 7 p.m., Jan. 14 at BookPeople. Visit www.nastarankherad.com for more details.