This time, I remember


We’re sitting around my parents’ dining room in Century City for Shabbat dinner, and the conversation veers toward our childhoods in Iran.

My cousin, who’s a few years older than I (though you’d never guess it by looking at her, because she has that remarkable ability to forgive the world instantly for all its cruelties), is talking about the big house on Shah Reza Street where I grew up — how grand and magnificent it had seemed to her in those years, how every time she came over with her parents and sisters, she felt awed and startled by the vast garden with the many pools, the high, forbidding walls of yellow bricks, the outsized halls and heavy velvet drapes and 12-foot-high French doors that opened onto tiled balconies with wrought-iron railings.

Across the table from her, another cousin, this one from the other side of the family, concurs. “We were scared to talk or move or, God forbid, play there when we came over,” she says. “That just wasn’t the kind of place where you did silly childish things,” she says. “It seemed like everything that happened there was serious and important and dramatic.”

They go on like this for a few minutes while my mother fusses with the dinner.

They’re playing that “Do you remember?” game I dread because I’m so bad at it, because I don’t remember anything — ever — unless I’m writing about it; it’s like I read a book of stories once and memorized every line, and after that I stopped seeing or learning anything ever again. So I never participate in these reminiscences and certainly never encourage them; I try to slip away unnoticed when the conversation begins or, if that’s not an option, I explain that I’ve been in a coma my whole life, I’m brain-damaged, yes, I’m sure I was there, right along with you, when all this happened but I might as well have been on Mars for all the impression it’s left.

Except this time, I know exactly what they’re all talking about.

I remember the house — every corner and back door and hidden stairway in it, every ancient tree and life-sized statue and fresh-water pool in the yard, every rusted metal gate, razor-wired brick wall, secret passageway and narrow tunnel and dark alley. I remember all the rooms, the kitchens, the servants’ quarters. The French, hand-carved furniture, Czech crystals, Persian rugs, Italian marble floors. To me, it had the aura of a place in decline — a fortress of pride and vanity, built with the kind of care and attention that implies unwavering faith, unabashed arrogance, a certain confidence in one’s immortality.

Built by my grandfather when his children were very young, it had stood stalwart against the decades and the many turns of history, resisted the carnage of time and the pull of entropy, the many upheavals in the city’s constitution, the decay of the streets, the onslaught of traffic, the mass immigration from the countryside to the city. And yes, it was indeed the scene of great drama and outsized stories, not the kind of place that tolerated childhood. So when my forever-young cousin turns to me with a bemused smile and asks, “Do you remember?” I can actually say “Yes, I do remember, this one I remember well.”

What I can’t say is how shocked I am to learn that we all have such similar impressions, all these years later, of the house on Shah Reza Street. That I never thought anyone else would remember the place as I did, never knew how much of what I remembered was factually correct. I never knew how much larger, more theatrical that house had become in my imagination, how different — smaller — I would find it when I went back to Iran.

It’s been 30 years since I saw the house, I want to say, and this is the first time I realize that other people saw it as well, and perhaps in the same way. It’s been 30 years since I left Iran, and I still know I’m going back some day, because I have to see that house again, to stand before the yard door and discover if it’s indeed 12 feet high, or if I’ve imagined it so, to ring the doorbell and see if I can hear its chime echo up and down the street. Everything else I knew or thought I knew about Iran has changed with time; even my sense of belonging, my sense of familiarity with the people and the language and the customs of the place, has faded beyond recognition, but somehow, I know it will all come back the minute I see the house, that I will recapture all my lost memories, be able to tell truth from fiction, to put together the many pieces of myself that now lie across the landscape of time.

I would go back to the house some day, I’ve always thought, and no matter how old it’s become, how many other families have lived in it and how many changes it has undergone, I will walk into the first floor hallway and smell my grandfather’s cigarette smoke, climb the steps to the second floor and find my older sister, so quiet and innocent the teachers call her “the holy mother,” listening to Barry White while she does her math homework. I will walk into the bedroom where the three of us girls sleep and see my old bed just where I left it the day we flew out of Iran for what turned out to be the last time. I will open the closets and find my old clothes, pull the drawers and rescue my plastic dolls from their 30-year slumber.

My childhood. My parents’ youth. My little sister with the hazel eyes and the red hair and the tiny hands holding popsicle sticks as she walked around the house on scorching summer afternoons, the orange ice melting against her impossibly white skin. My beautiful aunt with the dark brown eyes and the short, short skirts, the red patent-leather boots, the fearlessness with which she announced one day she was going to America — “to New York, or L.A., or whatever,” she said — to study.

Half an hour into the meal, my mother has finally finished running back and forth into the kitchen, bringing out a new dish every three minutes and chiding the kids for not eating enough, all this dieting will make you sick your bones will hollow out you won’t be able to study your skin will turn grey hasn’t anyone warned you about the dangers of malnutrition?

“You have,” my little niece whispers quietly, “just about every week.”

My mother ignores the response, sits down at the table and overhears the conversation about the house. She puts a plateful of rice in front of my younger son and says, as casually as if she were still talking about food, “They tore it down.”

The others are too engrossed in the chatter to take note of what has been said, but I turn to her and ask, “What’s been torn down?”

“The house,” she says. “They tore it down.”

She has said this too matter-of-factly, with too little emotion, so I don’t believe we’re talking about the same place.

“What house?” I ask. “Who’s ‘they’?”

At the other end of the table, my cousins and sisters have stopped talking; my daughter, who’s been taking Farsi lessons at UCLA and is therefore more attentive than usual to family talk (what she calls “Persians’ strange stories”) is looking at me as if to glean the importance of some house being torn down somewhere in the world.

“I don’t know who ‘they’ are,” my mother says. “But they tore down the house on Shah Reza Street. My brother drove by the other day and saw it was all gone, the whole place has been leveled, probably a while ago already.”

For a moment, no one speaks. I don’t know what the others are thinking but for me, the news has repercussions greater than can be processed in the course of one evening or one whole day. I’m not sure what it means, or why I hadn’t been told sooner, or why my parents don’t seem particularly disturbed by this.

I don’t know why my sisters don’t ask, why my cousins slowly pick up the conversation and go on in the same vein, playing the “Do you remember” game about a place that, until minutes ago, had been eternal, everlasting, my true North.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

Hide ‘n’ seek no child’s game in fleeing Iran


Ruben Melamed is an 80-year-old Los Angeles-area businessman and a fifth cousin of mine who escaped near death in Iran. I did not know of his story until recently, when I began searching for stories of Iranian Jews who escaped their homeland during the revolution some 30 years ago.

In the late 1970s Iranian authorities wanted the assets of the prosperous businessman and pharmacist. Melamed’s business was valued at nearly $40 million, including laboratory equipment.

He had been an important member of the Central Jewish Committee in Iran, which oversaw many aspects of Jewish life in the country. He published his memoirs in Persian a few years ago, and he remains one of only a few local Iranian Jews who have been willing and unafraid to share with me his experiences during the Iranian Revolution.

When the demonstrations in the streets of Tehran began in the early days of the revolution, the normal workaday life of Iran came to a standstill because of widespread strikes. As a result, Melamed and his family left Iran for Los Angeles with few belongings, thinking that they would return home once a new government was formed in Iran.

After Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in Iran, Melamed, who had not been able to find work in the United States, decided to return home in mid-1979. He hoped to resuscitate his large business, which had been inactive for months.

“Looking back on the whole event, I can say I was tricked by Khomeini’s assurances that nothing would happen to those who fled Iran but wanted to come back,” Melamed said.

He discovered it was a mistake when Revolutionary Guard members came to his office, seeking to arrest him after interrogating his partner.

“They had just killed Habib Elghanian [leader of the Jewish community in Iran], and I was next on their list — the new Islamic regime that had come to power wanted to get their hands on my assets,” he explained. “So they placed a label on me that I was a Zionist who had worked as a member of the Central Jewish Committee in Iran and that I had participated in the World Zionist Congress.”

His company was seized by the regime. He was forbidden to conduct any business in Iran, and he was placed on a list of people forbidden to leave the country. For the next six months, Melamed hid in the homes of both Jewish and Muslim friends in Tehran and the city of Shiraz.

“I was very tired that I had burdened these people while living in hiding with them,” he said. “You have to understand that the Islamic regime had placed ads in the newspapers saying that anyone who helped or hid a person that was on the government black list would face the same punishment as the black-listed person — so everyone that was hiding me was frightened.”

After several months of living in hiding and fear, Melamed’s friends obtained a false passport for him bearing the name of “Ravin Aminpour.” They urged him to leave the country illegally. Being proud and stubborn, he initially refused the false passport and unsuccessfully sought to obtain formal permission from authorities to leave Iran.

“I was so tired from all of this running around that at one point, I was even considering giving myself up, surrendering to the authorities and serving a prison term for a few years,” Melamed said.

His father-in-law convinced him to pay 250,000 in Iranian currency and to accept an offer from a Jewish man who promised to place Melamed on a commercial flight leaving Tehran without having to go through airport security.

A few days before his flight was to leave, the Jewish man who had promised to help Melamed informed him that he would not be able to get him on board the plane. Instead, he would help him at the airport if authorities were going to arrest him.

His friends devised a plan. Two of them would wait outside the terminal in a car with the engine running, in case Melamed had to make a quick getaway. Two other friends and a Revolutionary Guard who had been bribed would wait inside the terminal to help the businessman escape if something went wrong.

On the night after Yom Kippur, in September 1980, Melamed dressed as a construction worker. He had grown a beard to disguise himself and carried the false passport.

The businessman was able to get through the airport undetected, even though signs with photos of him were posted on the airport walls.

“After I boarded the plane, the engines revved up, the plane was readying to take off and I thought I was safe — but suddenly, the plane stopped, and the engines were turned off,” he said.

“Five armed Revolutionary Guards immediately stormed onto the plane and were demanding to see Ravin Aminpour — and that was me. My heart just sank to the floor at that moment, and I said goodbye to my wife and kids under my breath as I approached the guards.”

Suspicious, the armed guards interrogated Melamed for 20 minutes on the plane. They accused him of lying about his identity as a construction worker going to Frankfort, Germany, to have a heart operation.

“The guard asked me if I was a former military general, and at that point, I discovered they were not looking for me but rather a different person they had mistaken me for,” Melamed said.

The guard eventually accepted his story and allowed him to return to his seat after Melamed agreed to see the guard when he “returned to Iran after 10 to 15 days.”

“It was a miracle that they had not removed me from the plane and taken me away, because they would have eventually discovered my true identity,” he said.

After the flight arrived in Germany, Melamed was able to obtain his legitimate passport, which a friend, another Jewish passenger on the plane, had been carrying for him. With a U.S. visa and passport, Melamed was eventually reunited with his family in Los Angeles.

“I was one of the people who managed to survive this revolution after I was truly burned and destroyed because of it — it’s something that I will never forget for the rest of my life,” he said.

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