Q&A: Ebrahimi’s new book sheds light on life of Jews in revolutionary Iran

November 13, 2011

Three years ago I had the rare opportunity to interview Simon Sion Ebrahimi, one of Southern California’s prominent Iranian Jewish authors about his true life experience of being held hostage in his own accounting firm in Iran during that country’s revolution. In November 1979, when the U.S. embassy in Iran was taken over by armed revolutionary thugs, Ebrahimi and his partners were also held hostage inside their nearby offices by his armed employees.

Now 73, Ebrahimi recently published “Veiled Romance”, his first book in his fictional multi-generational Iranian Jewish family saga. The book is a twisted love story about two young Iranian Jews caught up in the whirlwind of Iran’s revolution. Ebrahimi is among a small but growing group of Iranian American Jews who have gathered the courage to write about the life-altering trauma they endured as Iran begun to plunge into the darkness of fundamentalist Shiite Islamic rule. I enjoyed the book and found that its correct portrayal of historical events in 1979 Iran offers non-Iranians a better perspective of the pure evil that is the current regime in Iran. After reading this very compelling story, I recently caught up with Ebrahimi to chat with him about his new book and experiences in revolutionary Iran. The following is a portion of our recent discussion…

The characters in this book encounter some of the same circumstances that you faced at the start of the revolution in Iran while being held hostage in your accounting firm. What was your main motivation in telling this particular story? Was it to tell your story but in a fictional setting?

My motivation in writing “Veiled Romance” was to tell the life stories of our people in Iran while at the same time addressing some of the questions many of us faced when we first immigrated to the States. A writer’s work is a blend of personal experiences with the power of imagination. “Veiled Romance” utilizes my experience of being taken hostage by my 500 employees on the same day— November 4, 1979 that the American Embassy compound in Tehran was raided by Khomeini’s followers. However I chose to tell the story from the point of view of another character, Leila, who personifies women who live under fanatic, autocratic regimes where they are, at best, treated as second class citizens. The 53 American Embassy hostages who endured 444 days of captivity were seen by Khomeini as agents of “The Great Satan”—America. I was merely a Lesser Satan: an Iranian Jew who, because his position, knowledge of the world and perspective on government and law, made him equally a threat to the new regime in Tehran. To sum up my response to your question, this state of affairs, which many Iranians shared during the Khomeini’s Revolution, begged to be told not just from my experience but from the experience of many people who have suffered from the Khomeini regime.

Many of your contemporaries in the Iranian American Jewish community have written their memoirs in the Persian language, so why did you decide to break the mold and write this book in English?

Numerous books, both fiction and non-fiction, have been written in Farsi about the events surrounding the 1979 Revolution in Iran. There is a big vacuum in English-language fiction on this subject and also on how Persian Jews have lived in Persia for over 2,500 years.  I believe that we need to approach English speaking readers who are curious about the way religious minorities were treated in Iran, not to mention millions of Americans of Persian descent who, regardless of their religion, are hungry to read historical fictions set in their homeland.

Your book is in English, but I noticed you’ve woven in many words in Persian into the story. So what were you trying to achieve with this unusual mixing of another language?

I believe this gives the work both authenticity and a sort of native flavor. You see, in every language, words and expressions carry their particular music, melody and message. For example, the Farsi word “aaraam,” as it has been employed in the novel, literary translated means “relax.” “Aaraam or relax,” I’ve asked many, “Which one sounds more soothing and comforting?” And “aaraam” has won the contest. By the same token, there are many instances that the reverse has been true.

Please explain the reason why your Iranian “thug” characters use such foul Persian language in the story?

I’m sorry, but I based that on my experience. I wouldn’t have been honest with my readers if I had censored myself. Although fictional, “Veiled Romance” tells it as it is. I’ve talked to many people who have been incarcerated in the Islamic Republic’s jails, and do they have stories to tell! I have a Muslim friend here who endured five years of verbal, physical and psychological abuse at “Evin”, the notorious jail of the mullahs. 

One of the book’s main characters, Cyrus, goes in depth about the anti-Semitism and the brutal beatings he encountered as a Jew living in the Jewish ghetto of Esfahan, also known as “Jewbareh”. How much of your own personal experiences while living in the Jewbareh did you incorporate into this story and what message are you hoping to convey to Iranian Muslims who may read the book about this anti-Semitism?

The brutality of our neighboring nomads was beyond words. Admittedly, some of my childhood memories are vague, therefore I conducted extensive interviews with the elders of my community to corroborate my own memories. Of course, as in any other community, there’s a major gap between the educated and non-educated. I have many Muslim friends who are shocked by some of the bitter experiences of my childhood and even adulthood. They don’t believe that we were considered “najes”, Farsi for “filthy” or “untouchable”, by Muslims in Iran. They have a difficult time believing what I say, and I don’t blame them, for I am not “najes” to them. These are the very people who helped break the hostage situation I was caught in. These are friends to whom I am beyond grateful for having saved the life of my family and myself. And the more they hear the stories of our people in Iran, the more they feel embarrassed for what their forefathers have done to us. My hope is that with “Veiled Romance,” my Muslim readers learn more about the history of their Jewish compatriots, because it is through knowledge that the walls of prejudice can be destroyed. 

What feedback have you received from Iranian readers of your book who are not Jewish?

The feedback has thus far been overwhelmingly positive from Jews and non-Jews alike. Many people have identified with the story and have been moved by it. On the other hand, one of my Muslim friends who ordered ten copies of the book to give as a gift to his friends tells me that one of the recipients of the book has called me a “Mossad agent!”

Can you please explain why you decided to include real life individuals from the Iranian regime such as the current Iranian president Ahmadinejad and the notorious late Ayatollah Khalkhali in your book?

From my office, I witnessed the American Embassy hostage-taking situation and, to be honest, although these hoodlums look very much alike, I can swear it was Ahmadinejad that I saw on the top of the Embassy wall. So, with that on my mind, he very easily fitted into the puzzle of my novel. As for the notorious Khalkhali who was known as Khomeini’s Angel of Death, he was born for my story.

Your book does not spare the details of the true brutality of the current Iranian regime and the bloodshed of the revolution. Do you think Iranian Jews like yourself who witnessed this brutality by the regime firsthand are perhaps the best individuals in the U.S. today to educate Americans on the dangerous nature of Iran’s government?

Yes and let me tell you why. In the 32 plus years that I have lived in this great country, I have shared all such information through my articles in “Shofar”, the monthly magazine of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, and on my radio and TV programs. Even to this day, I continue to get first hand information about the situation in Iran from my Muslim friends in Iran—and NO, I’m NOT a Mossad agent! 

You’ve indicated that this book is just a part of a larger Iranian Jewish family saga. Can you give us some insights about the remaining parts of this saga?

As I mentioned, “Veiled Romance” is the story of the fifth generation of a family of Iranian Jews. The first generation begins with “Rueben the Rhino” in the early 19th century, followed by four more generations, headed by patriarch and matriarch protagonists. However, when you read the stories of these five generations, you will get acquainted with 1,100 years of the history of Persian Jews who have lived under the Islamic rule.   

It’s been more than 30 years since the revolution, why is it still so hard for people in the Iranian Jewish community who witnessed it first hand and endured its horrible outcome to discuss it openly?

Years into the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, there were émigré who sat in Paris side-walk café’s and discussed the return of their lost emperor. Perhaps the people you’re referring to are dreaming of the old days that might come back, when they’ll go back to the old country and recover what they have left behind. Who knows, though!

For more information on “Veiled Romance” and Simon Sion Ebrahimi, visit his website: www.simon-writes.com 

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