What You Lose as a Daughter of the Iranian Revolution

Neda Toloui-Semnani reconstructs a portrait of her political activist parents in "They Said They Wanted Revolution"

Ettelaat-e Dokhtaran va Pesaran magazine cover, Issue 1036
Ettelaat-e Dokhtaran va Pesaran magazine cover, Issue 1036

In They Said They Wanted Revolution: A Memoir of My Parents, Iranian American author and Vice journalist Neda Toloui-Semnani reconstructed the story of her parents as young, leftist Iranian activists radicalized at Berkeley in the late ’60s and who came to see communism as the political answer to Iran’s monarchy.

Her parents supported the 1979 revolution that brought down Iran’s Shah. What they wanted was a democratic government. What they got was a takeover of power by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his religious followers, and a purging of the opposition. Toloui-Semnani’s father was arrested, and her pregnant mother flees across the border to Turkey along with some family members and the author then aged three. 

The adage “the revolution devours its children” is particularly well suited to Toloui-Semnani’s story. Beyond politics though, this book to me is about the choices made by a generation of Iranians—including my own parents—whose lives collided with the revolution. Choices which would mark and define the lives of their children for decades to come. 

This book is “not only an interrogation of history, it’s also my own record of it,” writes Toloui-Semnani. It’s a reflection “on how we continue like threads stitched across decades, connecting generations.” In scenes taking place across countries and decades, from San Francisco to Tehran; from Washington DC to Van, Turkey; from Rolla, Missouri to Semnan, Iran; she weaves together US-Iran history with her family’s stories. They Said They Wanted Revolution blends hard facts and emotional truths and is as much a work of journalism as it is literary.  

Toloui-Semnani and I convened in a video call late December. We spoke about the loss of father and fatherland, the redeemable power of storytelling and her reflections on what she inherited as a daughter of revolutionaries.

Ladane Nasseri: Growing up you heard your mother tell stories like taking over the Statue of Liberty as an activist or fleeing Iran after the revolution. Certain stories are part of the family narrative and with time they become myths. What made you want to revisit and research these stories? What did you feel was left unaddressed? 

Neda Toloui-Semnani: All families have these mythologies to them. As a child you get used to hearing these stories again and again, the same way the person gets used to telling it, and it becomes almost like a bedtime story. It feels comforting, part of the fabric of who are, of the family that you understand. There isn’t any reason to interrogate them. But being a journalist, I always found that every story changes as soon as you start asking questions—I’m sure it’s similar for you. You think you understand a pretty basic story and then you ask basic questions and the texture and the flavor of the story changes. I decided to try to tell the story of my parents, how we ended up back in the US, why my dad was executed, why we escaped. Once I started asking basic questions, they led me to other questions. I realized the stories I had in my head growing up were not always accurate. 

LN: In an oral history interview with your mom on StoryCorps, which you listened to after her death, she tells the interviewer that you are “haunted” by your father. As a child, you always knew that he had been killed. Later, as an adult, you write in a journal entry that by paying tribute to him repeatedly you had “trapped” your father. What was it like growing up knowing he had been killed, and to have him absent from your life and yet so present in your mind? 

NTS: I lost my dad in a violent way. Violence for a young person does not make sense. I was not able to let it go: Why did it happen? Why my dad? Why me? Why my family? I remember vividly as a child thinking that they had gotten it wrong, that he had managed to escape. I remember, a small part of me thinking other people escape from prison, maybe he did. I spent a lot of time writing short stories where the daughter would lose the father, and he was not really gone, he was trying to get to her. Part of that was because we were in the States and this all happened in Iran, which felt very far away when I was growing up. It almost felt like he was trapped in another world. It all sounds crazy saying it out loud. 

LN: It makes sense to me. Have you heard the term ambiguous loss? It’s coined by social scientist Pauline Boss who studied families with a missing member. It’s a complex form of grieving when someone goes missing or in cases like dementia when the person is physical present but emotionally absent.

NTS: Yes, and the other thing is Dad died six months after his arrest, and we had escaped. So tied up with losing my father was losing Iran, losing my family—we are such a tight family culture. Only now do I realize that losing your language, family, home and also your father as a toddler is very destabilizing. 

As I grew older, I started realizing that this version of my father that I had created for myself had stayed static. I kept obsessing over how he died, why he died, what kind of a person he was because good people aren’t killed, and he is a good person. By my mid 20s, I realized in that journal entry, I had trapped him in one version of him. This book is my best effort to free him, to let him be as complicated a person that he was, and to mourn the fact that he was only 39 when he died. You change as you grow. The best way I can help him change and mature was for my understanding of him to change and grow, and to have a lot of compassion for him, which meant interrogating some of his choices, treating him like any other adult, where you might have empathy, but you can also sit with the fact that maybe sometimes they didn’t make great choices.

LN: I’d like to address choice, because it’s a theme I have been exploring in my own writing about the choices a generation of Iranians had to make at the turn of the revolution. Choice is a theme that runs explicitly and implicitly in your book. How did you settle on opening your book with your mother’s dilemma of staying or leaving Iran, which in some ways was also a choice between being a loyal spouse or a responsible mother? 

NTS: My aunt had given me a recording of my mother and my aunt talking about the escape. The interview was done 9-10 years after the escape. The most interesting thing to me was Mom’s ambivalence. It was something she expressed to her sister, how ambivalent she felt about leaving my father. Mom always said when I asked, “why didn’t you leave earlier?,” she said, “your dad needed to come to his own decision in his own time to escape Iran or not, he wasn’t there yet.” In my mind I thought, “that’s crazy why wouldn’t you just force him to go? You were pregnant, he was in danger for crying out loud, our family was in danger.”

The other thing is that my mom loved my father so profoundly up, until the end of her life, in a way that was hard for her to articulate. If she hadn’t had kids, she would have stayed in Iran—that’s my sense that she would have wanted to be as close to him as possible, even if that meant risking her own life. I opened the book with this because these choices that would seem obvious to some people were so difficult to her. 

LN: How did she talk about her life as a political activist? 

NTS: She was very proud of some of the things they did. Mom could hold so many things at once. She could hold being proud and regretful. She wasn’t somebody who had a simple emotional vocabulary. I don’t think she ever regretted being part of the Confederation. She believed that the Shah and his government were for the most part corrupt. Mom and Dad both recruited a lot of young people during their many years working for the movement. They recruited people who lost a lot and I think the regrets, the sadness, the guilt maybe stemmed from that. 

As a child you get used to hearing these stories again and again, and it becomes almost like a bedtime story. It feels comforting, part of the fabric of who you are.

I hear people scream revolution, “let’s burn it down,” but one of the things that I know to be true—I’m sure you know to be true, any child of the revolution knows to be true—is what comes up in its place is always going to be flawed. She wished that they had more of a plan in place, that they did not trust and take a risk on Khomeini and his people. Mom never went in for certainty after that. If anyone was too certain about a thing, she called bullshit. That comes from the fact that they brought down one monarch and helped bring in a demagogue, whether or not that was their intent, it happened.

LN: One of the most interesting things to me is how closely intertwined the US and Iran were at certain stages in history. The US intervened in Iran’s politics with the 1953 coup that overthrew the democratically elected Prime Minister of the time, but also had an indirect influence. A wave of students came from Iran and studied in the US at a time that coincided with the anti-war movement in the US. This nourished them with idealism and gave them revolutionary zeal. What surprised you in your research or would be surprising to American readers?

NTS: I don’t think I realized how young the CIA was as an agency when the 1953 Coup happened. How the Iran Coup was kind of its coming out party. The other part is Kermit Roosevelt with the CIA. He had this fictionalized, heroic vision of himself, which was very much a colonialist, orientalist vision of how he was going to approach the Middle East. He was one of the people who started the American Friends of the Middle East. The CIA helped fund it. The American Friends of the Middle East started the Iranian student association, which in turn grew to become one of the umbrella organizations for these smaller political cells that helped overthrow the Shah, or at least helped foment the dissatisfaction abroad. 

When we think about revolutionary movements, we think homegrown, coming from inside, a bursting forward of dissatisfaction and idealism. What I found fascinating about the Iranian student movement is that it was a transnational movement. Because dissent was pushed so far underground, part of the consequences was that these students were sent abroad in the 60s and most of them came to the US, to Europe as these bigger movements were happening. It became this really sophisticated anti-establishment movement. Those who left Iran in the mid 50s or 60s were not necessarily radical. They might have been against the Shah and a significant number of people were not pro Shah, but timing is everything in love and I guess in revolution too. That to me is so fascinating. The US has tried in so many ways to win hearts and minds and part of that was to bring students over and teach them how great America is, the mythos of America. In this situation, it ultimately did not pay off for America. 

LN: Your mom was a revolutionary and her sister was a minister of women’s affairs under the Shah. It’s as if the chasm at the national level also existed within your family. How do you explain that two sisters from the same generation had such diverging beliefs?

NTS: My aunt is a reformist rather than a revolutionary. During the late ’60s and ’70s, reform hadn’t worked. You could argue that things were changing, but it seemed like the government had other priorities than justice, whether in the US or in Iran. In Mom’s case, I think timing had everything to do with it. She found her people. She was smart, a passionate communicator. Being generally pro justice and coming up during the anti-war movement… you’re young and you’re changing the world, that’s an alluring thing. Also, compromise isn’t pretty and if you govern, you compromise. The sisters didn’t talk for years. My aunt had a maternal relationship with my mom, so that fissure was painful for my aunt certainly and for my mom as well. It took a long time to heal. 

LN: You traveled back to Iran in 2003. How did that impact your understanding of your story and your family’s? 

NTS: It was a trip that made things fall into place for me.

LN: How so?

There was a profound realization that I come from somewhere, that I am not just from DC, not just from America… There is a whole history, a whole different version of myself that I don’t know.

NTS: It took me a while to realize all the different ways it did. I thought it was going to be like when my mom went back to Iran when she was in her late teens, early 20s. She felt at home, like a hand in a glove. When I went back to Iran, I felt very unsettled. Obviously, Mom and I went back to two very different Irans. She went back to the Shah’s Iran, and I went back to Iran 25 years after the revolution. But also, Iranians kept calling me do-rageh, two-blooded. That was really painful for me, and I couldn’t figure out why it was painful because I kept calling myself an American. I didn’t feel completely embraced by the country. 

Part of that is for obvious reasons: I felt contained in Iran. I don’t wear the hijab and so being told that I had to was hard. Paying for a bus ticket at the front and having to go sit in the back—putting aside the fact that the women’s section of the bus was always smaller, and you’re smooshed up together—there is something deeply uncomfortable especially growing up in America about being told you have to go to the back of the bus.

At the same time, I was with family I hadn’t seen since we had left, I was seeing places in real life that I had only seen in pictures. There was a profound realization that I come from somewhere, that I am not just from DC, not just from America. I am from this other place and that means that there is a whole history, a whole different version of myself that I don’t know. That’s still true. One of the sad things for me is the distance between myself and modern Iranian culture. Sometimes, it doesn’t come easy to me, it’s not instinctive. That speaks to loss.

LN: In the section where you address your son, you write: “I want to show you that loss is only part of the story, not the whole of our story.” Your need to retell that story by bringing in the meaning you found while writing this book is clear.

NTS: There are times that this story of my family felt sad and hard to hold. There was a time when all I could see was that darkness, the absence that was left. I do think that stories are living things, history is a living thing, and we decide which version we’re going to hold. I worked hard to see the beauty and the hope and the light in it. 

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