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Revolution Renewed

Iranian Jewish writer Roya Hakakian, who fled to the U.S. in 1985, sees hope in the current chaos

Ari M. Brostoff
June 24, 2009
(Courtesy Roya Hakakian)
(Courtesy Roya Hakakian)

Roya Hakakian is unhappy with American news coverage of Iran. Instead of treating Iranian civil society as a subject worthy of regular attention, the Iranian Jewish writer argues, U.S. media outlets focus obsessively on the smokescreen of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Ignoring the complex relationship between the country’s citizens and rulers, journalists are left ill-prepared to interpret news like the last two weeks’. Hakakian’s own writing may prove an antidote—a journalist for CBS, a memoirist, and a poet, she has written searingly but lovingly about her homeland since she left Tehran for the United States in 1985. Hakakian spoke with Tablet from her home in California about the future of the Ahmadinejad regime, the reaction of Iran’s 30,000-strong Jewish community, and how the whole thing reminds her of 1979.

Are you in close contact with friends in Iran these days?

I am, primarily through Facebook. It’s much faster, many more people can weigh in. It’s a lot less intrusive, no one has to wake up anyone in the middle of the night, no one has to worry about a bad connection. And it lends itself to the kind of visuals that letters or phone or even emails wouldn’t.

And are you hearing anything that hasn’t been reported?

There’s certainly a lag between what I hear and what airs. For instance, protesters were going up to the rooftops to chant “Alu Akbar.” For the first few days, I heard the host of a CNN program say, “Because Facebook is down, people have to go up to the rooftops to communicate.” Well, that’s not it at all. It’s because people are trying to go back to the roots of the revolution in ’79, to say that this is the same face-off. What the opposition is really doing is appropriating all the revolutionary 1979 slogans and images that Ahmadinejad feels are his legacy. But it took four or five days before they brought people on the air who said that.

An article on the Israeli news site Ynet said last week that the Jewish community of Iran had “denounced the riots” and expressed its “aversion to any kind of undignified behavior.” What do you make of that?

That’s the stuff they have to say. No member of a religious minority, if he is good at what he does and is responsibly representing his community, would talk to you at this moment. It would jeopardize the security of people in his community. People in religious minorities in Iran have historically not taken a stance. They wait to see who wins and then they issue a statement of support.

How deeply rooted is Iran’s animosity toward Israel?

There are two lines of rhetoric going on. One is the Ahmadinejad, Holocaust-denying, pro-Hamas, pro-Hezbollah line. That will be gone completely. One of the things coming out of these protests is people saying, “We don’t want the bomb.” There’s also this historical anti-Semitism that’s existed as long as there have been Jews on earth, although the excuse that people in Iran have is limited access to correct information. But whoever comes to power has to break with the past.

This is where a healthy relationship between the Muslim Middle East and Israel can begin. Israel has never intervened or meddled in the lives of Iranians themselves. If anything, because Iran and Iraq had such a lasting and damaging war, Iranians were very happy to see Israel bomb Iraq in the early ’90s. Israel has never conducted a coup in Iran; the only legitimate grievance is the Palestinian issue. And now people are saying, “Whenever we see Palestinians bleed on the streets we are asked to take to the streets and protest for them. Now we are bleeding on the streets, where are they now?”

You sound optimistic.

Regardless of what happens, this regime has lost moral credibility among the public, including its own supporters. The fact that they were shooting bullets at protesters chanting “God is Great”—it’s all extremely reminiscent of the revolution in ’79. People were waiting for something else to happen all these years, they were thinking there might be a military invasion by the U.S., or that Israel might strike, and none of those things happened, so they’ve taken to the streets. In some sense the regime change has already happened. It’s a question of how long it will actually take for the infrastructure to change, for the leaders to step down.

And the protests you’re going to here in the States—what’s the religious makeup?

Everybody’s in. I heard of a protest in front of the U.N. yesterday, and there were a few women who had the Islamic dress code, and a couple characters among the protesters said they shouldn’t be there. Immediately the crowd began to chant, “We are all together, we are all together.” What’s really inspiring about this moment is it’s not about Jew vs. Muslim, black vs. white, man vs. woman, it’s about a movement of national unity.

Marissa Brostoff, a doctoral student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center, is a former staff writer at Tablet and the Forward.

Ari M. Brostoff is Culture Editor at Jewish Currents.