I‘M PROUD TO be an American. I’m proud to be an Angeleno. But these days, I’m especially proud to be Iranian.
As this issue goes to press in late September, I’ve been transfixed by news reports and videos from across Iran, documenting a revolution that has spread throughout the country. For weeks, hundreds of thousands of citizens, led by women, have been pouring into the streets, risking their lives to protest the theocratic regime that’s had a stranglehold on the country for the past five decades.
The spark that set off this blaze was the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was arrested by the state’s so-called morality police—the roaming Iranian gestapo who harass women who fail to wear their hijabs in strict accordance with Islamic law, which forbids women and girls from showing their bare heads. Amini died in custody after apparently being brutally beaten by her captors. Iranian officials claim, unconvincingly, that she died of a heart attack.
Over the past couple of months, Twitter and Instagram have been full of heartbreaking clips recording the bloody battles between Iranian dissidents and the mullahs’ brutal security forces. They are at once heartbreaking and inspiring, and also oddly familiar to me.
I spent the first 12 years of my life in Tehran. The firstborn son of an Iranian dad and a Long Island mother, I came of age during Iran’s Islamic revolution. But I knew nothing of the shah’s brutality, his CIA connections, or the religious intolerance that the Khomeini regime would soon bring to Iran after the shah’s downfall. Iran seemed idyllic when I was a child—a weird combination of Persian culture and sophistication and scrappy Western ingenuity. Every fall, my brothers and I would jump over bonfires in accordance with a longtime Persian tradition. On July 4th, we’d party at an American school where helicopters would rain Big Macs on the crowds below.
But sometime in the 1970s, life began to change. Violent clashes between the shah’s forces and chanting protestors erupted daily outside of my school. Suddenly, my mother’s Time magazines began arriving with pages ripped out by state censors. As the protests intensified, the shah’s government declared martial law, strictly requiring everyone to be off the streets by 7 p.m.
One evening, I accompanied my dad to a boozy business dinner at the Sheraton. By the time we headed home at 6:45, there wasn’t another car on the road. Five minutes from our house, a half dozen machine-gun-toting soldiers screamed at us to stop, shooting their weapons in the air. As punishment for violating the curfew, my dad and I spent the rest of the night at a police station. He was locked in a cell. I slept on a cot nearby. When we were freed the next morning, he sheepishly drove me to school.
A few weeks later, as the mounting violence shuttered Tehran’s businesses and schools, my father was speeding us to the airport, bound for my mother’s parents’ house in New York. Dad stayed behind in Tehran to wrap up the family’s affairs and promised he’d join us in a few months.
Instead it took him another ten years to finally make it to America. A year after his arrival, he died of cancer at an L.A. hospice at the age of 45. Over time, my mother, brothers, and I also moved to L.A., which has become home to the largest concentration of Iranians outside of Iran.
The spark that set off the blaze was the murder of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who showed too much of her hair.
Today, watching protesters in Tehran burn their hijabs in bonfires and bravely face off against the Ayatollah’s riot police, I’m hopeful that after decades of oppression, Iran can finally be set free. It’s inspiring to see young women and men stand up against dictatorship and violence and sexism. One day soon, I hope to visit an Iran where kids can freely listen to rap music, women can show off their hair without harassment, and burgers can once again rain down from the sky.
This story is featured in the November 2022 issue of Los Angeles