Whether it is through poetry or prose, the power of words has been used as an instrument for change in regard to the Iranian Revolution. 

On Oct. 1, best-selling author, poet and activist Roya Hakakian spoke in the Mabel Brown Room at Keene State College about her life as a Jewish-Iranian teenage girl caught in revolutionary Iran. In the audience sat many fans of Hakakian’s popular publication, “Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran.”

Hakakian explained how writing has been significant in her life during and after the revolution. “I was writing for as long as I can remember,” Hakakian said, “It’s a story that I tell in the book—that I became a writer because there was so much that I couldn’t make sense of.”

“I just kept on writing and it became my strength, it became something that I knew I could do well, and I knew that I had something to fight back with. There was a place where I could always turn to in order to feel very strong and that was on the page,” Hakakian said.

During her speech at KSC, Hakakian recited a passage from “Journey from the Land of No” regarding the transition to her new s1chool principal and the sudden importance of wearing a veil in 1982.

These are the words of the new principal to the girls of the school: “In the West, in that superficial, artificial, morally-corrupt country called America, where they know not of God, where they live by the rules of Satan, where they drink alcohol instead of water, consume an animal as filthy as the pig and lead promiscuous lives. Where women walk naked in the streets, fornicate in public and conduct orgies in their homes—there the headmasters train their students for insignificant trials for an emergency such as fire. They conduct fire drills in their school, but we my sisters, daughters of our great revolution, we are not afraid of earthly threats. We fear only one fire, the eternal fire of hell, so the drill that I am preparing you for is a man drill … If a man were to walk into this room, I, naked as I feel without my veil, would have no choice but to pull the hem of my uniform over my head.”

Hakakian explained her own reasoning behind not returning to Iran after she escaped to America with her mother.

“I could no longer go to a place and cover my head just because they said to. And so, in order for me to go back … I need to return to an egalitarian place, I need to return to a place where the rights that I have become accustomed to by virtue of becoming an American would not be taken away from me,” she said.

After Hakakian’s speech, she answered questions from the audience. One audience member asked how Hakakian felt during the time Americans were taken hostage in 1979 in front of the U.S. Embassy. Hakakian explained why she enjoyed it.

Angela Scionti / Equinox Staff

Angela Scionti / Equinox Staff

“I’m sorry, but I loved it,” Hakakian said. “ I have since apologized to the hostages that I have interviewed since then as a journalist … but it was great. The school principal would come to our class and say ‘Would you want to go demonstrate in front of the American Embassy and skip class today?’ and we would say ‘Yay!’ and we would demonstrate and skip class and it was fun demonstrating. It’s kind of like a minor rock concert. We weren’t really thinking about the people who were hostages we were thinking at the time … America had such a terrible image in our minds after all the propaganda that we had been exposed to,” Hakakian said.

“What we as Americans forget is that it wasn’t about the hostages. It looked like it was about the hostages, but in the long run Iran remains the hostage,” Hakakian said. She explained that it was over the hostages that the secular forces of Iran resigned due to their opposition of the Americans being taken hostage. “The initial government that came to power was made up of the secular, reasonable, western UC Berkeley graduates who had returned from exile to Iran to build a democracy and once the hostage crisis happened, they were so adamantly against it, that they all resigned, and then as a result, the secular forces within the Iranian revolution lost power … And while we all looked at the gates of American Embassy day-in and day-out and tied the yellow ribbons around our trees and focused on the fate of the hostages, what happened was that all of the secular opposition in Iran were arrested, imprisoned, executed or sent into exile in virtual anonymity. If you look at it thirty-five years later, it is the good forces in Iran that lost, and it’s that part of Iran that remains in captivity in a way.”

Hakakian ended with a plea for the audience to take recognition of the core problem with what is going on in Iran and why it is important for citizens of the world to notice it.

“What Islamic democracy will look like is a society where all the democratic rights, if there are any, will be for men. Women can’t go to school, women can’t dress the way they want and women basically can’t do anything. And if you think I’m lying to you, go to the website at Reuters and look at the images that they have. Under the caption of some of the pictures where there are a bunch of boys and men in the water swimming … It says ‘people swimming’ but I don’t see people, I see men and boys … So I think it’s very important to stop thinking about what’s happening in terms of religious confrontation and think about it in terms of the confrontation of misogynist men who want to hang on to their power against women who want to share power,” Hakakian said, “I think part of the problem thinking about these issues is that they keep thinking about it in terms of religious confrontation, whereas at the end of the day, it becomes about equality of rights, especially gender rights. We really need to think about these issues in those terms … As citizens of the world who can do something to change this,” Hakakian said.

Included in the audience was Iranian dissident poet Ala Khaki, who fled Iran during the revolution after learning his name was on a death squad list.

Hakakian and Khaki each had different experiences after the fall of the Shah regime in 1979, but each of them have been able to find a voice through their writing.

Khaki spoke about the culture of poetry in Iran before the revolution, “Writing poetry and being a poet in Iran has a whole different meaning than it has in the West. It’s an expressive form of art which is highly revered and encouraged,” Khaki said.

Khaki took part in the student democracy movement while attending university in Iran. He explained that his interest in poetry was driven by becoming more politicized. Khaki explained that he witnessed university guards beat up students for simply sitting at a peaceful demonstration.

“That was the one thing that radicalized me, up to that point; it was maybe just a sense of outrage at what I was hearing about lack of freedom,” Khaki explained about the Iranian revolution.  “The 1979 revolution was one thing that a lot of poets and writers participated actively in, went to jail for it, got killed for … After the 1979 revolution, the suffocation and repression of the poetic expressions became much more harsh,” Khaki said. Khaki spent a few months in prison because of his participation in this movement. He also said his own poetry was burned.

“People couldn’t express themselves any other way,” Khaki said of poetry,  “When poetry connected with people, it caught on and when it caught on it inspired for the passion for change. Poetry can become a force for change and in my judgment, I saw that as a very key element in the Iranian revolution,” Khaki said.

President of Keene State College, Anne Huot, explained why it is important to expose KSC students to a speaker like Roya Hakakian.

“She has had experiences that probably none of our students have had,” Huot said, “She brings a perspective from a culture that very few of our students have experienced, and she writes and talks all over the world. It’s an incredible honor to have someone of her status here to help educate you [students].”

For KSC students like Alex Habibi, Hakakian’s story hits close to home. Habibi explained that his father fled Iran in 1984. “Her story is fairly similar to my dad’s; they were both the same age during the revolution,” Habibi said, “So this is very personal for me.”

Habibi added that Hakakian’s lecture was relevant to his studies.

“I’m interested in international relations and politics,” Habibi said.

English Professor Brinda Charry was on the committee that decided to bring Hakakian to KSC. “It’s a very interesting identity that she represents,” Charry said of Hakakian, “She [Hakakian] was nice when she said that Americans are not that ignorant.”

However, Charry added, “I do think there is a certain lack of knowledge and we hope that this lecture will help make people aware that we are part of a larger global community.”

Charry added that if a historian was speaking about the history of the Iranian revolution, “Most of us would have switched off,” but Hakakian “Was able to make it a story, and that is a tremendous power.”



Kenzie Travers can be contacted at mtravers@keene-equinox.com

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