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Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran

Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran

4.3 12
by Roya Hakakian

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“We stormed every classroom, inscribed our slogans on the blackboard . . . Never had mayhem brought more peace. All our lives we had been taught the virtues of behaving, and now we were discovering the importance of misbehaving. Too much fear had tainted our days. Too many afternoons had passed in silence, listening to a fanatic’s diatribes. We were


“We stormed every classroom, inscribed our slogans on the blackboard . . . Never had mayhem brought more peace. All our lives we had been taught the virtues of behaving, and now we were discovering the importance of misbehaving. Too much fear had tainted our days. Too many afternoons had passed in silence, listening to a fanatic’s diatribes. We were rebelling because we were not evil, we had not sinned, and we knew nothing of the apocalypse. . . . This was 1979, the year that showed us we could make our own destinies. We were rebelling because rebelling was all we could do to quell the rage in our teenage veins. Together as girls we found the courage we had been told was not in us.”

In Journey from the Land of No Roya Hakakian recalls her childhood and adolescence in prerevolutionary Iran with candor and verve. The result is a beautifully written coming-of-age story about one deeply intelligent and perceptive girl’s attempt to find an authentic voice of her own at a time of cultural closing and repression. Remarkably, she manages to re-create
a time and place dominated by religious fanaticism, violence, and fear with an open heart and often with great humor.

Hakakian was twelve years old in 1979 when the revolution swept through Tehran. The daughter of an esteemed poet, she grew up in a household that hummed with intellectual life. Family gatherings were punctuated by witty, satirical exchanges and spontaneous recitations of poetry. But the Hakakians were also part of the very small Jewish population in Iran who witnessed the iron fist of the Islamic fundamentalists increasingly tightening its grip. It is with the innocent confusion of youth that Roya describes her discovery of a swastika—“a plus sign gone awry, a dark reptile with four hungry claws”—painted on the wall near her home. As a schoolgirl she watched as friends accused of reading blasphemous books were escorted from class by Islamic Society guards, never to return. Only much later did Roya learn that she was spared a similar fate because her teacher admired her writing.

Hakakian relates in the most poignant, and at times painful, ways what life was like for women after the country fell into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who had declared an insidious war against them, but we see it all through the eyes of a strong, youthful optimist who somehow came up in the world believing that she was different, knowing she was special. At her loneliest, Roya discovers the consolations of writing while sitting on the rooftop of her house late at night. There, “pen in hand, I led my own chorus of words, with a melody of my own making.” And she discovers the craft that would ultimately enable her to find her own voice and become her own person.

A wonderfully evocative story, Journey from the Land of No reveals an Iran most readers have not encountered and marks the debut of a stunning new talent.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Political upheavals like the fall of the Shah of Iran and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism may be analyzed endlessly by scholars, but eyewitness accounts like Hakakian's help us understand what it was like to experience such a revolution firsthand. The documentary filmmaker and poet was born to a prominent Tehran Jewish family in 1966, two years after the Shah had exiled Islamic fundamentalist leader Ayatollah Khomeini. As Jews in a largely Muslim world, the family knew how to live respectfully with their neighbors. With powerful illustrations, Hakakian relates how, in 1979, when the Shah fled and Khomeini returned triumphant, she joined the cheering crowds. Khomeini's revolution seemed liberating, but before long, the grip of the Islamic extremists tightened. Women were put under strict surveillance; books and speech were censored. Anti-Jewish graffiti appeared. As the targeting became more visible-being made to use separate toilets and drinking fountains, being required to identify their businesses as non-Muslim-many Jews emigrated. After Hakakian describes the teacher who risked her job to give her high marks on a "subversive" paper or grips readers with the tale of how she and her teen buddies barely evaded the morality police, readers just want her to leave, too, which her family did, in 1984. Hakakian's story-so reminiscent of the experiences of Jews in Nazi Germany-is haunting. Maps. Agent, Flip Brophy. (Aug.) Forecast: An author tour, regional NPR campaign and Hakakian's media connections will help sales, but the real kicker will be Hakakian's appearance at Jewish book fairs this fall. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Hakakian recounts her past as a girl growing up in the second largest Jewish community in the Middle East-Tehran-during the takeover of the Ayatollah Khomeini. She paints pictures of a changing Iran, from a land that was immersed in the poetry of life and discovery to one that spoke of militaristic prayer and repression, where Jewish people were once again subject to anti-Semitism and where women were stripped of many of their rights. Hakakian's story is that of an individual changing from innocent child into disillusioned, rebellious teenager. As revolutionary fever overtook her country, she was swept up in, and then engulfed by it. Hakakian's poetic prose is lovely, lyrical, and wry, full of metaphor as well as humor and pain. Teens who are interested in history, poetry, different cultures, or biography should enjoy her memoir.-Charli Osborne, Oxford Public Library, MI Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Poet and former 60 Minutes producer Hakakian debuts with a effulgent memoir of her girlhood in the shadow of the Iranian revolution. Combining a moving recollection of lost innocence with vivid political reportage, the author describes the universal joy expressed when the Shah fled and the Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile. But the new regime soon became as authoritarian as its predecessor. Within a year polygamy was no longer restricted, the marriage age for girls was lowered to nine, sports were segregated, and Iran was declared an Islamic republic. The Hakakians, members of the second-largest community of Jews in the Middle East after Israel, had seen their oldest son flee to America in 1975 because he opposed the Shah. They initially welcomed the new government. Adolescent Roya and her Jewish classmates talked, wrote, and dreamed of saving the world. But their dreams soon soured. Roya, like all other women, had to cover herself in public; she and her fellow students were frisked at the school gate each morning by "Members of the Islamic Society," an arm of the new secret police installed in the schools; and when Roya earned the best grade for an essay, the teacher tore up her work because its topic, the destructive nature of war, would have caused trouble for the young author. Hakakian vividly evokes the rhythms of family meals and celebrations in a land she considered her home, which made it all the more painful when Jews began to be singled out as non-Muslims in the 1980s, and Jewish doctors and nurses were rejected as "unclean." Hakakian left Iran with her mother in 1984, and her father joined them in the US the next year. Before they left, her father burned all their booksand Roya's writings, deeming them unsafe to keep. A somber reminder from an accomplished writer of the unexpected consequences and costs of revolutions. Agent: Flip Brophy/Sterling Lord Literistic
From the Publisher
Winner of the 2004 Elle Readers’ Prize for Best Book of the Year in Nonfiction

“Hakakian’s intimate anthropology opens a window on one life during turbulent times in the Middle East. . . . This book does us the service of removing some of the region’s mythical stereotypes . . . and illuminating a real contemporary culture we would do well to know better.” —Seattle Times

“Hakakian, irrepressible, brave, and strong-willed, watches in dismay as the country she loves disappears, to be replaced by one that views what Roya most values—an insatiable intellect—with profound contempt. Like Anne Frank, she is a perceptive, idealistic, terribly sympathetic chronicler of the gathering repression.” —Baltimore Sun

“A spectacular debut memoir . . . Only a major writing talent like Hakakian can use the pointed words of the mature mind to give the perspective of the child. . . . She tackles ideologies of assimilation and oppression with poetic aplomb and precision. . . . Hakakian’s tale of passage into womanhood lacks nothing.” —Boston Globe

“[Hakakian is] a lyrical storyteller . . . Her moving narrative swings from funny to sad, capturing idyllic scenes of her parents, aunts, and uncles picnicking and interacting with Muslim friends.” —Washington Post

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Chapter 1


It was an ordinary morning at the office. wrapped in a heavy sweater, sleeves pulled over fingers hiding from the arctic indoor summer temperatures, I had every reason to expect this to be a day like any other. CNN was on. A pile of several major dailies lay on one side of my desk, and on the other was a second stack of magazines I had brought back from the Delta Shuttle courtesy stand. The first order of business was to answer e-mails, which I usually managed to do while sipping a tall cup of latté. I glanced at the names in the in-box, keeping an eye out for any breaking news on the Associated Press wire service. The telephone rang.

"Roya speaking."

"Hi, Roya. This is David, David Unger, calling from the New York Times."

"Oh, hi! You are . . ."

"An editorial writer working on a piece on the recent student uprisings in Iran. You come highly recommended as a source. Is this a good time?"

No. It was not a good time. It was never a good time to talk about Iran. I rarely did. But this call, I knew, I had to take. Thousands of students had taken to the streets in the largest pro-reform demonstration since 1979. Now, in the demonstration's third day, the students were calling on the newly elected president, Mohammad Khatami, to join their movement against the "hard-line" elements in power, mainly the supreme leader, Seyed Ali Khamenei. Many had been arrested. A few had disappeared, among them Elahe, a dear friend. And sitting in my office, watching the news, seeing young men and women face the riot police, their shirts bloodied, their faces hidden under rags, thugs charging at them with batons, seeing them be clubbed and fall to the pavement, was all too familiar. All too frustrating. There was nothing I could do to help them or my missing friend, except to talk to an editorialist. In my guilty helplessness, I had placed all hope in the New York Times to save Elahe, the students, and Iran itself in a sharp cluster of five hundred words or less. So I said, "Yes. I have been expecting your call. But hold on for just a minute, please."

This was simply a call between a television journalist and her colleague in print. Still, I got up from my chair, peeked into the hallway, and quietly shut my door. This was a call about Iran; no call could be more personal. We began talking.

I had expected to hear from David. I had also expected the conversation to proceed as it often does with Americans. They come, I had decided, in two kinds: the misinformed, who think of Iran as a backward nation of Arabs, veiled and turbaned, living on the periphery of oases and fairly represented by a government of mullahs; and the misguided, who believed the shah's regime was a puppet government run by the CIA, and who think that Ayatollah Khomeini and his clerical cabal are an authentic, homegrown answer to unwarranted U.S. meddling.

The first group always amused me. In their company, I would blame every appalling trait in my character on my "Bedouin upbringing." Walking along Coney Island beach on a hot summer evening, I licked the drops of ice cream off my palms, and when I saw the shocked look on my date's face, I explained that my lack of etiquette was due to a childhood spent in a land where napkins and utensils were unheard of. His believing blue eyes welled with tears of empathy.

A college roommate once asked what my family used for transportation in Tehran. I told her we kept six camels of various sizes in our backyard. My father rode the papa camel, my mother the mama camel, my brothers the younger camels, and I the baby camel. While my roommate's common sense was still in the grip of political correctness, I went on to design a fantastically intricate grid of four-legged traffic regulations for bovines on even days and equines on odd.

But that second group-those misguided Americans-exasperated me. Bright individuals abandoned inquiry and resorted to obsolete formulas: America had done Iran wrong. Therefore the clerics cut ties with the United States. Therefore the clerics were leading the nation to sovereignty. These individuals had yet to realize that though Iran's rulers fervently opposed U.S. imperialism, they were neither just to nor loved by their own people. This second group had not accepted the notion that the enemy of their enemy was yet another enemy.

It took only one question for me to decide that David belonged to the second group. He asked, "Do the 'reformists,' backed by President Khatami, stand a chance against the 'hard-liners'?"

This bipolar division between reformists and hard-liners was as crude as my own division between misinformed and misguided Americans. Reducing a nation of seventy million, with three thousand years of history, to two simple camps infuriated me. The assumption that Iran was on the verge of an imminent transformation if only one faction managed to subdue the other had the ring of a sensational headline, and though as a reporter I understood its logic, as an Iranian I detested it. True watchers of Iran knew that Iran itself was the "beloved" its great poets had serenaded for centuries: capricious yet slow, inspiring hope in one breath and evoking despair in another.

However, David quickly added that the editorials did not always reflect his own personal views. In fact, they often did not. This was an important disclaimer. Several more nuanced questions followed. His voice was tender. If a deadline was looming, his voice did not reveal it. In its timbre, there was time and infinite patience, which encouraged me to tell him my worst fears. Every horrifying possibility flashed through my mind: Elahe assaulted, bleeding in a ditch or along one of the many canals of Tehran; or sitting before interrogators, blindfolded, forced to write a recantation letter. Talking to David, I dressed in words the horrors I was conjuring. I told him so. I also told him that I had no faith in the new president, or any other cleric, to deliver what the students were demanding. I saw that the protestors were in grave danger. In the most dignified way I knew, I begged him to write with utmost urgency.

The next day brought an editorial headlined fateful moment in iran; the next week, the quashing of the uprising; the third week, the news of Elahe and her release from custody; the next month, another e-mail from David-a new editorial deadline.

In the weeks that followed, David's notes continued to arrive. He wanted to know about the reformists' background and their former allegiance; the Iranian relationship with the Lebanese Hezbollah; the role of secular Iranians in the revolution of 1979 and in the subsequent fallout. With Elahe's release, I had little incentive to talk about Iran. Writing to David took real effort. I had to provide him with the "insider facts," information only natives are privy to, and add my own views, which were embittered by my history. Every time I wanted to substantiate an opinion, I drew upon a personal experience I had never talked about before, until at last I wrote, apologetically, that I could not continue. Despite my reputation, I confessed that I was not a good source after all. There were experts far better than I, whose names I suggested. When it came to Iran, I admitted, I was anything but objective. The past and the events of the years that followed the revolution had biased me forever.

Within moments after I e-mailed him the note I thought would be the end of all notes between us, a sharp beep announced the arrival of a new e-mail.

From: David@Nytimes.com To: RDH@cbsnews.com Subject: The years that followed the revolution.


Tell me about them.


When you have been a refugee, abandoned all your loves and belongings, your memories become your belongings. Images of the past, snippets of old conversations, furnish the world within your mind. When you have nothing left to guard, you guard your memories. You guard them with silence. You do not draw your treasures into the light, lest exposure soften their sharp-sad or gay-details (the best lesson I ever learned from visiting museums). Remembering becomes not simply a preoccupation but a full-time occupation. What you once witnessed is the story that brought journalists to your doorstep, but they left without the scoop. What you once witnessed is what scholars sought in the archives but did not find. What you once witnessed is what biographers intended to write. But how much can biographers do if the witnesses are silent?

When you belong to a breed on the verge of extinction, a Jewish woman from the Islamic Republic of Iran living in the United States, one small slip can turn you into a poster child for someone else's crusade. And you know of nothing more suspect than a crusade. Memory is the membrane in which the past is sealed and also the blueprint of what you once, when you were at your most clearheaded, envisioned as the future. You keep silent. To guard all that, true. But also because you cannot tell pain from anger. And since you do not wish to displace them onto an innocent listener, you do not allow yourself pain or anger. You walk on. You must walk on. In the new country, you must begin anew. To make yourself do so, you invent a metaphor. Not a beautiful metaphor, but a practical one to propel you. You imagine you are a secondhand car whose odometer has been reset to zero by exile, that craftiest of dealers. With all the old parts, you are recast as a brand-new human engine. Within you is all the clanking, hissing, and racket of past rides. But you muffle it all and press on.

David wanted me to speak. But he had no crusade. A historian, he was looking for what he knew was still too soon to have been written. He was a voice without a face. Somewhere on the top floor of another New York City high-rise he sat behind a desk. I had never seen him. All I knew of him was the words that kept arriving. Our friendship had been formed in written words, the only life those memories could have if they ever were to be expressed. And in English. To write about Iran in Persian would be daunting. Instead of reexamining the memories, I feared that in Persian, I might begin to relive them. Persian could summon the teenager at sea. English sheltered the adult survivor, safely inside a lighthouse. I did not know how to use the language of the censors to speak against them; to use the very language by which I had been denied so much as a Jew, a woman, a secular citizen, and a young poet. The love of Iran was still in my heart, yet I could not return. The irrevocable journey I had made was not the physical one, out of Iran. It was the journey from "no," from the perpetual denials. And what I had painstakingly arrived at, greater than even the new land, was a new language, the vessel of my flight to vast possibilities.

I postponed writing David till I could be certain I wanted to commit myself to telling him. His notes had opened the floodgates, and a world once shut away had come rushing back at me. But how and where would I begin? In need of a reprieve, I accepted a reporting assignment that took me to Albany, Georgia, for a few days.

The Reverend Jerry Cochran had served in the U.S. Navy in the early 1970s and was suffering from a lung disease. Like most African Americans of his generation, Jerry had been assigned the most undesirable tasks while in the navy, among them the scraping of the nonskid coating off the deck of the USS Enterprise. Within two years, Jerry had been diagnosed with a "respiratory disease of unknown origin" and discharged. He believed the disease had resulted from the polluted air he had inhaled while working on the deck. Now a biopsy proved the presence of elements, identical to those within the coating he had once scraped, in his chest. The dust was gradually hardening Jerry's lung tissue and lessening his breathing capacity. Jerry was slowly suffocating.

Driving past the cotton fields in rural Georgia, I mulled over the many details that demanded my attention: the few unclear facts, the original documents, footage to shoot, sounds to record, his difficulty breathing and speaking, his wheezing. I decided to arrive at Jerry's church early, to soak in my surroundings, an old habit that had got me far as a child. I reviewed all the questions and went over what I needed to prepare for the crew and our correspondent before the on-camera interviews. This was a man on the brink of death, I thought. He was about to trust his final words to me. And it was up to me to show how he had been mistreated and misdiagnosed and as a result was dying.

Inside the church, rows of children sat around tables, doing homework. Mrs. Cochran welcomed me. She asked if I was too tired or had had any trouble finding my way. The after-school hours were the busiest at the church, she explained, and she apologized for the noisy surroundings. But I insisted on watching the children and staff go about their business. For reasons I never understood, I have always felt instantly at ease among black Americans and forget my own outsiderness. I said, "I am happy to wait here and watch the kids. The reverend must be busy. I know I have come early."

"The reverend has been on pins and needles for days waiting for you," she replied, sounding like an exhausted wife who has had to contend with far too much for far too long. "It is not every day 60 Minutes comes to our neighborhood."

To find a quieter location for the filming, Mrs. Cochran took me on a tour of the building. We walked past several rooms, each filled to the ceiling with boxes of evidence the reverend had gathered on his own condition and that of his fellow servicemen. Years of correspondence had amounted to pile after pile of documents: letters from the Veterans Administration, the U.S. Navy, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and on and on. Some bore the stamps of the White House, others of the U.S. Congress. Behind the facade of an unassuming two-story structure hid a colossal archive. And at the end of its last corridor, I imagined a gaunt man on his deathbed.

But I was wrong. In the last room, at the end of a hallway, behind a desk, in a suit, sat a corpulent man, who rose exuberantly to his feet and greeted me. He looked hale and cheerful. Upon seeing the buoyant reverend, I felt the worst of a journalist's fears rush over me: I was chasing a sham.

It took hours to pore over papers and sift through medical reports till I found the documentary evidence that attested to the severity of Jerry's condition. But more compelling than the records were his testimonies. At first, when he saw the skeptical expression on my face, he slapped his chest and said, as if before a judge, that his heart could no longer bear the weight of a history denied. The disease in those boxes, he pleaded, would kill him faster than the disease in his lungs. He laid out photographs, exhibits for a jury of one, of himself and his buddies, their arms on one another's shoulders, their faces bright with the proud smiles of young, invincible men, standing in uniforms against the majestic background of the sea. They dreamed of serving their country and hoped for a great future. But the dust had buried their dreams. Two of those young men were dead. Being forgotten had already killed their spirits. The dust would finish the rest.

Jerry's eyes fixed on my face as if expecting a confession. He asked whether I understood what it meant to be bearing a story never told. "I do," I said with a voice on the brink of breaking. He paused, examined my expression, and, seeing that he had won me over, lowered himself into a chair, to rest at last.

Back at the hotel, long past midnight, tossing in my bed, I was restless to write. The feel of Jerry's firm grip as we shook hands still enveloped my hand, and his opening line kept playing in my mind: "I have waited years for you to come and hear my story." So he had begun.

And so I began.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

ROYA HAKAKIAN is a former associate producer at CBS’s 60 Minutes and a documentary filmmaker. She is the author of two acclaimed volumes of poetry in Persian and a recipient of the 2002–2003 Dewitt Wallace–Reader’s Digest Fellowship. She lives in Connecticut. Visit her at www.RoyaHakakian.com.

From the Hardcover edition.

Brief Biography

Woodbridge, Connecticut
Date of Birth:
October 19, 1966
Place of Birth:
Tehran, Iran
B.A., 1990; M.A., 1992

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Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An interesting story...appropriate for young girls to learn of another culture, and to appreciate what freedoms they have in U.S. At times, the author seems narcissistic and her English is annoyingly flowery. These distractions don't take away from the narrative of a girlhood interrupted by the takeover of her homeland by a repressive regime.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Incredible! It described the hardships of what a 12 year old girl had to go through in Iran. It is a very realistic and truthful account of what a child probably has to go through in our world today.
Guest More than 1 year ago
So beautifully written that I longed to visit the Iran of Roya's childhood, so perceptive that I gained insight to the conflicts of Middle Eastern women and so filled with humor that I laughed and cried at the same time. We are so lucky that Roya Hakakian's voice is not censored in America.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Back in the 70's as a young girl here in the States I really did not fully understand or comprehend the problems that the Jewish population of Iran incurred with the reemergence of the Ayatollah, so needless to say, this book was an eye opener about the author's personal account of those heady days. I enjoyed the style of her writing very much and felt you were right there in the Tehran neighborhood with her. As a young woman working in New York City in 1979, I do recall vividly the IBM building under construction, and the construction workers marking off each day that the Embassy hostages were being held in Tehran. Little did I realize how many people also in Tehran were suffering because they could not enjoy the life they once knew because of the new regime. I recommend this book highly.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I never read a more gripping analysis of prerevolutionary Iran and Khomeinis revolution. I loved the rich and beautiful language and the vivid, colourful descriptions. The book is full of homesickness, nostalgia, political awareness and good judgement.
Guest More than 1 year ago
True to her roote as a poet and a journalist, Ms. Hakakian has written a priceless memoir which is at once metaphorically engaging and thoroughly credible. This is the story of a cherished child from a gifted family. At the tender age of 12 Roya finds her comfortable world shattered by the influx of religious fundamentalism. The passage through adolescence is never an easy one. As a young Jewish woman, Roya's journey is fraught with dangers far more serious than the average child. She must contend not only with the ordinary growing pains but also with the fear, the violence and the repression of the Khomeini regime. Hers is a world of loss, measured lyrically in missing place settings, blood and chalk.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thouroughly enjoyed the book. We need to be told the truth about Iran, as painful as it may be. She should not think twice about telling the world what it wants to know. Not all is violent there.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Read this book! You'll fall in love with an intelligent, observant, compassionate young girl and her family. You'll learn valuable lessons on the history of Iran, a country about which too many of us know too little, and how what happened there in and around 1979 has had an impact on the world today. And you'll come to understand what good and necessary writing means in the current climate of ill-crafted prose. This wonderful book reads like a beautiful, long poem and settles down in your heart like a caterpillar in it's cocoon, ready to transform and take off.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Not only does Journey give the reader a detailed first hand account of the Iranian revolution, but it also tells the story of a maturing Jewish girl and her struggle to grow up in troubled times. MUST READ!