A celebration of Persian voices and talent

Letters from Shiraz: A revolution I did not see, but have always known by Cameran Ashraf


Letters from Shiraz:
A Revolution I did not see, but have always known

by Cameran Ashraf
“Revolutions are bigger—and smaller—than history books. My mother’s part of the drama was encapsulated in these letters: is this man right for me? How can I dye my hair? Will they kill me?”

Letters from Shiraz:
A revolution I did not see, but have always known
by Cameran Ashraf

My father was what I call a ‘sentimental hoarder’, creating mountains of meaning out of every object which had any emotional residue. His passing was and is difficult for me, and it took a year before I was able to face boxes full of everything my mother’s hand or my baby feet had touched. During that time of enormous inner change and upheaval, I stumbled across a trove of letters and postcards my mother sent from Shiraz, Iran to her parents in 1978 and 1979.

She had met my father a few years before, when they were graduate students at Michigan State University. My father, from Shiraz, saw her sitting in the cafeteria, and became determined to meet her. In broken English, he approached her and said, “Hello, pretty lady!” and sat down at her table. In Farsi it naturally sounds more beautiful, but the roughness of this translation echoes two people who could not translate their obvious love into a functioning relationship. It was love at first sight for my father. For my mother, it was less so. After my father passed away in 2021, I found the napkin on which she had written her phone number placed in a folder of his most precious and important things, with the great tenderness he held but seldom released.

They married quickly, my father making clear his desire to return to Iran with her. She agreed, a lonely and solitary woman made even lonelier by being one of the few female captains in the U.S. Air Force, one of the few with a doctorate in the 1970s, and I believe, the only woman to have pretended to be a man to get an interview at the Federal Reserve, where she was kicked out when they saw that he was a she. My mother wanted warm weather, warm people, and a large family – all of which she believed she found in my father. Her blue eyes beam in their wedding photos.

The letters cover the Revolution in Shiraz from the perspective of a 33-year-old woman, new to Iran, marriage, and revolutions. When she left Shiraz in late 1979, as far as she knew and was told by the U.S. State Department, she was one of the last Americans in the city.

I was conceived and spent my first few months in my mother’s womb in Shiraz before she returned to the U.S. with the aftershocks of revolution bouncing her between Florida, West Virginia, and Michigan before finally settling in the Midwest where she gave birth to me in 1980. The Revolution is the most meaningful political event in my life, even though I never lived through it. But I believe that I felt and heard the fear and stress of a new marriage during incredible times, hearing Revolution in the womb before I ever heard The Star Spangled Banner. I imagine that I also heard the voice of the grandfather I would never meet. I hope he sang to me.

The Revolution was my young life’s humidity, permeating the air of our house as I grew up with the heavy mustiness of unresolved sorrows. If we were not talking about it, we were watching the news for any glimpse of hope. The Revolution was from my birth the unknowable touchstone against which everything in my young life was measured: “if only the Revolution hadn’t happened…”.

My parents deeply mourned the life that vanished, and their regrets hung inside me like the thin curtains of my childhood until I found these letters in my early 40s. Those nameless and thin bellowing regrets were now transformed into the ordinariness of those pre-Revolutionary times: my mother’s desperate efforts to have her blonde hair bleached properly while simultaneously worrying about evacuation and attacks against Americans. My father’s heroic efforts to evacuate his family and determination to stay behind until everyone got out. How the death of his father only merited one sentence, but for my father that sentence stretched out for the rest of his life. Her simultaneous confidence in and insecurity about her Farsi, which veered between surprisingly good to fall on the ground laughingly bad. I loved when she would speak it, no matter how it sounded. Did I intellectually know that people still needed to shop for groceries during revolutions? Of course. Had I ever felt the ordinariness of revolutions? Never.

With the magic of a foreign country and my father’s privileged position in Iran fading, my mother’s return to the United States put both her and her life in clearer relief. She was determined to divorce, but never could. She wanted to build a career, but the ‘might have been’ life of Iran was a constant companion in misery. She played out the Revolution in her then-successful career, taking a stand against workplace sexism and misogyny before the protections of social media and #MeToo, only to become exiled and blacklisted from academia.

Like so many things in my mother’s life, there was no recovery or reckoning, just accommodation to ever-increasing emotional burdens which weighed on her sensitive heart.

She never recovered from this and only started to engage with the world more happily 20 years later, just before she died.

The Revolution is a large shadow curled up behind me. And although I enjoy reading Iranian history, I found myself unable to read anything about the Revolution for decades. My body locks, my eyes glaze over, and I cannot bear the photos. I do believe that the dead are with us, but that they also leave, and return in a continuum of being and non-being which takes the form of letters, whiffs of familiar colognes, and intuitions. I’ve been finally coming to terms with that shadow to learn more about what formed me, even before I was born.

The discovery of these letters invited me to approach this shadow differently: not in my usual way of intellectualizing it in a detached manner. Instead of reading history books, I’m experiencing how it felt, sounded, and pulsed with passions, fears, dreams, and uncertainty to my young mother-to-be.

Revolutions are bigger—and smaller—than history books. My mother’s part of the drama was encapsulated in these letters: is this man right for me? How can I dye my hair? Will they kill me? Why do they hate Americans? I have to go to the grocery store.

But my favorite is to again enjoy her humor and fearlessness in the face of danger. As she walked the streets of Shiraz, she ran into an anti-American protest: “I was screamed at by a group of women who said I should go back to America. I screamed back in Farsi that I am looking forward to it. That shut them up.”


Cameran Ashraf

Dr. Cameran Ashraf leads human rights at the Wikimedia Foundation (the non-profit that operates Wikipedia), is an assistant professor of new media and global communications at the Department of Public Policy, Central European University and is co-founder of AccessNow, one of the world’s largest international human rights organizations dedicated to defending human rights in the digital age. Based on his work, the European Parliament selected AccessNow as finalist for the 2010 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European Union’s highest human rights honour. Learn more at cashraf.com. Follow him on Twitter @cameranashraf.

Author photo by Daniel Vegel. FEATURED IMAGE by Becky Phan via Unsplash.