Something remarkable—perhaps even miraculous—is happening halfway around the world. For more than 43 years, post-revolutionary Iran has been forbidden to the millions who escaped from the country. But today, due to the unbelievable courage and sacrifice of thousands of Iranian protesters, the prospect of the regime actually crumbling has Iranians in the diaspora bursting with anxious anticipation, wondering if they’ll be able to return to a free Iran.
There’s so much at stake. In the words of one Iranian American friend: “I’m afraid to let myself think it [regime change] could actually happen, because we’ve been waiting and praying for it for so long.”
The unprecedented rage of citizens against the regime’s oppression renders today’s protests uniquely historic—because this time, there may be no turning back. There’s so much on the line—a free Iran and a more stable Middle East. And if you’re an Iranian in the diaspora, you get it.
There are those who scratch their heads at the very prospect of never being able to return to a place that once was called home. I love Americans, but in my experience many of them believe that an immigrant (or even a refugee) arrives in the United States seeking a better life, but is free to visit his or her former country.
This probably explains why, over the course of 16 years since I first began speaking about Iran and the Middle East, Americans have asked me dozens of times if I’ve ever been back to Iran or have any plans to visit the country again.
The answer is always the same: No, I haven’t been back, because after my escape, Iran became forbidden to me, just as it has for millions of others. And what happens to those of us, the simultaneously blessed and cursed, for whom there is no return?
We’re blessed because we were redeemed in our new countries, but cursed because we’re outcasts from our former homelands, where our ancestors lived for millennia. We are still haunted by traumas from a land that was supposed to nurture us, but cast us out.
Today, we’re witnessing an all-or-nothing moment for Iranians inside Iran and in the diaspora. And if you’re an Iranian Jew, it’s complicated.
A few months ago, it was easier for me to believe that the messiah would arrive this year than that there might be regime change in Iran. That’s how powerful the regime is, and how hard it would be to untie its stranglehold over the Middle East and beyond.
Iranian Jews outside of Iran live in two diasporas: one Jewish and the other Iranian. Many of us live by the words of the twelfth-century Spanish-Jewish philosopher Yehuda Halevi, who wrote, “My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west.” Yet for us, this poem signals a cry of the heart not only toward Jerusalem and Israel, but also toward Iran. Isn’t that complicated?
I once met a Jew who escaped the former Soviet Union and who now lives in Los Angeles. We soon realized that as child refugees, we had both lived in an Italian refugee processing city at the same time in the late eighties. After the fall of Communism, she was able to visit Kyiv, her former city, and even say hello to old neighbors. I’ll admit I was overcome with envy. My friend was able to drink tea with old neighbors in a newly-free country, but I still wasn’t able to visit the graves of my paternal grandparents, whom I never saw again after escaping Iran, because Iran’s iron curtain, or iron hijab, if you will, still hadn’t fallen.
I’ve met young writers who’ve taken advantage of powerful Jewish heritage trips to countries such as Poland, and young professionals who’ve enjoyed charming tours titled “Inside Jewish Morocco” and “Inside Jewish Cuba” (both hosted by JDC Entwine). When will it be time to sign up for “Inside Jewish Iran”? After all, the country is home to the second-largest population of Jews in the Middle East after Israel.
However, I know regime change is still a dream, and at this time I’m concerned exclusively about the safety of innocent Iranians (hundreds have been killed and thousands arrested during recent protests). But the yearning for regime change is so deep that Iranians in the diaspora need to hold space for both the pain of the protestors’ sacrifices and the joy of a potentially free Iran.
So in the spirit of optimism and daring to dream, I approached elderly Jews in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles and asked what they would do if they were able to return to a free Iran this year, if only for a visit. Their generation is one that has especially strong ties to Iran (and lost everything when they escaped).
One man’s words humbled me: “Do you really want to hear my answer?” he asked in Persian. “It’s a modest wish, but I would walk down the street and read every sign, and speak with everyone fluently in my mother tongue. I’d feel like a king.”
One elderly woman declared, “I would kiss the earth [of Iran]. I really would. I kissed the earth of Israel when I first visited during the time of the shah, and I would kiss the ground of my original land now.”
Another man indulged in two fantasies: “I would go to my old synagogue and complete the minyan, because I hear they have so few attendees these days. But first, I would hug my brother for days, because I haven’t seen him in 41 years.”
And then, there was the simple wish of one elderly woman: “I would just go back to my old house,” she said. “I still have the keys. I know it’s someone else’s home now, but I would knock on the door and ask if they would let me stand in my old kitchen and sit with a cup of tea in my old living room.”
In truth, if any exiled Iranians in the diaspora are ever able to visit a free Iran, it’ll be due to the incredible courage and unspeakable sacrifices of protestors who are being killed, injured, tortured or arrested today, as well the thousands who’ve risen against the regime for decades. I hope they know and feel the support and gratitude of millions worldwide, beginning in the greater Middle East, where every single Israeli, Saudi and Afghan (especially Afghan women) would owe these protesters an enormous debt of gratitude. Hezbollah and Hamas, on the other hand, would be utterly horrified (and bankrupt) if the mullahs lose power.
Of course, even if there was regime change, no one would expect Iran to morph into a secular democracy overnight. But still, isn’t it wonderful to imagine a free, stable Iran, an Iran in which there are dozens of flights to America from Tehran’s airport each day? Or delegations of Israeli water management experts working with Iranian scientists and farmers to tackle devastating droughts?
Or my ultimate fantasy for a free Iran: a female president who eradicates compulsory hijab and legislates compulsory education.
I’ve repeatedly read that only months before the Berlin Wall fell, few in East Berlin thought they would ever gain freedom again. Maybe it’s too painful to imagine something so beautiful and so fragile.
Yes, it’s the regime that has the weapons, but even if these protests end today, I don’t see how the mullahs could keep demanding that Iranians citizens continue to agree to their own oppression. And even if the regime abolishes the hated modesty police (who killed 22-year-old Mahsa Amini and so many others) but keeps other forms of oppression intact, the whole tyrannical system would quickly unravel. Simply put, it’ll be impossible to ask Iranians to now compromise and agree to 50% oppression.
Will these incredible protests lead to historic regime change? I’ll answer that with another critical question: At this point, is there any going back?
Tabby Refael is an award-winning LA-based writer, speaker and civic action activist. Follow her on Twitter @TabbyRefael.
This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.