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A Jewish Teen In Post-Revolutionary Iran

Iranian-American author and human rights activist Roya Hakakian talks about growing up Jewish in post-revolutionary Iran.

20:32

Other segments from the episode on July 9, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 9, 2009: Interview with Joseph O'Neill; Interview with Roya Hakakian; Review of the Eels' new album "Ombre lobo."

Transcript

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Novelist Joseph O'Neill Revisits 'Netherland'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. My guest is Joseph O’Neill, the
author of the bestselling novel “Netherland,” which was recently
published in paperback. It’s the novel President Obama said he was
reading in the evenings.

Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, described “Netherland” as a novel
about post-9/11 New York City as viewed through the scrim of F. Scott
Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, “The Great Gatsby.” New York Times book critic
Dwight Garner said that on a macro level, “Netherland” is about nearly
everything: family, politics, identity.

The narrator, Hans, is a Dutch-born investment banker who moves to New
York from London with his wife, Rachel, and their young son in the late
1990s. After 9/11 Rachel takes their son and moves back to London, where
she thinks they’ll be safer.

On his own and lonely in New York, Hans discovers a subculture of
immigrants who play cricket, and he gets involved with one of them who
is part dreamer, part con man. Joseph O’Neill was born in Ireland and
grew up in Africa, Iran, Turkey and Holland. “Netherland” won the 2009
PEN/Faulkner Aware.

Joseph O’Neill, welcome to FRESH AIR. So has President Obama finished
your book yet? Do you have any idea?

Mr. JOSEPH O’NEILL (Author, “Netherland”): I haven’t heard yet, and I’m
not sure that I ever will hear.

GROSS: What was your reaction when you found out he was reading it?

Mr. O’NEILL: Well, I mean, I was – I’m a big, you know, Obama fan, and I
was a supporter during the election, so - and the primary. So I was
thrilled privately. But on the other hand, I suppose that if I sort of
reflect about it, I sort of feel, in a way, that it would be wrong to be
too thrilled because why shouldn’t a president read a novel? You know,
in this case it happens to be mine, and I sort of feel that it’s –
there’s such a sort of asymmetrical relationship between the president
and the rest of the world in terms of power that it can only be good for
the soul of such a powerful man, whether it’s this president or another,
to submit temporarily to the authority of a novel because, you know,
whatever the nature of the novel, it is actually, ultimately, a
submissive act to read a novel.

You do think, for the period of time during which you’re reading a
novel, you’re acknowledging the supremacy of this text, even if, of
course, you own your own interpretation of it, and I think that there’s
something healthy about the scale of that activity for somebody in his
position of power.

GROSS: Well, I’d really like our listeners to hear a sense of your
writing. So I’m going to ask you to do a reading from page 23, and this
is right after September 11th. You remember, the couple has just moved
to New York a few years ago, and his wife decides that she’s going to
take their four-year-old son and move back to London because it’s just
so unsafe in New York, and the husband, your main character, offers to
come too, and this is where the reading picks up.

Mr. O’NEILL: The ashtray rustled as she stubbed out her cigarette. Let’s
not make too many big decisions, my wife said. We might come to regret
it. We’ll think more clearly in a month or two.

Much of the subsequent days and nights were spent in an agony of
emotions and options and discussions. It is truly a terrible thing when
questions of love and family and home are no longer answerable.

We talked about Rachel giving up her job or going part time, about
moving to Brooklyn or Westchester or, what the hell, New Jersey, but
that didn’t meet the problem of Indian Point. There was, apparently, a
nuclear reactor at a place called Indian Point, just 30 miles away in
Westchester County. If something bad happened there, we were constantly
being informed, the radioactive debris, whatever this might be, was
liable to rain down on us. Indian Point - the earliest, most incurable
apprehension stirred in its very name.

Then there was the question of dirty bombs. Apparently any fool could
build a dirty bomb and explode it in Manhattan. How likely was this?
Nobody knew. Very little about anything seemed intelligible or certain,
and New York itself, that ideal source for the metropolitan diversion
that serves as a response to the largest futilities, took on a fearsome,
monstrous nature whose reality might have befuddled Plato himself.

We were trying, as I irrelevantly analyzed it, to avoid what might be
termed a historic mistake. We were trying to understand, that is,
whether we were in a pre-apocalyptic situation, like the European Jews
in the ‘30s or the last citizens of Pompeii, or whether our situation
was merely near-apocalyptic, like that of the Cold War inhabitants of
New York, London, Washington, and for that matter Moscow.

GROSS: You know, that question you ask at the end, I always, always
wonder about that. How do people know? For instance, how do the Jews
know in Nazi Germany that it’s time to get out, like right before it’s
too late. How do they know? How do the people in any war situation know
when it’s time to flee? Did that question go through your mind after
September 11? You, like your character, had moved to New York in 1998.

Mr. O’NEILL: Yes, I think – I mean, I lived in New York City and still
do, in Manhattan, at the time of the attacks, and I think everybody at
that time was utterly disoriented and very much concerned about whether
or not it would be safe to stay in New York City.

I mean, we really had no idea where this had come from, and it was
pretty clear that the, you know, the authorities had very little idea of
what was going on as well, and I think that in addition to trying to
understand the questions of personal safety, you’re also, and this is a
very challenging issue, you’re also in the position of coming to terms
with the fragility and vulnerability of the individual conscience in the
face of history.

GROSS: After 9/11, when his wife decides she’s going to take her son and
move back to London and be in a safer place, and your main character,
the husband, stays alone in New York, living at the Chelsea Hotel
because their apartment in Tribeca is no longer inhabitable because of
9/11, you have a great description of him being just, like, depressed
and immobilized by depression. You write: On my own, it was as if I were
hospitalized at the Chelsea Hotel.

It was such a great image, your room is like a hospital. Can you talk a
little bit about coming up with that?

Mr. O’NEILL: I think that I remember one guy that I met at the Chelsea,
where I live, which is where I live with my family, once observed to me
that this place is a hospital for creatives. That’s a quote. And I liked
the idea, and of course hospitalization has a very pronounced medical
connotation, but it also has a non-medical connotation of refuge, and
that is one of the features of the Chelsea Hotel, which is that is has
served as a refuge for certain vulnerable spirits over the years.

GROSS: Can you tell us what the initial idea was for you novel, like
where it started in your mind?

Mr. O’NEILL: Well, I came to New York in ’98 like the narrator of this
novel, and I began – and I wanted to play cricket. It was May, 1998, and
cricket is a sport I’ve played every summer of my life since the age of
10, and so I asked people, you know, where can I play cricket, and of
course nobody knew, and it took a while to track down these cricket
clubs, the cricket scene of New York, which is invisible and almost
impenetrable because the clubs are not very accessible. And it dawned on
me that this was a potentially - a dramatically and symbolically
interesting situation, this cricket world, this unknown cricket world.

And so I sort of formed the idea at that point that there was a novel
here and started working on it, and then 9/11 happened, and then this
sort of history and current events became superimposed on this slightly
more literary starting point.

GROSS: The cricket community that your character finds, which I assume
is the same community that you found, is a community of immigrants
playing cricket from South Asia. You’re – one of the main characters is
from Trinidad, and I always thought of cricket – I don’t know much about
cricket – but I always thought of it as this very British, very white
sport, and it is so not a white sport in the immigrant community that
you describe who, you know, that plays cricket in New York.

So through playing cricket, what are some of the people, what’s some of
the world that you were introduced to that you otherwise would not have
had access to?

Mr. O’NEILL: Well, I mean, it certainly is – it’s certainly - without my
own personal participation in this pastime, I would not have had access
to, you know, the world of the West Indian and South Asian immigrants in
New York City.

I don’t want to kind of over-romanticize the whole idea of intercultural
contact. This is, you know, we’re playing a sport together, and if
cricket had been played by a bunch of reactionary white guys, I imagine
I would have continued playing anyway. But for novelistic purposes,
what’s interesting about cricket is that - is its very
incomprehensibility in American culture and its very invisibility, so
that there’s a character that says there’s a limit to what Americans
understand, and that limit is cricket.

But it did seem to me that to insert cricket in an American novel is
effectively to confront the American reader with the other, with the
alien, and to challenge the reader in, I hope, an agreeable and
enjoyable way with an expansion of, you know, of his or her horizons and
with the consideration of what it might mean to expand those horizons.

GROSS: What got you thinking about the whole rags-to-riches self-
invention American story and how easy or difficult it is to actually
achieve that as an immigrant in America and what immigrants in America
really are up against?

Mr. O’NEILL: Well, I actually think that immigrants have a much better
chance of rags to riches than people who are born here, who are born in
the rags side of that equation, I mean, there’s very little, there’s
surprisingly little social mobility in the United States for people who
are born here, and whereas the immigrants who arrive are self-selecting,
go-getting, motivated types on the whole, and almost by definition, in
fact.

GROSS: Because they managed to get out of the country. They found a way
to get here. They’ve managed to figure out a way to survive here. Is
that what you mean?

Mr. O’NEILL: Well, I mean, you don’t – I mean, it’s such an enormous
step to leave your country and start again, all over again, in another
country. It’s very rarely that you get people arriving from another part
of the world saying it’s my ambition to go to the United States and do
nothing.

You would only get that fraction of the population which takes seriously
the question of material progress and the question of doing something
with your life and the question of improving one’s lot that actually
arrives here.

So it’s – my basic starting point in relation to immigration is that
every time a new face shows up, that’s great news. It means the country
has received a fresh shot of energy.

GROSS: There’s an image that I’d like to talk about in your book that I
think will really resonate with people who have lost one or both of
their parents but who have lost parents who lived far away and who they
didn’t get to see often, and this is what your main character thinks
after his mother dies, and the main character lives in New York. His
mother had lived in Holland, and he says, I did not summon her up by the
way of remembrance but rather by fantasy. The fantasy did not consist of
imagining her physically at my side but of imagining her at a long
distance, as before, and me still remotely swaddled in her
consideration.

I just think that’s so interesting, that what he’s holding onto isn’t
images of them together but of knowing that she’s thinking of him and
that she’s there, even if it’s at a distance.

Mr. O’NEILL: Well, Hans – I mean, one of the great dramas in Hans’s
life, and one of the sources of the rather melancholic view of the world
which suffuses this book, is that his mother has died, and he is doing
his best to mourn her without, I think he feels, any real acknowledgment
from his wife or indeed from anybody as to what this involves.

But the mourning is complicated by the thought which he states in the
novel. He says: But soon a more disquieting idea took possession of my
thoughts, namely that my mother had long ago become an imaginary being
of sorts, which is to say that the separation which they – which
characterized their relationship for a long period of time consigned her
to the place of memory rather than to actuality, and he suspects the
same was true in her case, so that she remembered him as a little boy
rather than this large, lumbering grownup.

GROSS: My guest is Joseph O’Neill, author of the novel, “Netherland.”
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Joseph O’Neill. He’s the
author of the bestselling novel “Netherland.”

Before you became a novelist, you were a barrister in England, and I
think a lot of us Americans don’t really understand, is a barrister a
lawyer? Is a barrister something different than a lawyer? Would you
explain?

Mr. O’NEILL: Well, the English, and indeed Irish, legal professions is
divided into two - the solicitors, who do 90 percent of the work and
most of it non-contentious, so that if you want a will done, etcetera,
you go see a solicitor; and then if things look like they’re heading
towards court, then you bring in the barrister, and the barrister is the
one with the wig and the gown. And so I was one of those characters who
has a wig and a gown and goes to court and argues cases in court. That’s
a barrister.

GROSS: This is going to sound like such a stupid question. Does it feel
silly to put on that wig?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. O’NEILL: Actually, no. There’s nothing – I mean, these wigs are made
of horse hair, and they’re never washed, and they’re kept in a tin so
that when you open your tin, your wig-tin, as it’s called, which has
your name on it, you know, this rather distinctive smell is released,
and it’s the smell of, you know, of the courtroom. And so
(unintelligible) you have this kind of slightly sort of rather sickening
and distasteful kind of Proustian or Pavlovian relationship with this
smell, so that as soon as you open your wig-tin, your adrenaline starts
running, and you kind of get ready for court.

I mean, it is a bit scratchy, and it can get a bit itchy, and it’s quite
funny when you see older barristers who have been doing it for many
years, you know, because they look like - because these wigs gradually
start to disintegrate, and you never replace them. So it looks like a
sort of dead rat is on their heads after a while.

GROSS: Oh, I’m sorry. You’re making it sound really horrible. So why is
this is an institution that is still kept, you know, the institution of
the wig?

Mr. O’NEILL: Well, I think there are very practical reasons for
preserving the custom of wearing a wig, which is only worn,
incidentally, in some legal court – in some courtrooms and in some
situations, not in all of them. I mean the main one being that it
neutralizes and equalizes the physical appearance of the advocates, and
it also adds to the gravity of the occasion.

I mean, and it seems to me that, you know, it’s so – we live in a world
of, in particular now, where it’s so difficult to locate any situation
of gravity or any situation when authority is able to hold sway that I
don’t think it – I don’t think it does any harm to have a little prop
which makes the whole thing seem quite solemn. And in fact, I think that
if they’ve done – you know, they’ve asked the lawyers and they’ve asked
the people who use – you know, their clients, the people who are the
consumers of justice, whether they want to preserve the wig and the
gown, then they all say yes. I think they like, they like a bit of –
they like the costume drama of it.

GROSS: So in spite of the fact that it smelled and it itched, you liked
the sense of authority and occasion that it brought to your work.

Mr. O’NEILL: Well, I mean, you know, I took all that for granted. I just
– yeah, I mean, I think, you know, it’s like the smell of gunpowder. You
know, you put on the wig and you know that you get ready to do battle.
And you know, it’s not just the wig, by the way. You have to put on a
little – you have to put on a stiff collar and the little bands, they’re
called, these two little white rectangles which sort of serve as a kind
of necktie, and then you wear your gown on top of your suit, and off you
go.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Joseph O’Neill. He’s the
author of the bestselling novel “Netherland.”

There’s a scene at the Department of Motor Vehicles in which you decide
– in New York – in which you describe how, like, really kind of sullen a
lot of the people who work there are. And I grew up in New York, and I
remember the DMV, which was then the Motor Vehicles Bureau, in Brooklyn
was just such an unpleasant place. And your character fails his drivers
test the first time around, and I failed my permit test the first time
around, and I had just, like, graduated high school, and you know, I had
done well on tests in school, and I failed my permit test, and I felt so
incredibly stupid, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. O’NEILL: Are you talking about your written test?

GROSS: The written test. I failed it.

Mr. O’NEILL: Oh my God. That’s shameful. Is this the first time you’ve
confessed this?

GROSS: On the air, certainly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But so how did you feel when you failed your driving test? I
don’t know if you actually…

Mr. O’NEILL: I regret to say – I regret to say that this is a slightly
autobiographical part of the story. You know, one of the sort of black
comedies of New York immigrant life is that, you know, you arrive in New
York City. You’ve been driving for many, many years without incident,
and then when you come here you’re essentially forced to do your test
all over again. And me, I and very – and many other people in my
situation, you know, we go down to this place in Red Hook, and we are
all promptly failed, as if we can’t drive. And you know, and
infuriatingly, you see these 16-year-olds, sort of shaking 16-year-olds
sort of triumphantly waving their documents around.

And what I and my friends ended up doing, after I sort of cracked it, is
you basically sort of leave. You don’t do it in Brooklyn, in Red Hook.
You have to go to somewhere more reasonable, in the suburbs or the
exurbs of New York, and they’re much more likely to give you – recognize
the fact that you can drive up there.

GROSS: Why is that?

Mr. O’NEILL: I don’t know. I mean there were probably - I wonder whether
the whole New York driving test system is run on a kind of – whether
they get paid every time they – you know, in other words, if you fail
somebody three times, you get paid three times, whether it’s just a job-
creation scheme.

But I, like Hans, you know, I just drove around the block once, and I
was told that I’d failed a million times. It was just terrifying. I mean
– I think it was actually slightly devastating.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, I enjoyed that part in the book. I’m glad you put it in.
Joseph O’Neill, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. O’NEILL: My great pleasure.

GROSS: Joseph O’Neill is the author of the novel “Netherland.” I’m Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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A Jewish Teen In Post-Revolutionary Iran

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.

Protests resume today in Iran on the 10th anniversary of the student
uprising against the Islamic regime. My guest, Roya Hakakian grew up in
Iran under the shah and the Ayatollah Khomeini. She was 12 during the
revolution and joined in the protests against the shah. But Hakakian is
Jewish. Her father was the head master of a Hebrew school in Tehran. And
under the revolutionary Islamic government, Jews were subjected to
increasing restrictions.

She left Iran in 1984 and in '85 was granted political asylum in the
U.S. Hakakian is a founding member of Iran Human Rights Documentation
Center and is a fellow at Yale University's Whitney Humanity Center.
Last week, we talked about the protests in Iran against the reelection
of President Ahmadinejad. We invited her back to talk about her memoir,
"Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran."

Roya Hakakian, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You described Jews in Iran as
a breed on the verge of extinction. But at the time of the revolution,
there were 100,000 Jews in Iran and it was the second largest community
of Jews in the Middle East after Israel.

Ms. ROYA HAKAKIAN (Author, “Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood
Caught in Revolutionary Iran”): Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What did it mean to be Jewish under the shah? Did you have a
sense of being marginalized or discriminated against, ghettoized?

Ms. HAKAKIAN: It's a wonderful question because it was a bifurcated
experience. And I mean bifurcated by the virtue that my own experience
varied greatly from what my parents recalled and remembered as their own
experience. My father grew up in a very small village - which is now a
major town or perhaps, even a city - called Honsar(ph) in Iran, you
know, eight years ago, and he had a very rough childhood. And you know I
talk about that a bit in the book that even on rainy days he was not
allowed to go to school because Jews were not allowed to walk on the
streets on rainy days.

GROSS: Because?

Ms. HAKAKIAN: Because Jews are considered unclean. And as a result of
being unclean, when the rain splashes off of a Jewish person there is
the likelihood that you know, the dirty rain slashing off of that Jewish
person could land on a Muslim passing by and therefore, dirty the Muslim
passerby. Bigotry is hard to explain. But my father's memories were far
more different than my experiences. When I was growing up in Tehran, I
never felt anything remotely similar to what my father had experienced.
And it was growing up in the shadow of his recollections, especially,
that was always an intellectual preoccupation for me. Because here I was
a Jewish person growing up in Tehran, not at all under the same
pressures, but yet living in its shadows and having to reconcile, as a
result, who I was, what I wanted to be, and who I was in relationship to
my parents. And whether loyalty really meant that I had to uphold those
memories and if so, to what degree?

GROSS: Were you growing up in a Jewish neighborhood?

Ms. HAKAKIAN: I wasn't. I mean there were Jews who lived in my area and
specifically on my block, but you know the beauty of Tehran in the 1960s
and 1970s was that there were no Jewish neighborhoods. In other words,
there were no ghettos. Jews of Iran were so assimilated in the ‘50s, the
‘60s, and the ‘70s that you really couldn’t identify one neighborhood as
strictly Jewish. And it was really hard even to tell Jewish people apart
from the rest of the, you know, ordinary Iranians out on the streets.

GROSS: One of your older brothers, when he was a college freshman,
participated in a demonstration against the shah on a campus and he was
detained overnight by SAVAK, which is the shah's intelligence agency.
What impact did that have on the family?

Ms. HAKAKIAN: Well…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HAKAKIAN: …a terrible one. Because as a result of that, my father
immediately realized that my brothers could not stay in Iran - they were
young university students, one of them was 17 at the time and the other
one was 19 - and that they should be sent to America to be kept safe.
And they both came here to the States in 1978 and my oldest brother had
already been here from the mid ‘70s, and that really created a major
rupture in my family from which we in some ways never recovered.

GROSS: What do you mean?

Ms. HAKAKIAN: Well, you know, they left in '78 - my two youngest
brothers left in '78, and by the time my mother and I arrived it was
1985 and so much had happened in those years, both to them and to us.
And it's one thing when families are separated for a job - you know, one
person goes to this state, another one goes to another state. It's
another thing when in that interim of separation there is a revolution
and a war and displacement and so much more. And it was really hard to
sit down and try to catch up with my brothers. I think we never did.
That we - there was no way that we could fill each other in on the years
that we had been apart.

GROSS: What were the first signs that you saw in Iran that a revolution
was starting?

Ms. HAKAKIAN: Oh, street noise, slogans that would surface on the walls
of our streets in the mornings, you know, the walls will be clean and
then you would wake up the next day and there would be a slogan written
across the wall. It was a very tense time that even in the most quiet
moments of the day you could feel the palpable tension kind of buzzing
in the air. And at nights, of course, there were lots and lots of shouts
and demonstrations and even shootings. You know, people were out on the
streets and guards were after them, shooting.

GROSS: In 1978, there was a national oil company strike, which paralyzed
the economy of Iran, and that's often looked back now as an example of
how powerful a strike in Iran can be.

Ms. HAKAKIAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Do you have memories of that 1978 strike?

Ms. HAKAKIAN: The queues. You know, the queues were, you know, the most
prominent feature of our life and I will never forget how odd it was. I
mean it practically transformed the look of the block because…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HAKAKIAN: …from the distribution center, which was at the corner of
our block, they had tied a rope to the door handle of the distribution
center and because the queue was so long and people were desperate for
oil, and we wanted to make sure that nobody was cutting in the line, we
would pass our buckets through the rope. So even if you left the queue,
your bucket would still be in line. And these ropes and these dangling
buckets from these ropes were there for weeks. And they had changed the
landscape by virtue of them being there, but also simply by the fact
that people would aggregate and congregate around these ropes and around
their buckets and talk. And it was one of the manifestations of how Iran
had come to a standstill in 1978.

GROSS: Would you describe one of the revolutionary demonstrations that
you participated in and what it felt like to be there?

Ms. HAKAKIAN: I can't remember one in 1978 or 1979, at least not until
the fall of the shah, that I personally participated in. I was usually
on the sidewalks watching. But the one collective event that I did
participate in, and really was moved by, was going up to the rooftop at
9 o'clock in December of 1978 and shouting Allahu Akbar, or God is
great. It was a magnificent experience to know that all of us were in it
together, to know that everybody in the neighborhood, in pitch dark, was
standing on the rooftop shouting the same thing. It made me realize that
social movements, that a collective experience can be such a formative
and such a magnificent experience for a young person to have and I loved
being there.

GROSS: My guest is Roya Hakakian author of the memoir, "Journey from the
Land of No,” about growing up Jewish in revolutionary Iran. More after a
break.

This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Roya Hakakian. She wrote a
memoir about growing up Jewish in Iran under the shah and then during
the revolution, and it's called "Journey from the Land of No." She's
also a founding member, of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.

The Jewish community of Tehran sent a delegation to visit the Ayatollah
and basically asked how will Jewish people be treated in Iran in the new
Islamic state. And one of the people on the six-member delegation was a
close boyhood friend of your father’s. What was the message that the
delegation got from the Ayatollah Khomeini?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HAKAKIAN: The Ayatollah had actually given them his entire attention
- full attention, meaning that there were no other people within his
quarters when they visited him in Qom, the Holy City, in March or April
of 1979. And they were very grateful for that. And the Ayatollah gave a
very long and convoluted speech which had befuddled them in the
beginning. But at the end, he made a very important statement, which was
sort of the punch line of the speech, and it was: We separate the
account of our Jewish community from the bloodsucking Zionists in
Israel. And the delegation brought that statement back and it was
immediately painted on the walls of synagogues and Jewish schools and
other Jewish establishments throughout Tehran and, you know, wherever,
you know, the few other cities where the Jewish community existed in
Iran.

GROSS: It was a strange statement. I mean, he was basically saying, if I
understand correctly, our Iranian Jews are good, unlike those Jewish
Zionists in Israel who are godless and horrible. So our Jews are okay,
but there's lots of other Jews that aren't okay. And you say the phrase
that the Ayatollah said about separating the Iranian Jews from the
godless Zionists or the bloodsucking Zionists of Israel, that that - the
phrase was painted on the walls of every synagogue by nightfall. What
was the point of painting it, to spread the message that this is what
the Ayatollah thinks? And was that meant to reassure people, or to scare
people, or what?

Ms. HAKAKIAN: It was their way of delivering the Ayatollah's message to
the followers of the Ayatollah throughout Iran.

GROSS: And so it was a way of saying leaving us alone, like we’re the
good Jews.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: The Ayatollah says…

Ms. HAKAKIAN: We’re cool.

GROSS: …we’re the good Jews. Leave us alone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HAKAKIAN: Yeah. We have the stamp of the Ayatollah's approval. Look,
you know, it's true you want to fight Israel, and the Palestinian issue
is a major issue, but we’re the good Jews that the Ayatollah okayed.

GROSS: How long did you stay the good Jews in the Ayatollah's esteem?

Ms. HAKAKIAN: The Iranian Jews have consistently been categorized as the
good Jews since then. I mean that statement was fundamentally important
for the Iranian Jewish community because it was really a way to say,
look, whatever it is that you feel about Israel or the Zionists or the
wrongs that have been done to the Palestinians, we have had nothing to
do with it. That's all politics beyond our borders. We have always been
here. We have existed in Iran long before there was a government of
Israel, long before even there was Islam in Iran, and we want to keep it
that way. It was a way of delineating very strict boundaries between the
Jewish community in Iran and the political issues surrounding Israel.

GROSS: But eventually, non-Muslim store owners and restaurant owners had
to put signs on their doors saying this store or this restaurant is
owned by a non-Muslim, which is certainly a form of discrimination. And
you say that a new hardliner-type principal took over your school and
she even wanted to convert the Jews to Islam.

Ms. HAKAKIAN: God knows, she tried very hard, and God also knows that
she failed.

GROSS: How did your parents, who were very observant Jews, feel about
that?

Ms. HAKAKIAN: They actually were very scared, but in a way prepared
because they always had their own previous experiences to refer to…

GROSS: Because there was so much anti-Semitism when they were growing
up.

Ms. HAKAKIAN: Yes. And so they had that background and to them it was
like oh, so it’s back to that again. And so, they were ready for it in
ways that we weren't - my generation wasn't. But you know on the other
hand, several other of my classmates found it extremely comical because,
you know, there it was, this fundamentalist woman. And I do believe that
fundamentalism behaves in the same way across all religions. And, you
know, she sounded awkward, and she was a cartoonish character. And we
basically sat in the back of the school lunchroom and really giggled the
whole time. I mean, even as she spoke, we would mimic her and laugh
during her entire talk.

GROSS: Your parents decided it was time to leave during - I think it was
during the Iran-Iraq War. And is it right to assume that part of it was
a growing amount of anti-Semitism and also just the dangers of living in
Iran during the war?

Ms. HAKAKIAN: Well, let me make one clarification, because as an
Iranian, I think I need to make this point that the anti-Semitic
behavior or measures that were implemented in Iran during those years
were implemented by the government. And the people, our ordinary
neighbors and friends, were not, in fact, falling in line with what the
regime was dictating. It's very important for me to say that I believe
that the Iranian regime has been, ever since 1979, much more regressive
than the general Iranian population.

And it was the regime that wanted to implement anti-Semitic measures.
And in many ways, the Iranian people won't go along with it. The regime
had made it very difficult for those Iranians who were not ideological,
who were not as sympathetic to the regime to make a good living. So, if
you were not a student who could, say, bring in a letter of
recommendation from the local mullah at the mosque, you would have less
chances of getting into the university - or at least get into a good
university.

And, you know, so it became very difficult for ordinary Iranians who
weren't on the side of the regime to hope for a great future. And, of
course, 1984 was the fourth year of war with Iraq. Everything was
rationed. And there were shortages of the basic staples of life. And
there was no end in sight. So, leaving was a very logical thing to do.

GROSS: You've in touch with a lot of people in Iran now through the
human rights work that you do. Do you still have family or friends in
Iran?

Ms. HAKAKIAN: I have a lot of friends, but they’re not friends that I
had when I was growing up. You know, the beauty of being a writer and
being away from Iran, if there is any beauty about it, is that some of
my work, without even my own knowledge, made their way back to Iran. And
people eventually brought me anthologies of women's poetry that have
been published in Iran in recent years that include some of my poems.

And so as a result of these things and these exchanges, I find that even
though I can't go back to Iran, my work goes back to Iran. And there's a
wonderful sense of returning without physically returning and connecting
to a whole new range of people I didn't know before, but, you know, but
people who read and connect with me on other levels and with whom I now
correspond.

GROSS: For a lot of Jewish people around the world, the Iranian
President Ahmadinejad's denial of the holocaust and his real hatred of
Israel, in statements like it should be wiped off the map, these are
very frightening things to Jewish people around the world. And I wonder
how you interpret it. You know, knowing Iran the way you do, having
lived there, what do you hear when you when hear him make those
statements?

Ms. HAKAKIAN: I hear the man that people in Iran want to get rid of say
yet another strange and unbelievable and stupid remark. You know, it
doesn’t startle me or astound me as much as it does others because I
know that there’s another Iran. I know that there's an Iran that objects
to the man who denies the holocaust. And I have always found that what
the rest of the world needs to discover is the fact that even as he
uttered these things, even as Ahmadinejad denied the holocaust, there
were journalists and other intellectuals writing and working inside Iran
who objected to him and who were imprisoned as a result.

So, for me, the struggle is always to show the rest of the world that
there is in Iran a strong criticism against the very man that everybody
else objects to.

GROSS: Well, Roya Hakakian, I want to thank you so much for talking with
us. Thank you.

Ms. HAKAKIAN: I was delighted to be with you. Thanks.

GROSS: Roya Hakakian is the founding member of the Iran Human Rights
Documentation Center and a fellow at Yale University’s Whitney
Humanities Center. Her memoir is called, “Journey from the Land of No.”
Coming up: Ken Tucker reviews the new CD by Eels, a band led by Mark
Oliver Everett who also made a documentary about his late father who was
a quantum physicist.

This is FRESH AIR.
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A Wolfman Sings His 'Songs Of Desire'

TERRY GROSS, host:

“Hombre Lobo” is the first studio album in five years by the band known
as Eels. The man behind the band is Mark Oliver Everett, better known to
his fans as E. Along with two other musicians, E turns “Hombre Lobo”
into what he calls “12 Songs of Desire.” Rock critic Ken Tucker has a
review.

(Soundbite of music)

KEN TUCKER: With his long beard, fuzzy blues-rock guitars and a trio
band, Mark Oliver Everett and Eels could remind you a little of ZZ Top.
But pretty soon after diving into “Hombre Lobo,” you realize that this
music is less “Tres Hombres” and wolfish than it is sotto voce and
melancholy.

(Soundbite of song, “In My Dreams”)

Mr. MARK OLIVER EVERETT (Lead Singer, Eels): (Singing) My love is always
just as she seems. A force of nature all her own to be reckoned with.
Whatever’s wrong with me, her kiss redeems. And it's all there in my
dreams, in my dreams.

TUCKER: Mark Oliver Everett, known as E, makes good on the subtitle of
his album, which is “12 Songs of Desire.” Again and again, whether he
sings in a growl meant to be heard over loud guitars or a high-tenor
croon with more gently-strummed instruments, E is a sensitive soul,
unafraid to sound yearning or needy, or in this case, whining and
jealous.

(Soundbite of song, “That Look You Give That Guy”)

Mr. EVERETT: (Singing) I never thought that I could be so bold, to even
say these thoughts aloud. I see you with your man. Your eyes just shine.
While he stands tall and walking proud. That look you give that guy I
wanna see, looking right at me. If I could be that guy instead of me,
I’d never let you down. It always seems like you’re going somewhere.

TUCKER: Between the release of this album and his last one, E made a
documentary about his life with his father, the quantum physicist Hugh
Everett III. It was called “Parallel World, Parallel Lives,” and it was
a portrait of how to come to terms with a brilliant, rather distant
father and that old pattern of opting to do something in life that’s as
far from what your parents does - to either rebel or simply to establish
one’s own identity. The documentary was like much of E’s music:
meticulous, intelligent and self-consciously chilly.

It ended up proving that father and son were more alike than not.
Although I doubt the quantum physicist would accidentally hop on the
“Twilight”-“True Blood” bandwagon with a song about needing fresh blood.

(Soundbite of song, “Fresh Blood”)

Mr. EVERETT: (Singing) Sun down on the sorry day. By nightlights, the
children pray. I know you’re probably getting ready for bed. Beautiful
woman, get out of my head. I’m so tired of the same old crud. Sweet
baby, I need fresh blood. Whoo!

TUCKER: I like “Hombre Lobo” most when E is expressing his desire in its
most forceful form. For me, the high point is the song “Prizefighter,”
which uses the metaphor of a man who’ll battle for the affection of the
woman he wants. It’s the hombre at his lobo-iest.

(Soundbite of song, “Prizefighter”)

Mr. EVERETT: (Singing) Well if you need me, I’m right here. No matter
what, I’m always near. Yeah, I’ve been through a lot and you can’t scare
me. Now go on baby, if you just dare me. I’ll break through any wall.
Just give me a call. I’m a dynamiter. I’m a prizefighter. Well, if you
get sad, I’m your friend. I got an ear I’ll always lend. You know that
you can always talk to me. Now come on baby, take a walk with me. Tell
me all. Tell daddy all. Just give me a call. I’m a go-all-nighter. I’m a
prizefighter. Whoo!

TUCKER: I’m a go-all-nighter. I’m a prizefighter. I love that line. In
general, “Hombre Lobo” is an uneven piece of work because it sounds like
a transitional album for this musician. He’s moving into the middle
period of his career, and middle age. He can still tap into the sort of
romantic insecurity and anguish that rock n' roll used to encourage as a
music of adolescence. But we’re long past that period of popular music,
with senior citizens now making rock music as vehement as anything a
teenager can muster. For E, for Mark Oliver Everett, this means ongoing
worlds of discovery, worlds that he doesn’t even need a full moon or a
transformation into a wolf-man to explore.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He
reviewed “Hombre Lobo” by the band, Eels. You can download podcasts of
our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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