Author discusses her experiences living through 1979 Iranian Revolution
Jaqueline Saper shared her complicated relationship with identity the her country of birth
The Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies co-hosted an event on Mar. 3 with Jaqueline Saper to promote Saper’s book, “From Miniskirt to Hijab: A Girl in Revolutionary Iran.” According to Saper, her debut book — which she had dreamt of writing for over 25 years — is about survival, pre-revolutionary Iran and female empowerment. Award-winning author Farideh Goldin moderated the event.
During the conversation, Saper discussed her experience living in Iran during the revolution of 1979. Saper, who is named after Jackie Kennedy, said she was raised in Tehran by a multi-ethnic Jewish family. Saper underscored how having an Ashkenazi British mother and an Iranian father impacted her identity from an early age. “I was a minority within a minority … [I] naturally switched demeanor, language [and] speech pattern depending on who I was with,” she said.
While on vacation in England in 1979, Saper’s sister called and pleaded with her to stay in Europe instead of returning to Iran. Saper, who was 18 at the time, returned to a drastically different Iran. Following the bloody, Black Friday massacre in 1978 — which would become pivotal in ending the Iranian Revolution — where over 100 people died, Iranians ended any hope for compromise in this conflict. They aligned with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 and overthrew the Shah because of corruption within his government and widespread anti-West sentiments among the public — the Shah was very intent on modernizing Iran which was poorly received by citizens. Following the overthrow of the Shah, Khomeini took control of the Iranian government and established an Islamic republic. “Almost overnight I went from wearing mini skirts to parties to wearing a hijab by force,” explained Saper.
That same year, Saper married a surgeon and moved from Tehran to Shiraz for her husband's studies. It was in Shiraz that Saper gave birth to her two children. Saper noted that while she enjoyed getting to know the Jewish community of Shiraz, she felt like “a hybrid between two communities,” as Jews would rarely relocate to the other cities. She lived in Shiraz throughout the Iran-Iraq War while her husband served as a field doctor. “I have experiences here on three distinct areas: a teenager in a monarchy, an adult during the revolution and the wife and mother of two in the Islamic republic –– stamina and strength amidst prejudice, diversity and discrimination,” Saper said.
Saper concluded her presentation by showing pictures of her family from before and after the revolution. She included pictures of her family on New Year’s Eve 1978, her parents and herself at day school.
Following Saper’s discussion of her memoir, Shulamit Reinharz director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Lisa Fishbayn-Joffe and director of the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University Liora Hendleman-Baavur, the moderated a Q&A session with audience members.
Goldin, the author of two memoirs titled “Wedding Song” and “Leaving Iran,” reflected on the reaction to her own texts about her family’s Iranian-Jewish experience. While Goldin received significant backlash from her family members after publishing these memoirs, Saper found her work to be well-accepted by friends and family in both Iran and England. She explained that she wrote the book in order to share her story. “I needed to get this story out,” Saper said, noting that she wrote it for herself but also for anyone else who may share similar experiences or want to learn more about the Iranian Revolution. Saper said she felt particularly moved to write down her family’s story after her father’s passing in 2014. In a similar spirit, she expressed that she plans to write a second memoir about her parents’ marriage.
Saper further discussed the duality of her English and Iranian-Jewish heritage. Saper speaks both English and Farsi and has studied Arabic and Hebrew. In fact, Saper’s memoir has been released as an audiobook in Farsi. She explained that translating the memoir correctly from English was a difficult task because her Iranian-American translator had to understand the direct translation of each word in addition to the nuances of culture and emotion that underscore the text.
The event concluded with Saper reflecting on her current connection to Iran. “A part of me will always be in Iran,” she said. Despite living in the United States since 1987, Saper still finds herself holding a connection to Iran, particularly since she spent her formative years there as a child and young adult. She explained that she follows Tehran news to keep up with what is happening in Iran. She also “visits” the country through television and films, although never in real life. “I will not visit Iran,” Saper said, definitively. “The community I knew of does not exist anymore.”