This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution, when the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a Western-backed autocrat, was swept away and replaced with the theocratic regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The revolution fundamentally changed the lives of most Iranians and the politics of the Middle East.

Foreign Policy spoke with Haleh Esfandiari, the former and founding director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Esfandiari, an Iranian-American, was arrested in Iran in 2007 while visiting her mother and was held in the notorious Evin prison for more than three months on suspicion of espionage.

Foreign Policy: Are there any particular moments that stand out for you from those days in February 1979?

Haleh Esfandiari: What I remember vividly was how surprised and astonished and, in a way, shellshocked I was when I saw the whole country falling apart when the shah left. I remember that I started drafting a letter to our 12-year-old daughter, who was with me in London, and saying you should remember this day because this is the end of an important part of history. The end of one of the oldest monarchies, 2,500 years of monarchy. The next thing I think that I will never forget was, day after day, the news of executions of people you knew, former ministers, the former prime minister. This was very shocking to me. I remember the pictures of dead bodies in the newspaper.

FP: What was it like to witness such a profound change in your country from abroad—to not be there for it?

HE: I was missing not being there because I always thought that it happens once in a lifetime when you can witness a revolution close up. I mean how often can this happen. Iran was a very stable country, at least in my lifetime. There was never a war, nor was there any upheaval. Nothing. So therefore when you live 38 years in stability, when there is suddenly this upheaval it shakes you to your core. Because by then everybody was worried what would happen to them. There was a sense of fear of whether the next day somebody they knew or a close relative or friend would be picked up.

My husband stayed almost a year after the revolution in Iran, and I was very worried for him because he was Jewish. By then, a couple of months had passed, and they had executed a very famous Jewish businessman. So I was, of course, worried for him.

FP: Did you go back in the immediate years after the revolution?

HE: No, I went back 12 years after that.

FP: What was it like then, when you went back 12 years later, compared with the Iran that you had grown up in?

HE: Once I went back, I was taken aback by the sight of the streets. Even when I started going back, you saw women wearing long coats that they would refer to as manteau—the French word. The coats were either black or navy blue or brown, the scarves were usually black, and they wore hardly any makeup. Even then I would go to somebody’s house, and they would shed these coats and the scarf, and under them there were very bright colors. And within two minutes, women would walk into a bathroom, put on some makeup, and there was a metamorphosis of these women.

Source » foreignpolicy