Posted by: Corri van de Stege | April 28, 2007

The March – Isfahan style

‘Marg bar Shah’ they chanted, death to the shah, a crowd of people, a black sea, slowly approaching us, oblivious that we were there, excited that there was a new hope in the air, venting their long frustration. They did not seem particularly hostile, simply jubilant and in charge, elated that they could do this – shout and wave their hands, freedom at last.

I looked round at my friends, three women, two on the backseat and one next to me, I turned the key and the engine started. As I looked at them I realised that they suddenly wore scarves primly tied under their chins, pulled over their foreheads, and I felt like laughing. Where had they got these all of a sudden, it had not even entered my head to bring one, but they had just pulled them out of their pockets and bags and were ready, not to be distinguished from the Iranian women who were walking in the crowd, although most of those wore the black chador, clutching the black cloth with one hand under their chins, or keeping the cloth firmly between their teeth, in their mouths.

Four nationalities in that car, English, Dutch, American and German, the car a red Peugeot, two years ago brought to Iran from Belgium by my in-laws, for my husband and myself, newly married couple, settling in Isfahan on the University campus. Prior to moving I had managed to get my driving license one cold rainy morning in London, first attempt, after twenty lessons, and passed, desperate not to be stuck when moving to this vast country, losing my independence, wanting to be able to get around. And so I used that car on a regular basis, in fact women, foreign wives, took it in turn to do the rounds of basic shopping in Isfahan, on the university side of the Zayandeh River and the Si-oh-Se pol bridge. Sometimes the men came, but not this time. There was a butcher, where you bought a whole lamb at the time, which you would then cut up and divide into portions for the freezer, or chickens, scrawny but fresh. And then there was Masood, the grocer, who became like a friend, as he knew that these foreigners would not be stingy and had the money to buy whatever it was they needed, could lay their hands on. We exchanged pleasantries in Farsi; some of us better at it than others, as he did not speak any English as far as we were aware.

The town with the square and the famous mosques was on the other side of the river, the more colourful and appealing centre, with the Palace, shops and carpets. This side of the river poorer, some way before reaching the newly built university and its closed campus where the professionals lived. No tourists in this area, not usually, but then we were not tourists, we also lived here, just up the road. But we were better off, we were the lucky ones, our Iranian families diverse, nevertheless we were the ones that had been brought into this country, bringing different attitudes, with different expectations, probably well beyond anything anyone in that crowd could aspire for. They were the poor, the ones that would follow Khomeini and see him as their deliverer.

Four women in a Peugeot being approached by a crowd of shouting and chanting people, mainly men, exhilarated and waving their hands. Death to the shah and long live Khomeini. Freedom at last, no more savak, no more secret police, no more foreigners telling us what to do, our own country and our own decisions, we will dress the way we want to and no longer allow the tagouthi behaviour of these interlopers. Was that what went through our heads? ‘Holy shit’, one of us said, not very appropriately, but expressing our helplessness and fear at what was coming. ‘Get your scarf on’, someone urged. ‘Haven’t got one’, I said shrugging my shoulders.

Then, suddenly, Masood, next to the car, banging his hand against the windscreen, gesturing and saying ‘go that way!’ and he signalled the way back and then a turn to the right, away from the crowd. So he did speak some English, we chuckled but as much at our relief that he was still on our side! I turned the car, put my foot on the accelerator and we hurried away, the three of them still clutching their scarves, me scarf-less at the steering wheel, wondering whether they would let me go if they managed to stop us, if they actually wanted to stop us. We did not know, but then it was not worth taking the risk and finding out. We got away, boot full of basic shopping for the following week. It was the beginning of the long road back to Europe for three of us, and to America for the other, with or without our Iranian husbands. But not yet. For a while we would actually hope with that crowd, hope that there would be real freedom, wanting it to work.



  1. I see you are again at it, seachanges. No time now to comment on the above but will do tomorrow first thing in the morning. Thank you.

  2. A promise is a debt, so here I am.

    You must have gone through quite an ordeal during the time you were in Iran after the Khomeini coup. In your essay you appear to have been happy that the Shah was dethroned and with him the rest of his secret services, police, etc.

    I met somebody some time during the Franco’s dictatorship in Spain who used to say that what was wrong in Spain was not the dictatorship but the 200,000 dictators that were the public clerks.

    I observed that in that dictatorship(Franco’s) – and I presume it happens in all of them – the supporters of the dictator became automatically dictators themselves, let alone those who took up public jobs in the administration of the state.

    Dictatorships must very much look after their subjects, otherwise they are bound to end up in failure. That I can see happened to the Persian Shah, too.

    And I wonder whether the new regime in Iran has really been positive for the Iranians. I think you may be in an ideal position to clarify my doubts.

    If you do not feel like answering this question, you must rest assured I can understand it.

  3. Enjoyed reading the story as I believe I was the one to offer up the ‘profanity’… was quite a time to say the least but the friendships formed will last forever.

  4. I just noticed a typo slipped in the last but one paragraph of my comment, I should have typed: I wonder whether the new regime in Iran (I repeat Iran) has really been positive….


  5. Jose: I will respond, but in good time as I need to think – first thing that comes to mind is East Germany, prior to the wall coming down, the GDR and its masses of informers. I will think about that but I think you are right that supporters become little dictators in their own right. However, there are also the people who simply want to get on with their lives, do not really want to support, but want to survive!
    Also, I know that you meant Iran – I have always loved the ‘Persian’ reference as so much nicer!

    Linda: wonderful to meet you here – and yes! it was you (as usual) with the profanity…. but you are forgiven, they were always very apt!
    You know why you all had scarves? Well, I do, because your Iranian families were moslem and mine wasn’t…..

  6. Jose: have edited your mistake so not to worry!
    Yes, I do think that there is something in the notion that a dictatorship needs to look after its own to survive. Perhaps that is where the current regime in Iran is not doing too well by excluding large groups of people and alienating them. I am not close enough to what is happening there now as I have been out of the country for a long time and am no longer part of it.

  7. Thank you, seachanges. I was getting the impression that Iran’s system was not caring efficiently of ALL its population. A government is ALWAYS for each and every citizen to look up to, those who see themselves neglected are easily prey to external influences.

  8. Thanks for sharing this information. Really is pack with new knowledge. Keep them coming.

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