Titan of Tehran: From Jew­ish Ghet­to to Cor­po­rate Colos­sus to Fir­ing Squad – My Grand­fa­ther’s Life

Shahrzad Elghanayan

  • Review
By – March 7, 2022

Shahrzad Elghanayan offers read­ers the sto­ry of the life and death of her extra­or­di­nary grand­fa­ther Habib Elghan­ian, the first civil­ian exe­cut­ed by Khomeini’s regime in the ear­ly days of the 1979 Islam­ic Rev­o­lu­tion. Con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing the lives of Jews in twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Iran, she starts by intro­duc­ing Habib’s very large extend­ed fam­i­ly, bring­ing us into their homes and busi­ness­es. She describes the wed­dings, the funer­als, and espe­cial­ly the fes­tive hol­i­days like Nowruz, with their com­plex and sen­ti­men­tal rit­u­als. She takes such care to describe this world because it will soon be utter­ly and com­plete­ly destroyed.

Habib Elghan­ian is a remark­able man. Born into pover­ty in Tehran in 1912, he and his sib­lings owe their edu­ca­tion to the Alliance Israélite, the Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter of Iran­ian Jew­ish cul­tur­al life. As they grow old­er, Habib and his sib­lings go into var­i­ous busi­ness­es with each oth­er, care­ful to avoid the jeal­ous­ly-pro­tect­ed turf of the bazaar deal­ers. They make mon­ey import­ing goods before buy­ing land and build­ing fac­to­ries so they can pro­duce plas­tics, refrig­er­a­tors, and even basic con­struc­tion mate­ri­als like alu­minum bars. After World War II, Iran’s econ­o­my booms, and it is indus­tri­al­ists like Habib who make the mir­a­cle of growth happen.

With his love­ly fam­i­ly, his many busi­ness­es, his Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, and his cos­mopoli­tan lifestyle, Habib comes to believe in the world he has built. Even when the Shah locks up dis­senters, even when the cler­ics rouse the work­ing class­es to demon­strate against the Shah, even when wealthy Jews liq­ui­date their hold­ings and flee, Habib nev­er doubts that his ded­i­ca­tion to Iran would hold him in good stead. He buys plane tick­ets to Amer­i­ca, Europe, and Israel for loved ones, even though he him­self refus­es to leave. It isn’t until he has been cart­ed off by the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards to Qasr prison that he begins to real­ize that the Islam­ic Rev­o­lu­tion is not inter­est­ed in the progress he has brought to Iran. He is accused of being an ene­my of the friends of God and a spy for the Zion­ists, declared guilty, and exe­cut­ed by fir­ing squad.

When Shahrzad describes her grandfather’s sham tri­al, the furtive strug­gles of his fam­i­ly to bury him prop­er­ly, and the fee­ble diplo­mat­ic protests from West­ern pow­ers com­pro­mised by their long­ing for Iran­ian oil sup­plies, it’s impos­si­ble to stop read­ing. Still, it’s those weeks before Khome­i­ni takes over, when it is unclear whether the Shah can stay in pow­er or will be forced into exile, that are real­ly grip­ping. The remain­ing Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty is split between the old guard, who thinks the Shah has weath­ered worse and sur­vived, and the young left­ist Jews who sup­port what they see as the com­ing rev­o­lu­tion. Between them stands Habib, who has worked for decades with the Shah but also with some of the ris­ing Islamists. Every­one pres­sures Habib to get out before it is too late, but he can­not bring him­self to leave.

By writ­ing Habib’s sto­ry, Shahrzad has not only hon­ored her grandfather’s mem­o­ry, but she’s made a sort of peace with her own his­to­ry. For her read­ers, she has giv­en some­thing larg­er, a sense of what the world­wide Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty lost when Iran fell.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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