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.