An Interview with Jewish-Iranian Author Simon Sion Ebrahimi

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As tensions among Iran, Israel and the international community intensify, a military strike against Iran looks increasingly likely. According to Mark Weiss of The Telegraph, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon asked the international community to declare that diplomatic talks with Iran had failed and to give the Iranian regime an ultimatum to end its nuclear program within “a few weeks”. While many in the media have voiced concern about the welfare of Jews in Israel in the event of a strike, less attention has been given to the plight of the estimated 25,000-40,000 Jews living inside Iran. Jewish-Iranian author Simon Sion Ebrahimi understands the risks faced by Iranian Jews more than most. His own employees held him hostage for months during the Iranian revolution in 1979. He was also an eye witness to the Iran hostage crisis. Ebrahimi has detailed many of his experiences in his novel, Veiled Romance (available on the author’s web site www.Simon-Writes.com and on Amazon.com), the first in a multi-generational saga, which tells the fictional story of two star-crossed Jewish-Iranian lovers (Leila and Cyrus) in post-revolution Tehran, as Leila writes her memoirs from the fundamentalist Islamic Republic jail. In the following interview, Ebrahimi talks about his novel, the tumultuous history of the Persian Jews, his experiences in Iran and the plight of Persian Jews today. Q. One thing that struck me about your novel was the fact that Leila has such fond memories of Tehran before the Shah was overthrown. Why does Leila have such pleasant memories and what was positive about life in Tehran for Iranian Jews at that time? How did these things change with the coming of Khomeini and how have they changed in recent history? A. Simply because Cyrus comes from a Jewish ghetto with the bitter memories of having been an untouchable, filthy Jew, whereas Leila comes from a seemingly Muslim family and has never been exposed to such atrocities as I’ve detailed in the novel. With the advent of the Pahlavi dynasty, established in 1925 by Reza Shah (an autocrat who did a lot to push Iran forward into 20th century), restrictions on all religious minorities were loosened. Loosened, I assert, but not ended. What was positive about life in Iran—and particularly Tehran—for Iranian Jews, was that at that time, after 1,500 years of fundamentalist Islamic rule (which had pushed them into ghettos), they’d gotten a chance to move out of their ghettos, buy houses and establish businesses that turned out to be mostly very successful in predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods, and to send their children to non-Jewish schools (yours truly one of them!) My experiences at Shams School are detailed in Veiled Romance, as being treated as—how can I say it? An untouchable Jew, I guess. So, was this a positive, as you’ve asked? I grade it as a B minus as compared to what it used to be, an F. And how did it change with the coming of Khomeini? Well, I lived in Iran until two years into the revolution and, one early morning, I was listening to the radio. It was the day after the Nojeh plot to overthrow Khomeini had failed. The plot was led by a group of high ranking military generals. That morning, I heard Khomeini’s recorded speech from the night before, saying something to the effect that: “In the same way as Prophet Mohammad ordered 7000 Jews of Banu Qurayza slaughtered in one day, I order you to eradicate these rotten roots.” I called the station, objected to the fact that we were neither Banu Qurayza nor Zionists. This is how the Jews who live in Iran, especially our single member of the Parliament (for the sake of their safety, of course) isolate themselves from Israel. Believe it or not, they didn’t air the devil’s speech any more. Did they believe me? Of course not! But as I’ve said time and again, these guys are no idiots. They’re even—I dare say—very shrewd. Of course, they want to keep the Iranian Jews in Iran, for they need them as hostages for the rainy day. And if you ask me why an estimated 40,000 Iranian Jews live under the rule of the Islamic Republic, the answer has been killing me for the last 32 years since I’ve escaped Iran. I’m a board member of the Iranian American Jewish Federation. With the help of HIAS, so far, we have managed to help about 15,000 Jews escape Iran (either to the States or to Israel), but those who remain, they remain. A sad reminder of German Jews who stayed back and the rest is history. Anyway, that morning I decided to escape Iran with my wife and two children (which is an entirely different story from that of Cyrus and Leila. The Atomic Energy Organization of France, my clients at the CPA firm where I was a partner, came to my help and…) Q. Particularly interesting in Veiled Romance is your discussion of Jewbareh. The idea that Jews in Iran continued to live bravely as Jews, in spite of the enormous persecution they faced is incredible. Are Jews in Jewbareh still able to live openly as Jews? Has persecution worsened under the current regime or has it lessened? A. Although the number of the Jews that were freed from captivity by Cyrus the Great and who opted to become Persian citizens is unknown, the estimates are about a few hundred thousand. Over 2,500 years of our history in Persia, and especially at the time of Arab invasion and forced conversion to Islam, inevitably many Jews have been obliged to convert. That’s why our population before the revolution fell to about 100,000. Except for a few rundown synagogues and a population of a couple of hundred people who live in absolute poverty (and refuse to go to Israel that embraces them), Jewbareh, the Jewish ghetto of the city of Esfahan, is basically vanishing.


Miranda F.

Miranda has a B.A. in political science and over a decade of writing experience. She has worked as a news reporter, financial news writer and political blogger.

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