On Thursday, March 2 at 6:45 p.m., Federation hosts Jacqueline Saper, who will talk about the experiences she recounts in her compelling memoir, From Miniskirt to Hijab: A Girl in Revolutionary Iran.
Born in Tehran to an Iranian Mizrachi father and a British Ashkenazi mother, Jacqueline has been a bridge between the East and the West since birth. Saper’s comfortable childhood and adolescence ended at eighteen with the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The Shah was ousted, Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile, and Iran became an Islamic theocracy. Almost overnight, she went from wearing miniskirts to wearing the hijab, by force. She continued to live in the Islamic Republic for eight more years, hiding in the basement as Iraqi bombs fell over the city during the Iran-Iraq War. Saper finally escaped Iran with her husband and two young children in 1987.
In this timely talk, we will get to the heart of Ms. Saper’s story of “how extremist ideologies seized a Westernized, affluent country and transformed it into a fundamentalist Islamic society.” She will also talk about her experiences as an immigrant to the United States, where, after starting with few resources, she and her family members all were able to join the professional class and prosper.
This free Jewish Federation of the Berkshires program will be presented via Zoom. Please visit our calendar of events at jewishberkshires.org for links to our programs. If you buy Saper's memoir via bookshop.org, a portion of the proceeds will be donated back to the local Bookstore in Lenox.
BJV Interview: Jacqueline Saper
By Albert Stern / BJV Editor
I happened read Jacqueline Saper’s From Miniskirt to Hijab – a cautionary story, in essence, about what can happen to Jews who stay too long in a Diaspora country that has become inhospitable – on a weekend in which that theme emerged organically in the Torah portion, in my social media, and in the news.
The weekly Torah reading was Parshat Bo, in which Egypt suffers the final plagues and the Children of Israel are packed up and prepared to leave. Hashem instructs Moses and Aaron about the Passover sacrifice and then offers this curious instruction: “This is how you shall eat it: with your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly” (Exodus 12:11). In other words, keep your eye on the door. There are many opinions, approving and disapproving, about what might be called “the paranoid style” in the Jewish worldview; but it is abundantly clear that the notion of itinerancy was installed in Judaism from the dawn of the faith. As the old blues song puts it, “When the Lord gets ready, you got to move” – whether you’ve been living in bondage or in Paradise.
Erev Shabbat that week marked Holocaust Remembrance Day, and I was reminded by a post on Facebook by an Israeli cousin of my generation about how staying on too long also constituted our own family’s tragedy. He wrote:
When do you know that there is no choice and you must go? Hannah Arendt understood right away. The Nazis arrested her, she understood already in 1933, and she left Germany immediately. She was an immigrant without citizenship for almost twenty years.
My great-grandfather David Fishman from Belarus refused to leave. [He] explained to my grandmother in a letter that he knew the Germans – they were here during WWI and everything is fine. Until the summer of 1941, when they murdered him with his entire family.
When do we know?
And as Holocaust Remembrance Day ended in Israel, seven worshipers outside a synagogue in Jerusalem were murdered by a terrorist, a reminder that not only are enemies of the Jewish people eager to kill us in their countries but in our own land, as well. Except there is no door for Jews living in the State of Israel to keep an eye on – the Jewish homeland is the end of the line, conceivably for all of us.
So it’s fair to say that I brought along a bit of extra baggage reading From Miniskirt to Hijab – and I predict most Jewish readers will, as well. Saper’s narrative follows an arc similar to that of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and fans of that comic book and film will want to read this book, which has a Jewish resonance provided by her family’s multicultural Jewish identity. Her father was a professor whose Mizrachi family had been in Persia for millennia, while her British Ashkenazi mother had to adapt to life in Iran, but also exposed her daughter to life in a Western country during summer visits back in England.
Because of the convergence of events on the weekend before we spoke, a question very much on my mind was: “When do we know?”
Jacqueline Saper provided some answers. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.
First of all, how do you relate to someone like your father who choice was to stay while friends and other family members left? Is there any bitterness? What's the family dynamic like?
Well, how can I put it? Chaos happens so fast and you are off-guard – life was so good and things changed so fast. This is where people's true personalities show up. My father was a very decent, straightforward academic. He wanted a simple life, while the majority of the Jewish people I knew were savvy businessmen and took risks. I observed my surroundings, maybe because of my diverse background and having been exposed to Western culture. At that time, traveling was not that prevalent. I had British relatives. I knew both cultures. I understood my limitations as a girl in the Iranian culture. It frustrated me. And if I had the choice, I would have left. But I was a minor. I was under 18, and I could not leave. Another problem was being in a Middle Eastern country even before the revolution, the Shah’s time, as a girl, I needed my father's written permission to leave the country.
I knew many boys would just say, I'm leaving and go. I couldn't do that and where would I go? I had no relatives in the United States. It was a confusing time. Also, I got engaged. My husband was limited because he needed to finish [his medical studies]. And then the [Iran-Iraq War] broke out [in 1980] and the borders closed and they wouldn't give me a passport. So it's not that I didn't want to leave. And I think when this happened, many people, including my dad, were optimists. He thought, “This will pass again.” He was in his mid to late 50s and couldn't start over again. Many people sent money out illegally. They lost it. So it was a combination of many things. And he knew if he left, possibly his property would be confiscated.
So once you all finally did get out, and not just for your family, but in other families that you have seen, are there resentments? Does the issue of whether or not the correct decision of when to have left was made become the fulcrum of family resentments? Or is it something that people tend to be more accepting of?
Depends on the person. Depends on each family's dynamics. Our family dynamic was quite unusual because we were bicultural in the Jewish community of Iran. I read articles, about the second and third generations of Iranians who were born or grew up in America. They call themselves bicultural because they had the conflict between their Iranian parents at home and the American culture at school and outside.
But nobody has had my unique experience of living in Iran, being exposed to the Western culture, but being hindered by Middle Eastern cultures while living in a house that was of both cultures. So it was a little different coming to America. As an immigrant, my issue was I was very much misunderstood. Many people didn't even know Iran even had a Jewish community. People regarded all refugees the same. I wrote the book mostly to explain who I was.
One of the lines that struck me from your book, you said that the race to modernity did not feel authentic in the Iranian culture. Can you talk a little bit more about that and what?
Very much so, because modernity happened extremely fast. When I grew up in Tehran, the capital city, was cosmopolitan. There were maybe 60,000 plus Americans living there. We had European friends, Israelis. There were flights to Tel Aviv. But it's hard to understand that a generation before or two generations before, 30 years before, in the 1940s when armies invaded Iran, there was a famine. The illiteracy rate was quite high among women, even in the 1970s. People didn't travel that often. The elite did, but not the majority. When you went to the rural areas traditional women still guarded their hijab.
It was a double life between modern major cities and smaller parts of the country. And I encountered many highly-educated people whose mentality was from the Middle Ages – women were not equal and many other things. So there was a paradox and conflict between acting like a Western society and a superstitious, ideological mentality that most people had. That was the clash and that's why they backed Khomeini, who deceived people because he never explained his agenda. People thought he'd be like a kind grandfather who would go back to the seminary. But he hijacked the revolution.
Do you think that's going to be, as the world moves forward, a perpetual pull on the Islamic world of societies wanting to go back to Islamic rule?
I don't because of the new generation. Iran, when the revolution happened, had 35 million population. Now it has almost 85 million. That means 70 to 75 percent of the Iranian population today never saw the pre-revolution era. They weren't even born during the revolution. And with the advent of social media, the world is so connected and the youth of Iran are not bound to the superstition and tradition of Islamic ideology of their parents or grandparents. They are modern. Not all of them, but many are modern. They see what's happening – they just go on their Instagram and TikTok to see what's going on in the world. When you look at other Islamic countries, I see Jordan is very modern. I don't know Lebanon is modern. I think it's changing.
There is a chapter in my book, “Public Life, Private Self” – it's exactly the same in Iran now. Iran has an alcohol problem – although it's bad. Facebook is bad, but there are millions of users. There is underground music and underground parties. So it's a paradox. People have to live double lives. It's us against them.
But when is that going to be reconciled? I know there have been protests.
It is a start of a revolution, though I don't know if I can name it that right now. I think revolution happens when it's finished. But what's going to change? I know that Iran, after September of last year, after [anti-hijab protestor] Mahsa Amini's death, is not going to go back to what it used to be. Pandora's box has been opened, something has changed. But the regime is so brutal and it has so many layers. That is not easy. The regime is homicidal, but not suicidal. That's how I put it. It's not going to go away easil.y
Will this regime fall? I think eventually it will, but when and how, I don't know. What this regime kept on telling people is that if there is chaos and protests, the Iranian people and Iran will be divided. Because Iran has a lot of ethnicities – Turks, Kurds, Baha’i, Arabs, Persians - they say if anything happens, Iran will be divided. But the opposite has happened. The people have united. Very much so. And the [10 percent of Iranians who live outside the country in an] Iranian diaspora have united. And although we say it's a leaderless movement, there are some specific personalities that have shown and taken some leadership roles.
Do you think to effect real change they're going to need a real leader?
Not necessarily, because I think we are, in this day and age, the 21st century, I think revolutions have changed, too. The way things are happening is different nowadays.