BOOK REVIEW: “UNTETHERED THE TRUE CHILDREN OF CYRUS”
Editor's note: This review, written by Joe Gandelman, was initially published at The Moderate Voice, and has been reposted with permission. The original page can be found here.
There is a moment in 1974’s Godfather 2 when Michael Corleone sees the determination of Fidel Castro-led rebel forces. The scene is quick and later Michael notes it to the ill-fated crime bigwig Hyman Roth: “I saw an interesting thing today. A rebel was being arrested, and rather than be taken alive, he pulled the pin on a grenade he had hidden in his jacket. He killed himself and the captain of the command..They can win..” The scene with the rebel goes fast in the film, but it hangs there, as does it’s significance.. Unthethered The Truth Character of the Children of Cyrus — a coming of age story centered on two Iranian teenagers who come to the U.S. and how they are are shocked as they get bits of news about the upheaval in their country that led to the Shah’s fall and the Iranian Revolution’s takeover — conjures up the same sense of foreboding. shock and upheaval as that Godfather scene.
Only this was real life.
In 1977, Brian Alikhani and his sister came to the U.S. from Iran like many other foreign students to study and attend high school here. Slowly, surely, and dreadfully there’s a drip-drip-drip — then a virtual flood — of news about upheaval in their country. They are a world away from their country and their loved ones — and wonder if they’ll ever be able to return again.
The book outlines in great detail not just the lives of these foreign students in the U.S., but their perceptions of the United States and its culture as they visit for the first time. In detail, we follow their lives, social lives, academic lives, sometimes big events, sometimes hum drum periods — but that bad news from home just keeps on coming, as their sense of almost stunned bewilderment over what’s happening and dread and horror grows.
Their country was undergoing a revolution in what many still consider President Jimmy Carter’s folly. First, the Shah was solidly backed by the US, but by the late 70s the Pahlavi dynasty ( which entailed two monarchs lasting from 1925 to 1979) was widely accused of using its secret police (SAVAK) to repress and torture. In 1976 Amnesty International released a document giving details and called the regime one of the worst in human rights records.
Enter Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, aka Ayatollah Khomeini, who became a key figure in resisting the Shah. The fundamentalist Shia Muslim religious leader, revolutionary, and politician who felt U.S. influence had corrupted Iran, became a galvanizing figure in exile in France. He was a great “high concept” figure for the international news media, colorful and wanting to oust a government deemed repressive by critics. (In retrospect, it’s almost the same as the way the media covered Fidel Castro in Cuba in the 1950s and the resulting U.S. and media shock later when Castro gained power). By 1978 violent uprisings against the Shah were now labeled the Islamic Revolution. The Shah left Iran in January 1979, entered the U.S. for cancer treatment, and Komeini returned from France and took over. American hostages were seized and held for 444 days from 1979 – 1981. And Jimmy Carter’s presidency was then political — and historical — toast.
This is the context in which Untethered chronicles the lives of these teens who had to grow up quickly, and the reactions from their friends and relatives in the U.S. and back in Iran.
When asked about the book by email, Alikhani provided this answer as his coming-of-age tale’s context:
“I have been trying to find the answers to questions such as, Why did Iran’s codes of honor disappear? How the country make the transition from the Shah’s Literacy Corps to Khomeini’s Islamic armies of the saviors? Why did Iran have to go through these profound cultural changes to a new Islamic ideology? Why did my country have to set these new standards of corruption and anarchy?
“I have found ten factors that lined up and played in Khomeini’s favor to allow him to rise to power.
“The most important factor was the Shah’s refusal to have a criminal mind like Khomeini executed when he had the chance. The Shah was democratic. He had been educated in Switzerland and was schooled in a Western democracy. He was not perfect, but he avoided executing the opposition as much as possible. In the 1960s, the Shah had full control of the country and the power to eliminate a man who would ultimately be his demise. The Shah did not execute Khomeini because he did not want to kill a religious man.
“The second factor relates to freedom of speech, even for Khomeini. If the Shah had allowed Khomeini to speak freely in public, instead of being exiled, and say why he was against the regime, most people would have probably laughed at the Ayatollah and the way he talked. The fact is the ayatollah was against women’s rights, the right to vote, distribution of land, the practice of other religions, and many other things. Iranians didn’t know what the issue was between the Ayatollah and the Shah for many years until they were deep into the darkness of the IRI. It was too late then to ask why they should support a man like Khomeini.
“The Shah raising the price of oil was the third factor. His act created many enemies in the West, most notoriously, the United Kingdom. These enemies took revenge on him as soon as they could.
“The government of the United States was the fourth and a crucial factor in the Iranian Revolution gaining so much ground that it ultimately overthrew the Shah. Jimmy Carter and the good ole country boys around him had never liked the Shah because the Shah had financially supported Republican candidates in the past. They saw it as an intervention in American politics by a man who was supposed to follow their lead, not the other way around.
“The fifth factor was the significant role the UK government’s and the BBC’s support of the Ayatollah played in propping up Khomeini as the next leader of Iran. The Brits publicly supported Khomeini and brought him into the spotlight.
“The sixth factor relates to the shah’s uncertainty and confusion on how to deal with the uprising. He made many mistakes during that period. The shah’s request that Saddam deport Khomeini from Iraq, for example, was a bad move. It resulted in having the evil man in the spotlight as the ‘holy man.’ The Shah committed other mistakes by letting the uprisings get out of control.
“The seventh factor was the ambassadors of the United States and the UK. They both showed ill will toward the Shah. The two countries gave bad advice to the Shah for many years because they were only interested in financial trading with Iran.
“The eighth factor relates to the strange marriage of communism and Islamic fundamentalism. This unity gave a lot of momentum, force, and followers as well as a structure for the shah’s opposition to succeed. The communists were highly organized and trained in guerrilla warfare, mostly by the government of Syria.
“The ninth factor relates to the article that the Shah released against Khomeini, disputing his origins. This action backfired on the Shah. The only thing that the article did was give Khomeini more attention and press. The Shah should have ignored him and not given him so much attention.
“The tenth (the most important factor) relates to the shah’s huge sense of insecurity. He had deprived Iran of any viable opposition against him. All the men who were educated, intelligent and independent thinkers were either exiled or under house arrest. This created a vacuum in the Iranian opposition leadership, hence paving the road for the maniacal Khomeini and his people to organize and give him more power. Iranians proved that if they don’t like someone, such as the Shah, they are willing to subject themselves to the shortsighted choice of a much worse fate, like Ayatollah Khomeini.”
The chapter on what happened to the people who we meet and how they were ultimately impacted by the new Iran — destined to become a destabilizing, oppressive regime named by the State Department as one of the world’s top terrorist states — is haunting. As is the account of how their loved ones and friends in Iran fared and how those who were in Iran dealt with the new regime.
“Untherered” is really the account of the human and collateral damage inflicted by the Iranian Revolution against the backdrop of an inept U.S. President failing to recognize the upheaval and its possible long-range consequences. As Untethered shows, its impact changed lives, a nation — and the world. It altered a power balance and destabilized the Middle East as much as it destabilized and uprooted peoples’ lives.
And it’s highly likely the consequences aren’t over yet.