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Who's a Hostage Now?


Commentator Roya Hakakian has her own memories of protests in Iran in a different era.


`Who wants to stay and learn math?' our teacher asked. Silence. `And who wants to go march in front of the US Embassy?' Suddenly some 20 teen-age hands shot up, and off we girls went, escaping the cosines and square roots, to shout anti-American slogans at the embassy compound. As the English words didn't easily roll off our Persian tongues, we mostly screamed, `Down with America!' No teen-ager ever wants to miss a rebellion.

And by March of 1980, the site had become our own amusement park, where we would find goodies of all kinds, even bargain for a pair of Adidas. America had become a mere incantation. Plate full of boiled beets: 50 rials. `Down with America!' Bag full of fresh pistachios: 75 rials. `Down with America!'

So when Barry Rosen, a former hostage in Tehran, recently confronted me in a panel discussion by asking, `Did you feel any sympathies seeing us on the news held against our will?' I had to say no. Our fury wasn't about Barry Rosen or his colleagues. It was about only one man, Uncle Sam. And with his scrawny face, his anemic beard and his car salesman bravado, Sam the Man was easy to hate. But it was only in part about America. 1979 was our first exercise in sovereignty. Twenty-five hundred years of monarchy had ended overnight, and there we were, terrified and delirious, testing our new reality. This idea is difficult to convey to most Americans without offending them, without insulting the gravity of their suffering, without seeming to rob them of the earnestness with which they tied the yellow ribbons around their trees.

But if the takeover of the American Embassy was only in part about America, what was it about? It was about my generation. Behind the clamor of the Adidas salesmen, beet vendors and pistachio sellers, the moderate voices of Iran were hushed. While the cameras zoomed in on the traffic going through the embassy gates, the regime railroaded the people. It enforced the Islamic dress code on urban women, shut down most newspapers, banned political parties and arrested all the opposition. Images of handcuffed men pleading for mercy became logged during nightly shows on national television.

In February of 1979, the possibilities for Iran seemed endless. But after that November, they dwindled to one: radicalism. In January of 1981, the hostages left Iran. With them went our youthful mischief. By the mid-'80s, my generation, the imams' army of God, were sent off to fight against Iraq. One million returned disabled veterans.

Today the captivity that has long ended for America still continues for Iran. Another generation after mine took to the same streets and threw their fists into the same air. They, too, were defeated. And this new youth, with its hope for liberty, remains a hostage in its own land, a hostage of that moment, that single event so many years ago.

LYDEN: Roya Hakakian is the author of "Journey from the Land of No: A Childhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Roya Hakakian