September 4, 2008
Hide ‘n’ seek no child’s game in fleeing Iran
Ruben Melamed is an 80-year-old Los Angeles-area businessman and a fifth cousin of mine who escaped near death in Iran. I did not know of his story until recently, when I began searching for stories of Iranian Jews who escaped their homeland during the revolution some 30 years ago. |
In the late 1970s Iranian authorities wanted the assets of the prosperous businessman and pharmacist. Melamed's business was valued at nearly $40 million, including laboratory equipment.
He had been an important member of the Central Jewish Committee in Iran, which oversaw many aspects of Jewish life in the country. He published his memoirs in Persian a few years ago, and he remains one of only a few local Iranian Jews who have been willing and unafraid to share with me his experiences during the Iranian Revolution.
When the demonstrations in the streets of Tehran began in the early days of the revolution, the normal workaday life of Iran came to a standstill because of widespread strikes. As a result, Melamed and his family left Iran for Los Angeles with few belongings, thinking that they would return home once a new government was formed in Iran.
After Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in Iran, Melamed, who had not been able to find work in the United States, decided to return home in mid-1979. He hoped to resuscitate his large business, which had been inactive for months.
"Looking back on the whole event, I can say I was tricked by Khomeini's assurances that nothing would happen to those who fled Iran but wanted to come back," Melamed said.
He discovered it was a mistake when Revolutionary Guard members came to his office, seeking to arrest him after interrogating his partner.
"They had just killed Habib Elghanian [leader of the Jewish community in Iran], and I was next on their list -- the new Islamic regime that had come to power wanted to get their hands on my assets," he explained. "So they placed a label on me that I was a Zionist who had worked as a member of the Central Jewish Committee in Iran and that I had participated in the World Zionist Congress."
His company was seized by the regime. He was forbidden to conduct any business in Iran, and he was placed on a list of people forbidden to leave the country. For the next six months, Melamed hid in the homes of both Jewish and Muslim friends in Tehran and the city of Shiraz.
"I was very tired that I had burdened these people while living in hiding with them," he said. "You have to understand that the Islamic regime had placed ads in the newspapers saying that anyone who helped or hid a person that was on the government black list would face the same punishment as the black-listed person -- so everyone that was hiding me was frightened."
After several months of living in hiding and fear, Melamed's friends obtained a false passport for him bearing the name of "Ravin Aminpour." They urged him to leave the country illegally. Being proud and stubborn, he initially refused the false passport and unsuccessfully sought to obtain formal permission from authorities to leave Iran.
"I was so tired from all of this running around that at one point, I was even considering giving myself up, surrendering to the authorities and serving a prison term for a few years," Melamed said.
His father-in-law convinced him to pay 250,000 in Iranian currency and to accept an offer from a Jewish man who promised to place Melamed on a commercial flight leaving Tehran without having to go through airport security.
A few days before his flight was to leave, the Jewish man who had promised to help Melamed informed him that he would not be able to get him on board the plane. Instead, he would help him at the airport if authorities were going to arrest him.
His friends devised a plan. Two of them would wait outside the terminal in a car with the engine running, in case Melamed had to make a quick getaway. Two other friends and a Revolutionary Guard who had been bribed would wait inside the terminal to help the businessman escape if something went wrong.
On the night after Yom Kippur, in September 1980, Melamed dressed as a construction worker. He had grown a beard to disguise himself and carried the false passport.
The businessman was able to get through the airport undetected, even though signs with photos of him were posted on the airport walls.
"After I boarded the plane, the engines revved up, the plane was readying to take off and I thought I was safe -- but suddenly, the plane stopped, and the engines were turned off," he said.
"Five armed Revolutionary Guards immediately stormed onto the plane and were demanding to see Ravin Aminpour -- and that was me. My heart just sank to the floor at that moment, and I said goodbye to my wife and kids under my breath as I approached the guards."
Suspicious, the armed guards interrogated Melamed for 20 minutes on the plane. They accused him of lying about his identity as a construction worker going to Frankfort, Germany, to have a heart operation.
"The guard asked me if I was a former military general, and at that point, I discovered they were not looking for me but rather a different person they had mistaken me for," Melamed said.
The guard eventually accepted his story and allowed him to return to his seat after Melamed agreed to see the guard when he "returned to Iran after 10 to 15 days."
"It was a miracle that they had not removed me from the plane and taken me away, because they would have eventually discovered my true identity," he said.
After the flight arrived in Germany, Melamed was able to obtain his legitimate passport, which a friend, another Jewish passenger on the plane, had been carrying for him. With a U.S. visa and passport, Melamed was eventually reunited with his family in Los Angeles.
"I was one of the people who managed to survive this revolution after I was truly burned and destroyed because of it -- it's something that I will never forget for the rest of my life," he said.