Jewish Journal

Former Iranian Jewish journalist shares his story

by Karmel Melamed

November 18, 2007 | 7:08 pm

It’s not often I come across anyone in the Iranian Jewish community that has worked in journalism or in anything slightly related to the news business. Typically Iranian Jews from the older generation are doctors, engineers, educators, or businessmen. So it was a unique surprise when I recently sat down to chat with Elias Eshaghian, a Los Angeles area Iranian Jewish community leader and former reporter for the “Journal Du Tehran”, a French language newspaper that was once based in Tehran. Eshaghian, now in his 70’s, is retired but currently serves as Chairman of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, an umbrella group consisting of nearly a dozen local Iranian Jewish groups. He has been battling lung cancer for the past few years, so hearing about his work in the Jewish community in Iran was all the more important for me to hear directly from him. Thankfully he’s been healthy enough to share his experiences from years past.

Eshaghian’s essential involvement with the Jewish community in Iran stems back from the time he worked as a teacher and director of various schools established through out Iran by the Alliance Israelite Universelle , (AIU) a French Jewish non-profit organization. The AIU was established by wealthy French Jews in 1860 as a means to provide western education to poverty stricken Jews in Islamic countries in North Africa and the Middle East. The goal was for these educated Sephardic Jews to improve their lives and livelihoods by means of using their education. However it was not until 1898 that the Qajar monarch of Iran permitted the AIU establish schools in Iran for the Jewish community. In total between 1898 and 1929, 11 boys and girls schools were set up through out Iran in the following cities; Tehran, Hamedan, Esfahan, Sanandaj, Shiraz, Nahavand, Kermanshah, Bijar, Bourjerd, Yazd, and Kashan. Some of these schools were set up in the most remote places where Jews lived in extreme poverty in their ghettos. The AIU schools were referred to as “Alliance” and literally helped all Jews living in Iran to pull themselves up by their boot straps. These schools not only provided secular education but also offered Jewish and Hebrew education to Iran’s Jews. Eventually the educational foundations Iran’s Jews gained from the Alliance schools enabled them to pursue high education in Iran, Europe and the U.S. Today a substantial number of Iranian Jews living in Southern California, New York and elsewhere around the world owe their prosperity directly or indirectly to the AIU organization.

Eshaghian was one of the many Jews who helped make the AIU such a success in Iran. He has directly and indirectly helped our community gain the education that it needed to survive in a country where they lived in poverty as second class citizens. The following is just as small except of my interview with him:

How did it come about for the AIU to establish schools in Iran in 1898?

In 1872 Alliance established its schools in Damascus and Baghdad. The Jews of Iran gradually saw how the Jews of Baghdad were becoming successful, so they found out it was from the education they had received from the AIU. So the Jewish leaders in Iran sent a letter to the Alliance in Paris saying that “we are a poverty stricken Jewish community and need your help as well”. In 1874 Nasser-a-din Shah, the king of Iran at that time, went to Paris for vacation and one of the founders of the Alliance school when to visit him. They spoke and the Alliance representatives told the Shah that the Jews of Iran were indebted to Iran and it was Cyrus the Great that freed them and enabled them to rebuild their holy temple. They basically tried to encourage him to allow for their schools to be set up in Iran. They said “the Jews in Iran are living under pressure and their schools for the Jews would benefit Iran and it would also help them”. The Shah told his advisor to take care of the issue but nothing was done. Then again in 1892 Nasser-a-din Shah visited Paris and again the Alliance founders meet with him. They ask his permission to set up a school in Iran and he finally gave them permission, so their first school was established in Tehran in 1898.

(1936 AIU Boy Scouts and boys from the gymnastics team in Tehran, photo from the Archives of the Alliance Israelite Universelle in Paris)

What was your experience like studying at the Alliance school in Tehran?

I studied at the Alliance school in Tehran up to 9th grade at that time, but 10th grade I attended a non-Jewish government school in Tehran. Nevertheless I still had contact with the Alliance school and the teachers encouraged me to go to Paris and attend their teacher school and I did in October of 1947. I was 17 years old then and many of friends told me not to go but I had a real love for the French language, so I decided to go. I signed a contract that obligated those who received a scholarship to study in Paris to return back to Iran and work for the Alliance school as a teacher for at least 10 years. At that time, two or three of the brightest students from each respective country every year was given a scholarship to attend the school in Paris. They learned French, were trained to be teachers and later returned to their country to teach at the Alliance school. I was the first student from Iran after the World War II to go to Paris and study.

So what work were you involved in upon your return to Iran after your schooling?

When I returned back to Iran in October 1951, they told me to go to Esfahan and work as an assistant director of the Alliance school there. I worked there for a year where I also taught French language. Then after a year they told me to go to the city of Yazd and become the director of the school there. I briefly returned back to Tehran got married and after three months we went to Yazd. It not an easy three day journey as there were no paved roads. When I arrived I found a very old and broken down school there with an old outhouse for a bathroom and old kitchen. I immediately started to renovate the place but never gave orders to anyone but called on the group of people to help me do things together. There was a Jewish community with leaders that were much older than me but I quickly became friends with them. Every director of the Alliance schools in each city in Iran was called “Mousier” and they called me “Mousier Izakian”. I worked at Yazd for two years and did a lot to improve the school there. At one time I rolled up my sleeves and began digging in the yard of the school to clear the rocks and lost my wedding ring the process! We did landscaping and renovating the kitchen. The Alliance schools in Iran gave food to the students studying there as well. During that time in Yazd, there was no indoor plumbing; there were only 70 to 80 meter deep wells which you had to draw water out of to use. So we were able to get a pump to get the water out more easily. I realized that in the community there was not a single Jewish doctor and the people told me that there was no Jewish high school in their city. I asked them why they did not send their kids to the non-Jewish government run high school and they said the Muslims in Yazd were religious fanatics and harassed their children for being “najess” or religiously unclean. They also did not want their kids to travel on Shabbat, so their kids only went to school until 6th grade. At that time I decided that we also needed to open up a Jewish high school in Yazd.

(Elias Eshaghian at the Alliance school circa 1960, photo courtesy of Elias Eshaghian)

Can you share with me a little about your experience running the Alliance school in Sanandaj?

Then after two years of working in Yazd, Alliance sent me to their school in the city of Sanandaj. The school there was better established because it had been around since 1903. We had 300 boys and girls students in Sanandaj. Some of the classrooms were run down and Sanandaj had some very cold winters. They didn’t have heating back then, but only old heating stoves that burned coal. They had no money for these heating stoves in the classes, so when I came there I helped gather the funds to purchase them. In Sanandaj the Jews were much more educated than the Jews from Yazd, so were the Muslims in the city. Now the difference between the Muslims in Sanandaj and those in other cities in Iran was they that they are Kurdish Sunnis. The Sunnis don’t believe Jews are “najess” or “unclear” as the Shiites believe Jews are. Therefore the Muslims in the city were not religious fanatics and even sat down and ate food with us on many occasions. I remained in Sanandaj for five years and really enjoyed working there because of the kind hearted Jews who lived there. At one time I noticed a group of young Jews who were sitting around unemployed and doing nothing. I asked them why they were not working and they replied that their French language skills were poor, therefore they were unable to pass the national university entrance exam. I gave all 12 of them free French classes and 9 of them passed the exam. Some of them went to the university in Tabriz and some went to the university in Tehran. One of these Jewish youth passed the exam but refused to register for university in Tehran. When I asked him why he didn’t register he told me that his father was poverty stricken and he needed to stay with him. So we raised money among the teachers to take care of his father while he went off to college and I called a Jewish woman in Tehran to help him find a place to stay when he arrived in Tehran for university. There was a special fund set aside by the Jews of Tehran to provide money for poor or orphan Jewish students who wanted to go university but could not afford to do so. Now this young Jewish man from Sanandaj went on to study psychiatry and is still now head of a psychiatric hospital in Tehran. He is just one of my successful students.

When did you return back to Tehran?

After Sanandaj, I came to the Alliance school in Tehran around 1960 and became a French language teacher. Then I was later made director of one of the Alliance schools in Tehran which was located on Cyrus Street near the Jewish ghetto. There was also another Alliance school on Jaleh street. Later I became director of both schools in Tehran which had 1,500 students.

When did you start working as a reporter?

In 1970, I resigned my post as director of the school and remained on only as a teacher because I had a love of journalism and wanted to pursue work in that field at nights. I worked part-time as a reporter at “Journal Du Tehran”, which was the French language newspaper in Tehran. At the same time I taught French at three different universities in Tehran. Later on an opportunity arose where UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization needed a Persian to French translator, so I applied for the position and worked for them as well. Subsequently I worked as a French translator at many of the international conferences that took place at Tehran. I was a bit of an expert in working as a translator because when I was a student in Paris when my French was not so good, I took notes in Persian language in class. So that skill later helped me. Then in 1974 I stopped working at the Alliance school as a French language teacher to pursue my work in journalism and as a translator. So for nearly 23 years I had worked with the Alliance schools in Iran. Then in 1980, after the revolution my family and I fled Iran.

(AIU language class in Tehran in 1967, photo from the Archives of the Alliance Israelite Universelle in Paris)

In your opinion what would have happened to the Jews of Iran if the AIU had never established schools there?

I’ve said it many times before, if the Alliance school was not around then, the Jews of Iran would never have been as successful as they are today. They went from being harassed by the Muslim majority in Iran to becoming educated in the country and respected. Once you became educated, people would not look at you in a bad light anymore. Since they became educated, they went onto universities, began doing international commerce and gained a tremendous amount of wealth. Today in the U.S. we have people who directly gained their education from Alliance or their parents gained their education from Alliance and subsequently influenced them to gain higher educations. This was been one of the main reasons why such a high percentage of Iranian Jews in the U.S. and elsewhere are so successful.

Mr. Eshaghian, thank you for chatting with me and for your contribution to education in our community.

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Karmel Melamed is an internationally-published freelance journalist based in Southern California.

Since 2000, Melamed has specialized in covering the growing influential...

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