On Nov. 4, 1979, Islamist students and militants loyal to the Ayatollah Khomeini took over the American Embassy compound in Tehran and captured 52 Americans — a diplomatic crisis that lasted 444 days.
Simon Sion Ebrahimi, a local Iranian Jewish author, remembers that day well. It was the same day employees at his accounting firm, which faced the American Embassy, took him hostage.
Now a 73-year-old retired banker living in Woodland Hills, Ebrahimi has incorporated his hostage ordeal in Tehran as well as other experiences before and during the Iranian Revolution into “Veiled Romance,” the first in a planned series of novels depicting the multigenerational saga of an Iranian Jewish family.
Ebrahimi says he chose to write the novel in English in order to inform a wide audience about the plight of Jews in Iran during the country’s 1979 revolution.
“While numerous books, both fiction and non-fiction, have been written in Farsi about the events surrounding the 1979 revolution in Iran, there is a big vacuum — especially in fiction, and more specifically in English — not only on this subject, but also on how Persian Jews have lived in Persia for over 2,500 years,” said Ebrahimi, who is donating proceeds from the novel to the Iranian American Jewish Federation’s emergency fund, which helps local Iranian Jews dealing with financial difficulties.
“Veiled Romance” recounts the love story of two young Iranian Jews swept up in Iran’s revolution. Leila, the novel’s female protagonist, narrates the tale.
Although the characters are fictional, many of their experiences, including the hostage ordeal, are drawn directly from Ebrahimi’s own experience.
“[I was] an Iranian Jew who was taken hostage by his 500 employees because of his position, knowledge of the world, and perspective on government and law that made me an equal threat to the new regime in Tehran,” said Ebrahimi, who at the time was a partner in a large international CPA firm.
The author says his novel offers an accurate portrayal of the anti-Semitism many Jews faced before and after Iran’s revolution — including some of the intolerance Jews experienced while living in the Jewbareh, or the Jewish ghetto, in the city of Esfahan.
“The brutality of our neighboring nomads was beyond words. Admittedly, some of my childhood memories are vague, therefore I conducted extensive research by interviewing the elders of my community to corroborate my own memories,” Ebrahimi said. “My hope is that with ‘Veiled Romance’ my Muslim readers learn of the intolerance we as Jews experienced in Iran, because it is through knowledge that the walls of prejudice can be destroyed.”
Unlike the 52 hostages held at the American Embassy in Tehran, who were seen by Khomeini as agents of “The Great Satan,” Ebrahimi said his captors viewed him as “a lesser Satan.”
Employees demanded $20 million, telling Ebrahimi to get the funds from his “hidden bank accounts in Israel and America.” Guards were posted outside his office, and he was told by his captors, “Please don’t go home.”
Four months later, Ebrahimi was allowed to leave when he struck a deal to pay $60,000 — the exact amount a French client owed the firm. He flew to Paris to collect the money, and while there he secured a six-month visa. After he returned to Iran and paid his captors, Ebrahimi was miraculously able to flee the country with his family even though he had been placed on a no-fly list.
Despite a difficult captivity, Ebrahimi said he harbors no ill will and is grateful to many of his Iranian Muslim friends who were integral in helping to secure his release from captivity and his escape from Iran.
Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Frank praised the novel, and “Walking the Bible” author Bruce Feiler called the book “an irresistible and touching view into a lost world.”
Ebrahimi said feedback from Jewish and non-Jewish readers has been overwhelmingly positive, and he noted that he has also received feedback from non-Jewish readers in Iran.
“As a woman who lived through the revolution I could easily identify with the issues Leila was facing, albeit in a factually fictional novel,” Homa Oskoui, a Muslim reader living in Iran, wrote in an e-mail to Ebrahimi. “I read a lot of the story with moist eyes, feeling sad, heartbroken, and even angry at times, for the loss of our ‘homeland’ that we won’t get back in my lifetime.”
For more information, visit this story at jewishjournal.com. To read a Q-and-A with Simon Sion Ebrahimi, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.