A ship named Paradise staged the get-together, but for many, it was paradise lost.
Victor Dabby, Freelance
Published: Sunday, September 24, 2006
Montrealer Victor Dabby recently attended a reunion in August for the Tehran high school he attended in the 1960s. It was a bittersweet experience.
I'm finally in California, but what a long, strange
trip it's been. I can dimly recall starting the day
in bed in Montreal, when my radio awakens me to the
news that airports around the world are at their
highest security levels since 9/11.
The newscast recounts how British police break up a
plot to blow up 10 passenger planes in the
mid-Atlantic. The plan - "mass murder on an
unimaginable scale" - would kill thousands and
Alarms go off in my head. This is not a good day to
travel to the United States, especially with a
Canadian passport that says: Place of Birth: Tehran,
Perhaps this is a sign to cancel my trip to Los
Angeles and skip a long-awaited reunion of students
from Tehran Community School.
My imagination goes into overdrive. Will they drag
me off for interrogation by U.S. Homeland Security?
"Are you now, or have you ever been, an Iranian?"
Yes, my birthplace is in the Axis of Evil, but I
live in Canada now and my Iranian passport is no
Then, I get a grip on myself, take a deep breath and
plunge ahead. It's too late to bail out. Everything
will be okay, I repeat, as I head to Trudeau
airport. But I get there and my stomach twists into
knots all over again.
Outside the crowded terminal building is a string of
TV satellite trucks. A reporter from Radio-Canada
tries to interview me, but I brush her off and
plunge into an endless line of fellow travellers.
Everyone looks so stressed out.
Another reporter works the line, asking a variation
of the "how-does-it-feel" TV question. I ignore her.
This is not a good day to ask me how I feel. My
breakfast lingers dangerously close to the back of
I lose track of time, moving from line to line. It's
finally my turn at the U.S. security counter where a
uniformed woman awaits me. I smile and brace myself
for some tough questions. The young woman studies my
passport and asks: "Sir, do you have food in your
carry-on?" Is this a trick question? My mind
stumbles for a second, then I blurt out: "Yes, I
have a cheese sandwich."
"Well, you should tick off 'Yes' on your entry form
here." She smiles and hands me back my passport.
"And, sir, welcome to the United States."
- - -
Our reunion takes place on board a luxury liner
called Paradise, run by Carnival Lines. It leaves
Long Beach on Friday, returns on Monday morning.
They don't call it a "fun ship" for nothing - it has
all-you-can-eat (free) buffets, all-you-can-gamble
casinos and all-you-can-drink (cash) bars. A weekend
of excess and nostalgia sounds pretty good about
But then, reality rears its head as our passports
are checked. One former student, a woman with a
Canadian passport who lives in Vancouver, is told
she can't get on the ship after admitting she also
holds a valid Iranian passport.
She is sent back to the Immigration and
Naturalization Service for clearance to board. She
finally gets on with minutes to departure time.
"Please don't use my name, I still have family and
property in Iran," she tells me later, when I
mention I will bring up her case in my article.
"I don't need any problems because I go back to Iran
every year. I never lie about my two passports. I am
used to questions; it's all part of the game. But,
please, don't say my name in your article."
We may be thousands of miles away from Tehran, but
you can still feel the paranoia.
- - -
My most chilling memory of Tehran Community School
dates back to June 3, 1963.
The day began with just another morning math class,
as the school year wound down for the summer.
Around mid-morning, we heard the muffled sounds of
roaring crowds and loud crackling noises in the
downtown area beyond the school gate. We were just a
10-minute walk away from the parliament buildings (Majlis),
where there were regular political rallies.
But this time, it sounded serious. The school's fire
alarms started clanging and nervous administrators
scurried in the halls telling teachers to stop
classes and bring the students to the main
There, we were told in solemn tones not to panic,
that there was "trouble" outside and our parents
were arranging to get us back home. Meanwhile, the
crowd noises were punctuated with gunfire. Someone
whispered there was a mob at our school gate but
police were there to beat them back.
It felt like an eternity, but we were finally
allowed out of the auditorium and into the courtyard
to find our rides home. I saw Gol Agha, our family
driver, and ran to our canary-yellow Opel sedan,
happy to escape the growing madness.
Our drive home was surreal. Soldiers, troop carriers
and tanks were everywhere. Here and there were the
burned-out hulks of cars destroyed in the fighting.
I averted my eyes when I saw a couple of bloodied
bodies sprawled in the back seat of one car. The
half-hour drive home to Shemran Road in north
Tehran, was tense as we slowed down at military
We finally got home and I surveyed the city skyline
from our third-storey balcony. There were plumes of
smoke and the radio played martial music. Then they
announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew. My father joined me
on the balcony, looked at the city and shook his
head. Eighteen months later, we emigrated to Canada.
The next day, everyone talked about the "troubles."
It seemed they were set off by the arrest of an
obscure Shiite ayatollah who dabbled in politics. It
was the first time I had heard of a guy called
- - -
One of the Khomeini government's first acts after
taking power in 1979, was to close our school and
other centres of "foreign teaching."
Tehran Community School represented everything this
regime detested - boys and girls in the same class,
kids from 28 nationalities mixing freely, an
atmosphere of tolerance and respect for the many
religions represented by the student body.
Established in Tehran by the Presbyterian Mission in
the postwar era, Community offered an
American-standard curriculum with English and Farsi
as the main languages, as well as French. There was
chapel service and Bible study, but also a heavy
dose of idealism.
The school was big on the United Nations: we all
knew the words to the official UN anthem, Song of
Peace, and regularly recited the pledge of
allegiance ("I pledge allegiance to my country, and
to the United Nations of which it is a part, one
world brotherhood of peaceful nations, with liberty
and justice for all.")
At the heart of the Community spirit today - 27
years after its death - was the Irvine family. They
came to Iran in 1951 and stayed for 30 years. They
were tall, blond and all-American. But four of their
five boys were born in Tehran and spoke fluent
Farsi. They adored the country and knew more about
Persian cuisine and customs than most Iranians.
Jack Irvine, my friend from kindergarten, is fond of
recalling how his brother David, a state trooper in
Arizona, stunned everyone when he unleashed Farsi
expletives at a sarcastic Iranian-American couple
caught in a speed trap.
"Their jaws dropped, they couldn't believe their
ears. Here is a tall, blond American guy speaking
perfect Farsi. They never recovered from the shock,"
Richard and Mary Ann Irvine, still spry and lively
in their 80s, were our surrogate parents, our link
to the past and the centre of every reunion.
But as I look around during our get-together
(complete with Persian snacks), I'm disappointed by
the turnout. There are only 140 people here. The New
York reunion set a record with 500 people in 2000.
Still, it's a minor miracle that we are still here,
grey hair and all. Our two oldest graduates go back
to 1947 and 1948. People fly from Thailand,
Switzerland and Italy to be here.
The talk is about the "old" Tehran - lining up for
the latest Jerry Lewis film at the Cinema Diana on
Shah Reza, eating faloodeh (rose-flavoured ice
cream) near Ferdowsi, shopping on Lalehzar, partying
at the Darband Hotel, secretly renting motorcycles
on Hafez, twisting to Chubby Checker at the prom.
This is a warm and fuzzy Tehran that we can only
visit in our minds.
- - -
But not all our memories are bright and light. Some
are very dark.
One of my oldest friends, Peter (not his real name)
isn't at this reunion but his tale still haunts me.
His parents fled eastern Europe after the war to
settle in Iran. An only child, Peter left them to go
to the United States to study in the late 1960s.
Then, the revolution came - and his parents
literally disappeared. "One day, they evaporated,
nowhere to be found. To this day, I have no idea
what happened," Peter said.
Another old friend, Mina, who now lives in Europe,
recalls returning to Tehran to sell her late
mother's house after the revolution.
"I had to wear a chador all the time. Can you
imagine? Covered up like that in the heat. I felt
suffocated. I couldn't wait to leave. They say you
can't go home. They are right. You should never go
back. Just hold on to the good memories," Mina said.
And there's Linda, an Iraqi Jew like myself, whose
wealthy father hobnobbed with the shah and lived in
a giant, white-marbled mansion near the road to
Karaj. Their parties were part of Tehran legend. Her
father died as revolutionaries destroyed his life.
The message was clear: In the new Iran, Jews must
stay humble or face the wrath of the "righteous."
Then, I wonder what's become of all my Bahai school
mates. The Islamic regime considers them to be
members of a heretic sect of Islam. They are
"apostates," making their persecution and execution
a duty for every "right-thinking" Shiite.
The laundry list of tragedies and broken lives goes
on and on.
- - -
But back in the present, our reunion's biggest
challenge is to agree on our next event in 2009.
Our contact book lists about 1,300 alumni all over
the world (some still in Tehran), but mainly in the
United States, so the reunions must stay in North
America. Still, we face a challenge: Our ranks are
depleting. Since our school no longer exists, there
are no new graduates to replace us.
The youngest Community grads would now be in their
mid-40s. The stark truth is that we are a species
heading for extinction. So we must hurry and make
plans. How many more reunions can there be in our
future - two, maybe three?
One email from an 80-year-old alumnus in New York,
says our next reunion will hopefully be in Tehran.
"Dream on," someone comments. But one city that
emerges as the favourite for 2009: Montreal.
Everyone is keen to visit my hometown. They say we
will get the people who didn't come this time - from
New York, Boston, Washington, Toronto.
With another reunion safely in the planning stages,
we disembark from the Paradise and disperse. Thus,
ends another visit to our personal 'Paradise Lost.'