Taught to believe in a better world August 7, 2009
By Irwin Block, The Gazette
Former students of Tehran Community School share laughs before the reunion in Montreal
From left, Sandra Koukou, Vicky Shemie, Loretta Gabbay, Barbara Alexander, Katia Dallalpour, Victor Dabby (standing), Shaul Ezer.
They're flying in from around the world for a school reunion
with a difference.
About 180 former students of the Tehran Community School from Australia, Europe, the United States and Israel are expected to
gather at a midtown Montreal hotel today for a weekend of exchanging memories and reliving their youth.
The place was Iran before Ayatollah Khomeini, and the institution, with its mix of intellectual rigour and humanistic outlook, marked their
Montreal writer and filmmaker Victor Dabby was among a group of Iraqi-born Jewish families who found refuge in Tehran; he remembers his youth there
as close to idyllic.
Things were far from perfect under Shah Reza Pahlevi - Dabby recalls "narrow-mindedness, corruption and repression" - but
the school fostered among its middle-class clientele a belief in a better world.
"The light side was our school. We were Muslim and Hindu, Jewish and Catholic, Protestant and Zoroastrian, Baha'i and
Russian Orthodox," Dabby plans to tell fellow alumni this weekend.
"We spoke Farsi and English, Arabic and French, and a gaggle of other languages.
"We were all cosmopolitan, raised on a heady dose of idealism."
The school was launched in the 19th century by U.S. Presbyterians.
By the mid-1960s, under Richard Irvine, a dynamic headmaster from the U.S., the school was half-Iranian and majority non-Christian,
all seeking a Western-style education.
The language of instruction was English, with Farsi and French as secondary languages.
The project came to an end soon after the islamic Revolution, with only 25 students in the last graduating class in 1980.
Shaul Ezer, a Toronto lawyer, praised the school for its lofty standards and highly trained teachers.
"We all came from different backgrounds," he said. "I am Jewish, from an Arabic-speaking family, living in a Muslim
country that spoke Farsi and I went to a Presbyterian mission school that used English."
Sandra Koukou, who graduated in 1974, stressed that in contrast to today's Iran, the country's Persian heritage features a
belief in human rights. "Under Cyrus (the ancient Persian king), there was absolute freedom of religion." she noted.
Even today, the country has accepted Afghans fleeing turmoil.
Koukou is preparing a book on the Iran she knew, on growing up Jewish there and how that experience can serve as "a template for
the globalized community we live in."
Her grandfather built a Jewish school in the city of Isfahan, but her father was imprisoned under Khomeini for 41/2 years.
"He did not want to leave," she said. "He had just finished paying off the bank and his factory was in full
He was accused of "sending MiGs to Israel" and faced execution.
But Koukou, who left Iran in 1982, contacted the judge. "He remembered me from pushing a letter into his hand from the medieval
city of Kom. ... He saved my dad's life."
Eventually, her father got a visa to the U.S.
"I am a Persian girl at heart," Koukou said. "There is a sense hovering over us, we are like one community.
"Our community still has a lustre of its own. We grew up elbow to elbow with all religions, all nationalities, and we were enriched