8 May 2019

Iran 1979 - A personal account

From Nights, 7:12 pm on 8 May 2019

It has been 40 years since the Iranian Revolution and the fall of the Shah – a time one New Zealander remembers very well.

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Photo: Scanning [Public domain]

Margaret Spanvi was living in Tehran in the late 1970s with her Iranian husband, Husain.

The couple met in London and moved to New Zealand briefly before making the move to Iran in 1978.

“I had no hesitation in going there because to me it was being with Husain and a new life and I wasn’t at all worried about what was going to happen. I had no idea what was going to happen.”

Husain was a hairdresser and very good at his job, Spanvi says. After the revolution however, hairdressing wasn’t allowed.

She considered the move a challenge, but she wanted to be with Husain and that was the most important thing to her.

At the time, 4 million people lived in Tehran – those numbers have now swelled to over 8.5 million – and Spanvi remembers it being a difficult city to get to know – the traffic was terrible, the city was polluted and there wasn’t a good public transport network, she says.

It didn't help that Husain’s family weren't pleased their son had married a foreigner.

“The support wasn’t there really, it made things very, very difficult and if it wasn’t for my job with British Airways, it could have been a lot more difficult, so I fortunately had a good support, that band around me of the British Airways staff, otherwise things could have been a lot more challenging for me.”

At one stage the couple lived in an apartment with Husain’s family – his parents, two brothers and two sisters, and his grandmother.

Husain’s older brother tried to make a connection and he spoke English which made this easier because Spanvi didn’t speak Farsi.

“The marriage obviously was getting a bit difficult, and then the political situation was building up so I was caught in two different episodes really.

“Then the curfew started in August of ’78 and by that time Husain and I had actually moved out and managed to get an apartment on our own.”

With the curfew came power cuts, food shortages and Spanvi says they began to get the feeling that something was going wrong.

At the time she was working early morning shifts, starting at around 2am, and after work she was home by midday.

“I can remember one time I was coming home in the British Airways transport van and we stopped at the traffic lights and we were suddenly surrounded by Iranians and they just shook the van like anything and that’s when I started to feel quite terrified.”

Because the British and US immigrants that were living there had a good life, and were pushing up the prices for others, naturally there was anger, says Spanvi.

The British Airways staff talked about getting out of Iran but this was going to be difficult for Spanvi because she was married to an Iranian and had an Iranian passport.

The only way to get out was for her husband to sign papers with the police because she needed his permission to leave the country, she says.

In September 1978, a massacre took place in Jaleh Square and at least 57 people were killed when troops fired into crowds.

“From there on, there was nothing but sporadic shooting that was going on all of the time.”

All the time, her relationship with her husband was deteriorating. She moved out from their apartment with the help of her British Airways colleagues.

“At that stage I thought, if I don’t get out now, is Husain going to let me get out.”

Because she was working at the airport at the time they decided the best way for her to get out would be to get on an early morning flight to London.

“It didn’t work that way either because that particular one morning, the Shah’s secret police had decided to do a big search at the airport of every passenger on every aircraft so we had to abort that little plan.”

It was a big wake up call, she says.

“I thought well, if I’m going to leave the country I’m going to have to talk to my husband and let’s see if he would do the best thing and sign all of the papers for me to be able to leave the country, so that was the plan.”

In January, the New Zealand embassy, who Spanvi says were amazing, announced they were going to bring a Hercules aircraft to get New Zealanders out of the country.

“The airport was absolutely pandemonium… the amount of Iranians that were trying to leave the country, it was unbelievable.”

British Airways had two flights a morning from Tehran to London and a jumbo flight three times a week – the flights were “absolutely chocka”.

“They were in panic mode to get out of the country.”

In the end, her husband helped and she says she’s grateful he did the right thing.

Husain stayed in Iran and passed away twenty years ago. Spanvi only found out after tracking down some of his family on social media in 2010 – the couple had lost contact over the years.

She says she still loves him very much.

“I never really got over it and I’ll never forget Iran. I love that country and I’ve got some very good Iranian friends here in Christchurch. Unfortunately, it was the way it turned out for me, it was very sad.”