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A journalist revisits her parents' activism in 'They Said They Wanted Revolution'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our guest interviewer, Arun Venugopal, is going to speak with our next guest. Arun is a host and senior reporter in the race and justice unit at WNYC in New York.

ARUN VENUGOPAL, BYLINE: For years, the nation of Iran has occupied a particular place in the American imagination. In the 1979 revolution which overthrew the shah, the American Embassy was seized. And 52 U.S. citizens were held hostage. Iran was part of the axis of evil as defined by President George W. Bush in the wake of the September 11 attacks and, more recently, was one of several countries from which the Trump administration prevented travel - the so-called Muslim travel ban. But there was a time before 1979 when the U.S. and Iran were on friendly terms. And for tens of thousands of young Iranians, that meant the opportunity to study in American colleges and universities in the 1960s and '70s. Many of those students were swept up by the political activism of that era.

In her memoir "They Said They Wanted Revolution," journalist Neda Toloui-Semnani traces the story of two of those students - an idealistic young man and woman who met at Berkeley in 1969 and in time fell in love and became her parents. They were activists who organized protests aimed at removing the shah of Iran from power. After the 1979 revolution, they returned to Iran, where Neda was born. As leftists, they hoped to build a more democratic nation, but watched as Islamists, under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, consolidated power.

Neda's father was part of an opposition group challenging the Khomeini regime and was forced to go underground. In 1982, he was arrested by Iranian Revolutionary Guards and was executed six months later. His daughter, Neda, was just 3 years old. Her book is her attempt to understand who her father was and why her parents embraced the cause of revolution despite the risks. In addition to her work as an author, Toloui-Semnani worked as a senior writer with the television news magazine Vice News Tonight. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Washington Post and the LA Review of Books.

Neda Toloui-Semnani, welcome to FRESH AIR.

NEDA TOLOUI-SEMNANI: Thank you.

VENUGOPAL: Your mom, she was born in Iran. But she came to the U.S. at an early age. What prompted that move?

TOLOUI-SEMNANI: My mom came to the U.S. in the mid-'60s. She followed her mother, my grandmother. My grandmother came to the States to continue her education. And one by one, she brought the children over. And the other thing that happened was there was a coup in Iran in 1953. And after the coup, there was this movement to bring Iranian students from Iran into the U.S. It was sort of a soft diplomacy that happened. And so my grandmother, and later my father and the rest of my family, actually, was part of that student movement, that literal movement of students across borders into the U.S.

VENUGOPAL: Yeah. And it's quite an extraordinary figure. I mean, I was struck by how many students were coming to the U.S. from Iran each year, especially knowing what we know now about how hard it is to be someone from Iran who wants to come here, settle down here or study. I mean, there were 51,000 students in 1979, the year of the revolution, which, as you say, was by far the most of any sending country.

TOLOUI-SEMNANI: It was an extraordinary number of students. And this was a group of immigrants who were - and I'm putting this in quotes - like, the sort of "model immigrants," you know? This was the model of what America wanted this kind of soft diplomacy to look like. They were bringing over these students and kind of showing them how wonderful America could be, and also creating these academic and intellectual partnerships between one country and the other, which they had hoped would pay off in droves.

VENUGOPAL: But in fact, how did this American college education impact these students politically?

TOLOUI-SEMNANI: My father came over in '63. And he came to Rolla, Mo. And the students were coming throughout the 1960s. And like I said, they were coming into all these different college towns around the country. And they had left a country that was a monarchy. The shah's government, you know, had really cracked down on dissent, especially in the early '60s. So these kids were coming over in these waves. They're young, you know, 18, 19, 20. And you're plopped in the middle of America as the '60s, the civil rights era, was taking off - just at the start of the free speech movement in Berkeley, for example, and, you know, the anti-war movement. You know, the American legacy, the lessons that they took, I think, maybe weren't quite the lessons that the shah and his U.S. allies had hoped.

VENUGOPAL: And during this time in the '60s, you have all these different Iranian student groups popping up. And by and by, they - I guess, these groups become much more willing to not just protest peacefully, but to actually stage these disruptions around the U.S., which your parents were very much part of, right?

TOLOUI-SEMNANI: Yeah. My parents in the mid to late 1970s helped organize several big protests. But it culminated in a big protest in 1977 in Washington, D.C. And you can go and look at the pictures. And, you know, there was squabbles between - I mean, clashes, really, between the pro-shah people and the student activists who were there marching. And this all happened because the shah had come to visit the U.S. And Carter had done this - they would - met outside on the lawn. And there were speeches given. And so the students had gathered there, and my parents were part of the people who had organized this protest.

And so the clashes happened, and the police had tried to quell the protests with tear gas. And so you see these pictures of the shah crying and President Carter crying because tear gas had gotten into their eyes. And my parents are out in the crowd, you know, scrapping with police officers and stuff. But this happened to be a really big protest that actually resonated back in Iran. And that's kind of how this movement worked. It was a transnational movement.

VENUGOPAL: So your dad was a student activist here? And then even after his days as a student, he continued to be an activist here and fully committed to the cause. But then he moved back to Iran.

TOLOUI-SEMNANI: So the revolution happened in '79. And dad and mom were both, like, super-involved in those early weeks and months of the revolution. I mean, it was, like, a really heady time in Iran. They really thought that something good was happening, and that was short lived. His group - there was a smaller kind of group cell within his group that decided the way that they would be able to influence the Islamic regime was to plan a violent insurrection. And my dad was against it. So that insurrection happened January 25, 1981. And Dad was essentially underground through most of that. He had been pushed out of the leadership of the organization at that point. So he was kind of underground during that year stretch.

This uprising ultimately failed relatively quickly, and a bunch of the people who participated in the insurrection were killed or arrested. My mom and my dad, we moved into a safe house in Tehran where people weren't supposed to know where we lived. And Dad basically stayed home with me and he was my primary caretaker. My mother taught English. They were kind of waiting, I think, to see what would happen. And then July 1982, a week after he turned 38, all of a sudden, the quiet ended and the sweeps, the arrests began. And within, like, I think, a week's time, there was two dozen people that were caught up, maybe more, in the dragnet and sent to Evin Prison.

VENUGOPAL: What exactly did you learn about the circumstances of your father's arrest and his eventual execution?

TOLOUI-SEMNANI: He had gone to a political meeting that morning. And, you know, I'd been able to find the government's evidence against my father and against this group. My dad wasn't arrested alone. There was almost two dozen people arrested around the same time. So I then sat down with various family members and reconstructed essentially the day that he was arrested. My aunt, who was very young, was home at the time, and my mother had left behind a really detailed interview of what happened.

One of the things that had happened, the way that the government functioned, was they tortured people. And then - in order to get them information. And then they would bring them along when they would arrest whoever they had given up. And so somebody had been brought along to this kind of sweep of arrests. And my dad was caught up in that dragnet. My mother and I just barely got away with not being arrested because my mom had happened to go back to the safe house where we were living. And my dad had smartly brought the guards to my grandparents' house where he knew there was a crib. There was some, you know, indication that I had been there in the past. And his little sister, as I said, my aunt was there. And so they had this very awkward afternoon of waiting for my mother.

And my mom happened to call to see what was going on, whether my father had come back. And my aunt picks up the phone. And the code that she told my mother was take the children. My mother was pregnant with my brother and I was 2 and, you know, not even 3 at that point. And the code that my aunt had relayed to my mother was, take the children to your mom and come back. And my mother's mother - my grandmother lived in California at the time. So it was a code from my father to my mother that it's time to go. And then they waited until about midnight for us to come. And when we didn't, they took my father, and mom and I went into hiding that night.

VENUGOPAL: In your book, you write that when you were growing up, your mom dropped clues about their past. And I'm just wondering, how do you understand the secrecy or the withholding?

TOLOUI-SEMNANI: She was trying to explain several really big things - how we got to a place where we went from Iran to the U.S. She was trying to tell the story of my father, who was killed as a result of their political activities by the Iranian government. And so how do you explain that to two small children? And so I don't think that it was a conscious withholding, at least not completely. I think she was trying to figure out how to tell this broader story of our family to, as I say, two small children and then trying to grieve and process these big, giant, heartrending, destabilizing griefs while she was making her way in the world.

VENUGOPAL: Neda Toloui-Semnani, thanks so much for joining us today.

TOLOUI-SEMNANI: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Neda Toloui-Semnani is the author of the new book "They Said They Wanted A Revolution: A Memoir Of My Parents." She spoke with our guest interviewer Arun Venugopal. Arun is a host and senior reporter in the Race and Justice Unit at WNYC in New York. Coming up, our TV critic David Bianculli reviews "Irma Vep," a new HBO miniseries based on the French film of the same name. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUY MINTUS TRIO'S "OUR JOURNEY TOGETHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.