For hundreds of years, Iran had been a land of poetry, science, and music, but in 1979 with the success of the Islamic revolution, its new leaders declared beauty illegal and imprisoned young women for wearing bright colours and nail polish and young men for wearing Western-style clothes. Any form of political dissidence has been dealt with severely and thousands of young Iranians have been tortured, raped and executed in that country's notorious political prisons.
Having been a political prisoner in Iran in the early 80s, I read all the books written about my beloved homeland with great enthusiasm and attention, and The Flight of the Patriot by Yadi Sharifirad was no exception. In my opinion, each memoir written by those who suffered in the hands of the Iranian regime is a piece of the puzzle that is Iran, a place I called home for the first 25 years of my life.
The author, Mr. Sharifirad, a fighter pilot trained by the Shah and educated in the United States, tells the harrowing tale of his life after the success of the revolution. He was born in a village in northwest Iran to a poor family, but being a bright and driven student who had always dreamed of becoming a pilot, he went to high school in Tehran and eventually managed to enter the elite class of the Shah's best pilots in the Iranian military.
His life seemed like a fairy tale - but then the Islamic revolution succeeded and turned his world upside down. Ayatollah Khomeini hated the West-educated, top-ranking officers of the Shah's army with a passion. Many of these officers were soon arrested and the majority of them were executed, but the war with Iraq, which began in 1980, ironically saved the lives of many of them for the simple reason that now the new Islamic regime desperately needed them to survive a bloody war that continued for eight years and claimed one million lives on both sides.
Sharifirad was a patriot. Even though he disagreed with the Islamic regime, he flew many missions into Iraq and destroyed many Iraqi targets. It was during one of these missions that his plane was shot down and crashed in Iraq's Kurdistan region. Sharifirad survived the crash by ejecting from his damaged aircraft. He was rescued by Iraqi Kurds who nursed him back to health and took him to the Iranian border so that he could go home.
Back in Iran, he was received as a war hero, and a movie was even made about his heroics. However, he eventually fell out of favour; he was a man who could not refrain from expressing his opinions, many of which did not jibe with the Iranian regime's. Sharifirad was arrested and accused of being a CIA spy, a very common accusation in revolutionary Iran. He was imprisoned and tortured but was later released.
After his release, Sharifirad's bank accounts were frozen and he was under constant surveillance. He had to regularly report to the authorities and notify them if he left Tehran. Life became unbearable and he realized that even though he had been freed from prison, he and his family would not be free unless they left Iran.
However, escaping Iran was a huge challenge. He managed to send his wife and two youngest children to Singapore, claiming that they were going on a holiday, but the plan was that they would come to Canada and claim refugee status, which is exactly what they did in 1990. Sharifirad's eldest son, Shahram, however, could not leave Iran legally, because he yet had to serve his military service. The only way to get him out of the country was with the aid of human smugglers.
Once Shahram was safe, Sharifirad escaped Iran through the Turkish border. He had to hide in the snow for hours so that the Turkish border patrol wouldn't spot him. Luckily, he safely arrived in Turkey, and, with the help of military and foreign-service contacts, he finally made it to Canada in 1994.
Unlike most dissidents who have written memoirs about Iran, Sharifirad was not a young student protesting the severe policies of the new Iranian political system, nor was he an academic or a member of a religious minority coming under attack after the regime change. He was a brave soldier who risked everything for his country during war but was yet treated as a traitor. His story reminds us of the senseless brutality of a dictatorship that is addicted to intolerance and torture and shows no mercy even to those who risk their lives to save it.
Although from the literary perspective the book could use some improvement - for example, I found some parts to be too long and repetitive, and others that needed more description too short - I strongly recommend this book to those who want to learn more about Iran.
Marina Nemat is the author of Prisoner of Tehran: A Memoir, an international bestseller. Her second book, After Tehran: A Life Reclaimed, will be published in September.