A Get-Together For Alumni Of a Lost World
Scattered Tehran Classmates Reunite for Weekend in N.Va.By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
For more than two decades, Rhonda Battat Collins's high school classmates have lived only in her tightly sealed memories. Separated from them by time and oceans and a revolution that shattered the world of her childhood, Collins could not bring herself to track down her friends from the Class of 1977 at Community School in Tehran.
Those memories broke free Friday as Collins stepped off a plane from London at Dulles International Airport, into the waiting arms of classmates from all over the world. One of them, Majed Abolfazli, a friend since nursery school, held a sign that said "The Bat," her nickname, but she needed no sign to pick him out.
In various ways, that scene has been repeated dozens of times this weekend, as more than 50 members of the class assembled in Vienna for their first-ever reunion. They graduated at the edge of an era -- just before the 1979 revolution swept away the shah's monarchy and brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power.
Community School, where Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf once enrolled, was a diverse enclave for international students and middle- to upper-class Iranians and became a target for a new government bent on purging the country of Western influence. It sputtered on for a year after the revolution but closed for good in 1980. Most graduates scattered into exile.
For many, almost nothing remained of an idyllic childhood -- class trips to the Caspian Sea, spectacular skiing in the mountains of Iran, hours spent hanging out at the Ice Palace, a popular Tehran skating rink. "It was a particular time in our lives when we were completely happy," Collins said. "We had no responsibilities, and we had no idea that the whole thing would blow up and be shattered two years later."
Now, living in all corners of the globe, most of them have turned 44. Many are parents, and they have begun to lose their own parents, their strongest link to the past. Suddenly, it seems newly important to reclaim long-ago friends who know their story. The few people in the 78-member class who had stayed in touch began to look for the others, and one classmate set up an e-mail group for them. When they decided they had to see each other, they chose Northern Virginia, where several live.
"Our world is gone, and that world will never exist again," said Darius Rejali, a political science professor in Oregon, who could not attend the reunion but is active on the e-mail list. "It's a very rich source of healing to find people who can remember your past."
The school, a converted hospital, was founded in the 1930s for children of Presbyterian missionaries but enrolled an eclectic mix of ethnic groups and religions. Schwarzkopf, who would command U.S. forces during the 1991 invasion of Iraq, attended in the 1950s while his father was stationed in Iran with the Army. By the mid-'70s, the church had officially severed ties with the school, and it offered the Persian classes needed to prepare Iranian students for a tough government exam in their senior year.
The 1977 yearbook lists 44 Iranian seniors and 20 Americans. That year, the school enrolled more than 1,000 students from nursery school through 12th grade, including Indians, Filipinos and Japanese. There were Muslims, Christians, Baha'is, Zoroastrians and Jews.
"I pledge allegiance to the flag of my nation, and to the United Nations of which it is a part," they would dutifully recite, recalled Rejali, an Iranian Muslim.
"The ethos of tolerance was immensely robust," he said. "We learned to practice toleration as a virtue. These were really important bonds that were formed between us."
But the school was as Western as the students of that era could make it. They wore their hair shaggy and their jeans bell-bottomed. Classes were conducted in English, and many teachers were young Americans, just out of college and looking for an exotic experience. Students played American football and basketball and published an English-language newspaper, the Trojan Review.
The education was intense, and their teachers -- who included Diana Kerry, sister of Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry -- were passionate about learning, class valedictorian Niloo Ziai Ebrahimi remembered. After graduation, she moved with her family to the United States, where she attended Harvard and then medical school in New York.
"In all the phases of my life, I really looked back to Community as the backbone of my education," she said. "It was just a really vibrant environment."
The students knew they led privileged lives in a city largely segregated by class. Their parents were in business or government -- Collins's father imported and sold tea, Abolfazli's worked for the United Nations -- but they avoided talk of politics. The shah's feared secret police, the Savak, was rumored to have spies on campus.
At graduation, Ziai Ebrahimi was told that she had to thank the shah five times in her speech; Rejali, the salutatorian, recalled he needed three.
"With everything that's happened since, the revolution makes the king's age seem so much nicer and more glorious and glamorous. I miss how beautiful it was. But the fear is something I don't miss," Rejali said.
When the revolution came, many members of the class were in college overseas.
Unrest had been growing for years, and violent street protests broke out in fall 1978. In January, the shah fled, and Khomeini came to power soon after. Minorities were persecuted, as were those who had been wealthy or favored by the monarchy.
For Collins, the changes were a shock. She spent the summer of 1978 in Tehran going out every night with her Community School friends, and when she went back to college in England in the fall, she said, she assumed every summer would be like that. Instead, she never returned to Iran. Her mother, a Baha'i, left soon after, and her father, an Iraqi Jew, was placed under house arrest and his passport confiscated. Finally, he fled with fake papers, riding an unsaddled horse for six days in November across the mountainous border. He arrived in Turkey half dead, she said.
Collins made a new life in England, working as a banker and then marrying and becoming a mother. Her parents, who joined her there, never fully recovered from their ordeal.
At Harvard, Ziai Ebrahimi discovered that despite perfect English and American habits, she never quite fit in.
"I constantly felt torn between my [adopted] country and Iran and struggled with where I fit in. That struggle has really continued all my life," she said. She now lives in Great Falls and works as an ophthalmologist in Sterling.
Jamie Pryor, an American whose father was a Presbyterian minister at a Tehran church, spent his winter vacation in 1978 working as a translator for the U.S. Embassy. As the unrest grew, so too did the mobs surging around the embassy; half seeking visas out of the country, he remembered, half protesting American influence. Once, he spotted a Community School teacher from Pakistan outside the gates.
"I gave him a desperate wave, but there was nothing I could do for him," he said.
Pryor was evacuated Feb. 4, 1979, on the last U.S. military transport out of the country. For the rest of his life, he said, he mourned the loss of his school community. "We have become children with our own diaspora," said Pryor, who came from Atlanta for the reunion.
In the years that followed, a few alumni kept in touch. Then in February, one of them set up an e-mail group for the class. A trickle of messages became a flood. Every day, it seemed, another lost classmate was found. They wrote of their children and careers. They remembered the special shimmy dance Abolfazli and Collins performed at senior parties and a certain escape-via-window from a French classroom.
"I hadn't seen or been in touch with anyone, and since we all got in touch, it's just been nonstop," Collins said. "I haven't been able to get away from the site for even a day."
Inevitably, they talked of a meeting. Lorna Bradley, one of the class's Iraqi Jews and now a Sterling resident, took charge. She organized last night's dinner at Shamshiry, a Persian restaurant, burned a CD with the class's favorite music, ordered a cake with the class photo superimposed. They've come from all over the country and the world.
"It was like a family. And now the family is getting together," she said.
As the classmates greeted each other at the airport Friday, they exclaimed over how much they had changed -- Collins's long hair now short, Abolfazli, who once had wild black curls, now totally bald -- and how little. In minutes, they were laughing and joking, switching between Farsi and English and starting a dozen conversations with "Do you remember when . . . ?"
"So many years later," Collins said, "and it's like not a day has passed."
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