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Israel-Iran Relations: A Native Poet's Perspective


The mix of religion, culture and national identity makes for a sometimes complicated sense of self for many people living in the Middle East - and beyond. Roya Hakakian often writes about that. She's Jewish and born and brought up in Tehran. She came to the United States on political asylum in 1984, and has since become a widely lauded poet and writer. We spoke to her last fall about her latest book, "Assassins of the Turquoise Palace." At the moment, she focused on the growing tension between her birth country, Iran, and Israel. Roya Hakakian joins us from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut. Thanks for being with us.

ROYA HAKAKIAN: It's good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: You were founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center and you follow events in the land of your birth quite closely. How serious do you think the current situation is?

HAKAKIAN: When I talk to friends inside Iran, I get the sense that the early post-revolutionary years, when Iran was first placed under sanctions and the war between Iran and Iraq had just started, are back. You know, there is a great deal of pressure. The value of the Iranian currency has dropped to the lowest its been in 33 years. And all of that has created a deep sense of anxiety and fear within the public, in a way that we have not seen in a very long time.

SIMON: What's your impression, Roya, of how the attitude of many Iranians may have changed in the post-revolutionary era towards Jews?

HAKAKIAN: Well, that's a very interesting question. We think that the attitude of ordinary Iranians have changed towards Jews, but it's really the attitude of the Iranian government that suddenly changed. When I was in high school in Iran in the mid '80s, in the bathrooms in my high school were segregated, Muslims and non-Muslims. And those are not the desires of my ordinary classmates, or even the principals or the administrators in the school. Those were the very regulations that the new regime was trying to implement.

They were trying to provoke the public into acts of anti-Semitism. And what I find stunning is that the majority of the public simply didn't go for it. You can, of course, cite examples of anti-Semitic acts that go on in Iran to this day. But what is really important to note is that the public tries to steer clear of what the regime is inciting.

SIMON: Do you worry about friends of yours who were Jews in Iran at the moment?

HAKAKIAN: Sure, I do. I think an attack by Israel, by the United States on Iran can really jeopardize the safety of Jews in Iran, for sure. But I also think that it's very important to put this in the context of what's going on in Iran today. If you have to compare what is worse to be in Iran today: Is it worse to be a Jew or is it worse to be a member of a secular opposition group? I would say the latter. I mean you're not talking about an ideal civil situation from which Jews fall away. You're talking about circles that can be farther or closer to hell.

But I think what's probably reassuring is that when a Jewish neighbor looks to his left and right, he's very likely to see that he is in between two other neighbors, most likely Muslims, who are as unhappy and dissatisfied with the situation in Iran and with the regime as he or she is. When the degree of dissatisfaction and discontent is so vast and so generalized that, in and of itself, creates a sense of safety.

SIMON: Roya Hakakian, thanks so much.

HAKAKIAN: It's a pleasure.

SIMON: You can read Roya Hakakian's latest essay on Iran in The New York Times tomorrow. She joined us from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.


SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.