When Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979, Afschineh Latifi’s father, a colonel in the Shah's army, was arrested and executed. Latifi’s mother feared for the safety of her daughters in a newly fundamentalist society, and sent her two oldest girls abroad to live with relatives in Austria. Growing up without their parents, Latifi and her sister learned to take care of each other and adapt to a new way of life. It was more than six years before they were finally reunited with their mother and other siblings in America. Latifi was invited on the “Today” show to discuss her experiences and her new book, “Even After All This Time.” Read an excerpt.
On February 13, 1979, my father, Colonel Mohammad Bagher Latifi, was detained at his barracks in the Farah Abad section of Tehran. A group of enlisted men stepped into his office, relieved him of his weapon, and informed him that he was under arrest. Less than an hour later, three men arrived at the barracks, escorted my father into the back of an open jeep, and drove away.
As the jeep approached the main gate, on its way out of the facility, my father asked if he could leave his house keys behind for my mother. The jeep stopped in front of the kiosk, and my father turned to the guard. "Please," he said, pressing the keys and his checkbook into the man's hands, "give these to my wife when she comes to fetch me."
The guard took the items, and the jeep pulled away.
When my mother arrived that afternoon, the guard told her that her husband had been taken away. She wanted to know who had taken him and why, but the guard shrugged and pursed his lips. He did not know, he said apologetically. He knew nothing. But he had two items for Khanoom Sarhang, Mrs. Colonel. He turned and retrieved the keys and the checkbook and put them into my mother's shaking hands, and she thanked him and drove home to tend to her four children.
At dinner that night, my older sister, Afsaneh, asked about my father, and we were told that Baba Joon was away on military business. This was not unusual, so we sat down to eat, oblivious, and we went to bed that night, still oblivious.
The next day, my mother drove from one Tehran jail to the next, looking for my father, and everywhere she went she was met with insults and abuse. "Look at you, you filthy slut! Have you no self- respect? Can't you dress like a decent woman?"
My mother had never worn a chador in her life — she was a thoroughly westernized Iranian: her head exposed, a hint of makeup on her eyes and lips, even a full-time job — but with the Shah recently deposed and Ayatollah Khomeini newly in power, the country was in upheaval.
"Please," she begged. "His name is Latifi, Sarhang Latifi. If you would just let me know he's here, it would mean the world to me."
"You are wasting your time," she was told. "We've probably executed him already."
The next day, she tried again, crisscrossing the city, driving from one prison to the next, but there was no sign of him, only more insults and abuse. And when we returned home after school, she was still out in the streets, searching, and her sister, Mali, was waiting for us by the front door.
"Where's Mommie Joon?" I asked.
"She's running errands," Khaleh Mali said. "She'll be back later."
I turned to look at Afsaneh. We both knew something was very wrong.
That night, we confronted our mother, asking her to tell us the truth. Afsaneh was eleven years old; I had just celebrated my tenth birthday.
"Baba has been arrested," she told us. "But it's okay; it's nothing to worry about, just a little misunderstanding. Still, you mustn't tell the boys. They are too young. They might get upset."
I had never seen my mother cry, and she didn't cry then, either. But she came close.
"So where is he?" I asked.
"I don't know," she said. "They're holding him somewhere. I'm still looking."
Afsaneh fell apart — she was very close to Baba — but I tried to be strong.
"Maybe I can help you find him," I said. "I'll go with you tomorrow, and we'll look together."
My mother's eyes grew moist, but still she didn't cry. "I don't want you girls to worry," she said, her voice harsher than usual to mask the pain. "Everything is going to be fine."
The next day, when I got out of school, my mother was waiting for me on the sidewalk. She had decided to take me up on my offer, hoping the authorities might take pity on a child. I felt like crying — I often cried over little things, like being late for school or misplacing one of my dolls — but I didn't cry this time. I knew my mother needed me, and I was determined to make myself useful.
For the next two days, we drove from prison to prison, searching for my father.
"Look," she would tell the guards, pointing at me. "He has children. There are three others at home. We are just normal people, like you." But they showed no mercy.
When we arrived home that night, my aunt suggested that we broaden our search. She had heard from friends that many of the more important prisoners were being kept in government buildings, and that some of the religious schools had been transformed into holding facilities.
The next day, after class, my mother was again waiting for me in the street, and we tried anew. We visited half a dozen government buildings and another half dozen schools with no luck. However, at our last stop, one of the guards took pity on us. He told us to try Madrese Alavi, one of the city's better known religious schools. "Many of the key people are there," he said.
I was exhausted and hungry, my feet hurt, and I didn't want to go. I was unable to get my young mind around the gravity of the situation, but my mother insisted. "This is the last place," she said. "I promise. Then I will get you a new Barbie."
That was different! A Barbie doll! I would do it for a new Barbie!
We drove to Madrese Alavi, and my mother left me in the car, near the entrance. The school had been turned into some sort of provisional headquarters, and members of the new regime were everywhere. I could see my mother at the front entrance, talking to two guards.
"Five days already?" they said, laughing. "It would be a miracle if he was still alive."
The foregoing is excerpted from "Even After All This Time" by Afschineh Latifi, with Pablo F. Fenjves. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022