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A Stolen Revolution One man's history reflects a legacy of protest and change in iran

Words by Alec Cowan

Illustrations by Kezia Setyawan

On a typical weekday, Sammy Mazraekar stocks books in a quaint green vest and directs students to their supplies at The Duck Store. He uses a bright yellow X-Acto knife to open stacks of boxes, and when he stocks the shelves, he squints through his glasses to make sure each stack is geometrically exact. After work, he goes to the University of Oregon library and watches old Italian films, Pasolini and Fellini being his favorite auteurs. He catches up on soccer highlights.

He’s also reading about his home—Iran.

“You can easily find news on what’s going on in Iran,” Sammy said. “We have more information about Iran than Iran itself. They all want to escape from Iran and find another country.”

Sammy is 64. He was born and lived most of his life in Abadan, a small city in southwest Iran. It is a relic of an unrecognizable Iran: one where citizens strolled down palm tree-lined boulevards in chic outfits and where people were as big an import as the sweets and movies they enjoyed.

However, after numerous wars and a pivotal revolution, Iran has entered the world stage under an image of antagonism and state-sponsored terrorism. Sammy’s life is a history that challenges this image. It is the story of a revolutionary who overcame stealing street goods to survive and who worked to subvert Iran’s dictatorship by organizing protests in the world’s largest oil refinery.

Sammy is at once the protector of Iran’s imperial history and its victim.

Abadan

Sammy is encyclopedic. Ask him about the years and matchups for the previous 10 World Cups and he could tell you the results of almost every game his golden team, Brazil, has played. His memory of Iranian history throughout his life comes down to years and even months. The name of his kindergarten teacher is as familiar as a coworker’s.

“Your character is based on your culture—your character, your past,” Sammy said. “I can remember everything in Iran.”

The history of Abadan shaped the history of Sammy. In 1910, the British began building up infrastructure in the palm tree-dotted coast of the Persian Gulf. Abadan saw a large influx of foreign workers, most coming from the then British-occupied India. In the center of the city stood the Abadan Refinery, which was the largest oil refinery in the world for decades. The country was ruled by the Pahlavi dynasty, a monarchy founded by Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1925.

“Oil was the driving force of economic and urban development in Abadan, but it also became the lubricant for cultural development, shaping new forms of socialization and creating new imaginaries,” writes Rasmus Christian Elling, an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen, in his essay series “Abadan: Oil City Dreams and the Nostalgia for Past Futures in Iran.”“Oil opened up new horizons and made Abadanis think of themselves and their city in a global context.”

As Elling summarizes in his essay, oil functioned as the zeitgeist of social Abadani life. Workday horns dictated the city’s internal clock, its wealth and bootstrap mantra pouring into its white and blue collar workers.

Sammy was born into an impoverished neighborhood. The Cinema Rex, an icon in working class Abadan, became a favorite place for Sammy. It’s where he developed his life-long love of Fellini’s films. The local football stadium is where he would surreptitiously sneak to catch world-renowned players. For Sammy, Abadan was a cultural capital.

“Abadan gave birth to famous artists, novelists and cinematographers, many of whom would set the tone for the movement that culminated in the Shah’s overthrow in 1979,” Elling writes. Abadan would come to be colloquially known as “Second London.”

But while the refinery brought wealth and diversity to the city, it also segregated it. As global powers started coming to Iran to partake in its wealth, their influence lead to changes in city infrastructure based on classist and racial divisions. When Sammy went to enjoy the splendors of Abadan it was often out of desperate need.

“Why did they have this when we didn’t have it?” Sammy said. “I didn’t understand why we were different. I didn’t understand that we were poor and they were rich.”

Sammy would run through neighborhoods and steal vegetables, flowers, pastries and blocks of ice which set him apart from what he considered the bourgeois Abadanis living just across the road from him.

Home life was complicated as well. His father was a strict and devout Muslim, a fact that pushed Sammy away from religion for the rest of his life. While he and his family were scrounging for food, Sammy watched his father donate his earnings to the mosque. This marked two of the fundamental differences in Iranian values: those enmeshed within Western culture and those in conservative religious areas. Sammy summarizes this in one poignant sentence:

“He goes to the mosque, I go to the stadium.”

Sammy’s strain against religion would wind up being an important distinction decades later. While Abadan was measured by constant immigration and cultural innovation, other cities across Iran held a staunch religious identity. When the revolution began, theocratic powers would take a popular center stage. Sammy, however, would never fall into that camp.

“I always fought with the system and everybody knew it,” Sammy said. “The people, my classmates—they knew when I was in the school that I was always fighting.”

This youthful rebelliousness became a political revelation when he began his two-year service in the military, a mandatory enlistment for all Iranians post-graduation.

“The minute I became political was in the army,” Sammy said.

In 1972, when Iran was involved in small skirmishes along the Iraqi border, Sammy would tune to different radio frequencies at his post and listen to Iranian opposition radio programs. These programs criticized the Iranian elite’s mismanagement of wealth and their allyship with the West. These messages resonated with the disparities Sammy saw when looking across the refinery into the palace-filled roads reserved for administrators and foreign officials.

“Because of that radio, the propaganda affected me,” Sammy recounts. “I became even more political knowing about what’s going on in the country. Where does poverty come from? Why are working class people like that?”

Sammy had questions. Where did the wealth flowing out of Abadan’s pipes lead?

His newfound articulation of class conflict as it had plagued Abadan pushed him to act out against the country whose military he was enlisted in. In his opinion, this lack of discipline is what saved him—while Sammy was held back to be reprimanded, many of the soldiers sent to the border did not return.

But life after the military became mundane. Sammy found employment at a small bank and began supporting his family with his new income. He hated his job and preached to the company’s vice president about the great class struggle. His boss responded with a sobering statement that young leftists inevitably grow up to join the bourgeoisie. Sammy was fired, and the future looked bleak.

“They chose me, because I was so brave,” Sammy said. “I thought: this is a revolution, there is no way we will be defeated by the shah. We’re going to burn this, bring this down.”

So Sammy left Iran. A friend offered him a trip to Sweden and a chance to leave the difficulties of Abadan behind. Once there, he got an education and found inspiration in the growing political unrest against the Swedish monarchy. Sammy saw opportunity.

“I had a desire to go back and be a political activist against the shah, the king, and to do something about bringing him down,” Sammy said. “I decided to go back, January 1976. I came back to Abadan.”

Once home, he applied to the refinery, the colossus that had cast his childhood in its daunting steel shadow. He got a clerical position, but his reasoning for working at the refinery was more than just employment.

“They didn’t ask what was on my mind. They didn’t know my plan for the refinery.”

Revolution

Protests across Iran were building and crowds were growing in size each day.

The most catastrophic event in catalyzing Sammy’s activism was the burning of the Cinema Rex, called “one of the worst disasters of its kind in history” by The Washington Post in 1978. At least 420 civilians were killed when the doors were barred and the cinema was soaked in gasoline. It was one of the largest acts of terrorism pre-9/11.

“They became ashes,” Sammy said. “I was in shock.”

Sammy left work to go to the embers. Police were already carting bodies toward the graveyard.

“I went to the graveyard too and saw all the dead bodies burning,” Sammy said. “My uncle’s wife’s sister was there too. She was pregnant with her husband and they both burned and died.”

The culprit of the attack was never agreed upon. The Iranian government blamed Islamic radicals who pushed against the Westernized culture the shah brought to Iran. At the time, Sammy believed it was the Savak, the military police who had consistently quelled protests across the country.

Iranians of every identity found common ground in their distrust of the West’s influence on their government. There was a strong Muslim resistance to the shah as a paragon of Westernization—a sentiment reflected in Iran’s subsequent history. For workers like Sammy, however, the call for revolution was for something else; something that supported the culture of cinema and sport, as well as the uniqueness of Abadani lifestyle, but erased the vast disparities in wealth.

So Sammy’s clandestine revolution began.

“They chose me, because I was so brave,” Sammy said. “I thought: this is a revolution, there is no way we will be defeated by the shah. We’re going to burn this, bring this down.”

While large strikes against the tyranny of the shah were taking place across the country, Sammy and his cohorts would lead the charge against the forces in Abadan that had put them in poverty: those who ran the looming spires that provided the city’s skyline of smoke.

Under the cover of an Abadani evening, Sammy packed into a car with eight organizers and spoke in secret about which demands they should present to the oil company: better wages, housing and living conditions. The moment they could strike and call attention to themselves was the moment they could enact their political message against the shah.

Sammy, in his encyclopedic memory, wrinkles his eyes and manifests the names of each organizer: Raman Gallehzan, Esmaeil Rigi, Heidar Agin, Majid Reisi, Abbas Sangian, Ali Khoshkalam, Ghasem Moradi, Abdi Shoja, Ahmad Taheri and Mohammad Tirandaz.

“The Abadan refinery is a key point in any movement,” Sammy explained. He said that previous Iranian movements, such as the 1954 nationalization of oil from Britain, hinged the refinery’s involvement.

The strike came. Fifty oil clerks put forth their demands and striked for two hours. A week later, when the demands weren’t met, they threw several more strikes. The final strike brought in 80 workers and resulted in the arrest of eight leaders, Sammy among them. Sammy had evaded police before, both as a child and as a worker. The penalty was now much steeper as the country began to sow unrest.

However, 10 hours after they were incarcerated, Sammy and the others were released. The whole refinery was on strike, thousands of workers walking out of the largest oil refinery in the world.

“The whole oil industry in Iran knew the Abadan refinery went to strike,” Sammy said.

But economic and theocratic revolutions competed. Cities on the fringe of the country’s Islamic center—cities like Abadan, teeming in a cosmopolitan culture—found themselves on the losing side of revolution when theocratic powers outweighed their socialist ideals. Their institutional leadership wasn’t there.

“I saw the beginning of our defeat,” Sammy said. “I thought, we lose. Because they’re going to win. We did our job to reach freedom, equality, change the dictatorship and have freedom. But I saw we did not prepare.”

The government officially collapsed on Feb. 11, 1979. Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took power and replaced 2,500 years of continuous Persian monarchy with a new Islamic Republic. The formation of the theocracy, which was voted in through a national referendum, marked a quick shift in perspective on the role of Western culture in Iran. It was massively popular among the majority of the country.

(Photos are featured from Rasmus Christian Elling's "Abadan: Oil City Dreams and the Nostalgia for Past Futures in Iran.")

For Sammy, not much changed.

After Khomeini came to power and the revolution came to a close, Westernized cities like Abadan began an abrasive relationship with the newly religious law. Sammy and his colleagues continued to organize protests to affect some form of social and economic change.

“All the workers were angry,” Sammy said. “They participate in the revolution, they were a key element in winning the revolution and bringing down the king’s regime. But still, Khomeini’s government is against them and trying to suppress them, and not giving them anything but more hardship.”

When a mullah—a religious official—came to the refinery to speak on the prosperity of the new Islamic Republic, Sammy went on stage and stole the microphone. He listed the strikers’ four demands: the placement of two refinery workers in the revolutionary council, the expulsion of the Savak from the refinery, the dissolution and reinstatement of the army and the guarantee that all demands would be carried out.

But their timing, whether pre or post revolution, didn't make a difference for their demands. Sweeping arrests were made across Iran as the Islamic Republic tried to solidify its control of the country. In a tragic foreshadowing, many who opposed Khomeini’s new rule were exiled. Eight of Sammy’s colleagues from the refinery were killed.

“They put all their killings in the newspaper and every morning everyone knew who got killed,” Sammy said. “Without any lawyer, without any court. They just kill, kill, kill. And some escaped, if they could.”

Sammy’s family relocated to Shiraz, a city farther inland. He was working at a smaller refinery there when the 1980 war with Iraq broke out and put him in a war zone. The violence he’d seen enacted against his fellow workers was now manifested in a different form: missiles falling feet from his home.

The disparity from the revolution, coupled with the physical violence around him, was a heavy weight on Sammy.

“Sometimes, I was used to it,” Sammy said. “One time my father came and woke me, and he said ‘son, son, wake up.’ I said, ‘what is happening?’ And he said they were bombing us. And I said, ‘what can we do? If they’re going to kill us we can do nothing — just sleep.’”

Even in such moments Sammy persevered. He continued to organize and protest, now against the Islamic Republic’s tightening stranglehold. In moments of Abadani deja vu, Sammy was put in prison for such protest.

But besides living in a literal war zone, one where he witnessed neighbors and homes destroyed, the battle for the identity of Iran was one he was losing. The Iran he envisioned and had lost so much for would not live up to the vision he’d carried since his youth. For fear of his life, Sammy was smuggled out of the country after this final incarceration. The future that oil workers hoped for was finished.

Sammy had his last Iranian meal outside a small Pakistani border-town. It was a banquet of rice and warm goat to commemorate his departure.

He and six others, accompanied by a camel, would cross the border undetected at the darkest part of the night. This particular night was full of moonlight. A dog barked in the village as they passed. A military vehicle came by, and it was this moment that Sammy believed he would be caught, his reputation in Abadan and Shiraz culminating in a life in prison — or worse, execution. The group laid on the ground as the car passed. Sammy felt ready to fight at any moment.

But the car missed them. The group passed into Pakistan and, after having their money confiscated by the Pakistani border patrol, was free to go. Survival without money was something Sammy could handle.

After venturing through Russia, Spain and France, Sammy came to the United States to begin a new life, one where he couldn’t be seen from the piercing towers of the refinery.

Today

Today, Iran’s image is one of reformation and contention. President Donald Trump, a vociferous adversary of the Iran Nuclear Deal, agreed to extend the divisive agreement in January. The president tweeted his support for the budding December protests against a “brutal and corrupt” regime. Iran is also listed on the contested travel ban, which bars most travel from the country.

Even though he hasn’t been back to Iran since leaving, Sammy spends much of his time at the library investigating current Iranian events. He scrolls through headlines laced with English and Farsi and comments his dissent on message boards.

This has been his routine for the last 15 years he has worked a seasonal position at The Duck Store. Although Sammy has lived as an immigrant in the United States for the last four decades, he has found it difficult to connect with others.

“When they know you are from the Middle East, especially from Iran, and they don’t know you — they know your accent, it’s very hard to connect with people” Sammy said. “They try to be nice to you, but actually marginalize you.”

His relationship with Iran is still intimate. He followed the December protests closely. To a veteran activist like Sammy, the unrest comes as no surprise.

“In Iran, there were more than 100 cities protesting against the Islamic Republic of Iran. But only unemployed people and students without jobs were protesting. The regime still can suppress people and arrested more than 3,000. And they will be tortured,” he said.

Sammy sees the same themes in these protests as the ones he fought for almost 40 years ago. Thousands were arrested, but this movement places itself in a larger arc of history; an arc that began before Sammy, lived through him and now presents itself again.

“The suffering I had in the past is still going on,” Sammy said. “Iran was so rich. It still is a rich country, but when people make a revolution to make things better, there is a dictator who comes to power.”

Sammy sees similarities in Iran’s problems across the world. Between Iran, Europe, the United States and even Portland and Eugene, Sammy notices the same conflicting inequalities: a lack of access to food, shelter and security are problems endemic to anywhere with a divide between the rich and poor.

“I’ve been waiting for 36 years now,” Sammy said. “I hope one day Iran’s change comes. Otherwise, there is no point.”

“This is a horrible life. All hungry people, working class people, are exploited through religion, government, the system,” Sammy said. “We’re not supposed to be satisfied. We’re supposed to revolt. Every day.”

Abadan hasn’t fared much better since the revolution. According to Elling, the cosmopolis that was Abadan lives as a shell of its former glory.

“Current local officials and managers are accused of inefficiency and cronyism. Abadan’s municipal authorities are paralyzed by internal conflicts and strapped for funding,” Elling writes in his essay. “My interviewees complain that people cannot or will not respect the rules, that they show no respect for public space and that the city has lost its aesthetic identity.”

Elling writes about a local Abadani politician who allegedly ran on the slogan “we don’t want progress – we want to return to twenty years before the revolution!” In interviews with contemporary Abadani people, Elling found that many feel a deep nostalgia for a time before the revolution.

Outside of Iran, protectors of history like Sammy live under the shadow of their usurped revolution. Due to his work in organizing protests, Sammy is exiled from his home country.

“After I left Iran I was in Spain, and I contacted my family. They said the government of the Islamic republic of Iran sent a letter to my family, which said your son Sammy Mazraekar cannot leave Iran,” Sammy said. “That’s why I can’t go. If I go, I can be arrested.”

Sammy’s parents have since passed away, and his brothers and sisters live throughout Germany, Canada and Holland. The Mazraekar diaspora spans the globe.

He readily admits that his life today is simple. When asked what he thinks about his history, he shrugs and squints, the arch of his brows indicating a life spent in careful thought.

“When I look back, it was natural to me,” Sammy recounted. “Protesting is in my blood.”

The recent protests have given him inspiration.

“I’ve been waiting for 36 years now,” Sammy said. “I hope one day Iran’s change comes. Otherwise, there is no point.”

When scrolling through articles online, he critiques the protests’ organization: not a strong enough message, not targeting the right workers. He thinks back to his work in Abadan, and hopes the next time he’s able to organize, the same mistakes that drove him from Iran won’t be made.

“I always hoped I could learn from the past what was wrong with the revolution,” Sammy said. “What did we do wrong, and what was the biggest victory for us?”

Sammy has enough money saved up to buy a ticket and head to his home for action whenever the opportunity arises. In the meantime, he’ll continue to work his seasonal position at The Duck Store, watching soccer and classic films in the library, and holding onto the dream that the history he built will continue to inspire change.

Hopefully, he’ll be there to see it.

A young Sammy Mazraekar as shown in his passport photo.

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