SM: Let’s start at the beginning of your story. Where are you from?
SP: I was born in Iran, and my parents immigrated to America the first time in 1976. My father came here for his master’s degree. We went back to Iran in 1978, right before the revolution.My father worked for radio and television, and when he went back he was promoted as an up-and-coming journalist. When the revolution hit he was in a position to broadcast to foreigners how to get out of the country. It was a heroic thing for him to do, but it got him on the assassination list.
SM: Was he broadcasting from Iran?
SP: Yes, in the middle of all of the protests and revolutions. It upset the whole scheme of things in terms of the family. I remember vividly waking up one night and my older brother was screaming and crying. My father was at the entrance with my uncle, holding his bags. He was escaping from the country. Ten years earlier, my father had helped someone from his hometown who was very poor. That person did not have enough money for shoes, so my father helped him get a job in radio television.
This guy was very religious and ultimately was involved in the revolution. He became head of security for the airport. This same person whom my father helped ten years before now helped my father escape. He had to leave us behind because he knew they would not do anything to us or to my mother. The decision my parents made was for him to get out while he could. He was then escorted through the airport to an Air France flight and out of the country.
Security came on board the plane and my father thought he was going to be caught. They grabbed the person behind him, who was on a list, and they took him off of the plane. If my father had been killed, I think our whole lives would have been disastrous. If my mother had been a single parent in Iran during the revolution, it would have been very bad.
I didn’t see my father for over a year. He used to be flown around Iran in a helicopter or a limo, and now he was driving a taxi in Washington, DC. The hostage crisis had started, so it was very difficult for him to get a decent job with his skills in the radio or television industry in America. There was a lot of discrimination against Iranians then. I remember the calls we would make and the songs he would sing. That was definitive and formative for me as a child.
SM: When were you able to leave Iran?
SP: It took a year and a half. Then the Iran-Iraq war started while we were still in Iran. There were bombs falling in Tehran and we would have to go into the basement of our apartment building. One night when we were walking to my aunt’s house, the alarms sounded and anti-aircraft missiles went off. I still remember the red streaks in the sky. We were banging on people’s doors to let us in but nobody would dare open a door because any sign of light would have let the planes see what they were looking for. We ended up hiding in a doorway under my mother’s coat.
I was into games, and I collected toy soldiers. I remember trying to cope with war and revolution by playing war games with my cousins. I was trying to manage the fear and make it into a game. When the sirens came on I would try to make it into a game.
In 1981 my mother, sister, and brother were able to get out of the country. We came to DC and joined my father. My mom worked two jobs, one as a maid at Red Roof Inn and the other as a cook at a restaurant. She was a teacher for 14 years before that. My father would come home very late to make more money. We would not have dinner until my father came home, so I remember I was always very hungry waiting for him to get back.