Sitting next to a steamer trunk end table in her Mountain View townhouse, Azadeh Tabazadeh, former NASA Ames research scientist and Stanford University professor, describes her harrowing escape as a teen from the madness of close-minded mullahs.
From the Iranian border town of Zahedan, the 17-year-old and her brother Afshin rode on the backs of mopeds and in a pickup truck, never knowing where they were going the next day.
They fled with only two suitcases, leaving everything else – including their parents and younger sister Afshan – behind. At the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War in 1982, wealthy families routinely sent their sons overseas to avoid the draft.
Tabazadeh’s parents paid $44,000 to drug lords and human traffickers to smuggle the siblings through Pakistani deserts to Karachi, then London and Madrid before they ultimately scored visas and a flight to Los Angeles.
Tabazadeh’s memoir, “The Sky Detective” (iUniverse, 2015), takes a peek inside daily life in Tehran before and after the 1979 Islamic revolution, offering sharp insights into class and gender inequalities.
“If you were an engineer or a doctor at that time (under Shah Reza Pahlavi), you were really well off, because there just weren’t that many of them,” she said.
With a villa on the Caspian Sea and a house in England, the Tabazadehs enjoyed a privileged life, which her father Modjtaba provided as an engineer who built Iranian roads. After the monarchy fell, family rituals took a backseat to watching events unfold on television, including the taking of the American hostages in 1979.
Tabazadeh recalls attending a demonstration in which fundamentalists attacked her friends for their Western-style dress. She vividly remembers the bloody handprints of those who were dying left on the walls at Jaleh Square in Tehran.
“I still remember it,” she said. “That’s still in my head, the people who even signed their names in blood.”
Pursuing a path
When she turned 8, two events helped launch Tabazadeh on a scientific path.
One was the arrival of Najmieh, an illiterate teenage servant girl from Rasht, a village in northern Iran. Najmieh’s father gave her away as a way to make money. Tabazadeh decided to be “the teacher of all my Barbies,” pretending to assign and correct homework for Najmieh’s sake.
The bond between the two young girls grew. It was an education for Tabazadeh, too, who hoped that her parents would send her to school.
“She was very smart,” recalled Tabazadeh of her friend.
But Najmieh ran away, using money Tabazadeh had given her, and later married.
“One reason I wrote the book was that I never got any closure on Najmieh, and the only thing I could have done was to say, ‘This person existed, but I don’t know what happened to her.’ I think when you write about someone, they come alive.”
Her other inspiration was an elaborate child’s chemistry set given to her by her atheist radical uncle, Mahmood, who was studying geology in Germany. The kit arrived in a suitcase that held a glass Aladdin’s lamp, a white lab coat, goggles and copper sulfate to help form crystals.
“My uncle introduced me to chemistry, which made it seem like something exciting to do,” Tabazadeh said.
She wanted to be the Marie Curie of Iran, but it would soon become clear that wasn’t possible.
In the chapter titled “Revolution Madness,” for which she won first prize in the East of Eden writer’s conference, Tabazadeh recalls the Ayatollah Khomeini’s smirk as he arrives by Air France jumbo jet to Tehran in 1979. After the overthrow of the Shah, the Ayatollah returned to rule after 15 years in exile.
Weeks later, he issued an edict mandating sharia, or Islamic law. Women had to dress conservatively and could no longer become judges. Violations were punished with 30 lashes.
After the shocking turn of events, Tabazadeh knew that she would be unable to achieve her lifelong dream of becoming a scientist and decided to emigrate to the U.S.
“Can you imagine how hot it was under the long veil with baggy pants?” Tabazadeh asked. “Nowadays, the rules are relaxed. They can’t monitor every woman.”
From a superstitious and religious grandmother to her chic, outspoken mother, Azar, in “The Sky Detective” Tabazadeh teases out the rich influences on her point of view.
“My mother was a very determined woman, not afraid to speak her mind, even to confront my father,” she said. “He was sweet and kind.”
Living the dream
Upon arriving in the U.S. in 1982, Tabazadeh lived in Mountain View with Zari Gandjei, her mother’s friend. Tabazadeh studied English, not taught in her high school in Iran because the Ayatollah insisted on Arabic.
Accepted at UCLA, she earned a doctorate in physical chemistry but also worked on her adviser’s atmospheric science project on the polar stratosphere. Her work explained why ozone depletion hit Antarctica’s atmosphere harder than the warmer Arctic. NASA was so impressed with her research that it underwrote a good chunk of her tuition.
After graduation, NASA hired Tabazadeh to be part of the atmospheric science team that was investigating the ozone layer. She won the American Geophysical Union award and a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 1999.
She began teaching at Stanford in 2004 and quit in 2011 to write her book. Her children – Dionna, 20; Daniel, 17; and Jessica, 5 – watched their mom’s career unfold.
Soon after Time Magazine published an article in 2005 about her innovative work on volcanoes and ozone depletion under the headline, “Sky Detective,” Tabazadeh began writing stories.
“That’s exactly what scientists do – they ask questions,” she said.
She signed up for a memoir-writing class and decided to finish the book for Najmieh and other young women to encourage them to become scientists. A $38,000 grand prize at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference a year ago enabled her to self-publish.
Although she respects Iran’s history and beauty, Tabazadeh knows that by leaving illegally, she will never be able to return.
“If you have a visa and a passport and you didn’t escape illegally, it’s probably safe to go back,” she said – but not for her.
“I’m living my dream now,” Tabazadeh said.
To purchase “The Sky Detective,” visit amazon.com.