An Enduring Love

by Simon Gonzalez
February 2018

Pat Nasseri is sitting in an office at the family's Wilmington Oriental rug gallery. Her husband, Fred, is in the spacious showroom, surrounded by hundreds of Persian carpets. Her son-in-law, Tim, is in the adjacent office. Her daughter Shahrzad, who, Fred says, really runs the place, is somewhere in the back.

The family business is successful. Pat's son Shawn is a few miles down the road, running his dive operation and shop, the biggest in town. She has been blessed. Life is good.

But in an instant, the present fades. She is transported back in time.

Her eyes mist over. She looks out the window, but she doesn't see the traffic whizzing by on Oleander Drive.

She is no longer an expert in rug restoration and repair, successful businesswoman, and family matriarch with a comfortable home and lifestyle in North Carolina.

She is Parvaneh, a refugee of the Iranian Revolution living in a modest ranch house in Fayetteville, Arkansas. A single mother struggling to raise her three children -- single because her husband, Fereydoun, once an Iranian government official, is imprisoned in Iran. Or worse, has been executed.

The memories are just as real nearly 40 years later. Real enough to bring tears. Pat can't think about those frantic and uncertain years during and after the violent overthrow of the 2,500-year-old monarchy begun by Cyrus the Great and Darius -- the steep descent from the family's palatial residence in Tehran to a flat in London to a house in Fayetteville; the threat of being deported; of not knowing how to take care of her children; countless sleepless nights in fear that Fred had been executed -- without spilling a few tears.

"I have friends who say this is a good book," she says. "But every time I started to write my memories I cried so much I couldn't continue. I was so worried about the financial. But the most important thing was I did not have any news from Fred. That was very, very difficult for me."

The Nasseris have an enduring love, one forged over 56 years.

"Can you imagine?" says Shawn, their youngest son. "My dad is 80, my mom is 80. They've been married over 50 years. How impressive is that? We always have lunch on Thursdays. Port City Chop House. They were telling each other, 'You're lucky to have me because no one else would put up with you.'"

Ironically, the two natives of Iran met in France when they were both students. Pat, then Parvaneh, looks back at their courtship and early years and laughs.

"We were still students when we got married," she says. "I was from the north of Iran, he was from the south. Our culture was so different. In the north the women are very authoritarian. They decide everything. But in the south, they think the man always gives the orders. So at first when we married, we had a lot of conflict because of that. He understood when he saw my mother. Oh my goodness. She's like a general. Then he started to calm down a little bit."

The banter comes easily these days. Fred and Pat will celebrate Valentine's Day secure in their love, and in each other. But it wasn't always easy. There was a time in the late 1970s when they wondered if they would ever see each other again.

The bloody revolt, the ouster of the Shah and reversal of his life's work occurred almost four decades ago. The royal and diplomatic blunders that led to the fall of the pro-American Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the rise of his mortal enemy Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the actions or inactions of American president Jimmy Carter, and the events of the Teheran hostage crisis remain the subject of continued debate and analysis today even as many thousand Iranians again protest in the streets.

For Fred and Pat, the memory of the Iranian Revolution and the demise of the Imperial Family is as fresh as if it happened yesterday.

From the Palace to Prison

Fereydoun "Fred" Nasseri was a cabinet minister in the Shah's government. He negotiated with foreign companies that wanted to invest in the oil-rich country. His name can be found on the list of Iranian delegates to United Nations treaty discussions, along with American delegates led by Henry Kissinger, secretary of state under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

"I was in charge of the budget and planning organization of Iran," he says. "Before that I was a diplomat in Washington, D.C. I was responsible for signing international agreements. I did many of these agreements, with the United States, with India, with the Philippines. I met the leaders of the countries, like Ferdinand Marcos. I was very active in international life."

The Nasseri family enjoyed all the trappings of the royal life. They resided in a 20,000-square-foot mansion. They rode in chauffeured limousines. Both sons went off to boarding school in England.

Shahrzad Nasseri Gardner was a child then, but she has vivid memories of life in Iran.

"I remember having great times," she says. "We had a staff of people. Our house was across from the palace of the Shah of Iran. I had a fulltime nanny. We had a chef. I had a driver that took me to school. I went to a French school in Iran."

But in the 1970s, anti-Shah and anti-West sentiment was building in the country of approximately 40 million. From Iraq, exiled Islamic fundamentalist cleric Ayatollah Khomini, who had led a previous failed uprising, had been ramping up his rhetoric with the intent of overthrowing the monarchy and undoing reforms that saw women unveiled, educated, holding jobs, voting, and driving.

In "The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran," author Andrew Scott Cooper describes how the country erupted in flames and bloodshed that rapidly escalated. "Death to the Shah" became the street chant of the opposition.

As the chaos worsened, Pat and the three children fled to a flat in England.

Fred remained behind, working, even as violence shut down the country and escalated unchecked to a point of no return.

By January 1979, the imperial government collapsed. The Shah and Queen Farah left the country. Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to declare an Islamic republic, repressing all political groups and individuals not under control of his ruling council, and taking extreme, brutal measures to suppress Western influence.

"In February and March 1979, they were hanging people in the street," Fred says.

Top government officials, high-ranking military leaders, the country's intellectuals, even some of the very ones who had aided in elevating Khomeini were executed. Thousands more were imprisoned.

"All of us who were working with the government of the Shah, they put us under house arrest," Fred says. "A few months later they took me to prison. They tortured me. They asked me crazy questions. 'What did Henry Kissinger tell you? You were a spy. You were helping the Americans.' They were asking why I brought all these spies to Iran. They weren't spies. The guy who comes to work for Bell Helicopter, the guy who comes to work for Boeing or General Motors, these were not spies. Everyone is not a spy. The CIA cannot afford to hire everybody in America to work for them."

He maintained his innocence. It didn't sway his questioner.

"I said, 'I love my country, I love my people. Look at my record,'" he says. "He said, 'From what I see from your file, your minimum sentence is execution.' I made a very stupid remark. I said, 'What is the maximum?' He said, 'You are making fun of me?' With the butt of his gun he hit me and broke my ribs. When you are dealing with crazy people, you have to watch your mouth. They can be offended very easily."

There were times when he was certain the "minimum" sentence would be carried out. More than once he was placed in front of a firing squad and blindfolded. Gunfire rang out and men on either side fell. But he was spared.

The horror is unfathomable, the physical and mental brutality unimaginable.

"Everybody was writing me off. There was no chance," he says. "I can count hundreds of people who were my friends, who were my colleagues, and they executed them before they got to me."

The U.S. embassy in Tehran was overrun in November. Between 50 and 60 American diplomats and citizens were taken and held as hostages for 444 days. Rug weavers pieced together shredded embassy documents, incriminating those who had sought America support for the Shah and leading to more executions.

"If I had stayed three more months, I would certainly have been executed," Fred says.

His escape sounds like something from a spy novel.

With the prisons full to overflowing, some were let go with posting a surety bond, including Fred. Friends helped smuggle him out of Tehran and hid him in a remote area. He then went by bus to the Iran-Pakistan border. With a fake ID and passport obtained through his international connections, he walked across the border to freedom. From there, he made his way to Karachi, where he boarded a flight to Germany. He went to the American embassy in Bonn and applied for political asylum. And called his wife.

"One day, after three years, I had a phone call," Pat says. "It was Fred. I was so happy. It was the best day of my life."

Alone in Arkansas

While Fred was going through the hell of imprisonment, enduring physical and mental torture before his escape from almost certain death, Pat was living through her own purgatory.

She and the children left in the summer of 1978, as the turmoil in Iran was building.

She bought a small flat on Baker Street in London. The children were enrolled in school.

"That was the most important thing, for the children to be educated," she says.

But everything else was uncertain.

"I didn't have any news from Fred," she says. "I couldn't get any news from anybody. It was really frightening."

Her money was running out, as was her visa to stay in the U.K. One of her brother's was in Fayetteville, studying architecture at the University of Arkansas. Pat and the children packed for America.

"After one year [in England], I said it is much better to go to the United States," she says. "At least they have free schools there."

With money from the sale of the flat in London, she bought a house in Arkansas.

"I bought a very small house," she says. "I put a big fence around it and two Dobermans in order to take care of the children. I bought a .22 gun in order to protect myself."

After the opulent family life in Tehran and the cosmopolitan culture of London, Arkansas felt like the middle of nowhere. It was difficult to adjust, especially during the hostage crisis when anti-Iranian sentiment in America peaked.

"From Tehran to London to Fayetteville, Arkansas, that is a very strange trip," Shawn says. "I always tell everybody, it's never how bad things are for you, it's how far you have fallen. I was driven to school with a chauffeured Mercedes Benz when I was 9 years old. Talk about being spoiled rotten. Now we were in a little bitty ranch house, with a 6-foot chain link fence around it. You're riding the yellow school bus that's nasty and smelly with tobacco chew to a junior high school and high school where ignorance and prejudice and discrimination is at its highest. I was the only Iranian, the only Persian kid in the school. It was a very rough patch."

It was a desperate time. Pat spoke very little English, making it challenging to find work. Everything they once had was lost, seized by the militants. Money trickled in, gifts from family and friends, but it didn't go far.

"I took Shahrzad to the mall once and she said, 'Mom, I want that dress. It is beautiful,'" Pat says. "I said, 'I know, but it is too expensive. Maybe one day I can buy it for you.' She said, 'Just write a check." I said, 'No, I don't have any money.'"

Shawn recalls the days when they had to walk everywhere.

"I remember going to IGA for groceries," Shawn says. "I remember putting groceries in a wheelbarrow and following my mom because we had no car."

They were threatened with deportation. And Pat didn't know if her husband was alive.

"The uncertainty in life is the worst thing," she says. "Because you don't know what is happening tomorrow. You have to go step by step. My responsibility was very deep now. I had to be a father, and I had to be a mother. This was the life. It was not easy."

She tried to remain positive, to show the children everything would be okay. She didn't always succeed.

"The children, I didn't let them be upset," she says. "I cried in the shower because I didn't want them to see me. When I came from the shower and my eyes were red, Shahrzad would say, 'Mom, you are crying?' And I would say, 'No, why would I cry? Everything is so good. Everything is okay.'"

The children who had lost so many material things soon came to realize they had something very special in their mother.

"She is like a mountain," Shahrzad says. "You cannot move her. She is very strong. She is emotionally very strong. She tried to make a life for us, to make us think everything was going to be okay. She was very, very supportive. I don't know anyone that's got a bigger heart than her."

Shawn, who grew up to found and later sell a lucrative software company, also appreciated the way she held the family together.

have such a respect for her," he says. "I call her almost close to an angel. That's my mom. Honest, caring, big heart. Her strength is amazing. I always tell my dad, you went through the revolution, but think about what my mom went through. My dad is brilliant. He had three PhDs by the age of 25. He spoke three languages: French, English and Farsi. So I have a lot of respect for him. But my mom just showed me a whole other thing."

As the months went by with no word about Fred, suggestions came that it was time to move on.

"Someone said I should get remarried," she says. "I just laughed and I said no. You have one heart that you give to somebody."

She never truly gave up hope that Fred was alive.

"Every night I was dreaming of him," she says. "In my dreams he was okay. And I believed my dream."

And then came his phone call. The memory of it brings tears.

"Life, sometimes you have the happiness," she says. "And so he came to Fayetteville, Arkansas. He said, 'What is this? It's such a small airport.' I said, 'Whatever it is, it is all paradise.'"

Reunited

The family was together again. But they faced the same problems -- no income, threats of deportation.

"I was ready to do anything. Trust me," Fred says. "I was ready to go to Walmart to be a cashier. I was lucky in my life. I was born into a family that had money. I went to good schools. They took everything. But this was the happiest moment of my life, because I gained my freedom. But more than ever, I was determined to build my life again from nothing."

Contacts in the diplomatic world helped remove the specter of deportation. Contacts in the business world led to a temporary job in France to help establish a factory for a Houston-based company. He was offered the chance to stay and run the business, but the family vetoed the idea. America was the land of opportunity. Who would want to leave?

A friend called Fred and asked him to come work in his Oriental rug business in New York. Fred learned the business and became a partner. Pat learned restoration and repair.

Pat's youngest brother, Karman, in his surgical residency, and then her oldest brother, Hormoze Goudarzi, a surgeon, had made their way to Wilmington. Her parents followed. When Pat received news that her father was terminally ill with colon cancer, she wanted to care for her ailing parents. The Nasseris joined the others on the North Carolina coast, opening their rug gallery in 1988.

Wilmington is home now, but at any moment either Fred or Pat can be transported back to Iran, or Arkansas. It could be a question, a comment, a photo that triggers a memory. The tears might come. But that's okay.

They can dwell on the past and lament what they had and lost. Or they can use it to appreciate what they have. Fred is no longer imprisoned. He was not executed. Pat is no longer that scared, single mother trying to adjust to a strange, new culture.

"When I was 39 years old, I lost everything," Fred says. "I was very sad that I had to leave the country where I was born, that I loved. But I am so grateful for God to help me to be in this country and have my children enjoy the freedom and the opportunities."

They have an enduring love.

They have each other, their children and their families. They have their business. Life is good.

 


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