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Middle East Monica Dispatch

The Man Behind the Picture: A Tour Through the History of Emam Khomeini
April 29, 2000

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Two Ayatollahs at an Internet cafe where Abeja and Brian do e-mail
Come with me back in time to Ghom, the second-most holy place in Iran (we've already been to Mashhad, the most holy place in the country). It is the first decade of the 20th century. Keep your eyes open for a young man named Seyed Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, who's taking classes at the local religious school. Following family tradition, he's left his hometown of Khomein to come here and study theology, philosophy and law. An excellent student and a natural leader, he earns the title of ayatollah, "Sign of God."

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Khameini and Khomeini overlook traffic in Tehran
Flash back with me to Tehran in 1962. The Ayatollah Khomeini teaches at the local school. He also writes books on Islam, Islamic government and mysticism. Listen in one day as he loudly opposes Shah Mohammed Reza's attempts to modernize Iran. The Shah wants to lift the Islamic veil from women and tries to increase women's rights. The Ayatollah Khomeini leads the Shi'a clergy and directly disagrees with the Shah's plans to take away property titles from the clergy. Many in the audience hear the Ayatollah's criticisms of the Shah and many pay attention to his words. The year is now 1978. Ayatollah Khomeini is in exile because he opposes the Shah's rule. For ten years, we see him move from country to country. First he moves to Turkey in 1964, then Iraq, then France in 1978. All this time, the Aytaollah continues to communicate with his sympathizers in Iran.

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From the highway in Kermanshah
He criticizes the Shah, who is desperately trying to hold on to his shaky power. The Shah declares martial law in November 1978, but many disapprove and hundreds of students die in street demonstrations. On January 16, 1979, no longer able to control the country, the Shah departs from Iran. The newspapers for these last few weeks report confusion throughout Iran. From Paris, Ayatollah Khomeini calls for people to hold strikes across the country and not pay attention to the Shah's successor, Dr. Shahpour Bakhtiar.

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Hanging near a construction site
The Ayatollah sends a message to his supporters promising "I will soon be among you in Iran." In response, Bakhtiar and the government close Tehran airport.

However, strikes and sit-ins force the government to reopen the airport after a few days. The date is now February 1, 1979. Finally, Ayatollah Khomeini returns to Iran! Millions of people cluster in the streets of Tehran, trying to see the car that the Ayatollah rides in. His driver accidentally runs over someone in the street, but that person, instead of asking for compensation, asks how much he owes for the honor of being run over by the Ayatollah's car!

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Found on a button at a convenience store: Khomeini, Khameini, and Khatami
From the airport, the Ayatollah travels to the city cemetary, Behesht-e Zahra, and gives a speech with his view of the new future. After his return, and now firmly in control, Ayatollah Khomeini becomes known as Emam (Leader). He revolutionizes the government. This new government is ruled by the clergy and follows religious policies: it is based on Shia Islamic beliefs, including the hejab and zero tolerance for drug or alcohol use.

All you Americans, listen up! The Ayatollah totally opposes the United States of America, calling it "the Great Satan" and criticizing America's economic and cultural influence in the Middle East.

Excerpt from the Speech of
Ayatollah Khomeini:

"I must tell you that Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, that evil traitor, has gone. He fled and plundered everything. He destroyed our country and filled our cemeteries. He ruined our country's economy. Even the projects he carried out in the name of progress, pushed the country towards decadence. He suppressed our culture, annihilated people and destroyed all our manpower resources. We are saying this man, his government, his Majlis are all illegal. If they were to continue to stay in power, we would treat them as criminals and would try them as criminals. I shall appoint my own government. I shall slap this government in the mouth. I shall determine the government with the backing of this nation, because this nation accepts me."

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Smiling from a large mural in Tehran
Emam Khomeini remains in power for 10 years as head of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The date now is June 4, 1989. It is a day of mourning. Ten million people crowd the streets of Tehran, mourning the death of the Ayatollah, who passed away today at the age of 87. Grieving people carry signs and posters of him. His picture is everywhere! His body has to be moved into a helicopter because so many people are pushing up to the car, trying to pay their respects to this unique leader. In his absence, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, also a Muslim clergyman, takes the position of "Supreme Leader" of the Islamic Republic, while Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani takes the role of president, the highest official of the executive body.

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Near an exit ramp in Tehran
Zoom! Flash to the present day. We're back in Ghom, finishing up our tour of history. We find that Iran's population is more than 70 million, but more than half of this population is younger than 25 years old. That means one out of every two individuals we speak to has no memory of Ayatollah Khomeini. They weren't around during the birth of the Islamic Republic, either! While we've noticed pictures of Emam Khomeini in every corner of every city throughout the country, the current mood supports President Mohammed Khatami and his reforms.


theology - The study of a religious faith
Ayatollah - the highest rank of Shi'ite cleric
clergy - An official class of a religion
martial law - The law administered by military forces that is used by a government in an emergency
compensation - The act of giving a counterbalancing payment to someone

President Khatami first entered office on May 23, 1997. Other elections were held in mid-February 2000, right before the trek team arrived in Iran. According to a recent Newsweek issue (February 28, 2000), there is still some criticism of Khatami, but most voters side with his promise of a "'civil society' with more freedom, clearer justice and greater tolerance than Iran has known." Eighteen-year-old Mitra Allaverdi puts it this way, "I think all the men elected before did NOT do good things for us." Young people like her look to new faces in parliament to bring about change in Iran. While the country will never forget the Ayatollah Khomeini's legacy, anything can happen in the future.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Kavitha - The Tragic Tale of Mahraz
Brian - Taught to Fear, Told What to Think: Revelations in Iran
Abeja - Songs To Iran
Monica - Mindin' Your Own Business! A Story About Cross-Cultural Interactions

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