The image we have of the Middle East, from the media, appears as a distillation of violence, fanaticism and repression. We see governments topple, tyrants rise, refugees trudging down long, empty roads toward degrading camps. No doubt, it is important to see that. But it helps to broaden our understanding by looking at other levels of the social strata there, and to realize that parts of the Middle East are a lot like America. Or, in this case, used to be a lot like America.
When the Iranian revolution happened in 1980, westernized liberal Muslims there saw their way of life take a 180. Maggie Sobhani and her family immigrated to America, to Sacramento, so they could go on living the life they had known before the revolution, the life of liberal middle-class people. In 1985, with her two sons, ages 11 and 8, she fled her homeland, leaving everything behind. Her husband, an engineer, came two years later. She opened a salon, first on Arden Way, now on Watt Avenue, and has been so successful that she is now doing styling for the Sacramento Kings’ Royal Court Dancers.
Sitting in a coffee shop near her salon on Watt Avenue, Sobhani described her life in broken but effective English.
What was life like in Tehran before the revolution?
Before the revolution it was very nice because the Shah was there, and the Shah was a European man, and everything was perfectly right. … But he take off and the revolution happened, and the Khomeini take over the place. Khomeini was a religion man, and also was very over-religion, not just religion. And the Muslims believe, very much. Don’t show the hair. Not the face, just the hair. And I was in oil company; I was a secretary for oil company. Oil was a big, big company over there. But when [Khomeini] came over there, when we go to work, we weren’t really comfortable, because you have to cover the hair. Plus if they see any makeup, even from the night before—you have something in your eyes—they send you to your home.
So before the revolution it was more or less like the West?
Oh yeah. It was European. No [restrictions]. Nobody covered their hair, everybody had the makeup. Very, very open. Very nice. Like European.
But when [Khomeini] came, not just we dress differently, we have to be different, we have a different life. That means you have to cover your hair, you shouldn’t do makeup, you shouldn’t be polishing your nails. And if anything show on your head, even hair show, they take you to jail and they treat you like a criminal. It wasn’t right for woman. Because we were the free woman over there.
And for that … I think about, just, go to a country and have freedom again. And I choose America because one thing America has is respect to everybody’s equality, everybody’s freedom, everybody’s religion, speech.
Did you know family or friends here?
I didn’t have nobody here. Nobody.
And you came to Sacramento first?
I came to Oklahoma first. I had a classmate friend, long, long time ago. She married a guy and came [to Oklahoma], and she was the only person I know. And then when we came here we ask her for some help, which school my sons go, stuff like that.
[When I came to California] I leave my son Ashkan in Oklahoma because he have to go to school. That was very hard for me, as a woman. I know English as a second language, but it wasn’t enough for me.
You studied it before you emigrated?
Yes. And we don’t escape the country. We come like other people come out, but we never go back. That’s how I came out. I just leave everything over there and came. Because when you want to come out of the country, at that time, you came out with nothing.
They wouldn’t let you leave if they knew you were not coming back?
No. And my husband stayed over there, because they don’t let us come together. He was over there, I came here with two kids.
How did you end up in Sacramento?
Sacramento. I came here for visit. I just read about every city. L.A. was too big, San Francisco was really expensive. And I heard Sacramento is big and is not expensive. And also for my kids go to school, it’s safer.
How old were your children when you left Iran?
My oldest one was 11 and my youngest one was 8. And at the time I left Iran, my son was 11 years old, and the revolution happened, and I see many kids are brainwashed at that time. They don’t really, don’t go right way, and I want my sons go the right way.
Coming from the Middle East, and coming from a repressive fundamentalist government, can you comment on Afghanistan?
I know Afghanistan regime is totally different than my regime. And woman is more in trouble than in my country. Much worse than in my country. And I know the woman over there even have to cover the face, which even for me is odd. But I don’t think I can give more of an idea because I wasn’t there. But I know people over there.
How do you think Iran will play into the conflict?
Actually, right now they really cooperate with the Americans, because they don’t want to get in trouble, because they really see, they want to be other way. They don’t want to get involved because of war, or something like that.
They don’t mind if Muslim people [from Afghanistan] come to our country, but … they really don’t like to make trouble on the Taliban.