On a warm fall evening at the Bel Air Crest Clubhouse in Los Angeles, Mandana Vassigh put the finishing touches on displays of fruits and pastries, high school mementos and a glittering sign that read “1977.” Before long, guests arrived in cocktail attire and greeted each other with a kiss on each cheek, giggling and giddy.
But this was not a typical school reunion: Just as this group of students was graduating from high school in Iran, their country was gripped by revolutionary riots. Most of them fled the country as the monarchy was overthrown and Iran came under the rule of an Islamic theocracy.
Now, on the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution, these former classmates said that this reunion — their first in 42 years — took them back to a time and place that felt like a world away.
“We've been together since kindergarten,” said Vassigh, one of the reunion's organizers. “How many people do you know that are lucky enough to still be friends with their kindergarten friends?”
'Iran is What You See Here Tonight'
The air was thick with Middle Eastern party music and the thrill of childhood nostalgia as a screen projected black-and-white photos of the alumni during their school days in Iran.
All of the 50 or so partygoers attended Ettefagh School, a private Iranian Jewish school that spanned kindergarten through 12th grade. And full disclosure: I know about it because my mom attended high school there, although she was not part of this graduating class.
Ettefagh was established by Iraqi Jews as a gift to the Iranian Jewish community in Tehran. During the 1970s the school, which promoted a strong English-language curriculum, became one of the city's most prestigious schools.
The school was as much about community as it was about academics. In Farsi, b’Ettefagh means “together."
“I'm actually a good example of that,” said Vassigh, who is Muslim. She explained that in a country where Jews and Muslims rarely integrated, Ettefagh was a place where cultural differences didn’t matter.
“I even carried the Torah in morning prayers when we went to the temple,” she said. “It was just my love and passion for my friends. I never thought of them being Jewish or Muslim, or rich or poor. We were just friends.”
In fact, Ettefagh had students from all of Iran’s religious minorities, including Christian, Baha'i, and Zoroastrian.
“I just want you to recognize the diversity that you don't see from how intimate we are with each other,” said Mariam Arian, who flew in for the reunion from Houston, Texas. “We love each other through and through, and we're here for each other through thick and thin, despite all our differences. The amazing thing is that we all claim to be Iranian, and we are Iranian. Iran is what you see here tonight.”
Ettefagh was also one of the few coed schools in the whole country. Arian credits that egalitarian approach for inspiring her and her female friends to pursue high-achieving careers.
“Men and women were raised side by side with the same level of expectation,” Arian said. “Just because we were women, we weren’t granted this pass like, ‘Oh you’re [just] going to get married.’ We were very competitive, and very studious.”