Every once in a while I meet an author with a vastly different background than mine. Jacqueline grew up in Iran. As a Jew in a majority Muslim country, it seemed we had very little in common. Yet, the Chamolot President and his wife, Jack and Jackie Kennedy influenced our early lives Jacqueline is named after the woman her mother thought was closest to a queen. (My 4-H cow was named after the Vice-President’s wife, Ladybird, but that’s a story from another blog.) We both married young: we both wore the same Farrah Faucet hairstyle and skirts with hems up to where our parents objected; we were young mothers during the Iran Hostage Crisis.
When Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran in February 1979, he fomented discontent into rabid anti-Americanism, and the theocratic regime of Khomeini took power. In Jacqueline’s memoir, From Miniskirt to Hijab: A Girl in Revolutionary Iran, she recounts what happened to ordinary people like her living in Iran as she coped with her eroding freedoms. Her memoir earned her the Chicago Writers Association 2020 Book of the Year Award.
Hey, I’m a member of CWA, too! Another thing we have in common.
Jacqueline agreed to sit down and talk to me about her book and her writing process as long as I did not reveal too much about her book, especially the ending. Like all authors, she wants you to read her book. From Miniskirt to Hijab: A Girl in Revolutionary Iran is available in print, e-book, and audible. You can purchase it online or at any bookstore (you may need to order it.). And, it’s available in most libraries. Jacqueline’s book is available all over the world.
I listened to the Audible version. Jacqueline’s memoir left a lasting impression on me.
Jacqueline Saper is an award-winning author, TEDx Speaker, Op-Ed columnist, and translator. Jacqueline was born in Tehran to an Iranian father and a British mother as a member of a thriving Jewish community. Saper is one of the few Iranians who has lived in Iran’s three phases: Imperial, revolutionary, and the Islamic Republic. Her memoir, From Miniskirt to Hijab: A Girl in Revolutionary Iran, is the winner of the Chicago Writers Association 2020 Book of the Year Award. The book is also a finalist for the 2021 Eric Hoffer Award, the 2021 Feathered Quill Award, and the 2020 Clara Johnson Award.
Why didn’t you narrate the book yourself? The narrator is a theatre performer. The University publisher chose the narrator for me.
Tell me a little bit about your family: I was born during President Kennedy’s term. My mother is British and my father Iranian. My mother didn’t want a Persian name for me. Instead, she wanted to name me as close to royalty as she could. The British royal names didn’t sound right in Persian, so she named me after Jackie Kennedy, the “queen” of America.
My father loved living in America for 13 years. He passed away in 2014. My daughter is an intellectual property lawyer who among other things, appears as a legal adviser on television news. My son is a doctor. None of this could have been possible if we remained In Iran. My mother is 94 years old and very active both physically and mentally.
There’s another thing we have in common. My mom is 94, too. Jacqueline and I both visited our Mom two weeks ago!
Do you think being in a minority shaped how you reacted to tightening restrictions in Iran?Iran is a primarily Muslim country, with less than 2% of Iranians being non-Muslims such as Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Baha’is. I was old enough to understand I had to be careful about what came out of my mouth. Having been exposed to different cultures helped me adjust to different mindsets. Since my mother was from Britain, I traveled extensively. I also was adept at adapting to different cultural expectations. Even between my two grandmothers, I had to behave differently.
Why do you think there wasn’t more backlash from the citizenry? Iran was going through modernization so fast. Usually, that type of progress takes three generations. The Shah wanted to do it in one generation. People were still traditional. The exiled Ayatollah seemed like a kind and gentle grandfather. People believed that the Ayatollah was the angel who would rescue them. Before that, although the clergy was influential, Iran was ruled by a monarchy, the Shah. With a cleric state, people’s rights fell like dominoes, especially for women. Women had so many rights under the Shah. He changed much of family law, improving many situations for women.
What was it like for you to move to America? My first goal in 1987 was to assimilate and become an American. I had a Persian/British accent. America was a new country for me. I struggled to blend in. I had two children 6 years old and 2 two years old, that needed to be established in school and the neighborhood. My husband’s medical degree was not recognized. He had to go through the general surgery program again. I went to business school, and I got a job as a CPA.
Oh my! I too, got my degrees while raising children.
Could something like what happened in Iran happen here? Of course not. There was no freedom of speech in Iran. Speaking up could result in real physical danger. People still get killed there for demonstrating. In America, people are not ready or susceptible to this type of ideology. At the time, I kept asking, what is an Islamic republic? Many people thought it would be a utopia of their faith. The Ayatollah said he wanted to lead a revolution for a better future. The first thing he did was purge out all the opponents. People thought with a republic they’d have more rights and freedoms. It didn’t turn out that way.
Did the mask mandate remind you of the dress restrictions you endured in Iran? It did remind me a little of the hijab. But, when I saw men wearing masks too, I did not feel discriminated against. It’s a little different. I wore the hijab out of fear. We could have had acid thrown in our faces. We wore masks for health reasons. I take freedom very literally. Choosing what you wear is a gift.
Have you found Anti-semitism here in America? That was a backburner issue. I experienced anti-Iranian prejudice. Anti-semitism was absolutely not an issue. Everywhere we lived we had a large Jewish community. Many people did not understand that we could be Jewish and Iranian. I was afraid to say I was from Iran because people would think I was a terrorist or fanatic Islamist. One reason I wrote this book is that I’ve been misunderstood all my life. In Chicago, people think I’m from an eastern European country, rather than the Middle East. I don’t look like a typical Persian. I don’t have a definable accent because I speak English and Farsi fluently. By writing this book, I explain who I am.
Tell me a little bit about your writing process: In the beginning, I wanted to forget all about Iran. But, my story wouldn’t leave me alone. I knew I had something I needed to tell the world. I realized I have a very unique angle based on my age and my parents’ mixed marriage. When my father passed away, I realized my children had no recollection of Iran. I didn’t want our history to pass away too.
I kept jotting things down and talking about Iran to my children. It took me a few years to write the book. I had to relive a lot of memories and I cried a lot. I began concentrating on it in 2015.It took a couple more years and another 18 months with the publisher.
Tell me about your publisher/agent: I tried to find an agent, but I didn’t have a big platform. A few agents were interested but didn’t have knowledge of Iran. So, I tried university presses. I contacted the editor at the University of Nebraska Press. She asked me what my Ph.D. was. I told her, “I don’t have one, but I have a really good book.” They hired an Iranian scholar to validate all the facts in the book. Nebraska Press also arranged for a narrator for the audio version.
My second book will be easier because I now have a brand. But I will need a different publisher because university presses don’t publish fiction.
What advice do you have for someone who has the same background/childhood/aspirations as you? Writing is a full-time job. You must be committed. You need to know what you’re talking about. I had a lot of memories, but I still needed to do research. Some days I wrote for eight or nine hours a day. It was my life.
Writing can take you many places. Writing will take you to a different world, take you out of your comfort zone, help you network. Writing will serve you in whatever field you pursue.
What’s next? My next book will be fiction based on a true story. The story includes the pre-revolution glamour, and glitz that was Iran at that time. Iran is so much more than what we see now. Iran has a rich cultural history. It has two and a half thousand years of Jewish and Christian history which predates Islam.
Jacqueline is a frequent guest on television and radio shows. Her opinion columns and essays appear in national and international publications, including The Seattle Times, The Jerusalem Post, The Forward, Foreign Policy News, American Thinker, The Sun-Sentinel, and L.A. Journal. Fluent in Farsi and English, she serves as a translator/interpreter for the National Immigrant Justice Center, working with supervising attorneys on behalf of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. She subtitled the award-winning movie Alex and Ali, winner of the Frameline39 Jury Award for Outstanding Documentary (available on Amazon Prime). Jacquiline is also the 2018 recipient of the Oakton College Distinguished Alumni Award.