Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Saying Goodbye to My Father from Half a World Away

Remembering a failed politician, political prisoner, lifelong Communist—and the best man I have ever known.
July 26, 2022
Saying Goodbye to My Father from Half a World Away
Photo courtesy of the author.

When my father passed away last week in Gorgan, Iran, I had not seen him for eight years. If I had known during our last visit that I would not see him again, I would not have said goodbye. But he didn’t regret our long separation at the end of his life. In fact, my father died happy that I was not by his side. He kept telling my mother that he was dying feeling content that I was not just another lost soul in Iran, and he was glad that he didn’t have to worry about my future on his deathbed.

This anecdote speaks to his character: He was a man who faced hardships that I can only imagine, but he concluded his life without bitterness and with a heart full of love for his family and for the small community he had formed.

An irony of my life is that many of my greatest heroes are liberal conservatives, and I spend my days writing on behalf of liberal democracy, but my greatest hero, my father, was a lifelong Communist. The greatest irony of his life, in turn, was that in spite of his ideology, he spent every penny on helping me realize my American dream.

The story of how my father came to embrace Marxism is a familiar one: liberal parents, radical children. My grandfather was a wealthy and liberal-minded landowner in Iran with a large library. He sent his son to Alborz, a boarding school—the Iranian equivalent to Andover—and my dad eventually befriended left-wing college students from the university next door who introduced him to the beliefs that would shape his life.

As an adult, he moved to Austria to study engineering. At one point in the 1960s, he joined a group of dissident students who wanted to raise awareness about Shah’s unpopularity and tyranny; they occupied the Iranian embassy in Vienna with the senior diplomats inside, not letting them leave for several days. The incident ended with the protesters’ arrest and release without charges, but an Iranian government newspaper published their names, which prevented him from going back to Iran for the following decade.

It is only fitting that when I reached the same age he was at the time of his arrest, a regime newspaper ran my photo and those of many others and labeled us traitors for calling for human rights sanctions against Iran. My father yelled at me when he saw it, worrying that I had put him at risk. After he berated me for a few minutes, I decided to try to calm him down, and so I laughingly mentioned that it was exactly the same as what had happened to him. He laughed, too, and dropped the matter—but I could see that he was proud. He was a brave radical, and I was glad to walk as he walked.

My father’s extended stay in Europe eventually ended, and he returned to Iran, where he worked as a civil engineer. But political philosophy was his first love. For the Tudeh Party, the premier Communist party in Iran, he taught Hegel. He rose quickly within the party ranks; my dad was brilliant and wrote prolifically, an enthusiasm I would pick up decades later. The party elevated him to membership in a group comprising its top 52 theoreticians; later, they sent him to run for parliament in his birthplace. He accepted this demotion for the good of the party—and in so doing, he cheated death for the first time: 51 members of the group he had belonged to were later executed. He probably would have said that escaping death was only the second-best consequence of his move—because he also met my mom in his class after going back home.

My dad had supported the new Islamist regime under the advice of the party, but the new state began cracking down on Communists a couple of years after he had returned to his hometown. Though he escaped the fate of his fellow theoreticians, he did not escape prison. Half his time in prison was spent in solitary confinement. His closest friends from the party headquarters were also imprisoned back in Tehran; he would find out later they had been executed. He was subjected to torture, too, and missed his father’s death—another tragic mirroring of my life, since my own political decisions are what prevented me from seeing my dad again before his passing.

He cheated death a second time. In the spring of 1987, five years into his seven-year sentence, he received a parole from Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s designated successor. Montazeri had been disillusioned by Khomeini’s totalitarianism and had fallen out of favor with the regime; he began issuing paroles to political prisoners before they pushed him out, and my dad got one. The next year, the regime began mass executions of political prisoners. No one knows the exact number of victims, but some estimates go as high as 30,000.

I once asked my dad if he would have falsely recanted his communism and atheism to save his life, as did some in his position who did not receive paroles. He said that he would have embraced death because he couldn’t have lived a lie. I hope that some of his courage came to me; I have sought to honor it in my own resistance to the unjust regime in Iran—and in my writings in defense of democracy in the United States, my adopted country.

My parents got married shortly after my father’s release from prison. Eleven days short of their first wedding anniversary, I was born. My father was about to turn 42; I was the only child of an older father.

And this man of principle, this longtime political prisoner who had been willing to die for his beliefs, had new reasons to live. He loved to play soccer with me inside our apartment when I was young; to minimize the damage to furniture and light fixtures, we used a tennis ball. (We never found a way to keep my mom from getting angry when we broke things.) He was tender and protective: On a rare vacation in the mountains with me, he once stayed up all night keeping mosquitoes away from me using a towel; they had feasted on me the night before. If I was in pain, he was in pain.

At bedtime, he would read me Shahnameh, the Book of Kings—an epic poem longer than the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. (I enjoyed the story, but his interest was a bit more high-minded: It was important to him that the poem had resurrected Farsi centuries after the Arab occupation of Iran.) And his love of the great story of Shahnameh was reflected in his gift for storytelling. I am embarrassed to admit how old I was when I realized that prison is horrible; his stories made it sound like he never stopped having fun there. His courage didn’t allow that terrible place to break his spirit.

Instead, his experiences of suffering seemed to recalibrate his life’s priorities. Since alcohol is illegal in Iran, he and my mother spent part of each year illicitly making wine during the grape season. When I became old enough to partake, he once poured me a glass that I ended up spilling on my expensive new computer. Instead of castigating me for damaging the machine, he jumped up and shouted, “Save the wine!” He knew he could buy me another computer; it was the artisanal wine that was precious. In his mind, money was simply a tool. He made enough to support himself and my mom and to fund my education in the United States. More was superfluous.

Photo courtesy of the author.

It was a love for politics that we shared most of all. I started to call myself a Marxist when I was 9 because of my admiration for him. He told me to stop because I didn’t know anything about the ideology I was claiming. He started to break down his beliefs in the language of children so I could better understand, and this turned into our first political argument: I said that what he was telling me made no sense.

As I got older, our debates rose into an adult register. I loved George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. My father thought that Nikita Khrushchev was the greatest statesman of his time, and he called the Soviet leader “a man of peace.” (I always reminded him that his man of peace almost nuked my adopted country.) Even when our conversations grew heated, we held on to that good humor he had always modeled. He never missed an opportunity to make fun of me for having been a Republican; I would joke that he may have deserved prison for having been a Commie.

The older I got, the more I admired his intellectual honesty. When I was 9, he could have tried to indoctrinate me. Instead, he taught me, and he argued with me, and, eventually, he lost the argument. But he never regretted allowing me to find my own political and intellectual path. We were proud of each other for it.

For years, I struggled to reconcile my father’s character and intelligence with his chosen ideology, but eventually I came to this understanding of why he was a Communist: It was his beautiful naïveté. He was an extraordinarily good man. He actually despised totalitarianism, especially after his experience in prison, and was critical of the Soviet Union for purging “true Marxists” like Georgi Plekhanov and Karl Kautsky; he no longer identified as a Leninist by the time he and I started discussing politics. He was even sympathetic to the George W. Bush administration’s anti-totalitarianism, which ultimately gave my father an intellectual trajectory similar to that of Christopher Hitchens.

He was also upright in all his dealings with others. I lost count of how many times my mom complained that every civil engineer in town got rich except for my dad; she could never quite obscure the pride she felt that he was the only one in his position who hadn’t. For context, the 1990s saw a construction boom in Iran. Civil engineers usually did contract work, and because the country had very low safety standards, most of them cut corners to maximize their profits. Dad couldn’t bring himself to do that, and his refusal cost him a lot of money on quite a few projects. Debt followed him for many years—but the whole family was proud of his ethics. “If there’s ever a terrible earthquake in the city,” he’d boast to me, “only my buildings will remain intact.” There never was an earthquake, but there was no stain on his conscience, either. His commitment to principle was a vulnerability: He was cheated by business partners many times, and his workers sometimes took advantage of him, too. I was amazed that he always got over it—and too often, he wouldn’t even hold a grudge: He sometimes worked with people who had cheated him before. I have to think that he was a Marxist because he thought other people were good-natured in the same ways that he was. It’s a beautiful dream.

But dreams cannot be the basis for a political system, and his particular dream is one I woke up from long ago. I believe Marxist ideology is evil and foolish—but I will never be able to believe that its proponents are all evil and foolish. Having been my father’s son, I know a person’s convictions do not determine his or her worth. My fellow conservatives sometimes toss around glib lines like “the only good Communist is a dead Communist.” All I can do is cringe. My dad was a better person than anyone I’ve heard say something like this.

Photo courtesy of the author.

I much prefer the company of my friends on the left to that of these sorts of conservatives; creating friendships across deep divides has never been a problem for me, and my progressive friends have deeply enriched my life. I suppose that’s one more benefit of being raised by a virtuous Communist. My dad could easily have become a cynic, especially in light of his experiences of prison and torture. It is a miracle that he chose a different path instead. If everyone on earth had a character and disposition like his, it might be possible for me to believe in his impossible dream.

His dream was impossible, but the resulting contradictions did not diminish him; instead, they elevated him. My father embraced Marxism, but his personal life was bourgeois. He failed at being a politician—he lost the election the party sent him to run in, as expected, and ended up in prison later—but he was a fine citizen. Those who claim to live with perfect moral and intellectual consistency either do not know their own hearts, or they have not lived enough to encounter their contradictions.

Only a few months passed between my father’s diagnosis and his death, and he kept his youthful spirit until the end. I am told that, in his final days, friends, acquaintances, and others who knew him rushed to speak with him. They wanted to let him know how noble he was, or beg for forgiveness, or say something else to him they had neglected to in his better days. My father humored them from a bed in a hospital he had built. The building itself has a wonderful claim to fame: It is the only hospital in town that doesn’t smell like a hospital. (He explained to me why that is quite a few times—not that I ever listened, but he was really proud of his work.)

In those final weeks, I wished and hoped in my desperation that there were some way he could visit me in the United States or, as things worsened, some way I could fly to his bedside in Iran. But there was no way. So we told one another on the phone how much we loved each other. And I told him how lucky and proud I was to be his son. And he died a happy father, proud that I was my own man.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.