When Azadeh was an eight-year-old girl growing up in Iran in March 1973, her uncle gave her a chemistry kit. That got her hooked on science early and provided an opportunity for her to find herself. In The Sky Detective, Azadeh shares her life story—one that includes an insider's look at life during the Islamic Revolution and Iraqi War and details how one little girl grew up to become a gifted scientist.
Set inside Iran in the final years of the monarchy, the author narrates a true story of friendship between two girls growing up in the same household in Tehran: Azadeh, the daughter of an affluent engineer, and Najmieh, a child servant who arrives from a small village in northern Iran to live with Azadeh's family. When the girls are teenagers, political turmoil interrupts their lives, sending them down different paths.
This memoir recalls friendship and faith, the bonds between parents and daughters in a paternalistic society, and the clash of values among relatives from different generations in a family. The Sky Detective describes the rich culture of a beautiful but deeply troubled land undergoing radical transformation. In spite of the hardship that comes along with the establishment of a theocratic regime, Azadeh shows her will and determination as a young woman to persevere and realize her childhood dream of becoming a world-renowned scientist.
The Sky Detective, Tabazadeh, Azadeh (author). Starred Review
An award-winning atmospheric scientist recounts her coming-of-age against the backdrop of the Iranian revolution in this engaging, deeply perceptive memoir. Growing up in 1970s Tehran, Tabazadeh was only eight when two unrelated life events made a lasting impact on her: first, Uncle Mahmood gave her a chemistry kit, sparking her lifelong love of science. Shortly thereafter, 11-year-old Najmieh, a village girl from northern Iran, moved in as household help. Their friendship deeply shaped Tabazadeh’s awareness of class and gender differences, eventually ending when Najmieh was shipped back to her village to be married, and Tabazadeh found herself swept up in the tidal forces of the Iranian revolution. The author recounts her resistance to sharia, the Islamic law that forces even teenagers to adopt the veil, ending her story rather abruptly as she immigrates to the U.S. at 17 and leaving one hopeful for a follow-up volume. This is a sobering, enlightening glimpse of growing up in the shadow of a revolution—a struggle that merely replaced one kind of oppression with another.
This title has been recommended for young adult readers:
YA/General Interest: The coming-of-age story will draw teen readers to this strong multicultural title. —Sarah Hunter
A compelling debut memoir by an accomplished geophysical scientist that offers a vivid look at life in Tehran between 1973 and 1982, before and after the Iranian Revolution.
Tabazadeh was just a few days shy of her eighth birthday in 1973 when her beloved uncle Mahmood gave her a present that would profoundly influence her life: a chemistry set. Tabazadeh was a happy, bright child living the privileged life of a daughter of an affluent family. With the shah still in power, Tehran was primarily a secular city, free of the harsh religious restrictions imposed once the ayatollah came to power. Western music and American movies were popular, and clothing styles were modern with colorful Persian accents, all of which the author describes in fluid, engaging prose. It was a place where a young girl could dream of one day becoming a famous chemist. When the author’s family brought an 11-year-old girl named Najmieh into the household to work as a servant, even a very young Tabazadeh began to see for the first time the stark contrasts between the educated upper class and the peasant class that made up the bulk of the population. A budding friendship between the two girls galvanized the author to take part in demonstrations against the shah. What she didn’t anticipate were the violence and authoritarian law that replaced the old regime. Her beautiful city was streaked with blood, and Tabazadeh, then a young teenager, was forced to cover her head with a veil and ultimately to cover her whole body in black robes. As she approached her high school graduation, she realized she no longer had a future in Iran. In gripping detail, she describes her dangerous escape to the West, where she has been able to fulfill her aspirations. The narrative is written in the present tense, giving the child/teenager an unlikely adult voice, though the literary device does create a compelling dynamic immediacy. Filled with details of day-to-day life, this volume offers a unique perspective on a country and a people that remain shrouded in mystery for most Westerners.
An authentic firsthand account of troubled times in a tumultuous country.
Kirkus Reviews - The Sky Detective
In 2001, Azadeh Tabazadeh receives the prestigious Macelwane Medal for her research on polar stratospheric clouds and the causes behind the degradation of the ozone layer. With every great achievement, there is a profound story. In the case of Azadeh, her account goes back to 1973 in Tehran to two life-changing experiences: receiving a chemistry kit from her uncle and developing a close relationship with Najmieh, the family’s housekeeper. Azadeh’s world suddenly turns upside down as her country succumbs to political struggles and calamity strikes her family. When she decides to escape in the hope of making it to America, Azadeh has no idea if she’ll see her family ever again.
Azadeh Tabazadeh shares a powerful story of determination amid despair. Tabazadeh’s first person narrative reflects the perspective of young Azadeh and her passion for learning. Falling in love with chemistry by the age of eight, Azadeh sets her educational sites on becoming a scientist. Tabazadeh not only portrays a child growing up in fun-filled and happy environment, but also a young girl who is slowly coming to terms with the world beyond her blissful bubble when she gets to know Najmieh—a girl from impoverished means.
Tabazadeh’s plot shifts as she paints a drastic portrayal of life in the midst of highly turbulent times. While lacing her text with the driving emotional tension between Azadeh and family members, Tabazadeh’s descriptions reflect a dark tone as Azadeh’s short-lived contentment quickly shatters during the Iranian Revolution (1978), Ayatollah Khomeini’s reign. His full-covering edict for females (ages nine and up), the American Hostage Crisis in Iran, and especially the Iran-Iraq War when Azadeh, her brother, and cousin eventually flee the country.
Engaging readers from chapter to chapter, Tabazadeh’s deft storytelling carefully builds to Azadeh’s harrowing journey to America. Tabazadeh’s punctuates her plot with two aspects—a combination of Azadeh’s pleasant flashbacks and determination to study—that become a means of survival for the seventeen-year-old who is striving for a better life. A stark, yet inspiring, presentation of hope in the midst of hopelessness, The Sky Detective is one gripping page-turner that is a definite must-read by all.
“Improvise, child. That’s what makes you become a leader later in life.”
Reviewed by Anita Lock
Want to get to know the author of The Sky Detective, Azadeh Tabazadeh? Read the interview between her and San Francisco Book Review here!
A well-respected scientist shares her story of life before and during the 70s Iranian revolution, her escape from the country, and her reception of a prestigious award.
In The Sky Detective, Azadeh Tabazadeh receives a chemistry kit from her favorite uncle, sparking a love of science that will eventually lead to her flight from her home country. Tabazadeh grew up in a time of prosperity with wealthy parents and a loving home. As most girls, she loves her family, spending time with friends, and has an infectious love of learning. Unfortunately, the shah is overthrown, and the new regime is violent and bloody. She loses the friendship of her friend, which masterfully highlights the difference in classes. Her schooling, despite some very dedicated teachers, soon falls apart as the new regime begins to oppress women. Tabazadeh is forced to wear the body-covering chador, which is the final straw. She is unable to learn, unable to spend time with her precious friends, and now she cannot be a happy and festive young woman. Her family agrees to let her accompany her brother and cousin as they flee military service. This leads to a tumultuous escape through stark landscapes and corrupt officials. Once free in America, Tabazadeh rises through the ranks to earn the respect of her peers and the recognition from the community at large, even President Clinton.
The main appeal of this memoir is Tabazadeh’s backward-looking narrative. She recounts the story through the POV of a child and young woman, but with the gravity and disappointment of an adult. While remaining firmly in the present moment of her past, The Sky Detective is engaging and captivating. Her journey highlights the nature of a society many Westerners are unfamiliar with, adding a layer of dimension that increases the readability of the memoir. The only downside is the lack of information after she lands in America. It would be fascinating to follow her through earning degrees and the respect of the scientific community. Her infectious curiosity and innate talent shines through the eyes of her younger self and captures readers’ intention for a truly amazing read.
“I’m probably imagining the smell rather than inhaling it, because I know the smell of fresh blood comes from the oxidation of iron II (ferrous) to iron III (ferric) once it’s exposed to air. As always, chemistry can take my mind off almost anything, even a gruesome scene like this.”
Reviewed by John Murray
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Eren Göknar/Special to the Town Crier Mountain View resident Azadeh Tabazadeh fled from Iran in the 1980s after the revolution led to the return of Ayatollah Khomeini and sharia law. Her memoir, “The Sky Detective,” details her dramatic escape. She pursued a new life and career in the U.S., working as senior research scientist at NASA Ames.Sitting next to a steamer trunk end table in her Mountain View townhouse, Azadeh Tabazadeh, former NASA Ames research scientist and Stanford University professor, describes her harrowing escape as a teen from the madness of close-minded mullahs. From the Iranian border town of Zahedan, the 17-year-old and her brother Afshin rode on the backs of mopeds and in a pickup truck, never knowing where they were going the next day. They fled with only two suitcases, leaving everything else – including their parents and younger sister Afshan – behind. At the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War in 1982, wealthy families routinely sent their sons overseas to avoid the draft. Tabazadeh’s parents paid $44,000 to drug lords and human traffickers to smuggle the siblings through Pakistani deserts to Karachi, then London and Madrid before they ultimately scored visas and a flight to Los Angeles. Tabazadeh’s memoir, “The Sky Detective” (iUniverse, 2015), takes a peek inside daily life in Tehran before and after the 1979 Islamic revolution, offering sharp insights into class and gender inequalities. “If you were an engineer or a doctor at that time (under Shah Reza Pahlavi), you were really well off, because there just weren’t that many of them,” she said. With a villa on the Caspian Sea and a house in England, the Tabazadehs enjoyed a privileged life, which her father Modjtaba provided as an engineer who built Iranian roads. After the monarchy fell, family rituals took a backseat to watching events unfold on television, including the taking of the American hostages in 1979. Tabazadeh recalls attending a demonstration in which fundamentalists attacked her friends for their Western-style dress. She vividly remembers the bloody handprints of those who were dying left on the walls at Jaleh Square in Tehran. “I still remember it,” she said. “That’s still in my head, the people who even signed their names in blood.” Pursuing a path When she turned 8, two events helped launch Tabazadeh on a scientific path. One was the arrival of Najmieh, an illiterate teenage servant girl from Rasht, a village in northern Iran. Najmieh’s father gave her away as a way to make money. Tabazadeh decided to be “the teacher of all my Barbies,” pretending to assign and correct homework for Najmieh’s sake. The bond between the two young girls grew. It was an education for Tabazadeh, too, who hoped that her parents would send her to school. “She was very smart,” recalled Tabazadeh of her friend. But Najmieh ran away, using money Tabazadeh had given her, and later married. “One reason I wrote the book was that I never got any closure on Najmieh, and the only thing I could have done was to say, ‘This person existed, but I don’t know what happened to her.’ I think when you write about someone, they come alive.” Her other inspiration was an elaborate child’s chemistry set given to her by her atheist radical uncle, Mahmood, who was studying geology in Germany. The kit arrived in a suitcase that held a glass Aladdin’s lamp, a white lab coat, goggles and copper sulfate to help form crystals. “My uncle introduced me to chemistry, which made it seem like something exciting to do,” Tabazadeh said. She wanted to be the Marie Curie of Iran, but it would soon become clear that wasn’t possible. Revolution In the chapter titled “Revolution Madness,” for which she won first prize in the East of Eden writer’s conference, Tabazadeh recalls the Ayatollah Khomeini’s smirk as he arrives by Air France jumbo jet to Tehran in 1979. After the overthrow of the Shah, the Ayatollah returned to rule after 15 years in exile. Weeks later, he issued an edict mandating sharia, or Islamic law. Women had to dress conservatively and could no longer become judges. Violations were punished with 30 lashes. After the shocking turn of events, Tabazadeh knew that she would be unable to achieve her lifelong dream of becoming a scientist and decided to emigrate to the U.S. “Can you imagine how hot it was under the long veil with baggy pants?” Tabazadeh asked. “Nowadays, the rules are relaxed. They can’t monitor every woman.” From a superstitious and religious grandmother to her chic, outspoken mother, Azar, in “The Sky Detective” Tabazadeh teases out the rich influences on her point of view. “My mother was a very determined woman, not afraid to speak her mind, even to confront my father,” she said. “He was sweet and kind.” Living the dream Upon arriving in the U.S. in 1982, Tabazadeh lived in Mountain View with Zari Gandjei, her mother’s friend. Tabazadeh studied English, not taught in her high school in Iran because the Ayatollah insisted on Arabic. Accepted at UCLA, she earned a doctorate in physical chemistry but also worked on her adviser’s atmospheric science project on the polar stratosphere. Her work explained why ozone depletion hit Antarctica’s atmosphere harder than the warmer Arctic. NASA was so impressed with her research that it underwrote a good chunk of her tuition. After graduation, NASA hired Tabazadeh to be part of the atmospheric science team that was investigating the ozone layer. She won the American Geophysical Union award and a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 1999. She began teaching at Stanford in 2004 and quit in 2011 to write her book. Her children – Dionna, 20; Daniel, 17; and Jessica, 5 – watched their mom’s career unfold. Soon after Time Magazine published an article in 2005 about her innovative work on volcanoes and ozone depletion under the headline, “Sky Detective,” Tabazadeh began writing stories. “That’s exactly what scientists do – they ask questions,” she said. She signed up for a memoir-writing class and decided to finish the book for Najmieh and other young women to encourage them to become scientists. A $38,000 grand prize at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference a year ago enabled her to self-publish. Although she respects Iran’s history and beauty, Tabazadeh knows that by leaving illegally, she will never be able to return. “If you have a visa and a passport and you didn’t escape illegally, it’s probably safe to go back,” she said – but not for her. “I’m living my dream now,” Tabazadeh said. To purchase “The Sky Detective,” visit amazon.com.
Presidential award-winning author and scientist, Azadeh Tabazadeh, shares her harrowing escape from Iran in the early 1980s to realize her childhood dream of becoming an esteemed scientist in The Sky Detective: A memoir of how I fled Iran and Became a NASA scientist. Krikus Reviews has named The Sky Detective as one of the best books of 2015. Azadeh hopes to use her book as a platform to humanize people from the Middle East to Americans and westerners in general--as she strongly believes stories are what connect people, not the politics of their respective governments.
Tuesday, February 16, 2016 - 7:00pm
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by Michelle Toven | January 10, 2016
filed under Books
In The Sky Detective, renowned scientist Azadeh Tabazadeh tells the story of her early life in Iran in the 1970s and 1980s. Tabazadeh, who has worked for NASA, taught at Stanford University, published dozens of scientific articles and received a number of prestigious awards, writes about her family, upbringing, education, and how the 1979 Revolution affected everything, including the treatment of women and girls.
Tabazadeh describes an idyllic early childhood. As the daughter of a wealthy engineer, she wanted for little. Her parents were both caring and encouraging to all of their children, although her older brother mocked her interest in typically unfeminine things and insisted girls aren’t as smart as boys.
One of the first events she describes, and attributes great importance to, is her uncle giving her a chemistry kit as a gift. Tabazadeh asserts that this is where her curiosity and lifelong passion for science began.
Another important early event for Tabazadeh was the introduction of Najmieh, a domestic servant, to their family. The two girls, close in age, formed a tight bond and became friends. Najmieh came from a poor rural family, and their relationship slowly awakened Tabazadeh to her own privilege – in Iran under the Shah, only the children of the wealthy could afford to be educated.
The narrative follows Tabazadeh through her childhood and teenage years, showing the growing unrest in Iran through young eyes. We see protests against the Shah, his downfall, and the rise of the Ayatollah and his regime. At first Tabazadeh did not realize what was happening and its implications for her and her family, but as her freedoms and those of all women were gradually restricted, she began to understand.
Eventually, her parents paid the astronomical sum of about $20,000 US dollars each to smuggle her, her brother, and their male cousin out of the country. Tabazadeh details their escape through Pakistan and harrowing journey to freedom.
With the help of family and friends, after a stay in Spain, they eventually found themselves arriving in the United States to start new lives. Tabazadeh went on to attend college, graduate school, and become the accomplished scientist she is today.
The Sky Detective is, overall, a good read. It’s heartfelt, thoughtful, and shows how the political can so easily become personal. There are helpful feminist messages in at as well: Tabazadeh emphasizes the importance of her uncle encouraging her in science, and the mentorship of an intelligent female teacher.
The Sky Detective lets us see the power of a supportive family and relationships between women. Role models, support and encouragement are all important in helping more women break into STEM fields.
But while Tabazadeh certainly had intelligence and drive, her education, comfortable life and escape from Iran would not have been possible without her parents’ wealth. Their economic privilege is briefly addressed in regards to Najmieh, but is not explored as well as it could be. The author does wonder about the fates of those women and girls who aren’t as lucky as she is, which does tie in a wider message on the treatment of women under the Ayatollah’s regime.
The book is relatively short, the prose is easy to read, and it’s well-written for someone who isn’t a professional writer. The dialogue can occasionally be clunky, but these are memories from decades past. Tabazadeh manages to set the scene and tone, even if there are some imperfections. This would be an excellent book to give the budding young feminist or scientist in your life, and is worth the time for anyone looking for some inspiration.
For more information about the book and author, visit her website at: http://azadehtabazadeh.com/.
- See more at: http://www.gender-focus.com/2016/01/10/gf-reads-the-sky-detective-by-azadeh-tabazadeh/#sthash.E45ynCUi.1cPXfpgS.dpuf
How to Write a Prize Winning MemoirRoundtable Discussion – Free to AllDate: December 3, 2015Time: 4 Pm PST 5 PM MST 6 PM CST 7 PM ESTExpert: Azadeh Tabazadeh“What you have done in this book is exactly what I would like for my patients to do—and that is to confront the truth,” my therapist told me after reading my memoir.She was right! I escaped Iran when I was 17 years old and came to America with nothing other than a 6-month student visa and a steadfast determination to work hard in becoming a scientist—a profession of my childhood dreams. At age 45 I had a lot going for me. I was a professor of Geophysics at Stanford University and had worked for many years for NASA. My scientific discoveries were featured in Time, Washington post, San Francisco Chronicle and many other national and international newspapers, yet something profound was missing from my life. I felt a strong desire to make sense of my past, write about it, hand it to someone and say, “Here is what I went through. I hope you learn something from it.”What helped me the most in writing my book was joining a memoir-writing class where I could share my stories in a safe environment. To my surprise, despite our different cultural backgrounds, we all had much in common when our lives were crafted into stories. I walked away from this experience feeling that my past had lost its power over me. Now, the truth, as I believed it, was written in black-and-white and I no longer felt ashamed of my past. Instead, understanding my past gave me the perspective I needed to become whole and feel at peace with myself.Here are a few things that might help you in writing your memoir:Join a writing group to write the first draft.Rewriting, at least, for me was a lot of fun.Be aware that your recollection of past events may be different from others.Trust your own intuition.Target a broad audience, so others may benefit from your experiences. Azadeh Tabazadeh is the author of The Sky Detective, a debut memoir about her childhood and adolescent years in Iran. Her story offers an eyewitness account of what life was like inside an Iranian household and on the streets of Tehran, before and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and during the war with Iraq. Excerpts from her memoir have won several prestigious writing contests, including the East of Eden Award in 1998 and the San Francisco Writers Conference Grand Prize in 2012. Azadeh fled Iran in 1982, two years after the Iraq invasion of Iran, to pursue her dream of becoming a scientist. In 1994 she graduated with a doctoral degree in chemistry from UCLA. Since then, she has worked at NASA, taught at Stanford University, and has published over sixty scientific articles. Among her many accolades are a Presidential White House Science Award and a feature article in Time that details her personal life and scientific discoveries.For author updates visit Azadeh at azadehtabazadeh.com or follow her on Facebook.Listen to the Interview at:http://namw.org/2015/10/how-to-write-a-prize-winning-memoir/
San Francisco Book Review's John Murray interviews San Francisco-based author Azadeh Tabazadeh about her memoir, The Sky Detective, who shares her story of life before and during the 70s Iranian revolution, her escape from the country, and her reception of a prestigious award.
What prompted you to sit down and write your memoir?
In 2005, Time published an article about my scientific research as a part of an Innovator Series. The reporter, Madeleine Nash, also took interest in my personal life and asked questions about it during the interview. She ended up including a few quotes about my personal life in the article, which resulted in my receiving “fan” mail/email for the first time in my life. In particular, an official letter from Richard Delay, the Mayor of Chicago in 2005, really touched my heart and made me think of my past and the possibility that people like him may want to know more about me as a person, not just my professional life. I began writing short stories at night and during weekends for five years before signing up for a memoir class to polish my stories and turn them into a book. Although the letter from Richard Delay, and a subsequent postcard from my uncle regarding the Time article prompted me to begin writing my stories, it was the lost friendships in Iran and the lack of closure that sustained me throughout the writing process.
What source material did you use while writing (memories, journals, family, etc)?
I read a lot of books and articles about the Iranian revolution and watched many YouTube videos to piece together my memories to the best of my ability. For example, I was able to find a YouTube video regarding the protest on International Women’s day (March 8, 1979) against veiling, descried in my memoir, which my mother and I attended. The video helped me a great deal in writing the details and dynamics for that scene. I also interviewed many people who lived in Iran during that period, including my family and friends. In particular, my mother, Azar, has a very good memory. Therefore, she was able to assist me in constructing past events, especially regarding our escape from Iran, as my parents and sister Afshan fled Iran five months after my brother Afshin and I did, travelling along the same harsh landscapes.
What was the most difficult aspect of writing your memoir?
Recalling tragic events that happened in my life and revealing truths about myself that I felt ashamed of. However, I tried to balance that out with joyous and/or curious events that often involved some type of scientific learning and/or experimentation or internal struggles with my own faith.
Do you have any plans for a second book chronicling the time between landing in America and becoming a respected scientist?
I have, in fact, written many chapters about my experiences in America. However, after careful consideration, I decided not to include that time period in this book, because that inclusion would have taken away from the story I wanted to tell—the story of many people who lived during that tumultuous time in Iran. My struggles and triumphs in America as a woman succeeding in a male-dominated field is a different story, which I would like to write with that “story arc” in mind.
What do you want readers to take away from your story?
I hope the readers feel more connected with people from Iran or the Middle East in general after reading my book—as I strongly believe stories are what connect people, not the policies of their respective governments. The picture of Iran and Iranian people that are portrayed in the media is not all what I have experienced in my life while living in Iran or the United States.
The gift of the chemistry set and textbook seemed to be the major catalyst for your love of and talent in science. What led to the shift from chemistry to geology/weather?
My actual scientific research is very much chemistry-based, as my specialty is in atmospheric chemistry. In short, I discovered a number of important chemical mysteries occurring in the Earth’s atmosphere, which I hope to write about in my second book. I believe I would not have been able to make the discoveries that I did if I had not majored in physical chemistry.
Nowadays, scientific disciplines are not as exclusive as they were in the past. In fact, the most important discoveries are made when scientists and engineers from different backgrounds work together—at least that is the case with NASA, where large teams are often assembled to achieve common goals that lead to major scientific breakthroughs across various technical and scientific disciplines.
What books do you recommend for readers wanting to learn more about Iran, science, or female scientists?
I recommend two Iranian-American authors who mainly write fiction: Gina Nahai and Anita Amirrezvani. I have read and loved all their books and learned a lot about Iran’s history by reading their works. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Persian Girls by Nahid Rachlin are the best educational Iranian memoirs that I have read. I highly recommend Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith to young women who are interested in pursuing science as a career. A second book that I very much enjoyed reading regarding women and science is: Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne.
Were you ever able to reconnect or learn what happened to Najmieh?
Unfortunately, I have not been able to reconnect with Najmieh. The last information I have from her was the letter she mailed me in 1978. Given the fact that Najmieh is most likely not Internet savvy and I cannot go back to Iran, I may never reunite with Najmieh. That’s a hard fact to swallow, but unless the Islamic regime falls, I have no way of finding what happened to Najmieh because I cannot go back to Iran and look for her.
Knowing what you know now, would you have any advice for your younger self? If so, what?
I would tell her that life is like a sine function with oscillating ups and downs. Don’t make any rash decisions when you are at your lowest point because the next peak is only an oscillation away.
Since publishing your story, have you returned to Iran?
I can’t go back to Iran for two reasons. First, I left illegally. Second, my memoir portrays an unfavorable view of the current regime. Thus, the Iranian officials can come up with many excuses to throw me in jail, and there isn’t a thing anyone can do, including the government of the United States, to help me if that happens.
How do your friends and family feel about the book?
I believe they are mostly pleased with it, as I haven’t heard anything negative from anyone yet. Before the book was published, my father, Moji, would tell our story to any “unsuspecting” individual who was willing to lend his ears to him for a few hours or more. Now, he just gives a copy of my book to “seemingly” interested parties and says, “My daughter wrote this book about our life in Iran. I am very proud of her. She even took me to the White House …”
Climatologist Azadeh Tabazadeh Pens Memoir of Iran Escape
Jennifer Wadsworth/ Special to Metroactive
SKY SCANNER: Azadeh Tabazadeh escaped Iran to become one of the most successful scientists in her field. Photograph by Greg Ramar
The doorbell seemed to buzz louder than usual, signaling the start of a long escape. Azadeh Tabazadeh paused for one last look at her room. To one side, the desk where she conducted her first chemistry experiment with a kit her uncle had given her as a gift nearly a decade before. Beside it, the bed where she nearly took her own life knowing she could never become the "Iranian Madame Curie."
In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran from exile, overthrew the Shah and ushered in sharia law. Women could no longer become judges or pursue studies in science and engineering. They had to wear veils or risk being whipped in public. "We were born in a place where women just don't get what they want from life," Tabazadeh would later write.
With nothing but two suitcases, 17-year-old Tabazadeh and her brother left their parents and younger sister behind. In 1982, at the start of the Iran-Iraq War, wealthy families like her own sent their sons away to avoid the draft and their daughters to escape sexist repression under Ayatollah Khomeini's reign. For $44,000, Tabazadeh's parents hired traffickers to smuggle the two young siblings through the deserts and mountains of Pakistan, away from the violence and into the unknown.
Ultimately, by way of London and Madrid, they landed in California, where Tabazadeh went on to become a renowned climate scientist. The Mountain View resident and former NASA researcher chronicles her harrowing escape as well as daily life in Tehran leading up to the Islamic revolution in a new memoir, The Sky Detective (iUniverse 2015).
The book offers an eyewitness account of the Islamic revolution as told by her younger self, a girl preternaturally aware of gender and class inequities that nearly stifled her ambitions and set her and her childhood friend, a servant girl named Najmieh, forever on separate paths.
"I wrote this, in some sense, for the people I left behind," says Tabazadeh, now 49 and a mother of three, leafing through the hardback volume in her Mountain View home. "I never got any closure."
Safe in the United States, however, she put those unresolved feelings aside to realize her scientific aspirations. Armed with a bachelor's, master's and doctorate in chemistry from UCLA, she chose to focus her research on atmospheric science."
This is something that affects all of us," she says, "and a subject that had fascinated me since I was a child who wondered why the sky looks blue."
While still in graduate school, Tabazadeh became one of the first scientists to make a connection between ozone depletion and climate change. The discovery shattered claims that humans had only a negligible impact on global warming.While critics pointed to natural events, such as volcanic eruptions, as the cause, Tabazadeh proved that volcanic chlorine dissolves in rainfall without reaching the stratospheric ozone. She demonstrated that chlorofluorocarbons, coolants from air conditioners and refrigerators, float up and weaken the ozone layer's ability to filter the sun's ultraviolet rays.
Those findings brought her national acclaim and led to a landmark federal ban on chlorofluorocarbon manufacturing in 1996. The White House, the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society granted her prestigious awards. NASA paid the bulk of her doctoral tuition, hired her and gave her a medal. Popular Science named her one of a "brilliant 10" scientists shaking up their fields in 2002. In 2005, Time magazine dubbed her a "sky detective" for her groundbreaking insights into the destruction of the ozone."
For years, all I thought about was my research," Tabazadeh says. "But when I started to get all this media attention, when the Time article was published, people expressed interest in this other part of my story, in my journey here from Iran."
In 2011, Tabazadeh left her teaching job at Stanford University to write her book. She began mining her memory, interviewing her parents and friends to reconstruct the events leading up to her escape."
I rediscovered not only my own history, but the history of Iran," she says. "Almost all of the stories that are written about Iran are told by journalists, or focused on politics. I wanted to tell this from a personal standpoint, from someone who lived through this tumultuous time."
Before the revolution, the Tabazadeh family lived in affluence, afforded by the father's work as an engineer. They vacationed in a villa on the Caspian Sea, took trips to England and hired the servant girl, Najmieh, to keep house.
"We became very close," says Tabazadeh, who was 8 when she met Najmieh, whose father had sent her from her home in a north Iranian village to earn money for the family. "She was very curious, intelligent for her age."
The bond between the two girls grew as Tabazadeh taught Najmieh, unschooled and illiterate, to read and write in Farsi. Having another person to teach fueled her interest in academics, which she recognized as a privilege. In Iran, then and now, many families send their underage children to earn money as domestic servants instead of going to school."
Even as a little girl, I knew that wasn't right," says Tabazadeh, who dedicated the book to Najmieh. "I wanted to share what I had with her."
She credits her uncle Mahmood, an atheist and geologist who settled in Germany, with first igniting her passion for science. It was that same year, when she was 8, that he gave her a child's chemistry set that included a white lab coat, goggles and copper sulfate to make crystals.
"That really gave me the idea that science was exciting," she says, "that this is something I could do forever."
But after the Khomeini's edict mandating sharia law, she would no longer be able to pursue a science career in her own country. To this day, the Iranian government prohibits women from taking science and engineering university classes. Some 36 Iranian universities have banned women from 77 fields of study, including physics and computer science, according to the Committee of Concerned Scientists.
"It's such a different world," says Linda Joy Myers, president of the National Association of Memoir Writers, who coached Tabazadeh as she wrote The Sky Detective. "She lived through history. You learn so much about it through this very personal story. What I always say about memoir is that it takes us into the truth and the family home. It's not just about the events and facts, but what happened in people's hearts and minds during that time."
This post is excerpted with permission from a recently published memoir, The Sky Detective, in which working mom Azadeh Tabazadeh recounts her journey of growing up in Iran and fleeing to America. Her first-hand account of life in the Middle East provides a unique insight into political crises in foreign countries and seeks to give inspiration to young women looking to enter male dominated fields of study.
By Azadeh Tabazadeh
Fall turns into winter, snow covers every inch of the ground, and far away in America, President Carter loses his seat to Ronald Reagan, a B-grade movie actor turned politician in Hollywood, California. He may not be a superstar by Hollywood standards, but minutes after his inauguration, the hostages are released and are on their way back to America. It’s hard to believe that nearly fifteen months have passed since they were ambushed inside the American embassy in Tehran.
Just about anything and everything American movies have to offer is magical, be it on or off the screen. A retired B-grade movie actor has just performed a miracle in real life, while his predecessor failed even with a full-blown secret military operation backing him up. Baba says this new president is good news for Iran. I don’t understand why most Iranian men believe a Republican president is always better for us than his Democratic counterpart. Maybe Baba and his friends are right this time. Maybe this movie actor can perform another miracle and rid Iran of this ruthless ayatollah. Only then could we once again watch movies on the silver screen as we used to when the shah ruled Iran.
Nowadays, we still watch movies, but only on the small screen and in secret at someone’s house. Movies like Saturday Night Fever, Going Steady, Over the Edge, Thank God It’s Friday, and Grease are just a few favorites that my friends and I have watched many times. I don’t know how our parents get hold of black market movies, but every upscale household seems to have a collection of hip American films in stock.
If Iran were like America, I think I would go steady with Hamid, one of my brother’s friends. He has a pretty large nose, but overall, he’s tall, dark, and handsome. We are like Sandy and Danny in Grease. While many girls like the bad-boy greaser Danny, he’s only into nerdy-looking Sandy. I’m kind of like Sandy, looking nerdy most of the time, but when I let my hair down, take my glasses off, and wear something nice, most guys notice me in a crowd. I wish I could dress up and go out on a date with Hamid; at least once would be nice. What’s wrong with Hamid and his friends and me and my friends dancing wildly on the streets like Sandy, Danny, and their friends in Grease?
But we can’t have fun like that on the streets of Tehran, because they’re owned by the ayatollah, and he considers dancing a crime. Thirty-five lashes is the minimum punishment I’ll get if I’m caught dancing with a man who’s not yet my husband. I have no intention of breaking this law, but it makes me sick to think that we have a law that prevents us from moving our body parts when we hear pleasant, rhythmic sounds. Even an infant dances to music well before she’s ready to walk or talk. Dancing is a natural instinct, a gift from God. The ayatollah has once again got it all wrong. God has no problem seeing us dance and have a good time. It’s only he and his disciples who think otherwise, depriving us from exercising our God-gifted rights.
On most nights, to escape from it all, a group of us gets together at someone’s house to watch movies and go crazy wild. We often practice the dance scenes played in films to perfection as we giggle and make fun of the ayatollah, Khanoom Khorshide, or any other idiot we can think of. I tend to always be cast as John Travolta, because I’m the tallest one in our bunch and can toss the others over my shoulders and in between my legs without falling flat on my face too many times.
Some nights, as we watch movies late into the night, sirens sound, electricity shuts off, and bombs begin to fall on Tehran. All the commotion brings us back from the dreamy land of movies to our homeland, where being happy is considered a crime.
“Wipe that smile off your face!” my principal shouted at me once. “How could you smile like that when your brothers are dying in the war?”
What my principal doesn’t know is that I weep almost every day when I see young men on the streets of Tehran with missing parts: limbs torn off, eyes gouged, faces burned and disfigured. The truth is that I do care for my brothers a whole lot, but I don’t give a damn if my principal and the ayatollah think otherwise.
One night, in our dark, damp basement, hours pass as I huddle together with a bunch of friends and family, listening to music out of a boom box, waiting for the lights to come back on. When the chitchat quiets down, I keep staring at the candle burning out, thinking that I know why it’s blue at the core and yellow all around. It’s all chemistry. It’s all about how matter interacts with light.
Sometimes I think I’m weird to think for hours and hours about why nature looks the way it does. I bet no one in this basement knows that the sky is blue because of how air molecules interact with sunlight. Nitrogen and oxygen molecules in the air are capable of scattering more of the blue and less of the remaining colors that are coming at us from the sun. In a way, an air molecule can act almost like a tiny prism, bending and separating the blue from the rest of the colors in sunlight. I wonder what else is in the air that makes a rainbow stand out in the sky. It has to be something that acts just like a prism, something that can equally bend and separate all the colors that, when combined, make up the white, bright sunlight.
Once again, my mind gets stuck on esoteric topics to avoid thinking of real life: my bleak future in Iran. Would it be so bad if a deadly bomb finds its way to where I’m hiding now? Isn’t dying in an instant a better option than living in fear of dying night after night with no end in sight? I bet someone else in this basement is thinking the same crazy thoughts, not the ones about the color of the flame or the color of the sky—those I know are exclusively mine—but the more serious thoughts.