Fleeing the Hijab: A Jewish Woman’s Escape from Iran
By Sima Goel
Forward by Rabbi Reuven Bulka
Sima Goel’s Fleeing the Hijab: A Jewish Woman’s Escape from Iran is not just the story of escaping a repressive regime in Iran. It is the story of Jewish life in Iran, of one Jewish family, and of how simple thoughts lead to larger actions that can change many lives.
Goel begins her story with winemaking, the making of wine as a mitzvah, the making of wine as a chore, the glass of wine immortalized by Persian poets. As child, she wanted to know, “Why can’t we buy it from the liquor store?”
That there was a liquor store and that people drank wine shows that life in pre-revolutionary Iran was quite different from the images that come to mind about contemporary Iran. With her interwoven stories, Goel builds a picture of all that was wonderful about Iran and all that is wonderful about being Jewish. We catch the scent of roses and jasmine in the garden, the freshly ground spices, and the almonds and pistachios roasted for Passover.
We also get other background noise that contributes to a child’s perception of her world: the Shah’s SAVAK lurking behind the idyll, the Yom Kippur war, a picture of Moshe Dayan pulled from a friend’s pocket and viewed in secret while hidden beneath a staircase. We see all the small experiences that add up to Goel’s response to the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
We also see the tension in her parents’ arranged marriage and the arguments and separations that shaped some of the actions needed to help Goel leave Iran. This is the story of one Jewish family – before Goel left Iran and after. For, even after Goel has been living in Montreal for years and her life has taken its own shape, her Maman and Baba (Mom and Dad) remain true to type. In her family life, we see the sense of action and the resilience that sustained Goel throughout her many ordeals. We also see the persistence of personalities and human foibles – the things we carry with us through life, the things we can change and the things we cannot. Goel shows us that, for all the imperfections of our families, our love for each other is perhaps the most persistent quality of all.
This is the story of an escape from Iran. Goel, by age 13, was involved in opposing the Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime at school. She was blacklisted and spied upon, in part for being Jewish, and mostly for not conforming to the regime’s expectations. Learning how to wear a chador and what books not to read planted small seeds of resistance. As friends betrayed friends and the betrayed friends disappeared in the back seats of Hezbollah police cars, greater acts of resistance were needed. But these led to restrictions at home, “Maman and Baba didn’t care if I liked it or not; they did not want me to be killed.”
By 16, Goel was on the run from the regime, moving from safe house to safe house, hiding both her Jewish identity and her resistance to the new regime under a black chador. By 17, she was planning and executing her escape, with hundred-dollar bills stuffed into maxi pads and a story rehearsed in case she and her sister were questioned by the Hezbollah along the way.
Once they have crossed the desert into Pakistan, partly on foot – “the nails on my big toes have turned grey” – the two girls have to navigate through the United Nations refugee system, a feat almost as difficult as the first part of the journey and at many points more hopeless. At 18, Goel landed in Montreal and set about building her new life in Canada. She became a successful chiropractor and mother, a person dedicated to making other people happy and healthy.
Goel’s story of her escape from Iran is the prologue and the epilogue to a story that tells us why it was all necessary and worthwhile. She understands her readers need to know the backstory for it all to make sense, and how the story ends because we come to care for the characters. Readers will find themselves left with both a sense of awe about how life evolves and a sense of comfort that we can overcome so much and yet have so much joy in life.