Meredith LoBello, retired resident of Charlottesville and UVa student, held a talk for a select number of students on Tuesday detailing his experiences living in Iran before and during the revolution of 1979.
LoBello, who received his master’s from the University of Toronto, studied in Shiraz, one of the most populous cities in Iran, between 1965-66 before entering the army during the Vietnam War.
He returned to Iran with his wife and small children in 1973, where he began working for Bell Industries, a US technology and software company. At this time, the country was under the rule of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran.
LoBello spoke about not only his relationship with the Iranians, with whom the West did not have a favorable history with, but also of what other Americans thought of him as a Farsi-speaker. He described how, to his fellow Americans, it had appeared that he had ‘gone native’ due to his language ability. He encountered a fair amount of paranoia from them as a result.
“I’ve encountered no other nationality that get more paranoid by not hearing the language they understand in the room than an American,” LoBello stated.
He and his wife, after a couple of years, agreed that “if we saw an American in a discussion with an Iranian and saw the Iranian losing, we would go help.” However, if it was the American losing, they would not bother as they had too often faced backlash and rudeness at the offer of helping them.
The Iranians, on the other hand, seemed to act politely towards him.
“The Iran I [saw] was not the Iran you read about, possibly because in comparison to my fellow countrymen we seemed to have fewer preconceived notions about Iran and Iranians; I had no axe to grind.”
LoBello integrated himself into Iranian society, which served practical for him. He lived in Iranian neighbourhoods, shopped at Iranian stores, and spent his workday speaking Farsi.
Meanwhile, the Shah was still in power, and had been monarch of Iran since 1941 when the British and Soviet forces had placed him in power. However, LoBello pointed out that not all Iranians were pro Pahlavi: “All was not pro-Pahlavi family, not everyone.’
As the years progressed, LoBello noticed a snowballing hatred towards the Shah that continued to escalate through the years he lived there.
Ruhollah Khomeini, a religious ideologue, had begun to speak out against the Shah’s regime, and due to the lack of his access to mass media, his message was circulated through the use of cassette tapes.
Khomeini’s influence, in addition to the general excessive corruption of the Pahlavi regime, added to a disquieting atmosphere that began to develop in the country.
The Shah did not help himself through this situation. LoBello recalled an occasion where after an earthquake had hit the area north of Qom, and the Shah had gone to meet the delegates of various regions devastated.
Getting out of his helicopter, a protestor shouted, “your officials are thieves! Your officials stole our blankets… almighty Shah save us.” In most cases, someone like this would have faced intense repercussions from the Shah, according to LoBello.
However, as a sign of his disintegrating power, the Shah’s reaction was not to confront it, but rather was to get back back into his helicopter and return to Tehran.
Through all this, LoBello claimed ‘I never felt particularly nervous or particularly in danger’ as the unrest grew. ‘We were as protected by our neighbours and colleagues as much as two adult human beings could be in a situation like that’.
Eventually things took a turn for the worse for the Shah, and he “went on holiday” towards the end of January 1979. What was left was for Khomeini to return, and when he did is when LoBello claimed it appeared to be turning into a “reign of terror” with young, inexperienced revolutionaries holding the guns.
Eventually, LoBello sent his family out of the country, and followed shortly behind, leaving the country in March 1979.
His eventual evacuation from the country defined how the American hysteria surrounding the events almost put himself and others in danger, as he tried to get in contact with the embassy staff to leave the country.
Having arrived at the embassy entrance, he was offered tea and biscuits by the young revolutionaries occupying it, and contacted embassy staff who came to find him to bring him to a safe location and get him out of Iran.
“That was the first time I felt genuine fear, because they had a room full of people that were petrified… largely so far as I could tell without reason, and I was really afraid that one of them would say or do something to one of these kids, and then it would become an unpredictable situation.”
LoBello left the country safely, and moved back to America, where he received a diploma in Computer Science from NYU and eventually retired to Charlottesville in 2007.