TITAN OF TEHRAN: From Jewish Ghetto to Corporate Colossus to Firing Squad—My Grandfather’s Life. By Shahrzad Elghanayan. Associated press books. 290 pages. $29.99.
When most of us are interested in our family history, we visit Ancestry.com. Shahrzad Elghanayan is not most of us.
She is the granddaughter of Habib Elghanian, arguably one of the most famous Iranian industrialists of all time, whose rise and fall mirrored those of his homeland. She’s also an award-winning photojournalist, trained to recognize a good story when she sees one.
For readers unfamiliar with Iranian history, that story is amply summarized on the cover of the book: “Titan of Tehran: From Jewish Ghetto to Corporate Colossus to Firing Squad—The Life of My Great -dad “. Elghanayan opens in narrative style, recounting how his father installed a shortwave radio in the family bathroom in New York so he could hear news from Iran in the spring of 1979. On May 8, 1979, he learned of his father’s execution: “While our black short waves hummed in the cold marble bathroom, my grandfather’s bullet-riddled body languished in the prison morgue, with a cardboard sign around the neck. It read: ‘Habib Elghanian: Zionist spy.’ »
After this dramatic opening, Elghanayan – who spells his surname slightly differently from how his grandfather’s name was transliterated – settles in and tells his grandfather’s story more like an objective journalist than a a beloved member of the family.
She peppers her text with footnotes and has obviously done her research. For readers who come to the story cold, it can be hard to follow. So many foreign names and relationships to follow. But those details won’t matter except to historians who now have a new first-hand source to consult.
The most readable parts of the book are in the first person as Elghanayan recalls his childhood in Tehran. (Her father moved the family to New York in 1977 about two years before Ayatollah Khomeini and his Islamic revolutionaries overthrew the Shah.) Here she recalls the large family home her father left behind: In a large cage, we kept dozens of pigeons, and I was worried about the one with brown and white feathers that stood out from the gray ones. Being different, I thought, put him in danger.
But Elghanayan avoids inserting himself too much into the narrative, choosing to focus on the story of his grandfather. And what a story. He was Iran’s version of a Rockefeller or a Carnegie – a self-made millionaire who saw business opportunities everywhere after World War II as Iran rapidly modernized its economy. He and his six brothers are building an empire that, among other things, introduces plastic to Iran.
The boom years last for decades. In 1973-1974, the gross national product of the country increased by 30%, and it is easy to understand why Habib Elghanian loved his country so much.
But it is this love of country that blinds him to the dangers he faced in Iran as a prominent Jewish businessman during the Ayatollah’s rise to power. Elghanayan struggles to understand why his grandfather didn’t leave Iran when he could, before the Revolutionary Guards began hunting down and killing prominent Jews. Was it national pride? Stubbornness?
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Habib told four family members during a visit to New York about six months before his execution. “I built buildings, I built factories…I didn’t do anything wrong to Iran that anyone would want me for anything.”
The hindsight of the story, of course, makes her actions tragic in the extreme, but writing this book obviously brought her granddaughter a sense of peace. “By immersing myself in the record of the injustices of our former homeland, towards us and so many others, I stopped longing for this distant land where I would never have the opportunity to flourish because of my religion or gender. This kind of lust is nothing more than toxic romanticism.
By sharing his grandfather’s remarkable story with the world, Elghanayan manages to avoid such romanticism, telling a very personal story that also contributes to the historical record.