YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Coming to America : They've Made Lives Here. Now, Watching the Tumult in China, Immigrants Recall Their Own Hazardous Passages

July 02, 1989|ITABARI NJERI | Times Staff Writer

He is an energetic man of 66, with silky white hair, mischievous eyes and a voice that erupts in a laugh so intense one is sure its force is meant to subdue some rising pain. He is replaying the years since he fled Iran in 1980--escaping a firing squad for the third time.

"What I am really missing is my 12,000 volumes of books, which I left in Tehran," says Dr. Hassan Shahbaz, one of Iran's leading Persian literary scholars and broadcast personalities before the fall of the Shah and the Islamic revolution that brought the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power.

"They were selected books, a large number of them offered to me by the authors," says Shahbaz, who teaches Persian literature at UCLA, and, out of his Westwood condominium, edits and publishes Rahavad, a quarterly journal of Persian literature and Iranian culture.

The most important works in the library of his Tehran mansion were not books at all. They were "original, written manuscripts . . . from the time of Homer to the present."

'They Are All Gone'

His voice fails for a moment. "For years, I've been throughout the world collecting those books. I was writing a dictionary of (Persian) literature that was supposed to be in 20 volumes. I was working on the seventh volume when the revolution began. And, of course, those books were my sources. But they are all gone."

What were the "crimes" he was charged with in Iran?

"My cook," he answers, "had joined the revolutionary guard. My house was in a neighborhood of mansions whose owners had fled. But I stayed. The cook thought it was time to occupy my mansion. He formed a file accusing me of many treasons to the Islamic government against Khomeini, against Islam, against the revolutionary mind and attitude," he explains with a weary smile.

"But I was innocent," he says.

Each time he was brought before a revolutionary committee for trial, he was freed. "Finally, a friend, a professor of theology who was a member of the revolutionary court, told me: 'You better leave the country because finally something might happen to you. They will shoot you.' "

And so Shahbaz became one of the world's dislocated, the millions who now watch the political turmoil in China with particularly pained and knowing eyes.

Fleeing Persecution

Whether they are refugees pushed to the United States from their homelands by fear of political persecution, or immigrants pulled to America in the belief that they are free here to pursue happiness as they choose to define it, they understand the social forces that can compel someone to abandon a homeland; they understand the anguish of separation.

Shahbaz arrived in New York "in early April, 1980, without a penny. I made a collect telephone call," he laughs, "to my daughter." She had been studying in the United States and is now the news editor of the Persian service for the Voice of America, Shahbaz says. He also has a son, who holds a Ph.D. in neurochemistry and teaches at a university in Cleveland.

The Persian scholar points to the books surrounding him in his home office. Among them are dozens of his translations of Western literary classics--including his Iranian best seller, "Gone With the Wind," in Farsi.

"All my life I have studied. . . . And what I have gained through reading those 12,000 books is that I am able to start from zero under any circumstances," he says with vinegar in his voice. "Under any circumstances, at any age, I can build a new life because I feel in myself strong and young and vigorous."

Then, as gracious as he is passionate, he begs forgiveness for the clutter of file boxes and books around his house and offers a guest tea and chocolate.

Unlike the pro-democracy demonstrators in China massacred in Tian An Men Square or rounded up afterward in a crackdown by the Communist government, then shot--notices outside the People's High Court in Beijing showed big red checks beside the names of those executed--Charles Penman had no death threat hanging over his head when he left his country.

Nor, like many Chinese fleeing their government's crackdown on dissidents, did Penman have to wait for days in a queue for a visa ultimately denied. He did not have to escape through an underground railroad, as some Chinese are reportedly doing now.

He bought a ticket, got on a plane and flew from his native Costa Rica into Los Angeles in November, 1966.

"Why did I come to America? I have to quote the Marquis de Lafayette: 'The moment I heard of America, I loved her.' "

His sentiments are those of the typical immigrant. His background is not so typical.

"My biological father was Teodoro Picado," the president of Costa Rica from 1944-48. Picado died in 1960, but not without acknowledging--from the day of his birth--that Penman was, he says, Picado's illegitimate son. But it was his mother and brother-in-law, Jose Luis Ortiz, a prominent broadcaster in Costa Rica, who raised him.

Los Angeles Times Articles