By Fred Parveneh
On April 15th, Reza Abedi – one of four wrestlers who defected from Iran to the West in 1982 – will be inducted into the California chapter of the U.S. National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Born into a family of wrestlers in Kermanshah, Iran, Abedi won the Kermanshah State wrestling title four times and the National Iranian title twice. At the 1982 Military World Championships in Venezuela, he defeated his American rival to win the Gold Medal. But on the evening after the award ceremony, he and three other Iranian wrestlers dramatically defected. They were the first Iranian athletes to do so.
Abedi’s life story is now the subject of a book called “American Wings: Iranian Roots,” by Kristin Orloff. Kayhan Life recently caught up with Abedi and Orloff, his biographer and friend.
Reza, defection is a serious decision, especially for someone who is a national hero. What was the one factor that pushed you over the edge?
I get asked this a lot, and it is really hard to explain to someone who has grown up in America, or somewhere where all they know is freedom. I felt that if I stayed in Iran, I couldn’t be myself. I would be forced to live like someone else. I would always feel like I could only breathe air from a small paper bag, and I wanted to be able to fill my lungs.
What was the reaction in Iran, and how was your family affected?
There were four of us who defected. Some Iranians viewed us as heroes, and others saw us as traitors. My childhood best friend defected with me, and it was extremely hard for him. His father was a personal bodyguard of Ayatollah Khomeini, and denied that he even existed after he defected. That was really hard on him.
It was terrible for my family. I purposely did not tell them that I planned to escape before I left, because I knew they would be interrogated. They were at the airport waiting to welcome home the Iranian wrestling team and, after the airplane doors closed and they didn’t see me, they knew. My younger brother was already imprisoned and their immediate concern was for his life.
My father lost his job and had no opportunity to earn a living. Some people in the town shunned my mother and sisters. They were interrogated almost daily. It was very hard on them.
In retrospect, would you have done anything differently?
My life, and the lives of my family members, have fortunately turned out for the better. I am forever grateful for that. In that moment, knowing that if you’re caught defecting you will be jailed, tortured and probably killed, you have to be completely dedicated to wanting a better life. You can’t have a shred of doubt . . . you have to be willing to pay the ultimate price, or you will never go through with it.
What was your family like in Iran?
I was born in Kermanshah. This is also where I grew up and attended high school. We were a family of 10; I was the fifth child. We were a hard-working, typically middle-class Iranian family. My dad was the athletic director for Kermanshah and coached the wrestlers. All my brothers and sisters were involved in sports – either wrestling, gymnastics or soccer. We were, and still are, a very close family. We weren’t a strict religious family, but my mom followed Iranian tradition.
Kristin, what is the nonfiction narrative ”American Wings: Iranian Roots” about?
It’s a dual journey of discovery. Although the book follows Reza and his family by chronicling his life before, during and after the Revolution, as well as his escape and return to rescue his family, it is also about my journey as an American.
The book is written with two chapters about Reza and then a one- to two-page chapter written in the first person by me, in which I describe how my perceptions of Iran are being changed as I write the book. In this way, it’s very unique to other books written about Iranians and their experience during the Revolution. Additionally, because it is written by an American, I take great care to find opportunities for readers to discover Iran as I did. With as much detail as possible, I attempt not only to share the rich culture and clarify misunderstood historical events, but also to explore the impact of religion and the socio-political climate.
This is why I believe the book is particularly well received by second-generation Iranians. So many have thanked me for sharing Reza’s story, saying that their parents survived the Revolution too, “but never told me this much about it. I was always so curious.”
One of my goals was to present the Abedi family as any family you might meet in America or elsewhere. I established relationships between the siblings and parents and illustrated how they would interact at dinner or during other regular family routines. In so many ways, the Abedis are like millions of families – and as the reader gets to know them, they are then thrust into surviving the Revolution with them.
Reza’s exceptional skill as a wrestler affords him the opportunity to make the international wrestling team and escape when they go to Venezuela to compete. His steadfast love and loyalty to his family is what makes him return.
What is the book about? I guess you could say that it’s about a good, loving, hard-working family who survived world-altering events and became the muse for an author.
How did you meet Reza and what prompted you to write about him?
Reza and I taught at the same high school. I had first heard “of him.” Rumors circulated that Reza was the Shah’s assassin, and no one knew his real age. So when my son and his son were drafted on the same Little League team, Reza and I sat next to each other in the stands. As is written on page one in chapter one, the book began when Reza said to me, “The first time I hit the baseball, I ran to third base.”
As he shared more and more of his story with me, I thought this should be a movie. I didn’t know how to write a screenplay, so I offered to write a book. I remember vividly sitting in his living room, furiously writing notes as I listened to him describing his early years in Iran, his experiences during the Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, and how he escaped. I was overwhelmed. Then he said, “Do you want to hear about how I went back to rescue my dad and my sisters?
I said “No. That’s too much. That will have to be another book or something.”
However, as I worked on his story and later came to learn of his attempt to rescue his family, I recognized how closely Reza’s journey reflected that of the literary “hero’s journey.” Of course I am not trying to aliken Reza to Odysseus but there are similarities in the risks they faced, decisions they made and sacrifices they took. With this recognition, I doubled down and included their escape. With Reza carrying his father through the ice-covered smugglers’ path, it brought the story to a thematic full circle.
Reza, you have had a successful career in the USA as a wrestler and a coach, and you will be inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame in the spring. What is the criteria for being named, and what are you most proud of?
You are nominated to be considered for the National Wrestling Hall of Fame due to both your accomplishments as a wrestler and a coach. You are also evaluated on your individual contribution to the sport of wrestling. The ceremony will take place in Southern California.
When I came to America, I worked hard to earn wrestling scholarships. I attended a couple of community colleges in California before transfering to California State University, Fullerton, where I earned my Bachelor’s Degree, Teaching Credential and Master’s Degree.
Since English is my third language, I am very proud of my perseverance in earning my college degrees. I remind my students, especially those who are also here from other countries, that I came to America with $300 in my pocket and a handful of English words. If I can do it, so can you. I am especially proud of the wrestlers I have coached that have placed in Masters, CIF and State.
As a college wrestler, I won state, placed NCAA, and qualified for the Western Regional Olympic Team. When I qualified, my citizenship paperwork was not yet complete, and I could not compete in the Olympics. I know that if I stayed in Iran, I would have competed in the Olympics.
But above all, I am most proud of my two sons. My oldest is currently in law school and my youngest will be graduating from high school with academic honors and earning the “character” award for his senior class.
What is your message to the readers of Kayhan Life?
It sounds so cliche, but my message is really to never give up on your dreams. As a boy in Kermanshah, I used to sleep on the roof with my brothers during the hot Iranian summers. The dark sky was so clear and the white stars so bright – it made it seem to me that anything is possible. But never in my wildest dreams could I ever imagine that my name would be enshrined alongside U.S. presidents and Olympic Athletes. I hope my life story serves as an inspiration for others.