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An Iranian Love Story

President Obama condemns Iran's iron fist; there are constant clashes in Tehran and other large cities. Many have been killed, and many others wounded. But the resistance continues.
This is the view of Iran from the outside. I've covered similar stories of bravery, bloodshed and grief in my time as a journalist. But this isn't just a story to me this time. I have a personal interest in Iran, which kindled into something deeper two years ago, when I visited my Iranian birth father in a country that could have been my homeland. I know that he and his wife are safe -- for today. Here's a very personal take on the Iranian revolution -- second time around -- a love story.

I was adopted in the late 1960's, the product of a summer romance between an English school-girl and a dashing Iranian military officer. And it should have ended, just there -- with a few tears, and thoughts of me when my birthday rolled round -- after I was relinquished to my new family in Leeds.

My parents felt, rightly, that I should share all the information that they had about my adoption. My mother would sit me on her knee, hold me tight and recite her mantra: "You had three mothers -- the mother who gave birth to you, the mother who looked after you (my foster mother) and" ...with a dramatic pause and a cuddle..."your real mother!". And so I was enfolded into my new family, with three older brothers and a host of eccentric relations, on my mother's side, from France, Spain and Yugoslavia, along with my Yorkshire father's long family history of huntsmen and farmers.

But I always yearned to meet my Persian father, who had sailed away to sea, reluctantly, after being forced to give me up. He had offered to take me back to Iran, despite the fact that he would, almost certainly, have faced a six month jail sentence for fathering an illegitimate child. I grew up buried in the insular, if beautiful, Norfolk countryside and my longing grew ever deeper. I vowed, one day, that I would journey over the water and find him, however long it took.

It took nearly forty years. In early 2006, with the help of an Iranian film-maker and friend, we started to search for him. One day, in 2006, I received an email entitled "hello from Amir Parsei." It read, in delightful, Austenesque prose, "What a surprise? Ever since I got the news I have been endeavouring to muster sufficient courage to write a few words in response to the interest of a young and brave lady whom I know not but guess to possess a remarkable character which I have been deprived of its knowledge by the virtue of a circumstantial decision which was made decades back in my youth." Just over a year later, I visited Iran for the first time.

I spent my first days there in a cold panic, feeling that I could not decode the language and culture of a country that could have been my own. I was stopped on the street and asked for directions, and stuttered because my Farsi was so bad. I could see the puzzlement on people's faces -- I looked Iranian, so I should be Iranian, but I was and I wasn't at the same time. But, the panic subsided. I was well looked after by my birth family and taken to the mountains, shopping and to restaurants for family meals. By the time I had a farewell lunch with my birth father, and he insisted that I would stay with him the next time, I felt at home, both with him and in Iran.

Amir had wanted to marry my birth mother. When she said no, he suggested instead that he take me back to Iran -- he wanted to do the right thing and that was important to me. And that knowledge, and our growing relationship, has meant much to me since we got to know each other. It had been a summer romance for my birth mother and father. Now it has flowered into love between a birth father and his daughter.

But mine was not the only Iranian love story.

A number of other, half-Iranian, half-English women started to contact me, through adoption contacts, personal friends and other sources. One was Caroline M, who, like me, was the child of an Iranian military officer who wanted to marry her mother. Her mother, an Englishwoman like mine, decided that despite their strong bond, she didn't feel she could sail halfway across the world to be with him. Instead she stood on the dock at Plymouth, broken-hearted, and waved him off. Like me, Caroline grew up looking Iranian in a white town, and feeling as if part of her was missing. Caroline, too, searched for her birth father, with the help of the Iranian Embassy, and is now in contact with him. But she feels trepidation about travelling to Iran and so they still haven't met.

And then, one day, when we were chatting, Caroline said that her mother was aware of many more women who had fallen in love with Iranian sailors. I eventually turned up a press cutting from the Western Morning News, May 1977, entitled "The broken hearts sailors left on the jetty." It described a touching scene, with a 100 or so Plymouth girls, waving their Iranian sweethearts off as they set sail for the Middle East from Portsmouth. Around 20 of them were thought to be pregnant or already had babies by their men. The two ships, called the 'Saam' and 'Zaal', arrived in June 1975 to be refitted by the Royal Navy in Plymouth and left in May 1977. "Lovesick Iranians wept openly as they kissed their sweethearts goodbye," said the article, explaining that Iranian navy regulations forbad the sailors from marrying their ladies. One sad 18-year old wailed: "These lads were wonderful. They treated us like ladies, their manners were perfect." The ladies were planning to lobby the then Foreign Secretary, David Owen, who was also the local MP, to see if he could put pressure on Iran to relax its marriage guidelines. Lord Owen, for his part, remembers dimly that he may have raised it with Iranian ministers. My birth father was not surprised when I told him this story. He wrote back: "What you said about the crew and their sweethearts has always been the case with Iranian ships and their crew."

Then, two years later, came the Islamic Revolution. The sexual revolution, at least for Iranians, came to an abrupt end. My birth father, like many other military officers, was summoned back to Iran and was soon imprisoned and sentenced to death. They had no evidence against him (the charge being that he was a member of the left-leaning mujahadeen) and so he was eventually released, but not before being beaten regularly and witnessing the execution of many others.

Other women too, continue to come forward and ask me for help -- many of them also the daughters of military Iranian families. One contacted me through Facebook just a week ago. "I thought I was the only one," she wrote, touchingly. Another, Sarah M, was also kept by her birth mother, but her father, too, went back to Iran and vanished. He, too, was in the Iranian military and sent to a college in Shoreham to study aeronautical engineering. She, like me, has been searching for her birth father for most of her adult life. Like Caroline and me, she has endured taunts and has had family problems because of her racial background. I asked her why she wants to find her father. "Because I want to know what he looks like," she says simply. That struck a chord. I can still remember the first time I saw an emailed photo of my birth father, just a grotty passport photo of a middle-aged man. To me, though, it was and remains a treasured possession. I printed out and for many months I slept with it underneath my pillow.

We all share a common bond -- ours is a love story that binds two nations together. We lost our first fathers because of the Iranian Revolution. Many of us were lucky, and have other, wonderful fathers here. But I also count myself lucky to have found my first father and to have him, his wife, my half sister and her family in my life. I needed to find my roots over the water, in Iran, however well planted I was here. Now the roots are being shaken by powerful events. One day I'd like to dance with my father again.

Katharine Quarmby's film, An Iranian love Story, was shown on BBC South in November last year. Some names have been changed to protect people living in Iran and their families.

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