“All my words come back to me
In shades of mediocrity.”
Paul Simon. Homeward bound. Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme.
“My goal is to not be bored by what I do.”
The Autobiography of Ben & Bob
Chapter 12: The First Half Century
Recently, a colleague used these words to introduce me: “Ben was born in Iran but left prior to the 1979 revolution, moving to the US with his brother on their own when they were still kids.” I thanked him, half in jest, for the intro and the "almost accurate" biographical sketch. The truth is much more complicated than that… and already seems a million years away - in every possible sense.
My parents and uncles claim that I started reading at age two and was soon reading words out of my uncle's university books - not understanding the meaning, of course. I am sure there is some exaggeration in that statement but the truth of the matter is that I started pretty early on my education, skipping first grade and entering second grade at age five. The emotional and psychological scars that this left on my one-year-older brother are a subject for a whole different book. Thankfully, I don’t remember any of this as I seem to not have any memories before the age of ten.
I was a bookworm from the start, spending my happiest hours under a blanket with a flashlight and a book, reading late into the night. I used to eat nothing but the cheapest food at school so I could save my money for books. I was always most content when I was alone with my own thoughts and those of others.
I was lucky enough to go to a top notch private elementary school and later attended Alborz high school, by many accounts the preeminent high school in all of Asia at the time and hands down the best in Iran - this being the early seventies, in a country flush with petro-dollars and a Nouveau Riche upper middle class as well as many university educated professionals. My high school teachers were almost all university professors. What a privilege to have spent four years in that environment - years that were interrupted by the Islamic Revolution.
I started teaching myself English at age ten (no one in my family spoke a word of the language) and augmented it with classes at the American and British language institutes then available in the country. I spent the summer of 1978 in the UK improving my English language skills. When I returned to Tehran in the late summer of ‘78, the revolution was already in full swing - with protests, million man marches, tanks on the streets, tires burning, banks looted, schools closed, political prisoners paraded on TV, tear gas and gunfire at every corner… you name it.
The peaceful country we had left a few months ago - the "island of stability in the Middle East" as proclaimed by President Carter just a few months earlier during a state visit - was smack dab in the middle of a revolution. Not an Islamic one, mind you. What started as protests against the political repression of the regime included everyone from communists and nationalists to illiterate villagers. And yes, religious folks too. But almost no one expected the country to turn so religious.
It's hard to believe the regime was toppled in such a short span of time. It's also hard to believe we packed so much violence in so little time. Of course, the embers were hot for many years but, as a teenager, I was unaware of them. As a thirteen year old coming back from the UK, I gobbled it all up - everything from communist books to nationalistic histories to religious speeches to political propaganda. It's amazing how much a thirteen year old brain can absorb in just a few months.
By February 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini was back in Iran as the supreme leader. By coincidence, I left the country the very next day. So I was there to see his arrival first hand as millions came out to greet him as the savior. I clearly remember climbing a tree near the main University entrance as his car slowly parted the massive crowd. I didn't see him in person, nor did I see the repressive Islamic regime in action. I didn't live through the devastating and meaningless eight year Iran-Iraq war. I didn't get bombed by Saddam and I didn't have to go to the front. I was privileged and I didn't even know it.
My parents had somehow finagled an I-20 to a high school in Boston. I still had three years of high school to finish. So it was that at age fourteen I showed up in Boston with a suitcase in hand and roughly $5000 in my pocket. That would have to pay for tuition and rent and food until my parents could send me some more. Meanwhile, the Iranian currency had collapsed and a few thousand dollars was suddenly a hundred times more expensive to acquire on the open market.
I suppose the whole idea of shipping a fourteen year old boy across continents to live on his own is too bizarre to contemplate. I mean, how would he rent an apartment? Pay for a hotel room? Open a bank account? To be sure, the same story happens even today. Every time there is a revolution or a civil war in a country somewhere around the world, armies of adolescents are sent forth to study in the US or UK or Canada or other European countries. Most of them arrive to a dormitory or the home of a relative, either way with someone to greet them and take care of the logistics. This is the part of the story that no one seems to have explained to my parents.
So there I was on a Sunday in February, 1979, "fresh off the boat" if you will. After taking a cab to my pre-booked hotel near the school, I went out for a walk. Like any self-respecting teenager, I walked boldly into a grocery store and picked up a bottle of cheap brandy and a box of cheap cigars. No one even raised an eyebrow or asked for an ID. Back in my hotel room (and with the window cracked open), I smoked the entire six pack of cheap cigars and drank the entire bottle of cheap brandy over the next few hours. To be clear, this was not my first time drinking. While in the UK the previous year, I had spent many a night at pubs and discos. No one in the UK seemed to want to see my ID, either. I can't imagine getting away with the same thing today.
Monday morning, bright and early, well maybe not so bright given the massive hangover, I showed up at the private prep school where I was supposed to finish the last three years of my high school education. Later I would learn that the school specialized in bringing kids from traumatized countries to the US. At the time, this meant that 303 out of the 306 registered students were escapees from the Iranian revolution. I would return fifteen years later to find the building jammed with teenagers from sub-Saharan Africa.
The school did offer dormitory living at a nearby community college as an option but I had little cash and needed to preserve as much of it as possible. So, instead, I opted to stay in a series of dilapidated apartments with anywhere from one to half a dozen roommates.
The assistant principal at the school pointed me across the street to a bank where I could open an account. I presented my passport for identification as well as the cashier’s check I was carrying and was promptly given a checkbook. I could now pay tuition and rent, buy groceries, etc. Again, no one batted an eye at a fourteen year old walking in and opening a bank account on his own.
Eleven months later, in January 1980, I entered University of Massachusetts as a freshman. Somehow, I had managed to finish the entire curriculum for grades 10 through 12 of an American high school in less than a year, passed the SAT, and gotten myself accepted to college.
Two years later, at age seventeen, I graduated with two Bachelor’s degrees - one in Psychology and another in Computer Science. Friends and family all made fun of the speed with which I was plowing through courses but I didn't feel like I was doing anything special at the time. I was doing what everyone else was doing. I was just doing it a little bit faster than them. That's all. No big deal.
That covers only the first third of the promised "half century". I won't bore you with the thirty four year saga of my career. Suffice it to say that I have been privileged to work with some giants of the industry. Not only Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Steve Ballmer but also Jim Gray and Avi Tevanian and Dave Cutler and Jim Allchin and Paul Maritz and so many other geniuses. All I can say is that I learned something from each and every one of them. I have been privileged and am thankful for a successful career.
My younger brother? Oh, yeah! That was just a misunderstanding. He did leave the country but that was seven years later, also as a fourteen year old, trying to avoid getting conscripted into the army during the Iran-Iraq war. Hey, if you can pick up a gun and go to war at fourteen, why not live in a foreign country on your own at fourteen? He had to spend several years in Turkey waiting for a visa and working odd jobs. By the time he arrived in the US, I was married with a child, barely out of grad school, and working three jobs trying to pay the bills. But that’s a whole other story.