The girls they left behind

I am the British love child of an Iranian sailor. I thought I would never meet my father: but, after almost 40 years, I did
February 28, 2009
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In the summer of 1967 my father held me in my arms for the first and, he thought, last time. He had travelled to Leeds from Portsmouth to see me and to ask my birth mother if she would reconsider her decision to have me adopted. Instead, he offered to take me with him when he set sail for Iran later that year.

My birth mother refused and so my birth father signed the adoption papers, relinquished me and returned to Iran. He thought he would never see me again. He spent the next ten years or so sailing the seas as a high-flying Persian naval officer.

My parents, who were perhaps a little ahead of their times, gladly shared with me all the information that they had been given by the adoption agency. I grew up in rural Norfolk wondering whether my Persian birth father would ever arrive on a flying carpet and take me far, far away from the gentle English countryside. But he never came.

For many years I thought that I must be the only half-Iranian person in the country. It seemed such an improbable story. A dashing young Persian arrives in England to be trained as a naval radar specialist in Portsmouth. He meets my English mother at a dance at the Golden Apple bar, much frequented by naval officers, and sweeps her off her feet. He collects her from her council house, resplendent in white dress uniform complete with sword, and takes her out in a red sports car. They get intimate; she gets pregnant. She breaks it off with him; she wants to go to university. And so I'm bundled out of the way, into another family. And there the story should end.

Except it didn't. I had to find him. I carried on searching, even when the social workers said it was no good. I had to go to Iran; I had to understand where I came from. And, nearly 40 years after he had left me, I found him at last, with the help of a friend, an Iranian filmmaker, and some naval contacts.

After I wrote about my experiences in a newspaper, women started to contact me. The first was Claire Misslar, who grew up on the south coast. Her birth father, like mine, was an Iranian sailor, but her birth mother kept her. Her mother remembers standing on the dock at Plymouth, waving goodbye to him. To this day she can't hear Rod Stewart singing "I Am Sailing" without crying. It took Claire years to trace her father—they are now in regular contact—but she fears travelling to Iran to meet him in person.

Claire and I were not the only ones. Her mother had told her there were other women and babies left behind. I started to dig in local libraries along the south coast and came across a cutting from the Western Morning News from May 1977. The headline was "The broken hearts sailors left on the jetty" and the article revealed that 100 girls had travelled from Plymouth to Portsmouth to watch two Iranian warships sail away with their sweethearts on them. Iranian Navy regulations prevented the couples from getting married and the paper reported that around 20 were either already mothers or were pregnant. But the sailors were not cast as cads and bounders. "Lovesick Iranians wept openly as they kissed their sweethearts goodbye," read the article. The father of one Devon girl said of her beau: "He was very respectable—unlike a lot of the English sailors."

Two years later, the revolution in Iran separated this gentle, cultured, civilised country from the west. These love-children were prevented not only by more than 1,000 miles of sea—but also by history, religion and fanaticism from tracing their roots.

I was lucky. In 2007 I travelled to Iran and met my birth father, his lovely wife and my half sister, her husband and my nephew. My father's life was transformed by the revolution. He was summoned back to Iran, put on trial on suspicion of being a member of the leftist mujahedin, imprisoned and sentenced to death. His brother was tortured and executed. After four years, he was released and he rebuilt his life. He is one of the most resilient, warmest people I know.

I now have roots of a kind, in Iran and Dubai. So many women in my situation don't. And new people in the same situation continue to write to me.

The revolution was clearly a rupture with the heady days of the 1960s, when young elite Iranians could come here and explore the sexual revolution. It not only cut Iranians off from the west—it cut us, the children of Iranians, off from our past. The revolution was a tragedy in so many ways. One small part is to hear my half-Iranian "sisters" talk about their longing to meet their birth fathers—just once.

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