In 1978, Ali was nearing the end of his master's program at SIT when he received a call from home. "My older brother called me one day and said 'If you want to see Mom, you have to rush back home.'" Ali took the next flight home to be with his family. "My mom passed away after a week. And then that was the time the Iranian Revolution started. A few months later, the Shah was toppled, and there was no embassy, so I was stuck there." Unable to return to SIT, Ali submitted his thesis from Iran and began teaching English literature at his alma mater Ferdowsi University. Two years later, the Iranian Cultural Revolution changed everything.
"When the Shah was toppled, we were happy. We were hopeful that something good would have come of it, but we soon realized we were slipping into a dictatorship. I was more offended than anything else, because they seemed to have used my intelligence, my feelings, and my emotions. I was betrayed just like many other people who were involved in this revolution, and I had to speak out." His involvement in campus demonstrations for freedom and democracy put him in harm's way more than once, and one day, while paying a visit to a friend, Ali was detained by security forces. He and his friend were tortured and later thrown in jail.
"The president of the university and many other professors and I were all imprisoned." Ali lived in a small cell with two other professors, and several of his fellow inmates were killed during the four years he remained in prison. "No one in the Western world knew what was going on," says Ali. "The communication devices in those days did not exist." Ali was able to pen a letter to his professor at SIT, Claude Pepin, to tell him that he was imprisoned, but there was little else Ali could risk. "The letter was smuggled out and got to its destination, so my professors knew that I had been in jail, but the person who smuggled it, later on, was executed."
When Ali was finally released from prison in 1985, he was not permitted to teach at universities, and security forces would periodically check on him. He found jobs teaching English at private schools, but the work left him unfulfilled. "I was counting the days to get my visa so that I could leave the country, and I could not sneak my way out because I had a family and kids. It was in August of 1996 when I finally got my passport, and this was after going from office to office and being interrogated again about everything that I had done." Eleven years after his release from prison, Ali was finally able to leave Iran.
With his passport in hand, Ali made a call to SIT to speak with Pepin. "He was the only one who knew of my whereabouts. He was so excited that he put the phone on speaker so everyone could hear my voice. So I got accepted with a scholarship to go back to school."
At the time, leaving Iran, even with a passport, was treacherous, and Ali encountered more hardship as he and his family attempted to cross the border into Turkey by bus. The driver collected all passports and handed them to guards each time the bus passed through one of the several checkpoints leading to the border. At the first checkpoint, Ali was interrogated for 30 minutes before being allowed to continue, and at the final checkpoint, his wife's passport was confiscated, and she was taken back through the checkpoints that they had already passed. Ali was able to find her in a detainment center, and she insisted that he go on alone to Turkey while she sorted out her passport situation in Tehran. "That was the worst night of my life. I have seen a lot of bitter moments in my life. My younger brother was taken out of prison and executed, and that was very painful, but not as painful as taking my wife and kids from me."
Ali arrived in Vermont by himself, but a month later, his wife was able to secure a passport, and the family was once again reunited in the United States. Ali and his family were welcomed by Pepin and other colleagues at SIT, including Lise Sparrow and Karen Stromgren Blanchard. Ali and his wife refer to them as "our angels" for all that they did to help the family start anew.