Somewhere on the border between Oman and Yemen lies the body of Rafat Afraz. Rafat had been a school administrator at the Refah school for girls in Tehran, a site of Islamic revolutionary activism in the early 70s and the temporary headquarters of the Khomeini-led revolutionary forces in 1979. Rafat and her younger sister Mahbubeh joined the Sazman-i Mujahedin-i Khalq (the People’s Mujahedin Organization or Mujahedin) in 1970, a guerilla organization that at its moment of founding was, simply put, a “combination of Islam and Marxism.” By mid-1975, the organization had a violent split between its Marxist and Islamist selves with the former disavowing the latter. Around this time, the sisters left Iran. Traveling via London, Damascus, and Aden, they made their way to the Martyr Fatima Ghanana Hospital in Ghaitha and the border village of Hawf in the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen to help the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman. Rafat served as a nurse and Mahbubeh, who had been the youngest woman to graduate from medical school in Iran at the age of twenty-three, as a doctor.
Not long after her arrival, Rafat died of an infectious disease, possibly malaria, at the age of forty. Mahbubeh continued helping the revolutionaries until late December 1975 when she settled for a brief period in Aden. The Mujahedin had an office there and had been given a ten-minute daily slot on the “Voice of the Revolution” broadcast on Aden Radio, for which Mahbubeh wrote and announced the news in Persian. She eventually traveled to France to join her husband, Mohammad Yazdanian, a fellow member of the organization. She has left behind a fascinating account of her time in both Ghaitha and Hawf, including details of the Cuban doctors who worked in the hospital, the comings and goings of the patients and the revolutionaries, details of everyday life for the staff, patients, and villagers, the hygienic conditions of the area, and her assessment of “the Oman revolution’s weaknesses.”
Rafat’s oppositional work lasted a mere five years, a blink of an eye in the history of both the Iranian and the Dhufar revolutions. Even though Mahbubeh was active for a longer period of time, her life’s work is barely remembered, let alone mentioned, by scholars of the revolutions she took part in. Their disappearance from historical writing is undoubtedly connected to how small their lives seem, hidden by the grand brushstrokes of histories of kings and armies, organizations woven indelibly into tales of successful and less successful revolutions, and political figures—men—whom history and historiography have labeled actors and generators of ideas. The fact is, neither sister “changed history” in any visible way.
Should we recount their stories? What, if anything, do their stories offer beyond the pleasures of narrating the romance of globe-trotting revolutionary figures from a bygone era? Does the retrieval of their “small” histories matter to understandings of revolutions nationally, regionally, and globally? In what follows, I argue that at a moment in which the global (in its myriad definitions and uses) dominates historical thinking, it is crucial to conceptualize “small” as the mechanism through which vastness—of ideas, movements, emotions, and events—is both made possible and experienced.
The historical connection between Iran and Oman is often told from a monarchical perspective: Sultan Qabus’ three month world tour in 1963 included Iran but no Arab countries and he was invited to the Shah’s extravagant celebration of 2500 years of monarchy in 1971 where “the Shah ‘expressed a desire for close and cordial relations with Oman and had offered military assistance if the Sultan should need it’.” Sultan Qabus did, and he got it. The amusingly named Operation Caviar, launched in 1972, was the beginning of Iran’s military support to the sultan against the Dhufaris. The revolution was eventually defeated in 1975/1976 but it was estimated that “well over 3000 Iranian military men” remained in Oman and the Iranians conducted “unannounced simulated combat missions twice a week near Oman's border with Southern Yemen.” It was not until the victory of the Iranian revolution in 1979 that the troops were withdrawn and brought back home.
But the two countries were also bound by revolutionary solidarity. In Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976, Abdel Razzaq Takriti provides one of the most comprehensive works of “historical retrieval, revision, and contextualization” of the misnamed and misplaced revolution of Dhufar. He persuasively argues that for many in the Global South, Dhufar’s revolution served as “a small but essential constituent part” of “the struggle between imperial and popular sovereignties and the larger battle between monarchical regimes and republican movements in the Arab world and beyond.” Takriti’s retrieval of the history of Dhufar and his restoration of the term revolution to this ten-year struggle allows us to understand why the Afraz sisters, at a time of when young activists on the run would have had a great number of places to go to, went to this small country across the gulf. The Dhufari revolution coincided with the rise of a new kind of anti-Shah opposition in Iran: the guerilla movement in the form of Sazman-i Chirikha-yi Fadai-yi Khalq (Guerrilla Organization of the Devotees of the People) and the Mujahedin to which the Afraz sisters belonged. The shah’s support of Sultan Qabus only reaffirmed to the Iranian opposition that their fight against imperialism and the Shah were one and the same.
Even though the revolution in Dhufar may not have produced singular ideas that had global reverberations beyond 1975, it was one of several global nodes (à la Vietnam or Algeria) that embodied the essence of revolution as an anti-colonial struggle and generated enough passions to attract a wide variety of people from Cuba, the Arab World, and Iran into its geographical boundaries. The number of revolutionaries flocking to each and every node may not have been numerous but connecting these nodes to one another gives a picture of a grand transnational movement of emotions, ideas, and people, one that hints at a yet-to-be defined age of revolutions for the twentieth century. In defining the small as a node, we also are brought face to face with contingency and unknowability, two crucial qualities of revolutionary experience that refuse to go away no matter how revolutions are defined, categorized, or analyzed.
What does this all mean for the story of the Afraz sisters?
The question, already difficult to answer on the face of it, becomes even more difficult to answer when reading the accounts left behind by the two sisters and published posthumously. Despite the romance that cocoons the lives of revolutionary dreamers in our historical imagination, neither sister comes across as a heroic do-gooder. In fact, by contemporary standards, neither sister is easy to like. In “The Hidden War of Dhofar” published in Le Monde on 14 November 1975, the newspaper revealed that the Dhufari guerilla fighters had shot down an Iranian helicopter in September and taken its pilot prisoner. The article registers a note of surprise that he was still alive, quoting the pilot, Parviz Ashrafian: “I had been told that all prisoners were executed. [But] I’ve been treated very well. They [his Dhufari captors] are very kind.” Mahbubeh’s time in the camp in Hawf overlapped with that of Parviz Ashrafian. She believed he should be pressured to give them intelligence and writes disapprovingly of the comrades’ “dogmatic belief in treating the [Iranian POW] pilot humanely,” namely by not torturing him for information, sacrificing a sheep to feed him, and turning on a battery-operated light for him at night, despite its cost. To her this was just another example of the ways in which “the Oman revolution is lacking ideological political training.” When he was brought to the hospital where she worked for treatment, Mahbubeh left the examination room through another door, refusing to see him.
In their writings, both sisters paint themselves as committed Marxist-Leninists with strict views of what political commitment meant. In her diary, Rafat objects to a South Yemeni elementary school textbook for not being appropriate for a “Marxist revolutionary country and culture” because it depicted a city girl’s birthday party. Mahbubeh writes extensively about the “principle weaknesses of the Dhufar revolution” noting, for example, that their motivations for the struggle are primarily nationalist or even tribal, and that they have a very basic understanding of “revolution and struggle.” The examples she gives are of cheers for “Fidel or any Vietcong” during movie nights at the hospital when they screen Cuban or Vietnamese films. Or the fact that they boast about how no one from their tribe or village had betrayed the cause by accepting the Sultan’s offer of amnesty to the guerillas, thus elevating their local identities over the revolution. It is hard to deny that the sisters’ own urban, and possibly Persian, biases colored their judgments of their tribal, rural, and Arab comrades.
In late 1978, most likely November or December, Mahbubeh Afraz died alone in Paris. The narratives of her death to this day split along the Islamist-Marxist line that cleaved the Mujahedin in 1975. According to her husband and some of her Marxist comrades, she had been struggling with depression for a while and finally committed suicide. Taqi Shahram, the figure in the Mujahedin most closely associated with the 1975 split, allegedly claimed that Mahbubeh committed suicide after her husband’s insistence that she, once again, get an abortion. The radio broadcast she had worked for in Aden announced her death in December 1978 noting that she had overdosed on Valium. But her story did not end there.
Marzieh Hadidchi was a well-known Islamist guerilla fighter in Khomeini’s inner circle before the revolution who would eventually head the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Hamedan and become a member of parliament. In her memoir, she writes that one day in 1978, when she had gone to visit Khomeini in Paris, a man arrived and introduced himself as Mahbubeh’s cousin and told her that Mahbubeh had died and he needed help to get her body. Hadidchi knew the Afraz sisters, particularly Rafat, from their time in the Refah school. Mahbubeh’s family had tried to contact her from Iran for several days to no avail and so finally the French police had entered her apartment only to be “confronted with the smell of decay and Mahbubeh’s body.” She had been killed, Hadidchi speculates, by the Marxist Mujahedin for remaining a practicing Muslim in secret. Months after the revolution, Mujtaba Taleqani, a member of the Mujahedin and the son of one of the most important and beloved clerics of the revolutionary movement, was arrested in Tehran (along with a few others) and charged with having killed Mahbubeh as part of this Marxist-Islamist conflict. As a result of his arrest, his father, Ayatollah Taleqani, threatened to leave Tehran in the midst of post-revolutionary fervor and power struggles until his son was released. The charges were dropped but both sides still cling to their versions of Mahbubeh’s death.
The narratives of Mahbubeh’s death (along with her life and that of Rafat) refuse to be contained within narrow political categories, connecting instead to a broad spectrum of revolutionaries and to Iran’s post-revolutionary history. In doing so, they reveal how conceptualizing the small can train a bright flashlight on the ways in which a world filled with revolutionary passions was deeply interconnected, its events often contingent, and its histories messy. It is easy to see Rafat and Mahbubeh as two sisters who went somewhere mountainous, helped some people, at times criticized them, and then died. But standing as they do between two revolutionary movements within a span of a decade, neither of which Rafat saw succeed, both of which Mahbubeh possibly felt let down by, their lives become impossible to turn away from.
 They have a third sister, Behjat who died in 2019. Behjat was a steadfast supporter of the Islamic Republic of Iran and was celebrated as umm al-usara or mother of POWs for her work on their behalf during the Iran-Iraq war and after. Her story, while fascinating in its own right, lies beyond the purview of this piece.
 Ervand Abrahamian, The Iranian Mojahedin (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1989), 92.
 Abdel Razzaq Takriti, Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976 (New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014), 227.
 Ibid., 5.
 Ibid., 4.
 Mahbubeh Afraz and Rafat Afraz, Hamrah ba Iqilabiyun-i `Umani: Yaddashtha-yi Jang-i Zofar [Alongside Omani Revolutionaries: Notes from the Dhufar War], (Frankfurt, Germany: Andeesheh va Peykar Publications, 2015), 225.
 Ibid., 224.
 Ibid., 257.
 Ibid., 84-85.
 Marziyeh Dabbagh and Mohsen Kazemi, Khaterat-i Marziyeh Hadidchi Dabbagh, (Tehran: Intisharat Sureh Nur, 1381/2002), 163-4.