PART I – Since your love became my calling

(Autumn 1978–Summer 1980)

‘Who is this Ayatollah Khomeini?’ I asked Madar, my paternal grandmother. I had heard his name over and over but I didn’t know who he was. Every night people went to the rooftops to see his face etched upon the full moon and I really wanted to know what he was doing there.

‘He is the vicar of the Hidden Imam,’ Madar explained, trying to fit her cigarette into its holder. ‘While the Hidden Imam is in Occultation, the vicar is in charge of the Muslims’ faith,’ she continued, then lit her cigarette. ‘He is our saviour.’

‘And why is his face on the moon?’

‘God has etched his face on the full moon as a sign,’ she said with a smile that heightened her mystic aura as she sat cross-legged on the floor, ‘so that people will know he is the Chosen One.’

The more I looked at the moon, the better I could identify a shape. But it wasn’t the face of a man; clearly not of a holy man. It seemed, rather, very much like a rabbit—very much like Bugs Bunny, in fact.

Madar believed I wasn’t ready yet.

According to Twelver Shia Islam, the official religion of Iran, the Hidden Imam or Mahdi is the Twelfth Imam, an offspring of Prophet Muhammad who went into Occultation in Ad 874 when he was only five years old. He is still alive—but in hiding—and will emerge at the end of time as our saviour; he will bring peace and justice to the world and re-establish Islam as the only righteous path. I still couldn’t figure out why he needed a vicar, though. The argument seemed to me illogical. If he were supposed to wait in hiding until the right time to save the world, why would he send someone else to save the world earlier? And if it were time to save the world, why didn’t he show up himself?

‘don’t be silly,’ Madar said. ‘We’re not supposed to question God’s plans.’

It wasn’t the first time I’d asked that question. Ever since I had heard Khomeini’s name whispered by my parents and their friends, by my classmates (with the utmost respect) and sometimes on the BBC Persian Service that my parents listened to secretly every night, I had been asking the same question, hoping to receive two answers that matched up. Madar’s answer was not the one I’d had from dad.

‘He’s a cleric, son, a mullah. He was exiled from Iran 15 years ago because of his protests against the Shah’s tyranny. He has now become politically active again and gained a huge following among the people.’

This long speech may seem a little too sophisticated for an eight-year-old but, luckily, it was the kind of language with which I was familiar. Sadly, I was not quite the genius that my father assumed. I learnt to read at four, could write by the time I was five— both in Persian and English—and read my first ‘serious’ book at six, a 200-page novel on the life of Thomas Edison. Dad had given it to me hoping I’d choose Edison as my role model. I did—only until I discovered Peter Pan and Superman.

I was born on 17 February 1971 in Tehran, the same year that Apollo 14 landed on the moon, Pablo Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature and Nikita Khrushchev and Jim Morrison died. When I was a year old, we moved to England so that dad could study for his PhD at the University of Birmingham. My most prominent memory of the four years we spent there, apart from the ordinary ones of an ordinary child living in the UK— of friends, school, games and constant complaints about the weather—has been carved upon my mind with the help of a photograph: dad, in his gown and mortarboard in front of the main building of the University on his graduation day. Thirty-four then, he’s holding his degree certificate, his eyes shining with joy and hope and his serious expression not quite concealing his smile of infinite happiness.

Having known him for many years now, I can imagine what he is thinking about in that photograph: his imminent return to Iran; teaching; executing his plans for reforming Iran’s higher education system; and, being an authentic genius unlike me, beginning his research in the field of material sciences.

Exactly 34 years later, in August 2009, when Mum and he had come to England to visit me after Neda’s death, we rented a car and went to the University of Birmingham again. I asked him to stand in front of the main building on the precise spot on which he had been photographed on his graduation day. But when I held the camera in front of my eyes, I had to wait for a few seconds before pressing the button, until the tears that blurred my vision had cleared. We had been on such a long journey since then. So many things had been turned upside down: his hair had gone completely white and he was no longer possessed of the vitality of a 34-year-old but the main change lay in his face. He was smiling this time, too, but the smile was trying in vain to conceal the deep sorrow that stemmed from the shattered hopes of a man still in love with a dream that no longer exists.

We returned to Iran in 1975 and my sister Golnar was born. Dad began teaching as a senior lecturer in metallurgical engineering. Mum decided to study and get her diploma and then take the National University entrance exam for a nursing course. And I went to nursery school. We rented a small flat in central Tehran and dad managed to buy a colour TV. This introduced me to the world of Charlie Chaplin and, of course, the superheroes: Superman, Batman, Aqua man, the Fantastic Four and Spiderman. It was through these characters that I realized that a name should mean something and I decided to ask dad why I had been named Arash.

‘Arash means “bright” in Avestan, one of the ancient Iranian languages,’ dad explained, ‘but that isn’t why I chose this name for you,’ and he went on to tell me the legend of Arash the Archer.

‘Four thousand years ago, when the wars began between Iran and the neighbouring country of Turan, Arash was an ordinary archer in the Iranian army. The Turanians defeated the Iranians and laid siege to the capital. Then, to humiliate the defeated Iranians, they forced the Iranian king to an agreement. An Iranian archer would shoot an arrow from Iran. Wherever the arrow landed would determine the new border between Iran and Turan.

‘No archer dared volunteer for this task. Even the best of them could not shoot an arrow farther than a league. This agreement meant losing most of the Iranian territories to the enemy and no one wanted to be responsible for that.

‘But Arash stepped forward and declared he was ready to shoot the arrow. As there were no other candidates, the king had to accept his offer. Arash climbed the Alborz Mountains and shot his only arrow. But before releasing the string, he put his life in that arrow.

‘The arrow flew for three days. The horsemen who followed it found it on the third day embedded in a walnut tree at the original border between Iran and Turan. Peace was restored and the war was over. The Turanians were forced to retreat to their own lands and happiness and prosperity returned to Iran.

‘But Arash had disappeared. He had put his life into his arrow and died instantly. However, the legend says he is still there, on Mount Damavand in the Sierra Alborz—more commonly known as the Alborz Mountains—helping those who have lost their way along the misty mountain paths if they call his name.’

Dad believed that Arash’s sacrifice was more important than any American superhero’s stunts. Arash shot an arrow that brought an end to the war without killing anyone. And he gave up his life for that.

This story, mingling with the superhero adventures, inflamed my love of tales and legends, and it was then that Madar stepped in and quenched my thirst. She knew hundreds of tales. Mum told me fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, while dad recounted the lives of historical figures and famous Iranian scientists such as Khayyam and al-Khwārizmī. But it was Madar, with her tales full of mysteries, magical gems and hidden treasures, as well as her accounts of the lives of Islamic saints and Imams, who created my passion for storytelling and the supernatural.

And that is why I had to ask her the question about Ayatollah Khomeini—the one I had already asked dad. For her answer was important. The only thing she had in common with Dad— apart from their familial bond—was a keen intelligence. Once I had both their answers to a question, I could shape my own perception of the truth, inevitably a mix of dad’s realism and Madar’s fantastic world.

Dad, a strong advocate of logic, would give me answers based on the facts and, in their absence, rational deduction. The more difficult my questions, the more excited he would become in his quest for the best possible answer. He would hold his chin with a grip that covered his mouth, leaving only his handlebar moustache visible while he talked me through the deductive process. Sometimes, when finding the right logical answer turned out to be harder than he had imagined, he would put his hand on his already balding pate and remain silent for a while. But explanations there always were, even for miracles such as Moses’ splitting of the sea or Prophet Muhammad’s splitting of the moon. Once, when I asked him how Jesus could have resurrected Lazarus, he simply answered, ‘Who knows, maybe he wasn’t dead in the first place.’

Madar, on the other hand, would react in a completely different way. She did her best to come up with answers but using her own particular form of rational deduction. Staring into the emptiness in front of her she, too, would answer my questions but with very complicated responses which were not always in harmony with the laws of nature.

She and dad, despite their different approaches, had something else in common: both believed that there was always an answer. Dad would justify the unanswered question with ‘Science will find out soon’ whereas Madar said. ‘God will reveal the answer in due course’.

Madar was a strange old woman and the love of my life. Born to a baker, she was forced to marry my grandfather when she was only 13 and he a widower with two daughters, one aged five and the other seven. Madar had to be their mother when she might more easily have been their sister. However, when my grandfather Agha-djoon chose to have two more wives and filled the house with 12 children in whom he took very little interest, Madar left him without ever looking back or even filing for divorce. Now she lived in the religious city of Qom, near the shrine of Holy Masoumah. She sustained herself by weaving fine high-quality lace for the dowry of brides-to-be and visited the holy shrine at least once a day.

Once I asked her why she had left Agha-djoon.

‘It was about time someone showed men that they didn’t own their wives. We’re human too.’ I liked to believe she was in her own way one of the first authentic feminists in Iran.

After analyzing both their answers to my Ayatollah Khomeini question, my personal interpretation turned out to be: ‘Khomeini is a very important person who is soon going to be even more important.’

There was one bit of prophecy missing from my conclusion which no one could have imagined at the time, neither my over-religious grandmother nor my secular father nor his leftist, rightist, moderate, reformist, nationalist, fundamentalist, Islamist, atheist friends who all hated the Shah. It took us a few years to discover what we had all overlooked: it was not so much that the Shah was corrupt but that absolute power corrupts absolutely, no matter who holds it.

I felt the tension for the first time at the beginning of September 1978 when we reached the Turko-Iranian border on our way home from our summer trip to the UK. We were travelling in dad’s brand-new dark-red Ford Taunus, the same car that had brought Mum, Aunt Marjaneh, my two-year-old sister Golnar and me all the way from the UK to Iran via France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Turkey. My parents planned to go to the UK every summer so that I could keep practising my English and they could visit their friends. But this was not to be. Our first summer holiday in Europe was to be our last for many years to come. That summer was going to change many plans. The Islamic Revolution was on its way.

My parents had no way of knowing what was going on in Iran. The Internet, mobile phones and satellite TV were yet to be invented and there was no radio in our car. It was there, at the border, that we realized something was up. Dad returned to the car after talking to a young man in Customs, flushed with anxiety and rage. He bent to whisper to Mum: a cinema had burnt down in Abadan while screening the Iranian film The Deer and 300 people had burnt to death.

The journey from the border to my grandfather’s house in Tehran took two days through the mountains, fields and deserts of Iran. I hadn’t travelled much in Iran before and it was my first glimpse of the complete range of landscapes, from the high, cold mountain roads and the eternally green fields of the north to the burning desert sun of Qazvin. Dad drove all the way without stopping for a night’s sleep. We slept in the car while he drove and Mum and Aunt Marjaneh took turns during the night to keep Dad Company and make sure he didn’t fall asleep at the wheel. Mum insisted a few times that we pull over and sleep for a few hours in a hotel but dad refused. He was very concerned about the situation and wanted to get to Tehran as fast as possible. After weeks of living in the car, fed up with sleeping and eating in it, I wanted to get home too. Dad thought it would be a good experience for us to drive through all those countries but I didn’t find it interesting anymore; all I wanted was my own bed to sleep in. Eventually, dad stopped the car in front of Hadj-Agha’s house. He was my maternal grandfather and we were going to stay with him for a few days before moving into the new flat that dad had rented from friends.

No sooner had we arrived than we heard that Khomeini, in exile in Iraq, had issued a statement blaming the Shah for the tragedy in the cinema. I don’t remember how he related this incident to the Shah but people believed him; they always believed what a mullah said and, since the film was critical of the regime and advocated armed resistance against its tyranny, it seemed plausible enough. This incident was the trigger that ignited the rage of the nation against the regime, a rage that would accumulate over the next few months and explode with the sudden overthrow of 2,500 years of Iranian monarchy.

That was the first time I heard the name Ruhollah Khomeini. Twenty days later, something else happened. The police had opened fire against a demonstration in Tehran’s Jaleh Square and killed a great many people: some said 4,000, others 90,000. Everyone was enraged. Unfamiliar with the notion of death, I couldn’t understand why. But that state of innocence was soon to be lost. Only a few days later Mum took me to school to enrol me in the second grade and someone mentioned that Charlie Chaplin was dead. This was someone I knew, someone who made me laugh—and I understood death for the first time.

The next two months are a blur. My clearest memory is of the tension: the tension in the air, rank with a mixture of fear and bravado. And the red slogans on the walls: ‘death to the Shah!’ ‘Hail to Khomeini!’ And the twisted faces of the people who were afraid to speak to one another and who wondered how this drama was going to end.

Then, all of a sudden, the silence broke and the vibrations in the air turned into a storm . . . The main Bazaar, the heart of the Iranian economy, along with all the schools, universities and hundreds of shops and other businesses, went on a national strike. I didn’t fully appreciate what was going on except for the joy of not having to go to school any more. It was a second summer holiday, although it also meant that I was not going to see my very best friend, Azadeh. We sat beside one another, we studied together and we chatted between classes. I still remember her dark curly hair and her brilliant mathematical mind: she could do the most complicated sums in her head, without putting pen to paper. When the schools shut down I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye nor did I have her phone number. We took our time together for granted; when you are a child, everything seems eternal. I would discover all too soon just how wrong we were.

My father and his friends got together every night, endlessly discussing the changes over vodka and cigarettes. Sometimes, they listened to Khomeini’s fiery speeches, recorded on audiocassettes and smuggled into the country through Kuwait or Iraq. They were excited and happy, eager to be a part of what was happening. I remember some of them: Reza Company, an electrical engineer, and Hormoz, a lecturer in electronics, both members of the Tudeh (People) Communist Party; and Bahram, a nationalist like dad.

I found it hard to understand why everyone hated the Shah. At school we’d been taught that the Shah was our nation’s loving father; he cared about all his children and shed tears whenever he heard of a citizen in distress. We also sang the National Anthem every morning: ‘Long live our king of kings, for whose grace the country stands forever . . .’ But dad disagreed and finally expressed his contempt when he heard me humming the Anthem one day. I felt his hand on my shoulder and when I turned back I saw ‘the look’ in his eyes. He was very angry.

‘Arash, the Shah is bad!’ he said. ‘We don’t want him to live long! He has killed many young people, he doesn’t let people talk, he has sold our homeland to America, he has ruined the country. I don’t want my son to sing this cursed anthem.’

‘Then what should I sing, dad?’

It was then that he taught me ‘Oh, Iran’, a song by the poet Gol-e Golab, written during the Second World War when Iran was occupied by British and Russian forces. Although it never was, nor would ever become, the official anthem of Iran, it has always been considered so by the people.

Oh Iran, oh bejewelled land
Oh, your soil is the wellspring of the arts
Far from you may the thoughts of evil be
May you remain lasting and eternal
. . .
Since your love became my calling
My thoughts are never far from you

When I returned to England after Neda’s death in June 2009, to testify to her death and to finish the course in publishing I had begun in Oxford the previous year, my Italian friend Nina told me, ‘I can’t believe it! These Iranians on the streets are being killed, beaten, detained, tortured, but they’re not giving up!’

‘Yes, I know,’ I answered briefly, and left. Late for an appointment with my professor, I didn’t have time to explain that this was part of the package of being Iranian. I couldn’t tell her that Iran is not a mere country to Iranians but a concept that unites them regardless of ethnicity, dialect or religion. As an identity it is both a blessing and a curse; it is also a dream that has helped the nation endure a history full of struggles, the only dream worth dying for. Iran is a proud and stubborn nation. I couldn’t tell Nina that the Iranians were already ‘Irani’ when the Aryans began their long migration south from the frozen lands of Siberia 4,000 years ago. Some left for the Indian peninsula, some settled in the green lands of Central Asia and some others entered the plateau that is today called Iran, ‘the land of the Aryans’. This land has been invaded and destroyed several times over the past 2,500 years, yet throughout a succession of occupations by Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, British and Russians, the people have remained Iranians. Four hundred years after the Arab occupation they revived their language. When they realized that they could not resist the might of the Arabs and that they must either accept Islam or die, they transformed it into Shiism, a religion more compatible with their own Zoroastrian and Manichaean beliefs. Unlike many other ancient civilizations conquered by the Arabs, the Iranians never ‘became’ Arabs nor did they accept Arabic as their native language. Today, they speak the same language in which their beloved poets Roudaki, Firdowsi and Khayyam wrote their poems more than a millennium ago.

‘Iranian’ is not a nationality but a way of life. It would stretch Nina’s credibility if I told her that the Iranians, in keeping with Zarathustra’s 3,000-year-old teachings—that their only choice lay between being a Soldier of darkness or a Warrior of Light— still believed in the eternal battle between Good and Evil. They had to choose and their decisions would determine the outcome of the war. Dying on this battlefield is the highest honour for an Iranian. That is why, over the past century, Iran has witnessed at least four major uprisings and a war: the Constitutional Revolution of 1905–11; the uprising in defence of Prime Minister Mosadeq in 1953; the Islamic Revolution of 1979; the war with Iraq from 1980 to 1988 and the 2009 uprising against the fraudulent presidential election.