PART III: You rebuild the country, I will rebuild my pocket

Going to medical school is—or was, back in 1988—a dream come true for so many young Iranians. Given how tough the competition was, securing a place meant that you ranked among the brightest and the best. On my way to enrolment I felt I was walking on air. As, I am sure, did the rest of my classmates. I was convinced of my future fame as the one who cured cancer or perhaps eradicated AIDS. Although after some thought, I decided what I really wanted to be was a psychiatrist and cure schizophrenia. The Nobel Prize didn’t look so far off either . . . All the girls would fall in love with me . . . I was going to be rich and famous and respected . . .

No more school, no more struggling with those irrelevant subjects, no more Islamic Department. I was finally free.

Our very first class brought us crashing back to earth. Although the medical college was co-ed, the boys sat on the left and the girls on the right. We were not allowed to speak to one another, even if it was about our studies. The canteens were separate as well.

The Islamic Association of Students had only one purpose: to spy on the students. The student rep, chosen by the Islamic Association—voting was not an option—had the same mission. The girls had their own student rep although she was subordinate to her male counterpart. If any of the boys wanted to communicate with any of the girls, he had to contact the male rep. The male rep would discuss the problem with the female rep and she would pass on the message to the girl. And vice versa.

A conversation between the male and female rep was certainly worth watching. They could not look into one another’s eyes: that would lead to sexual thoughts and those would in turn lead them to sin. So they sat back to back and addressed the wall instead!

This problem was solved over the next two or three years: the reps got married and thus resolved their conversational problems. The Islamic Association of Students was, in an ironic twist of fate, gradually integrated into the National Bureau for Enforcing the Unity of Students and began to advocate freedom of speech, secularism and democracy. By the time we graduated eight years later, in 1996, most of my hardliner, pro-government and religious classmates had turned into liberal advocates of democracy.

I could tell I was a different person as soon as I began classes at university. I was no longer the coward I had turned into during high school. It was as if some invisible hand had turned on a ‘liberty’ switch in my head. I wore jeans and T-shirts while my classmates wore suits, carried Samsonite briefcases and practised calling one another ‘Doctor’. I let my hair grow—which was going to create so much trouble for me later—and decided to be as funny as I could, to make as many, boy and girl, friends as possible and to break all the rules.

As it happened, university turned out to be worse than high school. The sanctions meant that we had minimal access to textbooks and the library had no money. We had no choice but to buy the books on the black market until some publishers identified the gap and decided to exploit the lack of copyright restrictions to their advantage. They began to reprint the textbooks and then sell them at a significantly lower price than the original editions. But these textbooks, once we managed to get a few, weren’t really that useful since the lecturers tested us only on what they had said in class. If you walked into a lecture, you’d find all the students with their heads bowed, taking down every single word uttered by the lecturer.

My friend Mehdi and I decided to listen to the lectures and then read the relevant chapters from the textbooks. We were medical students, after all, and not scribes! But when we had our quarter-semester exams we found out the hard way that there was no beating this particular system.

It was then that my first publishing idea struck me. Why not release the students from this burden of taking notes? I shared my idea with Mehdi and a few other friends and they all loved it: we would record the lectures and then divide them among the students for transcription. Then we could photocopy the transcripts for distribution.

And we did it. Mehdi and I acted as both editors and transcribers. Although it was not long before everyone grew fed up of my horrible handwriting and asked me to resign as transcriber and be content with being editor and publisher. Thus began my first step in the direction of my lifelong passion: publishing.

But the problem lay in recording the lectures. Most of the lecturers preferred to see the students writing copious notes. It gave them a degree of deniability and hence they were loath to allow recordings. We needed to be particularly clever in choosing a spot for the tape recorder; close enough to be effective yet not obvious enough to court discovery. My friends transcribed the lectures and I edited them. This involved translating relevant portions from the textbooks and adding them in parentheses, then photocopying relevant images and, finally, putting together the pages. Mehdi would rewrite the entire lecture in his excellent handwriting and we’d create an interesting cover for the handbook. Then we’d make 200 photocopies and distribute them among those students who had registered to receive them. When I bought my IBM 80286 later that year—sold at a subsidized price to my father as a university professor—I began to type the lectures. I also taught myself page layouts and the basic principles of design.

We stopped taking notes and were able, instead, to pay attention to the lecturer. The handbooks became so popular that they remained in use over the next few years. So much so that when the lecturers decided to modify their lectures according to the revisions in the new editions of the textbooks, the next generation of students merely incorporated the changes in our handbooks instead of creating their own.

Thus passed the first year of medical school. I began to work and earned some money by being a private tutor to rich high-school students who wanted to pass the school examinations or the Concours but weren’t smart enough to study and prepare themselves. I hated the job. These youngsters believed that hiring a private tutor meant they no longer needed to make any effort themselves. But it was good money and I couldn’t afford to lose the job.

In the meantime, my hair grew longer and I grew bolder.