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

Life took a dramatic turn during my third year at medical school. It was our last year at University. Clinical training at the hospitals would begin in the fourth year, then internships in the sixth.

Three things happened at the same time. First, a difference of opinion broke out among the advocates of the Islamic Republic as did the first signs of a reformist movement. Dr Abdolkarim Soroush, a pharmacologist and theologian and one of the brains behind the Cultural Revolution, had undergone a startling metamorphosis. He claimed in an article that theology was not a science—despite the government’s insistence—since it was based on predetermined principles. As a point of view, it was fiercely criticized by one of the clerics and lecturers in the religious school. This exchange of opinions took everyone by surprise, especially us students. We found it hard to believe that a free debate was possible in Iran’s fundamentalist regime. Second, my hair: I had decided to let it grow as a protest against the ‘doctor’ stereotype. One could be a good doctor even if one had long hair and wore jeans. But the university didn’t approve. I was summoned by the Disciplinary Committee and given a stern warning.

Third, my lecture on ‘the healthy personality’. Some of my classmates and I had been invited to give a lecture on a medical topic of our choosing. I chose ‘The Characteristics of a Healthy Personality’. To my surprise, there were more than 500 people in the audience. I began my lecture with the seven contemporary icons of psychology: Gordon Allport, Carl Gustave Jung, Carl Rogers, Viktor Frankl, Abraham Maslow, Alfred Adler and Jean Piaget. I explained how Frankl developed his school of Logo therapy after surviving the concentration camps, and how Allport believed that a wholesome person always tries to push boundaries and step beyond the limits. I described Maslow’s pyramid of needs and Jung’s struggle to achieve self-realization.

While I was speaking, I heard a noise at the back of the hall and noticed a few members of the Islamic Association moving about. I carried on, describing how a wholesome person takes nothing for granted, how he or she always tries to achieve more and challenges any prescribed rules.

That was it. A student with a long beard and a white shirt handed me a slip of paper. ‘Two minutes to wrap up,’ it said. But why? I was supposed to speak for an hour and I was only halfway through. It was a mistake. I put it aside and continued. Exactly two minutes later, I received another note. ‘Shut up! Or we will disconnect the microphone.’

I felt the old rage bubbling up. I tore up the note and continued talking about Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camps, about how he set himself the task of ensuring that no one around him lost hope.

And then my microphone went dead.

‘Because of a technical problem,’ I shouted, ‘I can’t use the microphone but I believe my voice is loud enough for you to hear me.’

It was another 15 minutes before I wrapped up my speech. The beards couldn’t do anything else to stop me since there were professors and lecturers present. But the look in their eyes confirmed that I was in trouble indeed.

I was suddenly afraid.
The audience realized that something was amiss, although I had done nothing wrong.

Later that day, when I was once again hauled up before the Disciplinary Committee, I learnt that I had. First of all, I hadn’t begun my lecture with the name of Allah and nor had I continued with a verse from the Holy Quran.

‘I forgot!’ I said, ‘I was too nervous!’

‘You should have known that Allah’s name would wipe away all fear.’

My second mistake was to have referred to the tragedy of the Jews in the Nazi concentration camps. This was long before the infamous denial of the Holocaust by Ahmadinejad.

‘Recent evidence as well as research shows that the entire story about the Jews in the concentration camps is a myth created by the Israelis.’

It was the first time I had heard about this ‘research’ but I said nothing other than ‘I didn’t know’.

The last and most important accusation shook me to the core. ‘The Holy Quran has explained clearly and completely what a wholesome personality is. But you made no mention of it. You went on and on about these Western psychologists, most of whom are Jews. We don’t need their heretic theories.’

I felt sick to my stomach.

‘Aren’t you a med. student, Hamid?’

‘I am,’ my classmate answered, looking straight into my eyes, ‘but psychology is not medicine.’

‘The Holy Quran talks about spiritual well-being,’ I said. ‘Psychology is the science of the behaviour of the human mind.’

He peered at me over his glasses, ‘And are you implying that the human mind can exist without the soul?’

This wasn’t a person with whom one could reason. ‘So you cut short my speech because you disagree with my views?’ I asked instead.

‘We cut it short as a warning to you. Do your studies, cut your hair, choose clothes more appropriate for a doctor and don’t try to give any more lectures. We have decided not to let you choose a specialization. If you do not cooperate, we will stop your classes altogether.’

Unknown to us, the transformation had already begun among members of the Islamic Association of Students. The further they went with real ‘science’, the more critical they became of their own fundamentalist ideas. Today, the Islamic Association of Students is one of the main opposition groups within the Islamic Republic.