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

The two years I spent in the hospitals were among the worst years of my life.

I was a happy man when I began my internship: no more memorizing thousands of pages of text, no more terrifying exams, no more Disciplinary Committee. I could finally help the suffering, I could finally save someone’s life. I did not know then that I still had to read thousands of pages to keep myself updated. I still had to endure the scrutiny of the University’s internal intelligence officers. And there wasn’t much I could do to help the suffering.

We were in the hospital from 7.30 a.m. until 2 p.m. We had night shifts two or three times a week and we took turns to cover the weekends. That meant that we worked about 90 hours a week. But this two-year marathon wasn’t my problem. My problem was the system itself.

University hospitals were public. One of the cornerstones of the Revolution’s propaganda, one with which Khomeini had appeased the masses, was that education and health care should be free to all. Health care was not free—anyone not covered by insurance of some kind had to pay—and, to make things worse, we were duty-bound to turn away patients thought to be in a critical condition. How often we’d have patients suffering from myocardial infarctions or serious crash injuries. They were brought in and then left unattended: their relatives were busy trying to get hold of some money. We were not allowed to approach the patients unless we received official approval from the accounts department. I couldn’t believe this was true until I once put an IV line into a homeless patient who had been hit by a car and who was bleeding to death. He had no one; if I didn’t try to replace the blood, he would be dead by the time the social service officer arrived to check if he was eligible for free treatment.

I was severely reprimanded by the head of ER and charged for the equipment and the medication. I paid without a thought but I couldn’t afford to do this on a regular basis. So I watched patients dying in ER despite knowing I could help. This was destroying my spirits; so I went to see my rich grandfather, to ask him to help with the fund I was trying to put together. He donated some money and that perhaps saved the lives of a few people but he refused to replenish the fund thereafter. And I realized that, while the present system was in place, one poor intern working 90 hours a week couldn’t really make very much of a difference.

Something else that bothered me was the ‘under-treatment’ of patients by some of the consultants. They encouraged patients to visit their private clinics where they could charge much more than at the public hospital. In the public sector, the specialists worked for a fixed fee and a very small commission. There wasn’t anything I could do about this but bully the consultants to pay my patients the attention they deserved. Understandably, this made me rather unpopular.

There were ‘good’ doctors, too, the very embodiment of the Hippocratic oath, who asked some of the underprivileged patients to visit them in their private practices. Not to charge them more but to treat them for free. But they were few and far between and not much liked by their colleagues.

Add to all of this the silence. Since the war and the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988, what one heard most was the sound of silence. Life went on, or seemed to . . . Children played in the streets, fans cheered their favourite teams, the streets thrummed with cars . . . but the eyes of the secret police were everywhere. Even up in the mountains, where the Iranians went every weekend in their cars and pretended to have a good time. This was also when the women began to push at their boundaries, to flout the more rigid constraints of the hijab. Following the decree of a collective unconscious, they began to pull back their headscarves, they began to show their hair and they wore shorter, tighter coats.

Neda would have been 12 or 13 then. She was growing up at a time when the invisible battle between the women and the system had just begun. Women were trying to gain their individual freedom by patiently insisting upon what they considered to be their rights, and the system was trying not to alienate them completely yet hoping to slow the change.

Silence and fear prevailed. No one dared say a word. Not even I, not even when I was beaten up by the Islamic goons.

I was supposed to pick up Mehdi from the main square in Yousef-Abad Street and then go to the university library to do some research for our theses. I was there at 2 p.m, in my battered second-hand Fiat 131, waiting for him, when the car’s engine suddenly died. Shit, I thought, what am I supposed to do now? I got out of the car, opened the bonnet and began a check: oil, starter, petrol pump, coil, distributor . . . my face and arms were soon stained black with oil. Dammit, I thought, now I’ll have to take the car to the garage instead of going to the library. I closed the bonnet and leaned on it, nervous, exhausted, sweating and furious, waiting for Mehdi to show up and help me move the car.

‘Leave!’ barked an authoritative voice, from somewhere behind me. I turned to see who it was and found three huge men glaring at me.

‘Leave! Are you deaf?’

‘Who the hell are you?’ I asked, although I had the feeling I already knew. But I was too anxious to behave.

‘None of your business. You can’t stay here. The girl’s school is going to give over soon and we’re not having you here fooling around.’

‘Girls? I haven’t got anything to do with girls! My car’s broken down.’

‘I don’t care. If you don’t leave now, we’ll break your legs.’

‘Can’t you see? I’m covered in mud and oil. Who would try to pick up girls like this?’

‘I am going to tell you one last time. Go away! Now!’

All of a sudden, the strain of the years of repression proved to be too much and I exploded. I was too angry to control myself. If I had said yes and left, nothing would have happened.

‘Go to hell! I’m not going anywhere! I’m staying right here . . .’

Before I could finish, I was hurled to the ground and beaten mercilessly. I tried to cover my face against the blows that landed on my stomach, while my attackers shouted, ‘You wimp! Asshole! We didn’t give our blood so that motherfuckers like you can walk the streets!’ ‘This one is for the martyrs!’ another one yelled. As if I had killed the martyrs . . .

People passed by, ignoring the sight. No one turned around to see who was being ground under the feet of the three thugs.

They finally grew tired, or perhaps thought it best to stop before they killed me. Blood was pouring out of my mouth and nose and I couldn’t move my arms and legs. One of them grabbed me, put me on his motorbike and whisked me off to the police station. They threw me into a room where I stayed for a few hours until a conscript arrived and took me to the officer.

‘They’ve complained that you were picking up girls in front of the high school.’

‘Lieutenant, Sir,’ I said, imploringly, ‘I’m a married man. A medical student. I was waiting for my friend to join me and then go to the library. My car broke down. I was trying to repair it when your men began to beat me to death.’

The officer looked at my arms, covered in oil, and shook his head.

‘They were not my men. They were the Basij.’

‘I thought the Basij were fighting our enemies.’

‘Now that the war is over, the Basij is fighting our internal enemies.’

‘But I’m not an enemy, Sir. I’m only a student . . .’

‘I understand,’ he said, shaking his head in sympathy, ‘and I believe you. But a complaint has been filed against you. So I have to detain you and send you to court tomorrow. The judge will decide what is to be done.’

‘But why? Will those Basijis come to the court as well? I want to file a complaint against them.’

‘You can’t. No one can file a complaint against a member of the Basij.’

‘I can,’ I lied, ‘I have friends in high places. What if Ayatollah Rayshahri hears what you’ve done to his best friend’s son?’

I knew that Ayatollah Rayshahri, a powerful judge and cleric, was a friend of Hadj-Agha.

The officer’s voice softened at the name.

‘There is one thing I can do. If you sign this paper and promise that you regret disturbing the girls and will never do that again, I will let you go.’

‘I’ll sign nothing. I want my lawyer.’

‘You’ve been watching too many Hollywood films, my son,’ he laughed, ‘Who said you were entitled to a lawyer? Sign, or go to court.’

‘I want to make a phone call.’

‘No phone calls. Sign or go back to your cell.’

‘I’ll go back to my cell.’

I knew he’d release me if I signed the paper. He needed that piece of paper so that I couldn’t file a complaint against the Basij. I had been beaten, offended, humiliated. I had nothing else to lose and I was determined not to give up. Unable to stay calm, I began to curse and shout.

The conscript opened the door and said, ‘Shut up, man! Do you want them to beat you again?’

I felt he was sorry for me and that I could use the sympathy.

‘Hey, man, can you call someone for me?’

‘What will you give me if I do?’

‘What do you want?’

‘Cigarettes. You got any?’

I gave him my packet.

‘Call this number for me. Tell him his son’s here. Tell him to call Hadj-Agha and get in touch with Rayshahri.’

To my utmost surprise, Hadj-Agha accompanied Dad to the police station. He told them that if they didn’t release me on the spot, then all of them would be tried the next day for unjustified violence.

I was called from my cell and the same officer told me that I could go and that I didn’t need to sign anything. But I was too furious.

‘I want to complain against those men who beat me.’ ‘Don’t overdo it,’ muttered Hadj-Agha. ‘Shut up and get out.’

Thus were my nerves shattered during my two-year internship. Hundreds of people died before my eyes. I could have saved some of them. As I recited the Islamic version of the Hippocratic oath during my graduation ceremony in the spring of 1996, I felt this was all a huge mistake.

Had I shown more perseverance, perhaps I would have been able to make more of a difference. But I hadn’t known that corruption had permeated every aspect and every level of society.

I was going to practice medicine for another three years before I finally decided to give it up. When I decided to abandon my medical career, I could never have imagined that one day, years later, my name would appear among the top ten search results on Google when one typed in ‘Iran’ and ‘doctor’. Not because I was a good doctor but because I had failed to save the life of a young girl bleeding to death in the street.

How could I have imagined it, then?

Google was yet to be invented.