PART IV: Lie if you want to survive

‘Hi, I’m Dr Arash Hejazi. I’ve been assigned to this clinic.’

The short, young doctor held out his hand and said, ‘Welcome, Dr Hejazi. I’m Dr Jafar Muhammadi. I’m not a conscript, unfortunately, but a cadre doctor of the Revolutionary Guard, sentenced to spend the rest of my life in this rat-hole.’

After a few days spent scrutinizing one another surreptitiously, a certain degree of trust was arrived at on both sides. We had two desks in the same room. My job was to examine and treat the patients, his to read the newspapers, magazines and books he brought in each day.

I tried to observe the behaviour of the Revolutionary Guard since I’d never been so close to such a powerful organization. The guards were all fervently religious. Shaving was prohibited, although long beards were frowned on as well. Everyone’s beards were trimmed to 3–5 millimetres, unless they were commanders. Military ranking had just been introduced to the Revolutionary Guard in an attempt to make it more like a modern army. Until then, over the past 17 years, there had been no insignia or military ranks; they had all been ‘brothers’. Nor was there any military etiquette: inferiors didn’t salute superiors but kissed one another and shook hands. Uniforms were simple and void of any insignia.

But now, since the formal military rankings had been introduced, the air of simplicity had vanished. These guards, trained to defeat the enemies of Iran and to uphold the Islamic Republic, were reduced to fighting over military ranks, posts which inevitably had financial implications.

There was another problem: educational levels. In the Iranian army, the level of formal education was the primary determinant of rank. Most of the ‘commanders’ in the Guard, however, had minimal education or none; others were barely literate. Under the new system, they lost their ranks. This was unbearable. As ‘commanders’, they had led troops to victory; now they had to accept the superiority of a new recruit fresh from university. Such as Dr Muhammadi.

He had been admitted to medical school with a bursary from the Revolutionary Guard. Anyone whose background was impeccable according to the Guard’s criteria could apply for a bursary. Those who were accepted had to sign a contract to serve the Guard for 30 years. That was why Dr Muhammadi was committed to spending the rest of his life here. Although he had no service history, he was now a Major, a rank much higher than the ‘commander’ of the Health Department who was a Sergeant.

It was the length of the beard, therefore, that indicated the ‘real rank’ of a person. Brother Hassani, commander of the Health Department had a long beard but Dr Muhammadi and I were not allowed to let our beards grow longer than 6mm. No one dared to ask Brother Hassani to trim his beard: he had ‘authority’.

Dr Muhammadi was not like the others; he adored Iranian cinema, especially films by Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami, two directors frowned upon by the regime, and he insisted I teach him about Western literature. We talked for hours. I told him everything I knew about Western literature and culture, since its beginnings in the golden era of the Greeks right up to modern times. I also made sure that he understood that there was no such thing as ‘Western Literature’, that every country in the ‘West’ had its own particular literature. Every day, I gave him one of my books, which he read rapidly and then waited for me to explain. I lent him works by Camus, Sartre, Kundera, Hesse, Boll, Lessing, Auster, Vonnegut, Dostoyevsky, Sholokhov . . . and he devoured it all. He had grown up in a fundamentalist religious family and all he’d learnt was Islamic lore. His love for contemporary Iranian cinema had lured him into a world he could never have imagined. By the time we went our different ways, he had become a humanist who believed that religion was a private matter and that the state had no right to use it as a pretext to control the society. An extraordinary attitude for a Revolutionary Guard, until I realized he was not alone. A large number of the Guards, especially those who’d had some higher education, were also of the same opinion.

In return for my cultural tutorials, he told me about the undercurrents of Iranian politics. There was a serious conflict going on and the ruling class was now divided: the traditional right, including those who had supported the Revolution financially; the petit-bourgeois of the Bazaar; the hardline right created after the war, including those members of the Basij now critical of Rafsanjani’s attempt to modernize the country; the technocratic left, represented by Rafsanjani and the Kargozaraan Party; and the reformists.

The reform movement had no single leader and was made up of different people from different classes: it included men who had lost their legs in the war, founders of the Revolutionary Guard as well as those who had occupied the US Embassy. They were closely related to the Kargozaraan Party, the first group to show any inclination towards reform.

‘The Kargozaraan won the parliamentary election last year,’ whispered Dr Muhammadi, looking around for eavesdroppers. ‘But we, the Revolutionary Guard, performed a semi-coup on the day of the election and made sure they weren’t elected.’

‘No way! That’s not possible!’

‘Believe me, Arash. I was there. The polls showed that the Kargozaran were leading. The night before the election, the country was put on full alert. Election morning, the Guard took over the ballot centres and made sure its candidates won. The election was rigged.’

‘I can’t believe the Supreme Leader would allow it.’

‘The order came directly from him.’

In June 2009, when everyone accused the regime of rigging the results of the presidential election, no one was aware that this wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened.

‘But this is not going to happen in the presidential election next year,’ concluded Dr Muhammadi.

He told me that Rafsanjani, the President, had made sure there wouldn’t be any manipulation and that the reformists were getting together to choose a candidate.

‘Mir-Hussein Mousavi was their first choice. He was popular because of his impeccable management of the country during the war. But he refused, claiming that he preferred to teach. But,’ he winked, ‘everyone knows the real reason.’

They did indeed. When he was Prime Minister, Khamenei had been President. In a complicated dispute, Khomeini had supported Mousavi rather than Khamenei. But then Khomeini died and Khamenei became Supreme Leader. Everyone knew that he would never let Mousavi run for President. ‘So, the next option is Khatami.’

Anyone who was involved in Iranian culture in any way knew Khatami as the open-minded Minister of Culture who had resigned in protest at the institutionalizing of censorship. I was puzzled: Why should anyone vote for Khatami? No one, especially in rural areas and small towns, had heard of him. Why should they care about Khatami being against censorship? I had to wait and see but I was excited. It was the first time since the Revolution that I actually cared about a candidate and I had already made up my mind whom to vote for.