Since your love became my calling
Autumn 1978 to Summer 1980
‘Who is this Ayatollah Khomeini?’ I asked Madar, my paternal grandmother. I had heard his name over and over without knowing who he really was. Every night people went to the rooftops to see his face in 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 the cigarette holder. ‘While the Hidden Imam is in occultation, the vicar is in charge of the Muslims’ faith,’ she continued, finishing her remark before lighting her cigarette. ‘He is our saviour.’
‘And why is his face shown in the moon?’
She answered with a mysterious smile that gave her a mystic aura as she sat cross-legged on the floor: ‘God has printed his face on the full moon as a sign,’ she said, ‘so that people will know he is the Chosen One.’
The more I looked into the moon, the better I could identify a shape. But it wasn’t the face of a man, and clearly not of a holy man. It was a rabbit, very much resembling Bugs Bunny. Madar believed I wasn’t prepared yet.
According to Twelver Shi’a Islam, the official religion of Iran, the Hidden Imam or Mahdi is the Twelfth Imam, an offspring of the Prophet Mohammad who went into ‘occultation’ in 874 AD when he was just five years old. He has been alive and in hiding since and will emerge at the end of time as the saviour who will bring peace and justice to the world and re-establish Islam as the only righteous path. However, I still couldn’t figure out why he needed a vicar. It wasn’t logical. If he was supposed to wait in hiding until the right time to save the world, why would he send someone to save the world earlier? And if it was already time to save the world, why wouldn’t he show up himself?
‘Don’t be silly,’ Madar said. ‘We are 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, among my classmates, who uttered his name 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 same as the one I’d had from Dad, who was always ready to educate me with sharp and precise answers.
‘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 has gained a huge following among the people.’
This long speech may seem a little sophisticated for an eight-year-old boy, but luckily this was the kind of language I was familiar with, though sadly I was not the genius my father assumed I was. I learned 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 about the life of Thomas Edison. Dad had given it to me hoping I would choose Edison as my role model in life. For a while, this was the case–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 one, we moved to England so my father could study for his PhD at the University of Birmingham, where I spent the next four years. My most prominent memory of those times, apart from the ordinary life of an ordinary child living in the UK with the friends, school days, games and the constant complaints about the weather, has been carved in my mind with the help of a photo: there is Dad in his gown and square academic cap in front of the main building of the university on his graduation day. He was 34 at the time and he holds his degree certificate in his hands, eyes shining with joy and hope, and a serious expression with which he is trying to hide a smile of infinite happiness.
Having known him for many years now, I can imagine what he is thinking about in that photo: about his imminent return to Iran, going back to teaching, executing his plans for reforming Iran’s higher education system and, being an authentic genius unlike me, starting his research in the field of material sciences in his home country.
Exactly 34 years later, in August 2009, when he and Mum 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 to take the photo, I had to wait for a few seconds before pressing the button until the tears that blurred my vision had cleared. It had been a long journey since the last time he had stood there. Many things had turned upside-down: his hair had gone completely white and he lacked the vitality of a 34-year-old, but the main change was in his face. This time, contrary to his expression all those years ago, he was smiling, but the smile was trying, in vain, to conceal the deep sorrow that grew from the shattered hopes of a man still in love with a dream that no longer existed.
We returned to Iran in 1975 and my sister Golnar was born the same year. Dad became a senior lecturer in metallurgical engineering and started to teach. Mum decided to study and get her diploma and then take the national university entrance exam to enter a nursing course. And I went to nursery school. We rented a small flat in central Tehran and Dad even managed to buy a colour TV for the first time. This introduced me to the world of Charlie Chaplin and, of course, the superheroes: Superman, Batman, Aquaman, the Fantastic Four and Spiderman. It was by knowing these superheroes that I realised that a name should mean something and I asked Dad for the very first time why he had given me the name Arash, and what it meant.
‘Arash means bright in Avestan, one of the ancient Iranian languages,’ Dad explained, ‘but this isn’t the reason I chose this name for you,’ and he told me the legend of Arash the Archer.
‘Four thousand years ago, when the wars between Iran and the neighbouring country of Turan started, Arash was an ordinary archer in the Iranian army. The Turanians defeated the Iranians and set 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 since they all knew that 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 Mountain and shot his only arrow. But before releasing the string, he put his life in that arrow.
‘The arrow flew for three days and 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 in his arrow and had 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 in 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 would end the war without hitting anyone in the chest and gave up his life for that.
The story, mixing with the superhero stories, inflamed my love of tales and legends, and it was then that Madar stepped in to quench my thirst for new stories. She knew hundreds of tales. Mum told me the fairytales of the Brothers Grimm, while Dad told me stories 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 stories of the lives of Islamic saints and Imams, who created the passion for storytelling and the supernatural in me.
And that is why I had to ask her the same question about Ayatollah Khomeini I had already asked Dad. Her answer was important. Despite being his mother, the only thing she had in common with Dad apart from blood was their intelligence. Once I had both their answers to a question, I could shape my own perception of the truth, which was always a mixture 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 his handlebar moustache the only visible thing 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 head and remain silent for a while before inevitably finding an explanation. He would find me explanations even for miracles such as Moses’ separation of the sea or the Prophet Mohammad’s splitting of the moon. Once, when I asked him how Jesus Christ resurrected the dead 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 would also do her best not to let me go unanswered. Logic didn’t work for her, but she did have her own particular form of rational deduction. She would stare into the emptiness in front of her and give me answers, usually very complicated ones and not always in harmony with the laws of nature.
She and Dad, despite their different approaches, had something else in common: they both believed that there was always an answer. Dad would justify the unanswered question with ‘science will find out soon’, whereas Madar believed, ‘God will reveal the answer in due course.
She 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, a five-year-old and a seven-year-old. Madar had to act as 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 kids 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 with 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 they didn’t own their wives. We are human-beings.’ I liked to believe she was in her own way one of the first authentic feminists in Iran.
When it came to the matter of Ayatollah Khomeini, after analysing both their answers my personal interpretation turned out to be: ‘Khomeini is a very important person who is going to be even more important soon.’
There was one piece of prophecy missing from my conclusion, which no one could imagine at the time, neither my over-religious grandmother, nor my secular father, nor even his leftist, rightist, moderate, reformist, nationalist, fundamentalist, Islamist or atheist friends who all hated the Shah. It took us a few years to discover what we had overlooked: it was not so much that the Shah was corrupt, it was that old adage 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 Turkish-Iranian border on our way home from our summer trip to the UK. We were all 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 England to Iran via France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Turkey. My parents planned to go to the UK every summer so that I could keep practicing my English and they could visit their friends. But this was not going to happen. This was our first and last summer vacation in Europe for many years to come. That summer was going to change many plans. The Islamic Revolution was on its way.
There was no way my parents could have heard about what was going on in Iran. The Internet, mobile phones and satellite TV had yet to be invented and there was no radio in our car. It was there, at the border, that we realised something was happening. Dad returned to the car after talking to a young man in customs, flushed with a combination of anxiety and rage. He bent down to whisper to Mum: a cinema had burnt down in Abadan while screening the Iranian film The Deer and 300 people had burned 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 the first time I had seen 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 all slept in the car while he was driving and Mum and Aunt Marjaneh changed shifts during the night to keep Dad company and make sure he didn’t fall asleep while driving. Mum insisted a few times that we should 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 to find out what was really going on. After weeks of literally living in the car, I also wanted to get home; I was fed up with sleeping and eating in the car. Dad thought it would be a good experience for all of us to drive through all those countries, but I didn’t find it interesting anymore; I wanted a proper bed. 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, who was 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 woke the rage of the nation against the regime, a rage that would accumulate in the next few months and lead to the sudden overthrow of 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran.
That was the first time I heard the name Ruhollah Khomeini. Twenty days later, something else happened. We heard that in a demonstration in Tehran’s Jaleh Square, the police had opened fire on the protesting crowd and killed a great many people: some said 4,000, others 90,000. Everybody I knew was enraged, but, since I wasn’t familiar with the impact of death, I didn’t really understand what all the fuss was about. I was introduced to the concept of death only a few days later when Mum took me to school to enrol me in the second grade. I heard a piece of news that had a tragic impact: Charlie Chaplin had died. This was someone I knew of, someone who made me laugh–and I understood.
The next two months are a blur. My clearest memory is of the tension: the tension in the air, the vibrant air in which one could smell a mixture of fear and bravado, see the red slogans on the walls declaring ‘Death to the Shah!’ and ‘Hail to Khomeini!’, and the twisted faces of people who were afraid to speak to each other and 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 closed down and went on a national strike. I didn’t fully appreciate what was going on except the joy of not being obliged to go to school anymore, a second summer holiday, although it also meant that I was not going to see my friend, Azadeh, the girl on whom I had a huge crush. We sat next to each other in class, studied together and hung out together between classes. I still remember her dark curly hair and her brilliant mathematical mind: she could divide any figure by any figure without using her pen. When the schools were shut down I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to her and I didn’t have her phone number. We took our time together for granted; when you are a child, everything seems eternal. I would discover how wrong I was all too soon.
My father and his friends gathered in our house or somewhere else every night. They endlessly discussed the changes while emptying bottles of vodka and packs of cigarettes and sometimes listened to the fiery speeches of Khomeini, recorded on audio-cassettes and smuggled into the country through Kuwait or Iraq. They were excited and happy; they wanted to be part of what was happening. Among them, I mostly remember Reza Company, an electrical engineer, and Hormoz, a lecturer in electronics, both members of the Tudeh (People) Communist Party, and Bahram who was a Nationalist like Dad.
I found it hard to understand why everybody hated the Shah. In school we were taught that the Shah was our nation’s loving father who cared about all his children and shed tears when he heard that someone in the country was in distress. We had to sing the national anthem every morning: ‘Long live our king of kings, for whose grace the country stands forever…’ But Dad disagreed and his contempt finally showed when he heard me murmuring the anthem while playing. He came up to me and put his hand on my shoulder. When I turned back, I saw ‘the look’ in his eyes; it meant he was immensely angry with me.
‘Listen Arash, the Shah is bad!’ he declared in a firm, deep voice. ‘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.’ He ended in the same angry tone, ‘I don’t want my son to sing this cursed anthem.’
‘Then what should I sing Dad?’
It was then when he taught me Oh, Iran, a song by a poet called Gol-e Golab, written during World War II when Iran was occupied by British and Russian forces, and although it never was or became the official anthem of Iran, it has always been considered so by people in Iran.
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
This song, which has always been frowned on by the ruling regime in Iran, makes the heart of any Iranian, anywhere in the world, beat faster. I have never met anyone from any nationality who loves their country more than the Iranians love Iran. And maybe the problem lies exactly here.
When I returned to England after Neda’s death in June 2009, to testify to her death and also to finish the course in publishing I had started 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 are not giving up! You don’t see this in another country today.’
‘Yes, I know,’ I answered briefly, and left. I had an appointment with my professor and I was already late; so 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 country to Iranians, but a concept that unites them regardless of ethnicity, dialect or religion: ‘Once an Iranian, always an Iranian,’ was the only thing I added.
It is an identity that cannot be taken away from an Iranian: it is both blessing and curse, a dream that has helped the nation endure a history full of struggles, the only dream worth dying for. They are a proud and stubborn nation. I couldn’t tell Nina that Iranians were already ‘Irani’ when the Aryans started their long migration south from the frozen lands of Siberia 4,000 years ago; when some left for the Indian peninsula, some settled in the green lands of Central Asia and others entered a plateau that is called Iran today, meaning the land of Aryans. Their land has been invaded and destroyed several times in the past 2,500 years, yet throughout a succession of occupations by Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, British and Russians they remained Iranians. Four hundred years after the Arab occupation they revived their language. When they realised that they could not resist the might of the Arabs but must either accept Islam or die, they transformed it into Shiism, a religion more compatible with their own Zoroastrianism and Manichaean religions. Unlike many other ancient civilisations conquered by the Arabs, Iranians never became Arabs or accepted 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 it’s a way of life. It would stretch Nina’s credibility if I told her that Iranians, remembering Zarathustra’s 3,000-year-old teachings that they had no options but to choose whether they wanted to be part of the Army 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 in this battlefield is the highest honour an Iranian can achieve. That is why, in the past 100 years, Iran has witnessed at least four major uprisings and a war: the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911, the uprising in defence of Prime Minister Mosadeq in 1953, the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the war with Iraq from 1980-1988 and the most recent uprising against the fraud in the 2009 presidential elections…
But let’s go back to 1978…
[Read the next 400 pages in the book, The Gaze of the Gazelle]