PART I – Since your love became my calling

Every child in every corner of the world knows about limits. Parents would be at a loss without limits. The moment children begin to talk, sometimes even before that, parents make sure they know what they must not do: must not swear, must not speak with your mouth full, must not pee in your pants, must not hurt other children or animals, must not be rude to your parents, must not watch TV if you have homework, must not stay up after bedtime, etc. And children must, by their very nature, keep pushing at these limits. This constant tussle over boundaries between parents and children is part of what psychologists call ‘growing up’.

Like any other child, I knew there were things that I wasn’t supposed to do but in the autumn of 1979 I faced a whole new pedagogic phenomenon: what we couldn’t do didn’t bother me anymore; it was what we could do that I was desperately eager to find out. And it wasn’t only us, the children, who had to worry about pushing the limits. For the first time, our parents and teachers were all in the same boat.

The Revolution had revealed a whole new aspect of prohibition. Regardless of people’s age, as 1979 drew to its close, almost everything was prohibited: contact between the sexes; dancing; laughing loudly; eating pork or drinking alcohol; keeping dogs; wearing short-sleeved shirts, T-shirts or shorts; listening to music; enjoying American films; watching superhero cartoons; Walt Disney; singing; partying; listening to foreign radio stations; going to the beach with the family; playing cards or chess or backgammon; wearing a tie; shaving your beard; showing any part of the body other than your hands and face, wearing make-up or smoking (for women); criticizing government figures; following any religion other than Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism; converting from Islam; saying that America was not the Great Satan; not hating Israel; not cursing the royal family; not shouting three ‘Salawats’ whenever we heard the name of Khomeini . . .

And it wasn’t a matter of choice. People could be punished for what they did or did not do. The vigilante committees formed after the Revolution were now responsible, instead of the old official police force, for making sure that people acted in accordance with ‘good Islamic manners’. They took over the streets after 9 p.m. and checked cars at crossroads and squares. They searched the boot to make sure it carried nothing suspicious, be it weapons or alcohol. Sometimes, especially if the driver wore a tie, he was asked to exhale directly into their faces—to check whether or not he had been drinking. Before the Revolution, before the prohibition on alcohol, no one indulged in drinking and driving. But in an ironic turn of events, ever since the Revolution, Iran has been one of the few countries where people continue to drink and drive. Alcohol is illegal anyway and using public transport when you smell of drink is even more dangerous than driving a car in that condition. You may just get away with the latter but certainly not with the former.

People began to fight back, of course, and combated the terrors of the night guards with a unique and unbeatable weapon: the cucumber. Cucumbers became the most important evening accessory for those who had been drinking. As soon as a driver saw the beams from the guards’ torches waving down his car, he and his friends would wolf down a cucumber in an attempt to hide the telltale smell. Another popular weapon was garlic. Iran must be the only place, outside of vampire legends, where garlic has been used as a weapon against evil. Well, peppermint sprays were not yet available in the Iranian market—and nor was the breathalyser.

Wearing ties was not as strictly prohibited but it was seriously frowned upon. Imam Khomeini, assuming that the tie was something Western, had dismissed it as a ‘collar and chain’, ‘the symbol of our enslavement to imperialist cultures’.

Painting human figures and sculpting were also frowned upon. These forms of artistic expression were considered attempts at imitating God the Creator as well as an unwanted reminder of the pagan tradition of idol worship. Music was considered sacrilegious because the pleasure it provided its listeners was capable of making them forget the real ecstasy achieved through prayer. But it soon got rather complicated. Every revolution relies firmly on its symbols and most of these are the result of some form of artistic expression; hence, the authorities needed to draw a line between what art was good and what was evil: what was allowed and what was not. All music other than revolutionary songs and traditional Iranian music was banned; solo female voices were absolutely taboo. Every form of painting was considered evil unless it portrayed Imam Khomeini or a revolutionary or religious scene.

We were in school until midday, after which I went home, had a nap and then began my homework, which, even at the elementary school level, seemed overwhelming. The children’s programmes on TV would begin at 5 p.m. and I had to struggle to finish my homework in time.

Feature programmes were broadcast only between 4 and 10 p.m. There would be a recitation from the Quran between 4 and 4.30, after which would begin Missing Persons. I couldn’t go out. I was alone at home and had usually finished my homework. I had even found time to read a few more pages of my book. By the time Missing Persons began, I was bored to death, impatiently waiting for the children’s shows. Missing Persons had the simplest structure in the world: a photo of a missing person appeared on the screen and the narrator gave a brief description about him or her: the date of disappearance; the age of the person; and whom to call if anyone knew their whereabouts. Initially indifferent to it, in time I devised an entertainment out of the show. Looking at the missing persons’ photos while listening to their details, I would try to imagine what might have happened to them. In my mind they had all run away from home to see the world. They were wandering aimlessly, bent under the weight of their rucksacks, or were tracing the path along some mysterious map at one end of which lay treasure. A series of extraordinary events and fantastic creatures. That was how I killed time, and most of the novels and stories I wrote years later grew out of those imaginings.

At last the children’s shows would begin. They were meant to last for an hour but two-thirds of that hour was devoted to instructions in good Islamic manners or to the greatness of the Revolution and Imam Khomeini. These were interspersed with some short animated films, the most memorable being a Polish one about a dog looking for its bone, and another about two brothers quarrelling all the time until they were taught to share their belongings.

When the children’s show came to an end, there was nothing left to watch on TV: a mullah would appear and speak for hours on religious matters. In any case, my parents would have come by then and we could play a board game while they waited for News Hour to begin, the signal for us children to go to bed.

It was the most boring life imaginable, and it seemed as if the days would never end. But events outside our home were not so boring. Things were changing. Despite Bazargan’s efforts to rebuild the bridge between Iran and the US, Khomeini’s anti US remarks were continually fuelling the tension. On 4 November 1979, around 500 students who called themselves the ‘Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line’, attacked the US Embassy and took 53 US diplomats hostage. Despite Bazargan’s efforts at persuading Khomeini to release them, Khomeini issued a statement supporting the takeover of the US Embassy: he called it ‘the second revolution’ and claimed that the Embassy was ‘a den of spies’. Bazargan resigned and sanctions were imposed against Iran for the first time.

Most of these students later became prominent political figures in Iran. They became the main supporters of Muhammad Khatami’s call for reform in 1999, and most of them are now in prison or in exile.