PART I – Since your love became my calling

‘Have you not seen what your Lord did to the friends of the elephant?’

We recited the ‘Surah Elephant’ from the Quran all day at school and heard it repeatedly on the radio and on TV. For those unfamiliar with Quranic lore, it may seem odd that God should really care about punishing the friends of an elephant; those who advocate animal rights might well be offended. But for us it was very significant: the story of the ‘friends of the elephant’ is to Muslims what the story of David and Goliath is to Jews.

But why was it relevant to that day, 25 April 1980? After all attempts and negotiations to release the 53 American hostages had met with failure, the US military launched a rescue operation. But three out of the eight helicopters in Operation Eagle Claw were caught in a sandstorm in Iran’s Tabas desert and three more were destroyed or left behind because of a refuelling accident, thus leading to the death of eight Americans. Operation Eagle Claw ended with an embarrassing statement by Jimmy Carter which, later, became instrumental in his defeat in the US presidential election.

But, on our side, we were reliving a myth. According to Islamic lore, Abraha, ruler of Yemen, decided to destroy the pilgrimage site of Kaaba in Mecca, the most important city in Arabia—and now in the entire Muslim world—in order to draw the pilgrims to his own magnificent church. Leading an army of 40,000 men on a white elephant, he attacked Mecca and none of the nomadic Arabs could stop him. But just before he entered the city, a cloud of birds called Ababil—more familiar in Iran today as the name of one of the unmanned aerial vehicles—appeared in the sky and began to throw stones at the army of Abraha. It was destroyed within minutes and he was forced to retreat.

The regime announced that the failure of the US Air Force was a repeat of the Mecca incident: Allah had again destroyed the forces of evil attempting to invade the Holy Land. This proved that God was protecting the new Islamic Republic and that Khomeini was, indeed, God’s Chosen One. In his speech, he said:

This stupid operation failed according to God’s command. O warrior nation of Iran, you heard about the American military intervention and you also heard Carter’s excuses. I have said several times that Carter is ready to do anything to be re-elected; he is prepared to burn the world . . . Carter has not realized what sort of nation he is facing and what doctrine he is challenging.

Khomeini insisted that the sandstorm was a sign of God’s support and the nation believed him. I, of course, wondered how the Americans reacted to being called ‘friends of the elephant’. However, when the diplomats were finally released seven months later as a result of increasing international pressure and the threats of newly elected US President Ronald Reagan, no one asked if they were to be released without any gains for the regime of Iran. No one wondered what the point of the Ababil was, anyway. From then on the US became the Great Satan and the Islamic Republic of Iran became the rightful capital of God’s sovereignty on earth. It was time to move forward and destroy the last remnants of the empire of evil in Iran and Khomeini launched his campaign with the hijab. Now that it had been demonstrated that he was indeed God’s Chosen One, no one dared defy his orders.

It was officially announced that, henceforth, women had to wear a hijab in public workplaces and regulations were designed to define exactly what was meant by correct hijab: hair should be covered; a long, loose coat should be worn to conceal the prominent parts of the female body; and no make-up was to be used. Amazingly, men, even non-religious ones, were the strongest advocates of the hijab movement and many forced their wives to submit to this new law. President Bani-Sadr claimed in a press conference that a certain ray emanating from a woman’s hair could prompt lustful thoughts in a man. And the hijab was designed to prevent the pernicious and evil effects of this very ray. It took a year before the law on the hijab was passed; from then on, women were compelled to wear it everywhere.