PART I – Since your love became my calling

But let’s go back to 1978.

The Shah, deciding in desperation to suppress the riots, appointed one of his generals as the new prime minister and initiated a curfew after dark. Khomeini, who had moved from Iraq to Paris, directed the people to shout ‘Allah-o Akbar’ (God is Great) from the rooftops every night at 9 in protest against the curfew. People obeyed, including my father and his friends, none of whom were even remotely religious. Khomeini also asked the soldiers to either defect or join the civilians. It was then that Uncle Reza, Mum’s brother doing his military service, defected and went into hiding so that he would not be forced to take up arms against the people.

It was a joy to go up to the rooftops every night; we knew all our neighbours would be there, shouting ‘Allah-o Akbar’ and sharing the latest jokes about the Shah or his prime minister. We children were allowed to stay up past our bedtimes and join our parents on the roof. We lived in a flat in a two-storey building that my father had rented from an old friend and university colleague; he lived on the first floor with his family and his son Kami and his daughter Nazi were my friends. We played on the roof while our parents laughed and shouted; every once in a while we joined in the ‘Allah-o Akbar’, too.

‘Why are you shouting “Allah-o Akbar”?’ I once asked dad. ‘You’re not religious!’

‘We have to show this tyrant king that his commands are no longer valid in this country,’ he responded. ‘We have to show him that we are many and that we are united.’

Thirty years later, Mir-Hussein Mousavi invited the people of Iran to do the same thing every night, to show their outrage at the 2009 election fraud and to protest against the tyranny of the regime. Ironically, shouting ‘Allah-o Akbar’ from the rooftops was banned in 2009 by the same regime that was born from these shouts 30 years earlier. Even more ironic was that while the Shah merely ignored the shouts, the police of the Islamic Republic attacked our homes and arrested our people.

A few days later, General Azhari, the new prime minister, was questioned by the press about the nocturnal shouting. ‘I have been investigating the case,’ he answered. ‘I was even out last night. Those are not real people shouting: they are only a few playing “Allah-o Akbar” tapes.’ The idiocy of his comments further inflamed the people. Invited by Khomeini to rally in the streets on the day of Ashura, to prove to Azhari that, in fact, the people against the Shah were not so few, they responded in force.

Ashura is the most important day in the Shia lunar calendar and one of the most significant annual events in Iran. It is the anniversary of Imam Hussein’s martyrdom about 1,300 years ago. Imam Hussein was the son of Imam Ali and the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. When he defied the tyranny of Caliph Yazid, he and 71 of his friends and family were massacred in an unequal battle near Karbala, south of Baghdad in today’s Iraq. Since then, every year, Shia Muslims honour this day by mourning for Imam Hussein. For the Iranians, he is the ultimate symbol of the battle between Good and Evil, of resistance and bravery and of the fight to the death for an ideal.

Dad took me to the enormous Ashura demonstrations of 1978.Though practically no one stayed indoors, Hadj-Agha was one of the few who did. A zealous believer and a self-taught Muslim scholar with a deep knowledge of Islam, he was not happy with the Islamic movement led by the clerics. He was also a fierce critic of Khomeini. He owned a prestigious Islamic bookshop near the main Bazaar, which was also a meeting place for religious scholars and clerics. Almost everyone in the book industry and in religious circles believed him to be the absolute authority in the field of Islamic books. He was the one who cautioned Mum and my aunt each time they left the house to join the demonstrations.

‘You don’t know these mullahs as I do. You shouldn’t trust them.’

Once he told me a story about his encounter with Khomeini. They had met in the late 1950s when they were both middle-aged and Khomeini was only one mullah among many. Khomeini had gone to Hadj-Agha’s bookshop and asked for a particular book. Hadj-Agha brought it out and criticized the author’s point of view. Khomeini frowned and told Hadj-Agha that he was not supposed to talk about such delicate matters; that he had better take care of his bookshop instead of meddling with specialist fields. Hadj-Agha remained silent for a second, and then said: ‘I know as much as you about these matters. The only difference is that I am working hard to earn a decent living. You’ve never done a day’s work in your life! You prefer to exploit people’s religion for your livelihood.’ Khomeini threw the book on the counter and stormed out. I like to imagine that it was then that Khomeini decided to be more than a mullah; to be, rather, a political leader.

Nonetheless, Hadj-Agha was also a fundamentalist. He forced my mother to leave school when she was 16 despite all her tearful pleas to be allowed to study for a few more years. He believed that girls weren’t supposed to study beyond a certain level; although when it came to Aunt Marjaneh, four years younger than Mum, he changed his mind in the light of the current feminist movements and decided to let her go to university. He even paid for her stay in Cambridge while she studied English.

But Mum was forced to marry when she was 17. She had to choose between several suitors and she chose dad only because he promised to allow and help her study for as long as she wished. But Mum soon became pregnant; I was born and then they had to move to the UK. She attended an art college in Birmingham for a while but she had to wait a few more years for her high-school diploma.

Hadj-Agha was furious with dad for naming me after Arash instead of after an Islamic hero such as Ali or Muhammad; he believed these pagan names would propagate heresy in Iran. He always teased me by saying that Arash wasn’t a hero at all: a proper hero wouldn’t die after simply shooting an arrow. According to him, Imam Ali was the real hero: he could decapitate 700 heretics and traitors in only a day!

Anyway, there we were in the crowd on the day of Ashura 1978. I had never seen so many people in the same place asking for the same thing—neither had the rest of the world. It was said to be the biggest protest meeting in history. Millions of people marched from 24 Esfand Square to Shahyad Square. Given the multitude of people, the police were advised not to interfere. Men and women walked in separate clusters. The most important thing I noticed was the dramatic change of fashion among women. Those young girls who had appeared in tight jeans or miniskirts and fashionable hairstyles just the day before were now completely covered in Islamic hijabs, chadors or headscarves, even those who, like my mother, didn’t usually observe the hijab. Khomeini was now the official leader of the anti-Shah movement and people strongly believed that Islam was their last resort and only saviour.

There was more diversity among the men: they wore fashionable bell-bottoms, long, pointed shirt collars and sported the layered hair and sideburns popular in the 1970s. I could also see men with short hair and beards that marked them as zealous Islamists; they were in their mid-30s and mid-40s and wore long-sleeved shirts with or without a jacket—short sleeves were far too immodest for the likes of them. I could also see unshaven older men who wore the brimless, rounded Kufi hat and who were immediately identifiable as the true followers of Khomeini. It was a sea of diversity among the men and a wave of uniformity among the women.

When I could no longer walk, dad carried me on his shoulders and we continued towards our destination. He believed it was something I had to witness because he thought it unlikely that such a thing would ever happen again. The Shah was doomed and victory was close.

But he was wrong. Thirty years later, on 15 June 2009, I saw and was part of an even larger demonstration at the same place. There were differences, of course. For one thing, the names had changed: 24 Esfand was now Enghelab (Revolution) Square and Shahyad was Azadi (Freedom) Square. But the changes in the people were more drastic: this time men and women walked together, and the diversity was more evident among the women despite the fact that they were all forced to wear the hijab, the legacy of their mothers. In 1978, women chose to abandon their freedom to dress as they pleased; in 2009, women were struggling to regain this very freedom.

I remember most of the chants and slogans at the Ashura rally. The most popular was also the most amusing: in response to Azhari’s stupid remark about the nightly ‘Allah-o Akbar’, people shouted: ‘Azhari, you idiot, tell us if we are tapes now! Tapes don’t walk in the streets, you four-starred ass!’ Other slogans were simpler and more to the point: ‘down with the Shah!’ ‘Hail to Khomeini!’ ‘Independence, Liberty, Islamic Revolution’.

But there were significant differences between the many chants and slogans. The communist guerrillas sang the Persian version of ‘El pueblo, unido, jamas sera vencido’ (The People, united, shall never be defeated); the Mujahideen-e Khalgh or the People’s Mujahideen, a group that followed an ideology based on an incompatible mixture of Islam and Marxism, sang: ‘I swear by the name of freedom, I swear by the name of your last moments, that your path will be our path, oh martyrs’; the Islamists chanted ‘Allah Allah Allah, Allah-o Akbar, La Ilaha Illallah’. Some people simply walked quietly, and there were others, including dad, who cherry-picked the slogans. He would shout ‘down with the Shah!’ but remained silent when others hailed Khomeini or asked for the Islamic Revolution. When I asked him why, he simply answered that he didn’t believe in Khomeini.

‘So why are you here with all these people who love him?’ I asked.

‘After the Shah is gone, we will be free and people can choose whoever and whatever they want. That is the meaning of democracy. No one man will have all the power: the power belongs to the people, even the minority.’

He was wrong, again.

I couldn’t care less about the freedom of our nation at the moment as I was furiously trying to regain my individual freedom from dad. Star Wars: A New Hope was on at the cinema and all my friends had been to watch it. Mum and dad, fearing a repeat of the Cinema Rex tragedy in Abadan, refused to let me go. I begged them, with tears in my eyes but they were unrelenting. I listened enviously to friends who chatted about the film, about Darth Vader’s outfit and all the strange creatures and robots. This to me was the cruellest thing parents could do to their children—deny them what their peers had the right to know—and for that I couldn’t forgive them.

Confronted with the huge uprising, the Shah sacked General Azhari and appointed a new prime minister. Shapour Bakhtiar was a moderate member of the Nationalist Front and one of the followers of Dr Mosadeq, the popular prime minister of the 1950s. After nationalizing Iranian oil and winning his case against the UK at the International Court of Justice, he organized a semi-coup and forced the Shah to leave the country only to be counter-attacked by US forces who overthrew him and returned the Shah to his throne. This incident was the main source of anti-US feeling among Iranians. If the people wanted a change of regime, insisted Bakhtiar, it should happen through a referendum. But Khomeini declared that it was too late and demanded Bakhtiar’s immediate resignation if he wanted to be accepted by the Revolution. Bakhtiar attempted to encourage the people to accept a democratic process but in vain. It was all over for the Shah—he now had to reap what he had sown for the past 30 years: the suppression of the media, the torture and execution of any man or woman who opposed him and his ironfisted rule of the country. Weary, the people no longer wanted the reinstatement of a constitutional monarchy.

On 16 January 1979, I was at my aunt’s. I was playing in the alley with my cousins Kazem, Soussan, Soheila and their neighbour Ahmadreza, a few years older than I, who was encouraging us to write slogans—‘death to the Shah’ and ‘Hail to Khomeini’—on the walls with our crayons. Suddenly, dad’s dark-blue Peugeot 304 turned into the narrow alley and screeched to a halt. He jumped out of the car, flushed with excitement and smiling from ear to ear. Crushing me in a bear hug, he shouted: ‘Arash, the Shah is gone!’

It was a simple piece of news that had seized the city: ‘The Shah is gone.’ ‘Shah Raft’ was the headline in every newspaper in the country, printed in the biggest, boldest typeface and celebrated by a veritable tsunami of people in the streets dancing and shouting ‘The Shah is gone!’

Dad took me home to pick up the rest of the family. Aunt Marjaneh was staying with us but suffering from a bad back ever since the long trip from the UK. Hence no one expected her to join us on our celebratory trip. But she began to cry; she had always dreamt of this day and now she couldn’t be part of it. So dad helped her down the stairs and adjusted the car seat to let her lean back in a comfortable position. And we set off to celebrate the Shah’s flight into exile.

People wore hats made of newspapers with the headline ‘The Shah is gone’ and danced and chanted as they wiped the city clean of every symbol that reminded them of the reign of the Pahlavi dynasty. Pictures of the Shah were pulled down and burnt and statues of the Shah and his father, Reza Shah, were smashed to pieces. With the rest of the country that night, I witnessed one of the greatest collective festivals of our nation.

Unfortunately, it was also going to be the last time that the people of Iran would partake of such unanimous and unadulterated joy.