PART I – Since your love became my calling

The Shah left the country on 16 January 1979. Khomeini returned from exile two weeks later, on 1 February, and went to the holy city of Qom to choose his government.

On 9 February, all my father’s friends gathered at our home. The Revolution had almost succeeded. The Army had joined the people on Khomeini’s order. People had taken control of the infantry and were now armed. The only barrier between the people and the final victory was the Immortal Guard, or Javidan, the main unit of the Imperial Guard named after the ancient Persian royal guard or Persian Immortals, and National Television, which had been totally under the regime’s control. My friend Kami and I were in the living room, in front of the TV, waiting for the weekly Rangarang show that broadcast clips of the latest Iranian pop music. But the TV was only broadcasting classical music: no news, no shows, not even a presenter. Kami decided to call the TV channel; after many attempts, someone finally answered.

‘Excuse me, sir, why isn’t the Rangarang show on air?’

After listening for a few seconds, he hung up in silence.

‘What did they say?’ I asked, excited.

‘He said what a stupid boy I was to call at this point asking for a stupid show. He said that they were “in a bloodbath”. What’s a bloodbath?’

The final battle took place on 10 February. Armed civilians had already confronted the Immortal Guard and the streets were red with blood. Mum, Golnar and I were not allowed to leave the house but dad left early in the morning. Later, I realized that he had been driving the university ambulance all day, taking wounded people to hospitals; he had nearly been shot, too.

But there was more terrible news on the way. Dad did not come home until late. When the phone began to ring violently— in those days it was hard to interpret any movement, sound or image as non-violent—I answered it. It was Agha-djoon asking for dad in a strange tone of voice that I couldn’t quite understand. Later that night, when dad finally came home soaked in the blood of God knows how many murdered civilians, his eyes the blood of God knows how many murdered civilians, his eyes year-old uncle, had been shot by the Immortal Guard in front of his bakery while trying to save a wounded protester. He had died on the spot. A photo of Uncle Habib’s body in the morgue, lying alongside two other ‘martyrs’ of the Revolution killed on the same day, was published in the press the following morning. That sight of his pale, naked and lifeless body introduced me to the gruesome face of death, a face I was destined to live with. This was the first of many deaths I would face in my life.

The people finally took over the TV and the next day the first thing we heard was the excited voice of a guerrilla declaring, ‘From now on you will hear the real voice of the people and the Revolution.’ Khomeini called that day, 11 February, ‘The day of Allah’ and declared the end of 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran and the beginning of the reign of Islam, a new era in which the people would control their own destinies. Kami and I, on the other hand, had no idea that we would never see Rangarang or any other kind of pop music on TV for many years to come.

I began to look for Azadeh as soon as I arrived in the school yard on that cold morning in February 1979. I had just turned nine. I was happy to be back after the long strike, to be able to see my classmates again, especially Azadeh, and to be able to play in the yard. I was also happy because my parents were happy. Although I still couldn’t realize the full extent of the change, I clearly felt that the tension in the air had been lifted, a good enough reason to be happy.

I wanted to share this happiness with Azadeh. No one knew why she wasn’t there since none of us had been in touch during the strike. I thought that perhaps her family was away and had not managed to return in time for school and I tried to cling to this theory in order to deal with the disappointment of not seeing her. Then the bell rang and we were called to stand in line. We wondered what was going to happen; in the past, this was when we had to chant ‘Long live our king of kings’ but there were no kings left to pray for.

I was asking my friend who stood behind me in the line about Azadeh, when the sound of a strange song in a different language interrupted me. A fifth grader on the balcony beside the headmaster was reciting some verses from the Quran. We were supposed to stand in silence and listen to those Arabic words whose meaning completely eluded us.

When it was over, the headmaster, a middle-aged, bald man, took the microphone, thanked the boy and invited him to leave the balcony. Then he began to talk about the changes. He welcomed us back to school and then went on to tell us how important this Revolution and our new-found freedom were. He said that, henceforth, instead of chanting that evil anthem of the previous regime, we would listen to a few uplifting verses of the Holy Quran every day and . . . I lost track of his words. He talked for half an hour while we stood there, shivering in the cold. We soon began to yawn and shuffle our feet. I began to tease the girl in front of me; others shared jokes or planned games for the break after the first class. And then, suddenly, we realized that the headmaster was silent. We looked up at him again and saw lines of deep sorrow marking his face. My heart began to pound. The students fell silent, as if they had realized that the most important part of the speech was yet to come.

‘This freedom has not been achieved without the sacrifices of thousands of martyrs, whose blood has washed this land free of the devil’s footprint,’ the headmaster shouted, trying to hide his emotions. ‘Our school, too, has lost an angel in this battle for Freedom and Justice.’

I felt I could no longer breathe.

‘Azadeh, your classmate, was shot last week while she was with her father in the street. She is one of the martyrs to whom we owe . . .’

I seemed to have frozen at the words. The headmaster’s voice translating a verse from the Quran echoed in my ears, a verse we were destined to hear hundreds of times over the next decade, ‘Think not of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead. Nay, they live, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord.’

How can I describe the feelings of a child who realizes that he has lost his beloved friend? I was filled with a deep and overwhelming hatred. The Shah disgusted me—he had killed my Azadeh, he had killed Uncle Habib. It was then that I knew why the people hated him so and why they demanded his death in their angry shouts. The coward who claimed to be the Father of the Nation had killed my Azadeh to keep his throne. I couldn’t cry because of the immense void that opened up within me. I felt as if someone had ripped out my heart.

I couldn’t go back to school the next day or the day after; a high fever burnt me up from within. I couldn’t believe that Azadeh was no more. So this then was death: when there is no chance left to see a loved one again. No, it wasn’t death. Perhaps death would be easier. This was grief. I never really understood how she died. A stray bullet on the street had hit her and that was all I ever knew. Despite my parents’ care and the visits to the doctor, it was Madar who saved me from going mad. She was there for me through it all, telling me stories about Heaven and how wonderful it was: no one had to go to school or wash their hands or brush their teeth; children were turned into little angels with wings. I could talk to Azadeh in my prayers; and each time I prayed her wings would grow a little more until, one day, she could fly back to our world and see if I were all right.

And I believed her. That’s how I survived. After a few months I could no longer remember Azadeh’s face, no matter how hard I tried, but I continued to pray for her. Every night at first, then every other night, then every week, then every once in a while, until I grew up and realized that no wings were large enough to help her fly back to me. And after a few years it was too late anyway; I had lost my faith in angels.

This was how our generation entered childhood, baptized in death and hatred. We learnt about death even before we had a chance to learn about life. We were told that when the Hidden Imam emerged, accompanied by his 313 supporters and riding on his horse, he would slay all the infidels in the world and he wouldn’t stop shedding blood until the waves of blood lapped against his saddle. It was imprinted on our flesh and written into our bones that today might be our last day on earth and that we must make the most of it.