PART I – Since your love became my calling

Aunt Marjaneh, a graduate in political science, had been employed by the Ministry of Education and appointed the headmistress of a small elementary school in an extremely poor district in South Tehran. She was very happy with her post because it gave her an opportunity to educate and help some of the city’s poorest children. She had always dreamt of following in the footsteps of her role model, Samad Behrangi, a teacher and children’s writer who had drowned in the river Aras 10 years ago. It was a mysterious death that most of the opposition groups attributed to the Shah’s secret service.

It was Aunt Marjaneh who took charge of educating me in the concepts of justice and equality. She wasn’t a communist but she had considerable respect for its ideas, especially the need to provide equal opportunity. She was always encouraging me to read Samad’s stories, the most important of which was The Little Black Fish. A little fish lived with his family in a small stream but wanted to know about the world beyond. He decided to leave the dirty stream in search of the sea, about which he had heard from a travelling fish. When he finally reached the sea, he fought the dreaded Pelican and ultimately sacrificed his life to free the other fish from the terror of that predator. I remember crying for nights when I first read it; Mum had to ask Aunt Marjaneh not to recommend any more stories to me. But neither Marjaneh nor I cared and she continued to initiate me in the world of stories without happy endings—the life of Che Guevara, of Martin Luther King and of the Iranians who had been assassinated by the Shah’s regime. She believed I needed to grow up strong in order to survive in a cruel world. I believe she was right— although I still preferred the fairy tales with their happy endings.

Her position as headmistress would give her the power to put some of her ideas into practice; at least, that was what she thought at the beginning. Every once in a while she took me to her school where I made friends with the boys even though we were from completely different worlds. They were from poor and uneducated families, the sort of people I couldn’t and wouldn’t have known if it weren’t for Aunt Marjaneh. She tried hard in the local department of the Ministry of Education to raise enough funds to buy new clothes for her pupils before New Year’s Eve, and added extra classes for them dedicated to reading and discussing books. On one occasion, accompanied by the ‘Tutor of Islamic Manners’, a new post in the school created after the Revolution to ensure that children received proper instruction on Islamic good manners, she took me to the homes of a few of her students to hand out the new clothes she had succeeded in buying for them. Seeing the smiles on the faces of those children and their families in those modest little flats gave me enormous pleasure. Aunt Marjaneh was doing her best to teach me that I didn’t need to be rich to be happy. Whenever I craved something, the memory of the sparkle in their eyes brought me down to earth.

But Aunt Marjaneh didn’t really succeed in her efforts. A year later, the parents of one of her pupils complained about her to the Ministry of Education, claiming that she was trying to corrupt their child’s mind with communist ideas while teaching them things that they didn’t need to know. She was soon demoted to teaching Arabic and, two years later, was relegated to administrative work with no direct contact with the children. She became seriously depressed and some time later, on the spur of the moment, she resigned from all her responsibilities and left Iran for Germany with her husband and young son. Other than very short visits to the family, she never returned to Iran.

The combination of her teachings and my Islamic training turned me into a fanatic. I began to pray three times a day, trying to hide it from dad who I believed was opposed to my new and consuming interest in Islam. I refused to sleep in my comfortable bed and preferred the bare floor without a pillow or a mattress on the grounds that there were millions of people who couldn’t afford a comfortable bed and I wanted to show my solidarity with them. I ate only as much as I needed and refused to eat anything delicious lest I be led astray by the pleasures of this world . . . I was only nine years old.

But it wasn’t easy to deceive dad. Once, while I was praying, he opened the door to my room. I couldn’t interrupt my prayer; it is a cardinal sin to do so unless it is a matter of life and death. Dad said nothing and quietly closed the door. When I finished praying, I didn’t dare walk out of my room; I didn’t want to face dad who, I believed, would receive me with ‘the look’. After a while, however, he knocked on the door and entered my room with a smile.

‘I’m sorry I entered your room without knocking. If you want to pray Arash, pray,’ he chuckled. ‘It’s your decision. Don’t be afraid. I’ve always taught you to be a free man. You are free to choose what you want to believe in.’ He knew that my fervour wouldn’t last long but he did begin to pay me more attention. It was then that we set off on our book-hunting quests.