PART I – Since your love became my calling

If you go to Enghelab Street in front of the University of Tehran, you will be overwhelmed by the smell of books. About 200 bookshops stand side by side, a heaven for book-lovers. There are all kinds of bookshops: specialist, academic, trade or children’s. But, quite literally, all you see as you leave the university are books. It’s hard to walk in Enghelab Street and not buy a book; or, at least, to not spend a good deal of time browsing.

This was where dad took me once every month. I was given a certain budget to buy whichever books I liked, provided that I read them before our next visit. Of course, ‘whichever books’ is a little exaggerated, for dad had a huge influence on my choices. I was introduced to the classics of world literature: Leo Tolstoy, John Steinbeck, Anton Chekhov, Alexandre dumas, Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson and more. We also bought books by Iranian authors such as Sadeq Chouback and Bahram Sadeqi, although, because of the bitterness of their content, dad preferred that I begin by reading the world classics.

I was fascinated by Enghelab Street. This was the wellspring of democracy. Thousands of people walked on the pavements and discussed current affairs as they browsed. On the other side of the pavement, facing the row of bookshops, stood the stalls of the second-hand book dealers who also sold alternative ‘white-cover’ books, books by communist authors and not published by mainstream publishing houses. In-between the stalls stood the newspaper sellers, each with their particular titles. Hundreds of papers and news-sheets were published at that time, each with a specific political affiliation: Islamic, nationalist, liberal and a wide range of leftists, and each with slightly different approaches—Marxist Islamist, Leninist, Trotskyite, Maoist, etc. And everyone stood around passionately debating the latest issues, defending their ideologies and propounding their views on the best ways of governing the country.

I looked forward to our monthly visits to Enghelab Street and, in-between them, fervently read everything I could. My introduction to world literature was dad’s way of preventing me from becoming a dogmatist, which was what happened to most of the children who received only the Islamic training that dominated school curricula. On the other hand, Madar and Hadj Agha bombarded me with religious books containing the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad and the 12 Imams. It was as if there were an unspoken competition between dad and Aunt Marjaneh on one side and Madar and Hadj-Agha on the other for my attention. However, I didn’t think about these things at the time. I just enjoyed reading and became addicted to books.

The scenes I saw in Enghelab Street in 1979 were actually the dying breaths of a newborn democracy that was soon to be suffocated by the smoke of a fiery tyranny whose flames had just appeared on the horizon. There was nothing tangible to support these anxieties. Khomeini in Qom acted as the spiritual Father of the Nation and pretended he wasn’t interfering directly in politics. Bazargan, the liberal-nationalist prime minister was trying to prevent the fundamentalists from taking over the government and to open the doors to negotiation with the US and other Western countries. Various political groups and parties were jostling for seats in the first Islamic Consultative Assembly, or Parliament, and a fundamentalist Islamic terrorist group which had assassinated a few prominent political and religious figures after the Revolution was quelled and its leaders tried and executed. Nevertheless, everything seemed to promise a golden age of democracy and liberty.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.