PART II: If you want the ultimate pleasure step on a landmine
I couldn’t pull out of the Islamic Association at school for that would raise too much suspicion. But I decided to use my influence and prevent my classmates from being brainwashed. The first thought that came into my head was to use my parents’ strategy: get them to read.
The libraries in the schools had been ‘purged’ of every book that was deemed ‘inappropriate’. Ours had only religious books and ‘approved’ fiction and non-fiction: hundreds of volumes of the Quran, individual chapters (surahs) of the Quran, prayer books, books by the official writers of the system, stories about the lives of the prophets and Imams.
It was time the students broadened their horizons. We found a broken bookshelf in a ruin outside school and dragged it into class. We bought a lock for it out of our fund and then I made an official announcement: the next step in getting closer to the ideals of the Revolution was to act according to a saying of the Prophet: ‘One hour of reading is more blissful than 70 hours of prayer.’ I asked everyone to bring a good book from home and donate it to our library; whenever they wanted their books back, they would be returned.
In less than a week we had more than a hundred books. I contributed quite a bit by donating those I had most enjoyed reading: the ones by Tolstoy, Stevenson, Twain, Nesbit and some on the history of science which Dad had given me. Every student could borrow two books a week if he were a donor and one if he weren’t. We also decided to write short stories instead of our usual essays during our creative-writing classes, fed up as we were with the standard topics placed before us: ‘Which is better, Knowledge or Wealth?’ ‘Describe an Autumn Day.’ ‘What Should We Do to Help the Revolution?’ ‘Your Love for Imam Khomeini: Describe It!’
Dark clouds loomed over our fates in less than a month. Apparently, this time I had gone too far.
The first storm was raised by our teacher of creative writing. We had been told to write about ‘Bravery’ and I had written a short story about a sheep dog. One day, a shepherd got lost and a pack of wolves attacked his flock of sheep. His sheepdog herded them towards the village while he tried to keep back the wolves. He fought hard and was finally wounded and killed. But, by then, the sheep had already reached the village and were saved.
My teacher didn’t like the story. He claimed I had plagiarized it, which made me furious. ‘Why do you think I have stolen this story?’ I shouted, ‘I’ve written it myself!’
‘An 11-year-old cannot possibly have written it!’
‘You have to prove I stole it. Where did you read this story?’
‘I don’t know where but it’s definitely not by YOU!’
He was beginning to lose his temper but changed tack soon enough. ‘And you weren’t asked to write a story. You were asked to write about bravery!’
‘This is bravery, isn’t it?’ I responded, ‘Giving up your life to save the others’!’
But the teacher wasn’t interested in my opinion. He gave me 10 out of 20 and asked me to sit down.
I didn’t realize there was a conspiracy afoot until two weeks later when I was summoned by the Tutor of Islamic Manners.
‘We haven’t authorized the setting up of a library in your class,’ he said.
‘But we simply wanted to encourage our classmates to read more books!’
‘There’s the school library if they want to read.’
‘But there are a lot of good books in our class library that aren’t available in the school library.’
‘There is a good reason for that,’ he smiled, ‘They aren’t good books.’
I didn’t know what to say. I had only just realized the enormity of what I had done.
‘This book, for example, War and Peace by the communist Tolstoy.’
It was my turn to smile, ‘Tolstoy wasn’t a communist.’
‘He was. All Russian authors are communists.’
‘But he died long before the Communist Revolution!’ I insisted.
The teacher raised his eyes and looked straight into mine: ‘And why do you know so much about the Communist Revolution? Perhaps you are a communist? Perhaps your parents are communists?’
Oh God! I had ruined everything!
‘No, no. I am a true believer in Islam and the Revolution.’
He raised his eyebrows. ‘Then why do you have this book about this cursed Darwin and his stupid theory of evolution in your library?’
‘Darwin? Stupid?’ I hadn’t known that Darwin was a forbidden topic too.
‘Yes, Darwin claims that our ancestors were monkeys. That’s stupid!’
‘But . . .’
‘Whereas the Holy Quran teaches us that Allah created Adam and Eve from clay. Darwin is going to burn in hell for corrupting the minds of people.’
I decided that silence was the best strategy.
‘Listen, Arash. It is never too late to correct your mistakes. Next week we will have a nice book-burning ceremony in our courtyard. You can invite your classmates to bring all the inappropriate books and we will celebrate the destruction of heretic ideas.’ He handed me a list. ‘These are the books in your library that have to be destroyed. The rest you can keep.’
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island, War and Peace, 1001 Nights, The Little Black Fish and, of course, Fahrenheit 451 were only a few of the titles that were sentenced to be burnt at the stake.
I cried all night. I couldn’t believe that we were going to have an actual book-burning ceremony. When I had read about the book burnings in Nazi Germany I had thought they were a myth. No one could celebrate burning books. But now . . .
I had to save the books no matter what. I got together my classmates and told them that we had to shut down our library as a result of ‘technical problems’ with the school; that everyone should take their books back. When the Tutor of Islamic Manners came to our class at the end of the week to collect the doomed books he found the bookshelf empty.
This bit of cleverness on my part didn’t entirely avert the threat. The Tutor didn’t say anything but that was the end of his support for the class and for me. He bided his time, waiting for his turn to catch me out. And so he did, a month before the final school exams.
‘I’ve been checking on you, and I’m concerned about your loyalty to the Revolution,’ he said as I stood before him in his room.
Fear overwhelmed me and I found myself unable to say a word.
‘You could be a spy of one of our numerous enemies.’
‘But . . . I am not! I am loyal . . . !’
‘Well,’ he said, holding out a sheet of paper, ‘this is your chance to prove it. We need to know about the students’ families and you will help us to do so.’
I looked at the sheet of paper: it contained a list of religious and political questions.
‘Any child brought up in a proper Islamic environment will know the answers to these questions. If they don’t, we will know that their families are not faithful to the Revolution and we will act accordingly.’
I was supposed to spy on my classmates!
‘You will ask each of them the questions and record each of their answers.’
I had no choice but to agree. Later, I could try and come up with a way out of this horrible situation.
‘All right, Sir, I’ll work on it.’
He smiled, and I knew it wasn’t over.
‘There’s something else.’
‘After the final exams, a caravan of schoolboys is being sent to the front to join our valiant Basij. We want YOU to be on that caravan.’
‘ME?!’ My knees began to tremble.
‘Yes, this way you will prove your loyalty,’ he answered, handing me another sheet of paper.
‘Ask your father to sign this approval form. You’ve had enough military training and you’ll receive more when you enlist.’
He laughed when he saw the fear in my eyes.
‘Don’t worry, you youngsters won’t participate in any operations. You won’t have to fight. You’ll help in the kitchen and can come back in time for the next academic year.’
It was time I talked with Dad.
Dad decided to act, and act fast. First, he came to our school and talked to the headmaster who was a decent man. He asked him not to bother me before my exams were over. Then he moved heaven and earth, including contacting all his friends in high places, to get me out of the impasse. As soon as I had finished my last exam, he had me transferred to another school before the Tutor of Islamic Manners could find out.
‘You will remain silent here!’ said Dad, with ‘the look’ in his eyes. ‘No more heroic activities! No more libraries! No more cooperatives! No more pretentious behaviour! And no more HYPOCRISY! You will stick to studying and friends and sports!’
I saw Farhad again, 18 years later. When I didn’t return to school the following year, my friends were told that I had failed all my exams and been expelled. Apparently, the Islamic Manners Department was so furious with my getting away that the school decided to ruin my ‘leader’ image.
But as Farhad said, it didn’t really matter. ‘When I heard that you’d become a publisher, I thought it was inevitable. You were always concerned with making other people read!’