PART II: If you want the ultimate pleasure step on a landmine

Imagine yourself in an Orwellian environment. There is a war going on that you no longer believe in but you are being trained every day for the honour of being one of its martyrs. Your childhood friends have all left the country. You have never had a chance to discover the opposite sex. You are not allowed to express any signs of individuality lest you arouse suspicions. Anyone around you who dared criticize the regime is in prison or in exile or has been executed. There is a formidable horror hanging over every tomorrow. What have you got to help you cling to your sanity?

‘I want a VCR!’

This was the first time I had asked Dad for anything in many years, and I knew it wasn’t a reasonable request. Nearly a year ago, the sale of VCRs had been banned in Iran and the video clubs all shut down. But I really wanted one. I had lost confidence in my schoolmates, karate no longer interested me, I couldn’t participate in any extracurricular activities, the TV showed nothing but Khomeini’s speeches and I had grown horribly afraid after the arrest of Reza Company and Hussein and the exile of Hormoz. Films offered the only escape route; and I think that I would have lost my mind if Dad had not agreed to buy a VCR.

I knew our financial situation wasn’t very good, and I knew that Dad was under observation for any suspicious activities. But I wanted that VCR and, to my surprise, Dad agreed. I don’t know if it was to gratify the only wish I had expressed in the last three years or if he, too, needed some diversion for his exhausted mind.

Getting hold of one wasn’t easy. You had to locate a smuggler and he wouldn’t answer your call unless you were recommended by a ‘safe’ source. And the options were limited: a second-hand T-7 or T-20 Sony Betamax.

The most important thing was the price: about Rls 1,200,000, roughly US$2,000. In other words, a fortune. And it had to be paid in cash. Dad’s salary had recently been increased to about US$600 a month, ever since his promotion to Reader because of his immense scientific contributions, his books and his papers which had been published in several prestigious international journals. Even with the raise he could only afford to pay the rent and daily running costs of the home. I had no idea how he was planning to pay for a VCR; when I heard the price, I found myself embarrassed to have asked for it at all. But he was determined to buy one.

The smuggler told Dad that he would come to our home at night, during Khomeini’s TV appearance. That was when the roads and streets were under the least surveillance since the police dutifully watched their leader. All four of us sat in the living room, excited, listening to Khomeini’s speech and trying not to look at the clock.

At the sound of the doorbell Dad opened the door. A middle-aged man, his hair brown and his moustache extending from one ear to the other, came in, looking around carefully. The first sign of anything suspicious and he would leave. Then he saw us, smiled and greeted everyone and sat down, putting the carton he was carrying on the table. Unwrapping the black plastic bag from around it, he brought forth the box of a T-20 Sony Betamax. I was almost faint with excitement: I had dreamt about this moment for many years.

‘Would you please install it for us, sir?’ asked Dad.

‘Of course,’ the smuggler answered with a smile, ‘but first the money.’

Dad brought out his briefcase, pulled out a bundle of banknotes, counted them carefully and handed them over. When I saw the look in his eyes, reflecting all his financial concerns, his worries about paying the rent, I wanted to cry out, ‘Dad, forget about it. I don’t want it anymore.’ But I couldn’t. I wanted that VCR. For the first time in my life, I wanted something so badly that I couldn’t care less about the rent, the electricity, gas, food, clothing . . . I said nothing but I have not forgotten that look on Dad’s face.

My journey into the world of cinema had begun. I borrowed as many films as I could from friends and family. One of Dad’s friends gave me five which made my life worthwhile and I still remember them: Indiana Jones and the Temple of DoomMagnum ForceBuona Serra Mrs. CampbellRocky and First Blood.

I could never have believed that life could be so delightful. I watched the films a thousand times over. I memorized every left hook Rocky received from Apollo, shouting every time with anxiety, hoping that this time Rocky would win. After I’d memorized the entire film, I got bored with it and began watching only the last 15 minutes, the fight between Rocky and Apollo. I’ve lost count of how many times I watched it. I grew angry that Apollo won the match on points although Rocky had fought so hard. Until I discovered the truth: it wasn’t the win that Rocky was after. Not being knocked out for one more round: that was his ambition. And that was what I had to do. Make sure that I wasn’t knocked out.

Watching films became far more important than school work. After a year, we could afford to rent videos and Dad called a distributor who came every week and loaned us five films. We didn’t have any choice in the number since, for security reasons, he couldn’t carry more than five at a time. He hid them in his long coat, especially tailored with five large pockets that could hold the cassettes without being visible. I could watch 250 films a year. We watched the demonstration copies of the latest Hollywood releases even before they were screened in the US. It was the only thing that made me feel that life was still worth living.

But when I finished junior high and prepared myself for senior high, my life in limbo was over. I had to face several new challenges, the most important of which was survival: to survive the knockout for just one more round.