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

There weren’t enough high schools in Tehran back in 1984. Most of the teachers were untrained students who had joined the education system during the Cultural Revolution and had decided to stay on rather than return to university. There were few schools with qualified and experienced staff, and it was absolutely important for Dad that I enrol in one of them. We had finally settled on Razi High School, formerly the Lycée Franco-Iranian Razi. The name of the school had been changed from Razi (after the Iranian physician who discovered Ethanol and distilled it for medicinal purposes) to Shohada (martyrs) but everyone still called it Razi.

It wasn’t easy to get in: the number of applicants far exceeded the number of seats. Despite the fact that it was a public, and therefore free, school, only those who volunteered to ‘donate’ a large sum to the school’s funds or those recommended by people with influence were accepted. We didn’t have any money; so Dad asked one of his friends in the Ministry of Higher Education to write a recommendation for me. My grades in junior high helped as well.

For senior high school we had to opt for a specific direction in our course of studies: Maths and Physics; Experimental Sciences; Human Sciences; or Professional Training. There was another option available but only for girls: Housekeeping, during which they learnt how to cook, sew, take care of future husbands and children and how to keep the house clean. I chose Maths and Physics, although I should have chosen Experimental Sciences since I was planning to go to medical school. If it were left to me I’d have chosen Human Sciences as that has always been my passion.

Things were about to get serious. We were only four years away from the National University entrance exam or the Concours. Every year, more than a million graduates, of whom 50 per cent were girls, appeared for the National University entrance exam but only about 100,000 of them were accepted.

Once, in the biology class, in the first year of senior high, our teacher gave us a long and boring lecture on how different plants were fertilized. After a bet with my friend, I raised my hand.

‘Yes, Arash,’ the teacher said.

‘Excuse me, Sir,’ I exclaimed, ‘I’m intrigued. Why are we supposed to know these things? Does it in any way help us in our future careers or personal life?’

I had expected quite a violent reaction. Teachers usually didn’t tolerate doubts about their lessons. But he simply smiled.

‘Well, there’s the simplest explanation in the world,’ he chuckled, ‘If you don’t learn what I’m teaching you, you will not pass the Concours.’ Then he stopped smiling. ‘If you don’t pass the Concours, you have to do your military service, and you know what that means . . .’

Yes, everyone knew but he explained nonetheless.

‘Before you know it a street will be named after you because you will have become a martyr.’

He was right. Out of those 100,000 places offered by the universities, 40,000 were kept for former Basij members who had returned from the front or those who had lost a father, brother or son in the war. Fifty per cent of the applicants were usually boys, who were then conscripted and sent to the front if they didn’t succeed in getting into higher education courses. The odds of being killed were one in three. This simple statistic was enough to create enormous anxiety in all of us who were beginning high school. Only 30,000 of the boys would be able to go to university. 470,000 others had to go to the war, of whom 156,000 would die. One thing was for sure: in this life-or-death competition, only the best would survive. It was only then that I understood why my friend Amir had been so petrified and so anxious to get out of the country.

But there was a more serious and more immediate challenge staring me in the face. I had just reached puberty. The male hormones pumping into my veins were pushing me not so much towards survival as they were towards sex.