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

Tehran is a large city, the largest in the Middle East and the sixteenth largest in the world. Knowing that I may never see Tehran again makes my heart bleed, although it is the same feeling that makes me appreciate its mysteries. It was in senior high that I really got to know Tehran; until then, I only knew the districts where I lived or where I went to school. When I turned 15, my fears of the unknown gradually turned into a craving for adventure. Exploring the streets with my friends became a daily thrill, second only to finding a girlfriend, of course. Having a girlfriend had assumed extreme importance and whoever had succeeded in acquiring one was considered a hero. However, it was easier said than done. We had almost no opportunities to meet girls, let alone build the simplest forms of friendship with them. I say ‘almost no opportunity’ since we had devised a variety of ways of overcoming this hurdle.

The first solution and the easiest one was the old-fashioned way: convince a friend who had a girlfriend to convince her to convince another girl to meet you. But not all my friends had girlfriends, and I wasn’t rich enough to bribe any others with a pizza from the canteen.

Another was telephone dating. Both boys and girls used this long-range communication to connect back then since they had no Internet or Skype, no chat rooms, no online forums, no email and no Facebook or Twitter.

However, the most adventurous way of meeting girls was the ‘street chase’ game. There was a high school for girls about two miles away from ours. After school, we’d linger in the street until the girls began to appear on their way home. Then we’d choose the most interesting group, usually the one that showed the slightest interest—a look, a smile, even a meaningful frown —and then the long walk would begin. Walking on opposite sides of the street—we didn’t want to be spotted by the police patrols—we’d begin by talking loudly, trying to attract their attention, and then gradually draw closer. If the girls were not interested, they’d quicken their steps, a move that told us to go to hell. But if they were, they continued at a leisurely pace and we drew closer and closer until we were able to exchange a few words. That was it, unless a boy in our group and a girl in theirs grew more interested and exchanged phone numbers; otherwise the game ended as soon as the girls began to say their goodbyes and take their separate ways home.

I loved the adventure, although I never tried to find a girlfriend through these street games. Rather, they gave me the opportunity to stay on the streets, meet people and explore unknown districts and alleys in Tehran. The city was my real girlfriend, a warm city, full of mystery, full of the unknown. Confined in the north by the enchanting Alborz Mountains and in the south by the endless desert, it is one of the most beautiful places in the world. This huge metropolis was not much more than a village when the first ruler of the Qajar dynasty, 200 years ago, decided to make it the capital of Iran because of its unique strategic location. Since then, the city has continued to grow, both in area and in the size of its population.

It is also a city of paradoxes. Because of the huge migration from other places in Iran, you can find extremely ‘rich’ people settled happily in the ‘poor’ areas where they can identify with the culture; and you can also see people now come down in the world but still living in posh neighbourhoods. There was no such thing as town planning when the city began to grow and it’s hard to say whether any district has an identity of its own. The city is made up of vast numbers of blocks of buildings standing beside one another and each possessed of very little aesthetic value. But if you have lived here long enough, Tehran will open up and show you her inner beauty. And that was what I glimpsed on our long walks and journeys through it.

Sometimes we walked north along the popular Vali-Asr Avenue where one could see the large number of trees planted by the Shah’s father, ending in the beautiful old and narrow roads of Darakeh, a small village that got absorbed by the city in the course of its unplanned expansion. We had to cross Darakeh whenever we wanted to go to the Alborz Mountains for a long trek. Although we had to pass the gates of hell—Evin Prison— before we were allowed to enter that paradise.

Every Friday we went to the mountains. I hung on to this liberating tradition for more than six years, until the mountains, too, were haunted by Committee members and the police. Many young people discovered that the Alborz Mountains offered an opportunity to meet in a freer, less oppressive environment.

No one who is ignorant of captivity can enjoy freedom. It’s not enough to know that you are free to do whatever you want. For the first time in their history, since the 2009 post-election protests in Iran and the police crackdown, the Iranian people have made sure that everyone living in freedom in any part of the planet knows about what is happening in Iran. Neda and many others died while trying to break the walls of their prison, not with their fists but with their lives. Their eyes were gazing at a distant future where they could live free of all restrictions. I no longer feel that Neda’s dying gaze was asking ‘How did it come to this?’ Rather, I feel her trying to say, ‘Look! All of you living free without knowing what freedom is, look! All of you taking what you have for granted, look! Freedom is the most precious gift in the world. Somewhere in the world, under a sky the same colour as yours, there’s a young girl ready to die to win what you already have. Enjoy your freedom, appreciate it, I am dying to make sure that you will never forget that you are free.’

Neda brought a gift to the entire world: a message of joy.

The same was true of us whenever we went to the Leopard’s Den (Palang Chall), high in the Alborz, via the village of Darakeh. We had to cross a long road that passed the haunting landscape of Evin Prison, a sight that sent shivers down our spines. A long wall across the mountain showed us the extent of the prison. No one could say how many people had been executed behind that gloomy wall, how many were rotting in solitary cells, how many were shrieking for help while being tortured to confess to crimes they had never committed. I usually held my breath to slow my pounding heart until the prison was out of sight. Then, as if that terror did not exist, the road turned into a small alley confined on either side by clay walls and covered by the green leaves of mulberry trees, a dusty street that made you feel that time had stood still for 200 years and that your life was not stained with a myriad shades of fear. The place had no memory of the Russian Tsar’s invasion of Iran nor of the two world wars and Tehran’s occupation by British and Russian troops, the coup by the Shah, aided by the US, against his own people in the 1950s, the Revolution and the bloodbath, the hundreds of executions that had taken place just around the corner, the thousands of bombs that had fallen from Iraqi planes onto the land, the hundreds of thousands of Iranians who had died defending the borders of their country. None of this. Darakeh had no memory; there was no past nor any future. Only the road towards the cloud-covered heights. It was during these weekly mountain treks that I learnt how to enjoy the present; how not to think of the destination but only of the journey.

A huge group of us, boys and girls, met there every week. We walked along the narrow paths, climbed the rocks and had our breakfast in a restaurant on top of the mountain. The scrambled eggs and sausages after our long climb was the ultimate pleasure. We talked, we laughed, we had serious literary or philosophical discussions, we chatted about music without a care in the world. As if no policemen were lurking at the foot of the mountain to make sure we acted according to Islamic Good Manners or to see that the girls were keeping their hijabs intact. I made a lot of friends up there, although I have had no news from any of them over the years. After a few years, the police realized the mountains had to be patrolled. Each week we lost at least one member of our group until only I remained. Eventually the loneliness of the mountain became unbearable and I, too, gave up. We did revive our excursions after Khatami won the election in 1997. But I was too busy at the time and I couldn’t afford to lose a day in the mountains. When I did, I found that a new generation—Neda’s generation—had emerged and claimed the mountain for their own. Our mountain was theirs now.

And, unlike us, they would never have to give it up.