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

The bombing of the cities; news of the front dominating all conversation; teachers continually emphasizing the greatness of our soldiers’ sacrifice and the importance of our support; the military marches played on TV all day; pleas for donations for the soldiers; buses and trucks rushing through the streets, collecting offerings from the people and ferrying volunteer soldiers to the front; the government’s increasing pressure on women to wear the hijab; trying to understand how to divide a three-figure number by a two-figure one in class; my classmates discussing the latest films they had watched on their Betamax video players; listening to them and yearning for a time when we could have one as well; Mum beginning to teach the fifth grade in a school in North Tehran . . . that was my life in 1980.

And then it happened. The Cultural Revolution wasn’t over for us. The expulsion of university lecturers and professors had begun and Dad, Dean of Faculty and Senior Lecturer, was clearly not an advocate of the Islamic government.

Once again, it was a while before I understood the cause for the new tension at home. Some of it I overheard as Dad discussed the situation with his friend Hormoz, another lecturer at the Iran University of Science and Technology. The most painful part was that they were being tried by their students, now turned into Islamic hardliners. Actively involved in these trials and bearing witness to the ‘un-Islamic tendencies’ of the lecturers was a young man whose name may now ring a few bells. He had charted his course and nothing was to get in the way. Twenty years later, he would be one of the most talked about political figures in the world: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

I didn’t know him at the time but I knew his supervisor, Hamid Behbahani, who was Dad’s colleague and friend. A senior lecturer in Transport and Traffic, he went on to become Minister of Transport in Ahmadinejad’s cabinet. He seemed a decent enough man at the time, and not an Islamist at all. He had just completed his PhD in the US and, unlike the pro Khomeini lecturers, he shaved and wore a tie. As soon as the Cultural Revolution began, however, he changed. He decided to follow the rightful objectives of the Islamic Revolution, claiming to be repenting his sinful past. Apparently, his repentance bore fruit: he moved up the political ladder fairly swiftly and, eventually, became a minister. Ironically, he seems to have been a more honest person during his ‘sinful past’. He was accused of plagiarism in 2009 after one of his papers was published in an international journal. Naturally, this caused a scandal in academic circles. Though Behbahani always remained respectful towards Dad, it was obvious when he was questioned that their friendship was over.

The trials were ruthless and handed out a variety of sentences. Some of the professors and lecturers were expelled without any chance of appeal; others were demoted; yet others acquitted. Hormoz was expelled because of his ties with the Tudeh Communist Party. But Dad’s case was more complicated. Everyone knew him as a sceptic but no one could prove his ties with any communist, monarchist or pro-Western front. Then, one of his students stepped in to testify that he was a communist. The jury was told that Dr Hejazi had said in one of his classes that engineers had to think not only about the economic justifications of their decisions but also about the impact of their efforts on society. This, according to the student, amounted to communism. And the judge agreed. Right through the trials Dad never hesitated to defend democracy and his liberal ideas but he never accepted the accusation of being a communist.

The atmosphere in our house was terrible. Dad tried hard to hide his fear of losing the only job he loved but he couldn’t control his nerves, couldn’t stop grumbling or fussing or shouting at us for the simplest mistakes. Mum spent her time studying the textbooks she had been assigned for her fifth graders, as she had no background in teaching and teacher texts were unavailable.

Uncle Muhammad, who worked for National TV, was facing a similar ordeal: National TV, too, was undergoing the same ‘cleansing’ process. Uncle Muhammad had already published several books expounding his socialist ideas. His wife and daughter had left Iran for France a few months earlier but he decided to stay, saying, as he always did: ‘A lamp should bring light to the home before it shines elsewhere.’

He stayed with us: he couldn’t afford to rent a place while paying for his family in France. Neither could he stay with my grandparents. Hadj-Agha refused to accept him: first, because he had obvious socialist beliefs; and second, because he had married an Armenian Christian woman. Hadj-Agha could never accept having a non-Muslim daughter-in-law.

It was the night before Dad’s last trial session, and he had to prepare his final defence. He began to write but he was too devastated to put his thoughts to paper. Under the circumstances, it was extremely difficult to defend the ideals for which he had fought so hard: freedom and democracy. He paced about the living room in a state of great nervous agitation and Golnar and I realized he was best left alone. Mum tried to be there for him but Dad preferred to be on his own. Then he began striding about the house, shouting, swearing and cursing at every single step he had taken for this Revolution, punching the walls, grinding his teeth and holding his head between his hands. I took Golnar to the garden and tried to distract her. By the time Mum called us in, I had managed to convince Golnar that our garden concealed a hidden treasure which we could find if we first drew a map.

When we went inside, Mum and Dad were dressed up, ready to go out.

‘Can you take care of your sister until Uncle Muhammad comes?’ Mum asked, ‘He should be home any minute.’

‘Of course,’ I answered, a remark that couldn’t be further from the truth. I had no idea what to do if the Red Alarm went off.

‘Where are you going?’ I asked, hesitantly.

‘Dad needs to go out. We have to take care of an important matter.’

‘Can I come too, Mummy?’ asked Golnar.

‘No darling,’ Mum answered, caressing her hair, ‘Children aren’t allowed there.’

I turned on the TV. The children’s program was about to begin. I decided to do my homework while I waited, an essay on the life of Iranian villagers near the Caspian Sea where winter would never come and where people worked all day, either fishing or in the rice fields, and where the houses were built on frames that prevented the damp soil from ruining their foundations.

When the children’s program began, I put aside my homework and tried to watch the story of the two brothers fighting over a ball. But I couldn’t concentrate. What would happen tomorrow? What was Dad writing in his defence? And why did he throw it away? I left Golnar in front of the TV and crept into Dad’s office to look for his papers. I heard the door of the house open and then Uncle Muhammad talking to Golnar but I carried on searching. I finally found Dad’s papers in the dustbin but they weren’t his defence: they were poetry. I knew Dad wrote a poem once in a while but I couldn’t understand why he was doing so on such an important night.

I still remember a verse:

The bodies of our own offspring
we are forced to devour.

When I left the room to greet Uncle Muhammad, he wasn’t there.

‘Where did Uncle go, Golnar?’

‘He left,’ she answered, her eyes fixed on the screen. ‘To look for Mum and Dad, I think.’

So we were alone again and I was in charge: a 10-year-old boy guarding his sister against all the evils of the world. If there was an air raid I would have to pick her up and run to the cellar. That I could do. But where had everyone gone? What if they didn’t return? We knew that Dad may not return at all. Those at the front could be killed, and those in the cities could be arrested. I tried to convince myself that they wouldn’t arrest Dad a day before his trial.

Nothing happened, though. Mum and Dad returned after an hour and Uncle Muhammad a little later, holding two gift-wrapped boxes.

‘Happy birthday, Golnar!’ he shouted as he gave her one of the boxes. Then, as the rest of us stood there, gaping, he handed the other box to me. ‘And this is for you Arash, so that you don’t feel left out!’

Smiling, Golnar kissed Uncle Muhammad and began to unwrap her present while Mum and Dad continued to look bewildered.

‘Why didn’t you tell me, Pari?’ Uncle asked Mum.

‘What didn’t I tell you?’ she asked, with raised eyebrows.

‘That it’s Golnar’s birthday today!’

‘But, it isn’t. Not for another six months,’ said Dad.

Then it was Uncle’s turn to gape in astonishment.

‘It isn’t? But Golnar said it was!’

Golnar shook her head. ‘I didn’t say it was my birthday, I said, “I think Mum and Dad have gone to buy me a birthday present!” ’

Mum frowned. ‘And why would you say that?’

‘You said you were going to do something important, and that I wasn’t supposed to go with you. That means that you wanted to buy me a present and surprise me.’

Yes, what could be more important than buying Golnar a birthday present six months before her birthday!

Everyone burst out laughing. I hadn’t heard genuine laughter in our home for months and this came as such a relief.

We immediately decided to buy a cake from the shop around the corner and celebrate Golnar’s four-and-a-half-year birthday. A huge burden seemed to have been lifted from Dad’s shoulders; he even brought out some home-made vodka from the cellar. I was, meanwhile, completely immersed in the Persian dictionary—my first—that I had just received from Uncle Muhammad. I think he bought it to stop my incessant questions about the meanings of difficult words and phrases such as ‘social reform’, ‘imperialism’, ‘sovereignty of the jurisprudent’, ‘scrutiny’ and so on. That dictionary became my bedside companion for many years, satisfying my passion for words.

The next day, when Dad came home from the trial his eyes were sparkling.

‘I kicked their arses!’ he declared. ‘Last night, when Golnar said that the most important thing we could do was buy her a present, I was so relieved! She was right!’

Mum wasn’t sure if ‘kicking their arses’ was the best strategy for Dad and whether it really deserved such a wide grin.

‘What happened, Jalal?’

‘I told them: if they sack me, they’ll be doing me a great favour because then I can spend more time with my family, I can set up a private consultancy that will be much more lucrative than teaching, or I can easily go back to England since I already have job offers from there.’

‘And what did they say?’

‘They were taken aback. I said I didn’t care if I was sacked. It was they who would have to answer to the academic world for firing one of the only Iranian scientists in material sciences who had papers in peer-reviewed international journals.’

‘You didn’t say anything about your ideology?’

‘I just said that I was being tried because I believed in freedom, and that I will continue believing in it.’

Then he looked into my eyes and finished his story. ‘Arash, remember, never become too attached to anything and never become too detached from what you love. And . . . never be a coward.’

When it came to making the final decision, no one quite dared expel Dad. He was a distinguished academic who had become a member of the Academy of Science before he was 40. It would be bad publicity for the Revolution. But he was demoted from Dean of Faculty to Senior Lecturer. Dad didn’t mind; he never really wanted to be a manager; he only wanted to teach and carry on with his research. Some of the students who had testified against him, when they realized he was going to remain an influential figure in the university, tried to make up for their betrayal. But Dad told them never to talk to him except for matters related to their studies, though he promised that he wouldn’t be vengeful. He wasn’t. He loved his students, even the ones who turned out to be traitors.

However, the Cultural Revolution did succeed in sacking several prominent lecturers. For the rest, Ahmadinejad decided to finish the mission when he seized the presidency for his second term in 2009.

Uncle Muhammad was also expelled and soon informed by a friend in high places that he was under observation. He was advised to leave the country before an arrest warrant could be issued. He could not ignore the warning this time and immediately left for France.

He never returned.