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

Mum and Dad fought over me constantly. Mum insisted I leave the country while there was still time; Uncle Muhammad, who lived in Paris, had offered to take care of me. Dad, however, believed that a 15-year-old boy needed a family more than anything. He was certain I’d pass the Concours successfully and would not be packed off to the front.

I was not sure what I wanted. I was scared at the thought of the front; the Concours terrified me too. And the freedom I would enjoy in France was definitely tempting. At the same time, I didn’t want to be a coward like Amir. There were millions of boys in the same situation. Then again, a lot of my friends had already left or were preparing to leave before the New Year and I really envied them. Whenever Mum and Dad quarrelled over me, I only grew more confused.

‘I know Arash doesn’t want to leave Iran,’ said Dad. ‘It’s his country, isn’t it, Arash?’

‘Don’t put words into his mouth!’ Mum would say, before I had a chance to open my mouth. ‘I’m sure he wants to leave. Don’t you, Arash?’

I trusted both of them, and I was sure neither of them had the slightest idea about what I really wanted. I didn’t want to go to the war, nor did I want to be sent out into the unknown world alone. I wanted all of us to leave: Mum, Dad, Golnar and I. But that was out of question. Dad would never agree to leave Iran. He loved his country.

Finally, they reached a compromise. We would go to Turkey during the Norouz holidays. There, we would decide. If we agreed that I was better off in Iran then we would return together. If not, I would stay back.

Knowing my father and his stubborn nature, I was sure that this was only his way of keeping Mum quiet for a while. I think Mum knew that, too, but perhaps she thought she would be able to convince Dad when we saw that freedom was possible and I could live a life without horror and war.

I was so sure we’d all return together that I didn’t say goodbye to any of my friends. We took the coach to Turkey; after many hours of driving, we arrived at the border an hour before midnight. We joined the long queue of travellers who wanted to get through the ordeal of passport control and enter Turkey. We were told it usually took several hours before the Iranian passport control officers could check the backgrounds of all the passengers and let them cross the border to wait in yet another lengthy queue behind the booths of the Turkish passport control. However, I alone had a unique problem: if I didn’t cross the border before midnight, I could no longer leave the country. Dad began anxiously to explain the situation to every person ahead of us in the queue, imploring them to give up their places. Although they were all exhausted after their long trips, they all allowed us to go ahead.

When the passport control officer took our passports, checked my age and looked at his watch it was 11:57. Almost a hundred people had gathered behind us, waiting to see if I could cross the border in time. ‘Let the boy go!’ shouted some of them while others patted Dad’s shoulder to keep him calm. ‘The background check will take at least 15 minutes,’ the passport police finally told Dad: ‘There’s no way your son can make it in time.’

Dad was furious, biting his lips to stop the words from leaping out. Mum had frozen, and I realized I was the only one who could speak. ‘Officer, if you kindly put that exit stamp on my passport in time, I promise you that I will wait in No Man’s Land until you have checked my background.’

The officer chuckled and looked at me over the top of his glasses. ‘What horrible crime could you have committed anyway, young boy?’ he said, stamping my passport. ‘No need to wait in No Man’s Land.’

The crowd burst into applause and cheers as we stepped over the border and entered No Man’s Land.

I was free . . . for two weeks at least.