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

Other than studying and spending time out with friends, the most important event in my first year at senior high was having my first girlfriend. I met her in the old-fashioned way: my friend Kaveh and his girlfriend arranged a meeting. We met on a bus; it was the only place we could talk freely without being persecuted by the Tharallah Patrol in their 4WD Nissans (nicknamed ‘4 Welgard-e Daiouth’, loosely translated as ‘Four Wandering Dicks’).

She was a beautiful girl, tall, fair and blue-eyed, qualities uncommon in the Middle East. She said that her great-great-grandfather was Russian, hence her unusual colouring. She also explained that her parents were overprotective and would never allow her to meet a boy.

The four of us tried to sit in a coffee shop at some point for a coffee and chat but the owner threw us out: the Committee would shut down his business if they found out he allowed unmarried couples in his cafe.

We began to walk in the streets and quiet alleys, trying to find out more about one another. Trying to be charming and amusing yet staying constantly on the alert is not easy. If we spotted the shadow of a 4WD patrol, we would separate and walk alone, pretending that we had nothing to do with one another.

After an hour or two, we decided we liked one another and exchanged phone numbers. She explained that I must never call her but that she would call me whenever her parents were not home. Then we went our separate ways.

Our secret phone calls and dates went on for two years, during which we fell in love. Was it the real thing or only an infatuation? How could we tell? None of us had had the opportunity of meeting anyone of the opposite sex and we thought our relationship was unique. Whatever the truth of the matter, it was the most beautiful feeling. Whenever she had a chance, she called me and we talked for as long as possible. Sometimes, when her parents were not at home, she invited me over for a chat. More than once we lost track of the time and were almost caught by her mother. But we always managed to save ourselves in the nick of time. She’d hide me in the basement and I would leave the house as soon as an opportunity presented itself.

While I was experiencing my first romantic encounter, the country was still at war. One by one, my schoolmates dropped out to volunteer for the Basij and go to the front. The soldiers were exhausted, the sanctions had devastated the economy, the price of oil was dropping fast and Prime Minister Mousavi was trying hard to find some balance between the low GNP, providing for the essential needs of society and putting enough funds aside for military equipment and the cost of the war.

He did a brilliant job. No one starved and the army, superior in numbers despite its lack of proper artillery, stood up to the better-equipped Iraqi forces. The war had turned into an exhausting war of attrition, consuming lives and resources on both sides. Iraq received support from the USSR, France, the UK, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the US; the only countries that the gaze of the gazelle

supporting Iran were North Korea, Libya and China. However, over the previous two years, the army had launched several offensives, most of which had failed. Iran was never to repeat the feat of liberating Khorramshahr. It did, however, retaliate with its own missile attacks on Iraqi cities after Iraqi air raids on Iranian cities. This counter-attack succeeded in putting an end to the ‘war of the cities’ for a while.

In the meantime, Khomeini insisted on continuing the war until Saddam Hussein was successfully overthrown. ‘It is our belief that Saddam wishes to return Islam to blasphemy and polytheism,’ he said, ‘if America is victorious . . . and grants victory to Saddam, Islam will receive such a blow . . . that it will not be able to raise its head for a long time. The issue is one of Islam versus blasphemy, and not of Iran versus Iraq.’

But Khomeini’s propaganda wasn’t as effective as in the early days of the Revolution; people knew he could have ended the war two years ago. But when, at the end of 1984, Saddam upped the ante, the situation changed. He began with another massive air and missile campaign against Iranian towns, including Tehran. This was followed by attacks on Iranian tankers, oil refineries and terminals. By the time he began to use chemical weapons against Iranian troops, the people of Iran had had enough. Once more, they rallied to the support of the troops, to their own children at the frontline. A new wave of volunteers moved into the war zone. US President Ronald Reagan had already said that the US ‘would do whatever was necessary to prevent Iraq from losing the war with Iran,’ and this, too, fanned the flames of hatred. The Iranians believed the US had always intervened in Iranian affairs, and this latest declaration further renewed support for the war.

Khatami was Minister of Culture at the time and everyone was aware of his liberal ideas on freedom of speech and his resistance to any form of censorship. He failed to secure freedom for the media and the only available sources of information were three state-owned newspapers and TV. We had no access to any other information; even BBC Radio was hard to get because of the enormous jamming waves sent out by the government. However, Khatami was successful in resisting any censorship on books, and that provided us with a chance to get hold of several brilliant translations of international literature, a gift that we took for granted at the time but which, too, was not to last for long.