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

Ebrahim left early in the autumn of 1985 to enrol in the Basij and went to the front after two weeks’ military training. He was religious but not a zealot. We were good friends and he put up with all our rebellious activities. He was two years older than the rest of us, but, because he was Jafar’s cousin, we often spent time together. He always left at the sound of the azan to join the rest of the students in the prayer hall. I had given up going to the prayer hall ever since I had confronted my conscience.

Ebrahim wasn’t the only one who went to the war from our school. Every week the authorities came to enrol Basiji from among the students. They told all the 15-year-olds that they no longer needed their parents’ approval: in Islam, 15 is considered the age of majority for boys. Every week we had a farewell ceremony for our friends who were going off to war. When it was Ebrahim’s turn to leave, he hugged each us and asked us to forgive him for any unintended hurt he may have caused us. I was trying hard not to cry. We all knew he was walking to his doom. He had only received two weeks’ training and even he knew that the odds against his return were very high. The Basij were usually the frontline of any offensive. However, his eyes were shining. I had never seen so much joy on a person’s face.

It was not long before he returned: in a coffin, only two months after he set out. Another friend who had been with him at the time told us that he had been shot in his stomach in an intelligence-gathering mission. Why had they sent a 16-year-old boy to gather intelligence? The answer escapes me.

His funeral procession began from the schoolyard. We all followed his coffin. Some of the students were crying; we, his closest friends, could not. As soon as he left, we knew that we had lost him forever. When you lose someone so dear to you, the sorrow runs so deep that tears do not come.

Our Islamic Manners teacher, Mr Moradi, couldn’t stop weeping. He was one of our most hated teachers. Always nosing into the students’ affairs, always threatening to disapprove our entrance to university if we didn’t follow the rules, if we wore jeans, if we didn’t cut our hair short, if we didn’t pray . . .

But now he was genuinely upset. As Ebrahim’s friends, we had been given the privilege of walking immediately behind the coffin. Immersed in sorrow as I was, I could feel his torment as he walked beside us. ‘How graceful has God been to Ebrahim!’ I heard him murmur, ‘How lucky he has been to receive the highest honour of being a martyr!’

I felt an uncontrollable rage bubbling up within me and could stay silent no longer.

‘It wasn’t luck, Mr Moradi!’ I shouted.

He turned to me in astonishment, his eyes red from grief. Everyone around us fell silent. The coffin continued its way on the shoulders of the students.

‘He made a choice! If you think you envy him, why don’t you volunteer to go to war instead of staying and encouraging teenagers to go . . . instead of torturing us with your threats?’ the gaze of the gazelle

When I realized I had better shut up, it was already too late. My friends pulled me away before I could say any more but not before I had seen the look in Mr Moradi’s eyes, swollen from crying. That look made my blood turn cold. I knew how vengeful he was. Everyone knew that he would never forget, that he would never forgive.

We all went to Behesht-e Zahra, the public cemetery, on the buses provided by the school. We were there when Ebrahim’s body was washed and shrouded. We buried our friend, came back home and went back to school the next day as if nothing had happened. Our hearts were hardening already. But something had changed. Mr Moradi didn’t come to the school that day or the day after. While we were attending Ebrahim’s wake at the mosque, I looked around to see if I could spot Mr Moradi and apologize to him for my rudeness. But he wasn’t there, which was most unusual.

Ebrahim’s was neither the first nor the last funeral we attended that year. Most of our friends who had gone to the front returned home in less than three months: dead. But Mr Moradi was still missing. I asked about him but no one knew where he was and I slowly grew more and more relieved. Perhaps he had been transferred; if so, I could stop worrying about retribution.

Mr Moradi came back five months later, also in a coffin. The ceremony began from the schoolyard once more and ended beside his freshly dug grave at Behesht-e Zahra. Apparently he had enrolled in the Basij the day after Ebrahim’s funeral. I couldn’t help thinking I was responsible. Had I sent him to his death? That sense of guilt has never left me. Mr Moradi, the teacher I hated the most, taught me the most important lesson of my life: that words can kill.

A street was named after Ebrahim shortly after his death but Mr Moradi was deprived of the privilege. By the time he died, we were running out of streets.

Mr Moradi, who was from a small village far from Tehran, had no one to make sure he was remembered.