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

All Iranians hate the 1980s. It was not only that death and the fear of death pervaded the hearts and minds of us all but also that time itself seemed to have stopped. The sanctions against Iran combined with the steep fall in the price of oil and the high costs of the war had reduced the country to a miserable state. Its remaining resources were spent in buying weapons on the international black market (no country was permitted to sell arms to us directly). The economy was plummeting and many would have starved if it hadn’t been for the strategic planning of Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Mousavi. He decided to ration everything so that no one would be left with nothing. Milk, bread, cigarettes, eggs, meat, chicken, rice, oil, petrol: everything that could be was rationed. And it worked. The worst side effect was the long hours in queues to buy the things we needed.

Those who still had money began to leave for the US or Europe or any country in the world that would accept them. In less than a year, about 4 million Iranians emigrated. Those who didn’t have the money to do so tried to send their young sons away to avoid conscription. For the law had been changed and as soon as a boy reached the age of 15, he was not allowed to leave the country; conscription was mandatory, as was being sent to the front at 18. The statistics therefore were devastating: one in three sent to the front was killed. Families were prepared to sell everything they had to give their sons a chance outside Iran. There were also those families whose sons were already 15 or a little older. Amir was one of them.

Amir was the son of my father’s friend Ahmad. They had both been students at the University of Birmingham. Amir was four years older than I. After the war flared up, his parents tried hard to send him away before he turned 15 but they failed to get a visa for the UK in time. There were financial issues too. They couldn’t afford to pay for his journey and upkeep in the UK. Before they could sort everything out, it was time for Amir’s fifteenth birthday. Their time had run out. And Amir no longer had the right to hold a valid passport.

One night, Amir and his parents came over to seek Dad’s advice. Amir was devastated at the knowledge that he was no longer able to leave the country. His mother said he had stopped eating, talking, studying, even watching TV. He was also having recurrent nightmares about going to the front and dying.

Dad spent hours trying to talk to Amir but he couldn’t stop crying. Dad told him that a real man wouldn’t cry in fear lest the others consider him a coward. But Amir didn’t care; he didn’t mind being a coward as long as he stayed alive. I was getting really annoyed and bored. There were a million people at the front, around the same age as Amir, fighting with their bare hands. They were giving up everything, their future, their safety, their arms and legs and lives, to keep us safe and to prevent the enemy from destroying our country. And this young man, who wouldn’t even be asked to go to the front for another three years, was sitting here and crying because he was having nightmares about a summons from the army. I was disgusted.

Dad tried telling him that the war might even be over in three years but Amir’s tears refused to stop. ‘What if it’s not?’ No one could reason with him; and now that I look back, despite the resentment I felt at the time, I think perhaps his fear was justified: not everyone is supposed to be a warrior.

They finally left quite late that night, clutching a cucumber in case they came across the night guards. Soon after, Amir sank into depression and threatened to commit suicide. The psychiatrists warned his parents that something terrible might happen if they didn’t send him abroad as soon as possible.

Amir’s father sold his car, converted all his savings into cash and then negotiated a deal with a smuggler who charged them a fortune. Amir took nothing with him but a rucksack and the huge amount of cash his parents had given him. He bade farewell to them and set off on his illegal journey across the border. The smugglers took him by car to a place near the border and then handed him over to another team. They walked for days in the mountains of Azerbaijan, slept in tents and did not light fires lest they attract the attention of the hundreds of border patrol officers who were under orders to shoot anyone who tried to escape. They crept among the herds of sheep and moved ever closer to the border. At the frontier they bribed one of the patrols to let them cross and, after a few weeks, Amir was finally on Turkish soil. The smugglers arranged his transport to the UK where he claimed asylum.

In an ironical turn of events, Amir’s father found he could no longer live on the low salary he received as a civil servant and decided to set up his own enterprise in order to raise enough money for the huge expenses of his son. Luckily it took off and in a few years he became a very rich man.

On the other hand, not all of those several thousand families who tried to smuggle their children out of Iran enjoyed the same good fortune. Hundreds were robbed, left alone in the mountains or murdered by the smugglers for their cash. Some were shot or arrested by the police, others were mugged in Turkey. I remember wondering why Amir preferred to face the unknown dangers instead of accepting the more familiar fate: of going to the front in three years and trying to help his country.

But when I turned 15 myself, I understood. It wasn’t the fear of death or war as it was the longing for freedom that made Amir want to leave Iran.

And that made all the risks worthwhile.