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

Nothing can be all bad or all gloomy. There’s always a ray of light, even at life’s darkest moments. From what I’ve described so far, our life at the time may be summarized thus: war, fear of death, oppression, execution, military training, lack of individual freedom, no entertainment, inquisition, boredom, waiting for many hours in many queues . . .

But that’s not the whole story. We had our diversions too. First of all, in a society starved of entertainment, the numerous queues outside the shops became a chance to socialize. As the eldest child in the family, I was in charge of waiting in most of the queues. Only when Madar stayed with us did I escape this task; she volunteered to replace me in the lines. Boys and girls, ordinarily seized by the police if they walked or talked together, had a chance to meet and talk in the queues; soon, the queues turned into a rendezvous for lovers. Women had a chance to find ‘proper’ spouses for their children; men had a chance to debate current political events. As the police never suffered the indignity of queuing, some of these discussions turned into heated debates on the legitimacy of the government. Men would begin to shout at one another, trying to prove their point. These quarrels turned into an ongoing social event. Wherever there were no policemen in sight, people would start a debate: in the queues, in the doctors’ waiting rooms, in the taxis, on the bus . . . until it became unbearable and you would see the sign ‘No Political Debates’ put up by irritated shop-owners, taxi-drivers and bakers, who were tired of these never-ending discussions that led nowhere.

The young boys and girls were not to enjoy their freedom for long. The police were quick to respond to these ‘illegal interactions’ in the queues and separated the lines into one for the men and another for the women. Not that it helped much, for the boys and girls always found a way to sidle up to one another and begin a conversation.

This wasn’t our only entertainment. Dad, a little concerned about the kind of education I was getting at summer school, tried to arrange other forms of ‘edutainment’ that could counter the brainwashing. One of them was discussing books. Every week, Mum, Dad and I decided on a novel. And on Friday mornings—our weekend—we discussed it around the breakfast table. It was a time-consuming but rewarding form of entertainment, a primitive form of the book club.

Another was the book Heliat-ol Motaghin(‘The Ornaments of the Righteous’). Written by one of the most prominent Shiite clerics in the sixteenth century, the ruling mullahs considered it recommended reading for every believer. We, too, read a chapter every night after dinner but our purpose was rather different: it was not so much a source of Islamic manners as it was an encyclopaedia of jokes. It kept us in stitches for hours.

‘It is not recommended that virtuous Muslims wear clothes of wool; clothes of cotton are recommended.’ ‘You must wear your underwear while seated. Woe to whoever wears his underwear while standing, as he will face sadness in the next three days.’

‘When you take off your clothes, you must say: “In the name of Allah”. If you do not, the Jinn might wear them.’

‘Whoever wears shoes will be safe from tuberculosis.’ ‘Don’t drink water while you are standing.’

‘Don’t have intercourse with your wives on Wednesday nights.’

‘Don’t talk while you are having sex because the conceived child will be born mute.’

‘A rug left in the corner is better than a woman who cannot bear children.’

‘Don’t have sex under a fruit-bearing tree, because the child conceived will grow up to be a hangman.’ ‘Don’t let your moustache grow long lest it become the den of Satan.’

‘Don’t lie on your back in the bathroom.’

‘Don’t say hello to people from other religions unless they greet you first. Don’t shake hands with them and, if you do, wash your hands afterwards.’

‘Laughing too much kills your heart.’

‘Don’t keep dogs as pets.’

Chess, backgammon, board games and cards were other ways of passing the time. All of these had been banned after the Revolution as a pretext for gambling, a cardinal sin in Islam. But people didn’t care; they only had to be careful to keep it secret.

Something else that made our life tolerable in those days was jokes. Iranians are master jokers, especially in the telling of political jokes. They can create a joke out of the most surprising and improbable incident, particularly if stupidity is involved. After the Revolution, the butt of the national joke-making machine was Ayatollah Montazeri, vice-leader of the Revolution. He, unlike Khomeini, was a simple person with a good heart and thus easily incorporated into popular jokes:

Once Montazeri visited the Louvre Museum in Paris. The curator gave him a pair of shoes and said, ‘In order to show you our utmost respect, we are offering you the shoes of Louis XVI of France?’

Montazeri put on the shoes and said, ‘Thank you very much but these shoes are a little tight. Would you please give me the shoes of Louis XVII.’

Montazeri was on his way to Tehran on a helicopter. After a while he asked the man sitting beside him, ‘Are you feeling hot, Sir?’

‘No,’ the man answered.

‘Captain,’ Montazeri shouted to the pilot, ‘none of us are feeling hot. Would you please turn off the fan on top? The noise is disturbing us!’

We had no pubs, bars or restaurants to go to but what we did have was time to travel. Iran is the land of holidays: Thursdays and Fridays are the weekends but that’s not all: we have 13 days of Norouz and another 20 days through the year dedicated to religious ceremonies, either mourning for the anniversary of the death of the Prophet and the Shiite Imams or celebrating their birthdays or other religious events such as Fitir (the first day after the end of Ramadan), Qurban (celebrating the day when God asked Abraham to sacrifice a lamb instead of his son, according to the Islamic tradition) or Qadir (the day when, according to the Shiites, the Prophet appointed Ali his successor). There is another holiday commemorating the anniversary of the Revolution, one the anniversary of the nationalization of oil, one mourning the martyrs of the Revolution. Later, one more mourning the death of Khomeini although that was not until 1989. And that’s still not all: a working day between two holidays is usually included in the holiday. Out of the 365 days in a year, we work for only 220—a little more than seven months!

Dad used these holidays as an opportunity to open our eyes to our own country. We usually travelled in our old Peugeot 304 for the brand-new Ford had been sold to cover day-to-day expenses. Thanks to those trips I am familiar with almost every corner of Iran.

One of the most beautiful places we went to was, of course, the Caspian Sea. The Caspian Sea has a lasting effect even on those who have seen it only once. The drive twists up to 10,000 feet through the snow-covered mountains of Alborz. The roads are narrow and dangerous, inclining either to the stone face of the mountain on one side or down into the vast and mist covered pits on the other. If you travel in any season other than summer, you are likely to drive almost the entire way through the clouds that crown the Alborz. Up in those mountains you are filled with a sense of immense loneliness and more than a little fear, as also by a sense of freedom. The Alborz are crowned by Damavand, the Olympus of Iran, and you cannot pass it without feeling an overwhelming sense of humility, especially if you know the stories associated with it.

According to Iranian mythology, the evil King Zahak is chained in a cave in the heart of Mount Damavand, waiting for the time of his release when he will destroy life on earth. It was also from this peak that Arash the Archer shot his last arrow. Legend has it that he is still there, waiting to help those who have lost their way in the mountains.

It’s hard not to be awed by Damavand, a mountain painted white with snow, its peak obscured by clouds. No wonder the Iranians believed it to be the abode of Mithra or Mehr, the Aryan God of Light and Covenants, and the starting point of his daily journey around the world on his fiery chariot. It was also believed to be where the mythical king and sage Kay Khusro, my favourite Iranian mythological character, disappeared after defeating the arch-enemy of Iran. I think of him whenever I look at Damavand, and now, sadly, at its photographs.

Prince Kay Khusro was born at a time of brutal wars between Iran and its neighbouring country, Turan. The struggle had been carrying on for centuries. As the son of Prince Siyâvash he was destined to be involved in the violence. Siyâvash, trying to bring peace to both lands, had left Iran for Turan. There, he married the daughter of Afrasiab, King of Turan, and built a utopia. Siyâvash succeeded in stopping the war for a few years but then Afrasiab, poisoned by paranoia, ordered the execution of Siyâvash and his daughter Farangis who was, by then, pregnant with Kay Khusro.

Siyâvash was killed but Farangis survived. Kay Khusro was born in Turan and grew up among the shepherds until he was summoned back to Afrasiab’s court and received as a prince.

After a few years, an Iranian hero ventured on a quest to find the son of Siyâvash and bring him back to Iran to become the rightful king. When Kay Khusro heard the story of his grandfather’s atrocities and the cruel death of his father, he fled Turan, his birthplace, and became king of Iran. He then led the army of Iran in the wars between Iran and Turan and finally, after many years, defeated and slew Afrasiab and ended the war once and for all. But he refused to occupy Turan and returned to Iran. Then, having seen how power corrupted and how it had polluted the judgement and consciousness of those who possessed it, he renounced his throne. He had caused the death of everyone he loved in his pursuit of justice and peace: his grandfather, his uncle, his friends and his godfather. Power was not worth such a terrible price and, like Yudhishthira in the Mahabharata, he embarked on a journey towards Mount Damavand. He disappeared among the peaks and all his companions died. It is said that he will come back at the end of time to lead the Army of Light in the final battle between Good and Evil.

For Westerners, although its origins lie far earlier, the story may be a reminder of the legend of King Arthur. There are also many parallels with the Mahabharata and these stories probably share the same origins.

Many years later I wrote Kay Khusro, a novel. In it, the time has come for Kay Khusro to reveal himself and wage war against Evil. But he, wandering through history, is tired. He has neither the will to fight nor the desire to live. But he cannot die. A young woman finds him and takes care of him and, in return, Kay Khusro takes her back to the time when he was forced to wage war against his grandfather and his motherland. The novel was published, ironically, only a few days after Neda’s death, when I had already left Iran in anticipation of arrest. Shall I share the same destiny as Kay Khusro who was forced to flee his motherland? My bones tremble at the very idea . . .

I feel a sense of unity with my roots whenever I see Alborz. Most Iranians will take advantage of any excuse to drive once more among those cloud-draped peaks. The southern side of the Sierra, facing Tehran, is almost bare except for a few plantations here and there. But when you reach the peak and begin your downward journey, everything changes in a matter of minutes. Before you know it, the snow along the mountainside is replaced by menacing dark forests. This is the path to the everlasting paradise of the North, the strip of land confined by the Caspian Sea in the north and the Alborz in the south, where winter never comes and the air is filled with a pleasant humidity very different from the stifling variety one finds by other seas. The air is clear and possessed of a healing power. Even in your saddest times, a whiff of it and you feel a sense of joy seeping into your skin. In my imagination the Garden of Eden was a place perhaps very like the North, if not the North itself.

And then there is the sea itself. Swimming in it was a unique experience, although less so after the Revolution when men and women were no longer allowed to swim together. While men were allowed unrestricted access, women could swim only in designated areas, concealed by huge black curtains. Families could no longer go for a swim together. Mum told me that when she wanted to swim in the women’s area in her swimming costume, the female guard told her to wear a T-shirt over it.

‘Why? Isn’t this area for women only?’ Mum had asked. ‘It is indeed,’ the guard answered, ‘but should you drown and be carried away by the water, the lifeguards who look for you will be men. You don’t want to be in an inappropriate outfit that reveals your body.’ Mum laughed as she told us the story and guessed she would probably be past caring what she was wearing by then!

But I also had a chance to visit other places, like the ancient ruins of Persepolis and the tomb of Cyrus the Great, the first Persian Emperor from 2,500 years ago. It was impossible to feel anything but nostalgia in those places. Cyrus and his successors, Kambys and Darius, created the largest empire the earth has ever seen, stretching across Egypt, Libya, Mesopotamia and many other parts of Europe and Asia.

When I stood before the tomb of Cyrus, Dad told me that Alexander, whose invasion had brought an end to the Persian Empire, burnt everything in Iran until he reached the tomb of Cyrus. He intended to destroy it, too, but curiosity overcame him and he decided to visit the final resting place of the Great Cyrus, the inspiration for the Greek writer Xenophon’s recently published Cyropaedi, a biographical paean in praise of Cyrus. On arriving at the tomb, he read the inscription, Cyrus’ last testament:

O man, whoever thou art, from wheresoever
thou cometh, for I know thou shalt come,
I am Cyrus, who founded the empire of the 
Persians. Grudge me not, therefore, this
little earth that covers my body.

At these words, Alexander was ashamed of the destruction he had wrought in Iran and decided to bring it to a halt. It was already too late for Persepolis, the huge palace of the Achaemenid kings. The palace, the gardens and the unrivalled library of 40,000 books—a summary of all human knowledge at the time—were razed to the ground. It took the Iranians nearly a thousand years to rebuild the library. By the end of the Sassanid Empire (seventh century AD) it had again become one of the world’s largest but, sadly, it was destroyed again, this time by Arab invaders. According to many historians, Caliph Omar declared: ‘If the contents of these books are in accordance with the Quran then we don’t need them, and if they contradict it, they should be destroyed. Either way, these books have to go.’

The Iranians are still proud of that era of ancient glory and are perhaps a trifle over-zealous in expounding its triumphs and virtues. Perhaps it’s because some foreign force has thrown up an obstruction whenever Iranians have tried to establish their proper place in the world and its history. First it was the Greeks, then came the Arabs, then the Mongols, the Turks, the Russians and, indeed, even the Shah himself. Tales of our ancient glory serve as a symbolic reminder of who we were, what we believed in and how much we have contributed to the progress of human history. Now it’s the fundamentalist religious regime which is trying to strip us of our true identity. In defence, therefore, we are beginning to revive the ancient symbols of a more auspicious time.

I also paid more than one visit to Isfahan and its magnificent architecture conceived at a time when architecture was considered the most transcendent form of art among Muslims. We visited the golden shrine of Imam Reza in Mashad; faraway Bakhtiari and Qashqai villages in the deserts, the homes of nomadic pastoralists; and, of course, Dehaghan, the village of my grandfather before he moved to Tehran and before my father was born. We belonged to one of these nomadic tribes who at some point in history decided to stop migrating and inhabited Dehaghan, a fertile plane between the mountains that lay waiting to be cultivated. My grandfather and his brother, Uncle Habib, who was killed during the Revolution, came to begin a new life in Tehran around 1915.

Dad, a founder of the Iranian Foundry men’s Society, one of the first scientific societies formed after the Revolution, also took me on a visit to the war zone along with a group of foundry engineers. They had been invited to inspect the Iranian fleet of US-manufactured warships and to discuss whether replacement rudders and propellers could be made in Iran itself. Sanctions prevented the import of spare parts.

Dad didn’t tell Mum where we were going for she would never have allowed it. But Dad strongly believed that I, too, needed to see the war zone. We travelled via Ahvaz to Imam Khomeini port, a crucial and immensely important location that was Iran’s closest port to Iraq. We passed by Shush, site of the ancient city of Susa and now within the occupied province of Khuzestan but we couldn’t get to it through the barbed wire that demarcated the war zone. I could see the tanks and the troops in the distance but we didn’t linger long; an Iraqi attack could happen at any time and it always began with the bombing of roads leading to the Iranian front. Nothing serious happened that day, though. Dad’s group visited the site, decided that it was possible to manufacture the propellers and returned to Tehran to begin the design process.

All that travel broadened my mind and I have always appreciated Dad’s efforts to make me see my country better. I continued with my travels through Iran right up to the day when I was forced to leave. Iran is a land of great diversity with different ethnic groups, languages, dialects, professions and religions living in harmony; where you can ski in the morning and bathe in the sea in the afternoon and find yourself on the sands of the desert the day after.

I may never see the North nor breathe its healing air nor drive up the winding roads of Alborz nor feel that life is truly worth living as I sip the ice-cold water from a spring amid the remorseless heat of the never-ending desert. But I don’t ever have to feel that I never knew my homeland. I feel pain and regret, of course, but what is life worth without pain and regrets?