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

Autumn 1981

Despite the excitement of beginning my first year in junior high school, I was distressed and under considerable pressure. A lot had happened during the summer and I wasn’t the same person any more. I no longer believed in the ideals of the Revolution and I knew I was going to face an even more controlled environment. The hijab had become obligatory for women everywhere and men were not allowed to wear short-sleeved shirts. The Committee patrols roamed the city and arrested women who still resisted covering their hair. They were backed by an over-zealous crowd of fanatics who had decided that they could take the law into their own hands; they unleashed chaos in the city with their knives and buckets of black paint. The knives were used to hurt or threaten women who didn’t wear headscarves or whose hijab wasn’t completely covering their hair; the paint was used to paint the arms of those men who wore short sleeved shirts. The patrols had another mission: to make sure that no officially unrelated boys and girls appeared outdoors together. According to the Sharia, only siblings and spouses were allowed to go out together, although first cousins were sometimes allowed as well. Anything else was considered a manifestation of ‘moral corruption’ and was intolerable to the government.

This decision had created a dramatic, and in many instances comic, situation. Naturally, boys and girls wanted to meet and mingle and no law could control the instincts that attracted the sexes. All that the teenagers really wanted was a chance to step out with a friend of the opposite sex, take a walk, go to a park, have a coffee or an ice cream, and, in extreme cases, hold hands. And they did so, despite the regimentation. The most frightening sight for a boy and girl walking together was a glimpse of Tharallah (‘blood of God’, a title originally used for Imam Hussein) Patrols’ four-wheel-drive Nissans. These vans were constantly on the move around the city, usually carrying two male and two female officers, looking for incidents of ‘moral corruption’. The seized were treated differently, according to the extent of the ‘felony’ and according to the officers’ judgement; they could let the person off with a verbal warning or they could insist on an arrest.

Married couples always carried a copy of their marriage certificate, in case they were stopped and questioned. Brothers and sisters always carried their birth certificates, to prove they were born of the same parents and were indeed siblings. The problem lay in unmarried couples going out together. They would have to spend a lot of time memorizing one another’s family history. Seized by the Tharallah, they would claim to be either siblings or cousins. To verify their claims, the officers would question them individually.

‘You say you’re his sister. What’s your mother’s name?’ ‘Where do you live?’

‘What pictures have you got on the wall of the living room?’ ‘When was the last time you went to see your grandmother?’

‘What does your dad do after dinner?’

‘What colour are your dinner plates?’

If they gave the same answers, they would be released. God forbid that they gave different ones. They would be arrested on the spot and kept in detention until their parents claimed them; sometimes, they were even forced to pay a fine.

Public workplaces were forced to implement a ‘selection policy’ (gozinesh) before hiring a new employee. Each of the shortlisted candidates had to undergo a verbal or written exam to test their Islamic and political knowledge. If they cleared the exam, the employers were allowed to hire them; if not, no matter how suitable the applicant was in all other respects, no public organization was allowed to employ him or her. This ‘selection’ soon entered popular culture through our jokes.

‘Who killed Imam Hussein?’
‘I swear by God, Sir, it wasn’t me!’

‘Do you know the Twelve Imams?’

‘Yes, of course.’

‘Tell me their first names!’

‘We’re not on a first-name basis yet.’

‘Would you enter the restroom with your right foot or left foot?’

‘If it helps in hiring me, I’ll enter with my head!’

‘Tell me three names that end with Allah.’
‘Roohallah, Nasrollah and Cinderella!’

The unfortunate consequence of these ‘selections’ was that they deprived thousands of employment simply because they didn’t know the correct method of entering the lavatory! There were even stricter rules at school. Our hair was not allowed to grow longer than an inch and we weren’t allowed to wear jeans or sneakers, both symbols of Western culture. Expensive clothes weren’t exactly illegal but they were frowned upon as was the possession of fancy stationary or even a stylish satchel. Nevertheless, it was much easier for us boys than it was for the girls. They were not allowed to grow their nails nor use any kind of make-up; they could not wear jeans or coats or any other clothes that hinted at their figure nor any colours other than black, gray and dark blue. The cuffs of their trousers could not be too tight and plucking eyebrows or removing facial hair was an unforgivable crime.

I didn’t care. In fact, I was almost happy with the new dress code for boys since it meant that I wouldn’t feel like an outsider—because of my simple clothes—in my upper-class school. What really repelled me was the pretence of believing in the Revolution and the Sharia. Any hesitation in responding to religious questions, rousing the slightest suspicion among the Tutors of Islamic Manners about my loyalty to the Islamic Republic or the Supreme Leader or giving any impression that I belonged to a family with lax Islamic foundations would result in my expulsion from school or place my parents in jeopardy.

On the other hand, I was raised in a family in which dishonesty was considered the ultimate vice or dishonour. That principle had been engraved upon my subconscious since I was a child and I wasn’t sure that I could succeed in this game of pretence. Having witnessed my father’s trial, the expulsion of Uncle Hormoz and the plight of a lot of other friends, I knew that it was a matter of life and death. I also remembered losing Ahmadreza to the firing squad because he, too, hadn’t hidden his beliefs.

I finally decided to damn it all to hell. It was a new school and no one knew me. From the very first day, I followed a two-pronged strategy: frequented the prayer hall and prayed at noon. I enrolled in extracurricular Islamic classes at the Islamic Manners Department. I also became a member of the school’s Islamic Association. At the same time, I studied hard and made friends. I would not come under too much scrutiny were I considered a good student. I also knew that if I could build a strong circle of friends irrespective of their class or background, then no one would hate me enough to spy on me.

My strategy worked. My religious efforts endeared me to the Islamic Manners Department and I soon came to be known as one of the most intelligent students in the school. In reality, it had less to do with intelligence and more to do with hard work.

On the other hand, by inviting all the outcasts to join our circle, my close friend Farhad and I succeeded in breaking the practice of gangs and exclusive groups who picked on those less privileged in one way or another: those who were physically weaker or overweight or poor. We turned the class into a unified body of friends who supported one another, no matter what.

But there was a downside to all this. I got so carried away that my main objective—to remain invisible—was forgotten. I had become so popular among the students and the teachers that I was unanimously voted class rep. That popularity felt so good that I completely forgot its beginnings as a strategy for survival. Now I had a responsibility towards maintaining our solidarity. I was convinced that I was the champion of the underprivileged and I had to make sure that I deserved the trust of those who had voted for me.

But I was out of ideas. It was a school after all. After the hours spent in class or in Islamic activities, there wasn’t much time for anything else. Then I happened to watch a film that proved inspirational. I don’t remember the title; made in Yugoslavia, it was about a class of children, almost our age, who had formed a cooperative. I began planning our own cooperative the moment the film ended. I discussed it with Dad. He was excited and stayed up all night with me, developing the idea.

Next day, I requested my classmates to stay behind after school. I then gave them a long speech about my idea and we put it to a vote. It was a unanimous victory. We formed a central committee and began implementing the plan right away. Within the week we had officially launched ‘The Class 1/3 Cooperative’.

The idea was simple: we would take care of one another. Everyone contributed a few pennies to the class fund every week and we appointed one of the students as the ‘Banker’ to keep track of every contribution. By the end of the year we promised to reimburse everyone. The fund was used to give loans to those students who were in serious financial trouble and who couldn’t afford to buy their stationary, or who had to walk long distances to and from school because they didn’t have money for the bus.

We also formed a consultancy group, headed by Farhad, from among the brightest students. They were to give tutorials to those students who needed help with their lessons.

There was yet another group dedicated to environmental issues long before the environmental crisis made the headlines. We collected scrap paper from around school, in the streets or at home, and sold it to the recyclers. The income went into the fund which, after a while, grew substantial enough to pay for such treats as birthday presents for students.

News of our cooperative spread like wildfire and we were chosen as the best class only three months into the year. In the meantime, I attended my prayers and asked my classmates to do the same every afternoon. I remembered what had happened to Aunt Marjaneh and I certainly didn’t want to be considered a socialist or leftist. The Islamic Manners Tutors couldn’t hide their joy at the sight of an entire class voluntarily appearing at the prayer hall, and they loved me for having such a positive influence on my classmates. At the end of the first term we were told that we were going to receive the highest honour possible for any Iranian: we had been invited to the residence of Imam Khomeini, to listen to one of his speeches.

I must confess that I was excited at the prospect of another chance to meet the man I had once adored. Despite all the news of executions and imprisonments, I had never succeeded in convincing myself that Khomeini himself was responsible for those crimes. I had seen him and I was sure that a man as kind and as intelligent as he would never do such a thing to the people, to those who had given him their unstinting support. I couldn’t blame him for Ahmadreza’s death, no matter how hard I tried; I felt that, had he known, he would have stopped the executions. Meeting him was one of the best memories of my childhood. Now I had an opportunity to meet him again and make sure that I hadn’t been wrong about him all along.

Khomeini lived in a large house in a district called Jamaran in North Tehran. From several miles off, all the roads were controlled by the special guards and our Islamic Manners Tutor had to show an authorization before being allowed through. When we reached his home, we were taken into a room for a security check. We handed over our belts, shoes, wallets, watches, keys and glasses and were then further searched by the security officers. Only then were we allowed to enter the meeting hall.

I had already seen the hall several times on TV since it was from here that the Imam gave those lengthy speeches that were broadcast almost daily. It seemed smaller than I had imagined. We were asked to sit on the floor and wait for him to come. We weren’t alone; students from several schools arrived in clusters. The girls were taken upstairs and made to sit on a balcony above us. A man with a huge beard appeared and explained what we were supposed to do. I, as the rep, had to make sure that our class behaved according to his instructions.

Then the Imam appeared on a balcony and began to wave at us. This was the sign we had been waiting for. All of us rose to our feet and, throwing our fists in the air, began to shout.

O KHOMEINI, THE DESTROYER OF IDOLS! We repeated this slogan for precisely two minutes until the bearded man motioned for silence and for us to sit down.

The Imam sat on his chair and began his speech. And I found myself completely unable to pay any attention to what he was saying: he was so very boring. Not a word beyond what he had been repeating these last three years: the US was our main enemy, Israel was Satan’s representative on earth, we had to keep our solidarity, Islam was our only refuge, the Islamic Republic of Iran was the only righteous government in the world, the Iranian soldiers fighting the evil Saddam were the true warriors of God, the martyrs of the war were the highest honours a nation could receive, we were all preparing the path for the coming of the Hidden Imam and so on and on and on . . . I tried to look at him but from that distance I couldn’t see his face. His eyes were downcast right through the speech and I wondered why he didn’t look at his audience.

Every once in a while we received the ‘sign’—someone would shout, ‘TAKBIR!’ whenever the Imam said something important (such as ‘We will defeat the world of heresy with the power of Islam’). The sign meant we had to shout: ‘Allah-o Akbar! Khomeini is the Leader! Death to those against the Rule of the Jurisprudent! Death to America! Death to the Soviets! Death to Israel! Death to the Hypocrites! Death to Saddam!’ And then, just as suddenly, fall silent again.

I coordinated the class, I shouted the slogans, I gave the signs. But I only had one thing on my mind: to get close to the Imam and look into his eyes.

All at once I had an idea and I shared it with a friend sitting beside me. I knew about the secret security guards but I believed they wouldn’t be too harsh. Not that I cared about them: I had to see the Imam and I was ready to bear the consequences. We knew when the speech was nearing its end: the Imam began to wrap up with a few verses from the Quran and a prayer for the nation and the warriors of Islam. According to our instructions, as soon as he said, ‘Vassalam-o alaikom va rahmatollah va barakatehi,’ (Peace upon you as well as God’s compassion and blessing), we were to stand up and shout our slogans for the last time.

It was then that I gave the signal to my friend. While the audience was busy shouting and Khomeini was waving from the top of the balcony before rising to leave, my friend and I wriggled through the crowd until we were directly beneath him. Then my friend held his two hands together to give me a leg up and, in an instant, I was standing on his shoulders, climbing my way up to the Imam. My friend pushed me up with what seemed to me to be superhuman strength while I was using all of my own to pull myself up. Suddenly, my arms were seized in a pincer grip and, before I realized what was happening, I was standing on the balcony only a few steps away from the Imam. The man who had pulled me up was of intimidating proportions and I could tell from the look in his eyes that I was in serious trouble. But the cameras were on us and broadcasting the scene live on TV so he let go of my arms quickly enough. My acrobatic feat had startled the Imam and he stood for a few seconds with his right arm frozen in a wave. There was no time to lose. A couple of steps and I was in front of him. He turned to look at me and I, my heart almost leaping out of my mouth, looked into his eyes and said, ‘Hello! I’m Arash.’

I don’t know why I expected him to remember me. I had grown up since my last visit, and he had seen so many people over the course of these last three years. But being forgotten wasn’t what bothered me. He stuck out his hand. At first I thought he wanted to pat my shoulder and shake my hand, as he had the first time I met him. But no, his hand was turned downward, a clear sign that I was supposed to kiss it. I looked into his eyes again but saw no trace of the sparkle that had enchanted me that first time. I looked around me. The crowd was still shouting their slogans. I had no choice: I bent and kissed his ring.

My tutor came forward after the Imam had left the balcony trying to apologize for my inappropriate behaviour and promising that I would be punished. But the chief of Khomeini’s household said that it was perfectly all right; that my unexpected behaviour had lent a certain human touch to the ceremony; that everyone would love to see how the Iranian children would do anything to kiss the hand of their beloved Leader. They suggested that I be encouraged and rewarded.

I didn’t care either way. I had not only lost Uncle Habib, Azadeh, Ahmadreza and Uncle Muhammad but also the Leader I adored. That was the last tie between me and the Revolution. I hated myself for my hypocrisy, for betraying myself and for betraying the cherished memory of the wise man who had once taught me not to bow before anyone other than God.