It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … it was growing up in the Islamic Republic of Iran, in the late 90s and early 2000.
Not a day goes by without me thinking: “Ped, what gives? what the fuck happened?”
The Islamic Republic was never known to be the kindest, most people-friendly of governments. Ever. But growing up in that time in Iran, was such a radically different experience than those who had been born just a decade before me.
Ever since June 2009, I’ve gone back to those memories of growing up in Iran everyday, trying to decipher where the warning signals were (and boy there were plenty), what might have we done differently? I try to deconstruct those days, those experiences, not of nostalgia. But for the sake of understanding how we went from point A to point B, then to point C and beyond. Surely the narrative must go beyond the IRGC and Ahmadinejad. Even if this was a coup, the social and cultural norms in which it was embedded may provide a different, completing narrative.
I grew up with stories of the 80s executions, of war and revolution. Every so often, looking through the old family albums as I love to do, asking my grandmother: “mamanny, een kiyeh?” [grandma, whose this?] and then asking the person’s current age, location and occupation she would say: “khoda rahmatesh koneh. 67 edam shod” (god bless his/her soul. S/he was executed in 87).
Executions? WTF are those?
I remember the chill that went down my spine every time she said that, trying to imagine this smiley, jovial face in front of me in the album under the guillotine or in front of a fire squad.
“What? Why? What did he do?”
It took years of looking through those albums and asking those questions for “execution” to really fit in to the grander scheme of my life.
Such horror stories, though speaking of terror and agony, were so removed from my everyday experiences of growing up in Iran.
I grew up with stories of my aunts and uncles telling me of the harassment they and their friends had endured walking to school, at school, in front of their homes; of being stopped and searched in the streets; of going to police stations, of having their friends kicked out of school for the most outrageous reasons.
Just like the executions, those were terrible stories I heard, and yet they too were stories. I had no physical attachment to them, no physical, tangible experience to cling to.
By the time I was old enough to start collecting memories of the IRI, some of that notorious fear of my elders had subsided. The revolutionary fervor had died. The Bahais were still being persecuted, political prisoners were held galore, journalists were imprisoned. But we had numerous Bahai friends who still chose to stay in Iran, work in Iran, study there. Those journalists would eventually be freed and would pick up right where they left off. Political activism was not a dying breed, even despite the agony of political prisoners. We weren’t blind or oblivious to this suffering, but there was something in that vast, open land, that made things go on and made people stay. Because despite everything, we saw something there that maybe wasn’t visible to those who had focused their binoculars on our country, scanning it from afar.
From afar, the clergy has always been the clergy, the Guardian Council the notorious Guardian Council and intolerance and bigotry the same as they have always been.
But I swear, something was different. Many things were. It is attempting to understand and decipher these very differences and nuances, that I think might give us a better picture of what we see unravel today in Iran.
Some of the sweetest memories of my life are my high school days, growing up in Tehran with occasional and consistent visits to the south. Not of parties or street outings with friends, but of our actual school. I attended a strict religious [public] school where we had to wear chador (full black veil) to enter the school grounds. Having just arrived to Iran, off the boat, my parents never thought I would want or be willing to go. But after having spent a few months at a private school for recently returned expats, where the school was like a fashion show of (what I thought) were snobs and highbrow kids too stuck up for their own good, I was more than happy to wear that veil a few minutes a day.
In fact, once the initial culture shock had subsided, I was a happy kid, happy to be in that environment. Though in my school all the way around the world in North America I had occasionally met the philosopher king, or a kindred spirit, I didn’t like the way my compatriots in the West seemed (to me) so aloof, so pacified, so indifferent. It was invigorating to meet kids who were up to date with current events, who read voraciously, who could keep up a fiery political, social or religious debate better than most adults I knew.
In my childish, naive mind, it was as if putting up with injustice was the price we had to pay for having consciousness of injustice in the world. The moment things got too comfortable, things got dangerous. I thought that living through pain and intolerance, created an awareness and sensitivity to the world in a way that living in a pampered environment never would . It was as we call it, tofighe ejbari [a forced blessing].
Never did I imagine that for a while at least, my generation was the most pampered of all.
All of that debate and intellectual tête-à-tête would exponentially skyrocket near every election: the parliamentary elections, the city councils, the presidency. Yes, we have had the experience of vibrant elections. I have experienced elections in very different parts of the world, and if an election is about arousing and encouraging public debate, civil participation, a mindful struggle with opposing worldviews … we had vibrant elections. High school kids in Iran did not wake up to the Green Movement post June 2009. We had quite vivid, lively and yes, democratic participation throughout my high school days.
It didn’t matter who the candidates were or the limited pool (though not as limited as some claim) they came from. We would project our own worldviews, wants and principles on their candidacy, and take it from there. The state, knowing that such images would only boost its popular image at home and abroad, occasionally encouraged and emphasized this participation.
Some of the bravest, most brilliant activists, strategists and writers who became household names post-2009 were a product of that very era. So there must have been something there beyond the Guardian Council and Monsieur Jannati, although we would like to reduce it as such.
I remember the school the day the news of Dariush and Parvaneh Foruhar’s murder came out. The chain murders came as a great shock, they shook us like nothing did. But that’s the irony of it: executions, political murders, etc, these were nothing new in the practices of the IRI … so the fact that they shook us like they did, only showed how removed such events were from our daily lives.
I try to deconstruct those days,
“you were part of the lucky minority” – I was certainly lucky, I came from the religious, ethnic and political majority, but not a minority.
“you were bala shahri too out of touch with the common Iranian” [rich uptown folks] – certainly far from it.
I don’t mean to blame 16 year olds for Iran’s current mess, but I do think we took it all for granted. We had all heard the horror stories of our elders, we all felt that something had progressed, … and we assumed it was a linear trajectory that we would simply continue. Yes, we still had a rather annoying, difficult old man we called the “supreme leader” (like the old, disgruntled father you are too embarrassed to have pick you up in front of school). Sure, we would have rather not had him in our family, but he was just the lame old man in the background. And if shit ever hit the fan one day, he would serve as a unifying force. He was velayat-e faqih [signaling wisdom] after all … those were the days before he was to cement his legacy as valayateh vaqih [vulgarity].
We were aware of the suffering of the Kurds, the Bahais, the Baluch. But their pain wasn’t on top of our agenda, we assumed it would all be “fixed”, this progress would only continue and magically uplift their anguish.
Yes, the more I think about it, the more I think that maybe because the horror stories were just that … stories … we didn’t fully realize all the violence and agony that had been endured to get us to that more comfortable state. Our life was our life, it had probably always been like this?
Well, it hadn’t always been like this. And it will never be again – for years to come. It was a small window through which we had the privilege of looking out onto the world. But to us, it wasn’t a small window, it didn’t smell of privilege, it was life as we had always known it to be.
Boy were we in for a surprise.