It was winter 1980, nearly two years after the people of Iran had surprised even themselves by toppling the shah and then had their brief moment of freedom snuffed out by Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers. Amir (not his real name) and some of his friends had driven out to the huge Behesht-e Zahra cemetery south of Tehran, where tens of thousands of people had gathered to hear a speaker from the Mojahedin, the strongest of the organizations opposing Khomeini’s government. When the speech was over, Amir climbed into a van with some other people who were going back to the city through his neighborhood.
They hadn’t gone far before a group of men stopped the van. They dragged ten people out and shoved them into waiting cars. Amir was thrown alone into the back of one, where he was blindfolded and his hands tied. He could see beneath his blindfold that the three men with him were not in uniform, and he assumed they were komiteh, from one of thousands of well-armed revolutionary committees that terrorized the opposition with the clear approval of the government.
They drove for a long time, then stopped at a deserted rural factory. The men pushed Amir into a room and started punching and kicking him. Amir says the beating lasted for at least an hour. “Then they fastened me in a chair and they left. They put a paper napkin in my mouth, and I was just swallowing it little by little down,” he says, and then laughs. He laughs often, a light rippling sound that seems cheerful even when it’s distancing him from some grim detail. “Like four hours later, when it was dark, they came back. They put me in a big blanket, like a cover–I couldn’t really feel. They fastened me by a rope, and they were arguing what to do with me. One was saying, ‘OK, we should throw him from the mountain.’ Another was saying, ‘No, we should pass over him with our car.’ Another was saying, ‘No, we should burn him.’ Someone else was saying, ‘We should just bury him.’ So they put lots of water on me and hit me like an hour and a half. My glasses broke.”
They set him against a tree and fired bullets into the trunk right above his head, and drove their car at him, stopping just short of him. Then they threw him into the car and drove to a farm, where they dug a shallow hole and dumped him in. Until then they had cursed him for being a supporter of the Mojahedin. Now they wanted to know the names and addresses of any friends who were supporters. “They put lots of earth on me–they were trying to bury me,” he says softly. He pauses and then lets out one short burst of laughter. “I was swearing! Then they decide, ‘No, it’s not a good idea.’ They said, ‘OK, let’s take him to the mountains.’ Then they carried me a little bit farther and they said, ‘No, we will get tired. It isn’t worth it to carry him all the way up.'”
They tied one end of a rope around him, Amir says, knotted the other end to the bumper of their car, and drove off. “I was just trying to protect my head and trying to get the car not to flip me over, because that was very painful. It was easier just to be straight.” He says he doesn’t know how long they drove. Somehow he wriggled his arms free of the blanket and grabbed the rope above his head so he could drag himself up and catch the bumper. “Then I could protect my head and my back,” he says, almost whispering. “It amazed me that I could do this thing. I don’t know with what power I could still hold myself. I knew I wanted to survive–anything that I could do. But I shouldn’t give up. I was saying that, ‘I shouldn’t give up.'”
The men finally stopped the car, cut Amir loose from the bumper, and left him for dead in the middle of the road. “This was like the end. I really couldn’t do more.”
The first vehicle to come at him was a car that stopped before it hit him. It was after midnight, and the driver was on his way home from work. Well aware that Amir had been beaten by komiteh and that it was dangerous for him to interfere, the man put Amir in his car nonetheless and drove to a friend’s house. They weren’t sure Amir would live when they peeled off the blood-soaked blanket and his clothes. But he seemed to have no broken bones. They carefully washed him off, dressed him, and then drove him home to Tehran.
Amir sits quiet for a moment. He says he hasn’t told this story in a long time, and not telling it has faded the horror. “But before I used to think, ‘My God, I was that close.'”
There were other close calls, until Amir managed to escape from Iran in 1984. In 1985 he came to Chicago and has lived here ever since. He is now 33. It is still not safe for him to go back, and he is afraid to attach his real name to his story because his family still lives in Iran. Yet Iran–not Chicago, not America–is at the center of his dreams. He hopes to someday set up a school there. And he still supports the Mojahedin, who are now based in Iraq and who claim they will one day ignite a second revolution that will overthrow the current government. Then, Amir believes, he may be able to go home.
Amir was born in 1957, the oldest of eight children. His father was only 20, his mother 17, and he says it was as if they all grew up together. His mother’s gentle elderly uncle, a mullah, or cleric, who had no children of his own, helped raise the family, and Amir thought of him as a second father.
Amir was a mischievous child. He once dropped firecrackers into a brazier outside a mosque and panicked the worshippers, who thought they were being attacked by SAVAK, the shah’s dreaded secret police. When he was only four or five, he played a prank during the holy month of Muharram, when the slaughter of Mohammed’s grandson Hussein and his followers is mourned. He says neighborhoods often compete with each other to see who can put on the best show. “We had more people.” “We had better music.” “We had more people who beat themselves.” “We had more blood.” He smiles. “Like all other customs, after a while it becomes too much. Most of it’s just showing off.” The organizer of his neighborhood’s commemoration had suggested that he play a trick on the people in the next neighborhood, and he went to their mosque one evening when the mullah was telling the story of Hussein to a crowd of some 200 people. “They turn off the lights, because some people are shy and they don’t want the other people to see they are crying,” he says. Traditionally, someone walks around with a basin of rose water so that people can rinse their hands and faces during the service, and Amir volunteered for the task. He starts laughing even before he describes what he did. “I put this mercurochrome in the rose water. I gave everybody a little bit, and some people were asking for a little bit more. So I was just waiting around the door to see what would happen. And they turned on the lights, and everybody was looking at the other person–and laughing. Two hundred people were orange.” He rocks back laughing as he imitates their expressions.
Amir says his parents, who are Shiites like most Iranians, never pushed religion on their children. “They really believe in their religion, but we were always free to choose our way.” Yet Amir read from the Koran in the morning before he went to school, and by the time he started fifth grade, he was teaching other children at a mullahs’ school to read it in the traditional Arabic. By high school he was teaching adults, mostly bazaar merchants.
Amir’s father worked in manufacturing; his mother was still a student when he was born, and he remembers her always studying when he was small. After she received her PhD, she taught high school and later at the university. He says his parents had an equal relationship. “They were feeding each other. And we as kids never thought there was a difference or any gap between them.” Both his parents opposed the shah; his mother was more politically active, though his father always said that his poetry, which was published after the revolution, was his way of resisting.
It was risky to oppose the shah in the early 1960s. Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi had been put on the throne in 1941 after his father–a soldier who had deposed the previous shah and then crowned himself–was forced to abdicate by the British and Russians. Iran was nominally a constitutional monarchy, yet over the years Mohammed Reza Pahlavi had grown more authoritarian and more willing to use SAVAK and the military to quash any dissent, generally bypassing or manipulating the parliament. That had its good side. Partly because of pressure from President John Kennedy, in 1963 the shah announced a series of major reforms, collectively labeled the White Revolution because they were to be bloodless. Literacy volunteers were sent to rural areas, some industrial workers were allowed to share their companies’ profits, women were given the vote, and huge feudal estates were broken up and redistributed to landless peasants. Though popular with the people they benefited, these reforms made others unhappy.
Many of the landless got nothing, and many of those who were given a plot soon found that it was too little to support their families. Small farmers were pushed from their land to make room for U.S.-financed agribusinesses and cooperatives. The mullahs, who had dominated Iranian society for centuries, were particularly incensed. The shah had long been contemptuous of them and had chipped away at their power whenever he could. Some of the lands that were being confiscated and redistributed belonged to them, and they saw some of the reforms as anti-Islamic.
In March 1963 the mullahs’ angry speeches, particularly Khomeini’s, sparked demonstrations. SAVAK and the military attacked, killing perhaps hundreds of people. Some mullahs were cowed, but not Khomeini, who boldly resisted the shah’s tyranny and even the shah himself. Khomeini’s uncompromising courage–along with his austere and devout life-style–made him a hero; when he was arrested in June of that year, people demonstrated and rioted across the country. The shah declared martial law and ordered the military to shoot to kill. Thousands died and thousands more were arrested.
Among those arrested was Amir’s uncle, who had spoken out against the shah; he was imprisoned for six months. Amir’s mother, who was accused of making a speech against the government, was arrested as well. SAVAK agents searched the house, but unable to prove anything, they released her.
Had SAVAK had better information, both his parents might well have spent time in prison, for they had been holding meetings in their house at which political actions were planned. “It was very hard in those years to get enough information about what was going on because of the censorship,” says Amir. The children were encouraged to join the discussions, but they were told they could never repeat what they heard. “We always had this atmosphere at home: ‘Be careful. There is something going on in the family that you shouldn’t talk about outside.'”
Many books, most of them religious, had been declared illegal in 1966. Amir’s mother and a friend of hers helped to secretly publish and translate books, among them one by Khomeini, one about feudalism in Iran, another about corruption in the shah’s government, another about the history of colonial oil contracts in the Middle East; Amir still has the uncut newsprint pages of one of them. They were printed on small presses that had to be continually moved so they wouldn’t be discovered. SAVAK agents came to the house a couple of times to question his mother, but again found nothing.
When the books were shipped to other cities, they were often loaded into a van and hidden under fruits and vegetables. Occasionally Amir went along to make the trips seem more innocent. “It was good,” he says, laughing. “Because I was very young and I was very cute.”
By the time Amir reached high school, several people from his large extended family–his grandfather was one of 18 children–had spent time in the shah’s prisons. In 1971 his cousin was imprisoned because he was part of a student protest movement. The young man’s mother saw him once a month, though his father was not allowed to see him for four years. “They were always coming with the news that he was tortured and he couldn’t walk. And when he was released, he was always in the hospital because they had injected hot oil–” He gestures toward his buttocks. “So we knew for sure what was going on.”
By this time SAVAK–which the shah, with help from the Israeli Mossad and the CIA, had created in 1957 to suppress opposition–routinely tortured prisoners. It had a huge budget and thousands of informers, and had insinuated itself into every niche of Iranian society. Because it was answerable only to the shah, anyone it suspected could lose his job, be arrested without charges, detained without trial, even executed–all without question. It had even extended its grasp to the United States. According to Dilip Hiro’s Iran Under the Ayatollahs, President Nixon made a secret deal to allow SAVAK to spy on students here in return for the shah’s allowing the CIA to set up surveillance posts near Iran’s Soviet border. By 1972, 400 SAVAK agents a year were being trained at CIA headquarters in Virginia.
Plenty of people still managed to evade SAVAK’s net, at least for a time. For two years in high school Amir had a teacher who had been a political prisoner for three years and who managed to weave his opinions into his lessons. Amir thinks he was allowed to teach in the school because it was on the south side of Tehran, the poor and rough and therefore ignored end of the city. “He was very smart. He knew how to develop our minds to get the point, but not talk about anything directly. Later he was arrested, and I didn’t hear about him anymore.” During his last year in high school Amir and the other students watched from their classroom window as SAVAK agents chased and shot a man and two women in the street below.
Not all of his memories of these years are grim. He had a passion for hiking, something of a national pastime; great crowds of Iranians would wander up the slopes of the mountains north of Tehran every Friday. He would take long journeys across the country, much of which is mountainous, shooting roll after roll of film. Later he missed his sister’s wedding because he was on a trip, a great breach of family etiquette.
During his last year in high school he worked at a veterinary pharmacy on the outskirts of the city. For years the farmers had been wary of new drugs, and they still asked for antibiotics by colloquial names, such as “seven pains” for tetracycline. By the end of the year the shop’s owner, who was only a few years older than Amir, had decided to sell, and he liked Amir so much that he offered him the shop, infuriating his own brothers. Amir borrowed some money from his family, and the owner agreed to let him pay off the rest in installments.
The farmers also seemed to like Amir, and one of them trusted him enough to let him speak for his family in the negotiations over his daughter’s marriage to a man in medical school. “The poor farmer was nervous because most of his relatives were farmers and small-town. And he thought, ‘OK, you are close enough to us. You are educated. So you talk for us.'” He laughs and says the daughter called him just before he left for the first family interview. “She said, ‘That person and me–don’t talk about it, but we’ve been going out. Try to make it happen.'”
Amir had done well on his college-entrance exams and was accepted at Tehran University for the fall of 1974. He knew that he, like every Iranian man, would be required to do two years of military service, though it could be deferred until after he finished school. He loathed the thought of serving in the shah’s military, but one of Amir’s relatives told him to sign up and he would use his connections to get him out. Amir registered, and then the relative discovered that his connections weren’t good enough. “The law said, ‘OK, you registered. You are a soldier. You have to finish this now.’ I thought, ‘OK, it’s not going to work this way. I should find some other way.’ So I was trying everything. One day I came up with this idea that I couldn’t hear.” He practiced not being able to hear for a couple of days and then announced the sudden malady. No one believed him. Officers would creep up behind him and shout at him or insult his family. When he didn’t react, they sent him to a doctor, who tested him and said there was nothing physically wrong. Then they sent him to a psychologist, who told them that it was possible for trauma to block one’s ability to hear. They gave him another test, which failed to catch him in his lie. Two weeks before university classes started, they gave him his release papers. He had barely learned to shoot a gun.
He wasn’t sure before he started classes what he ought to study. He had thought about becoming a dentist like one of his cousins, but decided he didn’t want to inflict pain. “If it was just one person with pain, he would leave,” he says, laughing. “But I could not see the next patient too.” His father wanted him to choose some practical profession, but Amir decided to major in theology and philosophy. He also took film and photography classes and eventually had his own darkroom. There were no photography books available in Farsi, but he bought every one of the 30 in French that the bookstore carried and deciphered the diagrams as well as he could.
The mid-70s were heady years at the university–no one, he says, could be there and not be political. He helped organize study groups and joined the memorial strikes for students killed by SAVAK and the military. And he never missed one of the frequent lectures given by Dr. Ali Shariati, the enormously popular radical sociologist who denounced Iran’s subservience to Western culture and encouraged intellectuals to return to their Shiite roots.
They were turbulent years for the whole country. In 1974 the shah and OPEC had manipulated a staggering rise in the price of oil, quadrupling Iran’s revenues. The shah used much of this new wealth to attempt to turn Iran into an industrialized nation–a model, he declared, for the decadent West. But the economy quickly overheated, and the next year inflation was running at 42 percent. Food prices shot up. The shah blamed the merchants for overcharging and began fining and jailing them; 8,000 were imprisoned in 1974. The price of housing also took off, and peasants flocking to the cities to look for work caused shortages. When the administration finally tried to correct things, it slammed the country into a recession. The privileged continued to make and flaunt their fortunes; the poor grew even more bitter.
The shah also poured money into his military. In 1972 Henry Kissinger–valuing Iran’s willingness to enforce stability in the region, which secured Western access to oil–insisted that the U.S. sell the shah any weapons he wanted. A year later the shah spent $2.5 billion on arms, five times what he had spent the year before, making Iran America’s best arms customer and rescuing several companies suffering from the winding down of the Vietnam war (they overcharged the shah, perhaps inspiring the Reagan administration). By 1977 he had 400,000 men in his military and as many as 60,000 full- and part-time employees in SAVAK, all tightly controlled. According to William Shawcross’s The Shah’s Last Ride, even the CIA, which had hundreds or even thousands of employees in Iran, was forbidden to contact the shah’s opposition, one reason it misjudged his power so badly.
The shah amassed more and more power, which he had come to see as his right. He had been “chosen by God to accomplish a mission,” he told reporter Oriana Fallaci in 1973. “My reign has saved the country, and it’s saved it because God was beside me.” He kept no one around who had the nerve to puncture the myth. Some of his power he put to charitable use; the enormously wealthy Pahlavi Foundation, for instance, dispensed aid to the poor and funded scholarships and orphanages, though the shah also used it as a huge patronage fund for his corruption-choked government. But more often his power was used to destroy mechanisms for opposition. In 1975 he abolished all existing political parties and set up one that he controlled.
By 1977 the shah was being pressured to stop human-rights abuses by organizations such as Amnesty International and the Red Cross as well as President Jimmy Carter (who nevertheless praised the shah prodigally a year before the revolution, for the “respect, admiration, and love which your people give to you”). The shah responded by easing controls on the press, curbing SAVAK, and releasing a number of political prisoners, which he later said was one of the biggest mistakes he’d ever made.
Encouraged, opposition leaders began speaking out. Of course, some of them had never been quiet. Ayatollah Khomeini, who had been exiled to Iraq in 1964, had sent a stream of taped messages to his supporters in Iran, who passed them along at Friday prayer meetings–the mosque had become the only place where people dared voice their anger. He condemned the shah for having made the country dependent on the West, which he said was exploiting Iran’s resources while selling it expensive, useless weapons in return, and he accused the shah of forcing the mullahs from power because they denounced Western domination. He also castigated the shah for suppressing basic freedoms, for imprisoning mullahs and students and intellectuals, and for torturing and executing prisoners. Eventually he called for the overthrow of the “anti-Islamic” monarchy and for the establishment of a state in which the Koran and the mullahs were the source of authority.
The message was broad and vague enough to appeal to nearly everyone. “We all were supporting him,” Amir says. “You have to be around one leader if you hope to succeed. And that was Khomeini. People who had nothing to do with Khomeini and his ideology supported him. They thought, ‘OK, we’ll deal with our problems later. But for now, we need to be united.'”
Several of Amir’s friends had gone to the United States to study and had tried to persuade him to follow. During his last semester at Tehran University, in the fall of 1977, a friend brought him an application for a liberal-arts college in New York. He filled it out and was accepted for the following year. That winter he started work on a master’s in philosophy at the University of Tehran, fully intending to transfer to New York when the time came. “Then the demonstrations started, and I could smell something was happening. I said no way am I going.”
In early 1978 the shah cracked down again. Demonstrations followed in cities around the country, and once again people were killed. Khomeini had asked the mullahs to encourage people to form committees at their local mosques so they could coordinate their actions, and Amir helped set one up at his neighborhood mosque. As university students and then workers began going on strike, the committees distributed food and kerosene to their families. They also held internal elections, set up education subcommittees, and located doctors and nurses who could be called upon when needed. Amir also worked with other students at the university scheduling speeches by political prisoners, many of whom the shah had recently released.
By midsummer high unemployment had pushed many people into the streets, and there were more riots and killings. Demands for reform became demands for an end to the monarchy. For the first time the shah seemed to understand that his regime was hated, and he promised free elections the following year and dismissed certain officials. It wasn’t enough. The daily demonstrations continued, and on September 7 half a million people marched through Tehran shouting “Death to the shah.” The shah imposed martial law and a curfew that was to start the next morning.
Many people hadn’t heard about the curfew when they gathered in Jaleh Square the next morning. Troops surrounded the 15,000 people there and opened fire. More than 4,000 were killed. Amir was in the square when the shooting started, and he jumped into a deep hole that had been dug along a curb. “It’s still a shock for me–for a long time I was dreaming about it. There was blood everywhere. Two people fell on top of me–they both were shot.” One of the people was already dead. Amir thinks he was in the hole about an hour before someone came and pulled him out. Then he helped a huge crowd of people ferry the dead in trucks and vans to the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery. “We were bringing them from two o’clock in the afternoon until like ten o’clock in the morning the next day. One hundred people just washing these people and burying them.”
The shah couldn’t decide what to do, and the Americans, on whose advice he was depending, weren’t much help. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski urged him to crack down hard. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance warned him not to use violence. Iranian go-betweens repeatedly asked American officials how many deaths the U.S. would tolerate if violence were used. The shah waffled. He ordered the military to avoid shedding blood. He also tried to impose martial law in other cities, though people refused to obey the order.
By October much of the country was on strike. Amir kept his pharmacy open only one day a week. In November the shah released more political prisoners, allowed a number of government officials to be arrested, and again promised democracy. “The shah tried everything,” says Amir. “He came to the TV and said, ‘I’ve made mistakes.’ That was a big deal for the shah to say that, because he was Mr. Ego. He said, ‘I think I was wrong, and I’ll try to change and proceed democratically in the future–and cancel the secret police.’ But it didn’t work.”
By December two million people were marching in the streets of Tehran, and thousands of men were deserting the military. Urged by the British and Americans to leave the country, the shah finally asked Shapour Bakhtiar to become prime minister of what he hoped would become a constitutional monarchy. On January 16, 1979, the shah left.
Car horns blared. Crowds of people shouted that they were free and held up paper money with holes where the face of the shah had been. Amir took more than 5,000 pictures around the time of the revolution, and he has a big box full of prints. Many of the ones he took that day show huge crowds, black with chadors, the cloaks the women wear. One shows a poster with a formal portrait of a man next to a photo of his tortured body lying in a line of corpses. Another shows a crowd that has just toppled a statue of the shah, pieces of which dangle from the top of the pedestal. Written in Farsi on the column is “Down With the Shah” and “Down With Carter.” Yet another shows people posing behind the gate of a military truck filled with soldiers, everyone smiling. “The military was in shock–they didn’t know what was going on. That was one of the first days that people started to be kind to the military. They were hugging them, kissing them.”
Bakhtiar scrambled to make changes, but he had little support in the streets, where people were now calling for him to leave. On February 1 Khomeini returned. At least three million people jammed the 18-mile route from the airport to Tehran. Amir has pictures of the stern-faced ayatollah riding through the crush of people in a Chevy Blazer on his way to the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, where he denounced the shah for having built cemeteries instead of houses.
Nearly two months earlier, a man from a local military unit had come to Amir and said that he would help Amir’s mosque committee capture guns and ammunition from his garrison. Now that man was back. “Two or three days before the revolution he came with a truck of arms,” Amir says, and then laughs. “We didn’t know what to do with them.” A few were handed out to people who had done military service. Amir took a Kalashnikov rifle and a Colt revolver. “Just carrying it for safety, because every moment you were afraid of being attacked by SAVAK. They were very active in these days–they were shooting you at night. Lots of people were killed.” On February 10 Amir and about 20 others went to a nearby military barracks to round up more weapons. “They just opened the doors, and people went in.”
Later that day he was standing with a very well armed crowd of people on a major city street. “We were all waiting for these tanks. And people on motorcycles were coming to tell us, ‘Now they are in this street. Now they are at this street.’ There was a big tree in the middle of the street–the people had blocked it. When the tanks came to that point and a person ordered to fire, like 500 people fired. It happened in like two seconds. One minute there were four tanks and ten vans with soldiers–and then they were all gone. People killed them. They were all killed. This was it–the last resistance of the shah’s side.”
The next day the generals ordered their troops to stay in their barracks, and within hours Bakhtiar’s government fell. Between January 1978 and that moment in mid-February 1979 10,000 to 40,000 people had died fighting the shah.
“The real happiness was after the revolution, because for the first time in our history we had an identity. For the first time in our life we could enjoy being Iranian. We knew we were somebody, we were changing a part of our society. And for the first time we could talk. Go to any lectures, speeches. You could go out and buy books–any books. People were carrying huge stacks–they bought books that had been forbidden under the shah just to have them. They had started to know how much they didn’t know.” Political organizing meetings were held. Political prisoners were released, including Amir’s cousin who had been held since 1971. And for a short time people were extraordinarily generous to one another. Amir says he saw more than one car accident in which the drivers, instead of getting angry with each other, just laughed it off. “People were helping each other–it was like a dream. Lots of people who were working in the morning were going to farms in the afternoon and helping the farmers. Now is it normal for an office worker working hard to go to a farm and help a farmer for free? This is what revolution makes people do.” But that mood quickly changed.
Because Amir’s family had been politically active, they now were well connected. The revolutionary government put him in charge of guarding some of the shah’s palaces from looters–a fifth of the private assets in Iran belonged to the shah’s family. “But every day when we were checking passes, the doors were open. And people were stealing from there every night.” Paintings by Dali, Picasso, and Renoir disappeared. In the second week after the revolution Amir stopped a car driven by his boss. “When he was going out, I saw the people who were sitting in the back of the car were too high, like something was under them. I said I wanted to search the car. The guy was upset. He said, ‘Do you know who I am?’ I said, ‘I know. Get out.’ We checked, and they had some paintings and rugs and curtains under themselves. So I just reported that these guys were stealing the people’s stuff–but then they limited my responsibility instead of stopping the guy. My friends all were upset, because we never used anything from there. I would not even eat there. I thought, these things are for the people. I don’t have any right to use them.”
Friends who were guarding other places told him similar stories, and Amir was further disturbed by the arrogance of mullahs who pushed people out of the way as they drove to Friday prayers at the University of Tehran. “They were coming in Mercedeses–all of them. I didn’t like that. I thought, ‘This is not a revolutionary government. People are dying in the south just for a piece of bread.'” But he also found himself having to protect farmers’ land from ordinary people who wanted to take it over. “They thought, ‘OK, this is a revolution, so you can do what you want to do. As long as the farmer isn’t here, we can have this land, this house.’ We had lots of problems.”
Four weeks after the revolution he quit his guard job in disgust and went back to working full-time at his pharmacy. “I was still helping people who needed help, just some direct things. I wasn’t doing anything with the government. I thought this was too much, this was not a revolution. I didn’t want to change things like that.” He laughs. “I could have gone far in the ministry. I had friends who are now vice presidents, head of an office, representatives.”
It was not yet clear on the streets what direction the new government would take, but Khomeini knew. Before Bakhtiar fell, Khomeini had appointed a parallel government with the moderate but uncharismatic Mehdi Bazargan as prime minister at the head of a cabinet of technocrats. Khomeini balanced this government with the powerful Revolutionary Council, half of whose members were secular, half religious. Bazargan, who had spent five years in prison under the shah, was technically in control, but he had no means to enforce his policies. The military and police had abandoned their stations, and much of their power was shifting to young men from the many local mosque committees that were rapidly metamorphosing into the vigilante komiteh. Many of the 300,000 weapons that the military had handed over to the citizens wound up in their hands. These young men, who had at first only policed their neighborhoods, began confiscating property and arresting and imprisoning counterrevolutionaries–SAVAK agents, wealthy businessmen, and “collaborators.” Bazargan and Khomeini appealed to people to turn their weapons in to the government, but not many did. Bazargan banned arrests of military officials without proper authorization but was ignored. Khomeini and the Revolutionary Council were more astute; they were soon manipulating the komiteh, using them to eliminate the rapidly growing opposition.
In May 1979, after the chairman of the Revolutionary Council was assassinated, Khomeini established the Pasdaran, or Revolutionary Guard, to protect the council and take over certain functions of the now-suspect regular military. The militant Pasdaran were soon making their own arrests and running their own prisons. A particularly vicious group of vigilantes also roamed the streets with the tacit blessing of Khomeini’s followers–the Hezbollahis, who were members of the secretive Party of Allah and were also often members of the komiteh or Pasdaran.
Early on Khomeini had secretly set up revolutionary courts outside the justice ministry accountable only to him and the Revolutionary Council. Trials–held in secret, based on vague charges, and without defense lawyers or juries–began immediately, and within a month of the revolution 70 people had been executed, most of them from SAVAK or the military. By summer the courts were trying those who had committed “crimes against the revolution” or simply “crimes against the people”; by fall they had executed more than 500 people. When Bazargan tried to move against the courts, they said only Khomeini could dissolve them. Khomeini did not.
Khomeini gradually isolated Bazargan in other ways. When he was in exile, Khomeini had called for the establishment of a democratic and Islamic republic. Now he declared, “Democracy is another word for usurpation of God’s authority to rule.” And when the secularists attacked the relatively moderate constitution proposed in June, Khomeini led a backlash by the hard-line mullahs. The revised constitution, which was approved by the voters in December, restricted basic rights and ensured that the mullahs dominated the government. It also allowed for a president, but gave supreme power to a faqih, a “just and pious” Islamic jurist who was to interpret divine law and make sure that government policies followed it. Khomeini was to be faqih for life. Some, including Bazargan, argued against vesting so much power in one man. Khomeini said the office was “something that God has ordained.” Many such parallels with the shah’s rule would follow.
It was soon clear that Khomeini would tolerate none of the dissent that had swelled the membership of several opposition parties, most of which predated the revolution. In August he banned 41 opposition newspapers; most of the rest of the country’s papers were already controlled by the new government, and radio and TV had been in its hands from the beginning. Until then Amir had thought the opposition could still make progress openly. “We thought, OK, we just need to educate people to have more. We passed the shah. We can pass these mullahs. But then every day the Hezbollahis started to stop lectures and conferences. They didn’t say they were supported by the regime–but they could come and break your head and nobody would arrest them. Every day it started to get a little bit worse, to the point where you sit down and say, what’s happening?”
By October, when the universities reopened and he went back to classes, Amir was supporting the Mojahedin. The aim of this group when it was founded in 1965 was the violent overthrow of the shah, and many of its members had died in his prisons. In 1979 the Mojahedin at first supported Khomeini and his coalition, even applauding the executions by the revolutionary courts, though they condemned the secrecy of the trials and the barring of defense lawyers. Their political analysis had Marxist roots, but they were also devoutly Muslim and committed to an Islamic state–although they said they wanted a state that was egalitarian. Gradually they turned against Khomeini’s government, and the organization grew quickly as it attracted large numbers of young and well-educated people who also distrusted the direction the revolution was taking. In August the Pasdaran drove the Mojahedin out of their headquarters, and Khomeini banned their newspaper, though they continued to print it secretly.
Well aware that many people were dissatisfied with the government, Khomeini shrewdly seized every opportunity to unite them against an outside enemy. When Jimmy Carter was bullied by Henry Kissinger into allowing the shah into the U.S. that October, Khomeini, who also feared a plot to return the shah to power, urged students to attack U.S. interests. A few days later they took 66 people hostage in the American embassy. It was easy to focus Iranian anger on America, for no one had forgotten how long and generously the U.S. had supported the shah and SAVAK.
When the embassy was taken over, Bazargan had the misfortune to be meeting in Algiers with Zbigniew Brzezinski. No one had forgotten Brzezinski’s hard-line advice to the shah either. On November 6 Bazargan resigned. When the students released documents showing that the Americans and British had indeed been plotting a coup, Khomeini had another excuse to rally people against anyone who opposed the republic. By the end of 1979 the Hezbollahis and komiteh were systematically beating up and arresting members of the various opposition groups.
Two weeks after the revolution Amir had started writing articles for a popular magazine. At first he wrote personal observations; by summer he was doing more extensive reporting, including an article on the Kurdish uprising in northwest Iran. That winter the komiteh allowed him to interview a Mojahedin supporter they had arrested. They accused her of sleeping with someone when she wasn’t married; she denied having slept with anyone. She had been badly beaten and was sent to the hospital after Amir left. He then interviewed the man she was supposed to have slept with, who also denied the story. Amir’s article ran. “Two hours after, at ten o’clock in the morning, they were in my pharmacy.” They were komiteh, and they told him to come with them to the local headquarters. There he was blindfolded and taken to a basement room, where they beat him and then handcuffed his feet to a gas meter. “I could move two feet in a circle. I had no light, nothing, for four days. The fourth day they took me out, and they poured a lot of cold water on me. And then they beat me like 70 times with a belt or something. I could remember the first ten. After that I was gone, unconscious.”
He knew every one of the men who had kicked and flogged him. “Some of them were my students when I was teaching Koran at the mosque. Most of them knew what I was doing during the revolution.” He pauses. “Some of them were trying to help me a little, I think. But they couldn’t do anything. That was the starting time, and anybody who was a little bit not sure what they were doing was out.” Yet one of them stayed behind and offered him a ride home after he came to.
In January 1980 Abolhassan Bani-Sadr–a moderate, secular, Western-trained economist who had been on the Revolutionary Council and who saw himself as Khomeini’s disciple–was elected president by 76 percent of the voters. In the parliamentary elections in March and May, nearly half of the seats were won by members or supporters of the Islamic Republic Party (IRP), which had been founded by hard-line mullahs from the Revolutionary Council shortly after the revolution. There were charges of fraud in the parliamentary elections, yet Khomeini declared them fair. Amir’s family had found him a job supervising four polling places–though he was known to his neighborhood komiteh, they weren’t organized enough to track him across the huge city. He took pictures of candidates and their supporters telling people in the polling booths who to vote for, handing them lists of IRP-supported candidates, and even marking ballots for those who couldn’t read or write–all of which was illegal. “They were basically trying to make sure that nobody else got to this parliament. And they did a good job.” After the pictures were published, several men from the local komiteh came to the house where Amir and a friend were staying and shouted to them to come out. He and the friend grabbed two chadors, climbed up to the roof, and ran across the roofs of several houses. Then they put on the chadors and walked downstairs and outside, disappearing through the crowd that had gathered in the street. “We used that a lot,” he says, and laughs. “That chador saved me at least two times.”
Few of Bani-Sadr’s supporters had been elected to parliament, and the IRP was soon maneuvering to give him a cabinet that it controlled. He was also blocked by the new prime minister, who had been the IRP’s candidate. By the end of the summer Bani-Sadr, who didn’t help his case by being arrogant and impatient with his administrative duties, had little power left. Then in September Iraq invaded, giving him a short reprieve.
The invasion couldn’t have been much of a surprise, for Khomeini had been calling on the army and the Shiite majority in Iraq to overthrow the “infidel” Saddam Hussein; Iran was also arming and training Iraqi Shiites. Saddam first responded by sending tens of thousands of submachine guns to Arab dissidents in Iran. Then he invaded, hoping to punish the Iranians as well as retake what he saw as Iraqi territory along the Shatt-al-Arab waterway; he claimed the border was where the British and Russians had drawn it in 1847. He assumed that Iran had been greatly weakened by its revolution, and he was not alone; the CIA estimated that Iran would collapse in three weeks.
Iran was weak, having lost tens of thousands of military deserters and having purged thousands of officers, but it had many more people to draw on than Saddam. A disorganized mass of men from the military, Pasdaran, and komiteh, as well as Hezbollahis, streamed toward the front and stopped Hussein’s assault. What followed was a long, brutal, slogging war that would kill perhaps one million people, including huge numbers of the old men and children who filled out the Iranian front lines. Hussein attempted to make peace, but Khomeini was adamant that he be overthrown. The Iranians, who had inherited the shah’s American weapons, would turn for replacements to the Vietnamese, who had plenty of spare parts to sell, and soon even to the despised Israelis and Americans. The U.S. would also supply the Iranians with intelligence–and then turn around and arm and train the Iraqis and give them information. The U.S. would also provide the world with a few moments of grand farce. In 1986 Oliver North and National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, who were on a secret arms-negotiation trip, arrived in Tehran with a pallet of missile spare parts and a chocolate cake. According to Robin Wright, author of In the Name of God: The Khomeini Decade, North had asked the Iranian go-between Manucher Ghorbanifar what he ought to bring as a gift to Tehran, and took literally Ghorbanifar’s attempt at a joke about Marie Antoinette’s line. North bought the cake at a kosher bakery in Israel, and it wound up being eaten by several Pasdaran at the airport.
As commander in chief of the armed forces, Bani-Sadr repaired to the front to rebuild the military. He also began writing a daily column in his own newspaper that attacked the IRP and parliament for being corrupt, for being tied to the U.S., for lacking expertise, for suppressing free speech, for permitting torture and illegal executions. The IRP, which controlled most of the rest of the media, accused him of being a U.S. tool and of being disloyal to Khomeini and the revolution. The din the IRP made drowned out even the voices within the government that echoed Bani-Sadr. Many people, including many mullahs, denounced the growing repression and the willingness of the radicals within the government to manipulate the violence to their own ends; many of them would later be executed.
Amir, whose articles the mainstream magazine now refused to publish, started documenting abuses for Bani-Sadr, just as many Mojahedin supporters did. He photographed Hezbollahis throwing stones at demonstrations and interviewed people who’d been threatened with knives. He then turned his work in to a special office the president had set up to solicit support. After he took pictures of one group of Hezbollahis threatening people who were selling newspapers, they chased him. He ran, but they got on motorcycles. “It didn’t take that long to get me. Less than a minute.” They pummeled him and took his camera.
He didn’t much care for Bani-Sadr, but he recognized that without him things would get worse. “I just knew he was in trouble, and for lots of people he was the only hope, like the shield.” Things got worse anyway. The universities had been closed for “Islamization.” Thousands of government workers were accused of being royalists and lost their jobs. The old and new prisons were packed. Amir’s cousin who had spent eight years in prison under the shah had been arrested again; he would remain in prison until he was executed eight years later. Though the new constitution banned torture, most people who were arrested were tortured anyway, by men who had been good students of SAVAK.
Yet Bani-Sadr’s criticisms emboldened people, and by the winter of 1980-’81 there were huge rallies in his support. Many people turned out because they were angry that unemployment and inflation were soaring; the economy had been further shaken by postrevolution management purges and the mass exodus of skilled and educated workers and their money. But the opposition groups could not unite, and they were intimidated by the Hezbollahis, Pasdaran, and komiteh who attacked their rallies. “In each demonstration in ’81 they were killing at least one, two, three people,” says Amir. “It was exactly like what was going on in the shah’s time–and these were peaceful demonstrations.” The IRP and its allies, who organized enormous counter rallies, refused to condemn the terrorist groups for shooting and stabbing demonstrators. That was the winter that some komiteh members hauled Amir out of the van after a Mojahedin rally, dragged him behind their car, and left him for dead in the middle of the highway.
That spring he was beaten again. He and a younger brother, who was much more active as a Mojahedin supporter than Amir, had been at the house of one of their cousins. The two brothers, who were very close, were riding their bicycles home at midnight when a car swerved and hit both of them. Several men jumped out and started beating them. “We didn’t really have a chance to see their faces–everything just happened in a second. They were just kicking us with their military boots, and I was thinking, ‘How? I don’t even know these guys. They don’t know me. And how can you be so angry with someone and beat him so hard and have no personal reason for that?'” His brother was bleeding internally and had to be taken to the hospital, where he stayed for two months. He was still there when it came time to take his final high school exams, so he was taken in an ambulance each day to the test site. He got high scores on every test.
The factions were surging toward a major battle. In May a number of Bani-Sadr’s aides were arrested, and Khomeini chastised the president publicly for not accepting the authority of the parliament. At the beginning of June Bani-Sadr’s newspaper was shut down, and on June 9 Khomeini banned all protests. On June 10 the Mojahedin struck back with a rally in Tehran of tens of thousands. Many came armed, as did the Hezbollahis. Several people were killed. Hundreds were injured. Within a week Bani-Sadr had gone underground.
On June 20 the parliament met to debate whether Bani-Sadr should remain president. The opposition to Khomeini at last managed to come together across the country in huge demonstrations; at least 200,000 filled the streets of Tehran. One hundred fifty people died. Bani-Sadr had hoped the demonstrations would be the beginning of a massive uprising, but they weren’t. The next day the parliament ousted him; on July 29 he and the head of the Mojahedin secretly flew to Paris. There would be no more secular presidents.
On June 20 Amir was taking pictures and documenting what he saw. “That was a very sad day. One person that I saw was a woman, and somebody had cut both her cheeks very deep on both sides. Another didn’t have an ear. They were shooting at people, and Hezbollah people had knives and were cutting everybody who was around. This was the first time they came and showed their real face–there was no difference between Hezbollah and the regime.”
The next day smaller groups clashed in the streets, and dozens more were killed. Amir was assigned by the Mojahedin to help people escape. Masses of people were arrested, including another of his cousins and his best friend’s brother, who was only 12. Many of those arrested were swiftly executed. “The week after that it was very hard to believe what was going on. They had a program on the TV, and the head of the justice department said, ‘From now on we will deal with you guys. Any demonstration against the government and we will execute you.’ They wanted control of the society, so they were putting as much pressure as possible on people to believe this is like the shah’s time. You know, forget about the beginning of the revolution. Nobody is free. It seems like everything was getting out of their control, and the only way they could control it was by making people afraid of losing their jobs, their lives, whatever.”
That night Amir stayed at his sister’s. A friend who was in a komiteh had told him that an order had been given to arrest him and his brother, and he later heard that they came looking for him at his parents’ and took lots of his books and photographs, including ones he had taken on his hiking trips. He rarely returned home and could only occasionally arrange to see his parents and siblings.
Five days later he decided to check on his pharmacy, but as he neared it he saw a military car parked outside. He went to his grandmother’s house and asked one of his young cousins to go look in the window. Inside, Pasdaran guards were opening every box in the store. He couldn’t go there again either. “It was a very hard situation. There was the pressure of losing friends and being in that atmosphere. I had also financial problems, because there were people who I owed, and I couldn’t tell them that my pharmacy was captured. My aunt, I borrowed from her to develop my business, and now how could I tell her there’s no business anymore? I could not pay the companies, and my family wasn’t in a good financial situation. And I had to find a place to stay. Every night I was thinking, ‘Oh God, where should I go tonight?'”
Though no one could have known it at the time, June 21, 1981, marked the last big opposition demonstration. The Mojahedin abandoned their relatively peaceful dissent and officially declared that they would begin resisting in every way, including violently. They shifted to guerrilla actions and assassinations. On June 28 a bomb set in the IRP headquarters, perhaps by a Mojahedin supporter, killed 74 party leaders. On August 30 another bomb killed the newly elected president and prime minister as well as the chief of the national police. Within four months 1,000 government officials had been killed, among them some of the least hard-line leaders. When asked how he could support such violence, Amir says sharply, “I was supporting 100 percent.” Yet he says his own contributions, like many supporters’, remained nonviolent, and when he tries to explain the organization’s shift, his voice is at first troubled. “It was very strange, because I knew a lot of them personally–those who were being active militarily. That was the hardest thing for them to do–they were the kindest people. They were crying, just feeling so bad at what was happening. But you knew there was no other choice. You knew this was like a microbe–you can’t cry for killing a microbe. I really believed that if you did it Gandhi’s way, you wouldn’t survive–it depends on the regime. Because in the beginning they did it, for almost two years. They thought, ‘We live in a democracy, so we can be active.’ And Hezbollahis were just breaking their faces. It was very strange to see this contrast. There was no resistance against them. It’s like I come and punch you, and you just laugh. And I punch you again, and I put a knife to your eyes. And you still laugh. They tried. It didn’t work.” His voice rises. “They were killing my friends, they were killing people, and they were closing all political activity down.”
The street battles went on for two months, climaxing in a major fight with the Pasdaran at the end of September. “The Mojahedin were trying to break this net, tear it, open a little space to reorganize.” The government and the various terrorist groups reacted by becoming even more repressive. Determined to finish off all resistance and, according to Shaul Bakhash’s The Reign of the Ayatollahs, driven by fear of the strength of the Mojahedin, they indiscriminately arrested and executed masses of people for the next year and a half. The Pasdaran and komiteh broke into houses without warrants, arrested suspected Mojahedin supporters, and arrested family members of those they couldn’t find. “A couple of times they said that if you were not a supporter and you were killed, then you would go to paradise, but if you were a supporter, then they were right.” Amnesty International managed to document nearly 3,000 executions in the next year, though the actual number is sure to have been much higher. On one day alone in September, 149 people were executed. Khomeini became so obsessed with obliterating any resistance that he even urged parents to inform on their children and students on their teachers. Yet both sides maimed and killed innocent people, and the cycle of violence and revenge disgusted many who had once supported one side or the other.
“Every day something new was happening. I was seeing these friends and saying good-bye. And another day another friend would say that person was arrested.” In July the brother he was close to was arrested. They had stayed at their sister’s house the night before, and somehow they seemed to know that something was about to happen. “It was a very special moment, holy. There are lots of words that we use in our lives in conversations, but then it comes to this moment and there are no words for that. Maybe he’s just saying, ‘OK, what time is it?’ But this is not words–it’s like music. Whatever it was, I can’t describe it. It’s like some energy was going and coming back between our bodies.” He pauses. “And that was it. He left in the morning, and I never saw him after that.”
A month later one of his brother’s friends who had just been released from prison called to say he had been arrested with Amir’s brother. “He said, ‘He will be released one of these days, because they don’t have anything against him. He didn’t give them his name, so he will be OK.'”
One of Amir’s tasks now was to find safe houses for himself and other Mojahedin supporters, who had to keep moving from one to another. Tehran was a city of some six million people, but it was still difficult to feel safe. One night he came late to the house where he was supposed to spend the night and found it surrounded by cars and flashing lights. A friend who had reached the house before him had apparently been shot when he tried to escape. He had fallen down a steep embankment onto a soccer field, where the Pasdaran and komiteh interrogated him until he died several hours later.
By October the counterattacks by Mojahedin supporters Amir knew had dwindled to mere writing on the walls. He decided that he could be most useful making money for supporters to use for bribes or to make the dangerous journey across the border to Turkey or Pakistan. Ever since he had lost his pharmacy, and with it his income, he had been thinking about a design for an industrial tool. Now he made a prototype, adjusted it, and then borrowed the equipment at a friend’s factory to start producing it on a small scale.
In early October he was arrested. He and two friends had traveled to the north of Iran, ostensibly on a pleasure trip–they even went swimming. Amir was actually carrying documents for the Mojahedin, though he didn’t tell his friends. On the way back they were stopped by the Pasdaran, taken to a small rural station, and put in a cell with two other men. One at a time they were taken out and questioned, but they had made sure their stories matched before they were caught. The Pasdaran asked for phone numbers of people they could call who could corroborate their stories, and Amir gave the number of a friend who was in the Pasdaran but who couldn’t have known what he had been doing for the last year. They acted nonchalant in their cell, talking about fishing, the upcoming holiday, a friend’s birthday. The two men with them finally said conspiratorily that they were Mojahedin, but Amir had seen their military boots outside the cell and knew they had been planted. “I went to the door and I asked one of the Pasdaran, ‘How can you do this to us? How can you put us in the same jail with Mojahedin? They will kill us!'” His face shows mock terror, and he bursts out laughing. Eventually the guards agreed to let them go, but Amir pointed out that they would simply be stopped at the next roadblock. “I said, ‘OK, you know now that we have lots of friends in the government. We need a ride. You should take us.'” He starts laughing again. The Pasdaran drove them to the next major city, where they hitched a ride the rest of the way with a man who was driving an army truck. “The guy was pro-shah, so it wasn’t dangerous. He was swearing against the regime all the way to Tehran.”
Amir tried to set up meetings with his parents at least once a month at some relative’s house. One morning early in the spring of 1982 he met his mother at his aunt and uncle’s house. They talked for a while, and suddenly his aunt started to cry. When he asked why, she said her cousin had gone to the front to fight Iraq. “I said, ‘That’s OK. If this is what he has chosen, then you should be happy. This is his way. If he thinks it’s right and he dies in his way, then he died for his ideology.’ Then I said, ‘Like my brother. If someone comes and tells me he’s been executed, I would be happy for him, because this is a risk he has chosen and this is not a bad end–dying for what you are standing for, what you believe.’ And then they both started crying.”
His brother had been executed. His mother hadn’t told Amir that ever since he had been arrested, she had gone from one prison to the next trying to find him. It was a long search, for there were hundreds of prisons, some of them official and keeping close bureaucratic track of torturings and executions, others makeshift and less fastidious. Finally she found the prison where he had been, and they told her he had been executed and buried in the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery. “She went there and she found his name. The day, everything. They showed her a place and said, ‘This is where your son is buried.'”
Every time she went to the cemetery she found flowers on his grave; when she waited to see who was putting them there, she met an old woman who told her that her own son had been executed the same day. “She said they had a hunger strike in the prison, so the regime tried to stop them. They couldn’t.” Amir’s voice is low and thick. “So the head of the prison came and just chose four of them, took four of them from the line. They said, ‘OK, you should stop or we will kill you.’ They killed all of them, just like that. She said she saw all of them were shot in the head.” He is quiet for a moment. “That was very hard for my mom, because she didn’t get to see him or see anything from him. For a long time it was hard to believe for her. She thought, ‘Maybe she was wrong. Maybe he’s still alive.’ In that cemetery office they had everything right except the home address. We think that was because he didn’t want them coming after his family.”
A couple of weeks later Amir was in a gas station when two Pasdaran came up and asked for his ID. After they called their headquarters, they told him to come with them. He was blindfolded and driven to a large house that had obviously once belonged to someone very wealthy. He was beaten and interrogated for two days. “First they break your resistance, what you have already in your head–in case of being arrested you will say this, this, this. First they break that organization. And just bluffing. ‘You are finished. We know everything about you. Don’t try to lie.'”
Then he was moved to a second small prison run by komiteh. “They put me in a small room the size of a bathroom. And 57 people were there–57 people.” A three-tiered bed frame with springs but no mattresses nearly filled the windowless room, and a foot of water and sewage covered the floor. There wasn’t enough space for anyone to stand up or lie down, though there was a small hole in the wall that one person at a time could stretch one of his legs through. There was little food or water, and they were allowed to go out to the bathroom only once a day. “Most of the time you didn’t want to go because it was more painful for you to stand up and walk.” As he describes how much it hurt to be forced to constantly crouch, he unconsciously gets up out of his chair and moves toward the center of the room. When he notices what he’s done he laughs.
The guards would take them out of the cell to torture them, sometimes one at a time, sometimes ten. They were battered, not allowed to sleep, made to walk on hot bricks, and burned. Amir leans forward and pulls back his shirt collar, revealing a dark rippled welt across the back of his neck where he was burned with cigarettes. He says he has similar burns on his sides and back. He says they did worse things, but he doesn’t offer to describe them.
The questions were always the same. “They had these little forms and would give it to you to fill out. Sometimes they had some information. That was the worst time, because they knew something but you didn’t know how much. It was a big game. So we should find out first how much they know and give them just that information, not more than that.” He knew names and addresses, many things he could have told them. “It was like a nightmare for me that they could do something to me–like a drug or something–and I would say something unconsciously. That was very painful.”
Some people cracked. “It’s a very tough situation. If for a moment you close your eyes, you are gone. You have to understand every moment what is going on, because they are bringing offers–‘Just sign this little paper, and there’ll be no burning, no problems. You will be free. You can see the sun.’ I mean, little things that we can’t even imagine in normal life, like having water with no smell, become a big wish for you.” He shrugs. “There were people who became spies. If you know what is going on, then it is easy to resist. But this is my idea. I don’t know. I should talk to those people and see what’s their view. I can’t judge them or what they did in that situation.”
Nearly every day they were taken out. “Anytime when they were calling you, you didn’t know if you would come back. So you were hugging each other and saying, good-bye, see you in the next life. Sometimes we were going 10 people and would come back 3, 4, 5.” He says 16 or 17 people from his cell alone died or were executed in the two months he was there. They learned to mark the days by the morning gunshots.
Amir was in the cell for about a month before he became terribly sick. The guards had no intention of letting him die before he told them what they wanted, so they sent him to a clinic staffed by doctors who were also prisoners. He was sent to a cell by himself for a few days and then back to the first cell.
Most of the guards were in their late teens; some were older, one was only 14. They were often replaced, and Amir thinks that was partly because some of them couldn’t stomach what they were doing. “They had nightmares. Some of them would say, ‘Oh, I had a nightmare last night because of you, because I thought you were going to kill me.’ Or, ‘I was dying and you were laughing.’ They’re sweating and their faces so red. Their hands were shaking. It was like we were torturing them.” He says he heard that many torturers committed suicide. “I didn’t really see anybody who believed what he was doing, who thought we were against their religion or against their ideology. Nothing like that. It was anger and just–I don’t know. Part of it is getting involved with killing prisoners, being in their machine. Which makes it harder for them to lose–in case of any reform they would think, ‘Oh, we killed people, so people will kill us. It’s better to keep this regime.’ And I know most of them are people who are getting lots of benefits right now. Outside they’re wealthy people, but they had to pay a price for that.” He says this calmly, but later he’s angry when he talks about how cruel the guards were. “How can you come to this place and be like an animal? How can you do that? What happens to human beings?”
He thinks the prisoners who could endure simply believed they were right. “The suffering of these poor people who were killed–it’s amazing. At that moment you could smell this meat, this burning, see these people dying–but you see the life through this. When you look at it from one side, it’s death, it’s torture, it’s blood and smell. But between all these negative factors, it was life. That essence that people were resisting for was something untouchable–we had it and the torturers didn’t. It was like this dignity, this sacrifice–thinking about people, doing it for others, saving your friends, saving what you are standing for. And you could see that nervousness in their eyes–the torturers could see that you were not falling apart. We could still laugh, still give energy to the other prisoners. Even when they were beating you, you would say to them, ‘Don’t worry. It’s nothing. There’s no pain.’
“It’s funny. In our life there are lots of moments when you see a flash of light–it comes and goes. It’s like there are lots of walls–they all have one window, but they are in different places and you can’t see the light. But in just one moment somehow it happens that all of them come together and you can see through to that light, that essence, that life. And the big questions–What are we doing? Who are we? What do we want in our life?–it’s like you see just a touch of that. And then they are gone. A poet gets that. In normal life it happens less, when you say, ‘Oh, that’s why.’ But during this period we could see it a lot, almost every hour. Even when they were torturing you, you were not there–your body was there, but your mind was not. It’s very hard for me to remember the pain, like when they were burning me. It’s easier to remember how happy I was. Because I could find what I was looking for–why, what life is about.” He says many of the people in his cell felt and saw what he did. “This is not just you, because you are sharing it with each other.”
About two months after he was arrested, the guards loaded him and seven others into a truck to take them to yet another prison. On the way the truck somehow careened out of control, smashed across a curb, and flipped over. The driver and guard were thrown from the truck to the ground, where they lay without moving, but none of the prisoners was hurt. “I thought, OK, this is it. Get out.” He snaps his fingers.
A couple of months later he ran into two of the prisoners who had escaped with him; a year later he passed another while he was riding in a cab. Around the same time the government declared a partial amnesty and released some 10,000 political prisoners–though it continued to hold at least 25,000 others.
Amir cut off his curls and shaved off most of his beard. He rented a warehouse and went back to designing and manufacturing tools, and began making a lot of money. The Iranian manufacturing sector had been so nearly ruined that the government was pleased with anyone who could demonstrate technological skill. He doesn’t think anyone in the government ever connected Amir the businessman with Amir the Mojahedin supporter.
Most of his money still went to the Mojahedin, to help them rent safe houses or escape. Some of them continued to sporadically kill members of the vigilante groups and the government; they also continued to be arrested and executed. The government claimed they were unpatriotic for continuing to fight at home when the war with Iraq was raging, and that further eroded their public support.
The government went on entrenching itself. Loyalty tests were required of those who wanted to work for it, and because devotion was the most important qualification, many in the new elite had no skills to administer their offices. By the end of the summer Khomeini had managed to eliminate all secular laws, and the courts were required to impose punishments such as losing a hand for stealing and being stoned for adultery. Strict Islamic dress was now required for women, though oddly enough their right to vote had never been rescinded. Only the worldview endorsed by the government made it into the tightly controlled media and schools.
Yet many people were sick of the war, the economic turmoil, the constant fear, and the endless killing, and Khomeini was finally persuaded to curb the terror that had exalted him. In December 1982 he made the Pasdaran and komiteh government entities and forbade them to enter homes or arrest and interrogate people without official authorization.
In March 1983, a year after he had escaped from prison, Amir went to the barber’s to have his hair cut for a friend’s wedding. But when he tried to open his briefcase to pay the barber, he couldn’t work the lock. The barber remembered that another man had just left with a similar briefcase. Then Amir noticed that two Pasdaran were watching him carefully. The man who had taken his briefcase returned, and they exchanged briefcases. When Amir walked out, the two Pasdaran overtook him. “One of them said, ‘Are you Amir?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ They said, ‘Can you come with us?'” A third Pasdaran came up and asked if Amir knew who he was. Amir said no. “He said, ‘I lived in your neighborhood. Aren’t you Amir whose brother was killed in the street?’ I said, ‘No. I’m Amir whose brother was executed in prison.'” A fourth man came and told Amir he would have to be searched. They told him to open his briefcase, then shouted to him to stop while they moved out of range in case it contained a bomb. With their machine guns pointing at him, he dumped everything in his briefcase in the street. Next they asked him what he and the other man had exchanged in the barbershop. “You think this is the way people exchange information?” Amir asked. “You can do it in a cab or something–there are a lot of better ways.” They finally decided to take him to the local komiteh office, where they explained briefly what they had seen to an official and left.
Amir then explained his side of the story to the official. “I said, ‘I understand this is happening every day. So it’s OK. You just do your job.'” The man handed Amir a ten-page form on which he was to list ten of his best friends and where they lived, as well as exactly where he had been for the last three months and what he had been doing. He was filling out the second page when a huge crowd of frightened, arguing women was herded into the office. They had been arrested for not being sufficiently covered up in the street and were told that they had to sign papers saying they would not commit this crime again. “They all were busy getting these signatures from those women, so they were forgetting about me. I thought, OK, this is the only time. They won’t be that nice after they find out who you are. Because they would just call komiteh in my neighborhood, and that would be the end. So I put everything inside the briefcase, closed it, and came out. On the way going out there was a police officer who was there in the beginning when they were bringing me. He said, ‘Oh, you are OK?’ I said, ‘Yeah.'”
Though Amir had thought about leaving Iran before, he hadn’t wanted to leave his family or his Mojahedin friends. “My friends needed me, and I thought it was too selfish to leave in the middle and just go for my life.” He pauses. “I think I saved a couple of lives–I think. Providing homes for them, places they could sleep, creating jobs which were a shield for them.” But by the end of 1983 he had decided that he wasn’t much use anymore. “We hardly could find anybody, because the communication was very tight in Khomeini’s police system. I’d lost contact with most of them.” Everyone was either in hiding or in prison. Moreover the Mojahedin had told its supporters to get out of the country if they could. “I could see outside they were again active, they were getting organized, and I could feel now I could do more out.”
He had gradually built up his business contacts within the government, and in early 1984 was invited to go along with a group of government researchers to Germany to buy equipment and supplies. He decided not to return. Three days before he left, his family had a party for him at a relative’s. They also insisted on coming to the airport, though he warned them it was dangerous. Because he was going with a government group, he didn’t have to turn his passport and papers over to officials a month ahead of time, as everyone else who wanted to leave the country did. He had only to present them when he got to the airport. Because he was on an official trip, no one there was likely to scrutinize them too closely, but it was possible. “When we got to the airplane, we had a one-hour delay. And I was sitting with sweat all over. Any moment I was imagining someone would come and say, ‘Sir, we have some questions.’ That was a very tense moment. And even when we were flying, still I wasn’t sure until the pilot said we passed the border, now we are in Turkish skies.”
He had no idea what he would do once he was in Germany, and no idea when he would ever go home. He easily lost his companions in the airport and then was met by a friend he had called before he left. He had only a ten-day visa, so he went to one of the companies on his itinerary and discussed a deal that would require him to stay longer. The German government gave him a three-month visa. Just before that visa was to expire he discovered that he could apply for refugee status in the U.S. He was interviewed by a church agency and given a one-year visa that would allow the Americans time to process him.
When he was given his flight date months later, he wasn’t sure he wanted to go. “I was settled, things were OK. I had a good job. I had friends.” He had set up a business, hiring Iranian students to wait in airports and buy small amounts of caviar from Iranian passengers who had bought it in duty-free shops in Tehran–virtually all true caviar comes from the Caspian and Black Seas. Then he sold it to restaurants across Europe, charging lower than market rates and making a great deal of money. Again, much of the money went to the Mojahedin, though he did buy himself a Mercedes. Germany had a large exile community, and he helped organize anti-Khomeini demonstrations and distribute Mojahedin literature. He was also already fairly fluent in German and was taking photography courses at a German university. And he had an Iranian woman friend. “I was confused. I didn’t know what was going on between us. I didn’t want to just stop it–I wanted to be sure that there was really nothing between us.”
He deliberately missed his first flight. The next flight was three months later, in December 1985, and he was on it. He had broken up with his woman friend, but he kept his apartment.
He had applied to come to Chicago because his best friend lived here with his wife and he thought the friend could help him get started. “It was very hard for me when I came here. Just one friend–and he went back to Iran like a week after I came. So I didn’t even have him. It was another time I had to start from zero.” Had he returned to Germany he could not have come back to the U.S., so he moved in with a family of Iranian refugees who had just arrived. On his third day here he registered for English classes at Truman College. He also applied for a passport so he could leave the country if he chose.
He set up his caviar business again, but when President Reagan embargoed Iran, Amir had to close his business down. He realized he was tired of putting so much of his energy into making money and didn’t feel like conjuring up a new business, so he decided to drive a cab for a while.
After his first semester at Truman he went back to Germany for two months to tie up his affairs there, but had decided to stay in the U.S. After one more semester at Truman he started full-time at a local college. “I had this plan of just getting to know more about technology. Then I had this plan to start a technology school in the future in Iran. This is still what I have in my mind. Because in third-world countries, this is where we are paying the price–not being independent. We have enough philosophers. We have enough spiritual people. But we have no technology. Before I just hated technology–I thought it was destroying the human being. Now I can see the good part, how it can be useful.”
For the last four years he has been taking classes full-time, and has many more credits than he needs for a degree. Now he is enrolled in a design program at a local university and supporting himself with a part-time job. He says he would like to teach when he goes back, but he’s not sure that would be enough anymore. He thinks he might be more useful as some kind of administrator within the educational system, and he has a vague idea that he doesn’t want to confine himself to working only in Iran.
Though he has been here five years, his English, which he speaks with a distinct Persian lilt, is still ragged. “I’m always having this little bit funny feeling about English, that I really don’t want to touch it. German was really easy for me, because there was nothing to be afraid of. I could just go and study and learn it–and leave it. But here–I think this is more than just a language. I don’t want to get involved with the culture. It’s hard to talk about. It’s like if you want to be a part of this society–and yet be yourself–it’s very hard. I see a lot of people here who only have selfish goals.” He says he does know Americans who have larger goals, “but they are not that many people, and they are swimming against the water. My fear is just letting myself go with the water–this is like a flood that would take me nowhere.” He has never become a U.S. citizen, though he has thought about it because his brothers want to come here to study.
He has been shocked to watch some of his Iranian friends abandoning some of the things he values most about his own culture. “Like leaving the house without saying good-bye to everybody individually at a party. It’s little things like that.” Iranians are renowned for their hospitality toward strangers. He remembers once walking down a street on one of his hiking trips and smelling wonderful food cooking. He rang the bell at the house where the odor was strongest and told the woman who answered how good it smelled. She laughed and invited him in. A couple of months later the family came to Tehran and visited him. “You can go to a small town, and you don’t need to go to a hotel. People will ask you to stay as long as you want. For us, neighbors usually are more close than relatives. So when we move from one city or one street, we keep in contact–invite them to our weddings, and we see each other at least a couple times a year. And here, nobody cares who you are, where you live, who’s your neighbor. It’s very sad.”
But he is clearly torn about this country, for he acknowledges that there are many things about it that he admires, though he says it’s difficult to tease apart what he has discovered here and what simply seems intuitively right. He is quick to credit his American woman friend–he met her before he went back to Germany, and they’ve been together for five years–with helping him learn to articulate his feelings, which he says is unusual for both men and women in his culture. And, he says, “One good thing is that women are more free here than there–and more than Europe. That’s a part of Iranian culture that I can’t deal with now. When I think about marriage, I think it would be hard to get married with a normal Iranian woman, because most of them are still living in that kind of mentality–most of them think they have to stay home, take care of the kids, make the husband happy.” He pauses and says softly, “Our women, they live like animals now–even animals have more rights than they do. We have a lot of problems, and we have a long way to go to correct these problems.”
He continues to try to understand the darker side of his culture. Like its fatalistic acceptance of suffering and hardship. “They think it is part of life. We have always had difficulties in our lives and in our history–and when you have hardship a lot, it becomes a part of your culture. I mean look at our dancing, look at our poetry, look at our music–they’re very sad. And you can see in some parts of our country where we’ve had less hardship, less war–we have happier music, happier poetry, happier dancing. But mostly just sad. You accept it, you think this is life. You see how your parents had to deal with it, how you are dealing with it, how your kids will deal with it. Unless you come out of Iran, you don’t see that there are other things, like education, that we are missing.”
He also thinks that many Shiites are easily manipulated through their religion, particularly with the story of the martyrdom of Hussein. It was simple, he says, for people such as Khomeini to draw analogies between those who killed Hussein and those he said wanted to destroy the Islamic republic–the West, the Mojahedin. But Amir is quick to point out that when people twist religion to base ends, neither Shiism nor Islam should be blamed. The Koran, he says, can be read much as the Bible can: some find in it a vengeful god and the justification for cruelty, others find a loving god and an overarching command to be tolerant and merciful.
Soon after he arrived in Chicago, Amir began campaigning against the Khomeini regime, passing out leaflets, asking people to sign petitions, explaining as best he could in English what was going on in Iran. It wasn’t only Americans he had to explain to. “In Europe Iranians are more fresh–they come from Iran, they have visitors from Iran, they have better news. But here lots of Iranians are like fossils. They know nothing about it. They haven’t been in Iran, most of them, for ten years. They can’t understand what’s going on.” There are an estimated 150,000 Iranians in the U.S., and Amir guesses that 10,000 of them live in the Chicago area.
For two years he helped put together a weekly news and culture program for local cable TV, and in the summer he would often spend a month in Washington or New York campaigning on the street. Two months after he arrived here, he went to his first large anti-Khomeini demonstration in Washington, D.C. For a long time these demonstrations, which were organized by Mojahedin supporters, were held every couple of months, and he didn’t miss one. In December 1987 he joined 42 other Iranians in a hunger strike in front of the French embassy in Washington. France had been secretly negotiating with Iran for the release of hostages held by the Hezbollah in Beirut and for a piece of Iran’s trade, and as part of the bargain had agreed to crack down on Iranian dissidents living in France. (In a similar deal in 1986 a number of Mojahedin leaders and hundreds of members were forced out of France; they moved to bases in Iraq, which angered many Iranians whose relatives were risking their lives in the war against that country.) In December the French raided houses where Mojahedin lived and deported 14 of them. To protest the deportations, people went on hunger strikes in Paris and London as well as Washington, which attracted the attention of the press. “The doctors came and checked everybody and said that if we would continue, in ten days people would die.” Thirty-six days after it deported the dissidents, the embarrassed French government let them back in. Nonetheless, Iran managed to have the last three French hostages released within a few months.
In July 1988 Iraq allowed the Mojahedin to use the army they had built up in their Iraqi bases. While the Iraqis made one of their last assaults on Iran, the Mojahedin troops pushed 20 miles across the border before retreating; two weeks later they attacked again, but this time they were beaten back. They had hoped for an uprising, but it didn’t happen. Four of Amir’s friends were killed in the attacks.
At the end of July Khomeini bitterly accepted a UN cease-fire. Nothing had been gained by the war. Khomeini’s buried “martyrs” had so expanded the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery that it now stretched for miles–many more acres of new graves than the Shah had ever been responsible for. Economic reconstruction would cost as much as $350 billion.
The Mojahedin raids became the excuse for a new terror campaign. Amnesty International reports that at least 2,500 people were secretly executed within a few months.
Khomeini died a year later, in June 1989, and three million people turned out for his funeral at the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, some of them genuinely grief stricken, some, like Amir’s relatives, simply marking a historical moment. The more partisan mourners crushed around his coffin, at one point causing his corpse to tumble to the ground as they tried to touch his shroud. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani–who had been with Khomeini from the beginning, in the Revolutionary Council and then as parliament speaker–became president shortly after Khomeini died. Amir assumed Rafsanjani, who had been given increased powers, would ease the repression, but he didn’t. Instead, a new wave of arrests followed; some people were imprisoned simply for protesting food shortages or for demanding information about missing relatives. Amnesty International documented 1,200 executions of political prisoners in the next six months alone and said the figure was probably far higher.
One of the executed was Amir’s cousin who had spent eight years in the shah’s prisons and eight in Khomeini’s. “What was the reason for the regime to be afraid of him, a person who couldn’t even walk? Who didn’t even have any muscles in his body? Who was just bone?” Amir answers his own question. He believes the government was well aware of how weak its grasp on power was with the ayatollah gone and was determined to suppress any potential challenge with the only instrument it had. Ironically, Rafsanjani had been beaten during the years he spent in prison under the shah; he had also once served as a liaison between the Mojahedin and Khomeini’s aides during Khomeini’s exile in Iraq in the early 1970s.
Following the death of Khomeini, Mojahedin supporters in this country stopped their street campaigns and shifted their attention to helping build the bases in Iraq, which included raising funds for arms. “They needed more concentration there. They thought this is the last step before overthrowing the regime. They believe the only way now is military action–mobilizing people inside Iran of course, not having a coup d’etat. So to get to that point, you have to be ready. You need lots of military training, lots of people. For that you need money, you need help.”
The Mojahedin had pledged they would overthrow the regime soon after Khomeini died. But Amir says that each time they planned an attack, something happened–like last summer’s earthquake, which killed 40,000 people, injured 60,000, and left 500,000 homeless. According to the Washington Post, the Pasdaran crossed the Iraq border and attacked Mojahedin bases in mid-March. The raids were barely noticed because of the civil war exploding around them, but in one attack on March 11, 150 people were killed or wounded.
The Mojahedin, by far the largest organized opposition, have stated clearly that their constitution would guarantee freedom of speech, press, and religion, equality for women, and an elected representative government. But exactly how they would make the transition and how they would resurrect the economy if there were another revolution isn’t at all clear. And a number of scholars of Iranian history say the Mojahedin have lost so much support inside the country that there’s no chance they’ll be lofted to power.
Without question the disillusionment in Iran is deep, and not just because of the continuing violence and political repression. In the 1970s Iran fed itself; now it imports food worth $3 billion annually. Land reforms wound up giving a mere 3 percent of the arable land to poor farmers. There are food shortages, though the government subsidizes staples with $4.5 billion a year. Everything seems to move through the black market; a friend of Amir’s says her aunt recently told her that if you need sutures at a hospital, you have to buy your own thread on the black market beforehand. Those in favor with the government are making fortunes, and the poor, who are worse off than they were under the shah, can barely buy food. The war devastated many industries, and production continues to decline. Inflation and unemployment are high. The birthrate, which at 3.9 percent is one of the highest in the world, can only make everything worse. The government has nationalized and centralized into stagnation; it has 2.2 million employees, nearly twice the number the shah had, and it is riddled with the inefficiencies and corruption of the bureaucracies of the communist countries Khomeini hated. And however much it had insisted it would never depend on the West, it could never be so profligate without the continuing Western demand for its oil.
But however disenchanted Iranians may be, they probably have very little interest in being part of another revolution. Amir acknowledges that. “This is the only problem–that people are sick of it. If you want to change the regime, you have to forget about your job, maybe leave your family, go to jail, be tortured. How many people could afford it? You have to forget about your life, everything–and your family’s life also. This regime is just keeping this risk high. They want people to be always afraid of them. And people don’t want to trust anybody.”
But he persists in thinking the continuing brutality and the shattered economy will make people desperate. He also believes that Rafsanjani, now by far the most powerful man in Iran, is well aware that he must rescue his economy and that he can’t without the help of the West; but if the West stands by its principles and demands that Rafsanjani end human-rights abuses in return, he will face only bad choices. If he tries to disarm the Hezbollahis, the komiteh, and the Pasdaran, Amir says, they will revolt. If he starts setting political prisoners free, they could help solidify the opposition–just as they did when the shah was toppled.
The gulf war gained Rafsanjani time. Iran’s oil became much more profitable, and new markets opened for it; in November the U.S., which has no diplomatic relations with Iran and officially still considers it a terrorist state, quietly lifted its embargo on the country’s oil. Rafsanjani, clearly hoping for Western goodwill, appears to have been the one who reined in other leaders who wanted to join the war on Iraq’s side, and James Baker has praised Iran for maintaining its neutrality and has stated that it will have a major role to play in regional security arrangements.
Relative to others in the authoritarian government, Rafsanjani, who is eloquent and generally genial, seems pragmatic. (The best example of his pragmatism may be the $150 million or so the Washington Post last year reported he has stashed in various Western banks; the CIA had estimated the total might be as much as $1 billion, much of it skimmed from oil sales.) He has brought technocrats into his cabinet and in the last few months has shrewdly sidelined some of his most radical opponents inside the government. He was also largely responsible for making the parliament a place where relatively open, if sometimes literally brawling, debates go on. But Rafsanjani is still a hard-liner. He is after all the man who urged Palestinians to kill five Westerners for every Palestinian the Israelis killed in the occupied territories, though he later said he hadn’t meant to “condone the killing of innocent civilians.” And whatever veneer of democracy the election process may give his government, the hierarchy makes little room for anyone who might step outside the acceptable boundaries of debate. According to Amnesty International, last summer 20 people who had been prominent within the government sent an open letter to Rafsanjani criticizing the country’s lack of freedom. They were promptly thrown in prison, where they are still believed to be held. The total number of political prisoners now being held is unknown, but Amnesty International believes there may be thousands. The government also continues to endorse the persecution of Baha’is and to prescribe automatic death sentences for homosexuals and prostitutes.
Amir fears that as talks between Iran and the West begin, the West, which dearly wants its hostages released, will downplay the continuing abuses. As an omen he cites a recent UN report. In January last year UN representatives went to Iran for one week to investigate charges of human-rights abuses; it was the first time a team had been allowed to enter the republic. Exiled Mojahedin supporters gave the team the locations of 653 prisons along with the names of known prisoners and the sites of mass graves. Amir provided some of the information; he even offered to go along, but received no reply to his letter. Nearly 1,000 relatives of executed prisoners waited at great risk outside the investigators’ hotel in Tehran to talk to them. Yet the team ignored them and visited only one prison. It then reported that there had been no public executions in the previous five months–even though large numbers of them had been listed in the government-controlled newspapers. The team returned to Iran last October but was only slightly more critical. Obviously both times the investigators were being shown only what the government allowed them to see, but their willingness to ignore what was public knowledge was seen by many as a whitewash.
The government has ways to hide the execution of political prisoners, even from its own people. A law passed in 1988 made a death sentence mandatory for anyone caught with more than 30 grams of heroin or five kilos of opium–Iran has a large number of addicts–and the convicted are often flogged and hanged in public. Yet some of these people may well be political prisoners. “There have been some cases that just before execution by hanging, they introduced themselves. ‘I am this person. I am a Mojahedin member. I am not a drug dealer.’ Now most of them can’t even talk because they have tape over their mouths.” Amir heard that in one week in February 37 people were executed, and that about half of them the Mojahedin knew as supporters or members.
Amir says he doesn’t have nightmares anymore, though he still has problems with his kidneys and his teeth–one of his front teeth is dark from having been kicked. He also became quite nearsighted after being in prison.
His small apartment on the north side is full of reminders of the years after the revolution. He has tapes of speeches and a number of videos, including one of a Mojahedin supporter who blew himself up when he assassinated a man who had ordered the executions of numerous Baha’is and Mojahedin supporters. He also has numerous books, one of which was published by the Mojahedin and lists the name of every political prisoner known to have been executed between June 20, 1981, and September 16, 1985. There are 12,028 names, and one of them is Amir’s brother’s.
He says he rarely talks about what happened to him. “You never try to remember these things. It’s so hard–you are escaping it. It’s like in your mind you go to that memory and then”–he draws a line and then makes a sharp jog with his hand–“you turn around. I never try to remember.” Yet he says he is neither bitter nor vengeful. “I have no personal hate for what they did to my brother or to me or to my friends. I’ve met lots of friends who have gone through what I went through and worse than that, and they have the same feeling like me. I think it’s too small to think about returning what they did to you. If you really think about what you are doing–that it’s saving lives, trying to help your society to grow, trying to help people to have freedom–then that torturer is a part of those people too. So you can feel, even while you’re being tortured, that he is another victim. And you are being tortured for him. It just makes me more responsible in the future to do my best at making my torturer a human again.”
He says he doesn’t feel guilty that he survived when so many others did not. “When you have survived, this is the accident or the luck that helps you be more active.” He pauses. “And this is a religious belief for us as Muslims, that when you die for your ideology–with knowledge, with true knowledge–you will be alive forever and your way will grow.”
He calls himself a good Muslim but says, “I don’t think I’m religious. I think it’s a part of me–just cultural. You can’t get out of that if you were raised in that religion–or it’s very hard. And I don’t think it’s necessary.” He still follows the traditional cleansing rites before he prays; he also follows custom during Ramadan by fasting and trying to give up some bad habit. A few years ago he gave up smoking, and another year he gave up driving fast. “I used to drive very fast. I don’t know why. I was a different person when I was driving. Aggressive. Even in Iran sometimes if the traffic was bad, I went on the sidewalk.” He laughs. “In Germany also–I had tickets every day.”
Since he arrived in Chicago, he has made many Iranian friends, some of whom are active Mojahedin supporters. “There are lots of Iranians who have forgotten about Iran. They don’t even want to talk about it–it just bothers them. They think, “We survived. We are here. We’re not in trouble. We should take care of our own problems.’ But there are also people who have left their jobs to be more active, like this friend who was making over $150,000 a year. Or another one who had a Persian rug dealership here.” Though he has been a Mojahedin supporter for years, he says he has never become a member. “I believe their way, their ideology. This is the only way for us, the only alternative–and the best alternative. But I am not a Mojahedin member.” Pressed as to why, he thinks for a moment and then laughs. “Maybe I haven’t been that good.” Then he turns serious again. “Maybe I think there are some other ways you can still help. You know, in the future we need to build our country, and we need people with different backgrounds, different education.”
His two roommates are both Iranian. One of them works as an engineer in the suburbs, the other is working on a degree in electrical engineering. Both of them have every intention of going back to Iran–but they too are waiting for the government to change, and they too seem to believe that the Mojahedin will someday triumph. Though Rafsanjani has invited exiles to return, Amir says that friends of his who have gone back have been arrested.
The phone at his apartment rings often, as does the doorbell. The water is usually boiling in the large samovar that has a permanent place on the front burner of the stove, and tea is served in glasses. An Iranian friend who has been on a fishing trip to Kentucky brings a dozen or so rainbow trout over, and he, Amir, and another man crowd into the kitchen to clean and cook them. Large numbers of his friends get together for big volleyball matches in the summer and big dinners afterward.
His uncertainty about when he would go back to Iran has affected his relationship with his American woman friend, and it continues to shape other parts of his personal life. In Iran he did a lot to raise his younger siblings and cousins, even taking them to class at the university with him, and he used to think having children of his own would be a major part of his life. The thought doesn’t excite him anymore. “It would take away my flexibility.”
His bedroom is a clutter of books, newsletters, photocopies, and newspapers, but he has acquired little furniture. “I can leave it. I did it in Germany,” he says, and laughs. “We come with nothing. We will go with almost nothing.”
He misses his family, whom he hasn’t seen since they visited him in Germany six years ago, and he runs up huge phone bills calling them. He worries about his mother, who has been sick. His father writes him letters, and most of them start with a poem about his son, how much he loves him, what they’ll do together when Amir comes home.
Amir knows he has changed in the time he’s been gone, but he doesn’t think he has changed so much that he would feel he no longer belonged. “I don’t believe this idea that people say, that when you stay in one place and then go back to your own place, you will have difficulty. That’s only when you don’t have goals. But if you do have goals, then anything you do is in that direction.”