There was snow on the mountains to the north of Tehran. Morning light, falling on the snow, revealed the direction and line of every ridge. Then the smog of the city of motor cars banked up and screened the mountains. In the summer the smog had been like the color of the mountains; and it had seemed then that it was only the summer haze of the dusty plateau that hid the mountains. Now the smog could be seen rising against the snow like a dark cloud. By the middle of the day mountains and snow could no longer be seen, until, for a few minutes at the end of the day, the setting sun fell red on the snow of the highest ridges, and they were like a red cliff suspended over the clouded city, darkening fast, pricked here and there with electric lights, and soon jumping with neon lights: the old glitter, remarkably surviving.
The city was free, but it remained the Shah’s creation. In the winter of 1980, a year after the revolution, it was still awaiting purpose. To many—like the hotel people gathering to chat in unoccupied, half-serviced rooms, like the man in the ITT-built telephone room sleeping on the floor, as on the desert sand, covered from head to toe by a blanket—to many people the city was still like a camping site.
Here and there were small-scale building works. But the cranes on tall unfinished buildings didn’t move. With the rain and snow, metal girders had rusted; and unplastered, roughly mortared brick walls looked weathered. The shops were full of imported goods: it was there the money was going, the oil money that gushed up every day like magic. Sudden great wealth had created—had imported—the modern city and bred the inequalities and alarms that had led to the revolution. That same wealth had bought time for the revolution.
On Revolution Avenue (formerly Shah Reza) south of Tehran University the picture-sellers still offered views of Swiss lakes, of forests; pictures of animals; a little boy zipping up his trousers, a little girl trying on her mother’s shoe; pictures of children and beautiful women with tears running down their cheeks. Side by side with this was still the theme of revolution. The cassette-sellers played Khomeini’s old speeches. Some people still offered old picture albums of the revolution: executions, bodies in morgues, blood. There were pictures now, too, of Che Guevara, and colored posters illustrating various kinds of machine gun. And still, every few yards, solid piles of Russian communist literature in English and Persian—in spite of the cartoon that showed Iran, a sturdy peasant figure, fending off two snakes, one marked Russia, one marked America; in spite of the helmeted skull that in another cartoon stood for the composite enemy: Russia in one eye socket, America in the other, a scarf below the helmet flying the Union Jack at one end and the flag of Israel at the other.
It would have seemed like play—if there hadn’t been a revolution and real blood. Blood seemed far away from this atmosphere of the campus and the winter street fair. At street corners and on the pavement there were candied beet-root stalls, smelling of hot caramel: spiked rounds of beet-root set about a bubbling cauldron of syrup, the beet-root constantly basted and candied over and kept hot with the syrup: a winter food, better to see and smell than to taste, almost flavorless below the caramel.
At the Friday prayer meeting at Tehran University there was still a crowd, but nothing like the million or so I had seen on the second Friday in August, when I had gone with Behzad, my interpreter and guide, and for two hours we had watched the men and black-covered women stream up in separate columns until they had filled the university grounds and choked the streets, when the sound of walking feet had made a noise like a river, and dust had risen and hung above the crowd in the university. That kind of enthusiasm—the perfection of Islamic union, as some had seen it—couldn’t last. And the much-loved Ayatollah Taleghani, who had started these meetings, had died; and it was winter, and not easy to sit and listen to revolutionary speeches by lesser ayatollahs who used guns like pastoral staffs.
The revolutionary activity this winter Friday was at the front gates of the university, where supplies were being collected for the flood victims of Khuzestan, the oil province in the southwest. Volunteers were waving down traffic; others were tossing up or manhandling bundles into vans and trucks, where other volunteers, far too many, were waiting to stack them. There were too many volunteers altogether, too much shouting, too many people trying to control traffic, too many people being busy and doing nothing.
What was going to happen to that carload of flat Persian bread? It had cost money; it had been brought hot; it steamed as it was shouldered out in the cold air; and then it was frenziedly stuffed—as though it was a matter of life or death—into plastic sacks and dumped into a truck with blankets and clothes. Wouldn’t that bread have turned to brick by the time it got to Khuzestan?
But the bread didn’t matter. The gesture and the excitement mattered. These volunteers in quilted khaki jackets and pullovers were revolutionaries who, one year on, were still trying to live out the revolution, still anxious to direct traffic (to show their solidarity with the police, now of the people, not of the Shah), still anxious to demonstrate the Islamic “union” that had brought them victory. They were revolutionaries—like those who had stormed the United States embassy and taken the hostages—whose cause was dwindling.
When Behzad and I had gone to that great prayer meeting in August, he had said, “This is not a religious occasion. It is a political occasion.”
The communist son of a persecuted communist father, Behzad had read Islamic union in his own way, had interpreted Shia triumph and misanthropy in his own way, had seen a revolution that could be pushed further to another revolution. And these Islamic revolutionaries, in their Che Guevara costume, did see themselves as late-twentieth-century revolutionaries.
The Shia faith of Iran, committed after thirteen hundred years to the lost cause of Ali (denied his worldly due, murdered, his sons also killed), was the religion of the insulted and the injured. “The inhabitants of the earth are only dogs barking, and annoying beasts. The one howls against the other. The strong devour the weak; the great subdue the little. They are beasts of burden, some harnessed, the others at large.” This was from The Maxims of Ali, which had been given me by a gentle Shia doctor in Rawalpindi in Pakistan. It was his book of comfort; he thought it could also be mine.
Injustice, the wickedness of men, the worthlessness of the world as it is, the revenge to come, the joy of “union”: Behzad was a communist, but the Shia passion was like his. And in August Behzad, like a Shia, was collecting his own injustices: Khomeini’s revolution had begun to turn against the men of the left.
We had gone together to the holy city of Qom, a hundred miles south of Tehran. We had met theological students; we had been to see the Islamic judge of the revolution, Ayatollah Khalkhalli. On the way back through the desert to Tehran we heard on the car radio that the left-wing paper Behzad read, Ayandegan, had been closed down, its offices occupied by Revolutionary Guards.
Later we had gone to the holy city of Mashhad, far away in the northeast, near the Afghanistan border. We had traveled back by train with Behzad’s girlfriend. She, too, was a communist, the daughter of a family who had once been big landowners. During the journey she had ostentatiously read some local communist pamphlet. And she and Behzad had played cards until a Revolutionary Guard had come into the compartment and told Behzad that cardplaying was banned during the month of Ramadan, and especially on the day of mourning for Ali. Behzad had raged afterward. He hadn’t seen the Guard as a man of the people; he had seen him as a servant of the oppressor class.
And he was to return to further trouble in Tehran. Revolutionary Guards had seized the headquarters of Behzad’s communist group. Later I was to see the scene: sandbags, machine guns, young men, Islamic revolutionaries, in guerrilla clothes on one side of the busy road; the ejected, unarmed men of the left on the other side of the road, dressed like students or city workers, just waiting. And Behzad himself was to join the waiting men that afternoon.
The picture I had carried away was of Behzad and his girlfriend on the platform of the Tehran railway station, after the overnight journey from Mashhad. Friends of the girl were waiting for her; and she and Behzad walked ahead of me. He was tall, slender, athletic from his skiing and mountain climbing. She was small, with one bad foot, and her hip on that side was shrunken. She was the daring one—without a veil, leaving the communist pamphlet face down on the seat in the train so that anyone in the corridor could see the red hammer and sickle on the yellow cover. He was the protector, bending slightly toward her as they walked, happier in her company than she appeared to be in his.
Behzad had moved, and he was busy with an examination. When at last I got him on the telephone and asked how he was, he said, understanding my concern, ‘Don’t worry. Nothing has happened to me.”
The next day, two days before a six-hour examination, he came in the early evening to the hotel, to take me to the apartment he was sharing with a friend I had remembered someone boyish, someone giggling in a railway compartment and playing a simple card game with a girl. The Behzad who met me in the lobby was a man, and grave. He was wearing a jacket; in August he had told me he didn’t have a jacket. He also seemed to have more hair.
“Have you curled your hair, Behzad?”
“It was always like that.”
“You look older.”
“I’m twenty-five. That’s not young.”
We went out and walked toward the Avenue of the Islamic Republic, formerly Shah.
I said, “The hotel people seem a lot happier.”
‘Everyone has begun to understand that life is going to go on.”
“I feel they’ve got used to their freedom.”
“Freedom for them, maybe. But not for people like us. There will have to be another revolution.”
We crossed the avenue, Behzad leading me through the traffic, as he had done in August, and we waited for a line taxi. The ones that weren’t full moved on and left us when Behzad told them where we wanted to go. It was cold; I had no pullover or topcoat. We were standing on the road itself, two or three feet away from the traffic, and just behind us was one of the deep gutters of Tehran, now running with muddy water.
I said, “Let’s go back and take a hotel car.”
He said, “This is how the people of Tehran travel. We will get a taxi.”
Eventually one of the orange taxis stopped. A fat woman in black, who had been waiting a few feet ahead of us, moved to get in.
I said, “How will we sit?”
“I will sit next to her.”
When the taxi moved off I said, “How is your girlfriend?”
“I don’t see her anymore. It happened not long after you left. I’ve seen her only once.”
“Since I stopped seeing her. I hear she has a new boyfriend now.”
“But why? What happened?”
“It was my decision. It was a matter of personalities. They didn’t fit.”
We were in the early evening traffic of Tehran. The shops were bright: a metropolitan glitter. Eight years before, in Buenos Aires, a city which Tehran in some ways resembled, an Argentine had said to me with some acidity during the rush hour, “You might think we are in a developed country.” I thought of those words now, sitting beside Behzad, feeling his new gravity, trying to look at his city with his eyes.
He said after a while, “But I love her still. I still think of her.”
“How often do you think of her? Every day? Once a week?”
“I think of her when my mind is clear. There are many things now. But I think of her.”
We got out at the street called Felestin, Palestine, so named because the office of the Palestine Liberation Organization was now there. It was darker, quieter, and lined on both sides with plane trees.
I said, “Was it political, this incompatibility of the personalities?”
“There was that, too. I wanted to start some organized political activity. She didn’t want that. She wanted us to continue as we were, fighting the regime wherever we could.”
“Guerrilla activity? Drama?”
“Something like that.”
It fitted: the revolutionary who was also the landowner’s daughter, the educated woman in a Muslim country, the woman driven for many reasons to exaggerate her position. She would want to look for the fire.
Behzad said, “But it wasn’t that that came between us. Politically there’s no difference between us. It was the personality thing—you should understand.”
We turned off into a side street and then into a lane. It was an area of apartments in low buildings. Cars were parked right against the buildings. It was quiet and dark, with few street lights, and little light coming from the curtained apartments.
In the darkness Behzad said, reflectively, “I feel I may not be able to finish my course. If I could have got a job I would have given up already. But there are no jobs.”
“How long have you been doing your course?”
“How much longer do you have to go before you finish?”
“Then why give up now? A year is nothing.”
“Even if I finish there will be no job.”
“But it wouldn’t always be like that. Whatever happens, whatever political activity you take up, it will always be better for you to have a definite skill.”
“Yes, it would be a waste of the five years.”
It was like something he had reasoned out many times before.
We came to Behzad’s building. An apartment on an upper floor was lit up, the curtains open, and there was the sound of pop music.
“What sort of area is this, Behzad? Middle-class?”
“No, no. We’re right in the center of Tehran. This is an upper-class area. Isn’t it strange that I should be living in an upper-class area?”
(But was it strange? The revolutionary son of a provincial teacher; the university in the capital; the girlfriend or former girlfriend from a landowning family, the expanding circle of acquaintances, the foreign contacts: wasn’t Behzad moving in the only direction he could move, if he wanted to be with people like himself?)
An upper-class area, but the rented apartment was sparsely furnished; and it looked like the apartment of two bachelors sharing. A central living area suggesting—in spite of the furniture—space waiting to be filled; a glimpse of a bedroom—or a room with a bed—on one side; the kitchen on another side. A desk, spread with Behzad’s books and papers, was in the far corner, next to a small bookcase with many big textbooks, and dictionaries. It wasn’t warm.
From the kitchen, where he went to make tea, Behzad said, “There was a strike and we had no heating oil. No oil in Iran. Yesterday there was no heating for twenty-four hours. It’s on now.”
But the radiators were cold. The music we had heard in the lane was directly above, and loud.
Behzad said, “They’re a divorced couple, and they have parties every night.”
“A divorced couple?”
“They were married. Then they got divorced. Then they began living together again, and now they have parties every night. It is very distracting.” He came out from the kitchen and said, “I’ve been so busy in the last few months. There are so many things. But I just think and do nothing. I don’t know what to do.”
“You mean political activity?”
“It’s such a mess. I spend so much time thinking of what to do. You wouldn’t call this a political activity, but it is. You have to know where you are going. Nothing has changed here since the Shah, you know. The workers and the lower classes are living under the same conditions. Nothing has changed for them. So for the third time in this century the people of Iran have been broken. This is what I think about every day. It prevents me studying sometimes. Seventy years ago we wanted to get rid of the Qajar kings. We got a constitution then. But it was never carried out. That was the first time we were broken. The second time was in 1953, when we wanted to get rid of the Pahlavis, who had replaced the Qajars. The American coup d’état broke everything. And now, for the third time, you see what’s happening. A revolution, and then nothing. Khomeini is a petit bourgeois. They are going to start the whole system up again and they’re going to call it Islamic. That’s all.”
They were thoughts, I felt, that had been gone over many times.
I said, “It’s a strange way of describing Khomeini.”
“He’s lived two lives. He was the revolutionary leader against the Shah. We must never take that away from him. None of the American journalists who have come here have really understood about Khomeini, his greatness as a revolutionary. But he’s lived two lives, before and after the revolution.”
“The kettle is boiling.” It was roaring away in the kitchen.
“It isn’t boiling. I know that kettle. It makes another noise when it is boiling. In Iran and countries like Iran there are three classes, mainly. The bourgeoisie, the petit bourgeoisie, and the proletariat. In a bourgeois democratic revolution the petit bourgeoisie can be revolutionary. But when it seems that the system of the country is really going to be changed, this class, the petit bourgeoisie, resists the revolution. Khomeini belongs to this class. He is a petit bourgeois, and he cannot accept socialism.”
“But didn’t you always see it like that, Behzad? When Khomeini talked about tyranny and brotherhood and equality, didn’t you know he was talking about Islam? Islam can sound like a political ideology. Didn’t you know that?”
“People find different ways to say what they want. And so the petit bourgeoisie say, “We are Muslims. Islam is not for socialism.’ ”
“Wasn’t the mistake yours? When we went to Taleghani’s prayer meeting in August, you said it was a political occasion. I didn’t see it like that.”
“Perhaps I don’t see it like that now. But I said that because religion all over the world is dying. There are a lot of people trying to keep it alive, but they cannot. Even the Americans now are trying to keep it alive, coming and talking to us about Allah. But they cannot.”
He decided that the kettle was boiling, and I went with him to the disordered little bachelors’ kitchen. After he brewed the tea he used the aluminum kettle like a samovar, inverting the lid and resting the teapot on it—so often, in Iran, were these reminders of the nearness of Russia.
We drank the tea from glasses.
Behzad said, “There is no freedom for us now.” He meant his group. “They closed down our paper. That was in August. You remember we heard the news when we were driving back from Qom. Then they took over our headquarters. You remember the morning we came back from Mashhad? Some friends of my girlfriend—my old girlfriend—came to the station to meet her. They told her the news and took her away with them. I joined the demonstration against the seizure in the afternoon.”
“That was when I got worried about you.”
“That demonstration lasted for three days. On the third day they called for a public demonstration, against us. It was a very big demonstration, very powerful. We couldn’t resist. They broke us. And now we can do nothing.”
“But the booksellers outside the university are full of communist literature. Nobody seems to be stopping that. And there are all those cinemas showing Russian films.”
“Selling the communist literature is nothing. You can read and write as much as you want. But they won’t let you do anything. Two months after they threw us out of our headquarters in Tehran, there was that trouble in Kurdistan. Did you read about that? Khomeini appeared on television and said the army was to crush the movement with all the power it had. They sent in tanks, helicopters, 106 cannon. They killed at least 500. Then Khomeini said he had made a mistake; he had been misinformed of events there. Do you know about the executions there? Shall I show you the pictures?”
“Don’t show me. I’ve seen too many of those pictures in Iran.”
He didn’t listen. He went to the bedroom—the pop music above us dinning away—and came back with two photographs and a photocopied pamphlet in Persian. The photographs were not as gruesome as I had feared. In fact, I had seen them before. They were official photographs: ten blindfolded men awaiting execution by Revolutionary Guards standing a few feet away. The scene had been photographed twice, once from the right, facing the men to be executed, once from the left. In the second photograph a man had been killed and was on the ground; a few feet away was the crouched Revolutionary Guard with the leveled gun: an intimate act, nothing neutral about that killing. As affecting as that was the figure of one of the blindfolded men on the right: he was holding his head high. It was a good way to die. But to what purpose? Had he even served his cause?
Behzad said, “The people you see in these photographs are all left-wing people. Some were executed four hours after they had been arrested. Khomeini sent in Khalkhalli and he arrested everybody.”
Khalkhalli, the judge, the hatchet man of the revolution: the fat, jolly peasant from Azerbaijan who had never had any doubts about himself, who, from being a shepherd boy (yet never thinking of himself as poor), had risen to power, and killed Hoveida, the Shah’s prime minister.
I said, “In August you told me Khalkhalli was a clown, that he had no power.” But that was in August, when Behzad had his own idea of where the revolution might still go.
“I was wrong. You remember he told you he had the gun with which Hoveida was killed. You know who actually killed Hoveida? It was a mullah, one of these men with beards and turbans. A young man, in his thirties. He is known.”
The photographs of the execution were official photographs, but Behzad’s copies were holy documents, perhaps at some future date to be put into another Iranian album of revolution and martyrs. In the official photographs the blindfolded men were anonymous, just rebels. In Behzad’s copies there was an Arabic numeral above each blindfolded man: they were all known. They were middle-class, city people. And though Behzad didn’t tell me, they were (as I learned from another source) that section of his group that had opted for guerrilla activity, attaching themselves to various ethnic minority movements. The leaders had gone underground; one of them was a woman.
Friends had died, and—having broken with his girlfriend—he had remained in Tehran doing his studies and earning what money he could. Since October Behzad had fretted over his own inactivity.
He pointed to the Persian pamphlet. “There are fifteen hundred political prisoners in Iran right now. I tell you, printing and selling the communist literature is nothing.”
The hot tea had been welcome in the cold apartment. He went to the kitchen and filled the glasses again. He dropped the sugar cubes in his tea and stirred.
I said, “Don’t you hold the sugar in your mouth and drink the tea through it?”
He smiled. “Sometimes.”
“What was your girl like intellectually?”
He paused. It seemed he hadn’t understood. But then he said, “She was all right. We were all right, in every way. It was just what I told you. The personalities.”
“You told me her family was very Muslim.”
“Only her brother. He didn’t get on with me. He’s a businessman. But he had nothing against me. He just thought I was a boring man, always interested in politics.” His face brightened; he smiled. “Her father liked me, though. I think he liked me a lot.” He pointed to the booklet on the low table between us. “You remember we talked about that man?”
The booklet was in Persian. It had a photograph of Stalin on the front cover, and another picture of Stalin, a Russian Realist pencil portrait, on the frontispiece. I had seen the booklet without taking it in: it looked so much like the books and booklets on Revolution Avenue, opposite the university.
I said, “Where was this one printed?”
“Tabriz.” In Azerbaijan, in the far northwest.
“What do you think of him now?”
“I love him!” Behzad said. “The more I read about him, the more I love him. He was one of the greatest revolutionaries. Do you know his speech at the beginning of the war?”
“Nineteen thirty-nine, or forty-one?”
“When the Germans invaded Russia.”
” ‘The Motherland calls….’ Don’t you know that speech?”
“Why do you say he was one of the greatest revolutionaries?”
“Because he constructed socialism in Russia. That was the first socialist revolution in the world, and it was the greatest turn in human history. Maybe he made some mistakes. But I can say he was the most suitable man to do what he did. What he did in Russia we have to do in Iran. We, too, have to do a lot of killing. A lot.” He began to smile, as though he was worried that I might think him ridiculous, dreaming, in his present helplessness, of such a big task. “We have to kill all the bourgeoisie. All the bourgeoisie of the oppressor class.” And he smiled as he had smiled when he said that his former girl’s father had liked him.
He couldn’t walk back with me to the Avenue of the Islamic Republic, to put me in a line taxi. He had to stay with his books. He called a hire car for me.
He said, “Someone’s giving a party tomorrow. I know my old girlfriend is going to be there. And the person giving the party telephoned me to ask me to come. I said, ‘But you know I don’t see her any more.’ She said, ‘That’s why I’m asking you.’ What do you think of that?”
I left him to his books and papers. His mathematical work was in his fine Persian script, with Western (or Arabic or Indian) numerals. Many of his textbooks were American. He had been fed by so many civilizations; so much had gone into making him what he was. But now, at what should have been the beginning of his intellectual life, he—like the Muslims to whom he was opposed—had cut himself off.
Behzad—and the other students of Iran, and the estimated three hundred thousand Iranian students abroad—were all really the Shah’s children, the first intellectual fruits of the state he had tried to build. But they were too new, too raw, unsupported by an intellectual tradition; they were too many; and neither they nor the state had been able to cope.
The Royal Tehran Hilton, high up in the north of the city, and with snow on the ground, was now the Tehran Hilton International. In August it had only ceased to be Royal. The word—in Oriental-style lettering—had been taken down from the sign over the drive and from the marble wall at the entrance; but in both places the raised letters had left a ghostly impression. That was no longer so. The marble wall at the entrance had been polished up and fitted out with the new name; and winter rains had washed away the dusty shadow of the old word from the white sign over the drive.
The hotel had a new monogram. But THI had been made to look so like the old RTH that it took some time to see that the paper napkins in the coffee shop were still Royal. They must have been part of some vast stock—like the currency notes, most denominations of which still carried the Shah’s picture.
In August the Hilton had appeared a place of gloom. Now it had revived. It advertised a one-hour laundry service. The shirt I gave in was returned to me in the coffee shop (where the china was Rosenthal) half an hour later, laundered and ironed and packed.
Behzad had told me that the hoteliers of Tehran had grown anxious since some students had occupied a well-known hotel. People who had been complaining about empty rooms had begun to jump about a bit, switched on lights at night in empty rooms, and generally tried to suggest—like the people in my own hotel—that things were all right with them.
But real life had come to hotels like the Hilton, and it had been given by the journalists and television teams who had flown in for the American-embassy story—the American television networks had been especially extravagant. It was strange: Americans held hostage in one part of the city, Americans made more than welcome in other parts. And not only Americans: there were Japanese and French and British and Spanish correspondents. Some of them, the newspapermen, had been ground down by the story, which now hardly seemed to move. The television people, with all their attendants and all their equipment, could appear to be more exciting than the events they reported on. Like the French correspondent I saw one day speaking his piece to his camera right in front of the Intercontinental: the scene oddly inconsequential to me, coming out of the hotel only after the buffet lunch.
The drama of the seized embassy and the hostages behind the walls was always available. It was a short drive away; the hire cars were always ready to take you there. And—as with some too-famous tourist spot—it seemed a little shaming to go for the first time. The old hands no longer went; after three months there was nothing for them to see.
A long red brick wall; the low embassy buildings behind the wall; a background of snow-covered mountains—and here, in the north of the city, the mountains were quite close, with no smog or tall buildings to block the view. The long embassy wall was daubed with slogans in Persian and English; and there were more slogans on cotton banners, grey and dingy after more than three months. The pavement was roped off, the rope running from tree trunk to tree trunk, and armed young men in khaki trousers, black boots, and quilted khaki jackets stood at every gate. Outside the main gate the pavement ropes gave way to tubular steel scaffolding, erected less for security, it seemed, than as a form of crowd control.
The first day I went, at sunset, prayer time, there was a little demonstrating group, chanting responses to a leader as they might have responded to a mullah in a mosque; and the responses were mixed with the sounds, on many radios, of a broadcast call to real prayers. The guards remained unsmiling in the face of the indirect tribute of the little crowd. Evening clouds built up in the cold sky; evening light fell on the snow-covered mountains. The demonstration, like the radio prayers, ended. The crowd chatted and drank tea.
Except for the government crafts shop, which was, curiously, having a one-week bargain sale, the shops on the other side of the road seemed to have closed down, and some windows were blanked out on the inside with paste or paint. On the pavement on that side of the road, and on part of the road itself, there was a fairground atmosphere: bookstalls, food stalls (mainly buns), tea stalls (tea bags dipped in glasses of hot water).
Beyond the scaffolding at the main gate, the embassy wall was hung with a polyethylene-covered displayed of photographs of revolutions and atrocities: Vietnam, Africa, Nicaragua: the late-twentieth-century causes to which these Muslim students wished to attach their own cause. There were sandbags at the angle of the embassy wall, and the lane that ran down that side of the embassy compound was barred off and guarded.
Across that lane, there was another bookstall, then a picture stall: the beauty of tears again, inexplicable tears running down the cheeks of beautiful women and innocent children. But that Persian sentimentality, the other side of Shia misanthropy, here served the revolution: one picture, all in brown, was of a crying, ragged child, eyes blurred with tears, shirt cuffs frayed, jacket worn out at the elbow, resting a small hand on Khomeini’s shoulder. He, Khomeini, frowned, and seemed to look beyond the child; he was like a man meditating revenge. It was a powerful picture. A middle-aged woman in a black chador, catching sight of it in the near-darkness, gave a start and put her hand on her left breast.
The television service ended that evening with a five-minute camera study, without comment, of Khomeini resting in his Tehran hospital room after his heart attack. He was sitting in an easy chair; his legs and feet were covered with a yellow blanket. The camera moved slowly from the man to his bed and the simple furnishings of the room and back to the man. Once the camera rested on his left hand: long fingers, the skin extraordinarily smooth for a man of eighty. Once or twice the little finger lifted, as if involuntarily, and then fell back. There was no other movement from him during the five minutes of this camera study, no sign of any emotion. He was not a man meditating revenge; he was a man whose work had been done. And all the time, in the background, a male choir sang a three-word song: “Khomeini e Imam! Khomeini e Imam!” “Khomeini is the Imam.” The ruler above everyone else, the deputy of the hidden Twelfth Imam, the regent of God.
The second time I walked past the American embassy there was a smaller crowd, and no demonstration. In a green tent not far from the main gate a young man and a young woman in quilted military clothes were selling big four-color posters: the hands of the Iranian people around President Carter’s throat, the president’s mouth opening wide to half-disgorge a small Shah, leaning out of the president’s mouth with a moneybag in each dangling hand.
A tall foreign photographer in a brown leather jacket, with his equipment slung from his shoulder, was talking to a guard at the main gate, apparently pleading to be let in. The gate opened, but it was only to let another guard in. No drama, nothing more to see.
That came later, on my way back to the hotel. On Revolution Avenue, one cross-street down, in an area of once-elegant shops, part of the great middle-class city the Shah had created in North Tehran, a small boy sat on the pavement not far from plastic sacks of store rubbish. He had lit a fire in the middle of the pavement, using rubbish from the sacks.
The fire was new. Sparks and burning paper blew onto passersby. The boy, who was about ten, sat right up against his fire. But he wasn’t warming himself. With a face of rage, he was tearing at his shirt; and he was already half naked from the waist up. It was very cold; there was a wind. The boy, sitting almost in his fire, with two boxes of matches beside him, tore and tore at his shirt. His bare feet were grimy; his face was grimy. People stopped to talk to him; he looked up—staring eyes in a soft, well-made face—and continued to tear at his shirt; and the people who had stopped walked on. A hunchback, mentally defective, appearing out of the pavement crowd, walked around the boy and the fire, hands dangling, mouth agape; and walked uncoordinatedly on.
A fire in the middle of the rush-hour crowd: a signal of distress, but there was no one who could respond. It was only in pictures that the tears of children were beautiful. The hysteria of this child, stretched to breaking point, would have matched the mood of many of the passersby; and was too frightening.
It was frightening to me, too. And without the language I could do even less than the people who had, at the beginning, stopped to talk to the boy. I walked on along Revolution, turned down Hafiz, dodging the traffic in the cross-streets (one, formerly France, now relabeled Neauphle-le-Château, after the French town from which Khomeini, in exile, directed the revolution); walked past the long brick wall of the Russian embassy (something like a water tower being installed on the top of a modern apartment block: the embassy compounds of the nineteenth-century powers, Britain, Russia, France, Turkey, occupy great chunks of central Tehran); and at length, after the boutiques and the shops and typewriter shop and the French bookshop and the shop with a big stock of electrical goods (a little girl, wrapped in a flowered cotton chador, sitting in the doorway and selling chewing gum from one little box), came—in the shadow not of the very big traffic flyover whose pillars marched down the middle of a much-dug-up Hafiz Avenue—to my hotel, behind its own high wall.
If I had followed my original plan, if I hadn’t been put out by the boy with the fire, I would have walked down Revolution Avenue to Tehran University. And there I would have come upon the big event of the day. Sixty thousand Mujahidin students had gathered in the university grounds. The Mujahidin, “soldiers of the faith,” were Muslims, but they were also of the left, and for that reason not acceptable to everybody. Elements of the Tehran street crowd, “the people,” had set upon the Mujahidin, and there had been fighting with sticks and knives and stones. Thirty-nine people had been injured.
Of that great disturbance just a short walk away not a ripple reached the hotel. And if I hadn’t heard about it later that evening from a foreign correspondent, I might never have known. The next day was Friday, the sabbath, and the English-language Tehran Times didn’t publish on that day.
One year after the revolution Tehran was still drifting. Everybody was free; everybody was waiting; everybody was nervous. The city could appear to be without event. But it was a battlefield, full of private wars.
The drama—of the American embassy—that had brought hundreds of journalists to Tehran had, ironically, shattered the local English-language press. Where was The Message of Peace, so combative in August, so full of the rightness of the faith and the wrongness of everything else? And Iran Week (cover lettering like Newsweek)—such new offices, and the people inside a little vain of their revolution—why was Iran Week so hard to find? The Iranian (New Statesman-like) was considered the better weekly, but the issue I bought turned out to be the last. The decision to close must have been taken in a hurry: the back cover invited subscriptions, the half-filled editorial column said goodbye.
The daily Tehran Times had shrunk. It was now four pages, a single folded sheet. In August it had been a paper of eight pages, bright with advertisements and writers and religious features. It had been a paper of the revolution and the faith. The office had been busy; there were even some Europeans or Americans giving a hand (one American, reportedly a Shia convert, out-Shiiteing them all). Mr. Parvez, the editor, busy with his proofs, had thought, when I went to see him, that I wanted a job. And, kindly man that he was, he seemed ready to give me one.
No such mistake could be made now. There was no such busyness. Mr. Parvez wasn’t sitting at a proof-strewn desk. He was walking listlessly about the empty room. He didn’t remember me, but he seemed glad to see someone, glad to talk. He sat down at his bare desk and invited me to sit on the desk.
Things were bad, Mr. Parvez said, very bad. Since the students had seized the embassy, many foreign firms had closed. He had lost advertisements and readers. The circulation of the paper was now only thirteen thousand, and he wasn’t even recovering his printing costs. He lost three hundred dollars with every issue. So that for him, and his business associates, Friday, the sabbath, when the paper wasn’t published, was truly a day of rest.
I said, “Why don’t you suspend publication until times are normal?”
“No, no. I say that if we miss one issue—“
He didn’t finish the sentence. To speak of disaster was to bring disaster closer.
He was forty-nine. In August I had understood him to say that he was an Iranian from India. Now, less professionally pressed, more nostalgic, he said he was from Bhopal in Central India. He had begun his literary career in that country as a poet, in Urdu, the half-Persian, half-Indian language that is especially dear to Indian Muslims. Parvez was his pen name from that Indian time. In Iran, where he had become naturalized, he had turned to English-language journalism. All the money he had made from earlier ventures he had put, after the revolution, into the Tehran Times. He hadn’t got any of that money back so far. “I haven’t touched a rial.” To fail now would be to lose everything.
“We will borrow some money, find money somewhere, and continue until the New Year.”
The Iranian New Year, in the third week of March, five weeks away: it was the magic date of which many people in Tehran spoke. On that good day, it was felt, things might change. Something might be worked out and the American hostages might be released, and the country might get started up again. The revolution within the revolution had laid the country low. The students who were holding the hostages had become a law unto themselves. They called themselves “Muslim students following the line of Imam Khomeini,” but there was no telling who controlled them and what they might do. They were critical of everybody; they were using embassy documents to make “revelations” about everybody; they had even made “revelations” about the Tehran Times.
Mr. Parvez said, “They might hold the hostages for a year.” His voice went very thin. “The hostages might even be killed.”
He sat quite still in his chair. But his face, not always turned to me, quivered with nervous little movements: the gray eyebrows, the eyes, the corners of the mouth. He spoke softly, surprise always in his voice, as though from minute to minute he awakened afresh to his calamity.
He said, “We were thinking of expanding to twelve pages. We had a meeting in October. From the first of January we were going to have twelve pages. Then this happened.”
Posters were still on the windows facing the street. Everybody is reading the Tehran Times. Ask for it everywhere everyday. We’ve got news for you.
Uncovered typewriters were still on the empty desks. Across the room was the standard typewriter at which Mr. Jaffrey had worked in August. It was to Mr. Jaffrey that Mr. Parvez had passed me when he understood that I only wanted to talk to someone. And Mr. Jaffrey, though with a half-finished column in his machine, had given me a little time.
“How is Mr. Jaffrey?”
“I’ve had to let him go. I’ve had to let them all go. There used to be twenty of us.”
Like Mr. Parvez, Mr. Jaffrey was a Shia from India. He had migrated to Pakistan before coming to Iran, the Shia heartland. It was Mr. Jaffrey who had introduced me to the queer logic—as queer to me at the end of my journey as it had been at the beginning—of the Islamic revival. Speaking of the injustices of Iran, Mr. Jaffrey had said he had begun to feel, even in the Shah’s time, that “Islam was the answer.” This had puzzled me. Religious assertion as an answer to political problems? Why not work for fair wages and the rule of law? Why work for Islam and the completeness of belief?
But then Mr. Jaffrey had revealed his deeper longings, the longings that had lain below his original, political complaint. As a Muslim and a Shia, he said, he had always longed for the jamé towhidi; and he had translated that as “the society of believers.”
That society had come to Iran: ecstasy in the possession of a true imam, mass prayer rallies, the perfection of Islamic union. But out of that society had not come law and institutions; these things were as far away as ever. That society had brought anarchy, hysteria, and this empty office. And now Mr. Jaffrey’s typewriter, out of which Islamic copy had rolled, was still: uncovered, askew on the empty desk. (No office boy now, bringing a plate of fried eggs to the desk of the harassed journalist.) That typewriter, the modern office, the printing equipment, advertisers, distributors, readers: that required the complex, “materialist” society—of which, unwittingly, Mr. Jaffrey was part. This complex society had its own hard rules. It required more than faith; it required something in addition to faith.
I said to Mr. Parvez, “Is it hard now for Mr. Jaffrey?”
“It is hard for him. It is hard for everybody.”
“His typewriter is still there.”
Mr. Parvez considered the office. His eyelids trembled. He said, and his voice broke, “That—that was a special area.” With a slow, Indian swing of the head, he said, speaking as of a very old and very sweet memory, something that might have been the subject of his Urdu verses, “It used to be our city room. And that”—the room at his back—“was our reporters’ room. Now there are only two of us.”
“Who writes the editorials?”
“I write them.”
“They’re good.” And, in the Iranian minefield, they were.
“I can’t concentrate. The financial problems are too great, too complicated.”
“This is where you need your faith.”
But after three months he had been worn down. Every day since the embassy had been seized, there was some statement or incident that encouraged him to think that the crisis was about to end; every day that hope was frustrated. And there were family problems as well. He had a son who was studying in the United States; fortunately, the boy had written that he didn’t need money from home just yet. Another son had been about to get a student visa for the United States when the embassy was seized.
I said, “Mr. Parvez, you are a good Muslim and a good Shia. Your paper used to be full of criticism of materialist civilizations. Why are your sons studying in the United States?”
It wasn’t the time to push the question. He was too weary. He said, speaking of the second son, the one who hadn’t been able to get the visa, “It’s his future. He’s studying computer engineering. And Britain—it’s expensive.”
So, deep down, he was divided. With one part of his mind he was for the faith, and opposed to all that stood outside it; in a world grown strange, he wished to continue to belong to himself for as long as possible. With another part of his mind he recognized the world outside as paramount, part of the future of his sons. It was in that division of the mind—as much as in the excesses of the Shah—that the Islamic revolution had begun in Iran. And it was there that it was ending.
In the Tehran Times the next day there was an interview with a visiting Indian Muslim. Non-Muslims, the visitor said, were always impressed by “the comprehensive system of Islam” when it was outlined to them; but then they always asked in what Muslim country the system was practiced. “The answer to that important question could best be given by Iran,” the Tehran Times said, reporting the visitor’s words, “because the Iranian nation launched the unique and most courageous revolutionary movement in the history of mankind to establish the rule of Islam.”
High words still; but in Iran and elsewhere men would have to make their peace with the world which they knew existed beyond the faith.
The life that had come to Islam had not come from within. It had come from outside events and circumstances, the spread of the universal civilization. It was the late twentieth century that had made Islam revolutionary, given new meaning to old Islamic ideas of equality and union, shaken up static or retarded societies. It was the late twentieth century—and not the faith—that could supply the answers—in institutions, legislation, economic systems. And, paradoxically, out of the Islamic revival, Islamic fundamentalism, that appeared to look backward, there would remain in many Muslim countries, with all the emotional charge derived from the Prophet’s faith, the idea of modern revolution. Behzad the communist (to whom the Russian rather than the Iranian revolution was “the greatest turn in history”) was made by Islam more than he knew. And increasingly now in Islamic countries there would be the Behzads, who, in an inversion of Islamic passion, would have a vision of society cleansed and purified, a society of believers.
October 8, 1981