[TEHRAN BUREAU] We all have our memories of late-night cramming. The lights are low everywhere; the world is eerily quiet. At such times, the sound of my own fingers stroking the keyboard seems as loud as a thunderous volcano. Sometimes, after finishing a paragraph or coming to an end of an assigned chapter, I like to stop… and just listen, whether it’s the sound of footsteps or a stranger’s laugh, or a cat or dog whimpering in the distance.
It was on one such night. A 19-year-old boy was sitting in a dormitory room, quietly poring over those same books, the way he did most nights away from home, the way he did every night during exam season. Earlier, at around 10:30 p.m., an officer had come knocking on their doors. The police would only protect them if they kept quiet, he had said. If the students said as much as a word, he warned, they would do nothing to help them.
Unknown to the boy, in the dormitory a block away, at around 11:30 p.m., a group of hard-headed students head up to the rooftop and start chanting anti-government slogans.
Maybe he was too deeply submerged in Ohm’s Law equation to notice; maybe those hard-headed students hadn’t really been all that loud.
But a few hours later, he hears students screaming from the floor below and the shattering noise of breaking glass. He’s heard the story of that fateful night, that particular summer day, almost exactly 11 years ago, when they attacked the dormitories. It had always sounded like an epic tale, or maybe a television drama. And now there he was, suddenly living it.
He runs to hide in the bathroom. Shaking, scared, alone he waits. He waits, and waits, and waits.
And then there is no more waiting. The men are at his door.
He’s dragged out into the hallway. The last thing he remembers before the world goes black is that loud thud — the sound of his friend’s head hitting the ground, his unconscious body laying in blood, blood that is splattered everywhere.
A week later, he is released from prison, after agreeing to sign “a confession.” He is now a fully-certified criminal in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
That friend he remembers last has not been heard from. Many others remain in prison. But more frightening yet, there are many others who have gone missing.
Hundreds of miles away, a 17-year-old high school student in a small town in the province of Khuzestan is also released, along with his uncle. They were taking part in a demonstration in the city’s main square when a large group of them (perhaps along with many more) were arrested. The uncle emerges from the ordeal unscathed, physically. But the boy has been repeatedly and severely beaten. He is released one day before his University Entrance Exam.
All week now I have not been able to shake the image of that shy, timid boy out of my head. The typical class nerd, the one who gets A’s even when the entire class fails. I wonder how these kids are going to grow up. My generation was always told that no matter how cruel or merciless the world may be, the school is our refuge. Where will we go now that our schools too have been violated?
And once again, it is the shahrestani (small-town) kids who are paying the price. The ones who’ve had to work the hardest to get where they are. The ones whose parents couldn’t afford a loft in North Tehran. The ones this newly “elected” president claims to represent.
A friend of mine emailed me these lines from the University of Tehran a day before the attacks on the dormitories, which I have translated:
We are on campus, my friend. Tear gas is descending upon us like heavy snowfall. The entire building I am in right now is filled with gas. Two of my friends were wounded 30 minutes ago. There is fire everywhere. I thought I came here to study but there is nothing here but war. I have to tell you this quickly so you’ll share it on Facebook. I tried using a proxy to access Facebook earlier, but it didn’t work. Thanks so much. And by the way, please don’t mention my name because there have been mass arrests everywhere.
It seems ironic that 30 years after the revolution, at a time when many of us, among the exploding youth of Iran, were tired and indifferent to its fruition, are now in the streets fighting for the things this revolution promised. We were born into a war, and lived through a war. Now there is a new war raging. Who thought it would last so long. My friends are on their rooftops again shouting Allah o Akbar – God is Great — like their fathers did 30 years ago. I’ve always believed history repeats itself. But I’ve never felt it quite like the way I do today.