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One day you will understand
Now, I know what he was talking about

By Mehrdad Pishehgar
February 20, 2002
The Iranian

The whole family was doing something, hustling and bustling around me. The next day I was to board a flight to London. I was only 17-years old. The year was 1978 and about 6 months before the revolution. Cinema Rex tragedy had just taken place and daily demonstrations, burning of cinema theatres and banks had become normal events.

A couple of weeks prior to this, while my cousin who studied in England was visiting us, it was decided that with all the uncertainty and turmoil to come, it would be a good idea to send me, considered a gifted student, to England in order to ensure continuity in my studies.

We belonged to the middle class. We were not rich in terms of money and my studies abroad would have brought pressure on the financial resources of the family. But my Parents were never ones to shy away from challenges specially if they involved the welfare and studies of their children.

We were 7 brothers and sisters. My father worked for the state sugar mills. He was transferred from one place to another every few years. He himself was originally from Tehran but because of all these transfers almost each one of us was born in a different town. When the older ones were in the mid high-school age, my father decided to get himself transferred to Tehran for the sole reason that the children could get a good education.

When four of us got admission into Hadaf (a private school with a very good reputation in educational excellence, probably the second best after Alborz) my father could not afford to pay the tuition fees as a lump sum and negotiated with the school so that they could be paid in instalments. He did not have proper education himself and wanted to make sure his children got the best he could make possible for them, for which, amongst other things, I am eternally grateful to him.

Many of my fathers colleagues warned him of dangers in sending a 17-year-old boy abroad on his own. I am sure he had all those fears himself too, but always told them that he had great faith in me and knew that I will take this opportunity and exploit it to the full. He said he would always be proud of me since he knew I would do my best. Now after all these years, as a father myself, I do not believe I have the courage or the guts to send my own children to such an adventure. I just have to admire my parents for having the courage.

Anyway, the business of getting a passport and a ticket with the aid of relatives and family friends was done in less than a week. Many people were trying to leave the country at that time and the reasons for them leaving the country were not always as honourable as mine was. With the demand for passports and tickets being so high it was a bit difficult to get them so quickly.

Now back to the departure night. My father insisted I wear my suit which I did not particularly like. I told him the flight would take many hours and I would be more comfortable in jeans and a T-shirt. He would not hear of it, it had to be the suit. I told him let's forget the whole thing because I am not leaving. Shuttle diplomacy started, members of the family would go from one to the other trying to get one of us to give in and after about an hour I was convinced to wear the suit. I did it reluctantly and swore that the first opportunity I get I will burn the suit. My mother said I could do anything I wanted with the suit.

They decided to phone my cousin and make sure that he was at Heathrow airport to welcome me at the right time. They told him my arrival time and flight number. In the end as it is usual with us, they asked him whether he needed anything from Iran. He mentioned that it would be great if I could take with me a melon (kharboze mashadi). I was furious. I couldn't understand, for the life of me, why would any body want a kharboze taken to England? He left Iran only one week before I did, why couldn't he take a donkey load of melons with himself?

I said I gave in to the suit but this is ridiculous. I am not going to carry a melon with me into the plane like a dehaati (peasant). Once again the family started; it is not nice to refuse taking to your cousin what he asked for especially since he is doing so much to help you settle in England, they told me. I had to give in on this too. My father used to buy melons, water melons and other kind of melons in tens of kilos. He just hired a pick-up and bought about 200 kilos of various melons. They were stored under the stairs. So he went downstairs and selected two of the biggest melons and brought them to me very proud of his choice. I thought I would die.

I told him my cousin wanted only one, why did he bring two? To which he answered, "The other one is for you. No son of mine will suffer from ack of kharboze in England if he can help it." I wanted to scream and run out of the house, then my older brother took me aside and told me what is the difference between one or two kharbozes? When you are drowning there is not much difference whether your are an inch or a mile under the water. I told him I appreciated him trying to ease my agony but I am not going to resign to this without a fight.

You guessed it. I had to give in at the end and take the melons -- each one weighing something like 20 kilos -- with me in a see-thru plastic bag to the passenger bay of the plane, since my luggage was filled to the brim by all kinds of nuts, pickles and dried vegetables.

Speaking the English language was always an ambition of mine. But I was not good at it. I would get top grades in math, physics and chemistry but struggle badly with English. I remember when we came to Tehran, on the first day of school we had English. In the provinces we had got used to things starting very slowly. Lessons would properly start about a week after the academic year had commenced. But not here. Oh no not in Hadaf.

The teacher walks in and reads out the register and writes a sentence on the board and asks us to write the same sentence in past, future and god knows what other tense. I had studied English a year prior to this. I was flabbergasted. I turned to the guy who was sitting next to me and asked him "Does English have these things too?" he looked at me very strangely as if to say where have you been? We went on to become best of friends.

Well, when I got on the plane -- and after disposing of the melons as quickly as possible -- I sat down. A young woman sat next to me and asked me something which I believed was whether I spoke English or not. I simply told her no, and hoped I had answered right and she had not asked something else to which a "no" would have been a very inappropriate answer. The answer seemed to be satisfactory to her. I sat quietly the entire trip. But every time the plane hit air turbulence, I dreaded the possibility of the melons falling on other passengers' head and killing someone.

Iranians did not need an entry visa into the UK and I got through immigration procedure after telling them I planned to study English for a year and if successful in getting into a college study further. There was an Iran Air interpreter helping the passengers in answering questions. I met my cousin who had waited almost two hours after the landing of the plane and had almost lost hope and was about to call Iran and ask whether I had left. I gave him his melon and told him that I will avenge this someday. He just laughed.

It was just the beginning of the Punk era and the sight of guys looking like parrots was very amusing. My cousin asked me to restrain myself and not to stare unless I wanted to get into a fight. I stopped immediately since I thought they looked frightening with all those needles pierced into various parts of their face and body. We were going to Newcastle, or Gateshead to be exact, in the north-east of England.

We got on the train at King's Cross and the trip was to take about three hours (280 miles). After about 45 minutes I noticed there were still houses and buildings on both sides of the track. I asked my cousin, "How big is London anyway?" He smiled and said we had left London a long time ago and south of England is a very densely populated area. He was right. The number of houses and buildings on both sides of the track never came to an end.

We arrived at about 10 PM. It was very dark and misty. We got in a taxi. Street lights were orange and together with the mist it seemed like riding toward death. I expected to be attacked by a knife-wielding maniac any moment.

Our destination was the house of an English family, middle-aged couple, where I was going to spend the next 12 months. This was to help me learn the language because I could have easily lived with my cousin but my parents decided that this was the best solution and it turned out to be a very wise decision indeed.

The next day when I decided to examine the neighbourhood I was confronted with row houses about 100-years old. There was a strange smell in the air due to the use of coal for heating. The brick walls were almost black because of the pollution. This was a working class neighbourhood. I thought, "Europe never looked like this on TV. What the hell is this?" I saw the Europe shown on Iranian TV a year later when I travelled to Germany. But that is another story.

We had about a week before college started. I was the first lodger there and in a week there were five other guys. They were from Greece, Cyprus, Jordan, England and Iraq. We forged a very good friendship between all of us. I would listen to Tim's (the English guy) Genesis LP records and read the lyrics from the cover. The host couple treated me very well.

Oh I almost forget about the infamous kharbozeh. I gave it to the landlady, Gwen (I thought this a very strange name, one which I had never heard watching TV in Iran. The husband had a more conventional name to my Iranian taste. He was Roy, nothing exotic.) and asked her to put it in the fridge for me. She wondered what the hell this massive thing could be. But apparently not to hurt a young boy's heart from a far away land, she kindly found space for it in her small fridge and tried to cover her curiosity.

A few days later she comes to me and I don't understand a word she is saying. She takes my hand and drags me into the kitchen and opens the fridge door and shows me the melon. I hit myself in the head trying to convey to her that I had forgotten all about the damn thing. I decided to let her taste a bit of this thing. I got a knife and I cut a thin slice from it and handed it to her. She was reluctant to take it, almost afraid. I think she thought may be in some way this could kill her.

To make her trust me I ate some myself and after insisting that she should try it also, she very cautiously took a small bite. She just closed her eyes and after a moment opened them very wide and said something. Later when I learned the language I asked her what she had told me. She had thanked me for letting her taste the best fruit she had ever tasted in her life. I have never since tasted a melon as sweet. I am going to remember that melon for as long as I live. I told her she could have the whole thing. She would sit every evening and take a small piece of the melon and enjoy eating it. I was amazed of the effect a melon can have on a person.

Abbas, my Iraqi roommate, was about 20-years old. He was a special case. He had come to England to study. His parents had also come with him and they were looking for a place for him to stay. One day when I was out, they came to see if this place is suitable. They asked who else was staying there and as soon as Abbas hears that there is an Iranian in the house, he says he wants this place and won't go any where else.

You see Abbas was a Shia Muslim and from Iranian ancestry. He simply loved Iranians. We became great friends and we were like brothers to each other. He learnt Persian and after a few years nobody would notice that he was not Iranian. He spoke the language without a trace of an accent.

In the beginning he asked me if I liked the Shah and Farah. I told him no and he would be very surprised and dismayed. He could not understand how an Iranian could not like them. I tried to explain but as a 17-year-old boy I was not very good at it. I did not know of enough reasons then. I told him what I remembered others saying.

At nights we would sit in the attic room and listen to Radio Iran. By that time the unrest and the demonstrations were at their peak and the Shah had left the country. One night we were listening to the radio when the announcer (I think it was Hosseini) said something like "Thhis is the voice of the revolution." I could not believe what I had just heard. I was so happy that I jumped up and down for a few minutes. Me and Abbas kissed and congratulated each other. Abbas was a full fledged revolutionary by this time and wanted the revolution more than anybody else. He admired Khomeini, like many others.

I believe that was the happiest moment I ever experienced: when the word revolution was mentioned. Since then, the Iranian revolution in my mind is associated with betrayal, killing, torture, executions, sufferings, war and misery.

Roy, the landlord, told me after the victory of the revolution that this is the worst thing that could happen to Iran with the Mullahs taking power. I told him his sentiments were quite understandable since it was against the interest of the British. He told me I was very young and one day will understand what he was talking about. Now, I know what he was talking about.

Between then and now a lot has happened. I have experienced like many of you a lot of ups and downs. The journey of life has continued for me and I am still learning something new every single day, very often through my own children. My parents are still very proud of me and say they never regretted sending me abroad to become a better human being. I know they are partial and biased but I hope they are right. Life goes on regardless. I am still hoping that my fellow countrymen and women can once again experience the sweet taste of freedom they tasted in the early days of the revolution especially the young generation who has been the greatest victim of it.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Mehrdad Pishehgar

By Mehrdad Pishehgar

I feel better now
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