For me it all started with a simple question. Our bald, middle-aged history and literature teacher with a comb over hairdo asked a jammed packed classroom of high school freshmen, “What do you think is happening out there?”
It was cool outside. The breeze playfully rustled a mound of autumn leaves around the school yard. My glance alternated between the teacher, the students, and the leaves. There was a fire storm of emotions in my heart, and containing me was beyond the power of a mere mortal. A few students uncomfortably fidgeted in their seats to avoid eye contact with the wrinkled faced man. A deafening silence blanketed overhead. It was fall of 1978.
The streets of Tehran were not silent though. Throughout the week, a woman covered from head to toe by a black Chador led an assembly of 10-12 men towards our school in an attempt to wreak havoc in the relatively calm northeastern neighborhoods of Tehran Pars. Despite her long, seemingly inhabiting attire, she moved with the agility of a predator cheetah in chase of a prey. In one hand, she carried a black leather covered Quran adorned by golden letters. The other hand was always free to form a fist either tossed into the air to rhythmically dance to the sound of a slogan or plunged into the chest of an opponent to clear the way. She came to close down our school and recruit foot soldiers for the Sisterhood of Zeinab.
Early that morning, another group of demonstrators had stopped at our school on their way to a march to rally the students but were turned around by our feisty principle before reaching the school grounds. Their battle cry still rang in my ears and pierced through my heart: “Say it! Death to Shah! Say it! Death to Shah!” Curious students were shoved back into their classrooms by the assistant principle, and the old, feeble janitor was stationed in front of the iron gate to guard the entrance. The principle, an uncommonly tall, heavy-built woman, cussed and fussed at the sight of any disturbance but did her duty to protect the students and her beloved school. She simply wanted harmony and discipline; we wanted to know what lurked beyond those walls.
Disappointed with his students’ silence, our teacher began to pace up and down the center isle of the classroom while stopping occasionally to stare down a student who had ventured to lock eyes with him. I looked around and saw sitting next to me my best friend, murmuring something under her breath. Was she practicing her answer to our teacher’s question? Was she reciting a prayer before the storm?
“A revolution! It is a revolution!” I blurted out unexpectedly when the teacher was sufficiently far from our desk right across the room with his back facing towards us.
Since I had sprung up to speak those words and remained standing, the girls closest to me began pulling on my sleeves, imploring me to sit down. But it was simply too late! The teacher had already heard me and was heading our way. At that moment, I finally could hear my best friend’s words clearer. All along she was mumbling, “Be quiet. It is none of our business. Don’t say a word! It is none of our business.”
Energized and revitalized by my answer, the bright-eyed teacher bombarded the class with a series of extra questions while approaching my desk: “What is a revolution? Why do we need a revolution? What are we going to do after the revolution?” In no time at all, he was standing right next to my desk, leaning slightly as if he wanted to reach to grab me by the shoulders and shake the answers out of me. Although I was petrified, I couldn’t resist feeling proud. For once, I was the center of the attention. For once, I had beaten all the others. I had single-handedly come up with the most brilliant answer of all. The only problem was that I had nothing else to say. I had no idea what a revolution was, why we needed a revolution in the first place, and what the nation was going to do after all was said and done. I was bummed out! My only consolation was and is to this day that no one else had the answers either. Not even the teachers, the fighters, or the leaders. Just look at the outcome! Look at our handy work: the Islamic Republic of Iran!
When the bell rang, the teacher asked us to think about his questions and not to be afraid of asking a few questions of our own. He handed me a small, shabby booklet titled “The Communist Manifesto” and told me to keep it as it was my prize. “Read it!” he said. “It will show you the way.” I never saw him again after that day.
Today, as summer wears out, and the autumn leaves begin to litter the streets of my adopted hometown, I searched for seven straight hours and tore the house apart to find that booklet. In an old suitcase, hidden out of sight under a number of other keepsake items accumulated over the years, the tattered manuscript lay face down and motionless. While I was retrieving it as gently as possible, I noticed for the first time a small hand- written note on the back cover: “Did you find the answers, Laleh? Did you find the way?” The note was signed, “Agha Moalem.”
Thirty years later, now that I have officially joined the middle-aged crowd with a full head of hair, (Thank you, Lord, for your small blessings!), I am going to apply those questions to the plight of modern day Iran and with my answers, make Agha Moalem proud again.
What is a revolution? The New Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a revolution to be “a sudden, radical, or complete change; the overthrow or renunciation of one ruler or government and substitution of another by the governed.” I have memorized this answer so that if Agha Moalem ever asks me this question again, I can recite it without a minute of hesitation.
Why do we need a revolution? This one is trickier than the first, and the New Merriam-Webster Dictionary is no help. However, I will give it my best shot: We need a revolution in Iran because the people are hungry, jobless, and destitute. We need a regime change because the current government of Iran has stomped over every basic human rights, has imprisoned, tortured, and murdered all opposing factions and has plundered the national wealth to support covert and terrorist activities around the world. In the words of an Iranian taxi driver who happens to be my cousin, “The air is dirty, our pockets are empty, the apples of our eyes lay in the cemetery, and the best and the brightest are locked away.” Need I say more?
What are we going to do after the revolution? History teaches any scholar of the ancient and modern times that the Islamic Republic of Iran is doomed, and the end will come for the mullahs. Although it pains me to say that their demise might not happen in our life-time, I am tormented by the fact that there is no appealing alternative in the horizon.
Are we going to replace the authority of the mullahs by another flavor of Islam, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran? I sincerely hope not! The underlying ideology of PMOI is governed by the Quran and its principles. Read this holy book in its entirety to discover what it is about! We must not fall for Mojahedin’s fancy reincarnation of Islam or the alluring interpretations of the obvious! Religion has failed time and again throughout the history of mankind to govern the masses without resorting to indiscriminate executions, book burnings, and witch hunts. Another religious government, albeit branded modern and progressive Islam, is destined to behave similarly.
Are we going to replace the authority of the mullahs with the Organization of Iranian People’s Fedayee Guerrillas or other flavors of Communism? Again, I vehemently warn against it. Read the history books written about Stalin’s Gulag, Mao’s re-education camps, Castro’s Cuba, and Vietcong’s internment camps. Communism is inherently opposed to democracy, can’t tolerate opposition, or coexist alongside other ideologies. We don’t need another form of totalitarianism. (Sorry, Agha Moalem!)
Must we bring back the monarchy and rebuilt the Persian kingdom in the image of the past or present rulers? No, we must not make that mistake. The enthralling power of a prince based on the hereditary line of succession is fundamentally dangerous and corruptive. Even if His Majesty Reza Pahlavi may appear to the layman and the intellectuals as an acceptable alternative today, we know nothing of what may lurk beyond His throne. Putting the collective fate of next generations into the hands of a future prince whose only qualification to rule may be his blood line is not only risky, it is also foolish.
Should we consider forming a Republic fashioned after flourishing democratic governments in the world? The successful implementation of such an experiment requires a handful of prerequisites none of which exist in our current political environment. We are incapable of respecting and tolerating each other’s opinions and resort to violence much too quickly. We lack political leaders who are willing to submit to the will of the majority and abandon power once voted out of the office. We are accustomed to thugs and tyrants adjudicating our affairs, and we respect and fear only an iron fist. Corruption is prevalent in Iranian bureaucracy, and the rule of the law is easily bent or side stepped without any fear of repercussions. At the same time, bribery is the norm not the exception. Since Iranian civil servants are the apparatus of such bureaucracy, they are currently incapable of conducting a free and fair election. And last but not the least, we lack a charismatic leader around whom we can rally. The mullahs have eliminated the majority of them through chain killings.
While we await the second coming (another revolution and another savior), we must not lose sight of the fact that a revolution in itself is not the goal. What follows that revolution and what we erect afterwards must be the central objective of the uprising. Revolution is only the means, but the successful implementation of a democracy is the ultimate prize.
What do we do meanwhile? We fight the mullahs and expose their atrocities by any and all means at our disposal.
We read; we write; we argue; we educate, and we groom the young.
We ask questions; we formulate plans; we scream; we unite.
And one day, at last, we see the light: A Republic is a dream within our reach!
Did I find the answers? Did I find the way? Could you tell me, Agha Moalem?
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