It was really disturbing to read the news about the Foruhars, the nationalists who were savagely murdered by security agents in Iran. Nevertheless, it did not surprise me a bit. What happened in Dariush Foruhar's home can happen to anyone in Iran these days. I learned at a very young age that I must never reveal society's wrongs. This was in 1974 at the time of the Shah.
As a boy living in northern Iran, I loved the beautiful nature surrounding me. The green pastures, the tea fields and the cows roaming in them. I had everything that a boy my age would want. Every day after school my friend Ali (who still lives in Iran) and I would go deep into the countryside riding his motorcycle. There, we were all alone listening to birds sing. We ate the fruits of many different trees. Some of which we were not sure were poisonous or not. Natural is how we preferred everything.
One afternoon Ali and I started a conversation about the people who lived in the rural areas. We thought about how the villagers with very few paved roads and inadequate transportation would get to the doctor in town if they got poisoned or sick. Then we both talked about how we could do something to help the poor and less fortunate people. We realized then how fortunate we were and how much we took for granted.
The next day I told Ali that I had an idea. We could take the big tape player from my house and go in front of the town's state-run hospital and interview the farmers who had come such long ways to see a doctor. We would ask them about the quality of care in the hospital. We would then take the tape to our journalism class and play it for our classmates. We could do a good deed for the villagers and surprise everyone in our class. The kids would then look up to us. We would be heroes.
I could see Ali was not too happy with the idea. He was a year older and knew more about life in our little community. But I had a way of persuading him. I told him if he went along with my plan I would take his letter and deliver it to the girl he loved – something he had been begging me to do for days (Ali was in love with the best-looking girl in our neighborhood who had no idea who Ali was). He agreed.
Fridays were the busiest day at the hospital and thus the best time to interview the patients. I walked to Ali's house carrying the huge tape recorder. I was already drawing attention to myself. Kids were asking me all kind of questions. Ali reluctantly agreed to go but only if he could meet me in front of the hospital. He was embarrassed to be seen with me knowing everyone would want to know what we were up to.
I made it to the hospital. There was a huge crowd in front of the big gate. A hospital employee was giving out numbers to the crowd of mostly women and children. I could see that most of them were poor. Older women with farm clothes. Some with colorful chadors covering only half their bodies thus revealing their home-made clothes, sitting on the floor waiting for their number to be announced on the loud speaker. There was a certain smell; maybe it was the smell of the rice or tea fields, where they worked in all day long.
Several street vendors were selling everything from roasted peanuts to liver kababs to slush (yakh dar behesht). It was a spectacular seen. I decided to approach an elderly man and ask him some questions. With my tape recorder turned on, I sat next to him. He was smoking a bent and out of shape cigarette. He could barely see me through his thick glasses. One glance at his large and cracked hands would reveal that he was a farmer. He was what we called “galoush” people. They usually had a small farm with a few milk cows. Selling the milk would enable them to buy additional foodstuff from the city. They were happiest living on their farm.
I introduced myself and asked if he could help me with a class project. He laughed and looked at the big boom box. “Class project?” he mumbled as he took another puff and looked away. I turned red in embarrassment. I thought maybe this was not such a great idea; Ali was probably right. On my right, I heard an older woman crying. She was in pain and her relatives were trying to comfort her. “You will be good as new as soon as we get some medicine for you,” they were telling her.
As I looked around for Ali to tell him we should leave, a woman approached me. She asked if I would hold her handbag while she fed her sick baby. While breast-feeding her sick child, she talked as if we had know each other for years. My tape recorder was still on. Everything in that theater of life was being recorded on tape as well as in my mind. I felt guilty that I had not told her that she was being taped. I just sat there and kept my mouth shut. It was happening and I did not have to do a damn thing.
She was concerned about her child. The baby was running a fever, she said. I nodded my head as a sign of sympathy. I knew that I had to get my voice on that recorder. So I concentrated all my energy in my vocal muscles hoping something would come out and asked, “How is the health care here?” She let out a sigh and replied that things were terrible. She went on and on about the bad service and the inefficiency of the hospital.
I knew then that life for me would never be the same. I had just witnessed human misery and had the sound bites on my tape player. With that in mind I said good-bye and left. As I was walking away, I could still smell that scent in the air. Now I knew what it was. It was poverty and misery. I then met up with Ali and we went home. I told him that I was going to take the tape to school the next day and play it in the classroom so everyone could hear. He tried to discourage me but I would not listen.
The next morning as I got to my first class, I was called to the principal's office. There were two men in gray suits talking to the principal (SAVAK secret service agents I later learned). The principal then approached me and asked me about my tape. Somehow, they knew all bout it. I gave the tape and he turned it over to them.
The two men then thanked the principal and took off. When they left, the principal told me he knew I was a good boy and that I should not get into such trouble again. As I turned around to leave, I heard him say : “Son, don't ever do that again.”
Last year, after living in the U.S. for twenty years, I went back home to visit. I walked by the same hospital and saw a similar crowd of people waiting to get help. That smell was still in the air, but this time it was much more distinct. It was intolerable.