I'm the Shah here Back then generals were gods, and they took our dream away
Some day someone may come across this fact that in 1973 about 15 people were accepted in the entrance exam (konkoor) of the College of Science and Technology (Daaneshkadeh Elm o Sana't), but they never registered and mysteriously vanished. People were and still are willing to give an arm and a leg to get into this fine institution. Then how come these fifteen or so people got accepted but never registered?
The good news is that they did not die and they were not arrested by SAVAK. And as far as I know, they are all alive and well. But their story may be a typical case of how things worked, then, and work now in Iran — or I should say did not work then, and don't work now.
I am one of those 15. I was 18 then and so happy to finally see my dream come true. We were all graduates of a technical high school affiliated with the Defense Industries Organization (Saazmaan-e Sanayeh Defaa). This was a boarding school located in central Tehran. It was a military-style school with free room and board. We actually got paid monthly, a very small sum, as pocket money. We wore a military uniform and the school was run like a military academy.
Students were from all over the country with different backgrounds. The one thing we had in common was that we were not rich kids. Anybody who could afford to go to a regular high school would not want to put up with the torturous condition of this military school. However, since it was free, there were plenty of applicants and it was rather hard to get in. It was not such a bad deal for someone who didn't mind the restrictions and military discipline. You could finish high school, and then go to work in factories, labs or offices of the defense industries. If you could pass the konkoor college entrance exam, you could go to college and work at night or go to college at night and work during the day or in some rare cases they would give you a leave of absence till you finished college.
That summer could have been the best summer of my life. I remember clearly, like it was yesterday. I had just found out I had been accepted into college. My name was there, in the newspaper, a long name that included my place of birth as a suffix. For the first time I did not hate my long last name. Civil engineering at the College of Science and Technology was my first choice and I was one of the students who got accepted. Civil engineering was then what software engineering is today — very popular. But our happiness was short lived.
The saying “no news is good news” is an absolute truth. Trust me on that. I don't know how people learn about bad news but it spreads at the speed of light. All of a sudden everyone knows about it and everyone is talking about. We were hearing from everyone that they had heard from high places that General Toofanian (the head of the Defense Industries Organization, and the Shah's right hand man) himself had decided not to let us pursue our education.
At first we thought it simply could not be true. He had no interest in not letting us go to college especially now that the country was practically at the threshold of the “Great Civilization” that the Shah was always bragging about. How could Timsar Toofanian do this to us? He had once come to our school and talked to us and had told us that we were like his own sons. He even he had bought his son a Ford Mustang and he wished he could do something like that for all of us.
One of the cynical students had said that the general was just trying to brag about his son's Mustang. But I had no doubt about the general's sincerity. Unfortunately it was true. We could not register. Mr. Azbee the head of student affairs of the college told us that he had been instructed by the office of Colonel Khazraei not to register us. Colonel Khazraei was the manager of educational affairs at the defense industries. We could only enroll if we brought a written statement from his office.
We thought nothing of it. We could go to Colonel Khazraei and find out what the story was. One of us went to see him and came back with a long face. Colonel Khazraei had told him that he had instructions to prevent our college registration but he had refused to say from whom. We decided to get together after work and discuss our problem and come up with a game plan. We worked in three different places, in three different corners of Tehran. We decided to meet on Iranmehr Street near Shahnaz Square. There was a park there. We decided to meet there at 5:00pm that afternoon. It became our regular meeting place for the next few weeks.
Most people showed up. It was bloody hot and everyone was in a pretty bad mood. No one could believed this was happening to us. One of the guys said that last time something like this had happened it was in the 5th or 6th century, during the reign of Anooshirvan when he prevented a shoemaker's son from attending school for some reason, I can't remember now. Nothing like this had happened since then. So we had made history. Wow.
We decided to keep going to Colonel Khazraei's office and fester him until he would tell us who was preventing us from pursuing our education. This task was given to those of us who worked in Saltanatabad where the central office was located. Offices of Colonel Khazraei and all the other defense industry big shots such as General Toofanian and general Mehdi Moghadam were located there too. We agreed to meet again the next day and discuss the results.
I went to Colonel's Khazraei's office the next morning. He refused to talk to me. He ignored me like I didn't exist. I was standing right in front of him, by his desk. He would leave his desk for a few minutes at a time and come back and I would still be standing there. This irritating game lasted for 15-20 minutes. Finally I gave up and left. The old bastard had won. Everyone wins when it comes to dealing with me.
I met with the boys again that afternoon. The other kids had had the same experience with the difference that the colonel had told one of them that we were wasting our time going to his office. It was out of his hand. We decided to go and meet General Mehdi Moghadam (who shot himself when they came to take him away during the revolution of 1979). Someone was assigned to the task and I was happy it was not me. I was so scared of him. He was tall and rather dark. He stood right by the entrance door of the complex when we came to work. His eyes and the way he looked at us reminded me of a snake ready to swallow a sparrow. I had never seen him smile.
Those who have not been in the military do not appreciate the difficulty of the task of seeing a general. A general is God himself. That year we learned how to manage to see generals, ministers, MPs, members of the royal family — you name it. We learned the location and uselessness of the offices of the prime minister, imperial investigations, Farah's office, as well as the offices of Ashraf and Shams Pahlavi, General Fardoust, and General Jam. We even went to Prince Ali's apartment. We sent telegrams to the Shah himself, and to Hoveyda and many other big shots. We got no response.
It took, a few weeks to learn that the man behind this whole thing was indeed General Toofanian himself. We had been told that from the beginning but we did not want to believe it. College registration deadline came and went and there was no resolution to our dilemma. Mr. Azbee agreed to let us attend classes until we come up with a written permit. We got together almost every day. Some attended classes and were hopeful that there would be a resolution, but some had no hope.
There were all sorts of rumors. Someone told us that if we were willing to sign a contract to work some number of years after graduation, they would give us the permit. It was fine with us. All we wanted was to be able to attend college. We were not thinking beyond that. We would have signed anything they wanted. There was no contract you could not eventually get out of anyway. We knew exactly what we wanted. But that rumor turned out to be just a rumor.
Another time one of the group members came very excitedly and said he had found this guy who could solve our problem. He supposedly had connections in high places. He did not want us to know him. He could get the paper for us if we agreed to pay him a large sum of money. He wanted something like 300,000 Rials, which at that time you could buy a nice car with — like a new Paykan. We all agreed and put the money in a bank account and waited and waited. He came up with all sorts of stories but no result.
Finally someone came up with a brilliant idea. We needed to submit our request to General Toofanian in such a way so that he would not be able to say no. But how were we going to do that? We never had more than a few seconds to talk to the man if we were lucky enough to get past his guards and so on. He always ignored us. But not this time. I have to admit it was a brilliant and simple idea. It had been tried before and it had worked on more than one occasion. Everyone in Iran used it. It's like taking an Aspirin, works for every thing and works every time. Why wouldn't it work for us? We were very excited about it.
This is what he was going to do. He was going to go and try to catch General Toofanian in a proper situation and put the request to him like this: “General, ghasam beh jaan-e Shaahanshaah Ariaamehr we are asking you to please let us continue our education to be a better servant of His Majesty. Sir if you have the proper respect for His Majesty please don't deny us this opportunity we have worked so hard for.” How could he say no to this? With SAVAK agents being present everywhere, it would have been suicide not to respect a request for the Shah's sake.
We all agreed that he would not deny our request. We had to make sure there were other people present who would hear us. The Shah's name had to be repeated at least a couple of times. General Toofanian would not dare refuse. If he did, the Shah would replace him in no time and we would all read about it in the papers. It would probably read something like this: “As per instructions of His Majesty, Shahanshah Ariamehr Bozorg Arteshdaran, General Hassan Toofanian will be assuming the responsibilities of the Shah's ambassador to the African nation of Mali.” So we thought.
The idea man promised to deliver the message to General Toofanian and come back the next day to our usual meeting place. Now it was not so much the solution to our problem we were concerned about but the fate of the bad general himself. That night we all slept much better with a conqueror's smile on our face. I don't know what went on in the idea man's head that night, but I am sure he has never had a better night since.
The next day came. I went to work like a brand new person. Everyone was kind of surprised to see me not depressed. I was so sure about our success that I even told a few people that our problem with the college had already been resolved. I was just waiting for the rumors to start in the work place about the resolution to our silly dilemma.
But our happiness was once again short lived.
By noon that day we kind of knew the outcome, but we wanted to hear it from the person who had gone to see the general. We wanted to know the details. I wanted to know every word the general had said and the way he had said them. We could not wait. That afternoon was the longest and loneliest afternoon of my life. I arrived at our meeting place. Almost everyone was there. They were waiting for the idea man to arrive. Finally he showed up. From his look we knew it was true. He was not the man we had left yesterday. He looked defeated but had and enlightened look on his face, like Moses when he came back from the mountain after God had given him the ten commandments.
We could not wait for him to tell us the details. We were ready to analyze every word that was about to come out of his mouth. We knew the answer. We knew what he had said. What I personally wanted to know was how he said it. How could the general ignore a plea that was packaged so carefully with the name of the Shah. How did he save himself?
I was sure I was maturing pretty fast and entering the world of adults — not just any adults, adults in very high places, adults who could decide the fate of a whole nation. I was entering a new stage with a more sophisticated understanding of how things really are compared to how we think they are.
General Toofanian had patiently listened to him and replied that the answer was no. He needed us as technicians and not engineers. If he needed engineers he would hire engineers and he wanted us to remain as technicians. Our hero, the idea man, had repeated the name of the Shah and begged again. The general looked him in the eye and said: “Listen son, I'm the Shah here.”
This was a big blow to our morale and our cause. The group met almost daily for another few months but not with any enthusiasm. I personally considered this the end of our fight. I still remember the faces of those people. I still remember the sense of camaraderie I have never experienced since. I don't know where they are or what they are doing these days. If anyone knows anything about them I hope they will contact me firstname.lastname@example.org.