We adhered to the laws of the land by wearing Islamic covers outside. But at home, we dressed as we liked. In public, we kept silent about the regime. At home, we cursed it. Millions of citizens pretended to be part of the revolutionary fabric of society or at least didn’t openly oppose it. But in private, they were afraid and dissatisfied.
Corruption was rampant. You couldn’t get anything in Tehran without promising pastries to people. Pastries were bribes, usually money. If you needed your driver’s license renewed, you had to take cash with you, preferably American dollars. If you wanted to see a doctor, you had to take “pastries” for the receptionist or risk waiting in the lobby for 2 extra hours. Government offices were notoriously corrupt.
One summer, I got food poisoning. The staff at Pars Hospital refused to admit me to the ER without a pre payment of pastries! My mother paid up the 21000 Tomans she had in her purse and promised to pay more (remember the dollar hadn’t hit 100 Tomans yet). But she demanded I get an IV first. The hospital staff refused! While my father bribed and tricked his way through the “Tarheh Traffic” zone to get to the bank, I waited for my pediatrician to arrive. He had to personally administer the IV through my ankle. Without bribes or “parti bazi”, you were left on the side of the street, no better than a dying dog.
The revolution and by extension the war was a true catastrophe and everyone knew it. But no one knew or dared to do anything about it. So people just lived a double life, and did the best they could by pretending, acting and by being dishonest to each other. Everyone was stuck in a cultural paradox. I experienced this national multiple personality disorder through some of the most bizarre incidents.
Once in a while, we had “Allaho Akbar” sessions. I don’t know what else to call them. To truly appreciate this movement, you have to imagine living in Tehran in the late eighties. There was no internet. There was no Facebook. We distrusted the national media and didn’t follow it the way people watch the Weather Channel or CNN. Many people didn’t even read the papers as they preferred foreign (and illegal) sources of information. Yet, some how, word would still get around that at for example 8:46 pm on Tuesday night, it was “allaho akbar” time. Most people in my neighborhood weren’t religious but they fully participated in these games. The contradiction was absurd. On those nights, I begged my parents for an early dinner. My mom would make Schnitzel and Fries, all the while quietly complaining about how low everyone had sunk.
At the designated time, we went on the balcony. The shouting was a faint cry coming from the city and it approached our neighborhood one voice at a time. Slowly it would rise, louder and louder. Once the yelling was loud enough to drain out individual voices, my dad would give us the green light. My sister and I went crazy yelling “Allaho Akbar” at the top of our lungs, perfectly matching the rhythm of the city. Allaho Akbar, Allaho Akbar, Allaho Akbar…My dad always stopped us before the sound died down, lest any neighbor recognize our voice. It was very funny and truly powerful, it seemed like everyone in the city was shouting all at the same time, in perfect unison. You couldn’t help but join in.
The next day, the kids showed off to each other. Oh no, not us, we weren’t shouting, were you? Oh no, we don’t have any religious people in our family, do you? Oh no, we’re moving to Toronto soon, what about you? We were watching E.T for the 100th time, what Allaho Akbar? Deny, deny, deny!
Aside from this constant contradiction of family life versus public life, there was unending paranoia. It seemed like most parents were planning on leaving Iran. Some were planning an escape by land through Turkey or Pakistan. Others were hoping to leave through direct flights to European or North American countries. Even though the refugee life was unbearable to think about, some were going to leave illegally, paying astronomical amounts of money to a network of smugglers. But no one openly discussed their plans except to those closest to them, and always in secret. As children, it was dangerous to tell us anything because we might have spoken about it to our friends and spread the word around.
To be in Tehran was all about living a double life. We were secretly authentic to our family values at home and artfully insincere in society. The cultural paradox was palpable on a national level and yet so routine that as a child, I never saw anyone discussing it. That was life; it was the way things were. No one even noticed it.