When I was seven years old, there were two men. There was my father and there was the Shah. Everyone else was waiting to see what would happen, even if they didn’t know it. I knew it at least, and I considered myself an authority on the struggle between them. I knew the number-one rule, which was that you stayed humble in the face of the struggle. You didn’t ask too many questions, and if you did, you asked third parties. You didn’t ask my father because he was in it. It would be like asking Magic Johnson about basketball in the middle of a game. The fact that you might be seven years old was no excuse. They were treating you like an adult by letting you in on the struggle, so you had to go by the same rules that everyone else did.
It was easy to remember because it was the only boundary my father had. He didn’t have any boundaries when it came to playing basketball with me or tossing me and the neighborhood kids up in the air and catching us or letting me work in the backyard with him. It all made the one boundary he did have even more worthy of respect.
It was so high up there that I didn’t even know how to support one side, namely, my father’s. I knew how to support the Lakers. I knew their T.V. station and their radio station and what time their games usually came on. I knew their opponents and how to get mad at them when the Lakers lost. I tried to get mad at the Shah when he came on T.V., but I knew that I was just playing at something. I knew I didn’t really know about death and fear and prison. The only thing I had to go by was the way my father would change when he came on T.V. He would become a whole lot more than just my father. I would feel like just a small part of his life, which meant that I was just a small part of the world, and I liked that feeling because it meant that there was so much of the world to discover. It meant that the world was a lot bigger than whether the Lakers won or lost that night.
And that world that I had to discover still had to do with the way he played with me and the neighborhood kids. Depending on how I approached it, I would either be on the side of tossing us up in the air and catching us or not. The Shah became the opposite of that tossing and catching. He became the opposite of the feeling around five-thirty when I would be outside with my friends and my father’s car would turn into our street and we would run over and he would toss me in the air, but not just me, everybody could share in who he was and how he was glad to be home.
It was the best I could do. It wasn’t much in the struggle between my father and the Shah, but it wasn’t false either. It wasn’t much of a contribution, but it was a positive one. As long as I was his son, he was a father. And a father was a much bigger thing than a king. That much I knew for sure. They tried to say different in the books we read sometimes at school, but I knew the real story. They tried to show kings as heroes. They might have fooled the American kids, but they weren’t fooling me. The whole point of being a man was to be against a king, because a king thought he was bigger than a man coming home from work and tossing his son and the neighborhood kids up in the air. Without even having to do anything, without even having to earn it. He just thought being king made him bigger automatically.
I tried to get the American kids at school to understand the folly of royalty, but they weren’t too troubled by it one way or another. And I felt my face begin to get some of the seriousness that my father’s had when the Shah came on T.V. There were going to be some people who didn’t care. I didn’t understand it but it was a truth.
Once in a while I would hear somebody say something bad about Iranians, but the one thing I knew about Iranians was that at least one of them was doing what a man ought to do about a king, which was more than I saw Americans doing, so whatever they said wouldn’t stick with me for too long. I even felt proud of Iranians for the way they were out in the open with their struggle. That was the one thing about a king, was that he wasn’t pretending, he really thought he was better than everyone else, so that meant that my father wasn’t pretending either.
It was good to have something as clear as that. Life in America was always changing as soon as I was beginning to get a handle on it, sometimes many times in the course of a day, so it was good to have one thing where I knew where I stood. And knowing where you stood was a thing that didn’t need to come out to the world when you really knew it. It stayed with you and went everywhere with you and didn’t ask for anything in return. Or at least anything it was asking was what you ought to be giving anyway. My father never acted like he was giving anything by tossing us up in the air. It was just a natural thing to do. The natural thing for a king to do was to take off his crown and say, this whole thing is ridiculous, and I kept waiting for the Shah to do it and become as big as my father, but it never happened.
The number-two rule of the struggle was that my father had already won, and it was really only a question of whether the world was going to recognize that. There was nothing else I saw where somebody was winning like that. As good as the Lakers were, I never saw them win in the middle of a game. I never saw them win just by participating. But I knew my father had done it, and it meant that I had to pay attention to anything that you could win like that. I could still pay attention to basketball and anything else that had scorekeeping and nobody could win just by playing. But they were all the things that a man did before he found his struggle. That didn’t make them a waste of time. It was okay for a boy to do those things. When my father came outside to play with me, he was expressing that it was okay for a boy to do those things, that it was wonderful. I needed the reassurance because as great as it was to play with him, I felt a little small to be taking him away from a struggle as big as that.
This was how I was going to learn it though. For a man to be a man, a boy had to be a boy. And a king was going to be a king. There was no point in waiting and hoping for him to take off his crown. I didn’t know exactly what my father had done back in Iran that made everybody so careful of how they talked about the Shah in front of him, but I knew that it hadn’t been waiting and hoping. The number-three rule was action. My father didn’t talk much about it because he had known action. And I learned to love action outside playing basketball by myself on Saturday mornings while the street was asleep. Anybody could play in the evenings when there were people out and other kids to play with, but action was a personal, private thing. It narrowed the world down to its simplest elements: You and the person you were playing against, whether they were real or imaginary.
The purpose of action was to understand what a tree was, to understand what the sky was. They were all best understood along the way. My father had understood what a father was along the way of a struggle that had begun when he was fifteen years old. He had learned about being a father while in prison, while a king who had placed him there thought of himself as the father of all his country’s people, I felt so sure that the way he tossed us up in the air had come along the way of something bigger that I felt determined to find out what that bigger thing was.
And I did find out – after the Shah had died and I was a little older, and he told me all about how it had been. And I felt like a part of greatness when he told me about it because he never told me as though his life as a father was any less than his life as a man fighting against the Shah. They were part of the same thing, which meant that my life as his son was part of it too. He told me the stories as an equal, as a guy who’d gotten thrown into a world where this sort of thing happened just like he had been. It was true that there had been two men back there, but one of them had needed the whole world telling him that he was a man, and one of them had just gone ahead and been one. The one thing I knew for sure was that I would get my chances to be a man, to be the kind to be one on his own. It was the only kind worth being. It was the only kind that would get the neighborhood kids running over. I wanted to learn about anything that had gotten him to be like that. It turned out to be something that had gotten made in the darkest and meanest places, but what had gotten made was not dark and mean. It was sunny and beautiful. I felt like it was the missing piece to the notion of the world I was putting together. You had to be suspicious of anything that came right out claiming to be sunny and beautiful from the start.
It was a great thrill to be the one to be let in on that secret. I never forgot the way that people were careful of how they talked about the Shah around my father, and yet when he did end up talking to me about it, it was the freest and most open thing in the world. It was as natural as understanding a tree and the sky along the way. And when he would come home from work and we would run over and he would step out of the car, there was a secret communication between us – Yes, this is more than than this, but leave those secrets for later, and take the approach that lets in the people around you. Anything that secret could be about would only end up coming back to that anyway.