Arash Hejazi is an Iranian editor, novel writer, journalist and physician. He graduated from medical school in 1996 and in 1997, co-founded an independent publishing house named Caravan Books in Tehran. In 2009, in the post-election protests in Iran he witnessed the shooting of a young girl called Neda Agha Soltan in the street and tried to help her, and then bore witness to the circumstances of her death in an interview with the international media. An event that has turned his life upside-down, as he had to leave his country because of his testament, his business was shut down in Iran, his books were banned, he was prosecuted and his family persecuted. His memoirs and autobiography, The Gaze of the Gazelle, was published in three languages (English, Italian and German) 2011, with a foreword by Paulo Coelho.
Since your love became my calling
Autumn 1978 to Summer 1980
‘Who is this Ayatollah Khomeini?’ I asked Madar, my paternal grandmother. I had heard his name over and over without knowing who he really was. Every night people went to the rooftops to see his face in the full moon and I really wanted to know what he was doing there.
‘He is the vicar of the hidden Imam,’ Madar explained, trying to fit her cigarette into the cigarette holder. ‘While the Hidden Imam is in occultation, the vicar is in charge of the Muslims’ faith,’ she continued, finishing her remark before lighting her cigarette. ‘He is our saviour.’
‘And why is his face shown in the moon?’
She answered with a mysterious smile that gave her a mystic aura as she sat cross-legged on the floor: ‘God has printed his face on the full moon as a sign,’ she said, ‘so that people will know he is the Chosen One.’
The more I looked into the moon, the better I could identify a shape. But it wasn’t the face of a man, and clearly not of a holy man. It was a rabbit, very much resembling Bugs Bunny. Madar believed I wasn’t prepared yet.
According to Twelver Shi’a Islam, the official religion of Iran, the Hidden Imam or Mahdi is the Twelfth Imam, an offspring of the Prophet Mohammad who went into ‘occultation’ in 874 AD when he was just five years old. He has been alive and in hiding since and will emerge at the end of time as the saviour who will bring peace and justice to the world and re-establish Islam as the only righteous path. However, I still couldn’t figure out why he needed a vicar. It wasn’t logical. If he was supposed to wait in hiding until the right time to save the world, why would he send someone to save the world earlier? And if it was already time to save the world, why wouldn’t he show up himself?
‘Don’t be silly,’ Madar said. ‘We are not supposed to question God’s plans.’
It wasn’t the first time I’d asked that question. Ever since I had heard Khomeini’s name whispered by my parents and their friends, among my classmates, who uttered his name with the utmost respect, and sometimes on the BBC Persian Service that my parents listened to secretly every night, I had been asking the same question, hoping to receive two answers that matched up. Madar’s answer was not the same as the one I’d had from Dad, who was always ready to educate me with sharp and precise answers.
‘He’s a cleric, son, a mullah. He was exiled from Iran 15 years ago because of his protests against the Shah’s tyranny. He has now become politically active again and has gained a huge following among the people.’
This long speech may seem a little sophisticated for an eight-year-old boy, but luckily this was the kind of language I was familiar with, though sadly I was not the genius my father assumed I was. I learned to read at four, could write by the time I was five–both in Persian and English–and read my first serious book at six, a 200-page novel about the life of Thomas Edison. Dad had given it to me hoping I would choose Edison as my role model in life. For a while, this was the case–until I discovered Peter Pan and Superman.
I was born on 17 February 1971 in Tehran, the same year that Apollo 14 landed on the moon, Pablo Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature and Nikita Khrushchev and Jim Morrison died. When I was one, we moved to England so my father could study for his PhD at the University of Birmingham, where I spent the next four years. My most prominent memory of those times, apart from the ordinary life of an ordinary child living in the UK with the friends, school days, games and the constant complaints about the weather, has been carved in my mind with the help of a photo: there is Dad in his gown and square academic cap in front of the main building of the university on his graduation day. He was 34 at the time and he holds his degree certificate in his hands, eyes shining with joy and hope, and a serious expression with which he is trying to hide a smile of infinite happiness.
Having known him for many years now, I can imagine what he is thinking about in that photo: about his imminent return to Iran, going back to teaching, executing his plans for reforming Iran’s higher education system and, being an authentic genius unlike me, starting his research in the field of material sciences in his home country.
Exactly 34 years later, in August 2009, when he and Mum had come to England to visit me after Neda’s death, we rented a car and went to the University of Birmingham again. I asked him to stand in front of the main building on the precise spot on which he had been photographed on his graduation day. But when I held the camera in front of my eyes to take the photo, I had to wait for a few seconds before pressing the button until the tears that blurred my vision had cleared. It had been a long journey since the last time he had stood there. Many things had turned upside-down: his hair had gone completely white and he lacked the vitality of a 34-year-old, but the main change was in his face. This time, contrary to his expression all those years ago, he was smiling, but the smile was trying, in vain, to conceal the deep sorrow that grew from the shattered hopes of a man still in love with a dream that no longer existed.