The revolution against the Shah of Iran was at its peak in the winter of 1979. For those of us living in Tehran, every day brought the news of a new development. I remember the day when my parents heard on the news that Eveen, the harshest, darkest, and largest prison in Iran was “freed” by the revolutionaries. The revolutionaries had announced on one of their recently conquered radio stations that the prison was open for public viewing so people could see “the dungeons and torture chambers of the Shah” It was announced that this was where the Shah’s secret police, Savak, kept the young intellectuals of our country and where they tortured political prisoners to get information out of them. The prison was near a villa that my parents owned in the northern part of Tehran. They decided to visit the prison on their way to check on their property.
I was 11 years old at that time, with short curly black hair, big brown eyes, and dark skin. I was so skinny that the children at school called me “the starving African.” Dad, Mohammad Sarkhosh, was 74 years old. Almost everyone meeting us for the first time thought he was my grandfather, a constant cause of embarrassment for me. However, I loved the way he looked. He stood tall in his lean body. His silvery hair covered most of his head. He always wore glasses and kept clean-shaved, not a common practice among the men I knew. I loved the way he dressed; on a casual day, he would wear khaki pants with either a buttoned-up shirt or a V-neck pullover. To work, he wore a suit and tie.
On the other hand, I was not proud of my mother’s appearance. As is the custom with all Iranian women, she kept her maiden name, Sarah Malek. She was twenty years younger than my father, but not nearly in the great shape he was. I never noticed Mom was overweight until one day at school when she came to pick me up and was waiting outside. A female classmate came up to me, and with sincere curiosity asked, “When is your Mom going to have her baby?”
I was dumbfounded and looked at her with wide eyes.
“What baby?” I protested.
“Isn’t your mom pregnant?” she asked.
I looked at my mother from a distance and she gave me one of those smiles that always made the world a better place. She was wearing a brown dress with random gold prints on it. My glance went to her stomach and for the first time I noticed her big belly. I felt the innocence of my view of her fading away. Wow, she is big! I thought in shock.
My despair was not over her being big, but what to tell my friend. Shyly, I replied, “She is not pregnant.”
I saw the surprise in her eyes and heard laughter from a boy standing nearby overhearing the conversation. I walked away, never seeing Mom with the same eyes again. She became another embarrassment I had to live with. She dressed down almost all the time and either covered her hair with a scarf or covered her whole body with a chador. Her religious cover was a frequent source of argument between my parents. I knew my German-educated father was also uncomfortable with Mom’s appearance.
The streets of Tehran were usually covered with snow in the winter. However, the day that Eveen prison became open to the public was sunny and pleasant. My parents and I got into Dad’s four-door beige Peikon and started driving to Tajrish. We all missed his red Volkswagen Bug, the car he drove for my entire childhood until he sold it and bought this car. We all loved the Bug, but it was getting too old and my parents were ready for a bigger and more comfortable car.
Mom was sitting in the front seat on the passenger side. I sat in the back and, as usual, poked my head right between them and chatted about whatever I saw on the streets. We didn’t wear seatbelts in those days, so I could scoot as close to them as I wanted to with one hand on Mom’s seat and the other on Dad’s.
Approximately twenty miles from our house, I saw a crowd of people running toward us, scattering and panicked. The crowd was mostly young men yelling anti-Shah slogans. Dad slowed the car and gradually came to a halt. He rolled down the window and asked a man who was running near our car, “What is going on here?”
The man said, “You have to stop here. It’s too dangerous. The Shahanshahi Guards are shooting at people and you’ve got to get out of here,” and immediately started running again. The Shahanshahi Guards were the National Guards of the Shah, and they were the most devoted to him. I had always heard stories of how they wouldn’t surrender, but would fight to their last drop of blood. As young as I was, I knew this was a serious situation.
We began hearing gunshots. They sounded like thunder breaking the sky. Dad pulled the car into a nearby parking lot that was full of garbage trucks. They were big trucks and there were at least ten of them in the parking lot. Dad parked the car behind them so the car wouldn’t be seen from the street. By now I could hear the sound of the gunshots getting louder and closer. Throughout the revolution I had heard gunshots many times from our house, but never this close. The sounds were so loud that I thought soldiers were standing a foot away from me. My heart began racing and the world around me seemed covered by a grey fog. We got out of the car and I stood next to Dad. He slammed the car door shut and grabbed my arm, pulling me down with him and hurriedly shoving me underneath the car. “Get down there!” he said. Mom came out from the other side of the car and got under another car next to ours.
I lay on my stomach and Dad lay on top of me. I let my face rest on the ground and felt the rough gravel of the parking lot on my cheeks. I quickly looked at Mom who was only a few feet away from me under the other car, lying on her stomach. I looked directly at her honey-colored eyes. She gave me a smile and I smiled back. That was our subtle way of communicating with each other. Her smile assured me that she was okay. I closed my eyes tightly. The warmth and the weight of my father on top of me felt like a strong shield and his arms around my head gave me a sense of greater protection.
The thought ran through my head, what if Baba gets shot? I was terrified for him. Somehow I thought that by protecting me, he was exposing himself to more danger. I could smell the sulfur of the gunpowder in the air; it appeared metallic and sharp to my senses. I heard the sound of bullets hitting the trucks, telling me how the soldiers were close to us. First, there was the sound of gunshots and then the sound of bullets hitting the trucks. I shook inside.
My mouth was getting drier with each passing second and my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth. My heart beat loudly and I was breathing heavily. Someone is getting hurt right now and maybe someone is dying right now, I thought. Somehow I believed that every shot was killing someone on the street or hitting a car or a truck. I worried about our car getting hit by a stray bullet, as if the car had a life of its own and would get hurt.
I think we were on the ground for about five minutes, but I won’t ever know. Time is irrelevant when you are facing death. Eventually it began to quiet down and there were no more gunshots. Dad paused a few seconds to make sure the gunshots weren’t starting up again. We heard people moving around on the street. Dad crawled out from under the car, then grabbed my arm and pulled me out. The air felt clearer, but I could still feel my heart pounding.
Mom had come out too. She was standing next to us and asked Dad, “What should we do?” They were looking around and each of them was holding one of my hands. We began walking toward the street, away from our car.
When we got to the curb of the sidewalk, Dad asked a man walking nearby, “Are the soldiers gone?”
The man answered, “They’ve backed away for now, but you should get your family out of here,” and continued to walk. Right then a Jeep Wrangler pulled up at our side. The color of the Jeep is vague in my memory. Behind the wheel was a young man with dark eyes, dark hair, and dark skin. He looked at us through the passenger window, leaning toward us as he asked, “Do you need a ride to get out of here?” Dad looked at Mom and she said, “Let’s go,” and as she nodded her head, she started walking toward the car, pushing me in front of her.
Dad turned around and looked at our car. The driver followed Dad’s glance and said, “All the roads are closed and it’s not safe to be on the main roads. I’m a kid from this neighborhood and I know all the back ways. I’ll take you back to where it’s safe and you can come back later and pick up your car. Where do you live?”
“Sayedkhandan,” Dad answered, looking at him to see if it was OK to drive that far.
The driver said, “No problem, I can take you to your neighborhood.”
Dad said, “Thank you. Let me lock the car then,” and walked back to our car.
Mom opened the back door and pushed me up and into the back seat, and she crawled up after me. The driver turned around and gave me a warm smile. I grinned back. Mom looked at him and said, “Elahi peer beshi.” (“May you grow old” — a Persian expression that older people tell younger ones when they want to show their gratitude.)
He said, “Oh please, it’s my duty. I couldn’t leave a family standing on the side of the road in a crazy situation like this.”
Dad, having locked up the car, came back and sat in the front passenger seat. As soon as he closed the door, the young man sped away down a side street.
He drove through the small and narrow streets of Tehran with what felt like the speed of light. The top of the car was closed, but all the windows were down. It was my first time in a Jeep, and I loved the wind in my face and bouncing up and down. The whole experience became like an adventure I had read about or seen on TV. I felt safe knowing that he knew where he was going, and his Jeep felt like a tank that nothing could stop.
I watched him from the back seat. Every time he changed gears with his right hand, I stole a glance at his arm. It looked strong, with dark skin and a bit of black hair covering it. He was wearing a clean, buttoned-up shirt and jeans. I was mesmerized by him. Wow, he is rescuing me and my family! I thought. I couldn’t see myself, but I knew I was smiling. Like a mantra in my head, I kept thinking, Gosh, he’s so handsome. I couldn’t believe he was real. I had completely forgotten the drama I had just gone through. I could hear Dad and him talking about the street fights and the revolution, but I couldn’t comprehend what they were saying. I knew I liked the strong tone of his voice. As far back as I can think, he was the first person of the opposite sex I had really “noticed,” and I felt something for him — something so foreign to me that I couldn’t label it, but I knew I wanted him to smile at me again.
I heard his voice saying to Dad, “I’m so sorry I can’t take you all the way to your house. am due at a meeting.” Before my parents had a chance to respond, he added, “You know, our revolution demands our time.”
Firmly, Dad said, “Stay safe, young man,” and got quiet. I could hear the same worry in his voice that I had heard so many times in the past few months when he talked to my seventeen-year-old brother, Nader, who was out there on the streets fighting in this civil war.
Eventually, I began to recognize the streets in our neighborhood and I could see that we were back on the main roads. Our young driver slowed down and parked the car on the side of the street. Both Dad and Mom said, “Thank you,” numerous times and Dad reached into his pocket saying, “Let me offer you some money.”
The driver held his hand up in protest, “You are like my own father and mother. Please put that away and don’t go back right away to get your car.” He added, “That’s a safe neighborhood and no one will break into your car. Just wait until the Shah’s Guards leave that area.”
Mom was standing outside of the car by now, waiting for me to get out. I wanted to absorb whatever I could of him, and he turned around and gave me a smile.
“Goodbye, little lady,” he said. Oh, did I wish I could melt into that car and never leave his side. He finally talked to me, I thought. I brightened up, giving him a big smile, said goodbye, and jumped out of the Jeep. He waved, then shifted back into gear and drove away.
I watched his Jeep as it got smaller and smaller as he drove away, but reality shifted me right back to the streets of our neighborhood. He had dropped us off about fifteen blocks from our home. It seemed that everyone — men, women, young, and old — was out on the streets. Every few steps, my parents would run into someone they knew, and they would tell the story of what we had just gone through and the heroic effort of the young man who rescued us from danger and returned us to the safe haven of our neighborhood. They repeated this story so often that by the time we got home, the story had changed to us seeing bullets hitting the ground in front of us; our car was perhaps covered with bullets; the young man put his own life in danger and rescued us from the jaws of death, speeding away with bullets flying behind us.
Dad also made up the story that while we were under the car, I told him, “Baba, I don’t care that all martyrs go to heaven, I don’t want to go to heaven.” The first time he told this lie was to another middle-aged couple we knew. I protested with a shy voice, “I never said that!” He patted my head with a sweet smile and looked at me with those loving eyes the way he always did — full of adoration for his little girl.
I was puzzled by his lie, but not surprised. My father dealt with everything with humor. This was his way of coping — making up stories, throwing in a joke here and there.
The couple laughed at my supposed statement and looked at me with sympathetic eyes. I didn’t protest again when he told the story, but I continued to feel embarrassed every time I heard it. Mom, on the other hand, never spoke a word about this incident and would just smile as Dad told his stories. Now I wonder what went through her mind as she lay underneath a car, alone, watching me from a distance.
I was so relieved when we finally got home. My cottonmouth was ready for some water. For the first time that day, Mom told me that she was also thirsty. She walked straight away to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. While she was getting the pitcher of water and some glasses, she said, “Fear gives people dry mouths.” We drank as much water as we could.
We never visited Eveen, even when it became a museum for a short time. Now it is a prison again, one where the authorities continue to keep the young intellectuals of our country next to the criminals.
And for years, whenever I saw a Jeep like the one we rode in that day, I would look at the driver expectantly, hoping I would see my fantasy hero again.
Why did he leave such an impression on me? Was it the comforting thought that he had taken us out of a dangerous situation? Had it been the hormones of a young body kicking in?
I always wondered if he made it through the revolution. Did the guards kill him? Did he get arrested and executed by the Islamic Republic, just like so many other young revolutionaries did? Did he get killed in the Iran/Iraq war?
I’ll never know. I do know, though, that for years I remembered him every time I saw a Jeep Wrangler.