In May 1979, excited by the news of the revolution, I skipped the graduation ceremony at the University of Iowa and fled to Iran. I wanted to be part of this massive uprising against the 2500 years of monarchy. I arrived a few months after the first revolutionary riots. The Shah had already fled the country and Iran had an interim government. The political atmosphere was extremely open and Iranians enjoyed immense freedom – something they had never experienced before.
But between 1979 and 1983, when the political power fell completely into the hands of the Islamic clergy and the last political party was shut down and its members imprisoned, the young revolution went through a massive transformation. This change buried the hopes of the nationalists, liberals and Marxists. The religious fundamentalists under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini created a blood bath, which resulted in the execution of thousands of Iranians who were labelled enemies of God.
According to the new imposed ideology, I was considered an enemy of God. I was a professor of playwriting and dramatic literature and a dramaturge for the Theatre Division of the Ministry of Culture and Art (soon to change its name to the Ministry of Islamic Guidance). I ran the literary pages of a progressive newspaper and participated in political and feminist activities. When the ‘turn to the right’ happened, the Islamic agents began to interrogate the secular intellectuals in all the organisations. A process of purge began.
I remember the day that I was teaching playwriting to a small group of women. An hour after class, armed guards broke through the classroom door and pointed their Kalashnikovs toward us. They ordered us to move back and face the wall. I was teaching the American playwright Arthur Miller. The guards collected the books and papers and told us these were ‘communist documents.’ Spontaneous executions happened every day and once I’d seen a crazy mullah machine-gunning prostitutes against a brick wall. Now standing next to my trembling students, I thought this was serious and these young boys would shoot us any second. But one of the students who always wore a large black scarf was allowed to talk. She told the boy-guards that her husband was one of the commanders of the Revolutionary Guards and if they killed us, he’d execute them with no mercy. With a phone call this was confirmed and we were saved.
A short while after this incident I was fired from my jobs. The newspaper for which I worked was closed as well. This was the winter of 1983, when my first full-length play was being rehearsed. The director was hoping to produce it for a major stage. But the guards locked and sealed the theatre and arrested him and the actors.
Now the clock ticked, as if in a count down. Each day more and more of us, ‘the others’ – those who didn’t want to join the Army of Allah – were arrested. The nightly TV shows of repentance began and the leaders of different political parties under severe psychological and physical torture broke down and appeared in fuzzy videos confessing to their sins (the sin of having different ideologies or religions).
Soon, the execution of the political prisoners began and escalated. A dark dictatorship, a religious fascism opened its black wings over my country. One of the ugly peculiarities of this theocracy was a deep-rooted animosity toward women. Some women at the time of their executions were denied the right to stand on their feet. They were executed in tightly tied burlap sacks. This image haunted me for years and appeared in recurring nightmares, until finally I portrayed it in a scene at the end of my first novel, At the Wall of the Almighty.
Many women left the country, those who couldn’t and remained, fought for their freedom. Some showed their anger and agony in self-destructive ways. I remember the physician who burned herself in a public plaza as protest against the humiliation of the mandatory veil.
After my close friends, colleagues, and relatives were arrested in the massive round-up of 1983 I went underground. Now I realised that it was necessary to leave the country. I had already lost my jobs and my name was black-listed. Soon the guards would invade my apartment and take me to Evin prison with my two-year old son. So in a dark night, holding my sedated baby on my back, I walked on minefields and followed the turbaned smugglers who led me out of my country.
At that time I was not aware that in future I will turn all these terrifying incidents into works of fiction. But seven years after exile, I wrote my first novel, At the Wall of the Almighty. I portrayed an imaginary prison that is mazelike and the only door to outside faces the wall of God, where prisoners are executed. Shortly after, I wrote, The Bathhouse, narrated by an innocent seventeen-year old girl who is arrested by mistake and taken to a facility by the name of the Bathhouse. After thirty days of torture she ends up at the wall of the execution. Most of the stories of my collection, The Crazy Dervish and the Pomegranate Tree are about the revolution or the consequences of it. In Against Gravity, my third novel, the female protagonist who has escaped the inferno of Iran finds herself entangled in a typical American scenario: she is stalked and shot at by an insane man who is obsessed with her.
But in The Drum Tower, recently published in the U.S. and U.K, simultaneously, I’ve travelled back to the early days of the revolution and dealt with the predicament of an emotionally disturbed girl who has to escape from the prison of her house and prison of her country.
Thirty-two years have passed since that gloomy night when I stepped out of my country and the bridges burned behind me. But the memories are alive and vivid – the eruption of a massive revolution, the death of my friends in the massacre of 1988, the suffering of my family and the families of thousands whose sons or daughters were executed. All these still urge me to write; there are many stories untold and voices unheard. My people are still hostages of a medieval regime. So I begin another project, because someone has to write what happened in Iran and what is still happening.
The Drum Tower is available to buy in the UK.