June of that year was a month of martyrs and bloody days. In answer to the cries of “Down with the shah!” and “Down with imperialism!” the holy city of Qom had been set ablaze. Seminary students were shot dead in the streets; clerical robes and religious texts were heaped onto bonfires; minarets and golden domes were turned to ash. In Tehran, pictures of a cleric named Khomeini were papered in every corner of the central bazaar. That was the first time most Iranians had heard of him, but in sixteen years he would lead the country into revolution and Iran would become an Islamic republic. A year after that, the shah would be dead.
It seemed impossible, back then, to trace the machinations of kings, presidents, and politicians to an obscure cleric, but those three days of bloody riots presaged all that would come. “I can summon a million martyrs,” Khomeini said, and the first several thousand came forth now. It was Ashura, the annual day of mourning for the beloved Imam Hossein. Incensed by the regime’s assaults on Qom and emboldened by memories of Imam Hossein’s martyrdom, men flooded the streets, slashing chains against their bare chests. In the city, I heard them. They marched until their bodies were ripe with gashes and the streets were stained with their blood.
The fires, the murders, the riots, the marches — all seemed part of some progression. Every death was telling some part of our story, which was Iran’s story, but no one could tell how the story would end. We were driven by forces we didn’t understand, moving toward a destination we couldn’t see. Those were bitter and black days, full of prophecy and dread, and every face seemed disfigured by grief, confusion, and rage.
I remember those days, and the months that followed. The secret police and government informers were everywhere, their numbers ever increasing. When you heard they were eight thousand strong — twenty thousand, sixty thousand — you thought, impossible. How could the estimates vary so wildly? But that was the point. Not knowing how many there were, we imagined them everywhere. They might be anyone, everyone.
Mullahs were rounded up, imprisoned or exiled. Leftists, with whom the religious right shared little apart from their hatred of the monarchy, met the same fate. A playwright I knew disappeared and was found dead weeks later at the edge of the Salt Desert. Books were censored, and newspaper after newspaper shut down. Any mention of democracy or social justice was deemed subversive. Treasonous. People scattered into the countryside or left the country altogether. In prison cells and dark basements, in warehouses and along stretches of barren roads, there were bodies that would never be claimed or tended or buried. We would never witness those tortures and deaths, nor read or hear of them, but they were there, in our silence and our fear.
One afternoon, as I was making my way back to my car from a bookstore near Tehran University, where I’d spent most of the morning, I noticed that a large number of students had gathered near the university gates. Between the protesters and the onlookers I guessed there were about three hundred people in the crowd. There were still scattered protests about town, watched over by phalanxes of heavily armed security forces, but a gathering this large was unusual enough to make me stop and stare.
“Our oil is ours!” the students chanted. “Death to the dictator!” and “Democracy for Iran!” I pushed past the onlookers and managed to read the demands inscribed on their posters: political reform, greater civil rights, freedom of expression.