Life in Iran, for better, worse

One night he came home covered with blood.

"What happened?" she asked, looking up from her textbook, aghast at the red splashes on his hands, shirt and face.

"Nothing," he said, before ducking into the bathroom. "I was helping some of the wounded."

She believed him. She had to. He was her husband, the man she loved.

Besides, she knew the rules of the Basiji, the hard-line Iranian militia he belonged to: An order was an order, and if that meant cracking the heads of some demonstrators during the unrest this summer, so be it.

She knew, because she belonged to the Basiji elite herself. Not only was her husband a member of the volunteer militia, her father was a commander. And, once, she had been a true believer too.

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Landlocked Tehran lacks a coast or even a riverbank. For escape, there are the mountains.

"I'm a spiritual person," the young man said once on a hike along the trail past the cafes and terraced gardens in Darrakeh, the mountainside Tehran neighborhood where he grew up. "I worship these mountains, this life up here above the city. Even the mosque I go to is here."

For the scruffy, working-class guy with days-old stubble and a slight gut, getting larger as the years went by, the mountains were of a piece with the rest of his life. His neighborhood, his friends and cousins at the mosque, his commitment to the Basiji -- they belonged to the same continuum.

The Basiji was a citizen militia formed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at the start of the Islamic Revolution, literally a "mobilization." Later, during the 1980s war with Iraq, its members became legends, fighting heroically against an invading army.

The man was born in 1975, too young to take part in the war. But as a child he became obsessed with the conflict, collecting memorabilia and war artifacts and taking annual trips to the battleground to honor those who had died.

Even if there were no armed invaders when he was old enough to be a defender, he could at least fend off the creeping cultural influence of the West. A bearded young man with intense eyes and an olive green military jacket, he roamed Darrakeh with a walkie-talkie, on the prowl for signs of Western decadence: a young woman whose Capri pants showed too much skin, a young man whose hair was too long, an unwed couple holding hands.

But when he was 27, something happened to mellow him. He married a distant cousin who was six years younger, a moon-faced beauty with almond-brown eyes and carefully groomed eyebrows.

Their 2002 wedding was a modest affair. The men and women gathered in separate halls during the reception, in keeping with Iran's traditional mores. They moved into a small house in Darrakeh. He got a job making window frames, and a motorcycle to get around town.

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When my wife, Delphine, and I first met the Basiji couple while reporting in Iran seven years ago, she was the hard-liner, rigid in her views, dressed conservatively in an all-covering black chador. He was the lapsed conservative, his enthusiasm for the system worn down by long days of work for little pay, his cultural references expanding from officially sanctioned pop songs lamenting the martyrdom of the Imam Hussein to the Spice Girls.

"Some poor guy is going through all sorts of troubles and hardship," he said in 2003. "He's got one day off to enjoy himself. I'm going to make trouble for him?"

At first, we were fascinated by each other. It seemed we came from alien worlds. But as the years went by, we became good friends. They agreed to allow us to write about their lives if we didn't reveal their names.

In 2004, the four of us agreed to go to the annual parade in Tehran marking the anniversary of the founding of the Islamic Republic, where thousands of government supporters chant "Death to America!" At the last minute, he canceled.

His wife was embarrassed, apologizing for him. "He's not feeling well," she said, unconvincingly, as we headed to Azadi, or Freedom, Square.

"I just can't do it anymore," he confided later, as he lashed out against official corruption.

"No," she interrupted, shooting him a quick glance. "He supports the government just as much as I do. He's just joking."

But she was about to change. She had started wearing lipstick and blush. Intrigued by the world of journalism, she signed up for classes at a Tehran college.

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"Don't show the guys," she giggled as she showed Delphine cellphone pictures of herself in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, a carefree Persian Gulf city-state that, along with Turkey, has become a gateway to the outside world for many Iranians.

I managed to get a glimpse of one anyway. She was sitting on a beach, her long reddish-brown hair flowing in the wind without a head scarf -- the first time in her life she had not worn her hijab in public.

The personal freedom and global outlook of contemporary times were catching up with the Basiji couple. Once, while we were at their house for dinner, she boasted that she was making "Western" food -- roasted chicken with steamed vegetables. She had picked up the recipe from a European cooking show she watched on satellite television.

The doorbell rang. It was one of her new friends from school. The modish young lady entered the flat and threw off her hijab. The young woman's boyfriend arrived a few minutes later, looking hip in a leather jacket.

Once during a law class she took to help with her part-time job at a law office, the subject was women's rights. Under Iranian law, the professor said, a woman was worth half a man when it came to court testimony or inheritance.

"That's not fair," she burst out, reminded of the bitter child-custody battle that her sister had endured, and lost, against an abusive husband.

"You're a feminist," the professor accused her.

That night, she pulled out a dictionary and looked up "feminist."

She read the definition, and decided that she was.

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Under the reform era of President Mohammad Khatami, which ended in 2005, the Basiji was encouraged to engage in charitable works and become more of a social group than a political or paramilitary organization.

But President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies reversed that course. Under Ahmadinejad, the Basiji's budget was increased and it was brought tightly under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran's elite military wing. What's more, its ties to the mosques were strengthened, each house of worship becoming an informal hangout for the Basiji.

After drifting away for years, the young Basiji member found himself pulled back into the organization's fold, drawn by pressure from his friends and family, sentimental attachment to his faith, as well as a commitment he made years ago to the Basiji.

There was a practical concern as well. The Basiji maintains a presence in factories and ministries, where it demands that bosses allocate resources for pro-government parades or religious ceremonies and keep an eye on employees' morals.

A clean break by an insider, especially one married to another Basiji, is difficult. There are few places in Iran to hide from the militia's prying eyes.

"Basiji means helping people," he said. "Basiji to me is about standing up and doing the right thing."

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Even by the time of the 2005 presidential election, the couple's political views had diverged. He voted for Ahmadinejad. She abstained from voting in the first round, but cast a ballot for the moderate cleric Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in the decisive second round.

By this June's presidential election, they had drifted even further apart.

"I don't even accept the Islamic Republic anymore," she said at a rally in support of opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. "This time, I won't even vote."

How about your husband?

"Well, he supports Ahmadinejad," she said. "But we don't talk about politics anymore."

It was the chaotic days before the election, when much of the country was engaged in raucous street campaigning. We met him that night, after the rally. He said he had been patrolling the streets, on the lookout for troublemakers.

"Did anyone give you any trouble?" he asked me, referring to the Basiji who were regularly stopping journalists and asking them for identification cards. "If they do, call me, and I'll get you out of it."

In the explosion of unrest that followed the disputed election, the Basiji were mobilized to crack down on protesters. They were the shock troops, armed with batons and riot shields and riding motorcycles, dispatched onto streets boiling with anger over the vote.

During the protests, his wife called to check in, to make sure we were OK.

"I am scared," she said. "But I am fine."

Her voice was stilted. She was at her dad's house outside Tehran for a few days, unable to speak freely.

And your husband?

"He's out there," she said. "On the streets."

The last time I spoke to him, he sounded awful, like he hadn't slept in days. His wife had just told us about the time he'd come home covered with blood.

"You don't hit people," I told him. "That's not you."

He was silent for a while.

"When this is all over, let's go up the mountain," he said, his voice faint. "This time let's go way up, high above everything, where the air is clean, far from the city."

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daragahi@latimes.com

Daragahi has reported extensively from Iran over the last eight years.

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