It was late March 1977 when I arrived in Washington after 2 weeks living with my brother’s family in Philadelphia following arrival from Tehran. I had just left Iran after a very memorable high school experience and was now a fish out of water. I might as well have been sent to Mars…without life support! I had left a gang of buddies with whom I had been inseparable only a few months before. I was alone, somewhat homesick and did not appreciate being away from all the things that had been a part of my being for 18 years. Where were those familiar streets, my close friends with whom I shared many hours of laughter and friendship? Where was that orange colored “Paykaan Javavan” that I had convinced my mom to trade her Fiat with only so I could cruise the streets of Tehran? No, we were not rich nor did we belong to the high society class. We were just average middle class Iranians; the layer of society that was beginning to take root and shape in Iran; the layer that is the back bone of every viable and stable society. The layer that would be decimated later on. Anyway, I was away from my elements, away from all the buzz, from my city Tehran. I had an acceptance letter from University of Oklahoma, but I had no intention of going to Oklahoma. Where was I going if not OK? I didn’t know at the time, nor did I spend a lot of time worrying about it. For now, I had about 5 months and I was supposed to spend it taking English classes to strengthen my Zaban…..English. I did go to a decent high school in Iran, so my English wasn’t half bad, but I needed to work on my conversation skills.
I registered to take classes at ELS (I think it stood for English Learning Services or something like that). It was on ‘S’ Street just off of Connecticut Ave. in an old 3 story house that had been converted into a school. There were 3-4 rooms (classrooms) on each floor and the top floor was the learning lab with audio stations, microphones and tape recorders. At the time, about 60-70% of the students attending ELS were Persian. Funny thing, the woman who would later become my wife had also attended ELS, but a few months after I had left. I had already arranged to rent an apartment on 17th street, a short walk from school, in a mid-rise building. I had two other roommates which surprisingly were attending the same school, and wouldn’t you know it, were also Persians! I can’t remember their names but recall that one was a few years older than I was and from Tehran (let’s call him Ali), the other was about my age, but from another city (I can’t remember where) and I could tell right off that he was very religious (let’s call him Reza). Ali was more of a down to earth kind of guy and seemed to have been around the block a few times although he could not have been older than 20 or 21. Reza was a bit too stiff and was way too serious for my taste. Once he got mad at me for inviting them to have a beer after class. Silly me, the gharbzadeh, the kaafar…
Needless to say I was not happy and cursed my luck for having to room with these guys. Why me? “Kooft be in shaans..…” I would frequently mumble to myself. Ali was more flexible and if I had the patience, he might have made a decent friend. But I was not in the mood, however, I realized that it was only for a few months and I wasn’t gonna get rid of these guys and it would be me who’d have to clear out.
Things back in Iran at this time were quite, or so it seemed. As a kid barely out of high school, the last thing on my mind was politics. I had been kept busy with other things in my life throughout high school and this was no time to change course. Little did I know that the course of my life had been changed forever the minute that airplane took off from Mehrabaad Airport that early March in 1977.
It was around mid June when one day Reza came home and asked if we wanted to go to a gathering of a few Iranians; a “gathering?” Knowing Reza and the fact that he was not the type to party, I asked “what kind of gathering?”
“A few of our hamvatans are gathering discussing the topics of the day….” he answered.
I think it was a Friday night and I did not have anything better to do, so I agreed. Besides, I was dying to know the kind of places where this guy would consider worthy of his divine presence……and boy was I in for a surprise?
Ali, Reza and I set out that evening to go to this “gathering”. The place I remember vividly was on 16th Street about half way to Maryland State Line so it was about 15 or so blocks north of our apartment. We walked as the evening was nice and cool without the usual humidity in the air that this area is famous for. Back then DC was not as congested as it is today (although it was congested enough).
It was a nice old house that you see all along 16th street. It had a big wide front porch that stretched the entire width of the house with masonry and white plaster pickets and railing and flagstone floor. The house was large. We entered though the front door as it was open and immediately were greeted by a million pairs of shoes staring at us in the hallway. At the same time, our sense of smell was assaulted by the stench of foot odor…yuk…I actually like not wearing shoes in the house because I think it is more sanitary that way, but hey when you get 40-50 people together and it is unknown when they may have allowed soap and water to caress their bodies, you get a nauseating sense of “I gotta throw up right now…” – Thankfully, I was able to hold on to my dinner. I believe I had spaghetti that night and it would have been colorful to say the least, to release it on the beautiful collection of shoes in the hallway. But now, I wish that I had.
We entered through the open doorway to the left where I counted about 25 guys, most with unshaven faces, sitting on the floor shoulder to shoulder – my source of aromatic nightmare. There was another guy in the relatively empty side of the room in front of the fireplace with a small book holder in front of him. The time was around 8 PM and being a young and inexperienced person in these matters, I was still oblivious as to what was happening and what this gathering was all about. That only lasted a few more minutes and only after a gentleman in a dark suit with open collar white shirt served us tea.
“Bismillaha Rahman-e Rahim….….” the guy in front of the fireplace screamed as he brought the session to order. Huh? This is a Quran reading session? This is the gathering that you wanted us to attend Reza? I walked 15 blocks to smell feet and listen to a language I do not understand? I looked at him in a way that said “you rat”, but he gave me a big wide grin and looked away. OK, now what? I just couldn’t get up and leave in the middle of the session, could I? Would they sentence me to eternal damnation for doing that? Would they gang up on me and curse me to burn in the fires of hell? Ali did not seem phased and was actually sitting next to Reza with his head down….in a trance? Nah….he was not the type; at least I didn’t think so.
I stayed through what seemed to last hours, but was about 30 minutes long. Afterward more tea was served and the guy next to fireplace started talking. To be perfectly honest I do not remember the contents of his speech, but do remember that it was highly politically charged about Iran. He was not happy with the status quo and let everyone know that he wasn’t. To this day, I do not know who he was. Perhaps he is now a big shot in the current regime. Perhaps he is a blogger, or even a member of the staff in the Iranian Interest Section of the Embassy of Pakistan in DC (Iran’s pseudo embassy in the US). He kept talking and at times would raise his voice to make point. It did not seem that he was going to stop soon, but I had had it. I was not political nor did I care about these people’s gripes or their politics.
I got up and headed for the open doorway without consulting with my roommates. I put on my shoes and on the way out caught a glimpse through the cracked-open door of the adjacent room and saw the female contingency of this “gathering” where they were busy with their own session.
I left the house and started walking toward the apartment oblivious to what I had just been a part of. Later, after the revolution, I thought about all that had happened in a span of few years outside Iran (not to mention inside Iran). The carefully orchestrated streets demonstrations both in US and Europe, the “Gatherings” one of which I had attended, etc., etc. How many more of this type of gatherings had taken place to prepare for the Islamic Revolution? How much of this was the will of people versus a carefully organized plot to change a system and a government that had grown too bold, too independent for world powers to deal with? If those who serve you deny you respect and obedience, what would you do to them? You replace them, of course. I know, it’s not that simple, but may be it is.
I stayed in that apartment for another few weeks and then left to live elsewhere closer to the college in Maryland I had registered to attend in Fall. I never saw Reza and Ali again. My guess is that they both went back to Iran after the revolution. A lot of folks did. Some came back after a while after they discovered the lies that had been told; some were executed for their beliefs and association. I don’t know what happened to my old roommates. Hey, they maybe one of the regime’s officials now.
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