I’m Writing You from Tehran

A French-Iranian journalist writes a letter to her grandfather about the ten years she spent in Iran, trying to make sense of her identity and a country living very different public and private lives.

Delphine Minoui | I’m Writing You from Tehran | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | April 2019 | 32 minutes (6,421 words)

 

It all started with flowers. Flowers, everywhere flowers. And all those shouts of joy escaping from chadors. I remember that May 23, 1998, as if it were yesterday. The second of Khordad, according to the Iranian calendar. A year had gone by since Khatami was elected. The scent of spring permeated the Iranian capital. On Enghelab (Revolution) Street, Iranians were celebrating the first anniversary of his victory. I had landed in Tehran a few days earlier. I was staying with Grandmother, my last family connection to Iran since your passing. Despite her inordinate protectiveness, I had managed to extricate myself from her house. It was my first outing. To help pay for my journey, I had pitched a documentary project on Iranian youth to Radio France. In the West, Iran had become respectable again, and in Parisian newsrooms, questions were pouring in from all sides. Did Khatami’s victory signal the end of repressive theocracy? Was democracy compatible with Islam? What did “Generation K” — all those young people my age born under Khomeini; raised under his successor, Khamenei; and the main electors of the new president — dream of? The stipend for my freelancing only just about covered my plane ticket. But the idea of working for one of the biggest French media companies and being in the land of my ancestors was more than enough compensation for me.

Hijab plastered to my head, I looked all around me. Enghelab Street was black with people. There were thousands of them, girls and boys mixed together, silently marching on this long strip of pavement that crossed through the capital from east to west, where, twenty years earlier, their parents had overthrown the shah. I watched them timidly trample on the “Islamic Revolution” they had inherited. I was hungry to decode their tiniest gestures, their rediscovered zest for life. I scrutinized their faces, their way of brandishing red roses as though defying the past. Through them, I imagined the woman I could have been if I had been born in your country. With a slow and determined gait, they advanced toward that unprecedented something that seemed crystallized in Khatami’s person. Elected a year earlier with more than 70 percent of the vote, he embodied their hopes for change. On his posters, fluttering like totems above their heads, he had a mischievous laugh, a salt-and-pepper beard. Even his elegant Italian slippers contrasted with the austerity of his peers. In one of his photos, someone had written in English, “Iran Is in Love Again.”

Carried along by the crowd, I cleared a path for myself up to the main entrance of the campus. Approaching the platform, I recognized his black turban, usually worn by the descendants of the Prophet. The president had just arrived. Immediately, a thick murmur ran through the space. “Dadash Khatami, doostet darim!” “Brother Khatami, we love you!” In four words, the image of the father, so sacred in Iran, was shattered. The monarchs of Persia, then Imam Khomeini in his turn, had always happily abused that image to infantilize the people. Not even with the death of the Supreme Leader in 1989 did Ayatollah Khamenei break with tradition. In the pyramid of power, President Khatami exercised limited privileges. But he had refused to give in to the temptations of the throne. They said that during his campaign he traveled throughout the country on a modest bus.

‘Death is a thing of the past,’ he shouted, before adding, ‘It’s life we must look toward!’

Since his victory, he continued to shake hands, dared to mingle with the crowd. A new way of being, a style unto himself. “Iran for all Iranians,” ran one of his favorite slogans, which was repeated across college campuses. Once onstage, Khatami scanned the crowd before beginning his speech. At my side, a student gave me a summarized translation. It centered on questions of “civil society,” “human rights,” and “freedom of expression.” With the candor of a child, the student drank in Khatami’s words.

Young men suddenly took over a path bordered by trees. They were dressed in black, sporting badly trimmed beards. They were all cupping their hands to scream, “Death to America!” One of the raisons d’être of the Islamic Republic. A refrain that gave rhythm to the Friday prayer and decorated the walls of the former U.S. embassy, mobbed nineteen years earlier. That day, Khatami had purposely omitted it from his speech. A few weeks earlier, he had even granted an interview to CNN in which he expressed his regrets about the notorious hostage crisis of 1979, which resulted in the break in diplomatic relations between the two countries. An unprecedented boldness that the new intruders in black would not tolerate. The student at my side whispered to me that they were with the Basij, the regime’s voluntary militia, who pledged themselves to a radical form of Islam. Far from letting himself get flustered, the celebrity president let slip the hint of a smile: “Death is a thing of the past,” he shouted, before adding, “It’s life we must look toward!” Silence took hold of the crowd. My young neighbor was trembling. Life versus death. So that was Khatami’s credo, the secret to his success in the eyes of his supporters. His speech made me shiver. Within it, I heard a singular echo. Life versus death . . . My life versus your death. What message was I supposed to read between the lines?

“Death to America!” the militiamen roared. But this time their slogans were drowned out by applause for the Iranian president. Like taunting the darkness of the past.

It was at that instant, I think, that my gaze met that of a young girl. In her slender hand, she made a red rose dance in the azure sky as she let fly little cries of ecstasy. A maghnaeh, the hood worn by female students, framed her pale face. She was proud, it was clear. Proud to belong to an Iran that loved again. To a country that was turning its back on old demons. Tears of emotion escaped from her almond-shaped eyes and drew lines of mascara on her baby cheeks. I handed her a tissue.

“Thank you,” she said to me.

“Esmet chiye?” I asked her. What’s your name? I knew only a few words of Persian.        “Sepideh,” she replied.

“Why are you crying?”

“I’m feeling so much . . . You know, today, I feel like the doors of a great prison have been cracked open.”

“Really? It means that much to you?” I asked skeptically.

“You’re not from here?” she asked.

“No, well, not really.”

“Well then, you can’t understand.”

“You can’t understand.” I felt a pang at hearing those words. It’s true that I wasn’t really from her country. From your country. At first glance, we looked alike. We were both wearing Adidas sneakers, and blue jeans beneath mantos — our obligatory long coats. Maybe we had the same taste in music, the same passion for books and chocolate? And yet, she was right. I had grown up in the comfort of democracy; how could I understand the true extent of the dreams of change that made her tremble? How could I put myself in her place? I was there precisely in order to understand. At least, to try.

* * *

Sepideh met me a few days later, at Shouka, one of the new hip cafés in the capital that didn’t exist in your time. When I entered, I immediately recognized her round, porcelain doll face. She had swapped her usual black maghnaeh for a light blue shawl that made me, in my thick gray headscarf, look like a nun by comparison. On the glass door, a small sign accompanied by a drawing of a woman in a black veil reminded “Dear Sisters” to “Respect Islamic Traditions” — in other words, to favor an outfit like mine. Thinking I would save Sepideh some trouble, I couldn’t help but wink at her and point out the warning. She burst out laughing:

“You’ve got to get into Tehran’s fashion!”

Such self-confidence for a young woman who had never left Iran, who had spent the majority of her life under a heavy weight of restrictions! This was only the beginning of the surprises awaiting me. At the table next to ours, a young man with slicked-back hair was murmuring sweet nothings to his companion, a beauty who had tucked her fake Hermès scarf behind her ears to keep it from falling into her chocolate ice cream. Between spoonfuls, she played around, planting little kisses on her boyfriend’s neck. Only recently had unmarried couples started going out, discreetly, in public. They even held hands in the street. That was also part of the Khatami effect. But these young lovebirds were pushing it a bit far.

“Iran is a time bomb! More than 60 percent of the population is under 25 years old. Khatami made a breach in the wall that today’s youth dream of toppling!” Sepideh insisted.

Saying these words, she couldn’t help throwing a mischievous glance toward the counter, where a portrait of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, was featured prominently. He, “God’s representative on earth,” always had the last word in Iran. But for how much longer?

“For years, the conservatives wanted to control everything. They imposed archaic dictates on us: no hair outside your veil, no makeup, no tight jeans, no relationships between girls and boys before marriage . . . Today, the reformers understand our desire for change. They’re more in tune with our generation. They want to shake things up. It’ll take time, but our ideas will win out in the end.”

Sepideh paused. I used the time to switch on my recorder. I wanted to ask about her childhood memories. Her face tensed. Had I been too intrusive?

“You have no idea how lucky you are not to have been born here. My generation is a sacrificed generation!”

A sacrificed generation. I didn’t really know how to respond. Sepideh was a true “child of the revolution.” The eldest of three children in a middle-class family, she had the misfortune to be born in 1980, just after the fall of the shah and three months after the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War. While I, in my Parisian comfort, was writing you letters and playing hopscotch, she was living at the whim of power outages and food rationing. At night, she woke to the sound of sirens warning of imminent bombardments. Everything she told me that day was something from which you had spared me.

I had grown up in the comfort of democracy; how could I understand the true extent of the dreams of change that made her tremble?

“My childhood was steeped in mourning. When Saddam Hussein attacked Iran, not long after the revolution, my father was sent to the front. He was a commander in the air force, a post he had occupied under the shah and kept under Khomeini. So we followed him to Dezful, not far from the battlefield. One day, my best friend, Leyla, was cut up by shrapnel. What a shock! Staying there had become too dangerous. My mom and I went back to Tehran. Before saying goodbye to us, my father said to me, ‘Don’t worry, soon we will be back together again. Peace is around the corner.’”

But the war dragged on. Sepideh’s father’s furloughs were so infrequent that she had a hard time recognizing him on the rare occasions he managed to escape from the front.

“At home, I called my grandfather ‘Papa,’” she continued. Eight years went by. Eight long years during which her neighborhood kept filling with little hejlehs, funerary monuments strewn with mirrors and sequins, erected in honor of soldiers killed by enemy bullets.

“I remember faces in tears, neighbors in mourning who had to hide their sadness, because, officially, you had to be proud of having offered up a ‘martyr’ to the homeland. With the war, the Iranian religious leaders had found the perfect excuse to stifle the population beneath a patina of propaganda. At school, it felt like we were being brainwashed. Girls had to drape themselves in a black chador as a sign of mourning. Quran lessons were obligatory. Every day, the teacher would recount the ‘exploits’ of the young heroes, such as Hossein Fahmideh, a thirteen-year-old schoolboy who set off a grenade under an Iraqi tank . . . And Khomeini would repeatedly say to the Iranian people, ‘Make more children so they can go defend our country!’”

In 1988, a chorus of ululations invaded Sepideh’s street. Iran and Iraq had finally signed a cease-fire agreement. Her father had returned safe and sound! His military base had been attacked with chemical gas by Saddam Hussein’s army, but he had made it out unscathed. Or so it seemed.

“He was tired, but everything was fine. And then, after a few months, my father started to feel his arms stiffen. He started to visibly lose weight. As soon as he spoke a bit too much, his voice would get hoarse. We went from hospital to hospital trying to figure out the cause of these astonishing symptoms. After numerous exams, the doctors concluded that he had developed Parkinson’s disease because of the negative effects the gas can cause in the long term. Can you imagine, ten years later!”


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After all these hardships, Sepideh came out stronger and more determined. They had stolen her childhood; they would not steal her youth. She confided in me that between two preparatory courses for the university entrance exams, she would devour Persian translations of Jürgen Habermas and Hannah Arendt. After being banned for nearly twenty years, these works were finally available in the libraries again. At night, to escape from the wooden, official newspeak, she would listen to the Persian programs of the BBC on an AM radio and flip through foreign TV channels thanks to a mini satellite dish hidden on the roof of their building. News reports, wildlife documentaries, Western music videos — everything interested her, as long as it didn’t have anything to do with Islam. Her hunger for knowledge impressed me. When I complimented her English, she explained that she had learned it from American TV. Her mother dreamed that she would become an engineer, mohandes. In Iran, more than a sign of success, “engineer” is a title that sticks to your skin until the end of your days. But her true passion was politics — and journalism.

“You’ll see. One day, I’ll be a reporter, too,” she declared.

The more I listened, the more I was struck by the paradox of contemporary Iran: by encouraging a baby boom in the ’80s and advocating for free education, hadn’t Khomeini ended up digging the Islamic Republic’s grave? Because these same young people, who were nourished with propaganda from infancy, now filled the universities and dreamed of breaking free from the straitjacket of religion. In twenty years, the number of students had doubled. With more than two million enrolled in universities and a literacy rate of 80 percent, the new generation constituted the primary threat to a regime that had given rise to it.

Yola Monakhov/Getty Images

I had no trouble getting Sepideh to speak about Khatami.

She was a diehard fan.

“That man is the only hope for escaping the dead end that is the Islamic Republic!” she asserted.

When he came onto the scene in May 1997, she had just celebrated turning sixteen, the voting age. Before going to the ballot box, she had plunged right into the electoral campaign. Each day, she walked through the capital sticking posters of the smiling mullah on all the cars. Countless undecided parents, like her own, were influenced by their children and also voted for Khatami. With characteristic spontaneity, Sepideh had hurried to send a handwritten congratulatory letter to him as soon as she learned of his victory. “And he wrote back to me!” She laughed, recalling the anecdote. She always kept his letter on her desk, like a precious treasure, and hasn’t missed any of his speeches since. Listening to her so delicately articulate the name of this Iranian Gorbachev, I felt as though I were with a teenager in the throes of her first love. Furthermore, she told me that, to seduce girls, multiple boys had started wearing a firoozeh, a ring with a blue stone like the one adorning Khatami’s hand.

“Do you know what his nickname is?” she asked me. “No.”

“The Angel.”

The Angel. After the corrupt monarch and the cruel sorcerer, the Angel . . . Would he have the power to move mountains, to continue to enthrall his female admirers? Or was he merely a political mirage?

They had stolen her childhood; they would not steal her youth.

I glanced around. The café had emptied. The young couple had vanished. Other faces, even younger, had taken their place. Outside, the street lamps shone endlessly in that sprawling capital of more than twelve million inhabitants. Absorbed in Sepideh’s story, I hadn’t seen the moon enter through the window. But the hour had come, and her studies called. She quickly gathered up the pile of books from the table, downed her cooled coffee in one go, and stood up, readjusting her messy locks of hair beneath her headscarf. Before leaving, she pressed me against her chest, hugging me with that unfailing spontaneity. Then, in her little heels, she disappeared into the night.

* * *

A month later, another corner of your city’s veil would be lifted. This time, in the intimacy of a secret party.

When the door half-opened onto the apartment whose number was on the invitation, I immediately stopped short. Had I gone to the wrong floor? Or country? Niloufar, one of my new acquaintances, had invited me to her birthday party with the warmth that comes completely naturally to Iranian women. “A small convivial party among friends,” she had said on the telephone. I didn’t expect to find myself in a nightclub. As soon as I walked in, I felt the floor pulsing beneath my feet. A deafening sound system reverberated through the apartment. The walls were shaking. Corks were flying. Heels were clacking on the floor. All around I saw bloodshot retinas, cigarette butts trailing out into the stairwell. In the entryway, the floor was strewn with scarves. Abandoned by the beauties of the night, they lay like wreckage next to empty bottles of illicit alcohol. I had to elbow my way to the living room. In the hallway, a daisy chain of veiled women was lined up in front of the bathroom. They came out transformed, hair curled, wearing striped dresses and glittery false eyelashes. And I had hesitated to wear a low-cut top.

The living room was unrecognizable. The armchairs shoved against the walls, the rugs rolled up to the side. A bowl of pistachios forgotten on a coffee table vibrated to the techno beat.

In a flash, a laser beam pierced the cloud of cigarette smoke that enveloped the room. There emerged a chest, then an arm, then a Marlboro held between two manicured fingers. A ghostly vision in the blur of the Iranian night.

“How’s it going?”

It was Niloufar. She was wearing a miniskirt and holding a glass of arak. With her crimson lipstick, she tattooed her lips onto my left cheek.

“Happy birthday,” I said clumsily, handing her a garbage bag. She gave an amused, complicit smile. She could guess by the wrapping that it was a forbidden beverage. And she couldn’t wait to see if the little French girl had succeeded in finding Russian vodka or black-market gin.

“Champagne! What a find! But where did you unearth this?” she asked.

“A ‘suitor’ who works at the French embassy.”

“Bravo!” she conceded, as if I had just passed an initial hazing test with flying colors.

And she burst out laughing, revealing a dimple in her left cheek — her only wrinkle, she used to say. At forty years old, this unconventional, beautiful, shapely woman had lost none of her freshness. Perhaps thanks to her company. Nicknamed the “godmother” of the youth, she was always surrounded by an assemblage of young men and women. Day or night, they would knock on her door, eagerly seeking someone to whom they could confide their problems. Always available to help, she had a solution for everything: the high-end surgeon who restores the hymens of deflowered young women, the multi-visa consulate for express immigration, the feminist lawyer who separates couples as quickly as he marries them . . . Divorced herself, Niloufar lived alone. Ever since she discovered Spanish sperm banks on the Internet, she dreamed of having a baby on her own. Her neighbors were unquestionably offended by her lifestyle, but she didn’t care what other people said about her. For her, her lifestyle was a form of redemption. A former opponent of the shah, she bore the guilt of a backfired revolution. To compensate for the blunders of the Iranians of her generation, who had really believed in Khomeini, she had given herself over to the mission of helping young people. And sharing in their nocturnal escapes.

This prima donna night owl was an expert at zigzagging between the biroon and the andaroon, the ‘outside’ and the ‘inside.’

Magnum of champagne between her legs, Niloufar let out a piercing cry before popping the cork. Amused, I watched it land in the pile of scarves that had doubled in volume since I arrived. The glasses of champagne started to fizz.

“You know the famous Iranian joke? ‘Under the shah, we used to drink outside and pray inside. Today, in the Islamic Republic, we drink inside and pray outside!’ ” she exclaimed.

A crowd had formed around Niloufar. The magnum was a success. Above the fray, I recognized Leyla, a mutual friend. Late, as usual, she was stumbling around in stilettos. She must have gone to at least three parties before joining us.

“I have to tell you!” Leyla roared, leaning on my shoulder. “The other day, I was driving my car, with Siamak — you know, the guy who was hitting on me at the university? We were listening to a Madonna tape — I had just bought it on the black market. A few yards farther on, we found ourselves at a police roadblock. It was the morality police! You should have seen their faces. Madonna! They weren’t pleased at all. We tried everything to sweet-talk them; we ended up at the police station. Seventy lashes of the whip for him. And for me, you can’t even imagine, the ultimate humiliation: a virginity test. Lucky for me I’m a virgin! Otherwise, I would have found myself with a ring on my finger pronto!”

Listening to her made me shudder. Mischievous down to the bone, she always had incredible stories to share. This one was particularly traumatic. In her place, I would have shut myself up at home and drawn a clear line against going out. But no! It was incredible to see how nimbly she went from one misadventure to another, as though racking up trophies. The hesitant political overtures had only sharpened her sense of defiance and provocation. Each day, her scarves shrank more and more. Every weekend, her boozy parties ended when the sun rose. This prima donna night owl was an expert at zigzagging between the biroon and the andaroon, the “outside” and the “inside.” As if that back-and-forth between the hidden self and the public self had become her raison d’être.

Here, starting in kindergarten, you learn only one thing: to lie. That’s your key to survival.

“Welcome to the kingdom of schizophrenia!” she said, desperately trying to make me smile. “You know, this is how we grew up; it’s our way of life. Here, starting in kindergarten, you learn only one thing: to lie. That’s your key to survival. At school, when the teacher asked us questions, we would immediately reply, ‘Yes, my mother wears the chador! No, my father doesn’t play cards, and he hates wine!’ Sometimes I feel like a chameleon; I change skin depending on the circumstances. During the day, I put up with the veil. At night, I have a ball forgetting about it.”

“But . . . isn’t it risky?” I asked her, skeptical.

“Risky? Of course it’s risky. But what choice do we have?”

She emptied her glass of champagne in one go and rushed to the dance floor. The DJ had just put on her favorite song: “La Isla Bonita.” Hands stretched toward the disco ball hanging from the ceiling, Leyla’s body started to undulate—her stomach, her fingers, her eyelids, everything! She laughed with drunkenness and audacity. Her bursts of laughter drowned out by Madonna’s lyrics.

“You don’t want to dance?”

In the half-light, I didn’t immediately recognize Ardeshir, his thin face, his bowl cut. We had met the week before, at a rehearsal for The Blacks, by Jean Genet. It was in the basement of the City Theater of Tehran. A dark room with a few rugs on the floor and wooden bleachers. After being banned for twenty years, the play was about to be staged for the first time in the Islamic Republic, and he was the assistant director. “Ardeshir” was the name of a king from Ancient Persia. Ardeshir’s parents had deliberately chosen the name, as opposed to one of the Arab names the mullahs adored. Ardeshir was a fan of the absurd. His way of resisting. Between the lines.

“It’s like we’re in the middle of one of your plays!” I said to him, contemplating the carnival of guests.

“Well, yeah, our life is absurd!”

He stopped talking to grab a bowl of olives. Then, signaling for me to sit down, he continued:

“In the end, we’re all puppets who—”

He stopped short. The ringing of the intercom had stolen the end of his sentence. A sudden ring, unexpected, intrusive. It was after midnight. All the guests had already arrived. Niloufar wasn’t expecting anyone else. Unless . . . I saw her, armed with a candle, scurrying around and imploring the guests to be quiet. Her eyebrows formed two circumflex accents. Her face was ashen. A mask of panic. I had never seen her like that. “Shhhhh!” she begged again. Instinctively, the DJ straightened behind his sound system. With an expert hand, he unplugged the speakers. There were a few bursts of laughter, a murmur of indignation, then worried whispers. Niloufar was gripping the intercom handset, pale. Her body was frozen. She took a big breath and, in her sweetest voice, said in a perfectly collected Persian, “Hello! Who’s there?” A long silence confronted the question. A lifesaving long silence that invaded her living room.

“Phew! False alarm!” she said, hanging up the phone.

And the music started up again right away.

Ardeshir let out a sigh of relief. He swallowed, then turned toward me again, faking a smile.

“So, I was saying, in the end, we’re all dislocated puppets who flail around wildly—”

The officers of the “Committee,” the morality police, were at the door! In the living room, muddled words started to fly in every direction.

The bell rang again, with even greater intensity. And this time, continuously. A flash of panic went through the smoky living room. Instantly, the dancers froze in their high heels. Champagne glasses, placed hurriedly on the table, teetered. Then, silence again. I heard what sounded like the crackling of a walkie-talkie coming from the street. With a nervous gaze, Niloufar walked toward the window. With one finger, she discreetly pushed the curtain aside.

Komiteh! Komiteh!” she shouted at the top of her lungs.

The officers of the “Committee,” the morality police, were at the door! In the living room, muddled words started to fly in every direction. I was nailed to my chair. I understood one word out of every hundred. I had no idea what might happen to me. To us. Sweating, Leyla grabbed me by the sleeve.

“Don’t just stand there!”

What came next was like a hastily edited film. With one firm hand, Leyla gave me a makeup-removing wipe. With the other, she rapidly pulled on her “emergency outfit,” buried at the bottom of a backpack: blue jeans and a shawl to hide her hair. On the run, the guests were shuttling back and forth between the living room and the bathrooms to empty all the bottles. Mint chewing gum was passed from hand to hand. Niloufar had also transformed in a flash; she was unrecognizable. She looked like a black bat hidden in her thick chador, not even an eye visible! Index finger over her mouth, she signaled to the guests a hidden door in the kitchen before rushing into the main elevator. I caught hold of her arm, anxious.

“Don’t worry! I’m going down to negotiate with the cops,” she said while pushing me toward the others.

I followed the crowd.

The back stairs were dark. In single file, we hurtled down the five floors and ended up in an underground parking lot. A putrid odor inundated the space. In the darkness, a hand grabbed onto me and forced me to crawl under a car, the only hiding place left. I was shaking. I could barely breathe. Head flattened to the ground, I tried to get a grip on myself. What was going to happen to Niloufar? Where had Leyla and Ardeshir gone? And what might happen to me? In Iran, nationality is passed down through the father. In the eyes of the authorities, I was therefore Iranian, and a “criminal” like the others. Guilty of wanting to have fun. But I didn’t have their courage. Would I have the strength to endure the lashes of the whip? Carried away by the naïve curiosity that had spurred me on since my arrival in Tehran, I had neglected to imagine the possibility of an arrest. A minute passed, two minutes, three minutes. Time seemed to stretch on for eternity. Sometimes a sob broke out. And then silence again. We were condemned to wait.

An hour later, perhaps more, the creaking of a door woke us from our semi-coma. Had our hiding place been found? Clicks of heels resounded on the parking lot pavement. I pricked up my ears. They were a woman’s heels. Was that a female cop? The clicks, more and more pronounced, drew closer to the cars. In the shadow, I could make out a pair of dainty black leather slippers. Niloufar’s slippers! I lifted my head out from under the Renault 5 that had served as my shelter. Our hostess was safe and sound.

“That was a close call,” she said in perfect French.

Dozens of other heads emerged. Blackened with grease but reassured! Niloufar caught her breath, leaned against one of the cars, and proudly addressed the assembly:

“There were three of them. Three young cops. They said that the neighbors had heard music, that they suspected an ‘indecent’ gathering, and that they had authorization to enter the apartment. I grimaced, acted utterly outraged. I told them that it was a women’s gathering, that it wouldn’t be ‘moral’ to let them enter my home. One of them snickered; he didn’t believe a word I was saying. So I risked it all. I slipped some money out from under my chador and handed it to one of the cops. At first he hesitated. Then, encouraged by the elbow of one of his sidekicks, he took the bills, slipped them into his pocket, and said to me, ‘You’re lucky. The next time, it’s prison, guaranteed!’ I didn’t say anything. I quickly closed the door behind me. When I heard their car engine, I exhaled and told myself, ‘I did it!’ ”

Carried away by the naïve curiosity that had spurred me on since my arrival in Tehran, I had neglected to imagine the possibility of an arrest.

What courage! And what nerve. Playing the part of a good “godmother,” Niloufar invited us to stay the night at her place. She said that she had enough mattresses to put on the floor of the living room. She was worried that the drunkest among us would be stopped at a checkpoint on the way home. Still in shock from the incident, I wanted to take off as soon as possible. A friend who lived not far from there invited me to spend the night with her. The next morning, I woke with a start: What about Ardeshir? I hadn’t seen him in the parking lot when Niloufar came to get us. Worried, I dialed his number right away. After a few rings, he picked up.

“You’ll never guess what happened to me!” he said on the phone.

He told me that, afraid of getting caught, he had hidden in the building’s backyard. An acrobat in his spare time, he had scaled the outer wall. A good ten feet of gray cement. On the other side, the street was dark and deserted. A tunnel. When the first shared taxi passed, one of those old orange Paykans that you can’t find in Iran anymore, he waved down the driver and shoved himself into the car.

“It turns out I wasn’t the only passenger. The backseat was already filled with a few women! They smelled of alcohol. In fact, I quickly understood that we were all in the same boat: survivors of police raids from two different parties!” He chuckled. I let out a hollow laugh. I had come out of my first Iranian party petrified. In the days that followed, I declined invitations, saying I had hurt my back or had temporary fatigue. When the sun went down, I prudently stayed at home, impatiently awaiting the next day. My friends didn’t understand. They thought I was too serious. They laughed to see me so careful. I didn’t share their boldness. I secretly envied them. And then, one night, I ended up giving in. Reluctantly, I accepted an invitation to a secret alt-rock concert. It was in a Russian Orthodox church, not far from the former U.S. embassy. A redbrick building empty of any occupants since the hostage crisis. To foil the police patrols, I got out of the taxi on an adjacent avenue and tiptoed to my destination. I had learned my lesson.

The streets were deserted. Tehran was sleeping, and I felt like a tightrope walker. In front of the door, I murmured the name of the group, O-Hum, like a password. In Persian, O-Hum means “Illusion.” When I entered, I was immediately seized by the unusual spectacle unfolding before my eyes. The church was jam-packed with young people, crosses around their necks, candles in their hands. The nave smelled like altar candles and vodka. The girls were wearing low-cut tops and the boys black T-shirts. It was really something to see how they danced with such ease, no holding back, in the forbidden space. In the middle of the improvised stage, four musicians in blue jeans strummed their electric guitars and recited poems. The meaning of the verses eluded me. But the tempo seemed familiar. In the shadows, someone said to me that it was Hafez. Hafez! I shuddered. It sent me back immediately to the “wave.” To my first Persian lesson. To you, Babai, my grandfather departed too soon.

It was at that moment, I believe, that my fear fell away. In that sacred building transformed into a musical forum, I began to feel as if I were on familiar ground. Your Iran was changing behind closed doors, and I was changing along with it. I wanted to seize the tiniest nuances, let myself be guided by the unexpected. After a few other similar parties, I had to face facts: flirting with risk was a little intoxicating, and I was beginning to like it. I attended underground screenings of banned and pirated films. I memorized the addresses of the best private art galleries that were sprouting up like mushrooms. Between filing two reports, I even posed in a blue dress with my hair down for Khosrow Hassanzadeh, one of the first local artists to dare to paint women without headscarves.

In June 1998, once my reporting on Tehran youth was finished and I’d returned to Paris, all I wanted to do was talk about Iran. A headline on Iran in any paper was enough to make me buy everything in sight at a newspaper kiosk. Listening to the CDs of Googoosh, the former diva of Iranian pop, gave me goose bumps. On weekends, I devoured the works of Henry Corbin, Dariush Shayegan, Sadegh Hedayat . . . I was enraged not to be able to read The Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings, by Ferdowsi, in the original edition. I binge-watched films by Abbas Kiarostami, incapable of getting up from my chair. I even stopped drinking coffee; I preferred Iranian-style tea. Addicted to the unexpected, I grew bored of Parisian parties. My city suddenly seemed so calm and bland. I no longer understood my friends, their orderly lives, their daily routines, their planned vacations, their outings to restaurants, and their dinners scheduled months in advance. The concept of seating arrangements, of the perfectly calculated number of guests, was unbearable. And not a mouthful left for the latecomers. In Tehran, there was always an extra setting at the table. A smile to offer to the new arrival. A song improvised at the end of the meal. A few guests who began dancing.

Our freedom was not a struggle; it was a way of life. It was the opposite for young Iranians.

My French half started to agitate me. I understood that my generation in France had nothing more to prove. At the same age, our mothers had fought for the legalization of the Pill, for abortion, for more socioeconomic rights, for better professional opportunities. And we rested comfortably on these laurels. Did we even know how to appreciate them? Our freedom was not a struggle; it was a way of life. It was the opposite for young Iranians. Like athletes, they slalomed daily between obstacles that cropped up in their way, despite the reforms. From morning to night, their lives were a skillful arbitration between the licit and the illicit. In their twenties, they braved the forbidden as one braves the waves. With panache.

On June 21, 1998, the French city of Lyon hosted an event that was unprecedented for Iran: a soccer match between the Iranian national team and that of the United States. A historic encounter. The two countries had not communicated in nearly twenty years. I wasn’t a sports fan, especially not of soccer. But this time, the occasion was too good to pass up. Without a second thought, I bought a train ticket to go support the Iranian team from the bleachers of the Lyon stadium. I had never been to a soccer match in my life.

When Iran won 2–1, I jumped for joy. I dialed Leyla’s number in Tehran on my cell phone as quickly as I could. “We won!” she raved at the other end of the line. Behind her, I could hear ululations, cries of ecstasy, car horns . . . “Iran! Iran!” the fans were yelling. I had tears in my eyes. I was enraged not to be over there, with them, to share in this moment of euphoria. On the phone, Leyla described the emotional crowd for me, crammed in the streets: men in pajamas, babies on their shoulders, teenagers with their faces painted in red, green, and white, the colors of the Iranian flag. “There are even Iranians dancing with the police. Now, that’s a first!” she said. And I, too, started to scream at the top of my lungs, “Iran! Iran!” I couldn’t help myself.

***

Delphine Minoui, a recipient of the Albert Londres Prize for her reporting on Iraq and Iran, is a Middle East correspondent for Le Figaro. Born in Paris in 1974 to a French mother and an Iranian father, she now lives in Istanbul.

Excerpted from I’m Writing You from Tehran:  A Granddaughter’s Search for Her Family’s Past and Their Country’s Future, by Delphine Minoui. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, April 2nd 2019, Copyright © 2015 by Éditions du Seuil. Translation copyright © 2019 by Emma Ramadan. All rights reserved.

Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath