Dear Child and Youth Care Net friends,
I’ve been kind of busy this month and therefore I wasn’t able to write a new piece for my column. Rather than being absent, I thought you might enjoy the story below, which I wrote about 18 months ago as a submission in the Creative Non Fiction category of the CBC’s (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Literary Awards contest. My story was shortlisted but did not win. It is a story about the many ways of experiencing childhood. I hope you like it.
I grew up in a haze of blue smoke. My parents lit up everywhere; in the house, in the car, at gas stations, even in hospitals. My mother claimed not to have smoked during her five pregnancies, although it is difficult to determine just why she would have stopped. In the 1960s in Germany the anti-smoking lobbyists were themselves barely out of infancy, and most were smokers. At any rate, if she had any sense of protecting her children, that sense did not extend beyond the moment of birth, as there is no doubt that both my parents were smoking in the car on the way home from the hospital.
My father was the real smoker between the two. He lit his cigarettes always on the first try, wind and rain notwithstanding. He inhaled with strong heaves of the chest, swallowing the smoke, giving it the luxury tour of his entire body. My mother, in contrast, excelled at the consumption of red wine; cigarettes merely complemented the drinking of wine. My father still smokes today notwithstanding two heart attacks and a sluggish physical demeanour, whereas my mother quit long ago and has since perfected the art of wine consumption at an ever-faster pace and with increasing commitment.
My parents were good parents for the most part, sufficiently inattentive to allow for many misdeeds. Their approach to supervision resulted in near-death experiences that I could count on all three hands of a fourteen-fingered freak. Their commitment to all five of us was based on a solid foundation of values and knowledge about child development issues. Not surprisingly, therefore, they only approved our consumption of alcohol and cigarettes after we had abandoned the use of diapers. I distinctly remember loving family nights with my parents and all my siblings where we would take turns taking drags of my father’s cigarette and sips from my mother’s glass of wine. Where other families were enthralled in the brutality of capitalism while jointly participating in the ritual of Monopoly, we were merrily smoking and getting drunk together as an all-round German-Iranian family with conflict-ridden views on the schism underlying Christian and Islamic civilizations.
- 2 -
I have very fond memories of my preadolescence. Most of it was spent in Iran, where I became witness to the lead-up to the Islamic Revolution. These were fun times for a prepubescent and generally irresponsible German-Iranian boy who consistently ranked safety and his personal well-being fifth in terms of importance, well behind adventure, exploration, disobedience and fire-setting. The latter in particular was always a source of great amusement. I must have been about ten years old, when on one very sunny morning I found myself grounded to my bedroom after having once again failed to meet even the most minimal expectations of my mother’s governance. At the time, we lived in a beautiful apartment of a two story home downtown Teheran, right across from the neighbourhood garbage dump. While this may not be considered an advantage by current home builders' associations in North America, for a ten-year-old boy there is really nothing better than having a garbage dump right across the street from home. This is one of very few places where “no littering” rules just don’t apply, and it also happens to be a great place to pursue one’s passion for setting fires.
I was gloomily looking out the window across to my favourite playground watching a small group of boys attempt to set fire to a tree that was proudly growing in the super-compost of the dump. I was struck by the naivety of their approach. They were holding a match to the very bottom of the tree trunk, which was not insubstantial in circumference. My disdain for their stupidity was quickly replaced by my loyalty to the concept of fire-setting, and purely for ethical reasons I decided to provide the boys with some advice. I suggested that a more effective approach would be for them to set a fire in a container, and then to throw that container to the upper branches of the tree where surely the availability of burnable material abounded. The boys promptly followed my advice and sure enough, the tree exploded in an aesthetically marvellous yet morally catastrophic ball of fire virtually instantly.
For a brief moment, even I was taken aback by my success, and I allowed myself to engage in the kind of self-congratulatory praise that would have been the envy of many a psychotic world leader facing the state-owned press. Indeed, it was one of those exhilarating childhood moments during which my emotional euphoria foreshadowed the extraordinary Rumsfeld doctrine of celebrating disaster and uncontrollable mayhem pointing to catastrophic failure. Never mind the immediately identifiable risk to nearby homes posed by the now quickly spreading forest fire, and never mind that my plan really didn’t include measures to deal with the fire once it was lit; I took great pleasure in the clouds of black smoke and the forces of destruction I had unleashed.
What followed was really quite amusing. As this was a time of political turmoil in Iran, some of the normal procedures in the country had changed. One such procedure related to the calling of 911. The neighbours, while watching the fire coming precariously close to destroying their very material existence, decided to call for help. Whereas one might have expected this to result in the arrival of firefighters, at this particular moment in the history of Iran, the calling of 911 resulted in the arrival of an entirely different kind of fighter “the Army. Several trucks full of soldiers with large machine guns arrived in no time, ready to shoot anyone appearing to be furthering the revolutionary cause. I clearly remember the boss of the army boys taking a long look at the apocalyptic scene of flaming tree tops, then analysing the relationship between the scene and the Islamic movement, before spotting the dimwitted boys who somewhat foolishly had remained there. He gave orders to get the boys, and for the next few minutes, I watched in delight as the trees were burning, the neighbours were evacuating, the general was barking orders, and the soldiers were chasing the dimwitted boys whose athletic talents served them well on that particular sunny day.
- 3 -
Iranians love to smoke. In fact, one of the reasons the country changed from a corrupt and brutal dictatorship to a corrupt and brutal theocracy is that the Shah of Iran was a non-smoker. The reality is that Iranians treat anyone who doesn’t smoke with suspicion. This also explains why there was a thaw in Iranian-American relations during the Clinton era, especially after the Lewinsky incident. Even Iranians were impressed with that smoke. But the evidence goes much deeper than that. After the Shah fled the country in 1979, a guy by the name of Bakhtiar took over. Nice enough guy, but once again a non-smoker, which explains his assassination a couple of years later in France.
My father, on the other hand, saw his professional career take off right after the revolution. He was an engineer with the National Iranian Steel Company, and as luck would have it, the dozen or so individuals with higher positions than his, all were either non-smokers or simply did not demonstrate the same level of commitment to the art of smoking as did my father. Not long after Khomeini arrived in the country, my father started getting promotions. Our celebrations were somewhat muted by the fact that everyone knew his promotions meant the top boss was tied up with his funeral.
- 4 -
Being a kid in Iran during the revolution was great. Being anything other than a kid was potentially deadly, especially if one voiced an opinion of any kind about anything. I was certainly aware that there were some problems in the country. We were regularly awakened by military helicopters flying low over the city’s neighbourhoods. On one occasion I could have sworn that the guy sitting by the open door of the chopper with a big machine gun was waving at me. So I waved back, which horrified my parents who must have known that this kind of political support for the royal regime could land them in the gallows. There were other hints at problems too. The occasional dead body in the neighbourhood, gun shots at all hours of the day and night, and a couple of million people walking down the main streets shouting God is Great on a regular basis were some of the hints being thrown our way.
I could, for the most part, rationalize all of these things as symptoms of adult stupidity, and therefore I was not overly concerned about any of it. Things did take a turn for the worse, however, when I started noticing some changes at school. Because much of Iran is earthquake prone, we always had alarm drills for earthquakes. We also had fire alarms, which probably was a good thing given that I was hardly alone amongst Iranian children who enjoyed the art of fire-setting. As the revolution grew louder, a few additional alarm drills were added to our daily regiment of preparing for catastrophe. First there was the bomb alarm drill. Then came the invasion from the outside drill, which was an odd one given that it was never really explained who or what could potentially invade the school from the outside. I was sure for the longest time that the threat came from the legendary Iranian cockroaches, which by Western standards are much more akin to moose than to those little Dutch roaches North Americans freak out about. In fact, these roaches not only withstood entire cans of the Iranian equivalent of Raid being sprayed at them from a distance of about two inches, but they would flutter their wings right after the experience, as if to say “wow, that was refreshing”.
Still, none of these security measures fazed me all that much, until someone introduced a security measure that was unthinkable and clearly demonstrated the imminence of all-out war. In fact, this was the equivalent of the American approach to protecting freedom and democracy by arresting anyone capable of spelling Islam on the spot. What was advertised as a safety measure for students really was the Iranian Homeland Security department gone nuts: schools were declared no smoking zones. The official explanation had something to do with the possibility of gas lines being tampered with, and the resultant risk of explosion. At the time, I was amazed that such preposterous explanation would even be offered by officials in a country where the nearest non-smoking zone to its oil fields is in Dubai. It was much later in life that I recognized the brutal truth behind this sinister security measure in schools. This was psychological warfare, designed to foreshadow what elementary students surely would fear more than the wrath of their parents after setting ablaze yet another neighbourhood: the prospect of smoke free zones in schools, public buildings, by God, maybe even restaurants. I know it sounds outlandish, but brutal dictatorships know no limits when it comes to cruelty.
- 5 -
What goes up must come down, and sure enough, the CIA-supported rise of the Shah’s dictatorship did collapse in 1979, making room for the CIA-supported rise of the Islamic Dictatorship to take its place. Thankfully we can always count on the good deeds of our corporate friends, and as sure as the Corporate bosses at NIKE display the fruits of East Asian children's labour, the corporate bosses at Lufthansa, Germany’s national air carrier, decided to direct their last flight out of Iran before the blood began to flow earlier than scheduled. This left my family, and many other increasingly less patriotic Germans, stranded at Teheran's International Airport, wondering what to do next. I remember my mother standing in the chaos of the airport chain smoking intensely and cursing the prohibition of alcohol declared by the spiritual vanguard of the revolution.
While we had planned to fly out of Iran to my mother’s hometown in Germany, it was becoming clear quickly that this would be a good time to change plans. As a result of Lufthansa’s courageous early departure, Germany was out and we needed very quickly to develop an allegiance to a new country. It is during these times that one can always count on the cultural indoctrination of the Swiss; clocks is what they do, and therefore, Swissair stood alone amongst the international airlines as the one that just couldn’t get itself to fly off early. Punctuality, just this once, truly was a virtue, and given the Swiss affinity to German-Iranian chain-smoking mothers with five children in tow, we had no trouble declaring Zurich as a very fine destination on such a beautiful day.
Thus ended our five-year adventure in Iran. We had moved there from Germany in 1974 as a family of seven, and we left in 1979 as a family of six, leaving behind my father. The anxiety and naked fear in his voice during our last phone call before boarding the plane that would take us to our cultural brethren in Switzerland mirrored what surely was on the minds of all 60 million Iranians at that historically unparalleled moment. Once the revolution was won, once the mullahs were settled in their new role as spiritual CEOs, and once the Koran had been rewritten to meet their needs, would the price of cigarettes go up?