The writer of this piece wishes to remain anonymous.
We reached the separate entrance for women where we were checked for our appearances. We were not given access if we wore make-up or inappropriate veils. It was only one of the gender restriction rules at the university which always made me quite angry. But on Wednesdays I was not really bothered when the female security searched my bag in case I had any ‘inappropriate’ stuff. My friends and I (twenty five undergraduate students from different parts of the country) were looking forward to reading and discussing the works of D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy as a part of our reading list for an introductory course on the elements of fiction, This class was the highlight of our week.
We entered the class and waited for Mr H, our ‘flight professor’, who appeared like a ghost on Wednesdays for four hours and then disappeared until the following week. ‘Flight professor’ is a coinage in Iran referring to university academics who fly each week (normally from Tehran) to remote universities deprived of academic staff and up-to-date resources. From the very beginning of the semester, the class liked Mr H. and his individual, non-conformist taste and attitudes. Our ‘professor’ was a young man who had recently got his MA from Tehran University, the most prestigious university in Iran. He was different in many ways. He had a delicate figure, a gentle character, and a sophisticated manner which intensified his distinctive personality, something you could not easily classify or formulate with ordinary norms and codes.
Mr H. was late that session. Staring desperately at the cloudy sky from a couple of large windows facing the airport, we tried to decipher any sign of the SAHA flight from Tehran (our University was located on the top of a hill a few miles away from the small airport). We were not privileged to have our favourite instructor each week though. He had to travel by a plane that was a surviving antique species of a dark green (World War Two?) military craft which had been pressed into passenger service due to the sanctions after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The sanctions had prevented Iran from acquiring new aircraft. It was a flying museum, however. Despite the horrible shaking and frightening noises which sounded like something being torn into pieces, the passengers could actually enjoy sitting on parallel benches chatting while facing each other and having their bags in front of them in the narrow aisle of the plane. They could also watch the pilot and his assistant through some curtains each time one of the flight attendants passed them a cup of tea! More important yet, was the passengers’ absolute freedom to forget about the obligations of normal flights like fastening seat belts and paying attention to the crew’s funny gestures and boring repetition of safety instructions. Our ‘flight professor’ was literally a hero to fly with SAHA each week. He later revealed that however much he panicked each time, he yet determined to come. To us, the plane was a Pegasus carrying our Hermes, our muse, who taught us how to ‘wash our eyes’ and appreciate.
Due to irregular schedules and lack of radar at the airport, the flights to our city were easily cancelled because of ‘bad weather’ which sometimes meant the presence of a few clouds or a flight of crows. Because of such cancellations, Mr H. had to travel 500 kilometres by bus several times which was more risky than flying by SAHA. Iran’s roads are the most deadly in the world.
Waiting for more than half an hour, we were about to leave when, against all odds, we heard the sound of the airplane and a few seconds later, saw the plane itself landing tremblingly but finally safely at the airport. Ten minutes later, he was in front of us opening his briefcase and bringing out his Lawrence for which he was told off by university’s religious police. Lawrence’s works were among the books which were banned because of ‘unsavoury’ references. ‘Well, here we are again’, he started with a smile. We always benefited from ‘dangerous’ digressions and allusions to different literary works, movies, Western music (also banned), as if we tried to grasp as many pearls of imagination and wisdom as possible in those God- given sessions.
Next semester we found out that the university has replaced Mr H. with someone whose syllabus was an English translation of religious poetry and texts. It was a big disappointment for the whole class but nobody replied to our objections. Some of us even faced the threat of being sacked. We had to do something. We decided to form our own underground reading group and dive into banned books, music, and movies for which we could go to jail or be flogged. Our reading list was not part of the university’s curriculum or accessories to our field of education. It was a means to reclaim our democratic imagination and freedom of expression confiscated by a totalitarian system.
When you are forced to live in a black or white system, you start developing an obsession with colours. You desire them and look for them everywhere. You start inventing them, mixing them and splashing them on the canvas of your imagination. They get magical. They stop being just colours. They stand for anything subversive.
I always wondered if British students could imagine us taking so many risks to read their literature and dreaming about having access to books, movies and music. I cannot think about English literature without those particular readings in Iran which made them ours despite the British/European citizens’ claims of owning their national literature. Today, in 2015, as a British citizen I am worried that a society whose younger generations take freedom for granted, is a society that risks losing its passion for it.