When I first met Ferry (not her real name), I thought she was American, or European, someone definitely “foreign.” The year was 1978 and in the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS) in Bangalore, India, where I was a first year student, she stood out in the crowd—a tall white girl with rosy cheeks and wavy brown hair.
Later I found out that there were many other students from Iran who had joined that year. The Iranian government gave generous scholarships in those days to their students to study in Indian colleges.
Their lives were definitely unusual by the standards of my hometown. The Iranian students always seemed flush with money, living comparatively affluent lives. They dressed in fashionable clothes, rented nice apartments and homes where they lived in groups, even owning a vehicle or two for transport. More importantly, there were no parents or adult guardians in sight. They were a good bit more Westernized than the average Indian, and I was fascinated by them.
Ferry became the real-life pen friend I had never had. She lived with her sister in a small house, a bus trip away from my home. They invited me over for lunch one time, where they cooked the entire meal themselves. They peeled and diced cucumber for salad, chopped vegetables and cooked rice with enough butter to create a deep-fried crunchy crust. Ferry’s sister had a boyfriend, and she rode a motorbike. If memory serves me right, there might even have been cigarettes in their home. As a sheltered teenager living in a fairly conservative household, I thought their independent lifestyle was radically cool.
Ferry’s English conversation skills were a little weak. I helped her out sometimes, and in turn, I learned to say words like Khodah Hafez (may God be with you). We were in many classes together, and hung out together whenever we had free time—at lunch in the cafeteria, on the grass outside the campus center, or while walking to the farms, which were our training grounds so to speak. Of course, we chatted about boys and crushes and watched John Travolta gyrate on the dance floor in Saturday Night Fever.
Life was easy and breezy and fun, but not for long—not for the Iranian students anyway.
In 1979, the Shah of Iran fled their country and Ayatollah Khomeini seized power. Two years later, the Iran-Iraq war was in full swing and the Iranian boys started disappearing one by one. They had joined the army. I soon heard that one of them had died. The events opened up a window into the philosophy of my Iranian friends, and even at that age, I found it illogical and a little shocking.
According to the propaganda they were fed, nothing was more gratifying and heroic than dying in a just war. This was my first introduction to the concept of jihad, but I remember thinking—why not wish peace for your country instead of wanting the glory of being a martyr? But that was their concept of patriotism and I soon learned that they believed Jimmy Carter (who I liked quite a bit) was evil, Jews were aggressive, and America was the Great Satan.
Our friendship was too strong to be destroyed by these differences in ideology, but I realized that we belonged to different worlds. I saw the Iranian revolution through their eyes, and I don’t think they understood the full impact of it. Until then, they had been free. The women wore mini-skirts, drove fancy cars and could have had any career they chose. They attended extravagant weddings and partied through the night in celebration.
That world was about to change dramatically, but they seemed not to realize it, and were quite excited about the Shah being replaced by the Ayatollah. They must have had some concerns though, because I also heard tales of kidnappings and intrigue and betrayal. One girl broke off her engagement with her fiancé because (according to her) his family had been responsible for her father’s death. This was real life, and I was glad that I was seeing it from a distance.
We exchanged addresses before graduation, but we never connected again. I got admission into a college in Massachusetts for graduate school and I embraced the Great Satan with gusto—for me, it was the land of Mark Twain, The Eagles, Robert Redford and the Grand Canyon. “The Empire Strikes Back” was playing at the local cinema in Framingham and finally, I had my own apartment and a brand new pair of Levis.
I heard a rumor many years later that Ferry had moved to Canada, but I am not sure. Our paths have never crossed for the past twenty-some years, but I often wonder where all those Iranian students are. As an Indian, with possibly some ancient Iranian ancestors, I feel a kinship with Iranians. We have so many cultural similarities. When I see Iranian movies, I find I understand many of the words. I remember one movie, Offside, highlighting the absurdity of the strict rules in Iran for women. It was a story about girls who disguised themselves as boys just so they could attend a men’s soccer game.
I have heard that things have improved since the days of the black chador, but they still have a long way to go before they can sing in public and read Lolita without fear. When, during the protests that followed Iran’s recent elections, I saw the YouTube video of one of them spurting blood on the sidewalk, I wished I hadn’t been so curious. The screams from bystanders in the video haunted me for days.
As I write this piece, the Iranian hardliners have initiated legal action against the reformist leaders. Will this wave of protests transform into another revolution? I hope so, but the end of theocracy in Iran seems like a pipe dream. I don’t wish for more violence and carnage in Iran, but I hope the current regime has underestimated the will of the people. Voices cannot be silenced forever. And I hope Ferry and my other Iranian friends are leading fabulous lives somewhere—safe and free.
Lakshmi Jagannathan is a writer from the Northwest. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org