There is a certain age we reach when we grow fully conscious of our surroundings. It is that age where we finally leave that allegorical cave of childhood simplicity, and find ourselves in the midst of a crowd, of a society, of a people. Like a jolt of surprise, it strikes us, and from then on, we find ourselves unable to return to the normal, everyday existence of a child. A child cares little for his or her surroundings, as long as his needs are met, material or otherwise, he is happy and willing to go about his day.
There is school, there are friends, there is family, television, video games, professional wrestling; a world full of favorable distractions to keep him preoccupied; and years later, when that childhood nostalgia returns to us as it does, we sometimes find it impossible to avoid our yearning to return to it; for life to be simple again with great distractions and little responsibility; that world full of wonders. But again, that unconscious jolt returns. Something, somewhere in our lives, has made us realize that we can no longer live in our cushioned and sheltered lives, and that we subsist among a people that we care for without any comprehensible reason or construct.
It was not because we were all Iranians. It was fully unrelated to our much-talked about “illustrious history” that had absently “kept us together.” No, and even if it was, a 16-year-old child would hardly link these convoluted and problematic explanations to an empathetic response. The vindication to the vicariousness among us all was much simpler than that: “We,” as a group of people, were being hurt by the same system.
We were all from different backgrounds, had different interests – and what is so riveting (and sometimes infuriating) about Tehran – we all lived in different worlds; one had grown up with the poetry of Rumi and Hafez, another was brought up by the teachings of the Quran, while others in more affluent social circumstances grew up watching Johnny Bravo and Dexter’s Lab.
But those distinctions did not exist when we were 16-year-olds walking to school every morning. All of us stood still in the same manner in lines at the beginning of every weekday at 7:30 AM sharp in school, we all cupped our hands and chirruped the Faraj prayer every morning, said a salavat and wished well the spirits of “Muhammad and his kin,” and we all subsequently walked into our classes to be fed with the very same religious propaganda, the very same lessons in Arabic – a language that distanced us even more than our Persian heritage. The school structure ordinarily snubbed the works of classic Persian laureates for even more stories about Hassan and his valorous martyrdom in Karballa; or stories about the pains of Palestine (in the second grade, 7 year old kids were assigned to write fictional letters to Palestinians asserting their hate for Israel and promising to dethrone them); or the evils of the Western world. Thus, it is unsurprising that the teachings of theatre, film, and music were nowhere to be seen in the curriculum of such a school system. To make matters even more interesting: to be caught with an MP3 player or an iPod guaranteed you a trip to the principal’s office with your parents, and an hour-long grating of the evils of the Western influence. “We don’t care what you do at home, but we don’t want you doing it outside.”
So we snuck around. Leaning one side of our heads on the table and sharing a headphone while the religion teacher told us about the Gates of Hell and “the pious woman’s duties;” we’d listen to Pink Floyd, dramatically playing Another Brick In The Wall over and over again as to prove a secret point between ourselves; the two people sitting behind one desk, sharing a headphone: We don’t need no education. Not like this. Not like this.
Much credit to the discovery of new music in Tehran went to the iPod generation, torrenting, and the whole new realm of social networking – YouTube, a fairly new website at the time helped us watch our favorite music videos without having to download it on LimeWire with the typical 128 kbps speed of the just-established Parsonline ADSL initiative. There were also music forums and blogs, both in Farsi and in English, which allowed you to share your interests without having to leave your home, and without the threat of arcane arrest. You’d learn about your favorite band reuniting at Live 8, listen to the new Metallica song, and best of all: learn about artists you had never heard of before. For me, that one sound I found myself most satisfied with, that filled me and then subsequently relieved me of all the pent up frustration of having to listen to bloated mullahs telling us we will go to hell if we do this-or-that, religion teachers preaching about coins being melted on our backs, and “gentlemen” using God to explain the inferiority of women, was the music of Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails.
I recall my eyes opening wide when I first heard those gloriously blasphemous words of Heresy: “God is dead, and no one cares / if there is a hell, I’ll see you there!” (It didn’t matter if Nietzsche said it first.) “Yes, yes!” I would think to myself. This was it. This is exactly what I was feeling, what I knew those around me were feeling – maybe not the exact sentiment, but surely the same anger; at organized religion, at discrimination, at the teachings of hate. Hurt was a favorite among my friends. They listened to it over and over again, shaking their heads, smiling, and nodding. We’d spend “Sports” period by sitting on the stairs at the far corner of the schoolyard. “Give me your iPod,” my friend would say. I’d hand it to him. He would play With Teeth, The Fragile or Pretty Hate Machine until the instructor would find us and force to us to play basketball again – “or ping-pong! The least you could do is play ping-pong!”
We were still children; still sheltered; still hadn’t seen the worst that our country had to offer, but that soon changed. The trigger was pulled. The previously mentioned jolt pierced that sheltered ignorance – or was it just desensitized apathy?
It happened when we were walking home from a day of sitting around at our local shopping mall – a common trait shared between teenagers all over the world. We suddenly heard screams of “Please, please!” coming from the other corner of the mall. As excited teenagers do, we ran to the scene of the happening – less because we were concerned and more because we were fascinated to see what was to occur. At the center of the mall’s courtyard, two young women were being affronted by three officers; two of them were female guards in chadors, and another was a male officer heckling the young women from a distance – we later found out that the women were being jeered due to their excessive make-up. The situation escalated and took a turn for the worse, one of the ladies tried to escape, and was met with unrelenting slaps to the back by the male officer – it is a “sin” based on Islamic values to touch an unrelated member of the opposite sex. The growing crowd began boo-ing; we joined in, and this act alone helped distract the guards, thus aiding one of the young girls to make a break for it. The male guard pepper-sprayed her as she managed to get away. The girl – blinded – still persisted in running, fleeting across a busy street of cars. Nobody honked, nobody shouted or cursed at the runaway; they all understood. Moments later, she was gone.
The other girl was taken into custody.
“They’ll probably beat her and force her to call her friend back. Then they’ll put them both away,” said my friend, as upset and as dejected as the rest of us.
That was the trigger. The straw that broke the camel’s back – or in this case, simply burst the bubble that we had been in since childhood. This wasn’t just a political matter, this was social; and like everybody else, we were at the center.
Iran has never been a violent society. It is instead a society that constantly feels in danger; always afraid of what to do and who to trust. There was a mass desensitization and muddling of values and vocations throughout the nation (there still is); nobody knew what they should want. It was as if an authorial presence eternally looked down upon us, proclaiming: “If it’s not religion you want, there’s nothing else we can help you with.”
Thus everybody was left on their own to construct their own set of values; values that not once were accepted or even tolerated – how many times we had seen teenagers with “punk” attire chased down a street by the authorities, pepper-sprayed and beaten and sent to the back of that dreaded green-striped Mercedes-Benz. Everybody was looking for a diversion, but finding one proved more difficult than living with the lamentable situation.
When Trent Reznor first described the essentials of his forthcoming album, Year Zero – a dystopian world set in 2022 where religion ruled and an unwanted government ruled with an iron fist, it all sounded quite familiar: We had already been living in this world for 28 years.
The months leading up to Year Zero’s release were a wholly interactive affair. The Alternate Reality Game that began unfolding in February is to this day what Year Zero is chiefly remembered for: the excitement in uncovering mysteries on fictitious websites; finding new songs and snippets through heard-about USB flash drives in bathroom stalls; dialing and listening to fake phone conversations that consisted of fragments of forthcoming music; and reading invented posts on forums from a darker, nightmarish future America.
I followed it almost religiously. Like everybody else in my country, I was looking for my own sort of diversion.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.