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Filching Our Books

For a nine-year-old girl, it was incomprehensible to watch her father gather all his books to take them out of town to burn them secretly. Worried about her father being arrested by the new regime in Iran in 1981, young Shabnam had to let go of the books she had planned to learn from, one day when she grew up.

During 1980 and 1981, when I was an eight- and nine-years-old girl, my father met with his comrades, sometimes in our house and at other times at their homes. My parents told me not to talk about those visits with anyone. If they met at our house, I went to my room after saying hello. In Iran, after the revolution of 1979, when the Islamic fundamentalists took power, any non-Islamic, non-Shia ideology was banned from public discussion. My father, with his Marxist beliefs, had not given up on his ideology and still met with his comrades for a solution to free Iran from the current dictatorship. They weren’t alone. There were a few other groups with different ideologies that had to take their activities underground or carrying the risk of being arrested and executed.

I liked those secretive meetings at our house. People who came to our house were well-dressed and spoke politely and kindly to me. Even as a child, I was visible to them. Getting that attention made me feel special. One of them, a handsome fellow in his early 30s, whom I called Uncle Behrooz, was always kind to me. On one of his visits to our house, I told him my parents had gotten me a small microscope, and I was trying to learn to work with it. I was proud of it. Because of the war between Iran and Iraq, our family struggled financially, so the microscope was precious.

Uncle Behrooz asked my father to bring me to his house so I could see his telescope to compare what I see between too far and too close in those two devices. I was so thrilled.

A few days later, one afternoon, my father asked me to get ready to go to Uncle Behrooz’s house. I put on my best clothes and combed my hair. In the mirror of my white vanity, I tried to make sure I looked good. My always impatient father called me. “I’m leaving, Shabnam. Hurry, if you are joining me.”

Uncle Behrooz’s apartment was close, so we got there quickly. It was in an upper-class neighborhood in Tehran, in a five-story building. It felt so romantic to take the smooth elevator with the modern design on the floor and a few small lights illuminating the painting on the wall.

When we walked into his apartment, I felt I was walking in my dreamland. All the bookshelves were full of Farsi and English books. With his big smile, he welcomed us and asked me to feel free to look at anything. The bedroom door was open, and I immediately spotted the telescope. He said we had to wait for a little until it was darker, then he could show me the stars. He fixed a drink for my father, and they started talking. I wandered and played with books imagining myself living in that apartment. I even dreamed of being his wife and discussing all those books with him over dinner. I wanted that lifestyle. A small, chic apartment in a nice neighborhood in Tehran full of Farsi and English books.

“The Librarian” by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

While I daydreamed, I heard their conversation. Uncle Behrooz complained, “I’m worried about completing my education. I left everything incomplete in California to join the revolution that was supposed to free us from dictatorship. We are dealing with a worse one now. What is this? We are still hiding. I heard the regime has arrested so many of our comrades already.”

I pretended I was busy with Uncle Behrooz’s books, but listened carefully, a wave of fear rushing to my heart. I loved my father, even if he drank every night and shouted and yelled at us. He was the one who brought me books; he was the one who brought elegant people to our house and took us to their homes. He was the one who wiped my tears when I awoke from a nightmare. Would they arrest him, too?

When it got darker, while adjusting his telescope with a naughty smile, Uncle Behrooz asked if I wanted to see the neighbor’s house through their window? My father objected, “No, Behrooz. Don’t teach her to be nosy.”

When he put me behind the lens, I was fascinated. Although the stars didn’t look as big as I expected with the telescope, his explanations of the location of the stars made sense. He showed me Orion. The world was much bigger than Iran. The urge and curiosity to see other places replaced the fear in my heart for a few minutes.

On the way home, we were silent, my father was deep in his thoughts. I asked him, “Baba, will they arrest you and Uncle Behrooz?”

He mumbled, “I am not going anywhere. You don’t have to worry about that.” His face looked depressed, every word coming out of his mouth used up so much energy. He could barely talk.

From that night, I developed a habit of going to my parents’ room in the middle of the night to check if he was still there. I cried almost every day, and when my mother asked what I was worried about, I said, “What if Baba has to go to the front line to fight with Iraqis?” I was trying to be a secret-keeper and not tell my mother what I heard from Baba and Uncle Behrooz. She reassured me that my father had finished his mandatory military service when he was young, and at his age, now he was past the compulsory calling of the front line. That didn’t calm me down.

One day, my father came home in a rush asking my mother to help him to gather all his books. He said, “They arrested a few of my friends.” He walked towards his bookcase in the corner of the living room and continued, “Hassan, my childhood neighbor who joined the Islamic guard, just told me his boss ordered them to search houses of the suspects for books and documents.”

If he signed a paper stating that he would not continue his political activities, he explained, they would leave him alone. “But I still need to get rid of the books, all of them. Not just the ones about Marx or Lenin or Kianouri.” His face was white. There seemed no life left in him. His ideology was his dignity, and now the regime was taking even this.

“What will you do with them?” My mother asked, her eyes wide with concern.

Baba stared at the book in his hand and reprimanded, “My brother agreed to burn them in his shop outside of Tehran. I have to go there now.”

“The Riot or Scene of Revolution, or Destruction of Sodome” by Honore Daumier

Puzzled and angry, I watched them collecting the books. None of those unpleasant characters I had learned about in my books did such a thing. This was like filching our books, forcing the owners to do the dirty job of gathering them. I held my tears to avoid making the situation worse. But I had planned to read all those books as I grew up; I was so proud of having them. My father always reminded me, ‘People who read books understand more and are better people.’

My father had encouraged me to take special care of our books. We wrapped them with newspapers when reading them to maintain them in good shape. He had told me that under the current regime, there would be few translations of foreign books, and those would be censored. Whole, intact books like the ones he had were not permitted anymore.

It felt like they would burn a part of me. If I felt like that, I imagine my father’s entire existence was going up in flames.

In a couple of hours, more than one thousand books from the bookcase in the living room and their bedroom closet were gathered in two big suitcases and a few bags. My parents each grabbed one of the suitcases, holding their breath, quietly carrying the heaviness of it physically and mentally down to the garage. They placed everything in the trunk of the car in the garage, hoping not to attract the neighbors’ attention. We had three neighbors living in the same building using the same garage.

I was sitting on the countertop behind the kitchen window and watching outside. In a few minutes, my pale-faced father came out of the garage and drove away to destroy his beloved books. I went back to my room to look at what remained. Luckily, The Little Black Fish, Oldouz and Her Talking Doll, and all other series written by my favorite author Samad Behrangi were still there. The few books left were my treasure.

My father signed the paperwork that indicated he would step down from his political activities. However, a piece of paper at the local police station did not guarantee the ever-changing arbitrary laws of the regime. Those sophisticated people I liked very much never came to our house again. Uncle Behrooz returned to America. Many people I had met in their elegant parties, including the great Iranian poet Fereidon Moshiri, had to step down from their political activities. Whoever did not sign the paperwork or leave the country was arrested. They had unthinking, few-minute trials only to hear their punishment. They were forbidden to hire lawyers. Under the Islamic trial cases, they were mostly convicted of being the Soviet Union’s spies. The majority were executed right away.

Only more alcohol could help my father.

Shabnam Curtis, the author of My Persian Paradox, was born and raised in Tehran, and experienced the Iranian Revolution of 1979 firsthand. In 2004 she immigrated to the United States, where she now works as a project analyst by day and a passionate writer all other time. Shabnam teaches memoir writing workshops and has been performing lectures to colleges and universities about her book and the concept of understanding diversity. She is working on her second memoir (sequel). Her articles have been published in The Write Launch, Views & News, The Canadian Business Daily, and Eat, Darling, Eat network. She lives in Virginia with her husband and two dogs.

 Her motto is, “We all have a story to tell. Share your story, listen to others’ stories. Create more EMPATHY & LOVE!”

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2 thoughts on “Filching Our Books

  1. So proud to know you! You are an amazing writer, storyteller, and friend! I wish you continued success!

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