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An Iranian couple's revolution

Both were members of the Basiji elite, the hard-line Iranian militia. Over time, they took different paths, one embracing feminism and the other mellowing, then turning back to the use of force.

November 11, 2009|Borzou Daragahi

One night he came home covered with blood.

"What happened?" she asked, looking up from her textbook, aghast at the red splashes on his hands, shirt and face.

"Nothing," he said, before ducking into the bathroom. "I was helping some of the wounded."

She believed him. She had to. He was her husband, the man she loved.

Besides, she knew the rules of the Basiji, the hard-line Iranian militia he belonged to: An order was an order, and if that meant cracking the heads of some demonstrators during the unrest this summer, so be it.

She knew, because she belonged to the Basiji elite herself. Not only was her husband a member of the volunteer militia, her father was a commander. And, once, she had been a true believer too.

::

Landlocked Tehran lacks a coast or even a riverbank. For escape, there are the mountains.

"I'm a spiritual person," the young man said once on a hike along the trail past the cafes and terraced gardens in Darrakeh, the mountainside Tehran neighborhood where he grew up. "I worship these mountains, this life up here above the city. Even the mosque I go to is here."

For the scruffy, working-class guy with days-old stubble and a slight gut, getting larger as the years went by, the mountains were of a piece with the rest of his life. His neighborhood, his friends and cousins at the mosque, his commitment to the Basiji -- they belonged to the same continuum.

The Basiji was a citizen militia formed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at the start of the Islamic Revolution, literally a "mobilization." Later, during the 1980s war with Iraq, its members became legends, fighting heroically against an invading army.

The man was born in 1975, too young to take part in the war. But as a child he became obsessed with the conflict, collecting memorabilia and war artifacts and taking annual trips to the battleground to honor those who had died.

Even if there were no armed invaders when he was old enough to be a defender, he could at least fend off the creeping cultural influence of the West. A bearded young man with intense eyes and an olive green military jacket, he roamed Darrakeh with a walkie-talkie, on the prowl for signs of Western decadence: a young woman whose Capri pants showed too much skin, a young man whose hair was too long, an unwed couple holding hands.

But when he was 27, something happened to mellow him. He married a distant cousin who was six years younger, a moon-faced beauty with almond-brown eyes and carefully groomed eyebrows.

Their 2002 wedding was a modest affair. The men and women gathered in separate halls during the reception, in keeping with Iran's traditional mores. They moved into a small house in Darrakeh. He got a job making window frames, and a motorcycle to get around town.

--

When my wife, Delphine, and I first met the Basiji couple while reporting in Iran seven years ago, she was the hard-liner, rigid in her views, dressed conservatively in an all-covering black chador. He was the lapsed conservative, his enthusiasm for the system worn down by long days of work for little pay, his cultural references expanding from officially sanctioned pop songs lamenting the martyrdom of the Imam Hussein to the Spice Girls.

"Some poor guy is going through all sorts of troubles and hardship," he said in 2003. "He's got one day off to enjoy himself. I'm going to make trouble for him?"

At first, we were fascinated by each other. It seemed we came from alien worlds. But as the years went by, we became good friends. They agreed to allow us to write about their lives if we didn't reveal their names.

In 2004, the four of us agreed to go to the annual parade in Tehran marking the anniversary of the founding of the Islamic Republic, where thousands of government supporters chant "Death to America!" At the last minute, he canceled.

His wife was embarrassed, apologizing for him. "He's not feeling well," she said, unconvincingly, as we headed to Azadi, or Freedom, Square.

"I just can't do it anymore," he confided later, as he lashed out against official corruption.

"No," she interrupted, shooting him a quick glance. "He supports the government just as much as I do. He's just joking."

But she was about to change. She had started wearing lipstick and blush. Intrigued by the world of journalism, she signed up for classes at a Tehran college.

--

"Don't show the guys," she giggled as she showed Delphine cellphone pictures of herself in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, a carefree Persian Gulf city-state that, along with Turkey, has become a gateway to the outside world for many Iranians.

I managed to get a glimpse of one anyway. She was sitting on a beach, her long reddish-brown hair flowing in the wind without a head scarf -- the first time in her life she had not worn her hijab in public.

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