When reality surpasses speculation
“One day you wake up and find out that the mullahs are gone”: on social media and in public spaces, this sentence is a common joke and a dream at the same time.
But what if one day the mullahs wake up and find out that the people are gone?
A uniform Society
One day in the autumn of 2019, bored as hell behind my desk at my office job, I thought I should do something new, like writing an easy story just for fun. I decided to describe a day when “the mullahs wake up and realize that the people are gone.” I modified the opening a bit:
One day in the Islamic Republic of Iran, people wake up and realize that some of them do not exist anymore.
It was 8 o’clock on a Friday morning when Kazem Zolfaghari, an ordinary policeman at the Shariati Street police station, awoke to the hum of a helicopter flying over his house. As the noise disappeared slowly, other noises arose: shouting, screaming, running…
“What’s going on? It’s only 8 o’clock!”, he wondered and jumped to the window; the street was crowded, almost everyone had come out. “For what?” Strangely, the crowd were all men. He also recognized a few mullahs among them.
“Are they shooting a movie? Maybe an important man is dead!”, he suddenly thought.
“But who? It just could be His Honor!” It seemed like a strange thought, as disturbing as it was, his heart melted in a sweetness thinking it.
“Kazem,” his wife screamed. “Where are our children?” but Kazem could not move or take his eyes off of the window…
I wanted to guess what someone like Kazem would do in this situation: a typical Iranian policeman, more obedient than curious. Although now, he was frightened and did not accept the conventional explanations anymore. He was not a man of faith, but he had followed the ruling laws all his life.
“He hurried downstairs with two or three long steps and reached the corridor. Khadijeh, his wife, also ran behind him in fear. He opened the door, and took two steps out. There was no sound in the hallway. He remembered the last image in front of the window.
“Four, maybe five mullahs were on the street side by side. People were screaming …” He quickly went back inside and started walking around the room.
Khadijeh showed him her cell phone and cried.
“No one is answering the phone. God damn you, I’m having a stroke. Do something!”
None of his colleagues answered the phone either. So, they decided to go out to look for their children.
The street was packed with men who gathered at the crossroads and alleys. Some of them were praying and saying “Allaho Akbar”. Cars were passing like crazy and the policemen were so frustrated.
“Khadijeh was crying relentlessly. Several men were standing at the crossroads of Suhrawardi and Beheshti Streets. Kazem hit the brakes and lowered the window pane, hoping to get some information from them. Suddenly they fell silent.
”What is going on?” He said slowly and fearfully. “Hello, excuse me, Haj Agha, do you know what happened, my, I, I don’t understand”
“Hello,” said the man, who was well-groomed and all in black, with a long fawn beard. “Only God knows. We are discussing what is going on, and you should join us.”
He opened his arms in a welcoming manner. At the same time, his companions glanced inside the car. The man continued, “is she your wife?”
Suddenly a dozen motorbikes with black and green flags passed in such a rush that hit and dragged one of the flags on the ground. Khadijeh screamed loudly and Muhammad who was trying frenziedly to make his way through the crowd yelled at Khadijeh: “would you shut up for a minute?”
When I finished the first chapter, there were two important questions I had to answer. First, how did “the people” disappear? And the second was who are “the people” exactly? How could we separate “people” from non-people? I begin with the second question.
No one uses the word “people” as much as celebrities: politicians, social media influencers, artists and athletes. But “the people”, as celebrities put it, always refers to a part of the society, not all of it. For example, whenever Ali Khamenei addresses “the people”, he clearly means those who are loyal to the Velayat-e-Faqih (the Supreme Leader’s Guardianship). Similarly, celebrities see people as their audience and fans. In this way, “people” have a specific value and are used for specific purposes. They talk about the people’s taste, habits and beliefs. It seems they are talking about their family.
There are actual people who are excluded from the economic and social capital attached to the Islamic Republic. They do not conform to its taste, habits and beliefs. Yet the division is not simply clear-cut. What about the many civil servants who do not necessarily believe in the values of the Islamic Republic but have taken these jobs only to survive? This rather large segment of the population is what I am interested in. I made characters who can be in both positions: a 30-year-old person from a wealthy family with ties to the state, but who could also have progressive tendencies. Or any of the members of families who have ties with the state but do not conform to the values of the Islamic Republic. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be in this gray zone, on the margins of the Islamic Republic. People who survive based on their proximity to the center of power, though this very fact can be their unforgivable sin.
How did “the people” disappear?
“The people” did not disappear suddenly, as it may seem. They have disappeared over the years and over a series of different events. Illnesses, floods, drought, police violence, immigration and so on. But the survivors suddenly noticed the missing. And to find the cause of this absence is the main plot line that we and the characters (survivors) are following, though our answers and theirs may not be the same.
Hundreds of men were standing in front of the police station. Muhammad had to park his car two blocks from the police station and walk beyond the angry crowd. But it was impossible to get closer. “Come on sir, I am a policeman, I work here, let me pass.” But it was of little use.
…and “people” really fall one by one
In November 2019 just two months after I started writing this fiction the government raised gas prices and people in all of the cities demonstrated against this decision. But it was not just that. “The Islamic Republic must die,” they chanted.
Immediately the Internet was cut off for ten days nationwide and police savagely shot people in all the cities. According to the families of those killed, the bullets often hit the head and chest. Some estimate the dead to be 1,500.
A member of Majles asked the Interior Minister “Why did the security forces shoot the protesters’ heads?”
“It was not just that, we also shot their legs,” said Mahmoud Sadeghi, a member of the Majles, in an interview with the website Emtedad.
At the funeral of Qasem Soleimani, who was killed by US troops, on 7 January 2020, a crowd stampede in Kerman and at least 56 mourners died and over 200 were injured. On 8 January 2020, the Boeing 737-800 was shot down after the takeoff from Tehran International Airport by IRGC and all 176 passengers were killed. All this happened within less than two months. Later, two researchers compared death rates in November and December 2019 with other years, and found out that at least 7,500 people more people than usual had died in this period.
When the emergence of the coronavirus in Wuhan made headlines, I left the unfinished vicious story. In February 202019 the coronavirus became a serious global pandemic. For many, the combination of coronavirus and the Islamic Republic was a nightmare. (Which one is really more of a killer?) It was like we were approaching a day when everyone associated with the Islamic Republic would wake up and find they were not alive anymore. This is just one side of the story; earthquakes and floods and drought are competing with each other to cause more casualties in different parts of the country. In April of 2020 floods covered almost all central and southern parts of Iran. According to the national report channels, at least 50 people in the southern and western of the country died and more than 4,400 villages were damaged by the floods.
In the last two years, according to government statistics, at least 86,000 people in Iran have died from coronavirus and this sad story will continue. These days, in the middle of the summer of 2021 there was a flood in Kerman. At the same time in Khuzestan, people do not have water. People come to the streets every night to protest against the “waterlessness” and the police shoot them. The consequences of the long-term corrupt and mismanaged development plans is now apparent: the destruction of wetlands and rivers. The dehydration of the Great Karun River and the Gavkhooni and Hur al-Azim wetlands are just a few examples.
For the last four years, the Islamic Republican authorities have been using the same methods against protesters:
They disrupt the internet in that area and then shut it down. (In many cases, they even cut off electricity and water in that area.)
They treated the protesters as violently as they could.
They arrested as many as they could.
They put pressure on the families of detainees and victims by threatening them and in many cases even impose financial costs on them.
It seems that we are just in the first steps. People fall to the ground like autumn leaves and perish, and the cries of the survivors go nowhere. Imagine where this can stretch out?
Speculation is not a prediction of the future, but…
No novelist, especially with genre tendencies, is likely to identify themselves as some sort of a prophet. It is too naive to think that speculation in futuristic literature has anything to do with predicting the future. As the science-fiction novelist Ursula Le Guin, writes in the introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, the work of literature is not a prophecy but an attempt to conceive of another truth:.
“If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in his laboratory; let’s say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the second world war; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens… ” (Le Guin, 1969)
What if reality outweighs speculation? Probably part of it is an accident and another has taken over the human mind. It turns out that the Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote the story of “us” in the early twentieth century, creating a dark future for the domination of a one-party state in the Soviet Union. Or George Orwell and Huxley in 1984 and Brave New World each reflect a particular aspect of their lives today as an ugly and dangerous aspect of the future. To return to Le Guin:
“The weather bureau will tell you what next Tuesday will be like, and the Rand Corporation will tell you what the twenty-first century will be like. I don’t recommend that you turn to the writers of fiction for such information. It’s none of their business. All they’re trying to do is tell you what they’re like, and what you’re like—what’s going on—what the weather is now, today, this moment, the rain, the sunlight, look! Open your eyes; listen, listen..… ”(Le Guin, 1969)
Of course, speculation is not a right way to show what is going on will happen in the future. But it is the only way to imagine possible ways of living and thinking. These “future” lifestyles inevitably mimic certain aspects of life today. The fact that some of the stories seem predictive is precisely due to the limitations of the author’s mind. Otherwise, reality can be imagined in a thousand possible ways.
““The truth against the world!”—Yes. Certainly. Fiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, speak it, serve it. But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and telling about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and then when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say, There! That’s the truth!”? (Le Guin, 1969)
A vicious scenario: stupid, but possible
It’s been almost two years since I first thought about the people’s disappearance. There is not a day that I do not think about it. Every law passed in the Majles takes my mind back to this vicious story. How much of people’s disappearance is due to emigration? On July 27, 2020, the Majles discussed a bill called “protection of individual rights [in cyberspace]” behind closed doors. Will this plan be implemented in the near future? Will our connection with all global platforms be cut off? Someone familiar with the content of this plan would well know if it only means cutting the network of communication with each other and the world. Immediately, the search for the word “immigration” on Google increased rapidly in recent hours, from an average of about 50 to 100, and increased by 700% in two days. Also increased was the search for the terms “immigration to Turkey”, “immigration to Canada”, etc. It is clear that if this plan is implemented even with modifications, emigration will increase sharply in various ways. This is just one of the reasons for the increase in emigration.
So will emigration not be one of the main reasons for the disappearance of the Iranian people in the future?
Government agencies and parallel organizations have been talking about the importance of “increasing fertility/population” for years. But perhaps this issue was never as widespread as in the implementation of some incentives. Now it is to the point that many clerics and officials of Islamic propaganda offices in various cities spoke of the issue of “childbearing being the primary issue of religious groups.” The unveiling of the Hamdam dating app by the chair of the Majles was another sign of this concern to increase the population of loyalists to the system. As crazy as it seems, it is a true story: The “believers” and those “loyal” to the system and the Velayat-e-faqih try to reproduce their own kind. They really think of a country as one uniform piece of a cloth. That’s why it does not matter if others die:; the elderly, the protesters to the lack of water, and the poor. The killing of protesters in the streets and prisons, or elderly in hospitals, fits perfectly in this brutal scenario.
People are dying every day and “human rights” organizations are making conservative statements. “Barjam (Iran Deal) negotiations” are underway, and the new government, which has not yet taken office, dreams of spending the blocked money outside Iran for proxy wars.
At the same time the Majles tries to pass a new bill about “a plan to protect protecting “the rights of users in cyberspace.” What does it mean exactly? This plan is a guarantee that in the future no one will be able to access the global Internet without the supervision of local security organizations. In this future where the economic situation will be much worse than today and people will go to the streets to protest at the lowest possible cost. Isn’t there really such a scenario?
It seems like non-people are happy to see people dying every day. They dream of a perfectly harmonious society.
Iman Behpasand, 32 years old, is a speculative writer who is interested in the futures, especially those of the Middle East. He thinks that visualizing futures is the greatest means of resistance.