By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Isfahan, a city nearly as old as Iran itself, is world-renowned for its architectural beauty. I found a book on Isfahan and leafed through the glorious images: the central bridge with 33 arches over the Zayandeh River; blue-tiled mosques with vaulted archways and towering minarets; the Palace of the 40 Columns, with its long reflecting pool lined with rosebushes; the vast central plaza, twice as large as Moscow's Red Square; the Palace of Ali Qapu ("sublime gate"), Iran's first skyscraper; the 17th-century Imam Mosque, with acoustics so perfect, according to L.A. Times Middle East correspondent Robin Wright, that "stomping on the black paving stones beneath the dome generates a ripple of seven equal echoes."
The Isfahan of Majid's childhood was a tolerant city, Jewish, Armenian and Ba'hai communities mingling with the majority Muslims. It was also a city that was mixing, for the first time, modern with ancient -- fumes from the Soviet-built metallurgy plant collided with the fragrance of cherry trees in spring. The Naficy family was large (nine children, five boys and four girls) and relatively affluent. Majid's father, a cardiologist trained in Tehran and the United States, is a seventh-generation physician in a family lineage extending back to the 14th century. His mother was a religious woman who preferred to wear the veil Ã¢ in public even though, under the shah, it had been banned. His parents were both peaceful people. "My father gave me a sense of being curious," says Majid, "in terms of books and different cultures. He took us to all different parts of Iran. My mother was very kind. She gave us a sense of how to know other people, and she was always optimistic."
Majid's talent for poetry was recognized at an early age; his first poem was published in a literary journal in Isfahan when he was only 13, thanks to a poet who was the teacher of his older brother. This teacher, who edited the journal, invited the young protÃ©gÃ© to the literary salons that rotated among the houses of Isfahan's various writers. This was a considerable honor in a country with a rich literary and cultural past, where people revere great poets and plant luxuriant gardens around their tombs. Fortunately for Majid, his extreme nearsightedness was also discovered at an early age: "I was 5 years old, sitting in a room with my uncle, who asked me to turn on the light. I looked up and I couldn't see the switch. So the first summer before I went to first grade, I wore eyeglasses. It was very unusual for a child to have eyeglasses, especially in Isfahan. Perhaps that is what made me feel separate from the crowd."
Life in Isfahan among his large family made possible a childhood that even now conjures pleasant memories. There was a grape arbor in the back yard; he was close with his siblings, especially his sisters, and confided in them. From the shelves of the huge library -- some 3,000 volumes -- that his family had collected over the years, the young poet selected his first long novel, Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Yet even a young child sheltered by a loving family could see the evidence of a cruel regime. A memory from age 6: "My school class was taken in the early morning to watch the shah pass by in a parade. We had to stand in the street a long time. It was very cold. When the shah passed in his special car, a man tried to reach his window -- to give him an envelope, perhaps a complaint. Two guards rushed forward and beat the man with their ceremonial swords. This made a deep impression on me."
As he grew older, the oppressive presence of SAVAK, the shah's secret police, filtered into all aspects of daily life. Citizens could be imprisoned for any imagined slight against the government. In the shah's dungeons, torture was routine. At the same time as he was forcefully modernizing the country, fattening the military, importing specialists from abroad to build his "Great Civilization," the shah was silencing the most enlightened Iranians. Intellectual discourse was stifled. Over the years, there was increasingly heavy censorship of films, newspapers, books and fiction. In 1969, the shah dissolved the Iranian Writers' Organization.
The year after he graduated from high school in Isfahan, Majid came to California to study. UCLA, like other American campuses, was at the time roiled by protests against the war in Vietnam. It was Majid's first exposure to democratic protest, and he was impressed by the vigor of young Americans' opposition to the war. At UCLA, he also met other Iranians, members of the Iranian student confederation that opposed the shah's government. Their Marxism rubbed off on him. "I'd been an existentialist," he tells me. "A conscious existentialist who was very influenced by Sartre. I read existential books which criticized Marxism, but when I came here, because of the situation of exile, and because a new radical movement was taking shape in Iran, I became very involved with what we called the urban-guerrilla movement."
At the end of that year, Majid transferred to Tehran University and committed himself to the movement to overthrow the shah. The newly minted Marxist revolutionary was not just opinionated, he was -- as he now describes -- "self-righteous, intolerant of others' beliefs." He vowed not to write poetry again "until the liberation of the proletariat." "I criticized my poetry as a petit-bourgeois part of my life," he says. "I was not alone. Many intellectuals in Iran went that way. When the guerrilla movement started in the 1970s, it polarized the intelligentsia. Some of them were subsidized by the government, and some of them joined the armed opposition movement." Majid's own brother Sa'id was arrested by SAVAK in 1973. His family was tipped off that their house would be raided; aunts, uncles and cousins split up the library, distributing the 3,000 volumes in basements and closets all over Isfahan.