THE FIRST TIME I heard the tale of Darab and the Fuller, I was sitting in class in the front row, dressed primly in a gray collared shirt with crisply ironed pants, the school uniform of a fourth-grader at Qalam elementary school in Tehran. Our Persian literature teacher, Khanoum Dehghani, was reading aloud to us from a book in her hand. It was a kid-friendly version of the Shahnameh, the foundational text of Persian literature, and Khanoum Dehghani was impersonating the author, Ferdowsi, by tramping around the room with her chest puffed out, stroking her imaginary beard, and speaking in the gruff voice of an old man. Everyone in class was giggling and enjoying themselves. I was so mesmerized that I felt like she wasn’t even reading at times, but making up her own words, performing in some sort of wacky play.
When she read the last words of the story, she closed the book and took a bow, and everyone clapped for her. But unexpectedly, she became pensive. She walked over to the front of the room and wrote the last lines of the story on the chalkboard: No one must suffer because of my rule. May the world become better through my justice, and may everyone in this land live in happiness.
“Does anyone know what Darab meant by these words?” she asked
Everyone in class fell silent.
“This is what Darab told his people when he became the king of Persia,” she said. “This is what he wanted for our country.” She circled the last word of the quote. “Do you guys think everyone today lives in happiness?”
After all these years, I still picture her standing with her hands clasped behind her back, looking anxiously around the room, maybe because she was afraid of having asked a heretical question that would lead us to think twice about the Islamic Republic. I wonder sometimes whether her sadness was too urgent for her to ignore, so that she had no choice but to try to communicate how dramatically our country had fallen away from Ferdowsi’s vision of justice.
Darab has been on my mind since September, when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was killed by the Morality Police for the crime of “improper hijab,” and the strain and silence in Iran gave way to protests throughout the country. My relatives in Tehran tell me that in Jannat Abbad, the neighborhood where I grew up, there are constant bursts of gunshots and mini explosions, people shouting and screaming all night in the streets.
According to the Shahnameh, Darab was rejected by his mother, Queen Homay of Persia, when he was an infant. Homay relished her power so much that she didn’t want to relinquish it to her son, even though he was the heir to the throne. She secretly placed him in a chest one night and floated him down the Euphrates to get rid of him.
The next day, a poor fuller working in the river found the chest. The fuller and his wife were overjoyed to find the baby. Their own son had passed away recently, and they’d been praying for a new child, so they decided to care for Darab and raise him as their own.
When the boy was old enough to work, the fuller decided to teach him his trade, but Darab couldn’t stand doing such miserable work. He was big and strong for his age, a true warrior whose handsome face radiated with the power of farr—the regal splendor that naturally envelops every Persian king—and he felt like drudgery and menial work were degrading to his character. He didn’t know how to express this feeling properly, so he remonstrated with his father and threw temper tantrums that his parents couldn’t handle.
Eventually, the fuller became so exasperated that he decided to be honest with him: “If you feel like you’re better than us, then go ask your mother to tell you the truth of who you really are.”
As a kid, I was relieved by the fuller’s decision, because I was rooting for Darab, the hero of the story. But now when I think about how hard it must’ve been for the fuller and his wife to set aside their desires for a child and consider what was best for Darab, I can’t help but commend them. After hearing of his origins, Darab ran away from the family, leaving them childless again. It seemed to me that he must undoubtedly have harbored some affection for them, after all that they’d done for him, rather than completely casting them aside, the way the queen had cast him aside.
As it turned out, Darab did acknowledge their influence on him during his next endeavor, when he joined the Persian army to fight the Greeks. He told his general his story, describing the support that the family had given him, and the general admired his frankness and humility. He demanded to meet the fuller and his wife at once, and they confirmed Darab’s account.
“May you be prosperous and live in glory,” the general told them. “For no one’s ever heard so strange a story. No chronicler or priest has ever told a tale like the one the two of you unfold.”
Darab proved himself a bold and courageous warrior, slaying squadrons of Greek soldiers, and the general sent Queen Homay a message about her valorous son. She broke down in tears, confessing her guilt at having abandoned him.
“My mind has never been at ease,” she said. “I’ve been anxious about the empire, fearing God and brooding on my ingratitude to Him. But now that a master has come into the world, the crown shall be placed on his head. His coronation shall be proclaimed to the world.”
Before Darab was a king, he was an orphan. His hard beginnings led him to commiserate with the poor and to become a just ruler—to want something better not just for himself, but his people.
The story of Darab is the story of every Iranian in the Islamic Republic, the tale of an individual whose impoverished life contrasts with the noble spirit within. When I first learned about Darab’s power of farr, I started imagining myself glowing with it, as well. It wasn’t exactly a superpower, but a throbbing vividness that would make me unique, a divine essence that differed from the divinity that religious clerics babbled about on TV; an ecstatic quality that destined me for an extraordinary life.
I was so fascinated by the notion that when I was seven years old, sitting on the bus with my dad, I asked him whether I had to be a normal Muslim like everyone else.
“What if I wanna be something different when I grow up?” I said.
We were going to Laleh Park for a weekend outing, and my dad clearly wasn’t in the mood to have a weighty conversation or to teach me a grand life lesson, so he made a joke about my question. He smiled and said something like, “What the heck else are you gonna be? A Chinese monk?” But when I repeated my question seriously, he perked up with a frown, glanced around to make sure no one was listening, and whispered, Shut up! He was very stern all of a sudden, and I didn’t understand why he was being so mean.
I wanted to cry then, but now I realize that he was just nervous, probably even frightened. He didn’t know what kinds of people were sitting around us. There were no religious officials in turbans, but the person next to us could very well have been the family member of a powerful cleric, or the close friend of someone in the Revolutionary Guard. You never knew who was who, so it was always best to watch your mouth in public.
I felt ashamed, and I recall my chest constricting and pressing down on itself, trying to suffocate whatever lofty sensation had led me to envision a different future for myself. I had to be Muslim. That was my fate, and there was no question about it.
That feeling of suffocation is exactly what the Iranian people have felt for the past 45 years. During that time, Iran has gone from a brutal monarchy ruled by the Shah to a murderous theocracy ruled by fundamentalist clerics. The Shah sold Iran out by being what many called a Western puppet, a spineless leader whose industrial, economic, and oil policies were implemented in accordance with American instructions, which left the Iranian people feeling betrayed and disempowered. Thus, when he was overthrown in 1979, he was replaced by a religious nationalist, Ayatollah Khomeini, who refused to establish any rapport with America and created an Islamic theocracy. As we know now, Khomeini’s Islamic Republic turned out to be an atrocious regime of its own, rife with human rights abuses.
Again today the Iranian people find themselves disillusioned, longing for a better life. Darab represents the future of our country, a land where “no one suffers” and “everyone lives in happiness,” and Homay represents the tyrannies of the past and the present, the Shah and Khomeini, the injustices that the Iranian people have encountered throughout their lives.
For the past three months, with Iran in turmoil, my extended family in Tehran has been keeping me updated on everything that’s been happening. My cousin tells me that her college classes have been canceled, and that armed guards (Basij members) are stationed outside of her university, shooting students with rubber bullets and paintballs and sometimes even real guns. Universities all around the country have shut down so that students and professors can join the protests, but the Revolutionary Guard has ramped up their attacks, beating people with batons, stabbing them with knives, and dragging them into vans to take them to hidden torture sites. Every once in a while, you see footage of blindfolded activists sitting on the ground in undisclosed locations, mumbling forced apologies through bloodied lips and declaring their loyalties to the Islamic Republic.
“Everything you’ve heard and seen about us is true,” my cousin tells me. “People are dying left and right, but there’s a different feeling in the air this time. Everyone’s motivated. They want change, and they’re not gonna settle for anything less.”
The regime has shut down the internet, so communication with my cousin is difficult, but she uses filtershekans (special VPNS and proxies) to get around the ban and contact me through Instagram. Her messages are usually direct and boldly informative, but sometimes she becomes laconic and it feels like she’s speaking in code, veiling her words so as not to attract too much attention to herself. The Revolutionary Guard monitors all telecommunications systems in Iran, so it’s never a good idea to speak too critically of the regime online, or even at home.
My parents keep in touch with one of my uncles in the city of Gohardasht, and they say he does the same. “He says contradictory things,” my dad tells me. “Last week he said he was excited about all the chaos, because it meant that the regime was under pressure. But yesterday he said he wishes the protests would stop, because young people shouldn’t disobey authority.”
My uncle is an old man who remembers what Iran was like before the Islamic revolution. He’s told me before that he’s an atheist who hates theocracy, but I also know that he works for City Hall, which means that he’s always expected to keep up appearances and be professional and speak favorably of the clerical establishment. If word ever got out that he was ranting against the regime or supporting rioters in the street, he’d not only lose his job, he’d probably be incarcerated for treason. So it’s obvious that on certain days, when fear and a sense of duty overtake him, he feels compelled to rebuke protestors and defend authority.
A few weeks ago, he was driving on the highway to the grocery store, and he ran into a group of protestors who’d set up a blockade in the middle of the road. They were shouting “Death to the Dictator!” and throwing rocks at armed guards, and the guards threw teargas that seeped into my uncle’s car.
“I started coughing like crazy,” he messaged my dad on WhatsApp. “My eyes were burning so bad, I couldn’t even find the door handle. I was stuck in the car and I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was gonna die.”
He thankfully managed to pull over to the side of the road and step out of the car until the smoke cleared, but the incident goes to show is that fear and oppression are ever-present in the Islamic Republic. They’re a natural part of life, especially for the younger generation that has grown up after 1979 and has never experienced anything other than life under a theocracy.
Young people nowadays recognize that their opportunities are limited, that their futures are bleak, but they have no idea why this misery has been foisted upon them. They’ve all seen pictures of Western society, where fashionably dressed women flaunt their hair in public, where men and women sit in the same classrooms and couples embrace one another in the streets, but they can’t fully imagine what that life is like, because it’s nothing but a vague image to them, a fantastical notion of freedom that wasn’t meant for them. That freedom is nothing but a yearning, a desperate longing for better days that may never come. It’s a gray pall that hangs over their lives.
I distinctly remember what it feels like. I used to sink into depression as a child for reasons that I couldn’t pinpoint, and out of nowhere I’d start feeling guilty about all those times that I hadn’t prayed before going to bed, about all those surahs from the Quran that I hadn’t memorized yet, especially those that the mullahs on TV discussed as being particularly important. My family, just like many other families in Iran, wasn’t particularly religious, but what resided in all of our minds was an underlying sense of ingratitude, a perpetual indebtedness that had been pounded into our heads by the regime in order to encourage us to brood about God, about Islam, about the welfare of the Islamic Republic.
Today, the people of Iran are protesting against this false indebtedness. They’re fighting against the rhetoric that has manipulated and guilt-tripped them into subservience for the past 43 years, and the ferocity with which they’re pouring out into the streets shows that a revolution has already taken place in their minds. They’re not afraid anymore. They’re willing to risk their lives to demand their rights. Just as my cousin said, their rebellion feels different this time. People took to the streets in 2009, in 2017–2018, and even in 2020, but all those times they failed to enact the changes that they wanted. They were squelched by the Basij and pushed back into their homes and told to remain quiet, and their anger mounted and mounted like “a seething volcano,” as the renowned political analyst Abbas Milani called it. We felt the rumblings of that volcano during the pandemic, when lack of vaccines and proper healthcare caused a roil of discontent, and now that it has finally erupted, it’s obvious that it won’t subside anytime soon. I firmly believe that the only remedy is revolution, a complete overhaul of the system. And I feel deep in my heart that this time, the country could potentially change for good, that we, the Persian people, could be victorious, because we are the descendants of noble warriors like Darab. Courage runs through our blood. The warrior-spirit thrives within us. It’s part of our history, our culture, our identity, and justice as Darab envisioned it is doubtless part of our destiny.
Mohammad Hakima is a NYC-based author. He immigrated to the United States in August of 1998 from Tehran, Iran, and started writing after he learned to speak English. His work is published in Trampset, JMWW, Maudlin House and etc. His stories have been twice a Finalist and once Shortlisted for the William Wisdom Faulkner prize. His work has received support from Vermont Studio Center. He works as a high school special education teacher and has an MFA in fiction from The New School. He is currently querying his debut novel.
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