Guardian: I am fourteen years old. It is southern Iran in the summer of 1977. Most people have not yet heard of Ayatollah Khomeini or an Islamic revolution. The high school building sits on an acre of dry land. We play soccer every day behind the school. The heat is oppressive, and, after an hour on the field, we rush to the water fountains and line up to let cold water wash the dust and sweat off our young sunburnt faces. I take the shortest line, where only one classmate is in front of me. But I am immediately warned by other classmates: Hey, you can’t drink from that water fountain, not after he has. And why not?, I ask. He is a Baha’i, they say.
Despite their warning, I drink from the fountain. I am thirsty and this is, after all, the shortest line. They tell me I am dirty now. Najes!, they say. That means impure; it is the degrading word used to describe some of Iran’s religious minorities, particularly Baha’is. My classmates insist that, as pure and clean Muslims, they would never drink from the same fountain as a Baha’i. My Baha’i friend is quiet, smiles at me softly, and politely walks away.
I had not grown up in a religious family and was unfamiliar with the proper ways of keeping myself “pure.” Later that day, I asked my mother, a girls’ high school principal, why my friends could not drink from the same fountain that a Baha’i drank from. She started laughing. She said these were uneducated and superstitious beliefs. Don’t worry. They don’t matter. They are on the margins of our society.