I was an angry teenager — angry at home; angry at school; angry with theocracy; angry about injustice; angry about hypocrisy. I was especially angry with anyone I thought was trying to mold me into a model of their choosing, and there were many people hell-bent on doing exactly that.
When living in a conservative place, you are often doomed to becoming a social pariah by simply being yourself. I became a social pariah in my late teens. I had no religious affiliation; I was a staunch liberal, and a determined nonconformist. Being an outcast had filled me with wrath, but I decided to sublimate my rage into a lifelong passion — writing. This is the story of how that came to be.
While I would constantly cut class at school as a 17-year-old, I decided to start learning English after being exposed to Shel Silverstein’s (and later, Raymond Carver’s) work in translation, thanks to my aunt. Some months later, Ali, a school classmate, told me about the music of Linkin Park. In those days, unbeknownst to our school principal, Ali and I would exchange American audio CDs every other week. Occasionally, we’d get caught and be put on probation. The first Linkin Park song I heard was Numb, and just like that, they became an indispensable part of my musical mantra. I remember grappling with my agonizingly slow dial-up Internet connection at home for an hour, just so I could obtain the lyrics to their 2003 album, "Meteora."
Not everyone in Tehran had satellite TV in their homes back then, so I would buy the latest American music videos from a shopkeeper named Sepehr, who had a computer store near where I lived. Fearing the shutdown of his store by the government, Sepehr sold bootlegged music albums and videos only to those customers he knew personally. Once, he gave me some Linkin Park music videos that I noticed had been lyric-subtitled in their original English.
The words appeared in flawless synchronicity with the music, and the person responsible for the subtitles had left his Yahoo Messenger ID at the end of every video. I sent him a message with my cell number. I checked my phone at every opportunity for the next two days, but no word came. I figured he either hadn’t checked my message yet or was leery of getting in touch with a total stranger. He could have gotten fined or arrested for selling music videos to Sepehr. Two days later, a text from an unknown number appeared on the screen of my clunky LG phone: “Salaam! This is Parham. I have very little credit on my SIM card. Give me a call.”
We met at a park where old men usually sat and played backgammon. Parham was wearing torn jeans and a white T-shirt with a black motif that read, I AM FREE. He had put on a pair of All Star sneakers, and his spiky hairstyle was shining with a trace of gel. Parham told me about himself. He played the guitar in his free time. He told me that he has once seen Chester Bennington, Linkin Park's lead singer, in his dream, offering to hang out together and smoke hookah, which was Parham’s favorite hobby. He also told me about clandestine Linkin Park fan meetings in Tehran and invited me to one.
Parham and I met again two weeks later. We walked down Valiasr, the longest avenue in Tehran, which connects its south to its north and has tall overarching trees.
“I should tell you about three rules in our meetings,” Parham said.
“What rules?” I said.
“Rule number one: We only talk about Linkin Park during our meetings. I know you listen to Michael Jackson and other pop artists as well, but don’t mention those in our meeting. Their music is too sappy for us.”
“Rule number two: We’re all just friends and we want to stay that way.”
“Rule number three: We always go Dutch when it comes to paying the check.”
“Gereftam — got it,” I said.
We paced until arriving at a café. I was feeling nervous as Parham went in with aplomb, exchanging pleasantries with a young barista. I followed behind him. Through a cloud of smoke, I saw about five or six tables, all occupied by young people. The biggest table had been taken by 12 people, seven boys and five girls. They all rose from their seats to greet Parham.
“Hey! What’s up, Parham?” said a bulky, green-eyed boy, giving Parham a bro hug. His name was Naader.
We talked about Linkin Park’s music. We discussed the meaning of their lyrics. Some of us talked about our personal lives and how the music had been of enormous help. I felt thrilled. Finally, I had found friends who could fathom my angst and accept me without reservations. That day, Naader gave each of us a copy of Linkin Park’s 2004 Rock am Ring concert, which I watched for the umpteenth time just the other day. At the end of the meeting, Naader invited us to the next gathering, at his home. He said there was going to be a small party.
Arriving at Naader’s home, I felt worried about the possibility of getting detained for simply partying with a group of young boys and girls. The light music inside the elevator eased my stress a tiny bit. What the hell am I doing here? I asked myself. But it was too late to cop out; I had already arrived on the 10th floor. When the doors slid open, I could hear the song "One Step Closer" piercing into my eardrum. The apartment’s door had been left ajar; soon Naader showed up and invited me in.
Seconds later, I found myself in a large living room and noticed a table full of snacks and alcoholic drinks. The room was dark with a few small lamps hanging from the ceiling, casting shimmering light on the Persian rugs. The air was filled with the reek of smoke. About 20 people, boys and girls, were jumping up and down, singing along. The guitar riffs were conclusive and infectious. Chester’s voice echoed across the room. It was the closest thing we could get to a Linkin Park concert.
Twelve years on, I have a ticket to go see the band live in Mansfield, Massachusetts, later this month. It'll be the first live Linkin Park show in my life. I wish all my fellow Iranian Linkin Park fans, especially Parham, were here with me. After all, I’m only the continuation of their dreams. It sure will be an overwhelming experience. There will be tears of joy, longing, pain, and frustration at some point. And I have no plans to stop them.
I shall remain true to myself. Being true to myself has always proven to be immensely rewarding.
The passage above is a revised excerpt from the author’s book-in-progress, "Sea of Ash: A Memoir." In order to protect the privacy of individuals, all the names have been changed.