I first met Omid (not his real name) 15 years ago, when I was conducting field research on Muslim migration. He was born in eastern Tehran in 1973, during the final years of the monarchy. He was a child when his neighbours joined the revolution against the Shah. Ayatollah Khomeini called it a revolt of the ‘barefoot’ masses for bread, freedom and an Islamic Republic, but the bread and freedom didn’t come to Omid’s neighbourhood.
In the long stretches of unemployment between temporary odd jobs, Omid filled his free time hanging out on the street corner with other young men. They drank alcohol, smoked hashish, and occasionally used opium. In 1999 Omid spent six months in jail charged with possessing alcohol. He left prison determined not to return, but couldn’t see any other future for himself in Iran.
I met him in Paris in 2003, in a park near the Gare de l'Est. He had just arrived in France after three years in transit in Turkey and Greece. Along with a couple of dozen other men from Iran and Afghanistan, he spent his days moving between charities for food and other handouts, and sleeping in the park. Three months later, Omid moved to Calais to try his chances crossing the Channel. Not long afterwards I got a call from England. A Kurdish smuggler had helped Omid with the journey to Birmingham free of charge.
Omid applied for asylum. His application was rejected. He disappeared from the public radar. He did occasional construction jobs for low pay. He developed a heroin habit, lost weight, and stopped calling his mother and family in Iran. One day he took a full bottle of pills from home, bought a can of Coca Cola from a corner shop, and walked to a nearby park. ‘I took a few pills and a sip of Coke and repeated that every few minutes,’ he told me years later. A jogger discovered Omid’s unconscious body in the park. He woke up in hospital, furious at having been saved. Within hours he was knocking on his dealer’s door.
Eventually, one evening in 2011, Omid came to a decision. ‘I had reached the end of the line,’ he told me. He smoked his last dose of heroin, bought a thick length of cable, and locked himself in his small rented room to quit cold turkey. ‘I would either win this war or hang myself with the cable at the end,’ he said. ‘I would not leave the room an addict.’ Five days later, he unlocked the door and left the room clean.
Omid is now a legal UK resident and owns a small construction business. He hires other Iranian immigrants, recovering addicts from neighbourhoods like his in Tehran and other cities. I went to see him at his new home in Birmingham in 2016. His living-room walls were decorated with posters of Dariush, a singer of the Shah’s time now living in exile in Los Angeles, and Farah Diba, Iran’s last queen, also in exile in the US. Omid’s laptop played nostalgic songs about life before the 1979 revolution.
‘I would have been killed protesting the government or died of a drug overdose if I had stayed in Iran,’ Omid told me last April. He hadn’t seen his mother since he left Iran in 2000. His younger brother died of a crystal meth overdose. His anger with the government in Tehran was at a new high.
The protests that erupted across Iran last month energised Omid. The young people defying the government were poor, hopeless and angry, as he had been. Had he been in Iran, Omid would have joined the protests. Instead, he posted videos of the demonstrations on Facebook, along with statements of support from Reza Pahlavi (the Shah’s son), Binyamin Netanyahu, Nikki Haley and others, and tweets by Donald Trump. I was concerned with the chances of Iran spiralling into chaos and unending violence, but Omid euphorically embraced the political eruption. For the first time in his life, he was witnessing the revolt of his people against the Islamic Republic.