Growing up in Essex, my summers in Iran felt like magical interludes from reality – but it was a spell that always had to be broken
When I was 12, a bespectacled boy with a shock of thick hair and his forearm in plaster gave me the first Harry Potter book. We were at that age when gifts need little occasion, and this marked the last day of our first year of secondary school. It was 1999, and the book was unknown to me. I was mildly embarrassed by its childish watercolour cover, but I dutifully packed it in my satchel when, two days later, my family flew to Iran for our six-week summer holiday. On the large, faded floor cushions of my grandparents’ apartment in Tehran’s central district, I read the book aloud, flanked by my twin younger sisters, while the adults took their siesta and scorched air and car horns filtered through the mosquito blinds. We fell for it instantly, rooting for Harry as he was transported from life as a misfit in a gloomy suburban cupboard to the secret world of wizardry in which he found fellowship, adventure and belonging.
In the years that followed, I would read each successive book to my sisters. Even from the start, they were too old to be read to, but it was more gratifying and companionable to follow Harry’s story together, and besides, we could only ever get our hands on one copy. Every now and then one of us would sigh and say, “Don’t you feel sad when it hits you that Harry Potter isn’t real?” We lived in Southend-on-Sea and attended the local school, an underperforming comprehensive housed in a squat brutalist building on the edge of a large council estate. Most of the pupils were poor, and many underfed, which gave rise to an unshakeable fog of hopelessness, shame and anxiety. While there were few children of colour, racism prospered alongside the many other casual cruelties. With our packed lunches and summer holidays, we were the lucky ones (as our parents often reminded us), but we nonetheless lived in hope that the prosaic, heartless world around us was just the opening scene of a story with a stronger narrative, a better set of characters, and the clean justice of magic.