December 27, 1982
Istanbul, Ataturk airport.
I always knew how to hate; I hated the stare of the travelers standing in line, ranting or laughing out loud, assured of their lawful status, and I hated the airport’s bathrooms, with half-walls and half-doors, shaking lights and dying flies, crying babies and hushed lullabies in a foreign language. I hated the way the Turkish officer at the box flirted with the young girl in red and the way the young girl smiled to hide her unease, the way the limping guard pushed an old man to the end of line and the way the old man remained silent, as if he deserved to be pushed. I hated the way Kareem the smuggler woke me up this morning, with a kick, the way he talked to the cab driver, showing off his fake golden chain and bracelet and watch, and the way he left me a minute ago – in haste; the same way I had to leave. I hated how Mother stood at our doorway, wearing her green raincoat even though it wasn’t raining, and didn’t dare cry, afraid of messing up my mood on that blissful day of my leaving, and the way Father wept so I could remember him forever. I hated Khomeini, I hated the Shah, and I hated Saddam, and the Islamic boys following me in lust, or blocking the streets, searching the houses, running the city, getting wasted, dying in the muddy borders, and I hated the way the women in black chador called me “my sister” but avoided touching me and the way I ignored them and took them for nonhumans. I hated the bombs and how they forced me to listen to silence or to noise, and to miss the light leaking through the sheer curtains of my room, and to miss this small space in time when to open my window, or to listen to loud music, or to put red color on my bloodless lips and nails wouldn’t have been called an act of temerity.
I hated even more the nurse who pulled the sheet over Ramin’s face, the doctor who gave up on saving him, the Mullah who skipped the last blessing in a rush to go home, the people who didn’t show up for his funeral, and I hated, hated myself, more than anyone else, because I didn’t show up either, and I hated my indifference, and his dying without a good fight, and hated the way he hated me and us and the world and the way the world hated him back, the way I loved him and hated him, at the same time.
Yes, I hated a lot, maybe, but hating was just the easy part.
“Last call for all passengers boarding flight number Seventy four to Paris. Please present yourself at the gate 3A,” the announcer announced. I looked up at the departure panel. My flight wasn’t there yet.
I glanced at the cover of my fake passport and wondered whether the traces of my fingerprints, or the whiteness of my thin lips, were going to draw attention to my anxiety, or to reveal my real name. I wished to be invisible. I wished Kareem could have calmed me down one more time. I pressed my passport harder, as if it was a slippery object, as if I were surprised at his leaving, as if it wasn’t all expected or planned. But hadn’t he repeated each detail, at least a million times? Just this morning, before we left Blue Hotel, hadn’t he told me how he was going to watch me from afar, and how he was going to make sure that everything would go smoothly, and how he would protect me so I shouldn’t be scared?
I was terrified.
Beyond the steamy windows of the terminal, people ran, cars sped up, and the motorcycles wandered in between them. Shapes and shadows appeared and disappeared. The humidity clouded my view. What if the pouring rain delayed my flight?
I checked the panel again. At the bottom of the list, the Air France flight 79, gate 4 to London.
I took a deep breath and rose, carrying my small valise. I walked slowly toward the end of the waiting line, where most travelers had turned, looking back, waving at someone they loved. I followed their gaze to take a last glimpse of Istanbul. In the distance, Kareem’s dark face emerged for a second among the crowd gathered behind the rope dividing the zone of transit. “You don’t know me and I don’t know you,” he had told me. So I looked at him like looking at a stranger, knowing he wasn’t going to wave at me, knowing from this moment on, I was going to be on my own.
The line moved slowly and as soon as I passed through the metal detector, the world behind me vanished, as if I had become the last passenger in the terminal.
At the checkpoint, the police officer held a fake smile under his thick moustache. I stepped forward and passed him my papers with a shaking hand, avoiding his eyes. He stared back and forth between me and my picture, and his smile evaporated. Gradually, with the turn of each page, he was losing his good mood, his hospitality, his flirtatiousness facing a lonely 23-year-old tourist and I didn’t know why. Maybe the sweat of my palm had dampened the cover of my passport, or maybe the picture of that girl wearing that hideous full scarf and heavy eyeliner didn’t resemble me at all. Don’t panic, I thought. I had done everything Kareem had told me. But wasn’t this officer the one who had been paid to be friendly with me? The one who was supposed to ignore my flawed paperwork and let me leave?
I tried to hold a smile.
He kept examining my passport, and instead of stamping it, or giving it back to me, or wishing me a nice trip, he passed it to another officer.
No. It wasn’t going as smoothly as Kareem had predicted.
Both officers looked at me with pity or mistrust, whispering, arguing, taking notes, talking on the phone and making unnecessary gestures, until two guards emerged from nowhere and held my arms firmly. I looked back at the spot I had seen Kareem last.
He wasn’t there anymore.
The guards pulled my arm behind my back and the coldness of handcuffs pressed my wrists. They dragged me, and the foreign gawk of the crowd weakened my resistance. My steps brushed the floor. The sweat ran along my spine. The heat of a warm hand pushed down my head. I looked at my boots and everything turned blurry and humid, as if those black rainy clouds from outside had penetrated the huge space of the terminal. Everything was gray. What if this grayness wasn’t temporary, but the permanent color of the world? What if Kareem had abandoned me?
# # #
The air smelled like the moldy food. The first interrogation room in a chain of the many others that followed had no window. Its walls, covered with framed decrees and laws written in Turkish. Its ceiling, low.
The guards screamed in my face and their saliva spattered all over my skin. They threw me on an iron bench, and I showed no resentment. The officer seated before me ignored my presence. His black eyes, hidden under thick eyelashes, moved fast over a paper that my guards had given him. He had no moustache, and a large brown mole disfigured his round cheek.
The room grew quiet as the guards left, following the officer’s signal. The tag on his chest read: Mohammad Mehran Bey. He frowned, going through my fake passport. “Afsaneh Farmand,” he said, as he held the evidence of my crime.
I nodded, remembering my new name. I wasn’t Roya Boustan anymore. Kareem had told me to reveal nothing. “You go mute,” he said. I was mute, even deaf, stuck with this short angry man. Anyway, none of the few sentences I had learned in Turkish could have helped me in this moment, in this room. So I remained quiet, and memorized the order of the folders on his organized desk. Mine was black. I stared at the vague lines of the mosaic covering the floor, counting them, calculating the approximate length of the room, multiplied by its width, guessing its height, estimating the volume of my suffocation, the volume of the missing air.
He waved at me to approach his desk. “I’m innocent,” I said, and he nodded, as if he already knew it, pointing impatiently at the small box at the bottom of a paper. I signed the document hastily without understanding its significance. I was just happy to leave the room. I was just happy that the interrogation had ended and I was still alive.
Following the tall guard with blond hair, I remembered Kareem’s words, “You’re safe. I’ve bribed them with your father’s money. I have the right connections,” he told me, staring at my gold necklace. Why did I take that stare for lust, and not for greed? Why did Father trust Kareem? My father’s entire savings wasn’t enough for a smuggler’s loyalty. How could I have been so clueless, so naïve?
Every few steps, the guard turned back and shouted. Walk faster, it meant. A dark long corridor took us to the back door of the building, where a police car waited.
The storm sprinkled a few drops of rain on my face, before I was pushed inside. I liked the velvet texture of the car seats and the warmness of the air. The engine roared and the guards – sitting in front – forgot to be angry with me. My body ached as the car drove over bumps and slopes of the narrow road, yet I didn’t want the ride to end, not knowing whether they were going to threaten me or to beat me up, trying to find out my real name. Who should I be, if I can’t be myself? The lightning broke and the cold face of Mrs. Mostofi, my first grade teacher, swept over me and I heard her voice in my head, “show me your palms.” Handcuffed, I tried to overcome my shaking. I had to be positive. I had to relax as Kareem had told me, but I couldn’t stop thinking, what if these guards, like Mrs. Mostofi, enjoyed torturing me.