It was September 28th 1980.
We were told to hide in our basement, if we had one, or go to a public shelter, though these weren’t yet built. People were also advised to take a shovel, in the case they became trapped under ruins. “We’ll stay here,” Father said. “I don’t like to leave my house. If we close all the bedroom doors, our hallway will be safe.” Mother glanced at me and raised her eyebrows discreetly, to tell me he wouldn’t change his mind.
After the electricity was cut, the whole city went dark. We gathered in the small space of our hallway. Sitting on the floor, we played cards. But after a few hours, I got anxious from Mother’s efforts to hide her tears, and bored of Father’s absurd hopes. “I prefer my room,” I said. “Don’t worry. I’ll stay away from the window.” But my room was too small, so Father told me to hide in my closet. Mother brought me a flashlight and some candles in case I ran out of batteries.
I crawled to my room, grabbed a book, went inside the closet, and curled into the fetal position to fit in its deep, messy space. If I stretched my arms, I could touch both walls and if I stood up, I could reach the ceiling with the tip of my fingers. My clothes hung against my face and the smell of old shoes made me wonder whether the objects would die too. No longer could my heavy books of philosophy offer their meanings, as I sat on the cold floor of the closet, staring at the words without understanding their significance. Repeatedly, I read the same page, the same paragraph. Gazing at the space between the lines, I drifted into an absence without a beginning and without an end. An existence without a direction or purpose.
And I remembered Ramin telling me, “I never found the meaning of life in your books. Life’s out there.” But this time, I knew if I opened the door of my hiding – out there – there was nothing but an endless darkness.
Waiting for the Iraqi raid, I turned off the flashlight and my closet floated in obscurity. I felt afraid of becoming a target, and felt to be at the center of the world.
I heard the hiss of melting candles, the fall of spiders and the buzz of thirsty mosquitoes. The dust whispered in the air and I waited, grasping the sound of the moon shining cold.
Coming from above, a noise like a fly dying on the ledge of the window blurred the silence. It grew louder, like a giant bee flying over Tehran and the deafening fireworks of anti-aircraft rockets shook the closet.
I pressed my eyes and imagined the walls of my room cracking, our building collapsing, women screaming, children dying, men falling, and the curtain my mother had sewed burning.
My closet, exploding.
A man shouted that we were safe, that God was great and his voice shut off my imagining. The blasts had stopped. The planes were gone and I knew that I was still alive. The closet, still intact.
A creepy sense of relief transcended the neighborhood and leaked through the bricks and cement. I exhaled with guilt, wondering how longer I was going to survive.
The sirens shrieked like mating birds, and I left the closet. I pulled the curtain back and pushed the window open to let the breeze and ashes touch my face. Out on the horizon, lines of smoke soared and hovered over the city and I vaguely recognized the rising shadow of a black sunrise.
It was the first night. The first morning.
Every night. Every morning.
The sun always rose above the dark walls of the city. It was the only thing that never let us down.
# # #
Our sleep lasted only an hour or two.
The rushing footsteps in the hallway sounded more real than just a bad dream. The irritating friction of the key turning in the door made both of us jump. A face appeared behind the small window, and we held hands like old friends.
The door squeaked and a group of blue uniformed men and their prisoners crowded the room. A family escaping Iran? Pushed in, they bumped the chairs, stumbled over each other’s shoes, or stepped on the long chador of one of the women. The officer with the mole, Mehran Bey, came in last. He shut the door and waited for his subordinates to settle the order among this small group of people who couldn’t hide their anxiety and anger. They kept grumbling or whimpering, still, they all followed the guards’ directions; they lined up near the walls and shut their mouths.
The two veiled women held each other tight and stayed in a corner. The boy standing next to us breathed like an asthmatic. He covered his face and said something unintelligible. His Rolex looked real and his jacket smelled like new leather.
The oldest of the prisoners, a bald man – tall and skinny with a snobbish attitude – approached the officer. “This is just another detention room,” he said in Persian. His voice was husky, like an old smoker. “You promised I could make a call.”
Didn’t he know that they couldn’t understand him?
One of the guards stepped forward, standing nose to nose with him. “I have to talk to your superior,” the old man said.
“He’s out of his mind,” Mina whispered and let go of my hand. “Calm down,” she said to him, but the old man ignored her. “I’m a Colonel of the Shah’s army,” he said, glancing at us. “Not a loser like them.” Everyone looked at him with disdain, and the guard forced him to step back.
Mina took a cautious step forward and called the officer’s name. Mehran Bey turned and frowned, wiggling his index finger at her. All eyes shifted to my new friend and as she began speaking Turkish, the astonishment felt like a shared emotion by every person in the room.
“Tell him about my connections,” the Colonel said.
Ignoring the old man, Mehran Bey whispered to Mina, acting as if there were only the two of them, and while Mina spoke, he leaned forward and listened attentively, watching her lips. I wasn’t sure whether they were even talking about the old Colonel’s highly placed acquaintances.
The room grew quiet, and I felt isolated. I wished I were bold and brave like Mina, able to make myself understood, or at least able to comprehend my guards. If I knew Turkish, I’d have told them how hungry I was. That I wanted to take a shower. That I wanted to call my father. That I hadn’t done anything wrong. That I wasn’t a criminal, and didn’t deserve to be in jail. That if they were in my place, they’d have done the same thing. My heart beat with excitement, and my mind filled with hope. Maybe Mina could tell them how innocent we were. Maybe she could convince them to let us go. Maybe I could – after all – catch my flight.
At the end of their discussion, Mehran Bey looked pleased. Mina stepped back while the officer and one of the guards spoke quietly.
“So what did he say?” the Colonel asked.
“He’s going to follow up on your case personally,” Mina said, and the old man’s face brightened.
“Good,” he said, and sat back on his seat. “He’ll see that I’m not bluffing.”
One of the women in chador helped the other to sit on the floor, like a mother taking care of her sick daughter. The older woman approached and stood behind me as if I could shield her from any harm. At the officer’s signal, Mina walked to the center of the room. “Lieutenant Mehran Bey is willing to help us with our needs,” she said, and threw a quick glance at him. “But only under certain conditions.” The old Colonel stirred on his seat and the woman behind me breathed heavily. “In one word, it’s all about money,” Mina said. “Our money.”
The Colonel uttered angry words. “I don’t trust him or you,” he said. His veins stood out at his temples and a faded purple line appeared under his throat, and I wondered what could have happened to this man. “I don’t give them a dime,” he said and got up.
Wrong move, I thought, and watched the irritated officer beckoning his guards, who pushed the old man to the ground and kicked out without mercy. The old officer of the Shah, who used to be rich, influential and respected, didn’t scream or complain. Leaning against the wall, kneeling and rubbing his chest and legs, whispering “Mother whores.” He was lucky that the Turks didn’t know Persian.
The air turned silent, a grimy kind of silence.
I caught Mehran Bey’s dry nod at Mina. She cleared her throat. “Each service has a price,” she said, and gave us the menu; hot tea was the cheapest, a wool blanket the most expensive. “What else do you want?”
I was hungry. “Good food,” I said. I hadn’t eaten much at the hotel. Kareem told me I was going to have a great meal during the flight. He said Air France had the best food and how he missed French cuisine. Much better than the English bacon, he told me. I had never been to England or to France, or even to any of the expensive restaurants in the northern Tehran, as my father could never afford those fancy places.
The old man pulled his chair to a corner. “I’d never sell myself for a piece of bread,” he said. Catching his gaze – proud and bitter — I recalled Kareem telling me that each man had a price, but some egos were too expensive.
“I’d like to call my parents,” the young man said, and turned red.
The veiled woman remained quiet.
At the end, Mina spoke to Mehran Bey, and the officer took notes. One of the guards made the round of the room and we emptied our pockets.
After they left, everyone looked exhausted.
“Where’s the bathroom?” the older woman asked, her chador slipping.
Mina smiled. “Pound hard on the door until the guards show up,” she said. “That one’s a free service.”
Everyone laughed, and the veiled woman fixed her veil with rigor, moving back toward the other one. The young man walked toward the Colonel and offered him his help. I checked my watch, and remembered it was broken.
The tension in the room had dispersed and everybody sat. Still, a heavy silence dragged the time and filled the room with the usual coldness and discomfort among strangers. “If we’re going to stay in this room together, we better get to know each other,” Mina said winked at me – as if we were best friends – before introducing herself. “I studied medicine in Paris, the fifth year.”
“Let me guess,” the Colonel said and rested one of his legs on another chair. “You went back home to have a fun little vacation two years ago, but the war started. The government closed the borders and you got stuck.” Easy guess, I thought. “I used to be Colonel Reza Najafi,” the old man continued. “Part of the Special Imperial Brigade. But now I’m just a fugitive among other fugitives, like you.”
“Me too,” the young man said naively, as if he had totally missed the Colonel’s sarcastic tone. “I am Bobak Rahmanzadeh-Tafreshi.” He smiled with a frightened look, like a child amused by our reaction at his long last name. “I had to leave Iran because my parents forced me. I was drafted. I had to go to war, doing my military service.”
The woman in chador introduced herself as Mrs. Montazeri. “We were on our way to London,” she said. “My daughter, Somayeh, needs a cure for her pain. Her doctor didn’t know what was wrong with her.”
“Where is your husband?” the Colonel asked.
The woman sighed. “My late husband – God bless him – passed away five years ago. Somayeh was only nine,” she said, and we all pitied her.
Everyone shifted in their seats with obvious malaise. The girl on the floor moaned and her mother ran to her side. She lifted her daughter’s head and gave a gentle kiss on her forehead.
Mina nodded at me discreetly to tell me it was my turn.
I felt the blood rush beneath my skin. I cleared my throat and tried to set order to the disorder in my head. I didn’t plan to let them know about Ramin and his death and how much I loved him and why we grew apart. “My name is Afsaneh Farmand, and I left because they closed the universities,” I said breathlessly, feeling the weight of their glare, feeling like choking. “I didn’t want my future ruined by this war. We all live only once.”
How could they disagree? They all nodded and smiled at each other politely, and I took a deep breath of relief. I was never a good public speaker.
Minutes later, a guard brought us olives soaked in water, with cold tea – probably another free service. While we ate, nobody talked. Maybe it had to do with our fatigue or with the food’s bad taste, or maybe the uncertainty of our future had finally sunk in. In this silence, sitting next to each other, isolated and far away in our own melancholic thoughts, we let go of everything we had hoped for, remembering everything we had desperately escaped from.
The sick girl cried silently, and I watched Mina dabbing a wet napkin on her forehead. She whispered words of hope into the ears of the desperate mother who thanked my friend with a small prayer.
Mina and I were so different, I thought.
Strangely, I felt sorry for this particular mother and daughter. I had always despised the women in chador, the same way I had always despised my own limitations. To be so quiet, so shy, so uncertain, like Ramin. Like Mother. Like the whole generations of my ancestors. Why hadn’t I learned to speak up for myself? Why did I need Mina to be my voice? Hadn’t I read so many books? Hadn’t I studied so much, about ancient history, and philosophy, and about mathematics? How could I understand the topology of an n-dimensional space or the challenges of a non-Euclidean geometry so easily, and still, I couldn’t understand a bit about the one-dimensional world of gods and beliefs and martyrdom, and what about my pathetic falling apart by my own hatred, my own outrage, my irrational anger at the simple sight of a woman in black chador? Why did I have to be born at their century? To be tagged with their label? Why did I have to share their destiny?
No. I hadn’t committed their sins, I wasn’t like them, I couldn’t be one of them, I thought, and kept repeating it, until a sudden fatigue closed my eyes for the night.