It was a chilly evening in Tehran in 1983. Narges was sitting on the couch, listening to the radio, stroking her daughter’s hair. Asi lay asleep, her head on Narges’s thighs. The apartment was small and didn’t have much furniture. The war limited their luxury. Asi’s grandmother stood at the window, her small figure half-lit by the evening. She looked out through the steamed glass towards the autumn sky. No-one knew what lay behind those dense, livid clouds. A missile could hit their apartment this time, as it had next door. Narges had seen their neighbour’s nine-year-old son dead and bruised under the rubble, taken to the mortuary. He had played volleyball with Asi a couple of times.
The radio was Narges’s saviour. Its noise made her feel she was not alone. Even in their law office, where she worked as a paralegal, there was always a radio on, whizzing or spewing broadcasts or clichéd love songs. She usually knew who was speaking: Amir with his warm husky voice encouraging them to keep hope, or Leila with her solid words reporting about the situation in free countries. The news marched in her brain: news of the villages shot by missiles, news of the borders, the casualties, the martyrs fighting on the borders; the numbers for numbers’ sake. The radio waves travelled to her, and on their way made old women shiver in fear for their young sons taken as prisoners to Iraq. The stories that were whispered from family to family became so familiar it was as if they were her own. Tonight, her story seemed murky and bitter, like Milad’s cigarettes in the ashtray the night he was taken to the prison.
Tonight was long and Narges had to guard the apartment.
She was not a guard. Never had been. She aspired to be a lawyer, that was all. Lawyers were hardly physically strong, and had no need for guns. But it was the rule of their apartment building to have one person from each family take turns keeping watch at nights. And since Milad was taken to prison, he could no longer keep watch.
The revolutionary men had told her that he had helped a communist flee the country. Even if this was so, she was sure he had done it out of friendship, not because of some ideological nonsense. Milad was too simple a man to betray his friends.
But to the revolutionary men, only communists helped communists, and this meant he had sheltered ‘traitors’ in his flat. She knew it was not so and that made her stomach churn. How long would it take them to realise he was innocent? Would he ever return? Now, she had to live alone with five-year-old Asi and a frail mother in a flat that could be struck by a missile any moment. She sighed and exhaled deeply.
At least we are all together, except Milad.
She silently watched Asi, her brown hair gleaming in the faint light, her face bright as if in a sweet dream. She stroked Asi’s hair again. She hated being away from their apartment, working in the office, leaving her dear ones behind. The fear of coming home and seeing the flat crumbled to dust drove her crazy. It had been three years. Three years of this fear, three years of mourning and fight. For how long could they resist? How long until they would become dead inside?
And Milad was gone.
Why did you have to be so careless? You knew they might arrest you for that friend of yours. You knew it and you still did it!
She couldn’t shake these thoughts from her mind. Every time she would only get one answer; the wounding thought that Milad did not care about his family as much as his friends.
The nights were dark and heavy in autumn. She had heard rumours of Mujahids stalking in the foggy streets with guns in their hands. There were many politically active students in their apartment building and they feared that the Mujahids would find and attack them. Hence they always had someone to keep watch.
The Mujahids had sold out the secret passages in the country to Iraqis, forcing tragedies on their own people that left her speechless. And all for nothing. The government in Iran would never change to what the Mujahids wanted it to be; the whole country would turn to ashes, all buildings dilapidated like screwed papers, all children perished for a fucking stupid fight over territory. But thoughts like these were not enough to bring a truce between the two sides.
Narges gently lifted Asi and put her on the couch, sweeping a blanket over her. ‘Mother, sorry to trouble you so, but it’s my turn to do the shift.’
She needed her mother to take care of Asi when she was out. Mamanbozorg had stayed in Tehran despite its danger.
‘Oh, not at all. Asi is so dear to me.’ She looked at her gently. ‘Besides, they are shooting everywhere. I’m as safe here as anywhere else, Narges jan.’
Narges thanked Mamanbozorg shyly, and then put on a thick wool coat to stay warm during the night. She descended the seven flights of stairs. When she reached the ground floor, she asked for the Kalashnikov that belonged to the residents of the apartment. The manager of the building gave her the gun, laughing and telling her not to be afraid when keeping watch – he had seen no-one approaching the apartment in his own shift.
‘You wouldn’t shoot, lady. None of us have ever fired that gun. It’s so old that if you aim at the wall in front of you, the bullet curves and hits you instead. Yeah … it’s that bad! But hold it firmly, so they think you know how to use it. That’s all.’
The gun felt alien and slippery in her hands. Heavier than she had expected. And when she stepped out of the entrance door into the neon-lit streets, she almost wanted to laugh at how she must look. Surely ridiculous, with her big woollen coat and that silly gun hanging from her shoulders. Like a scene from a funny cartoon. Except the gun was real and so was the danger.
She rubbed her eyes. The old, quiet city of Tehran writhed under the hold of war. Towering structures were pocked and defiled by shrapnel shells. The dark abysses of their windows were a sad reminder of the people who used to live in them. The little lights of the still-erect buildings were flickering like fireflies. Behind the apartments, the colossal library of the University of Tehran remained untouched. Before the war began, she used to go to the library to see her fellow students. The political ferment at the time of the Shah had encompassed them all. The students used to hand out political flyers, talking and arguing about how the country could be a better place. They pulled all-nighters in their shared flats, sticking with their political parties and going to the safe wilderness of the mountains surrounding Tehran to talk of their most secret plans for protest. They used to be full of the energy of life, all those who she remembered. Most of them were dead now.
In the universities, the Mujahids, the Marxists and the Islamists studied alongside each other, exchanging ideological books and uniting to overthrow the Shah. They were still untarnished by greed for the throne, only thinking about making a change. And when they finally made the change … it didn’t turn out the way many of them desired. Narges could talk for hours and hours about how they could have all survived, how they could have had a regime that reflected solidarity rather than deep rifts. But in her heart she knew that among all these groups only one would rule them all and the rest would be eliminated.
She met Milad in the university. Milad had shifted from major to major until he finally fixed his passion on history. He had always liked old things. Old monuments, old books, old songs, they fascinated him. Once when he had been out with his friends to distribute flyers, Narges had asked him what he would do if the Shah’s soldiers realised he had taken part in this. He had recited Khayam:
Ah, my Beloved, fill the Cup that clears
To-day of past Regrets and future Fears
To-morrow!-Why, To-morrow I may be
Myself with Yesterday’s Sev’n thousand Years
The lampposts glimmered against a sickly sky, their lights gliding on the puddles here and there. The street their apartment was on joined the main street a few hundred metres away, where once in a while a car lucky to have gasoline passed. The breeze rolled off in the narrow valleys that lay between the tall and short buildings. The only living things she saw were a crow flying back to its nest and a cat that swiftly jumped over the wall of their neighbour’s house. It was always good to see a cat around. When she was small and lived in the country with her parents, she used to go to their Persian yard and play with the cats with a ball of yarn. They would run after the ball curiously, flicking it with their paws. But the war had been hard on cats, too. Meat could scarcely be found. Each family was given a coupon for buying chicken or beef once a week and sometimes the frozen meat was so old that it would poison them. But when it was edible she kept the bones for the cats.
The weather grew colder. She walked to keep herself warm, thrusting the frozen tips of her fingers into her pockets. A thick mist slowly threaded through the apartments, through the fallen iron beams and the crumbled cement. It whirled around the Siberian pines and the tall lampposts, blocking her view until she could no longer see the library or the main street. Particles of water surrounded her in all directions. Something rustled. Narges looked around but could make out nothing through the mist. Then the sound of slow footsteps rose from the dark. She caught her breath.
‘Who’s there?’ she said. Her voice sounded strange to her ears. No-one answered.
The lights had succumbed to the stifling fog. The end of the street was imperceptible. She drifted forwards with unsure steps, feeling like evil faces were peering at her from behind the fallen monuments.
‘Who’s there?’ she whispered. As she crept onward, the echo of a distant caw broke into a wail. Narges stood still.
Then she saw it. The silhouette of a man emerged from the layers of fog, plodding towards the façade of the apartment. She watched in shock as he staggered forward. Hot panic flared in her.
‘Stop! Who are you?’ she asked. She hadn’t prepared for this moment. What was she to do if he was one of the Mujahids? Cold sweat broke out on her face. The figure stopped moving.
‘Narges jan?’ the man uttered. ‘It’s me.’
The outlines of Milad’s face became more visible in the dim light as he approached. His black eyes were hollow and tired; his face hadn’t seen a razor for months. Narges gazed at him, incredulous and hesitant, as though if she so much as turned her look away, the tired man before her would disappear.
‘You … you were in jail.’ The words tumbled from her mouth. Her cold fingers slid on the rifle’s sling. Before his dazed eyes, she lifted the gun, put its black, glistening shape on the floor, and hugged him hard.
He felt thinner in her arms.
He stood there for some time, his hands hanging free. No sound came out of his lips. Then slowly, he threw his hesitant, bony arms around her.
‘Seems like they got off my case at last,’ he mumbled bitterly. ‘They set me free, some of my prison mates also.’ He stroked her hair. ‘I thought of you all the time … I …’ He didn’t finish his sentence.
Burrowed in the calm, warm safety of his arms, Narges didn’t know what to say. She felt a lump in her throat. She had so many questions.
When you took your friend to the people-smugglers did you think of us?
When I spent sleepless nights with the thought of you confined in a cold, dark cell, did you think about what you had done?
She detached her body from his to look into his eyes.
‘Good God … Have they hurt you, Milad? Your knees,’ she asked instead.
‘I’ll be okay … that bastard cell-keeper thought I wouldn’t get out … he told me he saw it in my eyes. That my fate was to die in the cell,’ he said, turning his head away. ‘This pain is nothing … It’s just my body. I was only afraid I would be in there forever.’
The sound of his words seemed to echo against the cold brick walls surrounding them. She had heard about the political prisons from her friends who had experienced it. They said that the cell-keepers tried to disappoint the prisoner’s hope for freedom, to isolate them from whatever is human and lively. Life had been sucked out of Milad’s voice, and sad, new wrinkles rested on his forehead. It was not the time to ask questions.
She pressed her unspoken words hard behind her lips. All that mattered was that he had returned.
‘Let’s go upstairs, Milad. You’ll catch a cold,’ she said at last.
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