Too Long a Sacrifice
He had been to this desert too many times – this was the first time he had come voluntarily, and he did not know why.
He never understood how people could find comfort here, with the blazing, naked, ruthless sun, unfolding flat earth, infamous winds and taste of dust; Behesht-e Zahra was a desert stuffed with corpses.
He stood above the grave of one of his students, Elnaz, killed in the post-election protests. A stray bullet had found her heart and ended her, four years ago. He was here when she was buried.
He had come back since to bury his older brother – heart attack – and to visit the grave, as well as two of his students’.
Mehdi Nosrati committed suicide shortly after the murder of Elnaz, and Ali Nejatim died years ago in a car accident.
He had visited the artists’ section and knew many people there, some of them friends, some casual acquaintances, some people he used to despise when they were alive. Some were killed during the chain murders and some had died naturally.
He had visited the grave of his father; that part of the cemetery was green and offered shade, but even the green parts felt like desert. He had visited his niece, who committed suicide.
In the distance a woman was shrieking incomprehensibly in grief to someone who could not hear.
Elsewhere a man prayed for the departed through a megaphone, his monotone anything but mourful.
Behesht-e Zahra. Zahra’s Paradise – but this was a dumping place, not a resting place. The dead received no more respect here than the living in Tehran.
He regretted coming. He knew his friends and family were not really there, that a grave was not a portal to the land of the dead. He knew he could not really say goodbye to anyone here.
And coming here and going through the ritual of visiting the graves had not changed how he felt: all he had managed was to waste half his last day in Iran. You can only say goodbye to the living. The dead are with you, forever. He would take the dead with him, the most important keepsake he would leave Iran with.
He walked through empty graves, their order disturbing. How neatly they were arranged, dug for no one in particular, ready to accept any random newcomer. So many friends here had been devoured by a faceless monster, becoming one with the landscape. Behesht-e Zahra was a collective of people who did not exist.
A terrible beauty is born, the poet may have said, but it wasn’t beautiful.
He walked back to his car.
Behind the wheel, he could barely find the energy to drive into crowded streets and traffic jams. He wanted desperately to sleep, he had been so busy meeting friends to say goodbye that he had barely gotten any this week.
He visualized his route considering how long he’d have to spend in slouching traffic, how exhausting it would be. He wanted to let go of everything, find a place to rest in the same neighborhood and fall into a bed. He wound down his window, started the engine and turned on the CD player, listening to the audio book of The Law and the Lady in English.
He drove north to Bahman Square. Actually there wasn’t a square there: it was an intersection now. People still called this place Bahman Square because once it used to be one. He entered the Navab Highway and was soon trapped in a traffic jam.
The sun on the left side of his face was unbearable. Irritated, he turned off the CD player, unable to focus on the story. Finally he managed to enter Towhid Tunnel.
As he drove out of the tunnel the indignant daylight of Tehran took him by surprise. He closed his eyes, his hand flailing for the sunshield and pulling it down. He tried to open them again, aware of the folly of driving on a Tehran highway blind, but the glare wouldn’t let him.
He drove on instinct and when he reopened his eyes they could stand the light.
He was now in Chamran Highway, again in congestion, his shirt soaked in sweat. He was unsure whether to roll the windows up or not – hot air was attacking his face, but winding them up meant suffocating in a motorized casket. The air conditioning had run out of coolant long ago and he had neglected to fix it, which he now regretted.
He thought of all Iranians who could not wait to leave Iran and used to hate everything about it, but when they finally did they became nostalgic for the exact same things, but he would never miss driving in Tehran – he was sure of that. He might get nostalgic for the food or the parks or stupid shit like that, but he would never miss these highways and streets. They were torture chambers.
When he finally parked his car opposite Niloufar’s house, he couldn’t have been more relieved.
She opened the door for him.
“You’re soaking wet.” It was the first thing she said, after the usual meaningless greetings and shaking his hand.
“Tell me something I don’t know. God I smell awful.”
“Want to take a shower?”
“You won’t mind?”
“Of course not.”
Cold water washed sweat and heat away, but not exhaustion. He dried himself with the towel she had lent him and put on her brother’s clothes.
He sat on the sofa next to her.
“Thanks a lot,” he said. “I was dying.”
“You still don’t look okay.”
“I can’t have had more than three hours of sleep.”
“Well I’m not letting you nap. It’s the last day I’m seeing you. I want to talk.”
“It’s not the last day. One day you’ll leave too and we’ll meet again.”
“Not for a long time.” Her smile was weary and faint.
He looked at her intently for the first time since he had arrived. He had first met her twelve years ago when she was nineteen, a first year undergraduate in English literature, and he was a professor. Back then her face was still a teenager’s, eyes void of sorrow and experience, laughter loud and clear.
Together, they had gone through heartbreaks, loss, turmoil, despair and anger, hope and disillusionment. Now she looked like a woman, short black hair flecked with strains of white.
“You look sad.”
“You’re gonna make me cry, looking like that.”
“I just can’t believe you won’t be here. That I’ll never see you again.” A hint of tears. “I can’t believe I won’t be reading my next story to you. I can’t believe I won’t argue with you about weird stuff. You will never reassure me when things get dark. You won’t be there to console me next time I have to mourn someone. You’re deserting me, Sha’ban.”
“I’m not going to lie to you, Niloufar. I don’t know if I can console anyone again. Things are… things are too dark.”
“Maybe.” The way she cried broke his heart. She did not sob, and did not cover her face. She let tears stream down her face silently and defiantly.
He took her hands.
“I miss you.” She said. “You’re sitting right here and I miss you.”
“I miss you too.”
“You’re doing the right thing by leaving.”
“You’re doing the wrong thing staying.”
She nodded. A brief pause.
“What do you want to eat?”
“What do you have?”
“Well, order what you like.”
“What would you like?” She asked.
“You know I can’t make these decisions.”
“Eat something Iranian. You’re going away.”
“Okay,” he laughed.
She called a restaurant and ordered chelo kebab. Simple; traditional. He liked the idea.
“Have you said goodbye to your mother?”
“Does she know you’re leaving?”
He shrugged. “My niece might have told her. She wanted me to meet her one last time. I thought about it. What would I tell her? Hi mother, this is your son from fifteen years ago. I’m off to the land of heathens. Bye.”
“I’m just afraid… you might regret not talking.”
“You mean she’ll die while I’m gone.”
“That hag will bury all her children before she croaks.”
“You’re still angry.” She said with a tired smile.
“Still? I’m just starting to get angry.”
Some twenty minutes passed. Niloufar asked about other friends, colleagues, relatives, how he’d said goodbye to each.
Food came. They ate. They continued their conversation. He told her that had given an interview to a reformist magazine but the editor had refused to run it uncensored. He would not consent to censorship, so it remained unpublished.
“Did you talk about how they expelled you from the university and banned all your books?”
“And they refused to print it?”
“Oh no. They asked me about leaving Iran. I said there was an offer for me to teach Persian literature at a US University, but I’m leaving because I don’t think there is any real hope left for this country. All these years I was convinced there was still hope. Not now. It’s a sinking ship. I’m not gonna be on board when it sinks.”
“There’s no way they’d publish that. Weird that you thought they would.”
“I didn’t. But I’m done making my shit smell better for the press.”
“Soon you’ll be on the BBC and VOA, I guess.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “But what about you leaving?”
They talked about how she could escape Iran, how he might be able to help her once in the United States. She made him promise to create a Skype account.
Then the conversation drifted, and he explained how he would spend his first days in America: where he was supposed to stay, how he was supposed to get his own place.
“Will you vote for Rouhani tomorrow?”
She finally asked. He had known this question would come up inevitably, and was tired of it. He had spent his last weeks arguing about it with every single person he had met. He was tired of it.
“Will you?” He asked.
“I just don’t think there’s any real chance they’ll let him win.”
“I used to think like that.” He nodded, indicating he already knew. “I changed my mind last night. If Aref has dropped out, then the situation has become serious. Why would he if he didn’t think Rouhani had a chance? Or at least going to the second round. Plus people are excited again. It’s been only about three days that I feel a real election is going on. People will turn up and vote, I know that. Even if they fix it again, I want to be there.”
He remained silent.
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe there will be another Green Movement – maybe that’s enough to scare them. Maybe the fact that the Guardian Council barred Hashemi and Khatami from running is a sign they’ll accept the winner from the remaining candidates.”
“Then what’s wrong?”
“I just… can’t bring myself to do it. I can’t get involved with Iranian politics again. I’m too old, too tired. I have mourned too long and I have seen too much. I have been let down too many times, I can’t bear it anymore.” He paused, sighed. He felt he was carrying the weight of a defeated revolution. “I don’t know if I can ever hope again. I’m like a man who has been through too many heartbreaks: afraid to fall in love again.”
“You speak as if hope and disillusionment are rational choices. They’re not. I’ve never chosen to hope or feel desperate. People are starting to hope again – I’m hoping too. And you’re the same as everyone else. Don’t pretend you’re not. You’re Iranian, you’re a writer. You’ve been politically active since you stopped shitting in your diaper. You’re tired? Rest. But don’t take shelter in despair. And don’t forget us. Don’t forget me.”
“I love you. I have always loved you.”
It came out of nowhere. He was supposed to be shocked, overcome with emotion, but he wasn’t. You could call them lovers: they had slept together before but had never bothered to ask if they loved each other; they had never dared. For reasons unknown to them both they had never called themselves a couple. He had hoped, in vain, that she would not bring this up today.
His heart felt as blank and sorrowful as before, and he smiled cynically, realizing he had known she was going to say it, when he poured cold water over himself in her shower, when he saw her face, even back in Behesht-e Zahra. Those carefully constructed corpse containers were preparing him for the next heartbreak, one final time in Iran, and what a fitting farewell to bring out their love, shoot it dead, dump it in the official cemetery of Tehran, and then leave, forever.
“Well,” he said sardonically, “not always. You used to love another man.”
“Don’t remind me of Ali. It’ll break my heart.”
“I visited his grave today. Who knows where he’d be now if he’d lived?”
“You’re going to make me cry again. I lost him, I’m losing you, I have lost way too many people.”
“And then… did you know Mehdi Nosrati?”
“I visited his grave and I thought the same – who knows where he would be now if he had lived? Young people these days, you just die. Back in my day dying was what old people did. It’s not just them, mind you. Everywhere I go there’s a picture of some young man or woman with a black ribbon.”
Niloufar was silent.
“You know,” he continued, “you really have a knack for falling in love with the worst men.”
“At least you’re not gay.”
“That makes it worse. I might love you back.”
“It doesn’t change anything.”
“It doesn’t need to. I want to know.”
“Oh how stupid we are, Sha’ban. We call ourselves freethinkers, but we don’t practice what we preach, we don’t even dare to love.”
“We don’t have the right to love. The law forbids that. Have you forgotten?” He laughed without sounding happy.
“I wish I had told you sooner.”
“Our friendship was the best thing I had these last few years. Cherish it. Don’t regret it. Romance was an option, not a requirement. It was one pure thing, one thing not tainted. Don’t taint it by regret or loss. Accept it for the beautiful thing it was.”
She moved closer to him, bending toward his face to kiss him.
“No.” He pleaded.
She froze, stared at him, eyes inquisitive and full of stories. They seemed to ask why not.
Fuck it, he thought, and took her face in his hands, paused and stared into her eyes, and kissed her.
He kissed her again, this time longer. She rose, took his hand, and walked him to her bedroom.
They had sex.
“Stay with me.” She said lying naked next to him.
“You know why not. Because I need to pack. I need to get my stuff in order. That’s actually part of the reason I came here.” He rose, went and fetched his pants. He gave her his keys.
“I’ll leave my car keys and documents at home. You can use my car. Also you’ll have access to my books. I’m taking a copy of my manuscripts, but make sure to keep a copy with you somewhere safe. I’ll ask you to send me different things abroad little by little, and then we will meet again. One day.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“So do I.”
“You know you can’t stay forever.”
“I know that.”
The rest of the day was spent drinking vodka, idly chatting about the past and the future. They ordered dinner, and after that it was time for him to go.
He put on his own clothes, and said goodbye. They kissed one last time, and he reluctantly went out of the house.
At home, he packed in a hurry and went to sleep.
His flight to Turkey was at three in the afternoon. He woke up at nine, dressed, ate, closed the central valves for gas and water, and called a taxi.
He took his three suitcases outside his house, then put them in the trunk and back seat of the taxi. He sat next to the driver, a polite old man.
“You’re doing the right thing. I wish I could leave. I sent my son away – this country is no place for young men.”
He didn’t say anything.
As the the old man drove down a street, Sha’ban saw a mosque. It was also a polling station. A large poster of Khomeini hanging on its wall. The criterion is the vote of the nation. – Imam Khomeini.
“Will you please stop? I will pay.”
“Sure.” The driver said, halting the car.
He turned back and searched his rucksack, taking out his birth certification booklet and national ID card. He got out of the car, entered by the men’s entrance and stood in the queue. He handed his birth certification booklet to the person in charge of identifying voters.
At its back there was a section dedicated to the elections. They would stamp the page for every election you voted in. His was by no means empty. The last page of his birth certification booklet was a history of Iran and his own biography.
Every election he had voted in since 1997 was a checkpoint on the road of his life. He bitterly thought of himself arguing a day ago that the elections were meaningless. They meant everything.
“Would you like to vote for the city council as well?”
“No.” He didn’t even know which candidates were reformist.
His finger was soaked in ink, his ID stamped. He was handed a piece of paper: his ballot.
He had participated in every foolish act giving this nation hope. He wasn’t going to miss his last one. With this hand he had written everything – novels that would never get published, articles heavily censored, poems he tore up after composing… and votes. He would write one last word on the soil of Iran.
He returned to the taxi.
“Did you vote?” The driver asked.
“Do you think they will let Rouhani win?”
“I don’t think it’s highly probable.”
“Then why bother?”
He shrugged. “Who can predict anything in this country? We only do what we can do.”