Azar sat on the corrugated iron floor of a van, huddled against the wall. The undulating street made the car sway from side to side, swinging her this way and that. With her free hand, she clasped on to something that felt like a railing. The other hand lay on her hard, bulging belly, which contracted and strained, making her breathing choppy, irregular. A heat wave of pain spouted from somewhere in her backbone and burst through her body. Azar gasped, seizing the chador wrapped around her, gripping so hard that her knuckles turned white. With every turn, she was thrashed against the walls. With every bump and pothole, her body was sent flying toward the ceiling, the child in her belly rigid, cringing. The blindfold over her eyes was damp with sweat.
She lifted a hand and wiped the moisture from her eyes. She dared not remove the blindfold, even though there was no one with her in the back of the van. But she knew there was a window behind her. She had felt the glass when she first climbed in. Sister might turn around and see her through this window, or they could stop so abruptly that Azar would not have time to put the blindfold back on.
She didn’t know what would happen to her if they caught her with open eyes, and she did not wish to. At times she tried to convince herself that the fear that had crept inside her, cleaving to her, was not justifiable; no one had ever raised a hand to her, shoved her around, threatened her. She had no reason to be terrified of them, of the Sisters and the Brothers, no tangible reason. But then there were the screams that shook the prison walls, tearing through the empty corridors, waking the prisoners at night, cutting across a conversation as the prisoners divided up their lunch, forcing them all to a tight-jawed, stiff-limbed silence that lasted well through the evening. No one knew where the screams were coming from. No one dared ask. Shrieks of pain they were, this much they knew. For no one could confuse howls of pain with any other kind; they were cries of a body without a self, abandoned, crushed to a shapeless splotch, whose only sign of being was the force with which it could shatter the silence inside the prison walls. And no one knew when their turn would come up, when they would disappear down the corridor and nothing would remain of them but howls. So they lived and waited and followed orders under the looming cloud of a menace that everyone knew could not be eluded forever.
From a tiny opening somewhere above Azar’s head, the muffled din of the city waking up intruded into the car: shutters rolling open, cars honking, children laughing, street vendors haggling. Through the window, she could also hear the intermittent sounds of chatter and laughter coming from the front of the van, though the words were not clear. She could hear only the guffaws of Sister at something one of the Brothers had just finished recounting. Azar tried to keep out the voices inside the van by concentrating on the hum of the city outside—Tehran, her beloved city, which she had neither seen nor heard for months. She wondered how the city could have changed with the war with Iraq dragging on into its third year. Had the flames of war reached Tehran? Were people leaving the city? From the noises outside, it seemed as if everything continued as always, the same chaos, the same din of struggle and survival. She wondered what her parents were doing at this moment. Mother was probably in line at the baker’s; her father was probably getting on his motorcycle and leaving for work. At the thought of them, she felt like something was gripping her throat. She lifted her head, opened her mouth wide, and tried to gulp down the air seeping through the opening.
Her head thrown back, she breathed hard, so hard that her throat burned and she started to cough. She undid the tight knot of the headscarf under her chin and let the chador slide down her head. She held on to the railing, sitting stiffly, trying to bear the swaying and lashing of the car as another burst of pain blazed through her like the fiery end of a bullet. Azar tried to sit up; she bristled at the thought of having to give birth on the iron floor of a van, on these bumpy streets, with the shrill laughter of Sister in her ears. Tightening her grasp on the railing, she took a deep breath and tried to shut herself against the urge of erupting. She was determined to keep the child inside until they reached the hospital.
Just then she felt a sudden gush between her legs and held her breath as the uncontrollable trickle ran down her thigh. She pushed her chador aside. Panic swept through her as she touched the pants carefully with the tips of her fingers. She knew that a pregnant woman’s water would break at some point, but not what would happen after that. Did this mean birth was imminent? Was it dangerous? Azar had just started reading books on pregnancy when they came to her door. She was about to reach the chapter on water breaking, contractions, what she should pack in her hospital bag, when they knocked so loudly, as if they wanted to break down the front door of her house. When they dragged her out, her stomach was already beginning to show.
She clenched her jaw as her heart pounded violently. She wished her mother were there so she could explain what was happening. Mother with her deep voice and gentle face. She wished she had something of her mother that she could hold on to, a piece of clothing, her headscarf. It would have helped.
She wished Ismael were there so he could hold her hand and tell her that everything was going to be fine. He would have been frightened, she knew, if he had seen her in these conditions, sick with worry. He would have stared at her with his bright brown eyes as if he wanted to devour her pain, make it his own. There was nothing he hated more than seeing her in pain. The time she fell from the chair that she had climbed in order to pick grapes from the vine tree, he was so shocked, seeing her wriggling on the ground, that he almost cried, gathering her in his arms. I thought you had broken your back, he told her later on. I would die if something ever happened to you. His love made her feel like a mountain, unshakable, immortal. She needed that all-encompassing love, those worried eyes, the way in which, by taking it upon herself to reassure him, to calm him down, she always succeeded in reassuring herself too.
She wished her father were there so he could carry her to his car and drive like a madman to the hospital.
The van came to a stop, and Azar, shaken out of her thoughts, turned around sharply, as if she could see. Although the grumble of the engine had fallen silent, no door opened. Her hands crept up to her headscarf, tightening the knot, sweeping the chador over her head. Sister’s gales of laughter once again burst forth. Soon it became apparent that they were waiting for the Brother to finish telling his story. Azar waited for them, her hands trembling on the slippery edge of her chador.
After a few moments, she heard doors open and swing shut. Someone fiddled with the lock on the back of the van. Clinging to the railing, Azar lugged her body forward. She was at the edge of the car when the doors were drawn open.
“Get out,” Sister said as she fastened the handcuffs around Azar’s wrists.
Azar found that she could barely stand. She lumbered alongside Sister, engulfed in the darkness enveloping her eyes, her wet pants sticking to her thighs. Soon she felt a pair of hands behind her head, untying the blindfold, and saw that she was standing in a dimly lit corridor, flanked by long rows of closed doors. A few plastic chairs were set against the walls, which were covered with posters of children’s happy faces and a framed photo of a nurse with a finger against her lips to indicate silence. Azar felt a great lifting in her heart as she realized they had at last reached the prison hospital.
A few young nurses hurried past. Azar watched as they disappeared down the corridor. There was something beautiful about having her eyes out in the open, her gaze hopping hurriedly, freely, from the green walls to the doors to the flat neon lights embedded in the ceiling to the nurses in white uniforms and white shoes, fluttering around, opening and shutting doors, their faces flushed with the excitement of work. Azar felt less exposed now that she could see, and on equal ground with everyone else. Behind the blindfold, she had felt incomplete, mutilated, bogged down in a fluid world of physical vulnerability, where anything could happen and she could not defend herself. Now she felt as if, with one glance, she could shed the stunting fear that hacked away at her, that made her feel less than whole, less than a person. With open eyes, in the dim corridor surrounded by the bustle of life and birth, Azar felt she was beginning to reclaim her humanity.
From behind some of those doors came the muffled chorus of babies wailing. Azar listened carefully, as if, in their endless, hungry cries, there was a message for her, a message from the other side of time, from the other side of her body and flesh.
A nurse came to a halt in front of them. She was a portly woman with bright hazel eyes. She looked up and down at Azar and then turned to Sister.
“It’s a busy day. We’re trying to cope with the Eid-e-Ghorban rush, and I don’t know if there’s any room available. But come on up. We’ll have the doctor at least take a look at her.”
The nurse led them to a flight of stairs, which Azar climbed with difficulty. Every few steps, she had to stop to catch her breath. The nurse walked ahead, as if avoiding this prisoner with her baby and her agony, the perspiration glistening on her scrawny face.
They went from floor to floor, Azar hauling her body from one corridor to the next, one closed door to another. Finally, the doctor in one of the rooms motioned them in. Azar quickly lay down and submitted herself to the doctor’s efficient, impersonal hands.
The baby inside her felt as tense as a knot.
“As I said before, we can’t keep her here,” the nurse said once the doctor was gone, the door swinging shut silently behind her. “She’s not part of this prison. You have to take her somewhere else.”
Sister signaled to Azar to get up. Descending stairs, flight after flight, floor after floor, Azar clasped the banister, tight, stiff, panting. The pain was changing gear. It gripped her back, then her stomach. She gasped, feeling as if the baby were being wrung out of her by giant hands. For a moment, her eyes welled up, to her biting shame. She gritted her teeth, swallowed hard. This was not a place for tears—not on these stairs, not in these long corridors.
Before leaving the hospital, Sister made sure the blindfold was tied hermetically over her prisoner’s bloodshot eyes.
• • •
Back on the corrugated iron floor, the doors slammed shut. The van smelled of heat and violent suffering. As soon as the engine started, the chattering from the front picked up where it had left off. Sister sounded excited. There was a flirtatious edge to her voice and to her high-pitched laughter.
Back in position, Azar slouched slightly with fatigue. As the van zigzagged through the jarring traffic, she remembered the first time she took Ismael to her house. It had been a hot day, much like today. He smelled sweet, of soap and happiness, as he walked beside her down the narrow street. She wanted to show him where she came from, she had said, the house she lived in with its low brick walls, the blue fountain, and the jacaranda tree that dominated everything. He had been doubtful; what if her parents came back and caught him there? But he came anyway. Nothing but a quick tour, Azar promised, laughing, grabbing his hand. They ran from room to room, never letting go of that moment, of each other, of the perfume of the flowers that enfolded them.
She wondered where Ismael was, and if he was all right. It had been months since she’d had news of him, months when she did not even know if he was still alive. No, no, no. She shook her head repeatedly. She should not think about that. Not now. She had heard from some of the new prisoners that the men had also been transferred to the Evin prison. Most of the men. If they made it to Evin, it meant they had made it through the interrogations and everything else she did not dare think about at the Komiteh Moshtarak detention center. She was sure Ismael was one of those men. She was sure he was in Evin with her. He had to be.
Once again, the van came to a stop and the door swung open. This time, the blindfold did not come off. The sun shone feebly through it and into Azar’s eyes as she faltered out of the van, tottering alongside Sister and Brothers into another building and then down a corridor. They must have entered the labor ward of another hospital, for soon the sounds of women moaning and screaming filled her ears. Azar felt a rush of hope. Maybe now they would leave her to the safe hands of the doctors. Maybe the agony would be over. The blindfold slid down a bit on one side, and from the opening, she watched eagerly the gray tiled floor of the long corridor and the metal feet of chairs along the walls. She felt the brisk passing of people, perhaps nurses, their soft shoes thudding down the hallway. Their bodies moving past raised a quick breeze to her face.
Soon their course changed, and they were going up another flight of stairs. The sound of the women’s moans drifted. Azar cocked her ears and knew they were taking her away from the labor ward. The corners of her eyes twitched. When they finally came to a stop and a door opened, she was led into a room and told to sit down. She lowered herself onto a hard wooden chair, exhausted. Sweat dripped from her forehead and into her eyes as a rush of pain came back to claim her. Soon the doctor will be here, she thought, trying to console herself.
Yet, she quickly realized it was not a doctor she was waiting for when, from behind the closed door, came the slip-slap of plastic slippers approaching; the noise grew louder and louder. She knew what that sound meant, and she knew when she heard it that she had to prepare herself. She gripped the warm, sweaty metal of the handcuff and squeezed her eyes shut, hoping the slip-slap would stride right past her door and leave her alone. When it fell silent behind the door, Azar’s heart sank; they were here for her.
The door squeaked open. From underneath the blindfold, she had a glimpse of black pants and a man’s skinny toes with long pointy nails. She heard him dawdle across the room, pull a chair raspingly over the floor, and sit down. Azar’s body grew tense against the ominous being that she could not see but felt with every molecule of her body. The child inside her pushed and twisted. She winced, clasped into her chador.
“Your first and last name?”
In a quivering voice, Azar gave her name. She then said the name of the political party to which she belonged and the name of her husband. Another stab of pain and she crouched over, a whimper escaping through her mouth. But the man did not seem to hear or see. The questions continued to roll off his tongue mechanically, as if he were reading from a list he had been given but knew nothing about. There was aggressiveness in his voice that stemmed from the deep and dangerous boredom of an interrogator who had grown tired of his own questions.
The room was very hot. Under the coarse layers of her matneau and chador, Azar’s body was soaked in sweat. The man asked her the date of her husband’s arrest. She told him that and whom she knew and whom she didn’t. Her voice throbbed with agony as waves of pain blazed through her. I must keep calm, she told herself. I mustn’t make the baby suffer. She shook her head against the image that continued to crop up in her mind: that of a child, her child, deformed, broken, a sight of irreversible agony. Like the children of Biafra. She gave a grunt. Sweat trickled down her back.
Where were the meetings? the man asked. How many of them attended each meeting? As she gripped the chair against the fresh all-encompassing stabs of pain, Azar tried to remember all the right answers. All the answers she had given from one interrogation to the next. Not a date, not a name, not a piece of information or lack of it should differ. She knew why she was here, why they had thought that now was the perfect time to interrogate her, to get at her. Keep calm, she repeated to herself while she answered. As she omitted names, dates, places, meetings, she tried to remain calm by imagining her baby’s feet, hands, knees, the shape of the eyes, the color. Another wave of pain soared and crashed inside her. She writhed, shocked at its ferocity. It was pain she had never thought possible. She was losing herself to it. Fingers, knuckles, nostrils, earlobes, neck.
Where did she print the leaflets? She heard the man repeat the question. She tried to answer, but the contractions seemed to be swallowing her, not giving her a chance to speak. She lurched forward, grabbing the table in front of her. She heard herself moan. Belly button, black hair, curve of the chin. She took a deep breath. She felt like she was going to faint. She bit her tongue. She bit her lips. She could taste the blood blending into her saliva. She bit into her whitened knuckles.
But the outside world was quickly fading away as Azar’s pain grew worse. She could no longer hear anything, nor was she aware of what was around her. The waves of pain had hurled her into a space where nothing else existed, nothing except an agony so acute and unbelievable that it felt no longer part of her but a condition of life, a state of being. She was no longer a body; she was a space where everything writhed and wriggled, where pain, pure and infinite, held sway.
She didn’t know how long the man waited for her answer about the leaflets; it never came. She was only half-conscious when she heard him close what sounded like a notebook. She knew the interrogation was over. The sense of relief was almost dizzying. She didn’t hear the man get up but did recognize his slip-slapping away. Soon she heard Sister’s voice telling her to get up. Azar stumbled out of the room, down the corridor, flanked by Sister and someone who felt like a nurse. She could barely keep their pace. She lumbered along, bent almost double, breathing quickly. The handcuffs felt unbearably heavy on her wrists. They went down the flight of stairs. The sound of women’s wails once again filled Azar’s ears.
“Here we are,” the nurse said as they came to a stop.
Sister unfastened the handcuffs and took off Azar’s blindfold.
She climbed on a narrow bed in a roomful of nurses and a doctor. The wall on her right side was dazzled by the afternoon sun. In a lull between contractions, Azar sank heavily in her exhaustion, her arms lying slack on the bed, watching the smooth skin of sunlight as she submitted herself to the hands of the doctor checking her.
Sister stood next to the doctor, looking on in silence. Azar refused to look at her. She refused to acknowledge Sister’s presence there, wished to forget it completely. Not only Sister but everything Sister’s presence meant: Azar’s captivity, her solitude, her fear, giving birth in a prison. She was now a foreigner, surrounded by people who saw her as an enemy to be tamed and defeated, who saw her very being as an obstacle to their power, to their own understanding of right and wrong, moral and immoral. People who loathed her because she refused to take what they offered as what she had fought for; people who saw her as their foe because she refused to accept that their God had all the answers.
Azar wanted to close her eyes and pretend she was somewhere else, in another time, another place, another hospital room, where Ismael was standing next to her, caressing her face, looking at her with concern, holding her hand and not letting go, and her parents were outside, waiting, her father pacing up and down the corridor, her mother clasping her hospital bag between tense fingers, sitting on the edge of the chair, ready to careen into the room when needed.
Here, she could thrust her hand out and it would come back with nothing. Emptiness. She was completely alone.
“The baby’s turned.” She heard the doctor’s voice and looked down at her stomach. The taut lump that had appeared somewhere close to her belly button now looked as if it had climbed up to the space between her breasts.
The doctor turned to the two women behind her. “We have to push it down.”
Azar’s mouth went dry. Push it down? How? The women, who appeared to be midwives, moved closer, their wrinkled faces and hands reeking of the province, of remote villages at the bend of narrow muddy roads. They were holding torn pieces of cloth in their hands. Azar almost gasped with fright. What did they want with those torn pieces? What were they going to do? Gag her to keep her screams from reaching outside? The women looked at Sister, who grabbed one of the torn pieces of cloth and showed them how to tie Azar’s leg. Azar winced at the touch of those moist, callused fingers tethering her to the bed railings. The women looked hesitant but eventually went ahead with the job. One of them grabbed Azar’s legs, the other her arms. Azar jolted with a fierce thrust inside her. The lull was over; the pain had returned.
The doctor spread a blanket over Azar’s legs and leaned forward in front of her. “Here we go.”
After tying her down, the midwives interlaced their fingers and placed their hands somewhere close to Azar’s breasts. Azar watched them, helpless with pain, as her heart pounded wildly in her chest. She was frightened of them, of what they would do to her, to her child. Was this even a proper hospital? Who were these women, and where had they come from? Did they know what they were doing?
She heard herself groan. The women took deep breaths to prepare themselves, like boxers gathering their strength before a fight. Then, wide-eyed and prim-lipped, with those hands that perhaps had squeezed the swollen belly of a cow or tugged at the trembling legs of a lamb, they gave the lump, her child, a hard shove.
For a moment, Azar froze with the excruciating violence of that shove. Then a scream, wild and unknown, burst from her throat. A scream so forceful her entire body shook with its echo. She lurched forward, struggling to push the women away from her stomach, her child. Would they squeeze the child dead? Strangle it? Azar couldn’t move her hands but tried to thrust her neck forward to bite them as another lurch of pain dragged her back to the bed.
“Push!” the doctor demanded.
The lump was resistant. The women rammed their hands against it, their faces flushed with the pressure of those rough, interlaced fingers. Sweat glistened on their brows, along the lines of their noses. Their mouths twitched as they pressed.
Azar felt her body grow cold as another wail erupted through her. For a moment, she saw nothing. When her eyes cleared, she saw that one of the women was standing next to her. She was younger than the other, probably Azar’s age, in her early twenties. Her almond-shaped black eyes shone gently. “It’s okay,” she whispered encouragingly, placing her cold hand on Azar’s burning forehead. “We got the baby’s head down; now you just have to push.” As a fresh pain came, she said, “Your baby’s almost here.”
The woman smiled, but Azar looked at her with wild eyes. She didn’t know what it all meant, what the girl was telling her. There was something inside her that was pushing ahead, out of her control. She tensed and released another scream.
“That’s it, push. Another one.”
Sister grabbed Azar’s hand. “Scream! Call God! Call Imam Ali! Call them now, at least!”
The pain soared through Azar, cold and dark. She screamed and clasped the girl’s arm. She didn’t call anyone.
“It’s coming,” the doctor shouted. “Good girl, one more push!”
Something was being torn inside her. Torn open and apart.
With her last vestiges of strength, Azar gave one last push. Everything went black. From afar, she heard the weak cries of a baby fill the room.
• • •
The room was empty when she opened her eyes. A cold breeze wafting through the open window made her shiver. She was still tied down to the bed, and her legs had lost all sensation. Her damp hair lay pasted to her face; her feet hurt as if there was a layer of broken glass in them.
She had no idea how long she’d lain there. Hours, days, an eternity. Her eyes were eagerly, anxiously on the door. Where have they taken my baby? Soon the door creaked open and Sister sauntered in, gathering her black chador around her. Azar opened her mouth to say something, to ask of the child, but her lips were so dry that the corners of her mouth cracked. Behind Sister, the two midwives barreled in.
“Your daughter’s in the other room,” Sister said, as if she had read Azar’s mind, seen the question on her sore lips. “I don’t know when they’re going to bring her here.”
Azar closed her eyes. It’s a girl, she thought. An exhausted but triumphant smile trembled on her lips, yet she felt anxious at the same time. She was not sure if she should believe Sister. What if the child was dead and Sister was lying? What if this was just another cruel trick? What if those cries she had heard in the room had died as soon as they erupted? She looked over at the young midwife, who smiled and nodded. Azar had no choice but to believe.
The midwives rolled Azar’s bed out of the room, down the corridor, and into another room, where the window was closed. They untied her. There was something about these women’s faces that reminded Azar of the mothers of the children she taught in the villages on the outskirts of Tehran in the first year after the revolution. Quiet, obedient, standing next to their poorly dressed children, accepting everything Azar said. Their eyes full of admiration, of deference verging on fear of the city girl who opened and closed books so easily, who spoke in perfect Farsi, who looked out of place in her city clothes in the classroom with its clay walls that constituted the entire school.
Azar’s heart ached at the thought of those days, when she worked fervently for a new country, a better, more just country. How happy she had been, taking the bus back to Tehran in the evening. She had felt one with the city, seething and sizzling with excitement, with enthusiasm for what the present as well as the future held. She could not wait to arrive home, knowing Ismael would be expecting her in their tiny apartment. She remembered seeing the glow of the lamp in the living room seeping out through the curtains and the way it made her heart lift with joy. Night after night, that light, which meant Ismael was at home and she would soon be in his embrace, made her smile and her heart race as she rushed up the stairs. There would be the perfume of steamed rice filling in her nostrils as she entered the flat, and Ismael would come to her, pull her into his arms, and say, “Khaste nabaashi azizam.” May you never get tired. She would make tea, and while they drank it together, sitting by the narrow window that faced the trees of the courtyard engulfed in the night, he would tell her of Karl Marx and she would read him the poems of Forugh Farrokhzad.
Merely a year had passed since the revolution, and both Azar and Ismael still burned with its fervent ecstasy. It brought tears of joy to their eyes, and their voices cracked, full of emotion, when they spoke of their triumph, the triumph of a nation in ousting the shah, the once untouchable king; it filled them with hope. And yet they knew something had gone wrong. The men with the severe faces and mouths full of rage and hope and relentlessness and God who had taken over the country, claiming to be the deliverers of righteous words and holy laws, made them bristle. What is happening? She would turn at times to Ismael, desperate. Gradually, it was becoming clear to all that these men considered themselves the only legitimate proprietors of the revolution, its indubitable victors. They purged universities of what they called anti-revolutionary activities, closed newspapers, banned political parties. Their words became law, and everyone else went underground, Azar and Ismael with them.
Azar drew her arms and legs in. A tremor had taken hold of her, and she could not stop shaking. The young woman left the room to bring a blanket and cover her with it. Azar coiled into a lump underneath it, straining to absorb the heat from its every corner. They left the room, closing the door silently behind them.
Azar pulled the blanket over her head and tried to breathe in the warmth. She closed her eyes and rocked her body side to side, waiting for the heat to take root, for the calm to settle in. She stayed there under the blanket for a long time, a shapeless heap.
Gradually, as the warmth began oozing through her body, Azar poked her head out and then her shoulders. Next to her, on the other side of the room, there was an empty bed with ruffled sheets and a dip in the pillow. The body seemed to have been removed recently. On the floor next to the bed, there was a plate, the rice and green beans on it half-eaten. When it caught her eyes, Azar realized how hungry she was. She had not eaten since the night before. Her eyes were fixed on the plate as she tugged her legs free from the blanket. This was her chance. That plate had to be hers. She tried to stand up, but her legs trembled and her knees gave way. About to fall, she grabbed the side of her bed and cautiously lowered herself to the floor. Her heart beat hotly in her chest as she steadied herself on the cold tiles and began to crawl forward.
The closer she got to the plate, the bolder she got, the more determined to guzzle up every last grain of rice. She was going to eat, and she was going to do it without Sister’s permission. She was going to grab that plate and gobble everything up. To make it her own, part of her body, her being. She was going to possess it all, the rice, the beans, the plate itself. The thought even came to her to hide the plate somewhere and take it away with her, back to prison. She felt nauseated with hunger, with her brazenness, with the prospect of eating, with the fear of being caught before reaching that dish, that treasure, which was at that moment like life itself. She pressed her elbows against the floor and hauled herself over more quickly.
The rice was cold and dry, and as she gulped it down, she felt the sharp grains scratching her throat and thought of the buckets of food Sister would hand out to the prisoners at lunch hour. Her fingers worked fast, gathering the rice and the beans, lifting them to her mouth, her teeth that hurt, her tongue that could not taste anything. She chewed hurriedly, the grains spilling down her fingers. At any moment, this could all disappear and she could fall back into that reality where nothing was hers, neither to give nor to take. At any moment, Sister could walk into the room and take away the plate. But she could eat the food now. This was her moment.
• • •
The doctor in her white uniform smiled at Azar while checking her blood pressure. The bluish pouches under her eyes looked out of place in her round, welcoming face. Sister was standing on the other side of the bed, her arms free and unbound. She looked so comfortable in her black chador. They all did. Those Sisters. They walked, gestured, handed out buckets of food, tied blindfolds, locked and unlocked doors and handcuffs with such agility that it seemed as if the encumbering, slippery cloth did not exist, as if it weren’t wrapped around them like the wings of a sleeping bat. Azar knew better than to ask Sister about her baby too many times. If she showed too much enthusiasm, Sister might take longer to bring the child to her just to spite her, just to make her suffer. Azar had to be good; she had to be patient.
“She has a tearing inside that could get infected.” The doctor stopped inflating the cuff around Azar’s arm. “She must stay for at least two days.”
Sister tossed her head in a clumsy attempt to seem haughty. Azar could see somewhere in Sister’s large eyes, in the thick fold of her lower lip and the missing tooth revealed in a rare smile, the poverty of the dust-blown peripheries, of languid afternoon gossip with the neighboring women on doorsteps, of watching boys play soccer in dusty streets and wishing for a color TV, of not continuing beyond fifth grade. And here she was, that woman of the poor peripheries, the queen of the plebeian, spreading her big black chador over the city and its privileged city girls. Sister was slowly learning to be proud of that poverty, just as she had learned to be proud of her chador.
“We have everything there,” Sister asserted in a cold, flat voice. “We can take care of her.”
Under the covers, Azar’s bony hand edged across the bed. When she reached the doctor’s leg, she pinched the flesh with all her might.
“We have to kill the bacteria inside her.” The doctor looked directly at Sister. She betrayed no reaction to Azar’s pinch. “That’ll take a few days.”
“No, we can do it there. We have everything. Doctors. Hospital. Medicine.”
Azar wanted to shout out that they didn’t, that Sister was lying, that they would leave her with the tearing inside her, that the infection would spread, that she would rot from the inside. She pinched the doctor’s leg again, harder than before. Almost clinging.
“I’m telling you that she needs care, professional care, inside a hospital,” the doctor insisted. She seemed to understand the meaning behind Azar’s pinches. “We have to monitor her condition. She’s been torn inside.”
Sister hurled an angry glance at Azar, as if the tearing inside her had been her own fault. Azar’s hand went limp on the edge of the bed. Sister beckoned to the doctor to follow her outside. Before the doctor moved away from the bed, Azar grasped her hand. “My baby?” she whispered.
The doctor placed a hand on top of Azar’s desperate clasp. “She’s fine. Don’t worry. You’ll have her soon.”
• • •
Azar sat on the bed, staring at the door, waiting for the baby who did not come. She clasped her hands together, quivering with anger, frustration, longing, and fear. As the hours passed, she was beginning to lose patience. After nine long months of living with the child inside her, feeling it grow, protecting it, surviving with it, it seemed impossible that she still had not seen it, had not held it in her arms, did not know if it looked more like her or Ismael, did not even know for sure if it was alive. As the minutes crawled by and she watched the door, Azar felt the yearning for her child mounting inside her so powerfully that she could hardly breathe.
The afternoon sunlight was petering out, dragging its shadows against the walls. Azar clambered onto the windowsill to lift herself up and look through the closed glass. She wanted to know where she was. Through the sparse, grayish leaves of the sycamore trees, she saw a bridge clogged with afternoon rush-hour traffic. The sky was laden with smog; it was the last heat of the summer, and there was the edgy echo of car honks. She saw a flight of birds soaring through the sky, making a great loop and perching on the branches of the trees. The city looked different. Everything seemed to have been whitewashed, stainless, glossy. The white had been splashed on concrete buildings hurriedly, as if to hide something: blood, soot, history, the war, the unending war. It was a frenzied attempt to camouflage the devastation that breathed ever more closely down everyone’s neck.
Although Azar had not been born here, Tehran had always been her home, where she had felt she belonged. She loved the city, with its traffic and its soiled white buildings and its overpowering chaos. She loved it so much that she’d once believed she could change its destiny. That was what she told Ismael when she informed him of her decision to continue her political activity. This is not what we fought for, what we risked our lives for, she said, we cannot let them take everything away from us.
Ismael came along with her, hand in hand, at every stage. Whatever we do, we shall do it together, he said. Whatever happened to them, it would be their shared destiny. He was quickly, readily infused with her fervor. He went with her to the underground meetings in stuffy rooms, helped her print leaflets, carry messages in cigarette packets, spoke of the future at his university. When it was time, when the persecutions began and it was too dangerous to keep contact with their families, they stopped calling and answering their parents’ phone calls, stopped visiting them. They shed tears together, desperate, no longer certain what was the right thing to do. No longer having the strength to move forward and knowing it was too late to turn back. The door of their apartment became menacing, glaring at them askance, expecting responses to the unuttered questions that their parents impressed upon it with their persistent knocks. That was when they decided to move and hence wipe out their traces forever. It was easier that way. No one would be knocking on the door anymore. Cut off, they found it easier to pretend to forget.
Was it worth it? Azar wiped the strands of hair away from her face. Would Ismael ever forgive her for putting her fight before everything? Before him, their life together, the child growing in her womb? Would they be given a second chance?
The thoughts agitated her. She pressed her thin elbows against the windowsill and her forehead against the warm window. The traffic huffed and puffed slowly across the bridge. Although far from them, Azar could see the tiny, agitated faces in the cars, the restless bodies impaled on the motorbikes with not enough space to maneuver through the jam. Above the traffic, hovering overhead like a gigantic cloud, was a billboard with one of the maxims of the Supreme Leader written in careful, elegant cursive. Our revolution was an explosion of light. Painted next to it was the depiction of an explosion, like fireworks.
On the sidewalk, underneath the billboard, a man was standing and staring at the cars, dazed. He looked tired, much older than his age. The sun struck at his sallow, haggard face. When Azar saw him, her heart skipped a beat. She felt her face light up. She opened her mouth, flabbergasted.
“Pedar!” she screamed, banging on the window with her open palm.
Her father didn’t hear her. Or look up. He put the bags down on the ground and slipped a handkerchief out of his pocket to wipe the sweat off his forehead. His wiry body looked hunched by something that was not age.
Azar’s face twitched and twisted. Never in the months of prison had she felt her father to be so far, so unreachable. Never had she felt so alone, so afraid of what was to become of her.
“Pedar!” she cried out with the last vestiges of strength left in her. Her voice was nothing but a throaty whimper. It barely traveled beyond the thick glass of the window.
Her father picked up the bags and began walking away, never lifting his head. Azar watched, wide-eyed, panting as his tall, stooped body dwindled into the hazy afternoon light. He got on his motorbike and rode away.
The traffic began moving. Azar’s hand lay motionless on the window, against the reflection of shabby leaves and empty nests and a black billboard that spoke of light.
• • •
The next time the door swung open, Sister was alone. The child was not with her. Neither were the midwives or the doctor. With stunned eyes, Azar watched Sister carrying her clothes. She was still shaken. The image of her father, his hunched body, his tired face, spiraled through her mind. Sister put Azar’s clothes down on the bed. Azar inquired in a faint voice where her baby was.
“We’ll get her on our way out,” said Sister, and Azar realized that the doctor’s insistence had been in vain. Sister had won. It was time to go.
Sister’s foot hit the empty plate and made it rattle noisily on the floor. She was standing directly in front of Azar, her eyes fixed on her. “Have you seen Meysam?” she asked.
“Meysam?” Azar knew who Meysam was. He was the Brother who told stories in the car, the recipient of Sister’s prurient guffaws. Azar had seen Sister, visibly older than he, frustrated yet unrelenting, following him around in the dark corridors of the prison and the concrete-laden courtyard. She had heard the ring of that laughter across the hall. She had seen Sister bring him gifts: plates of food, woolen gloves. She had seen her bribe the younger man, the young Brother, in a desperate hope to lay claim to his body.
“The tall Brother with the big brown eyes. The good-looking one.” Sister’s linear eyebrows pulled into an excited frown. “He was there with us earlier. Haven’t you seen him?”
Azar stared back at Sister. It dawned on her that Sister’s insistence on leaving the hospital today had nothing to do with security, with regulation, or with protocol. It had nothing to do with Azar’s life or death. It was simply due to Sister’s lust; she wanted to be with Meysam.
“No, I think he’s gone,” Azar lied. She could barely remember anything. She might have even seen him. But in that moment, as she looked at the spinster’s face sprinkled with the irregular shadows of the sycamore leaves as she readied to lock the handcuffs again, disappointing her gave Azar a pleasant thrill.
Once they were out in the corridor, Sister left momentarily to retrieve the child. Barely able to stand, Azar lowered her shaky body onto one of the white plastic chairs that lined the empty hallway. Naked bulbs hung from the ceiling, giving off a feeble, hazy light. Her eyes burned.
From a few doors down, an elderly woman stepped out, closing a door carefully behind her. She stood looking at the posters on the wall in front of her, her hands folded on top of each other. She was wearing a knee-length navy blue manteau and a white headscarf and seemed to be waiting for something or someone. A child, a grandchild. She looked oddly neat and unperturbed in her grim surroundings.
She sat down and placed her brown leather bag with its worn-out strap on her knees. She stole a glance at Azar only to immediately avert her gaze. It hurt, how she looked away. There was fear in those gray-green eyes. And foreboding. Was there something in Azar’s face that spoke of her destination? Was there something in her face that warned of iron doors and handcuffs and interrogation rooms? Life inside the prison walls was no different from existence beyond. Everyone carried fear, like a chain, carrying it in the streets, under the familiar shadow of the sad, glorious mountains. And in carrying it, they no longer spoke of it. The fear became intangible, unspeakable. And it ruled over them, invisible and omnipotent.
Azar looked at her own loose gray pants, at her black chador, half of it dragging, sweeping the floor. The prisoners were not as skilled with the chador as the Sisters. They fussed and fumbled with it, like children trying to put clothes on a doll for the first time—a broken doll with a hanging arm and dead legs. The chadors dragged on the ground half of the time.
Azar gathered her chador about her, pulled it over her face, and hid her handcuffed hands under it. Under the protection of the chador, she touched her bony cheeks, her small chin. She must be looking gaunt. An unwanted specter. An image emerged in her mind. Of herself, leaflets in hand, running down a deserted street, the roar of the Revolutionary Guards’ patrol shaking the air behind her. She remembered how her heart raced, like it was no longer part of her body, like it had a life and a speed of its own, as she hid behind a car. She remembered the pothole in the asphalt, the candy wrapper that floated away in the drain next to her feet, a glimpse of the oilcloth covering on the table printed in yellow roses behind a window of a house, the smell of hot steel, the violent, explosive thumping in her temples.
It all felt like it was centuries ago. That day with its cloudless sky. Who was she then? What had happened to that Azar, with her determined voice and swift feet and the doubts about where all of this was going, which she never voiced, not even to Ismael.
At the sound of approaching footfalls, she lifted her head. The old woman was standing in front of her.
“Are you okay, dokhtaram?”
Azar looked at the woman, taken aback. She was tongue-tied. She had not expected the woman to approach her. The thought of speaking to someone outside the prison shook her.
“You look pale,” the woman commented.
In the woman’s manner of speaking, Azar immediately recognized the Tabrizi accent, just like her mother’s, the same weightless cadence, as if they were tiptoeing on the words when they spoke Farsi. She opened her mouth to reply, but her eyes brimmed over with tears.
“I’m waiting for my daughter,” she said, her voice tangling up in her throat. The image of her mother washing her face with the cold water of the fountain, preparing for the Morning Prayer, rushed through her mind.
“Where is she? Is she in the babies’ ward?”
Tears streamed down Azar’s face. She didn’t know when, how, where they had come from. It was as if a dam had broken inside her and tears were gushing down, engulfing everything. Her body shook at the force of sobs she was trying to hold back.
“Don’t cry, azizam, why are you crying?” the woman repeated in a distressed, surprised voice. “Nothing to cry about. Your baby is out. Inshallah, she is healthy and beautiful, like you, although you should eat more. You’re too thin. You have to feed two people now. In these times of war, we must stay strong. If we stay strong, not even Saddam can bring us to our knees.” The woman spoke in a soft voice as she wiped away Azar’s tears with the end of her white headscarf. Tears that seemed to have no end only flowed and flowed like waterfalls.
“Why don’t you go and get your daughter?” The woman’s eyes glittered with the apparent hope that the idea would distract Azar, put an end to her tears.
“Sister went to get her.” Azar sniffled, bending her head low into her chador to wipe her face.
“Oh good, your sister is here,” the woman said enthusiastically. “You’re not alone. That’s good.”
“She is not my sister. We just call her Sister. She is—” Azar stopped.
The old woman waited for her to complete the sentence. Then it seemed as if something changed in the color of her eyes. A thought, fear, the unspeakable scuttled across them. Her thin wrinkled face fell. There was no longer that determination to bring a halt to Azar’s tears, to speak to her of her daughter. She placed a hand on Azar’s head.
“I see,” she said finally. It looked like she wanted to say more; her gray-green eyes looked laden with words, with questions. But she did not. She kissed Azar on the forehead and quietly walked away as Sister appeared at the end of the corridor, holding a tight red bundle in her arms.
Forgetting the old woman, Azar rose to her feet. There was something excruciatingly wrong with the image before her. Her child in the arms of Sister, her wardress. Azar felt a rush of desperation so powerful that it left her weak. But no, she should not think about that. There was her child coming to her. She had been lucky. Her child was alive. Nothing else mattered at that moment.
She curled her fingers into a fist and watched Sister getting closer. Excitement battered through her. She could not get her eyes off the bundle in Sister’s hands. Her frustration, her anger, was being swamped over by an acute sense of tenderness, of protection. She stretched her arms out toward her child, trembled with the prospect of holding her. But as Sister got closer, Azar saw more clearly what kind of blanket the child had been wrapped in. It was a rough prison blanket, and her child was naked. Azar winced at the sight of her child unprotected against the coarseness that clamped its teeth into the fragile newborn skin. She stood with her arms outstretched but could not speak. She knew if she opened her mouth, nothing would come out but a shrill, twisted wail.
“You’re still too weak,” Sister said as she strutted to the elevator. “You’ll drop her.”
Azar dropped her arms. She could not tear her eyes from the bundle. She imagined snatching it away and racing off down the corridor and into the streets and across the bridge, where, somewhere under the shadow of a tree, her father would be waiting for her.
Sister’s face lit up when she looked at something or someone down the hallway. Azar followed her gaze. It was Meysam walking up to them, his slippers proudly slapping the tiled floor. His white polyester shirt hung loosely over his black pants. He walked slowly, his head held high, adhering fully to his role of the guardian of the revolution, omnipotent in his intentionally modest clothing. The beard he insisted on wearing was sparse. Not an adult beard yet. His gait was that of a boy who seemed to have just won a war. And at that moment, the thought flashed through Azar’s mind that soon he and so many like him would be sent to that other war blazing along the borders of the country. It would be soon, for the country had nothing but bodies to defend itself with, and bodies were going to be sent, more and more every day. Bodies that might never return. Azar blinked, looking at Meysam, the thought filling her with despair.
Next to her, Sister snatched one of her hands away from underneath the child to tug a strand of hair inside her scarf. She lowered her gaze to the ground in a ghastly act of timidity. Azar looked apprehensively at Sister’s uncontrolled arms. With every move Sister made, Azar’s hands shot forward for her child, lest Sister, gripped by passion, dropped her.
“Salaam Baraadar,” Sister said, beaming. “I thought you’d already left.”
“I’m still here. Are you ready to go?” Meysam asked, calling the elevator.
“Yes, with the help of God, it is all finished.”
Along with Meysam, another man walked into the elevator. When his gaze met Azar’s, his jaundiced eyes widened with recognition and astonishment. Azar hurled a glance at Sister, who, having forgotten her scripted coyness, had turned her body away from Azar while speaking animatedly to Meysam. Azar edged closer to the man, whose appearance had changed since the last time she had seen him. His face had hardened. His beard made him look old and severe. He had buttoned up his white polyester shirt all the way to his Adam’s apple, as the dress code for the pious demanded. Just like Meysam, he wore plastic slippers.
As she slunk closer to him, Azar wondered if he still lived next to her parents’ house on that dead-end street, if he still went over to their house for the evening tea, if he still informed her father of available government coupons for sugar and vegetable oil, which were becoming harder to find as the war continued. Or had becoming a man of the revolution, with his authoritative beard and plastic slippers and hardened face set him apart?
There was shock in his eyes as he looked at her. Obviously, her parents had not told him about her arrest. Azar was not surprised. They had been afraid. How could they not be? She shuddered at the thought of how her parents may have found out. She imagined the Revolutionary Guards swarming into their house, asking questions, threatening. And her parents in the corner, shaking as they slowly understood, while they watched the mayhem around them, why Azar had disappeared for so long.
Azar held the man’s bewildered gaze with hers. “I’m fine. Tell them I’m fine.”
Boggled, the man nodded. Another of Sister’s guffaws dovetailed Azar’s whisper. It spun through the closed elevator, bouncing off the walls and the neon lights.
Azar turned to Sister. “Let me hold her. I can handle it.”
Sister hesitated before she placed the coarse bundle in Azar’s arms. The child was sleeping. Tiny breaths hovered over the pink parting of her mouth. Azar wished to squeeze her to her heart, that small, soft body. She wanted to squeeze her so that the pressure would make it real. The mouth, the pink wrinkled skin, the black fuzz covering the forehead.
She was too weak. She only held the baby, feeling the tough skin of the blanket scratching her palms. It barely enclosed the child’s body. Azar felt a rush of sorrow and guilt rise up the column of her body. What had she done by bringing a child into this world, where not the mother but the wardress first held her?
She hid her face inside the bundle and inhaled the sweet aroma of her child. She kissed her forehead and her shoulders and her chest. She kissed and inhaled deeply, glutting herself with the proximity of her body, asking for forgiveness. The child made a tiny move with her shoulder and opened her eyes.
Black as the night. The whites of her eyes looked almost blue. She opened and closed her mouth and looked around. Azar watched her with bewilderment, those large eyes that rolled around the elevator with a gaze so penetrating, it seemed she wanted to arrest someone. It was almost frightening. That gaze, that sharp look in her child’s black-and-blue eyes—severe, unsparing, much like Sister’s. Her heart almost skipped with fright. Azar lifted a tremulous hand and held it over her daughter’s eyes.
• • •
There was an effusive buzz in the cell, with its walls that glistened because so many heads and backs had rubbed against them. The buzz that could happen only once—when life was about to change shape.
Seething with excitement, the women awaited the arrival of the newborn. They had cleaned everything, scrubbed the walls, washed the carpets. That day, no one had been allowed to exercise, lest they raise dust. One of the corners was decorated with all the windblown leaves found in the courtyard, gathered in an empty aluminum jar. The iron bars of the window cast thick linear shadows on the lemon-yellow headscarf that hung as a curtain.
The women had carried their excitement around with them all day. They were restless, barely able to stay put. Since daybreak, when Azar was first removed with her taut, throbbing belly, the women, unable to hide their glee, had grown nicer to one another. The hostile silence had burst open and words were spurting out, even between enemies who had despised each other’s political parties and thus each other. They seemed to have put a pause on the wrathful rivalry and the usual sinking into ideological lagoons, suspending for at least a day their belief that the other was to blame for a revolution gone astray.
Good morning! they said to each other without reserve.
Their usually haggard, dismal faces were aglow with anticipation. It was not their shower day, but they preened nevertheless, braiding each other’s hair, singing songs. They were all wearing their best clothes, as if it were the New Year. Packed away and unworn for months, the garments hung awkwardly over their bony shoulders and shrinking breasts. They constantly ran their hands over the fabric to unfold the creases.
That day, even Firoozeh could not contain her happiness. Her usual nervous ranting had come to a halt. Everyone in the cell knew Firoozeh had become a tavaab, a snitch, because she had been able to spend a night with her husband and had received a pillow softer than anyone else’s. But that day, even Firoozeh seemed unwilling to betray the peaceful elation that had descended on them. She barely exchanged a word with the Sisters. Instead, she spoke to everyone of her own daughter, Donya. She spoke of how she had left Donya with her family when she was arrested. She spoke of the tears she shed night after night for not being able to see her. Once released, she would take Donya away with her and leave Iran. Leave and never look back, she said, frowning as if thinking of a bad dream.
At the sound of footsteps and the muffled cry of a child, they all ran to the door. They laughed, clapped, and patted one another excitedly on the shoulder. Joyful shouts erupted, like the happy cries bursting forth at weddings, when the door opened and Azar walked in with her bundle. Sister frowned, shouting at them to quiet down.
Azar laughed when she saw them, when she saw their best clothes, the scrubbed walls, the scarf curtain. Her body reverberated with their cries of joy. Surrounded by their happiness, she forgot about everything. She forgot the sharp gaze in her child’s eyes. Forgot the pain, her torn insides, the fear, the guilt. She felt suddenly, unexpectedly, at home.
They clustered around her with glimmering eyes and expectant hands, their voices mingling, colliding, interlocking. They passed the child from one embrace to another, their bodies growing warm holding her, wishing to cradle her longer, reluctant to pass her on to where another pair of hands itched to hold her.
Hold on to her.
Then they saw her nakedness, the roughness of the blanket, and their hearts sank. But they said nothing. They unwrapped the blanket and swaddled her in a soft chador with tiny daisies.
They looked at the child and at Azar’s eyes. If they concentrated enough, they could see the fear that still hung from her eyelashes, the disbelief that lay on her chapped lips: her child was alive, she was alive.
They brought the fresh bowl of water they had been keeping in the corner next to the stray leaves in the aluminum jar and washed her face.
“It’s over,” they said, and rubbed her hands. “You’re safe now. You’re with us.”
They massaged her shoulders. They feared for her so much that they closed their eyes so as not to see how she had been torn inside.
“What’s her name?” asked Marzieh, the youngest of them all, as she took the bundle cautiously from Firoozeh.
Azar took a deep breath. “Neda,” she said, and involuntarily clasped her hands together.
She mouthed the name a few more times. Each time, the child grew more solid in her reality. Each time, the memory of that severe gaze faded further away. Each time she said the name, the child became more hers, entirely hers. There was a magical hand at work that reconciled her with the child, with her surroundings, with time, with herself. She felt no longer to blame. Instead, she was filled with a feeling so empowering, so unwavering, that it could only be called love.
• • •
They were sitting and watching the white handkerchief rise and fall to the rhythm of Neda’s breathing. In the corner of the cell, Firoozeh was exercising, jumping up and down, parting her legs and arms like scissor blades, her face flushed. There was little air in the cell, so she panted heavily.
Azar had placed the handkerchief on top of the child’s face to keep her from inhaling the dust raised by Firoozeh.
“I’m sure they’ll organize a meeting with your husband before they send her out,” Marzieh said in a dreamy voice, and lifted her green eyes to the child’s few pieces of wash hanging on the rope above them.
A month had passed. The pinkness of the child’s face was petering out. The wrinkles were unfurling. The unsteady gaze of her eyes had become more stable. And the milk, which was watery at first, had begun to thicken.
Azar basked in her newfound motherhood. She carried her swollen breasts around gloriously. Even in the interrogation room, she felt a thrill as her breasts swelled with milk. As if somehow they protected her, made her strong, invincible. The warm liquid oozed out of her nipples as the interrogator repeated the same questions in a different order, hoping to catch her at something, at what, he seemed not to know himself. She would barely listen to him. Instead, she would hand herself fully to the warm seeping of her body that craved the child, sweet and sticky like the nectar of a tree. We all have a tree inside us. She remembered Ismael’s words. Finding it is just a matter of time.
For the others, Neda had become their main entertainment. They seemed not to get enough of the child. They would surround Azar and watch her with her baby and the child’s pink lips. They watched the child’s every move, every struggle for milk and air, every wail, every closing and opening of her tiny fist around their fingers. They admired her with their lonely eyes and mouths full of compliments. They gathered around her as if she were their shrine. They asked to hold her, to watch over her when she slept, to clean her mouth when she sneezed.
Life in the small cell had changed. It was no longer about following the crowlike Sisters to interrogation rooms or picking up the corpse of a fly from the floor and having to wait until bathroom time to throw it away. Nor was it about the loudspeakers that emitted the call to prayer five times a day. Or the screams of agony and breaking down coming from closed rooms that everyone heard yet no one spoke about.
Life was different now. It was about a child.
And the longer Neda stayed, the more brazen they all got. They made clothes for her from their own prayer chadors. She’ll be growing so fast in these months, they said. They exempted Azar from washing dishes so tha