Previously: My students inspire me to begin collecting stories about refugee resettlement. I arrange these stories according to date of arrival in Australia, stories that start in Vietnam, Romania, China, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Ethiopia, Myanmar and now Iran.
Morning light streams in from a wall of glass. A young lady sits on the sofa with effortless grace.
‘Audrey Hepburn,’ I think to myself, ‘if she had been Middle Eastern, and taller.’
A mass of dark curls frame the woman’s delicate face. She wears a short blue dress with brown polka dots, the colour of the dots carried through to her handbag and her shoes. Unslinging my Crumpler bag, extricating my file, my pen and my phone, I lower my flustered and clunky self beside her. Lesley serves tea in fine bone china and I ask if Maryam has any questions. No.
‘Do you want us to change your name for privacy?’ I ask.
‘No, use my real name,’ says Maryam.
‘Are you sure?’ asks her Australian friend, Lesley, raising her brows in concern.
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘My lawyer said that maybe this can help my case,’ referring to her application for asylum in Australia.
And so she starts. ‘My name is’– she states her full name
–‘and I was born in Shiraz in Iran and I grew up there and I was a hairdresser
and I had some other small business.’
In a quiet seaside town in Iran, Maryam worked as a hairdresser and part-time fitness instructor. She taught aerobics in an upmarket women-only gym. This exclusivity permitted Maryam and her clients to remove their full-length cloaks, or chadors, and exercise in bright colours and tight clothes.
Her husband, Benham, was a carpenter by day and managed a fast food restaurant at night. Maryam seldom cooked. Instead, she went to Benham’s restaurant for dinner and stayed on to help him with his accounts. It suited them well to be so far removed from the shrill politics of cosmopolitan Shiraz where they had both grown up.
In the June 2009 elections, President Ahmadinejad defeated popular candidate Mousavi and won a second term. Protests erupted all over the country. On 24 June, Maryam’s friend phoned to urge her to return to Shiraz the following day to participate in ongoing demonstrations.
‘No, I’m not political. I didn’t even vote,’ she said.
‘But we are so close to change. This time, there might really be a revolution,’ he said.
‘Nothing will ever change as long as the big Ayatollah is there.’
After hanging up, however, she considered her friend’s conviction that change was possible but contingent on every person taking a stand. She considered all the difficulties she faced as an independent-minded modern woman in Iran.
Once, before she married Benham, the morality police had arrested them both for walking together in the romantic and historic Eram Gardens in Shiraz. They interrogated Maryam: Where is your father? Does he know that you are here on this street? Do you usually work on this street? Why do you dress like that?
Maryam had dressed as usual that day: headscarf, long-sleeved dress with a hemline over her knees, her legs covered in long trousers. The difficulties of enforcing a strict dress code in a nation known for beautiful, stylish women made the question of fashion vexing for both women and law enforcers alike. Hemline or headscarf could cross the line between acceptability and immorality on as little as the mood of the morality police that day. Maryam’s mother had bailed them out by saying, ‘Yes, they are engaged.’ It was a lie, a necessary one, for in Iran, a woman is only allowed to be alone with males who are her relatives, her husband, or her fiancé.
Maryam and Benham longed to live in a freer society. In 2005, Maryam had applied for a work visa to Australia under the skilled migration category – hairdressing was on the ‘Migration Occupations in Demand List’ at the time – and flew to Dubai to sit for the required IELTS English test. She passed with a good score. When she married Benham in 2007, she sent more documents to include Benham in her application. They flew to Dubai again for Benham to sit for the IELTS tests. They had spent around AUD$8000 so far on their application but they didn’t mind because correspondence with Australian authorities had been encouraging. But perhaps, different political winds were blowing of late, because their visa process seemed to have stalled since then.
That evening, when Benham came home from work, Maryam told him about the demonstration.
‘It’s up to you. I’ll be working,’ said Benham. ‘I won’t go. But if you want to go, that’s OK.’
This was why Maryam loved Benham – he respected her independence. She had thought that she would have to leave Iran to find such a man, but no, she found him in Shiraz, right where she grew up.
On the morning of 25 June 2009, Maryam travelled by bus from her home to Shiraz. She lunched with her parents. They urged her not to go. There had been demonstrations in Shiraz over the last few days but that day’s was a citywide demonstration and she had made plans to meet her friends there. So she caught a taxi to Chamram Boulevard, which followed the Zargazi River into the heart of the city. A makeshift barricade forced her to continue by foot to Alam Square, where she had agreed to meet her friends.
Smoke stung her eyes. Rubbish bins had been set on fire. Explosions, like gunfire or small bombs, could be heard in every direction. Students were spilling out of nearby university and college hostels, some carrying placards: Down to the Dictator; No to Lebanon, No to Russia, We love Iran. It was like a carnival in a war zone. The air of euphoric solidarity made Maryam think, ‘This is serious, I’ve never seen anything like this before but I’m glad that I’ve come because this time, there might really be change.’
She saw a man fall from the Zargazi Bridge to certain death – the river was at least ten metres below. Someone cried out, ‘He’s been shot, he’s been shot’. Maryam could not say for certain if he had been pushed, or shot, or simply lost his balance; such was the confusion around her. Calling an ambulance was impossible; all mobile phone networks were down.
Maryam caught sight of her friends but lost them again. She reached Alam Square, where she had agreed to meet her friends and found an unoccupied spot under the awning of a shop, facing the roundabout. On Namazi Bridge to her left, policemen stood in full riot gear, preventing protestors on both sides of the river from merging into a single stream. Huddled en masse, the protestors felt comforted by their sheer numbers and, for the moment, the inaction of the police.
Without warning, at around four in the afternoon, the police bikes roared to life and charged into the crowd. Forced backwards, the wall of people threw Maryam off balance. She fell. The weight of bodies crushed her. A hand reached into the tangle of limbs and grabbed her wrist, dragging her away, glass shards mincing her cheeks. When the motorbike finally stopped, the officer looked down, Maryam looked up. Their eyes met. She registered his horror; he released her wrist. She tasted blood in her mouth. She sensed a crowd gathering around her. She tried to open her eyes but sounds and images merged into meaningless jumble.
To be continued next Friday 13 Dec 2019 in Refuge #41 Interrogation and Confession. This is part of the serial online release of Refuge, a collection of true stories of refugee resettlement in Australia. Subscribe for free to receive links to new instalments in your inbox.