Feature image of Tehran by Neil Hester on Flikr.
Previously in Chapter 8 Iran: Hairdresser and aerobics instructor Maryam had never been interested in politics. But after the 2009 Iranian elections, at a friend’s request, Maryam marched with people calling for change. When riot police charged into the crowd, Maryam was knocked to the ground and dragged along the road.
A jolt of pain woke Maryam up. Someone was cleaning the lacerations on her face. A voice asked her for a contact person. She managed to mumble her mother’s phone number as she drifted in and out of consciousness.
Maryam’s mother arrived and tried to transfer her to a private hospital because the government-run Namazi Hospital was overwhelmed with injured and dying demonstrators, but a soldier stopped her. Instead, Maryam was transferred to a private room. A soldier stood guard at her door. More soldiers arrived and eventually every private room door was guarded.
When Maryam walked to the toilet, her mother sprang between Maryam and the mirror.
‘Mum, what are you doing?’ asked Maryam.
‘Nothing,’ said her mother. ‘You just do whatever you need to and we’ll go out of the bathroom.’ Later, Maryam realized her mother wanted to prevent her from seeing her face, with multiple lacerations, bruised and bandaged beyond recognition. Maryam needed a CT scan of her head. She had a broken leg and a sprained hand, but no broken ribs although she experienced difficulty breathing. Maryam’s mother spent the night in the hospital with her.
At ten o’clock the next morning, two men and two women from the Etala’at, the Secret Police, entered Maryam’s room.
‘We’re taking you with us,’ one of the women told Maryam.
‘Where?’ moaned Maryam, heavily sedated.
‘It’s all right. It’s just some questions.’
The women grabbed her wrist and tried to force her to walk out.
‘Where are we going?’ Maryam moaned.
‘Where are you taking her? I want to come and pick her up,’ screamed Maryam’s mother as she tried to stop the women. The women pushed Maryam’s mother away. They dragged Maryam away, her broken leg trailing painfully behind. She could hear her mother shouting after her. One of the women called out to Maryam’s mother. ‘We’ll call you later.’
Maryam was driven through the city, vaguely aware of travelling along Karim Khan Zand Bouelvard and passing Namazi Square and Setad Square. But then, the driver turned into an alley with imposing walls. The women blindfolded her. She heard a gate swing open. The car moved forward and stopped. The women guided her out of the car and led her into a building. They removed her blindfold. Maryam saw a small room off the corridor to the right.
Maryam was instructed to take off her shoes because this place was considered to be holy. ‘Put this on,’ one of the women said, handing Maryam a chador. Suitably attired for interrogation, Maryam entered a very small room further down the hallway. It was furnished with a desk and two chairs. She sat down on one of the chairs. The women left her alone.
The wall phone started ringing. It rang and rang. She wondered why it kept ringing. She picked up the phone.
‘You are’ – a male voice identified her by name.
‘These are your offenses: inciting a revolution; opposing the Ayatollah and the regime; belonging to a political terrorist group.’
‘What? No!’ she shouted and hung up.
Two men entered the room. One of them, very casually dressed, sat and wrote notes while the other, dressed like the Lebas Shahksi, plain-clothes paramilitary, harangued her with her crimes. Then the diatribe became personal: Are you married? You are? Why were you at the demonstrations? Where was your husband? He can’t be a good man; a good man won’t allow you to wonder the streets like a prostitute. Where was your father? Is he a pimp too? And your mother and sisters, are they prostitutes too?
Maryam began to weep silently. The man didn’t touch her with his hands, but he tore into her with his words, ripping her self-worth to shreds. Then he pushed a piece of paper in front of Maryam and promised to release her if she signed the confession.
She refused. And the onslaught began all over again. A few hours later, when he pushed the confession before her, promising that she could go if she just signed the document, her drugged mind reasoned: I’ll sign it now and when I am out, I can get a lawyer and explain everything to him. And she affixed her thumbprint to the document.
Three years later, in 2012, a phone call confirmed Maryam’s worst fears.
‘I feel that I am being followed,’ said her friend who, three years ago, had urged her to take part in demonstrations. Rumour was that the police were reopening old files in the lead up to presidential elections to be held in 2013.
Maryam, too, had a file on her. It had been this file and the associated memories of humiliation that had plunged her into depression. She had stopped teaching aerobics, shut herself at home and popped pills to keep her sanity; only the possibility of Australian Immigration calling to check if she really worked there compelled her to get out of bed and in to her hair salon each morning.
Although she and Benham were hopeful about migrating to Australia, it had been a long time since they had heard any news about her 2005 application to migrate. Considering that first stage approval had been given, Maryam felt that they were owed an answer, and, if the answer were a no, a reason and a refund. Were hairdressers not in demand anymore? Or were different political winds blowing?
When Maryam didn’t hear from her friend again, she called his brother.
‘We don’t know where he is. He went out about two nights ago and didn’t come home.
Maryam’s mind went into overdrive, examining the implications of the news, playing out all possible scenarios, moves and countermoves. If she received a court summons to defend herself, if she were humiliated and interrogated again, she felt sure that she would have a mental breakdown. She could not, therefore, comply with such an order. She would have to flee, making her a wanted criminal. If she tried, instead, to hide, she might be stalked, arrested, and simply disappear one day, like her friend, and never see her family again, a terrifying possibility. After all the dead ends and U-turns, her mind turned in to the last remaining alleyway, her last hope of deliverance: a lawyer.
‘No, I’m sorry,’ said her last hope. ‘I cannot be your lawyer. I don’t want any trouble. Some of my friends are in prison because they defended people charged with political crimes. You can try other lawyers but I believe no lawyer wants to be involved in political issues. I cannot help you as a lawyer, but as a friend, my advice to you is to go. Go. Don’t stay. If you feel in danger, go. Leave the country.’
Within two weeks, they sold everything they owned and bought air tickets to travel from: Shiraz to Qatar, Qatar to Kuala Lumpur. On the day of their flight, friends drove them to the airport, prepared to help them escape if authorities prevented Maryam from leaving the country.
Trying to blend in with other Iranians leaving on business or holiday trips, they carried a backpack each and Benham tucked his long hair into his shirt collar. As they approached the immigration counter, Benham said to Maryam, ‘You go first so that if they stop you, I can help you. If I am already through immigration and they detain you, I cannot help.’
Maryam stood in front of him in the line, clutching her passport in her sweaty palm. She felt her heart beat faster and louder as she approached the front of the line. When the immigration officer beaconed her over, she stepped forward and handed him her passport.
He looked at her photograph. He lifted his gaze to study her face. He checked his computer screen. Maryam barely dared to breathe. She shook with fear beneath her chador but steeled her face to look nonchalant. Finally, he stamped her passport.
‘Go!’ said the officer and waved her on. She took her passport and turned quickly so that he wouldn’t see the tears streaming down her face. Benham too started crying. It was his turn to front up to the immigration officer.
‘Why are you crying?’ asked the officer.
‘Nothing,’ shrugged Benham. ‘I miss my family, that’s all.’
Stamp thudded on passport.
‘Go!’ said the officer.
Benham walked forward to join Maryam. She was still shaking. They walked to the nearest teashop and sat down. Only when the plane took off, Maryam calmed down a little. The tension slipped away, only to be replaced by a sense of loss. She wept all the way to Qatar.
To be continued next Friday 20 December 2019 in Refuge#42 Crash Course in People Smuggling. 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 every Friday.