It is a beautiful day. The sky is a clear blue, the sun is casting its friendly rays earthward. The air is cool, but not cold.
And piercing through every particle of it are the chants.
“Death to the Dictator.”
The people are shouting.
“Death to the Dictator.”
The phrase is a death sentence for those who utter it – apostasy against the men who claim to be representatives of God. Men who seek to be Gods themselves.
“Death to the Dictator.”
I close my eyes and feel the power of the protest. I feel pride swelling through me. Pride for my people, and in no small way, pride for what I have helped unleash.
Today, under a clear blue sky, my countrymen are standing for the right against the powerful.
I silently pray that in some way my friend, Soroush is here to see this. I saw him shoved into a car and driven away. He was a leader of the protests and he will probably die. But for now, he is in prison.
And I am ready to join him.
Ours is a battle for the good, no matter what the risks. We know the odds. And yet, for some reason, so many of us have decided to take the bet.
Perhaps it is because we know that if we don’t, we may never have another chance to do so.
“Death to the Dictator.”
I know it isn’t, but it feels like an unstoppable human wave.
And then it is time to disperse. In the past year, our tactics have improved. We’ve learned that there are simply too many protesters in too many places for the authorities to stop us all. We used to congregate and they used to attack – brutally. Now, we move and regroup like shapes appearing in sand.
One moment we’re pedestrians milling about, the next we’re protesters shouting our disdain. We shout and denounce, and then – before the authorities can shift their sights, we disperse and move on. Only to begin again someplace else. Most of the time, it works.
I laugh as I realize we’re like some teleporting character from a sci-fi movie. You look for us in one place, and Zap!, we’ve moved to another and are striking at your rear. Despite our weakness, this is power.
And it is time to move.
But before we can, I feel a change in the air. People start running, and I hear the sound of motorcycles. And then gunshots and the sick crack of batons on skulls.
I don’t know why, but I keep my eyes closed.
Somehow, I can see them coming. The Basiji, the ‘men’ who define a regime – attacking the innocent, shooting women, casting acid in the faces of those who defy their code.
My brain tells me to open my eyes and run, but I stand. I can feel a Basij, baton in hand, noticing me. He’s sitting on the backseat of a motorcycle. He nudges his driver and they steer towards me. Baton swinging, he clears fleeing people from his path.
I hear a crash and shout of victory. A motorcycle has been brought down. In days past, the riders would be let free. But not today. Today, I know the bike will be torched and the rider beaten. The times of peace are past.
But the bike that was brought down was not mine.
I can hear mine drawing closer.
I know it’s coming. And yet, as I begin to feel the staccato of its engine, I find myself unable to even open my eyes. My minds’ eye just stares at the riders in hatred. My face projects only calm.
I am daring them to strike down a man who offers no defense – and I know that they will.
They come closer, faster.
The baton is raised.
And then, without a wince or a cringe, I am struck down.
I don’t know it until later, but others in the crowd rescue me. They move me to an alleyway. They bandage my head. And they return to the fast-flowing conflict.
It is only later that I open my eyes.
And when I do, I am shocked.
Perhaps it is my physical state, but when I open my eyes I am stunned by the beauty of the woman tending to me. She has long jet black hair pulled back beneath a modest headscarf. She has deep and pure brown eyes, absent the vast quantities of makeup my countrywomen are prone to. And she has a smile. It doesn’t come all at once. It starts a look of concern. And then when I open my eyes, it just spreads. Like a supernova. First her eyes light up, and then her joy flows from her cheeks, and then her mouth opens in pure happiness.
I’ve never seen anything like it.
“Are you okay?” she asks. Her voice is sweet. Her accent is not cultured. She seems meek.
I try to nod, but can’t. “Yes,” I whimper, suddenly realizing just how much my head hurts.
“Good,” she says, quietly, “I watched you out there. With your eyes closed as the Basij came. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Her voice seems to gain confidence and power as she remembers what she saw.
I try to smile, but it hurts.
“Oh,” she says, “Don’t try to move too much. They hit you pretty hard. The riots have moved on though and we’ll be okay here.”
I blink my eyes.
She smiles again, her voice hushed but confident. “That’ll work. Let’s do one blink for ‘yes’, two for ‘no’.”
I blink once.
“My name is Aara,” she says, “Don’t worry about introducing yourself, that can come later.”
Aara – Farsi for adoring. I imagine that the name is apt.
I want to ask who she is. I want to learn something more about her. But I can’t. I’m immobilized. The pain of speaking would be too great.
She just sits there, cradling me. Smiling.
And then, finally, she talks again, “My husband was a Basij,” she says, “Shall I tell you about him?”
I hope I heard correctly ‘was,’ not ‘is.’ I blink once.
“We got married when I was 16,” she says, “He seemed a sweet man. He plied my family and me with jewels. He promised me care and love and adoration. He was a Basij and he played up the work he did as a volunteer – helping young boys become men and standing as a Guardian of the Faith. I was enamored.”
She pauses, wistfully. She looks at me, and then decides to go on, “And then we got married. And then everything changed. He beat me. Constantly. He deprived me of sleep. He threatened me if I thought of leaving the house. He prohibited me from seeing even my parents. And he spoke proudly of his ‘volunteer’ work. I didn’t know it when we got married, but he had been ‘married’ many times before. He was one of the select few chosen to rape virgin prisoners the night before their executions. The demand was technical, the government couldn’t break our Law by executing virgins and so they had devised a solution. Some of those men renounced their work. But my husband never seemed to leave it.”
She paused. I thought for a moment that I should pity her. But there was no sign of it on her face. She was just telling me a story of her past. Why, I couldn’t imagine.
“My husband couldn’t see me as a person.” she continued, as if drawn along by some force she couldn’t control, “If he did, then all those others would be people too. He would be destroyed. I represented his undoing and because of that I was punished. But he wasn’t a bad man, just a broken one.”
She believed it. I wanted to protest, but couldn’t.
“We had a son, Sarfraz. By the time he was three, it was clear something was wrong. It turned out the boy was autistic – severely autistic. My husband hated him. I could understand why. Sarfraz was a testimony to my husband’s own failings. The son he had produced represented his own lack of manhood.
“So my husband stopped coming home, just to avoid Sarfraz. He volunteered more and more. The stretches of time would get longer and longer. And then, he volunteered for duty in the south. In Baluchistan. And the terrorists there killed him. They blew up his bus. There were o
nly seven casualties, but my husband was one.”
“I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” she said, with a nervous but happy laugh. “I’ve never told a soul this. We aren’t supposed to complain. But it was something about the way you stood. You seemed strong. And, it is hard to explain, but you seemed free. It was like they could hit you, like they had to hit you but you could stand and say and think what you wanted. Somehow, it seemed like they were the ones constrained. You were free.”
I hadn’t said a word, I’d barely thought it, but she’d hit it right on the head. I had experienced freedom.
My head still hurt – the aftereffects weren’t kind.
“Should I go on?” she asked.
I blinked once.
She thinks for a moment. I love watching her eyes as they judge just how much to tell. And then, with a clearing, she makes up her mind. I know before she says a word that she won’t let herself be constrained.
“When my husband died, it was like a weight had been lifted off of me. I hated him. I hated the Basij. And I loved my son. When he died, I felt like my life was suddenly restarted. And then, before long, reality hit. My family wouldn’t talk to me. His family wouldn’t talk to me. And I had no job, an autistic son, and nowhere to go. Aside from a little cash, I’d been left with nothing.
“So, I left our apartment and found something much smaller and cheaper. I sold our furniture. And then I started begging. My son and I, we talk every night. Well, I talk and he does what he does. It is beautiful, and hard. I sit there, watching him, telling him about my day and the people I’ve met. He doesn’t answer or acknowledge me, but I hope that on some level he’s listening. And I love it. And then, in the morning, I go out again.”
I can’t stop myself. “How long?”
“How long what?” she asked.
It hurts, but I force it out, “How long have you been begging?”
“Five years,” she says, matter-of-factly.
“Do you need money?” I ask.
“No,” she says, her face breaking out into another smile, “Not from you.”
It seems an odd phrase, coming from a beggar.
I shift my head a touch, indicating my confusion.
“You’ve given me something else,” she says, “You’ve given me hope.”
Our eyes meet and I realize it’s true. She would have asked for my pity fifteen minutes ago. But not now. I want to just lay there, staring into her eyes. She seems happy to oblige. Her fingers begin to run through the unbandaged parts of my hair, gently pushing apart the coagulated clumps of blood.
I can’t explain why I say it, but I do. “You too,” I answer.
With that, she leans down and kisses my forehead – holding there longer than necessary. It is a touch of kindness and of respect – and perhaps of love.
My heart races. I force it to settle and I just savor the moment.
She pulls her lips away and my eyes are drawn open. “Are you feeling better?” she asks.
“Yes,” I answer. The ringing and pain are slowly subsiding.
“Let’s test how you’re doing,” she says. She lifts my shoulders and sits me up.
“I think I can stand,” I say.
So she stands up and grasps my wrists and slowly pulls me up to her.
My head hurts, but I make it.
I’m a little taller than she is.
She smiles again and looks up at me and nods, and then says, “And now we go our separate ways.”
She’s right of course.
I can picture the conversation with my parents and with my friends. The objections are a mile long. She’s a young widow with a disabled son. I’m barely out of college. She’s poor and uneducated and I’m from a highly educated family. Her life has been seeped in the Law and mine has been spent dancing along its edges. And she might be after our money – she is a beggar. Or perhaps her story is totally false and she picked a wounded man in an alley as her victim. I know my family won’t allow it and I know they will make me agree.
I look at her. She smiles back and says, sadness creeping into her eyes as if she can read what I’m thinking, “It is a moment in an alleyway after a riot,” she says, “It is nothing. And it can’t work.”
I picture her telling her son about me. I picture her joy, and her sadness as her words bounce off of him.
But I know I must walk away.
I nod at her, my head still shooting with pain.
And then I turn away.
I can feel her eyes following me. I can feel her hope following me. And I know we will both be weaker when I’ve gone.
As I walk away, I see myself in the future, walking past her begging on the street. I’m going to my job. Our eyes meet, there is pain, and we look away. I can’t humiliate her by leaving her money. So I walk by, trying to ignore her and her me.
The images are painful, but I must go.
And then I remember Soroush being shoved into the car. And I remember them taking him away. And I realize my turn may be next.
Like my countrymen, I have chosen to fight for the good, no matter what the risks.
And I may never have another chance.
As I turn back into the alley, I realize I love her. I can’t explain. But when she sees me, her face lights up again and I realize that she loves me too.
Perhaps it is just an encounter in an alleyway after a riot.
But perhaps its foundations are more solid.