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All the Things We Never Were - SAMZ R. NESH

 












To all the voices who cry, “Woman, Life, Freedom.”


***

The small metal ball clanks audibly inside the paint spray as I shake it vigorously. Just one more puff and the deed is all done—finito! 

My head swivels wearily on its own accord, my ears sharpened like an alert watchdog and slightly pink in the freezing afternoon air; the rumpled curly hair falls short of protecting my ears, and I absolutely refuse to wear a headscarf—or anything over my head for that matter— after what has recently turned up. 

Parand is on the lookout, his midnight-blue tie-dye hoodie hanging loose on his lanky physique, his long ponytail snaking out of the hood that is drawn down to his nose, also pink with cold. But one cannot really rely on that scatterbrained dork who’s always huddled over his game set day in, day out. If it weren’t for me keeping an eye out, he’d be already bruised and bashed behind bars.

The final puff finally deigns to woosh out, and I trace the last letter ‘ی’, nodding at the blood-red result written boldly on the huge white-washed wall:


# مهسا — امینی        

       # Mahsa—Amini


# زن —  زندگی — آزادی        

#Woman — Life — Freedom


I have never minded danger, especially if the danger is worth it. But we are indeed putting our lives on the line just to print those few harmless words on (one could say) the “ramparts” of the much-feared Basij headquarters; words that have instigated an unprecedented uprising in Iran. 

A month has passed since the murder of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the religious morality police—the innocent 23-year-old girl from the province of Kurdistan, whose only alleged misdemeanor was a wisp of hair peeking out of her headscarf. 

And oh sister, hell broke loose after her sad story was disclosed to the public by two gutsy female reporters who were duly imprisoned by the authorities. Mahsa was beaten brutally to death. She fell into a coma, and after being transferred to the hospital, she passed away. And that, had imploded the bottled-up rage of the Iranians who had had one too many of the government’s underhanded antics for over 43 years. 

A madhouse! That’s what I always call our political system: a woman-hater foundation filled with backwater religious dickheads who always wear a ridiculous white (or even worst black) cabbage-like headgears, ordaining us to do their bidding.

I never had the patience for my parents’ lectures on the whys and wherefores of having such a government after the democratic revolution of 1979. I am only sixteen, for pity’s sake! Why should I care for politics and whatnot? 

When Mahsa died, it was as if a spooky Sponge Monster landed over the country, absorbing every drip of juice out of life. In all get-togethers, in every phone call and small talk, her name was mentioned and mourned for… I don’t know how to put it in words, but something cringed inside me when I saw her photos. It felt like I was checking out my own life story in a series of gory images on the screen. For some days, I lost the urge to dance or do anything for that matter. But I was never one to sit on my butt and wail my sorrows into a pillow. I dressed up, went out, and bought a couple of paint sprays. I wanted to print her name on as many walls as I could so that the blood-sucking Sponge Monster could not wipe out her memory from our minds. 

I couldn’t effing well discuss what I had in mind with my school friends. My father had explicitly forbidden me. Not that I have incorrigible thoughts. That’s not it. The problem is that I always have the most improbable ideas that would undoubtedly (according to my most esteemed parents) lure the unfortunate listener into trouble! My own diagnosis is that I’m a bit overenthusiastic. I can’t help it! I react to everything, be it a stupid ant climbing a very sleek wall or a show-off cousin mansplaining things to me hoity-toity which drives me mad. 

That’s why I was sent to every possible extracurricular activity out there at a very young age: sports, music, arts, you name it. And none stuck but dance! Dancing is my holy grail, my life, my soul inside out. And I am actually very, very good at it. This unprecedented talent of mine was first discovered at the age of five at a wedding party where on my own accord, I had tottered up to the dance stage (done up in my colorful costume of the northern province of Gilan where my parents originally from,) and had mimicked the professional Ghasemabadi performers down to the letter. I had then proudly earned the title of prodigy. 

So, counting all this into account, Parand was the only alternative. Being unlucky enough to be singled out as my best friend as the only son of my parent’s best friends, he has been (most unwillingly) my partner in crime ever since I can remember. The accounts of the escapades I have drawn him into are the tall tale of every family gathering.

I had much rather joined the protests, but my parents made me swear I wouldn’t. Yet, I owed it to Mahsa and then later to Hadis, Hananeh, Sarina, and many other teenagers like myself who had literally fought the police forces on the streets for a better future. I owed it to the internationally-sung slogan of “Woman, Life, Freedom.” I owed it to the first-ever feminist revolution in history.

“Did you hear it?” Parand’s agitated voice whispers over my shoulder.

“What?” I murmur, stepping back from the wall to examine my handiwork.

I bump into him, and he catches me in time with his long arms. “I’m sure I heard footsteps from inside the building… Time to go.”

“Excuse me, but whose idea was it to prettify the walls in this sketchy neighborhood?”

“You wanted to trash an important Basij headquarters. I found you one. Why are you complaining?”

“I think you’re the one who’s grumbling like an old grandpa!”

“It’s getting late anyways.”

“Late for what? Not even dark yet.”

“I-I got to be somewhere….”

“Where?” I gaze up suspiciously into his worried hazel eyes that are frowning at his smartwatch.

This’s news to me; he always lets me in on everything. What’s he up to?

“Never you mind ‘where’! Just wrap it up, will you?” He huffs warm breath into his hands stained with black paint, and tucks them under his armpits. “Wait, I heard it again!” 

He tenses up, instantly shielding me behind his back as he peers up and down the empty street.

It is a wide silent roadway flanked on either side by somber-looking government buildings. A few cars are parked here and there by the walls, and most of the offices are closed up as it is after hours. 

“I don’t like it.” Parand sulkily snatches the other paint spray off the ground and shoves it into his pocket. “Let’s get going.”

“Don’t be silly! We still have that other wall to decorate!” My finger darts out for clarification.

But right then, in a blink of an eye, a door screeches open, and a hard blow is planted in the small of my back. 

The spray drops out of my hand as I crash to the ground on my face. 

A gruff voice spats, “You filthy motherfuckers! Got you this time, all right!” And another kick lands in my belly. “Will fuck you to death myself, you little bitch!” and another one.

 Rapid spasms of unbearable pain blur my consciousness, but Parand’s shrieks scrape my eardrums wide awake. He is obviously being dealt the same cards. This drives me boiling mad, boosting my stamina. Parand is my responsibility. If there’s anyone who can hit him, it’s me.

With tears rolling down my cheeks, I press my hands to the ground, bend one leg while stretching the other, and deliver a perfect hip-hop spin, hitting the bastard Basiji’s ankles and swiping him down with a loud whack. 

With a mixture of fear and excitement, I scramble to my trembling feet and bump headlong into the other Basiji, who’s short but stout, taking him by surprise. Then right before he pulls himself together, I clutch at Parand’s collar and yank him up.

“Run!” I yell, hearing the two men rustle up with loud unfathomable curses. 

Parand staggers a few steps, looking pale and disoriented.

“Run!” I give him another heave, blindly bounding into the nearest alley on my left, running as I have never done before. 

I can hear bellows and tap-taping of heavy footsteps on our trail; I launch my sore muscles even more. I keep turning left and right into whatever direction the road presents itself, dodging and parrying a few pedestrians carrying their grocery home. 

Evening winter twilight is quickly slouching over the city, making it hard to navigate within the shadowy byways. Cold sweat showers my back. My short curls stick to my forehead, but I don’t care. We need to get to the main street—which I remember is located somewhere nearby—and from there, we can easily flag down a cab straight home. 

Wait a minute. Shit! Where is Parand? 

I swear under my breath as I take a short break in a dead-end alley and peek an eye out the ridge of the wall. The faraway street lamps provide a faint yellowish light that allows me to make sure he is nowhere around.

“Shit! Shit! Shit!” I spit out loud, my hands on my waist, doubling over, gasping for air. 

Right then, I hear a motorcycle approaching from up the narrow street that divides the alley I’m taking shelter in from the one across.

“I heard the bitch. I’m telling you!” A man’s shrill flies over the noise of the bike.

I freeze, quickly clasping my back to the cold structure behind me, making myself as small and invisible as possible. The bike has slowed down, meticulously searching the area. I try not to breathe. My heart is pounding so loud in my ears I’m afraid it will alarm the whole neighborhood. 

Presently, the structure I’m leaning onto gives way, and falling backward, I’m vacuumed inside by the force of two strong arms. The door slams shut after me. Before I can let out a hearty scream, a rough hand clamps over my mouth, and another easily holds my squirming body firmly against a husky figure. The bike is now in the alley. I can hear it well over the panic that has befuddled my brain. 

“Don’t worry, sister,” a gruff voice whispers deliberately in my ear. “You’re safe in my house. Do not worry. All right?”

My tense limbs relax a little, and I nod. The arms are withdrawn, and as silent as a lurking cat, I stick an ear to the rusty metal door in anticipation.

“The bitch was here. I’m sure!” 

“Well, you’re damned well mistaken, idiot! And now we’ve lost her!”

“But I heard—”

“Shut it! Let’s move out. The other one, the boy, we mustn’t lose him.”

And the vehicle duly disappears out of our hearing range.

I don’t know whether to dance or cry. Parand has got away! But this doesn’t mean he’s out of the woods yet…O God! If you really exist—what am I saying? You must at least exist right now so I can make a plea... Please, please keep him safe, God. He’s a namby-pamby kind of guy. He can’t manage on his own. If you save him, I promise not to… not to dance on religious mourning holidays… Please…

Two hands squeeze my shoulders reassuringly. I wince. For a second, I have forgotten where I am. Slowly, I turn. A middle-aged man with a long wavy beard and mustache stares back at me. Even in the dim light, I can distinguish a pair of kindest green eyes I’ve ever seen shining out of a weather-beaten face. 

I open my parched mouth, but he immediately puts his forefinger on his lips, pointing at the buildings across that have a good view of his tiny courtyard. Next, he jerks his head at me to follow him to a slanting metal staircase next to the entrance doors of his house, leading down to the cellars. 

“You are safe here, sister. Do not worry,” he repeats audibly once we’re down in a shadowed area as if to appease a scaredy-cat.

“I… I don’t know how to thank you.” I stake out the long rectangular cellar peppered with all sorts of knickknacks: old discarded electronics, broken crockery and chinaware, splintered wooden boxes and big dusty satchels of tarpaulin. 

“Don’t need to... Is an honor to help a fellow Barandāz, I’m sure.” He gives a smile under his bushy beard, which is hard to detect, but I can see the reflection in his eyes that crease on both sides. 

I smile back, still unsettled with the shock and cramp that is short-circuiting up and down my belly. “Do you have a landline by any chance? I think I’d better call my parent to come and get me. I didn’t bring mine along because of security reasons, you know…”

He cowers a little like a guilty child. “Sorry, sister, but… I don’t have a phone… Can’t afford one, you see.”

“Not even a cellphone?” I ask, and immediately hate myself for asking as he bites his lips. “Sorry. Never mind… I think I’d better wait a little before heading out again. Don’t you think?” 

“Oh, for sure… Not wise to step out for at least a couple of hours.”

“Right.” I swipe back the damp curls off my brow and helplessly search for the following line of conversation. 

“Come, sister. This way.” He sidles a couple of boxes along the wall. “Better not to turn on the lights... Nosy neighbors, you see.” He grimaces bitterly over his shoulder. “Government snitches…Most of them, godless creatures.”

We reach the end of the cellar, almost hidden out of sight, with two high stacks of wooden boxes covered clumsily with grey tarpaulin like a vast screen. He vanishes behind it, and I, after him.

The first thing I notice is a glinting metal jug brimming with water, and two metal cups beside it on the bare cement floor. I plunge down on it and pour myself at least three cups full. As the refreshing liquid slides down my dry throat, I sigh heavily and slump on a crumpled tarpaulin by the screen. 

It is then that I notice two pairs of curious eyes watching me.

On my left, seated cross-legged on another crumple of plastic sheets, is a bony but sturdy girl in a long grey cape. Her skin is the coolest shade of chocolate I’ve ever seen, her jet-black eyes almost dissolving in shadows that surround her like a hazy cloud. Her frizzy black hair is divided into several braids that flow down on her arms and knees. I cannot read anything on her face except that I need to watch out for myself when this one’s around.

On my right, a small figure is huddled by the wall. Her black chador is so tightly wrapped around her that it looks more like a protective armor. Her equally black-scarfed head is resting on her knees. Her plump face is pallid, fear echoing openly through her big light-brown eyes. 

“Sisters. You are safe here.” The man’s voice shatters my train of thought. “I will come back with some food. And when the streets are safe, I’ll let you know.” He nods amiably and leaves us to our own devices.

“Wazzup, you guys?” I attempt to break the awkward silence that has settled after his departure. “What a day, huh?”

The girl in braids doesn’t even bother to answer. She rolls her eyes but her attention is still fixed on me. 

The other girl, obviously well-behaved, gives a faint smile and says, “Yes…”

I wait. No one says anything. Well, it seems it is up to me to brighten up the place a little, inject some spirit in da house!

“You guys, my name’s—”

“No personal information, please.” The girl in braids raises a hand, her voice clear but cutting. “If they arrest you, I’d rather not follow suit if one of you rats on me!”

Oh, sassy, are we? 

I shrug, unperturbed. “Well, we ought to at least be able to call each other something while we’re cooped up here… Can’t keep calling you ‘you.’ Can I?”

“That’s your problem. Not mine.” 

At this, I bristle a little. But then, I back off. These two must have been through a lot today, maybe even more than me. 

I decide to change tactics. “What if we choose nicknames, huh?”

The girl in chador raises her chin. Aha! She is interested

“Let’s see…” I scratch my chin, my eyes roaming the ceiling. “You can call me… Maddie from now on.”

“You don’t say!” returns the girl in braids with a scoff. 

“Why ‘Maddie’?” The mousy girl asks in a low voice.

“After my dance idol, Maddie Ziegler. I ADORE her!” I grunt, sprawling on the floor in worship posture and yapping instantly as pain swirls in my lower region.

The mousy girl giggles. “Isn’t she the one dancing in Sia’s music video ‘Unstoppable’?” 

“Why, yes!” I rise to my knees, totally surprised. I never took the religious types for Western music lovers. “She’s heart-cringingly original. Isn’t she?” I rave on. “Her moves, her facial gestures, her choreography, it all just gives me the feels!” And forgetting all my cramps and worries, I pull off a couple of Maddie’s moves. 

The mousy girl claps gleefully after I take a bow. “Are-are you a hip-hop dancer then?” 

I cross my arms over my chest. “I can dance anything: hip hop, Latin, modern, ballet, dolly hop, Kurdish, Foxtrot, even Indian classical. But my favorite is freestyle. I just need to close my eyes, let the music in, and let go.” And humming a rhythm, I perform a series of modern/contemporary drills I have recently put together. 

“That’s so c-cool.” The mousy girl claps some more after I open my eyes and drop into my tarpaulin seat. “Why d-do you like dancing?” 

“Girl! You just asked the right question.” I grin at her. “It’s the only way my zigzagging thoughts fizzle to a hush. Next thing I know, electricity rushes through my veins, moving my muscles and bones to perfection... It’s absolute freedom. You know what I mean? Freedom of form, of thought, of mandatory hijab, of holding back your tongue when you don’t want to, of your parent’s excessive worries, of those idiot boys whom you like and don’t like you back, of many, many things...”

The mousy girl is staring at me open-mouthed. I think I’ve bewildered the poor thing with my spiel. But there’s a dab of color in her pallid face now. She’s warming up to me. 

An idea strikes me, then. “Do you like Sia, by the way?” 

“I… I love her.” She blushes, adding quickly, “I-I mean, I love her voice….” 

“Then let’s call you Sia!” I propose. “Huh? What d’you say?”

Her face flushes even more, but she nods a couple of times. 

“Now you’re the odd one out!” With a wide display of teeth, I turn to the girl in braids. “And you know what they say about pariahs!”

Nothing has changed in that icy face of hers as she silently weighs me up. I notice her hands moving ever so slightly underneath her cape over her waist area. 

“Hey, what you got there?” I swoop down beside her on one knee. “Can I see?”

She flinches, taken aback by my outright impudence. Yet, something glints in her doe-like eyes—a sort of an amused spark that was not there before. She glances at Sia, who is also snooping. Then with a shrug, she swipes her long cape aside.

“Holy shit!” I spit giddily. 

Three handmade bongo-like drums are attached to a thick brown belt that’s fastened around her waist. The biggest one in the middle is the size of a handball, and the other two, are each one size smaller.

They are not normal bongos. I knew it from the first glance. The animal skin—I’m sure it’s animal skin—is tightly stretched over the various-sized wooden frames, bound deftly with delicate handwoven ropes. They ooze some sort of something, like magic…

“What… are they?” Sia drops bashfully.

“Call me Zara.” The girl in braids declares suddenly, her bony fingers drumming lightly on the middle bongo, which produces a surprisingly formidable sound. “And these are Zār drums.”

“No shit!” I gasp, stretching an arm to the exotic things.

Zara slaps my hand away. “No touching, Miss Nosey!” 

“Ow!” 

“What is Zār?” Sia inches closer for a better look.

Zara’s head tilts to one side as though choosing her words carefully. “The island I come from, Sia, is full of old myths and legends believed to live and walk among us… One of these myths is the Afro-Indian wind spirits… They mainly come from Africa and India as you can already tell, and have many names, many types, different traits. They have the ability to possess people and cause them such mental and physical harm that no modern medicine or treatment can cure… Zār, to simply put it, is a kind of healing ritual led by holistic practitioners, who can rid the affected people from these wind spirits.”

“I know! You’re from the Island of Hormuz. Aren’t you?” I blurt with a puffed-up chest, showing off my well-informed brain. “Been there once. With the whole family. We even swam in the Persian Gulf in our bathing suits. Can you believe it?” 

Zara gives me such a glare that I’m possibly going to melt at any time. “That blunt tongue of yours is going to cost you big time one of these days, Maddie girl!”

 “That’s what my mom always says.” I sigh drastically. “Can’t help it. My thoughts tumble down my tongue so effing fast I don’t even have time to cap it. Maybe there’s something wrong with my tongue.” And I stick it out for an inspection, squint-eyed.

This time, Zara actually smiles. Not an easy smile, though; the corner of her full lips twitch against her effort to squeeze them shut. “Well, now that it’s out in the open, yes. I am from Hormuz.”

“And the drums?” Sia slowly releases her wrapping chador, her posture now relaxed as she sits cross-legged. “What do they do?”

“Well, these are miniature versions of the actual drums. You could say I’m an apprentice.” Zara’s hands brush the drumskins in a circle. “The practitioners—we call them Mama Zār if female, or Baba Zār if male—play the drums in a special ceremony, attended by previously affected patients called ‘the Air Indigenes.’ The drum sound is believed to drive the wind spirits away, you see.”

“But… why do you carry them?” Sia asks, biting her lip. 

“As I said, these beauties have the power to drive away malicious mighty winds. I wanted to try them on those bastard Arzeshi goons who savagely hunt us on the streets.” Her eyes flash dangerously, her voice ringing with fury. “I wanted to scare the shit out of them. I wanted to see if I could make them beat it with their tails between their knobby legs!”

“And did you?” I butt in with much interest.

“Didn’t get the chance, I’m sorry to say… Only minutes after I joined the protests, the crackdown unit attacked us. Many got trampled under their nasty boots, many arrested, beaten to death right in front of our eyes…” Her knuckles whiten around the drums. “But don’t you worry. They’ll have their fair share of these drums sooner than later. I promise you that.”

“C-can you play for us?” Sia swallows hard.

“You want her to drive us away, too?” I chuckle. “Do I look like a malicious wind spirit to you, Sia?”

“Oh, no!” She shakes her head briskly. “I…That’s not what I meant. I—”

“Stop teasing her, Maddie!” Zara shoots me another one of those glares I’m beginning to get used to. “And no, Sia. I’m sorry. But I’m not a party performer. They…” She traces a finger over the crisscrossed ropes of the drums. “Well, they kind of call to me when the time comes. And it's only then that I play.”

“Not even at wedding parties?” I press. 

“I told you. They’re meant for sick people. Although, if we go about it the right way, a bride is also sick to the core with stupidity.” 

“Why? Just because she’s getting married?” 

“Hell yeah! You’re already half a man’s worth in Sharia law. When you get married, it gets even worst. You hand in all your rights as a human being to your husband on a silver platter. You lose your right to study or work without your husband’s permission, to get a divorce without his consent, obtain a passport and leave the country without his approval, and most importantly, the custody of your own child to a male member of your husband’s family. And these are only to name a few!”

“I know what you mean… But guys our generation are not like that.” I think of Parand and if he would even dare to ask for such things. 

Quickly, I banish the idea with a snort. Why should I think of him of all people? He’s just my pal. Nothing more. 

Your guy is not like that, I presume?”  Zara’s eyebrow shoots up over a knowing stare.

“Well, he’s not mine so to speak... But I’m sure Par— I mean Benedict, let’s call him Benedict—is not like that at all. He won’t dare.” And I let out a hearty laughter imagining the goof in a groom’s suit.

“Why Benedict?” Sia catches up with a giggle.

“After my crush in Bridgerton series. Have you watched it?’

Sia nods. “I love Daphne! I-I mean Daphne’s story.”

“Not that I’m a fan of these wishy-washy corny series or anything...” I ruffle my short hair with a show of indifference. “I wanna learn English country dance, you know.” 

“He might seem like a lamb to you now, Maddie girl.” Zara’s warning has a tinge of the spiciest cayenne pepper I’ve ever tasted. “Just you wait and see when he gets a ‘yes’ out of you. Only then he’ll show his true face.” A scoff. “Trust me. I’m speaking out of experience.”

“Experience?” I narrow my eyes. 

Zara doesn’t look old enough to be married. Nineteen? Maybe twenty?

“I know what you’re thinking.” She returns my suspicious look with a screw of her lips. “No… I’m not talking about my experience. Rather… rather my sister’s...” Her fingers fist around a handful of her braids, her knuckles white again. “My island is a mélange of melancholy and magic. The soil, the air, the sea, even the colorful sandy shores whisper untold stories in your ear all year round. Hormuz is rich with rainbow-colored valleys, unique red and silver beaches, historical sites.” Zara’s voice tinkles with pride as she goes on. “Yet it’s always been ignored by the authorities throughout history. Apart from meager tourism-based income, fishing is the only way to earn a living. But sadly, during the past hundred years, Russians, the Arab Emirates, and other neighbors have invaded our maritime boundaries, fishing heavily and illegally.” 

Her shoulders droop in exasperation, and she removes the drum belt from her waist, placing it cautiously beside her. “There’s not much left in the sea. And we are always hungry, lacking bare necessities, from clean water and medical care to preliminary education and transportation. Girls on my island tend to get married early to unburden their families. At only sixteen, my sister tied the knot with a well-off old widower in Bandar Abbas. He promised she could go to university and work afterward as she always wanted to become a teacher and educate girls in our island…” A prickly sigh leaves her mouth. “I’m sure you can guess the rest. He bullied her, beat her, and didn’t allow her to continue her education. After giving birth to a daughter, without her husband’s knowledge, she took the university entrance exam and got in. But, of course, he was bound to find out… He abused her so much that she ran away with her baby and came home to us. And my father, being a man of honor (according to himself!), handed her right back to the ranging husband who came after her with a couple of his goons. That was the last time I saw her…” A thick sheet of tears fills up her eyes, and her head snaps away. 

“W-what happened to her?” Sia asks with a sob.

“Her body was found a week later in the sea…” The tears are now freely speeding down Zara’s cheeks, but her back is upright, her shoulders rolled back, and those menacing eyes are still flashing full. “That’s why I’m here today. That’s why I will fight this battle till my last breath… That’s why I want to get rid of this rotten prehistoric system….” The back of her hands dab quickly at her face, and she clears her throat. “I want to take custody of my niece when I’m of age. I want her to grow up knowing why her mother gave her life for basic education rights … I’ve just begun my studies at Tehran University’s law school. I’ll be a lawyer and maybe a family court judge one day. I want to help all those women who silently suffer and die at the hands of their male relations… I want justice for-for Aida….”

“Is that your sister’s name?” I’m struggling to swallow down the big lump that has popped up in my throat for some time. “I like it... It suits her.”

Zara’s eyes turn on me. They are not icy anymore but warm and accepting. 

Sia sniffs, wiping her face with her chador. “But you can’t become a judge in this country. You know that. Don’t you?” 

“Who doesn’t?” I let out an angry snort.

“Sia dear, by the time we’re done with these male chauvinists, we’ll establish a constitution where women have the freedom over their bodies, their careers, and their future. I hope one day we can appoint a female president to the office who can represent all we have lost and longed for throughout these dark years….”

“I’ll dance to that!” I wink with a click of my tongue.

“It might even be you someday, Maddie.” A real real smile slowly spreads over Zara’s lips. “Although I’m not sure if I should vote for such a firebrand. No one will have a day’s rest from your energy powerhouse.”

“You’d better!” I pounce on my feet, deepening my voice, raising my hands. “Or I might haunt you like a wind spirit, Zara. Beware!”

Zara’s widening smile lays bare her white teeth. “Why are you here, Maddie? Hm? I’d never take you for someone who cares to join a protest. You reek of filthy rich people; you know that?”

“What’s wrong with it? I can’t help being born into a rich family, can I?” I cross my arms over my chest with a frown. “Besides, it’s a perfectly beautiful smell; thank you very much!” 

She has gotten under my skin a little, but I quickly shrug it off and plop down next her, wiggling my eyebrows. “By the way, aren’t you worried that I’d rat on you now that you’ve shared your story?” 

“That I certainly do! With you, Maddie girl, one should constantly watch her back.” Zara’s head angles sideways as she gazes deep into my eyes. “But oddly enough, that’s a risk I’m willing to take.”

My heart fills with a thrill. I’ve scored a friend. I’ve won over an ice queen. That should go down in my social skills report as A++. “You wanted to know why I joined? Well, then. Here you go: because of Looli.”

“What’s a tramp got to do with it?”

“Not a tramp, girl!” I crack up. “Looli is my mongrel puppy dog I found a few months back under a trash can. I honestly can’t tell his breed. But he’s definitely a mutt, and I love him to the bone. Whenever I take him out for a walk, there’s this exact spot with a cedar tree that he pees on, and he barks and hisses at anyone or anything that dares to pass by; and there’s no use telling him off. A few days after Mahsa’s incident, Looli led me out to the same old tree, and while he was doing his business, a freaking Basiji appeared out of nowhere and began cussing at me and ‘my filthy dog.’ He even went as far as kicking at my poor Looli. But you know what? Before I could move a muscle, he pounced at the freaking bastard’s ankles and treated him to a good couple of gnashing bites. I know because it was bleeding badly after the guy beat it at light speed!” I crack up again, and this time, the others join in. “Right then, I thought to myself, if a tiny mongrel puppy can defend the tiny piece of land he thinks he’s got first dibs on, then why can’t I stand up to those who are trampling our rights to this ancient land we call home?” 

I glance from one to the other. They are zoomed in on me, their eyes once more sparkling. “I felt I owed it to her, you know… to Iran, I mean. We call her motherland, don’t we? She’s our mother, isn’t she? That’s what my Maman Joon always said—my awesome gorgeous eccentric grandmother, who taught me to never hold back my tongue for anybody’s sake!” Now it is my turn to divert my face so that they can’t see I’m not tough enough to restrain my tears. 

Maman Joon’s memories never fail to make me vulnerable. I miss her terribly since she passed away a year ago. But somehow, whenever I think of her, I’m instantly back in the vast green rice fields of our ancestors in Gilan, and a cool breeze always brings her scent of orange blossoms to my nostrils, no matter where I am; just like here and now.

I suppress a choke. 

Eternal is the one whose heart has awakened to Love…” Zara quotes Hafiz, Maman Joon’s favorite poet, and I shiver with a feeling I don’t recognize. 

Her hand lifts up and plunges on the drums; an eerie ‘dudummm’ echoes in the space, and I wrap my arms tightly around myself. “She’s with you, Maddie... I can feel her vibrance around you.” Zara gently squeezes my arm. “Our loved ones are always with us one way or another. That’s the nature of true love.”

“How old are you, granny?” I sniff loudly, trying to cover it up with a croaking laugh. 

“Eighteen.” She throws her long braids over her shoulder. “And mind you, Miss Nosey, it’s not age that brings wisdom, but experience… and from what I see, you shouldn’t be more than twelve!”

I stick out a tongue at her. “Sixteen, thank you very much!” 

Presently, a hooting “din dong” rings nearby, and we all jump. My breath hitches in my throat as I perk up my ears to see what’s cooking up. Hurried footsteps shuffle in the courtyard towards the door, and a muffled stream of conversation streams in our tiny hideout. 

I peer at the others. Zara is stiff, the chocolate of her face given way to a lighter shade. Sia has pulled back to the foot of the wall, her black chador fully swathed around her like the armor it once was. Her audible shuddering breath gives me enough boost to get on my tiptoes and inch to the small barred window up on the facing wall. Zara’s hand grabs at my ankle, but I wave it off with a silent gesture of reassurance. 

Unsure of the safety measures, I secure one foot after another over a battered old wooden chest conveniently located underneath the window and slowly raise my head. The moon is high up out of reach, and the courtyard lit up and stark. I can still hear the ongoing mushy voices wafting around, but there’s no one in sight. 

“Sheesh! That was close.” I whisper, hopping down.

“What’s up?” Zara whispers back.

“It was the doorbell next-door. Don’t worry.”

“Are-are you sure?” Sia squeaks. “What if it’s-it’s them? Going door to door looking for us?”

“I doubt it.” My teeth wearily bite at the corner of my lips. “Anyway, nothing’s doing but wait and see.”

“Easy for you to say.” Sia’s voice is hushed to a breezy hiss. “You’ve got iron nerves.”

“Ha!” 

“She’s right, Maddie.” Zara grins. “Never seen anyone who can blab as constantly as you do in a hot mess.”

“What’s the use of worrying yourself with something about to come when it comes anyway? I admit, I’ve done all I could to distract you guys with my”—I mime quotations marks—“constant blabbing. It’s more of an autopilot reaction. Whenever I’m stressed, I talk and act like nothing happened. And to be honest, it’s usually helped me out of a dump hole.”

Presently, the outside voices die out, and a rusty metal door slams shut. We all let out a pent-up breath. 

“I miss my mom.” Sia rubs the back of her hand over her eyes. “She must be worried to death by now.”

I instantly think of my parents, who must have been driven to all sorts of crazy resorts. I don’t have my phone, and they can’t reach Parand as well, since he, too, left his phone at my place. 

“I wonder when’s a good time to head out.” Zara glances at her watch. “My dormitory closes up at 9 p.m. At this rate, I will have to sleep outside.”

“No, you won’t.” I blurt smugly. “You’ll stay with me. My mom’s never bitched about a sleepover.”

“Why am I not surprised?” Zara chuckles with mock exasperation. “I bet Looli is not the first foundling you took home.”

I snort, peering at Sia, who still looks pale and disoriented. It’s time to take this girl’s mind off her troubles.

“What’s your game, Sia? Huh?”

As if punched in the face, she startles, her eyes flickering rapidly in their sockets. “Wh-what do you mean?”

“I mean, why are you here? Seems like your mom won’t approve if she found out.”

“I-I… well… same as you… I want freedom too… freedom of hijab…”

“Now, that’s a story I’d like to hear.” I crawl on my hands and knees to her side, making myself comfortable beside her.

Her eyes bulge as they sway between Zara and me. “W-what story?”

“Yours, dude!” I nudge her with an elbow. “You’ve heard ours. It’s your turn now.”

“Well…” she jots a quick pleading glance at Zara, but she gives her an encouraging nod. With a deep breath, she begins. “I… well, I’m from Qom. My father works in the offices of Jamkaran Mosque. I’ve come to Tehran for a month with my mother… to visit my aunt.”

“In the middle of the school year?” I whistle. “You must be at school, aren’t you?”

“Y-yes… I’m fourteen. And… and I just needed a vacation. That’s all.” She presses her lips together defensively.

Zara darts a stinging look at me. “Go on, Sia…”

“Well… I-I don’t like wearing a chador. I never liked it, to be honest. But-but my family is hardcore religious… and-and we wear hijab almost at the age of five or six….”

“Why don’t you just chuck it, then?” My auto-pilot reaction gets in the way again, and I save myself from glancing at Zara.

“B-because my family would never have it. Never! They’d rather shut me in the house for eternity than let me out and about chador-free…And besides, I’m used to it. It’s not easy not to wear it all of a sudden. Chador feels like my second skin. I-I feel naked when I don’t wear hijab, especially in front of men. Seeing me like that, could provoke them. And they might later betray their wives with another woman, and it will all be my fault—at least that’s what my mother always says…And I can’t bare it… I can’t explain… But I just can’t not wear it….” The last words come out in a moan and she pulls her legs to her belly and plants her forehead on her knees.

“You are not responsible for anybody’s actions but yours, Sia. Remember that. We have as much right to freely walk this earth as men do. And if there is a creator, in Her eyes, we are all equal. We are not here to please or serve anyone. We are not an excuse for men’s lack of control or lust.” Zara gently lifts Sia’s chin up and wipes her tears with a clean tissue she has just conjured up from her pocket. “I think Maddie and I both understand you very well. Making a drastic change is a huge step in anybody’s life. It needs much planning and even specialized psychological support to get through the process. And even that might take years.” 

“Zara’s right. I, too, am so used to having something covering my hair that when in a foreign country, my hands automatically fumble for a scarf every effing time I see the police. How funny is that?” I crack up.

This makes Sia smile through her tears. She slowly unfastens a knot under her chin and gingerly removes her oversized black scarf. A cascade of long straight brown hair tumbles down to her back, and she combs it with tottering fingers. 

“Holy guacamole, girl! Why the hell have you been hiding this?” I squeal. “Some awesome hair if I’ve ever seen one!” I grab a fistful and wave it at Zara. “Look. Isn’t it awesome?” 

“I think it’s wiser to cover your hair up before Maddie pulls them out one by one.” Zara chuckles, and Sia and I join in.

This is pure girl power. No dude can ever get a hair joke like we do. 

“I-I’ve got something more awesome, Maddie,” Sia says in her small voice, but her eyes are pulsing with gusto. “I-I can sing.”

“You can?” My jaw drops. “Are you kidding me?” Her speaking voice barely toes the mark. I doubt if she can go higher than an octave. 

“Do you want to hear?” she says, a bit worked up, as if reading my mind.

“Sure, we do!” Zara says, hunching over curiously. “The stage is all yours.”

“What should I sing?” Sia looks from me to Zara and back.

I wave a hand in the air. “Surprise us!”

Sia brushes away a few loose strands from her face, takes a deep breath and clamps her eyes. The moment she lets out the breath, the whole room rumbles:

I’ll smile. I know what it takes to fool this town. I’ll do it till the sun goes down…

The words roll out in a passionate flow, warm and weighty like autumn rain. 

I’ll put my armor on, show you how strong I am. I’ll put my armor on, I’ll show you that I am….

Her voice, wild and free, pitches higher and higher; so loud and resounding that I have goosebumps all over. This creature in front of me singing, is Sia no more. She is transformed into a mighty dark sorceress, casting a spell over anyone daring to listen. 

I feel I can touch her soul through the rise and fall of the thundering notes. My arm jerks out as if by an invisible source and I’m drawn up to my feet. My head drops to one side and my feet move. And I dance and I dance and I dance… I’m Maddie. No. I’m better! I’m ME. 

I’m unstoppable today!

I’m unstoppable. I’m a Porsche with no breaks. I’m invincible. Yes, I’ll win every single game!” Sia sings, a thick trilling rasp in her deep voice that is a zillion times her size.

Presently, something vibrant rides over the song. A couple of hefty ‘dudumms’ and I freeze mid-performance.

Zara’s hands are dashing over her Zār drums, left and right, center and back. Her eyes are shut, her body moving with the beat, this way and that, forward and back, as if in a trance.  

And now… the magic is complete. 

I don’t know how long we were absorbed in the alchemy of sound, rhythm and form but the noise of frenzied claps gives me a start. I make one last pirouette and bow. When I straighten up, I see our bearded host by the wall, clapping non-stop with a huge smile on his face.

“Sisters, this’s priceless. I’ve never seen or heard anything like it.” He takes a few steps into the room, studying us each, obviously impressed.

Sia hastily clutches at her scarf that’s lying under her feet and dumps it clumsily over her head. 

“Oh, please forgive me. I didn’t mean to…” the man instantly drops his gaze and turns to leave.

“Please, don’t go.” This firm comment comes from Sia, and I gape. 

The scarf is once more lying at her feet, her cascading hair boldly on display. Her face is red, but the shadow of the mighty dark sorceress is still lingering. “I… I can sing something for you if you tell me what you like.”

A gashing smile hops up the man’s dry lips to his kind green eyes. “Can you sing the song ‘Rāvi’ by Dame Hayedeh?”

Sia nods, and we all take our seats. As if on cue, Zara opens up the piece with the drums, and Sia’s vervy voice fills the room:

The messenger has brought good tidings.

 Where’s my wine goblet? Where’s the wine bearer?

Separation is over. I received news from my beloved...”

The man snaps his fingers with the beat, his eyes unseeing, his torso swaying from left to right. There’s a peaceful wistful expression on his weathered face as he sings along:

Now that I’m too old, my beloved is back.

God works in mysterious ways. And this is my fate….”

The moment the song ends, we all clap and whoop, but his applause is way louder. Two wet lines are rolling down his tan skin into his beard, and he makes no effort to wipe them off.

“You know, sisters, this was the song of much happier days. Remember it well, I do. Was couple years after the 1979 revolution, and we all thought the worst was behind us, not in front. How deceived we all were…” He rubs his palms on his knees, zoned out on the small barred window that lets in oodles of silvery moonlight. “A ten-year-old lad I was, in a small village of Baluchistan. Even at that young age, I knew everyone expected better treatment of the Baluchi people, who are one of the oldest residents of this country. Our province is and was equally neglected before and after the 1979 revolution, with the lowest water allocation, a ban on teaching our language or being elected for official positions. We have to go through Haft-Khān-e-Rostam to get an ID, and the situation is much worse for our women. They are among the most abused human beings I’ve ever known….” 

Here, his face brightens up, a ghost of once-hopeful days romping behind his dazed eyes. “My mother, a Scheherazade in her own rights, used to say, ‘MenChok, there was a time when women danced freely on this soil and sang sacred songs of the olden days. Soil has memory, MenChok. It records every single footstep stamped on it, and, one day, gathers them all and hurls them back in a giant typhoon at the oppressor—king, prophet or man alike. There will come a day when this soil will free itself from tyranny; and that day will only come when women sing and dance and blare the Soor-e-Esrafil to awaken the men of this land’… Oh, MenMat, how I wish you could see that this day has finally come, that our women, young and old, are dancing once again on this tired soil. Wish you could see how three young sisters have blessed my humble place with their footsteps; three brave sisters who have been facing the tyrants empty-handed... Ay, Mat, I hope you are now happy with your son who failed to make a good living for you. Hope what little I’m doing for these sisters today, would bring a smile to your kind sunburnt face in heavens… Ay, Mat…” Here, his voice breaks into a jittery sob and he buries his face in his calloused hands.

I’ve never seen a grown-up man cry like this; at least not in real life. And I can’t stop the rush of teasers threatening to flood my eyes for a while. There’s an urge in me to hug and comfort him. But I sit back, knowing that he needs this. I glance at the girls and don’t need to guess their thoughts. 

And we all sit, weeping, as if it is a sacred ritual of those olden days his Mat used to tell stories about. I wish she would smile down on him. I have a feeling that she is…

After some stretched moments, the man raises his tear-streaked face, his eyes swollen and red-rimmed.

“Please, take this.” Sia holds out her black scarf to him.

He gives her a long look and then accepts the offering. He first brushes each eye with it, then kissing it, he presses the scarf to his forehead

Next, he peers at us one by one and says, “Sisters, don’t ever stop singing and dancing. This soil is coming back to life, thanks to you. It is gathering your imprints to hurl them back in a Nooh’s typhoon at the dictators who deprived my Mat, you, and me of our basic rights. Keep it up as you once did thousands of years ago. I’ve got your back. We, Iranian men, got your back. Always...”

At this, I can’t not react anymore. I reach out and scrunch his big, scabbed fingers. He nods at me with a wobbly smile as his fingers wrap around mine. Likewise, he dips his head at Zara when she takes his other hand and at Sia, who joins hands with us. And the four of us sit in that small cocoon of companionship for I don’t know how long. 

It’s a strange sensation to bond with three total strangers and, at the same time, feel so close to them as if you’ve known them all your life. 

“That’s the nature of true love, Maddie girl.” I hear Zara’s voice in my head, and now, I fully understand what she meant before. 

Love and our memories have kept us and this land alive; a cat-shaped map of borders full of controversies and disparities, yet filled to the brim of its highest snowy peaks with a contagious sort of love you can never get rid of if you lived on her soil even for a short while. We are Iran, all of us in this room, all of us on the streets, from south to north and east to west, with different ethnicities and backgrounds. And I’ll gladly lay down my life for any of them.  I’ve lived a good 16 years, haven’t I? I’m willing to let others dance in my footsteps so that this soil never dies. 

That’s a promise.

A sudden chirpy peal of the doorbell tolls us out of the sweet stupor and the hand chain breaks up. A shiver creeps down my back when our host jumps up, worked up, glancing nervously out the window.

“Don’t know who that could be… Stay here, sisters.” He slides in a cracked melamine plate with three neat rolls of Sangak stuffed with Lighvan cheese, walnut and fresh herbs. “Please, help yourselves... is a green leaf, souvenir of dervish.” 

No one moves a muscle, all eyes anxiously glued to the window.

It takes me a few charged heartbeats to pull myself together. “Chill, you guys. Must be a neighbor or something.” And I snatch up a sandwich and munch a big bite. 

It’s tangy, herby, and fresh—the best snack in the whole world. But the doorbell keeps ringing nonstop, and the taste sours in my mouth. 

 Right then, abrupt footsteps bound toward our hideout. 

“Sisters… hurry up… It’s them.” His words barely sink in through his hyperventilation and the vigorous banging on the door. “A neighbor must have snitched. You must leave.”

As if bitten by fire ants, we all scurry to our feet and, gathering our stuff, bolt to the stairs. Once out in the open, he presses a finger to his lips, although there’s no need to hush us up as the kicking and loud cursing of the furious police force throb achingly in every cell of our flesh. 

He ushers us to the back of the house, where a rickety ladder is leaning against the wall. “Use the ladder to get down.” He helps me up. “Dump it right after.”

“But, but what about you?” I look down at him, bewildered.  

“You need a head-start. Will stall them as much as I can.” A series of savage kicks butt the creaking metal door, which will probably give way at this rate. “For God’s sake, hurry up.”

I outstretch an arm to Sia. 

“Thanks for everything, brother.” I see Zara squeezing his arm. “Hope to see you soon in Azadi Square to celebrate our victory!”

“God willing.” The man’s face lights up for a second in the gloom of the night, and with one last wistful smile, he disappears.

The moment Zara’s feet touch the gravel of the back alley, we hear the door crash open and thundering pattering and bellows swarm in the courtyard.

“Let’s go.” Sia tugs at my black hoodie’s sleeve, but before I can order my legs, an earsplitting holler stops us dead in our tracks.

“There’s… no one…. here…” A man, our host, lets out a heart-wrenching cry in intervals as if being thrashed continuously. “Look… for…. yourselves.” 

I can’t think; I can’t move. I only know I must zip back to the house and deliver a punch or two at those bastards. 

A decisive hand grabs at my collar. “He’s sacrificed so much for us already, Maddie.” Zara’s compelling whisper fills my ear. “We can’t disappoint him by getting caught.”

I hastily dab a hand at my eyes and nod. Closing my heart to the clamor, I numbly follow Zara into the bends and bowers of the looping alleys. We startle at every single shadow that scuttles by, at every click and clack of unknown sources, at every single oblivious passerby, and all the while, our heads swing back on our shoulders for any unwanted tail. 

Finally arriving at the main square of the neighborhood that is scantily occupied by home-goers and cars, we take a long-relieved breath and study one another.

“Well… that’s it, folks…” I ruffle my once-again-damp hair.

“Well…” Sia parrots out, twirling a finger around her locks.

“I guess… it turned out all right,” Zara observes the area, her cape around her neck, her long jet-black braids hugging her frame, and the drum belt hung over one shoulder.

What next? The phrase blinks in neon colors on the background of my mind as I shift my weight from one foot to the other, for once—maybe for the first time—lost for words. 

“Woman, life, freedom!”

“Woman, life, freedom!”

“Say it!”

“Woman, life, freedom!”

The famous slogan blasts in all directions as a big group of at least fifty people, all masked and dressed in dark shades, appear from the other side of the square, stopping cars and encouraging the drivers to hunk in solidarity.

“Best get going then…” I hear a note of reluctance in Zara’s remark as I watch the crowd.

“Yeah…” I mumble.

“It’s getting late…” Sia adds in her small voice. 

I turn and eye Zara, and she eyes me back as she wears the drum belt around her waist. Next, I gaze into Sia’s ever-sparking eyes, lifting my brows in a silent question. After a pause, we hold hands and, without a word, step into the welcoming throng of protestors, screaming at the top of our lungs,

“Woman, Life, Freedom!”

“Woman, Life, Freedom!”

We’re not done yet. And if we want to call it a night, I swear, we’ll end it on a high note. 

There’s this contagious rush of excitement that latches from one person to the other in a crowd, a seamless sort of unintelligible tremor of courage that envelopes those who yell out their demands, their rights. It’s not like one of those jam-packed metro lines that everyone shoves and elbows their way out. Here, everyone is mindful of the next person, keeping enough distance and watching each other’s back. 

The three of us walk still hand in hand. A woman, probably my mom’s age, with a half-moon smile, hands out three black masks. I struggle with the elastics as I try to plant it safely on my face, but right then, someone grabs my arm, jerking me around. 

“What the hell are you doing here?” A hooded and masked figure looms over me with a shout above the ringing slogan.

I can recognize that voice anywhere! “You knuckleheaded dork, you’re alive!” and I sling my arms around his thin bony waist.

His arms snake tight around me, but then he holds me at arm’s length, grousing, “I thought you already went home. Why the hell are you still here? Who’re these?” He jots his chin at Zara and Sia, who are eyeballing us suspiciously. 

I begin to walk on, “Long story.” And I point him out to the girls with a loud “Benedict.”

Zara rolls her eyes with a shake of her head and keeps on walking ahead with Sia, who is showing off all her teeth at me. 

“Who’s Benedict?” Parand snaps.

 “Never you mind. How did you know I got away?” 

“I heard those Basiji bastards cursing you out loud when they came after me. Seems like you gave them a good run for their money!”

“You bet I did.” I make a face.

“Must tell me all later because you’re going home right now.”

 “Says who?”

With a curse, he drags me off to the sidewalk. “Please just for once, listen to me.” He pinches the bridge of his nose, then levels his mouth to my ear. “I shouldn’t talk about it… But you remember I had to be somewhere tonight? The thing is, we hacked one of Sepah’s intelligent service databases and located an underground lockup in this neighborhood. They’re keeping ten prisoners sentenced to death. They’re going to hang them tomorrow morning at 5 a.m.! This specific protest tonight in this area is a decoy to lure the guards away from the hideout so that we can rescue the prisoners. It’s totally dangerous. I honestly don’t know what’s gonna happen, and I want you, no, I need you, to go home right now. You hear me? Right now!”

I just zoom in on him, open-mouthed, not believing what I hear. “How long have you been mixed up in all this?”

“Will let you in on everything. I promise—”

“I thought you never kept anything from me… I thought I was your best friend…” I bite my lower lip hard. 

Parand pushes down his mask, lifts his hand, and after a brief pause, cups my face in ice-cold fingers. It feels strange and yet… and yet right. A heated sensation spreads on my cheeks. My eyes prickle for some unknown reason, and I quickly drop them.

“Look at me.” He pulls up my face to his. “I’m so sorry to have kept it all from you. I really am… and… and you must have guessed by now that… that you’re much more than just a best friend.”

I’ve never seen the namby-pamby Parand like this: so sure of himself, so grown up, and, what’s more, looking at me the way he is right now. 

“There’s a ton to share, but time’s running out, and we must stick to the plan. You do understand. Don’t you?”

I nod.

“Promise me you’ll go home. I can’t function if I keep worrying about you.”

I yank at his collar with a crooked grin. “You’d better come home in one piece. Because I’m gonna beat the shit out of you!”

He laughs, but the sound dies out as he bends over and brushes his lips on mine. 

A whirlwind of unclear emotions roller-coaster in my belly and without knowing, my arms hook around his waist again, drawing him closer. 

The deafening screech of robust tires escalates nearby. We instantly pull apart, my heart racing like crazy. A giant menacing water cannon followed by at least ten SWAT vehicles skid to a halt fifty yards away up the street, and the crackdown squad, in black body armor and helmets, spills over the square like molten lava. A hubbub breaks out as the protestors hurtle off in retreat, still screaming various slogans in whatever order they come to mind.

“Shit, shit, shit.” Parand growls, hauling me in a sprint as far away as possible from the commotion.

With an acid “Scram!” he shoves me into a nearby alley and gallops off.

I just remember that I have forgotten to breathe for a long while. As I refill my pulsing lungs, I glance up and down the street for the girls, but of no use. Although the area is flanked by various lamplights and the police cars are glaring their headlights, finding anyone in that hullaballoo is impossible. 

The guards form a line, holding up their riot shields and sticks at the ready. A couple of guys and girls pick up bricks and stones from the street curbs and fling them at the unit. Some others pitch two big burning dumpster bins at them. 

Presently the water cannon goes off and the dumpster bins receive a good batch. Some protestors at the frontline get fully doused and thrust to the ground. I quickly leave my safe, dark narrow alley and slip into the crowd. I look here and there for the girls, but I’m almost lost in the sea of hustling, drenched bodies. 

Down with Khamenei!”

Down with Khamenei!”

The murmur of the slogan catches fire and multiplies in an uproar. Now tens and tens of people, man and woman, young and old, are shooting up their fists and snarling out the very name of the Lord Voldemort of Iran, which only a few months ago, would cause one’s teeth to rattle in fear. 

We fight, we die, we’ll take back Iran.”

We fight, we die, we’ll take back Iran.”

I shout along at the top of my voice. As if energized by the power of words alone, our legion moves up in unison toward the battlefront. This’s not something the guards expect, and in a blink of an eye, I hear a couple of shots hooting the air.

Hell breaks loose with shrieks of terrified dissidents. Everyone backs off in a sprint. As I swing on my heels to follow suit, I bump into a guy, and we both tumble down on one another. Hastily, I marshal my thoughts and limbs and pounce on my feet, darting out a hand to the guy who must be around Parand’s age. 

“Owe you one,” he says, hopping up.

“You do!” 

And as a couple of more bullets flutter to our hearing range, he shields me with his frame and lunges me ahead of him.

“You… crazy? You’ll get… shot... Let me go.” I manage to say as we run.

“This’s the… revolution of ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’... I’m here to protect you and give lay down my life if I have to…” He ducks a bullet, forcing me to keel along, adding, “Iranian women have suffered enough. It’s now our turn to stand up for them.”

“What’s your name?” 

Nima.”

Through the ongoing rattle of footsteps and bellows, I hear another bullet whoosh by, and this time, I duck alone. Before I can check in on him, I receive a sudden heavy load dropped on my shoulders, and we both fall headlong to the ground.

“Nima, you ok?” I try to roll on my back and look at him, who is sprawled on top of me.

I hear no reply.

Horror claws at my inner organs as I lift his face. His eyes are closed. I shake him. Still no answer. People are running by. Bullets jingle. And no one seems to notice us. I give one forceful jolt and sit up. His torso falls on my lap, and I see a big blood stain rapidly growing between his shoulders.

“Nima!” I scream, giving his limp body another lurch.

A man kneels beside me, panting. He presses two fingers to Nima’s neck. 

“He’s gone.”

“NO!” I bark at him. “No. He’s fine. He’s just wounded. We must take him to the hospital.”

“My dear, he’s gone.” The man tries to unfasten my arm clenched around my guardian angel.

I wriggle free with a jerk. Anger is boiling in my veins. I don’t know where I am anymore. My blood-stained fingers clasp into fists as I stand up. Tears smear my vision, but my eyes are dead-focused on the momentarily-ceasing-fire crackdown unit. Rage has deafened me. Crimson has blinded me. I’m suffocating on a sob. And like a raging bull, I charge toward them. 

“Stop!” The man attempts to grab me, but I’m too quick for him. “You’re walking straight into their arms, girl. Stop!”

Snatching a trampled scarf from the ground, I quickly wrap it around a stone and set it on fire through a small fading bonfire on the sidewalk. I swing back my arm as much as I can and pitch the fireball.

Many things happen at the same time in slow motion. 

As the ball leaves my grasp, it takes a curved route in the air and approaches the nearest sharpshooter, who is aiming his gun at me. The light of fire momentarily illuminates his face as he dodges, and I clearly see the man smiling—no, grinning; a vengeful nasty grin that will happily give me my just deserts. Next thing I know, he secures this aim, and his finger pulls the trigger. 

And the whole world stoops down in darkness.

I collapse with an unbearable burning that eats at my right eye. I smell blood and something even more foul. Someone is howling nearby, and I suddenly realize it’s me. With trembling fingers, I reach the place my right eye is supposed to be, and as soon as I touch the numbed area, my fingers sense blood—blood that is rutting down my throat. For one moment, I lose consciousness. But the comfort of four hands that tackle my waist and legs, carrying me away, gives me a brief sense of presence.

I half-hear people speaking to me, but I can’t make out anything. I just want to die and end this monstrous pain. My other eyes throbs and itches so badly that I don’t dare to open it. 

“Quick. We must bind the wound.” Someone says beside me.

“Zara?” I moan, fumbling blindly around for her.

“Shhhh. It’s ok. You’re ok.” Her fingers weave into mine, her voice empty of her usual snark.

“Zara, I can’t see anything. I can’t see anything!” 

“It’s, Ok. You just have to stay calm. We’re going to take you to the hospital. Don’t worry. Ok?”

“My mom. Tell my mom. Please tell my mom.” I try to sit up, but the forceful hands keep me still.

The ambient yells and shrieks have let up; no more tumult of slogans or escaping patters.

I tug at Zara’s hand. “What happened? Where’s everyone?”

“Here, take this.”

Something round and hard, like a small pill, is pinned to my mouth.

“It’s painkiller. Always carry one for my period surprise,” a woman I don’t recognize says.

I swallow it down with some gulps of much-needed water offered to me by the same woman in a plastic bottle that squeaks in her grip.

“Zara… tell me… Where’s everyone?”

“The shots scattered them away. The good thing is the guards are leaving too. Just bare it a little longer and we’ll be on our way.”

“My car’s parked down the street.” The same woman says. “I’ll take you.”

At this I bristle, momentarily forgetting the eye-splitting torture. “No! We mustn’t let them go. We have to keep them here.”

“Maddie, what are you talking about?” 

“Are you out of your mind?” Zara sweeps back my curls on my forehead. “You can’t keep losing blood like this.” 

“There are others needing medical attention too, you know,” Sia says begrudgingly. “I hope those murderers go directly to hell.”

“No. No. No.” My throat is dry again, my whole body bathing in cold sweat. Just half of my face functions; the other half is fully paralyzed. I roll my tongue on my chapped lips. It tastes metallic and pungent but I don’t care. “Please, listen to me. We must stall the guards as much as we can.”

“But why?”

“Listen!” I hiss with all the power left in me. “There’s some sort of an underground operation going on in this neighborhood. This protest was a smokescreen.” And I lay out Parand’s story.

“But, Maddie… Your eye,” Sia says with a catch in her voice. 

“It’s their life, Sia.” My hand gropes clumsily around and finds her wet cheek. “They’ll be hanged in a couple of hours. We have to help them. And besides, I feel a bit better. The pill has done its bit.”

“But how?” comes Sia’s exasperated reply. “What can three teenagers do empty-handed?”

“Who says we’re empty-handed? The three of us, we’re a team.” I squeeze Zara’s hand, still tangled in mine. “We can bring people back. We can unite them with our act. We can bust these bastards together.”

“The hell with the act, Maddie. You can’t possibly think of dancing in your condition!” Zara spats.

That’s the nature of true love. Remember? We can’t let those people hang, Zara. You know it as well as I do.”

“Sia?” That’s all Zara says, and I hear cloth being torn.

Presently, someone lifts up my head, and a piece of cloth is bandaged tightly around my right eye.

I try to blink and open the left one, but it proves very difficult. My lashes are stuck with dried blood and tears. I carefully rub it with a finger and take a peek. Zara is tying back her long braids with a scrunchy. Now she takes off and dumps her cape. The drums, oozing magic, are ready for their cue around her waist. 

Rising dizzily, I hang onto both of them, squinting at the surroundings. The square is empty. Even the cars have scooted to avoid trouble. On one side, the guards and the crackdown machinery are positioned, and on the other, the people—or a handful of them, to be exact. I slowly let go of the supporting arms and manage to stand on my own feet. 

“Are you ok?” Zara asks apprehensively.

“Never better!”

“Oh, Maddie.” Sia chokes.

“No time for this, Sia. Not now.” I outstretch both arms and close one eye. “Sing, Sia. Sing like you’ve never sung before.”

“Here? In front of all these people?” She backs away a little from me. “I-I don’t know—”

“Sia,” Zara says softly. “Do it for us. You got this.”

I take in a big gulp of cold air, and before I release all my cooped-up emotions to a nonexistent rhythm, Sia’s strong voice torpedoes the air,

Rise up, for ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’… Rise up for ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’.”

 Vibrant echoes of drums, sensational and primitive, fall in with her singing, raising hair at the back of my worn-out neck as they get louder and louder and louder.

 “In the name of Woman, in the name of Life, 

  We’ll free ourselves from the yokes of slavery,

  Our dark nights will dawn, 

  Lashes on our bodies become axes in our hands…”

The song is a Farsi reproduction of the famous Chilean resistance march that had taken the world by storm in the 70s. I stomp my feet one after the other with each word at the beat of the drums. Next thing, my body takes the lead. 

Blood is soaking through the bandage, streaming down my cheek, but I’m numbed with an anesthetic beyond substance. All my anger, my suffering, my rage is transformed into this act, into this haka, my war dance.

A cool breeze hums in my ears, bringing a faint scent of orange blossoms to my nostrils. Instantly, the sound of my march on the cold asphalt fades out, and I’m back in the rice fields, twirling and twirling. 

The damp northern air nestles warmly on my skin, and the green of the rice plants swaying this way and that glares both my eyes. And when I blink twice, I see the colorful stripes of long Ghasemabadi skirts twirling all around me. They’re all there: Maman joon, my mom, my aunts, cousins, female paddy field workers, all whirling in their sequined costumes of red, yellow, orange, and blue, and the wind is singing, and we are all dancing, painless, thoughtless, free. The soil underneath our steps is alive. I feel it beating with a heart as my feet shuffle over it… And I know that his Mat was right, that this soil is gathering our imprints to conjure a Nooh’s typhoon.

Sia’s voice follows me in the vastness of evergreen Gilan, hoisting me back where I’m needed.

“We swear on the pure blood of our martyrs,

  We swear on this revolution of tears and kisses,

  That through this ceaseless rein of suffering,

  If you summon us, oh Motherland, 

  We’ll lay our lives at your feet…”

And I dance… for me, for mom and dad, for Parand, for Zara, for Sia; for all the dances we never danced; for all the songs we sang; for all the kisses we never kissed; for all the bikes we never rode, for all the plains we never flew; for all the judges we never became… for all the things we never were.

I swing, wind, and march with the song, and I suddenly hear something more than mere rebound of my own steps. 

“Rise up, for Woman, Life, Freedom,” sings a man’s voice from somewhere behind.

“Rise up, for Woman, Life, Freedom,” sings along a woman on my right.

“Me, you and them, we’ll become one again,” sing many many voices, a gigantic choir of a thousand free spirits, more than I can ever count. Fifty? Sixty? A hundred? Two hundred?

I just know that the space is so populated that the whole street is trembling under our feet. Our songs, united, one, are soaring the skies, lashing down on anyone who stands in our way. With much difficulty, I snap open my left eye and gingerly swivel my neck. 

The area, as far as I can see, is filled with people who are marching arm in arm. Right across, the water cannon, SWAT vehicles, and the guards are awaiting their cue as they inch deliberately toward us. 

Less than forty yards away... Now, thirty yards away. 

I glance back again. People are still there, singing. The troops are now twenty yards away, their skin pale under their helmets, their guns taking many jittery trajectories until they lock on target.

The girls and I are at the frontline. But this time, my heart is not racing off in a Formula One circuit. The pulses are steady, as I am; as we all are. 

On my right, Zara’s torso sways to and fro, her hands deftly fleeting over the drums that have truly succeeded in scaring the shit out of the crackdown unit. On my left, Sia’s angelic voice is trilling huskily in multitudes, her long brown hair wafting bold and daring—once more the mighty sorceress of that small cellar. 

They both smile at me, each hooking an arm in mine, and with our heads held high, we look the enemy in the eye.

And they open fire. 


Written by Samz R. Nesh



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