They were playing cards, and Mina was losing. Attempting to console herself, she thought, this isn’t about losing or winning, only playing.
She then tried to distract herself, concentrating more on the music and less on her losing and bad luck. But the music was no good – something loud and happy – which only intensified her ennui.
She downed her glass of whisky and coke, thinking the whisky was definitely fake, because it tasted like acetone, but still better than nothing. Tonight was the night of mourning for Imam Hossein, for whom the whole nation was supposed to wear black, weeping over his historic martyrdom in mosques reeking of rotten socks. So, drinking acetone-tasting whisky and losing at cards while listening to pop music was perhaps something to feel grateful about and to thank God for – except that she did not believe in God, so she carried on being annoyed and bored.
Mina looked up from her cards to glance at her Hokm teammate, a woman she’d just met. The woman caught Mina’s attention and looked back at her with worried eyes which seemed to her as though they’d been drawn by Modigliani: they were mysterious, slanted. Mina was wondering how much her masterfully-drawn eyeliner played a role in creating this effect. She then noticed that the woman’s face was also as long as the kind of face that Modigliani would paint. She desired to draw the woman, to see her naked. Her skin, Mina concluded, was the smoothest.
Upon her arrival, Mina had decided the boy sitting beside her had the most aesthetically pleasing features in the group, but he had stubble that Mina knew would feel anything but smooth. She also noticed that his hands were large and very hairy.
Sipping her whisky, Mina carried on losing, not caring about the game anymore. Suddenly, the music changed to one of her favourite songs – Not Gonna Get Us by t.A.T.u – so she nodded her head and looked at the woman, smiling, flashing her set of straight teeth. The woman smiled back and narrowed her eyes.
There were around fifteen people, eight of whom were playing cards and the rest were talking and smoking weed. Mina could hear their stoned laughter. For a moment, she felt insecure and scared, remembering Omid’s neighbours preparing their place for a fine night of mourning. She had seen the black flags hanging from their windows and door – like corpses of infants. She had also seen something else that had moved her, even though she was reluctant to admit it.
Just as she was ringing Omid’s doorbell, she saw two figures in black chador, standing on the doorstep of Omid’s neighbour. They looked at her just as she was looking at them, one of them, an elderly woman, horribly solemn and the other, a teenage girl, probably a bit younger than Mina. Their eyes met; Mina immediately wanted to antagonise her and the likes of her and everything she stood for, but she couldn’t as the girl had the most innocent eyes she’d ever seen. And as her hair and body were fully covered with the long chador, Mina could only see her small face with light brown eyes and pale skin. The contrast of her complexion and her chador moved her like a Frida Kahlo’s painting, it was so gloomy. The fact that she did not seem hostile at all disturbed Mina even more. For one insane moment, she was going to ask her to join the party; to dance and flirt and drink with them, to celebrate the enthralling nothingness of life with her and her friends, to embrace her youth and beauty, instead of praying in Arabic and forcing herself to weep for a man who had died centuries ago in some war that did not matter anymore.
Mina could not decipher what was in the girl’s eyes. It was nothing like hostility or arrogance, more like innocence and confusion.
‘What are you staring at?’ the older woman barked.
‘Nothing.’ The girl said under her breath, averting her eyes from Mina and turning her back on her.
‘Ah! Her terrible hejab?’
What struck Mina was that the woman didn’t even lower her voice while trashing her. ‘People like her end up in hell! And on such a sacred night . . . they can’t even behave themselves for one night!’
‘I know.’ The girl mumbled.
Mina wanted to trash the woman back, to defend her beliefs, to discuss hell and heaven on earth with her, and eventually rescue the girl, but they disappeared into the neighbours’ enormous house.
This was two hours ago and now Mina was losing the game like she lost the girl.
Then she remembered how her father had warned her to be extremely cautious. Mina knew her father would’ve asked her to stay home had he been a strict parent. She looked at her watch, it was half past nine; too early to get bored or annoyed or to miss her father’s face.
Omid brought some fresh cookies from the kitchen with a new bottle of whisky. Mina took one cookie, and thanked him. She looked at the guests, their physicality and style, weighing up which one would be the most interesting to draw. The woman with Modigliani eyes in the fiery red dress was still at the top of her list. She was now lying on the floor, smoking a cigarette. Mina noticed the butt of her cigarette had a golden stain: the residue of her golden lips. She wished she had been a smoker, so she could ask for a cigarette or a lighter. Nevertheless, she sauntered over to her, unsure of how to start a conversation.
The woman sat up and gave Mina a shiny smile. Mina wondered if her golden lip gloss tasted sweet and chemical, or salty and sticky.
‘No luck tonight, right?’ the woman said, gracing Mina with her gilded smile.
They sat side by side on the carpeted floor.
‘Right,’ Mina replied, wondering what else she should say to maintain the conversation, when Omid interrupted them like a saviour.
‘I’m such an idiot! My god. I should’ve introduced you to each other much sooner.’
‘Why?’ the woman asked, raising an eyebrow. Mina found this remark a little blunt, but laughed anyway.
‘Well, it’s so interesting. Mina studies art . . . painting . . . and you study architecture. And, well, you’re both gorgeous!’ Omid chuckled.
‘Oh, that is an interesting way of reasoning.’ She said, maintaining eye contact with Mina the whole time. She stretched out her dainty hand. ‘I’m Hasti. Delighted to meet you.’
‘Told you so, a perfect match!’ Omid giggled, as a tall boy with green hair dragged him away to dance with him.
Mina realised she was still holding Hasti’s cool hand. She dropped it awkwardly and asked her which university she was studying at, and if she was also from Shiraz.
‘I’m also from Shiraz. But I’ve been living in Vienna for the past few years,’ Hasti informed her. ‘Now I’m here for a visit.’
‘So, how are you finding Vienna?’
‘Nice, can’t really complain; although I miss Shiraz so much.’
‘Why? I’m sure it’s way better than here!’
‘Yes, that’s what you’re supposed to say, I guess,’ Hasti said, staring into space. ‘I find most Austrians a bit like robots, even the good ones. The bad ones are just oldfashioned fascists.’
Mina was uncertain what Hasti was ranting about. Was she just being a bored, rich bitch? Wasn’t Austria supposed to be the beating heart of the arts? ‘I heard they are very disciplined?’ Mina said.
‘Good for them,’ Hasti puffed her cigarette. ‘But I like a bit of chaos, passion – oh, and dark eyes!’ She gazed into Mina’s eyes through the smoke and Mina felt weak, realising she was unable to disagree with her.
It was about eleven when they resumed playing cards. This time, Mina felt fortunate and energetic. Omid refilled their glasses with whisky, and emptied the ashtray cluttered with Hasti’s golden cigarette butts. Mina and Hasti won a round. Mina almost shouted with joy, and Hasti beamed.
Mina and Hasti won the second round with a bit of cheating as well, which excited Mina even more. Hasti sneakily peeked at the other players’ cards, and Mina signalled to her which one to play first. Everybody else seemed too intoxicated to understand or even care about what was going on. Omid lay on the carpet, his head resting on Mina’s lap. She was now trembling with exhilaration, the whisky not working on her. She was waiting to win the entire set, so she could smoke weed with Hasti, and probably talk to her about Zaha Hadid or music flirtatiously, or about how Austria sucks and Iran rocks, therefore Hasti should stay in Iran, or maybe just look at her wordlessly, absorbing her beauty.
The album finished, and there was no more loud music; the living room was filled with the vague sound of the neighbours mourning Imam Hossein. Nobody said anything; the people who were talking and laughing on the other side of the room suddenly went silent.
The voice of the mullah singing in a miserable tone about the martyrdom of Imam Hossein filled the room. And his little son . . . they didn’t let him have any water . . . oh God, oh God, oh God . . . he was only three . . . Oh God, oh God, oh God . . .’ followed by the sound of the weeping of the people in the neighbourhood.
Mina wondered if the girl was weeping along with the crowd or not. Was she bored to tears or moved by those melodramatic fables sold to her as historical facts? Mina wondered if they were purely fabricated, or if there was a grain of truth in them. But she was too tired to question her own beliefs, too respectful towards life to appreciate something hellish. She felt agitated, dizzy and nauseated; as thirsty as Imam Hossein’s son. Fearing the fake whisky might blind or poison her, she presumed if God wasn’t dead after all, he would definitely punish her, would definitely put her in hell, like that woman had said. She thought about how her poor father would feel about her death or disease due to bad whisky. After all, hadn’t he had enough?
Finally one of the guests addressed Omid: ‘Honey, are you sure this is okay? I’m thinking maybe this wasn’t the right night to party.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ Omid laughed. ‘In fact, this is the best time for a little partying, as my parents are on a trip because of this national holiday for the martyrdom of our beloved Hossein, and I have the whole house to myself!’ He wasn’t lying on the floor anymore and busied himself with the stereo.
‘Okay then. But let’s keep it quiet,’ another guest suggested.
‘Guys! No need to be scared,’ a woman with dyed blonde hair roared from the other side of the living room.
Mina looked at her from afar, and felt grateful that Hasti had kept her hair dark and natural, unlike most women Mina had met. No wonder she never felt anything for them, never felt like drawing them or touching them. Hasti’s olive skin was glowing, her cheekbones highlighted with golden powder. Mina felt even more enchanted by her looks.
For a moment Mina forgot about the neighbours and the girl. Hasti asked Omid to play some 50 Cent, and Mina caught Hasti looking at her, at her neck and breasts, and she felt fortunate for feeling free and looking great, for having the same dark hair and complexion as Hasti’s, for not having coarse stubble like most of the boys at the party. And thought how she abhorred the fads in Shiraz imported from Hollywood. How grotesque and unnatural they made people look; and how everlasting they seemed: the thickly-drawn or overly-plucked eye brows, the dyed hair, the fake-tanned skin, the pig noses – all looking the same thanks to plastic surgery. Then she forgot about criticising the fashion trends of her city, as she realised Hasti was mouthing the words to In Da Club, while looking at Mina and shaking her head, half-closing her eyes and looking completely carried away by the music. Mina wished she could understand what 50 Cent was saying, but English was always her worst subject at school.
Mina sipped her whisky, her eyes all over Hasti, until she felt Hasti’s red dress was attacking her – like red coming out of a Mondrian composition, cruelly conquering the viewer, leaving her incapable of looking away, of escape.
Nobody was playing cards anymore: Omid was dancing with a few other boys, and the rest of the players were lying on the carpet, either high or drunk, laughing and greedily eating cookies, salad, nuts, and Omid’s delectable dolmehs. Mina and Hasti were the only ones still holding onto their cards, staring at each other.
Finally, Hasti spilled her cards on the carpeted floor, letting them melt into the flowers of the intensely beautiful Persian carpet. As a result of smoking, drinking and nibbling, Hasti’s lip gloss had come off and Mina found her unpainted lips with their natural, meaty colour even more appealing. She was already sniffing the scent of her neck when Hasti grabbed her right hand and murmured, ‘Let’s go.’ Mina did not know where, but followed her nevertheless.
Hasti and Mina were walking in a narrow corridor with orange wallpaper, hand in hand, Hasti a few steps ahead, leading Mina. Mina’s nostrils were on Hasti’s nape, sniffing its strange scent, which Mina concluded smelt like her dead mother: a mixture of cigarette smoke and spicy cologne, resulting in a scent of burnt trees, which she relished. She sensed her next painting would be a forest on fire. She knew Hasti was taking her to Omid’s bedroom, at the end of the long corridor. Suddenly she felt in love with the existence of this corridor, which connected Omid’s living room to his bedroom, separating her and Hasti from the rest of the party. It was indeed the best thing that could exist in a house, and probably in the world.
However, the time was not the best time; Mina noticed the black clock with golden numbers hanging on the wall of the corridor showing a quarter past one. She thought of her father, and heard the sound of the wailing of Omid’s neighbours at a higher volume than when they were in the living room. It was probably because there was no music in the corridor. And yet, Hasti’s movements and presence were the most powerful piece of music.
‘How old are you, by the way?’ Mina asked Hasti.
‘Twenty-seven. Why?’ Hasti replied, her cold hand pressing on Mina’s bare arm.
‘Just curious. I’m turning twenty in a week. You should come to my birthday party. Omid’s also coming.’ She felt frivolous for having said all this in her drunken voice. Hasti didn’t say anything, just pushed her into Omid’s bedroom: the promised land.
The room was dark and quiet. Mina noticed the neighbours had finally stopped wailing, but for a moment she wished they had not stopped, as the silence was even more suffocating.
She opened the curtains and the light of the night poured into the dark room; the moon was full, and Mina felt insecure. Hasti pushed her onto the bed. Mina pushed her back.
‘I need to tell you something,’ murmured Mina.
‘What? You want to know my surname?’ Hasti let out a nervous laugh at her own joke, which Mina found too crude, almost cruel.
‘No.’ Mina retorted while Hasti was undressing. The red dress was gone in a moment, thrown to the floor.
Mina found herself touching Hasti’s breasts with the tip of her trembling fingers. Hasti grabbed her hand and stopped her. ‘What? You’re not on your period, are you?’
‘But . . .’ Mina paused, and gazed into Hasti’s eyes in the dark. Hasti put her arms around her with force.
‘But what? You’re killing me.’
‘This is my first time.’ Mina said, feeling hot with embarrassment, inebriation and desire.
‘You mean you’re a virgin?’
‘Yes,’ Mina murmured, kissing her lips tenderly. Hasti’s mouth tasted like a pack of cigarettes.
‘Oh,’ Hasti sighed. ‘Don’t worry. That turns me on.’ and took off Mina’s black top under which her breasts were waiting to be released from the tyranny of her bra.
Mina was pleased that Hasti was ‘turned on’ by her confession and not taken aback. Hasti’s cold fingers started running all over her body. Mina closed her eyes and let herself tremble on Omid’s single bed.
When Hasti’s sharp teeth reached her nipples, nothing was dark anymore, but orange and gold. Mina opened her eyes and realised Hasti’s beauty, her sharp cheekbones, were enhanced by the half-dark room.
‘My god . . . you are so gorgeous it’s agonising.’ Mina found herself saying and regretting it, fearing Hasti might find this remark too old-fashioned, over the top, or desperate. But Hasti smiled and said, ‘So are you!’
For a moment, Mina felt as though she was looking in the mirror while masturbating, so she grabbed Hasti’s long neck and sniffed it some more, trying to block out the thought of her dead mother smelling exactly the same. She then plunged her teeth in her neck and wanted to stay there forever.
‘Aw!’ Hasti complained. ‘You like it rough?’
Mina did not reply; for some reason she could not talk. She was breathing heavily and the only thing she cared about was her heavenly wetness and Hasti’s wet mouth. Hasti’s fingers were inside her and Mina was writhing on the dark bed trying her best not to scream.
The door opened, and she felt blinded by the orange corridor and the figure of someone she didn’t recognise in her inebriation, orgasm and the dark.
‘The neighbours have called the police.’ The figure said, her voice quiet and quivering.
Mina suddenly remembered she was one of the guests playing cards with them earlier. The dizziness of her pleasure turned into a sudden pang of pain, and she tried to push Hasti away, but Hasti bit her right ear and whispered, ‘Sorry, I can’t stop. You’re too hot.’ She used the actual English word ‘hot’, pronouncing it like ‘haat’ which would both annoy and please Mina under different circumstances, but now only angered and frightened her more. She felt Hasti’s breath was the only hot thing, as it was piercing her skin, so she yelled, ‘Get off me!’ and took Hasti’s slender shoulders in her nails and this time pushed her away with more force.
Mina picked some other guest’s scarf and manteau from Omid’s closet and covered her shaking, naked body. For a moment it occurred to Mina that Hasti was insane for not being as scared as her, and at this thought she felt even more afraid.
Hasti was laughing bitterly at her, still lying naked on Omid’s bed. ‘Don’t worry, little girl. We’ll give some cash to those bastards and they won’t harm us.’
Mina felt deaf and blind, and incandescent. All the stories and news she’d heard about people being lashed, imprisoned, and even executed for alcohol and homosexual sex started revolving in her head like a poisonous tornado. She was not sure what her punishment would be, but she knew it would be massive. She knew she was a criminal and her whole existence a terrible crime.
‘Come on, darling!’ Hasti was not giving up. ‘I haven’t had my orgasm yet.’ And chuckled, sitting up on the bed. ‘You’re a selfish little girl, aren’t you?’
Mina wanted to respond by telling Hasti that this was not Vienna and it was dangerous, but she could not. Hasti’s radiant figure on the bed already looked like a beautiful memory from the past. It dawned on Mina that the future was going to be even darker than Omid’s room. She opened the door to the sordid corridor, and felt like exploding in the middle of the living room; the image of her limbs scattered across the threads of the fine Persian carpet in front of all those guests sickened her, and she vomited, awaiting her arrest.
It was then that she noticed there was no one else in the living room. All the lights were on, they were probably hiding somewhere, she thought miserably as she ran towards the door, not even having wiped the translucent vomit from her mouth, its sourness burning her throat.
Her right foot hit a line of glasses on the floor and she fell down, feeling the wetness of the liquor between her toes, and shortly afterwards an unbearable pain in her right calf. She sat in the middle of the lonely living room and wept, waiting for the morality police to come and take her. She imagined her father’s shock after being informed at five in the morning about the arrest of her homosexual daughter at a sinful party on such a sacred night. She wept like Omid’s neighbours, and was enraged and helpless, knowing with the current condition of her right foot, she couldn’t escape from the police, and that this was the definition of misery.
Suddenly it occurred to her that she was more miserable than that girl in the chador: at least she wouldn’t be arrested, she was safe and sound like ‘a pearl in its shell’ – as written on the billboards of the city – fitting in well, accepted and accepting of her condition. Mina concluded she needed to pity herself instead of that girl. She felt worse than the time she was informed about the accident that led to her mother’s death – back when she was fourteen, sexless, and sober.
Mina was wondering if the police would take her to the doctor first, for her foot, or if they wouldn’t believe her and would just push her in the direction of wherever the hell they were taking her. Her whole body was shaking from this thought, when the dyed-blonde woman with the fake tan and the fake lashes appeared in the living room and embraced her. ‘Ah, don’t worry. They fucked off. Omid bribed them.’ And she laughed at Mina’s wet eyes.
Mina could not even pretend to laugh. For some reason, this piece of good news did not make her happy, only empty. The pain in her foot was worsening by the second. She bit her bottom lip so she wouldn’t cry.
Omid and some of the other guests came back in the living room, speaking in subdued but excited tones, making odd laughing noises. Omid recounted how he bribed the police in the tone of a sarcastic war hero, even though there was still the trace of a tremor in his voice.
The green-haired boy was drinking from the bottle of whisky, laughing madly at Omid’s words, his lean body shaking.
When Mina turned, she saw that Hasti was sitting on the sofa, in her red dress again, her longish hair dishevelled. Her eye liner was smudged, making her eyes look round rather than slanted, inhaling and exhaling her perpetual cigarette, looking attentively at Omid, with the trace of a surreptitious smile on her face.
Mina dried her face, trying her best to ignore her pain. But when she looked around, she concluded that they were just a bunch of strangers; she sensed she didn’t know any of the people here – especially herself.
‘An Evening of Martyrdom’ is included in Golnoosh Nour’s collection The Ministry of Guidance, to be published by Muswell Press on 2 April 2020.
Image © Janko Ferlic