I was born in 1979, a year of revolution, and grew up in wartime. The itch in my brain arrived as war was leaking into our everyday – sirens, rations, adults huddled around radios. It announced itself one lazy afternoon in our house in Isfahan, between the yellow spray roses and the empty swimming pool, whispering that I might take a moment to count my pencils. Then, that night, it grew bolder, suggesting that the weight of the blanket be distributed evenly along my arms. The itch became a part of me, like the freckle above my lip. It wasn’t the side effect of this blistering morning at the Abu Dhabi United Nations office or that aimless month in an Italian resettlement camp. Those days simply made it unbearable.

Even in Ardestoon, my father’s village, where I tiptoed with my cousins along a riverbank, picked green plums in leafy orchards and hiked in mountains, the itch endured. It made me tuck my grandmother’s chestnut hair into her chador with the edges of my hands, circling her face and squeezing her cheeks until I was satisfied. It took up space in my personality, as the freckle did above my lip, so that now and then I tried to straighten the papery skin of my ninety-year-old nanny, Morvarid, pressing my palms across her forehead as one would an old letter. I picked everyone’s scabs. Zippers had to be forced past the end of the line. Sometimes when furious, the itch showed up as a tic in my neck. At other times, it helped me be better. It made me colour inside the lines. It made my animals sit in a row. I didn’t miss any part of a story, because I triple checked page numbers.

Now and then Maman joked that I was becoming fussy like Maman Masi and Morvarid, that I was becoming a tiny old lady. This was fine with me – I loved their floral chadors that smelled of henna, their ample laps and looping, gossipy stories, their dirty jokes. As a toddler, I marched around in an old flowery chador that Morvarid had sewn for me. I wore it so much it started to make my hair fall out. In a fit of anger, Maman tore it to pieces.

At school, my scarf was lopsided and my handwriting a disaster, but my math was perfect. The teachers in my Islamic Republic girls’ school were witchy creatures who glistened in brutal black chadors. They didn’t lean down and tuck in your stray hairs. They billowed past. They struck rulers against soft palms. They shouted surnames at six-year-old girls: Nayeri. Ardestani. Khalili. Shirinpour. The minute you turned your headscarf inside out to cool your damp neck, they appeared, swaddling your bare skin again with their own hot breath. The school was stifling and militant women were empowered to steer girls away from Western values – this made them cruel. If they didn’t like your work, they tore it to shreds as you sat humiliated, picking splinters off your unsanded desk. They taped weekly class rankings to the grey cement wall outside the classroom window. Every week twenty girls rushed that wall. The schoolyard was a concrete block. Opposite the classrooms was a putrid cave of water fountains and dirty squat toilets, the ground a mess of wet Kleenexes and cherry pits and empty tamarind packets that oozed brown goo into the drain. I liked to keep my back to it. But that meant facing the rankings, and if you turned another way you had the nightmarish Khomeini mural and, on the fourth wall, the enormous bloody martyr fist (and rose). The only way to have a safe place to look was to be number one on the rankings.

One morning, Khadijeh, whose name routinely appeared at the bottom of the list, released a quiet river of pee at her desk. She never moved. She sat still as her grey uniform slowly darkened below the waist, as drops of sweat released her bangs from her scarf and she wept without a sound. She had fallen three sentences behind in the dictée and given up, not just on the test, but on the whole business of civilisation. What a quick, uncomplicated solution, to go feral: to sit there, leaking, waiting to be dragged out by a murder of Islamic Republic schoolteachers, listening for the snap and swish of the principal’s chador down the hall.

On the day of Khadijeh’s quiet surrender, I was number one on the list so I had a place to look.

At day’s end, I took the short way home, down alleyways lined with drainage gutters where live fish travelled the old city. I ran to my room and thought of Khadijeh, how she had just let go. I pitied and envied her. I knelt to examine my pencil tips, then checked the bookshelf for the seven books I had recently bought and the four I had bought before that. It wouldn’t be right to count to eleven – I had to count the seven books, then the four. And the next time I bought books, say three of them, I would count the three, the seven and if I still remembered them, the four, each time I left my room. When I was finished, I breathed deeply until the thing floating too high in my chest (I imagined a metal bar) had moved back down, away from my throat. Years later, when I heard the story of Sisyphus, I said, ‘like pushing down the bar,’ and tapped my chest; my teacher frowned.

The following week, during silent reading time, a present arrived for me. This was custom. If you ranked high, your parents could send a gift to be presented to you in front of the class. Ms Yadolai, my first-grade teacher, an old woman I loved and whose name is the only one I remember, brought in the gift to my third-grade classroom. She was Baba’s dental patient, so he must have delivered the package to her. Baba never bothered with details; he entrusted everything to friends. It was a book of constellations. Everyone clapped. I lifted the lid of my desk and slipped the book inside next to my pencils and the tamarind packet I had squeezed from a corner and rolled shut, like toothpaste.

Khadijeh never came back.

I was instructed to work on my handwriting. I sat with Baba on the living-room carpet, an elaborate red Nain knotted on Maman Masi’s own loom; we ate sour cherries with salt and we practised. I asked Baba about Khadijeh. He said that everyone was made for a certain kind of work and maybe Khadijeh had realised early that school wasn’t for her. This is why I had to earn twenties in every subject, to distinguish myself from the Khadijehs of the world and to reach my great potential. ‘You are the smartest,’ said Baba. ‘You can be a doctor or engineer or diplomat. You won’t have to do housework. You’ll marry another doctor. You’ll have your PhD.’ His voice contained no doubt or worry. It was just how things were destined to be. ‘Your mother came in seventeenth for the Konkour. Not seventeenth percentile. Seventeenth person in the country.’ If I had to make a list of mantras from my childhood, it would certainly include: not seventeenth percentile, seventeenth person. My mother’s national university entrance exam result was legend. I came from test-taking stock.

We did such good work, Baba and I. He emptied his pockets of pistachio and chocolate and sour cherry and we sat together on the floor, cross-legged and knee-to-knee, whispering secrets and jokes as we drew bold, stouthearted Ks and Gs. I clicked our finished pages into my rawhide messenger bag and, the next day, I took them to show my teacher, a woman whom we called only by the honorific Khanom.

Khanom scanned my pages as I straightened up in my chair, my hands tucked beneath my haunches. She frowned and exhaled heavily through her nose. Then she glanced at the girls watching us from the edges of their scarves, tapped the pages straight against my desktop and tore them in half. She reached for my practice notebook and tore the used pages in that too, taking care not to destroy any unused ones. This was to show me that my work was worth less than those unfilled pages.

Tears burned in my nose. I imagined a metal storm-door shutting over my eyeballs, so that nothing could get out. I reminded myself of Khadijeh, her watery surrender. I imagined that under her chador Khanom’s skin was dry and scaly and she needed girlish tears to soften her, as she couldn’t afford black-market Nivea Creme. I tried to pity her for that.

A few years before first grade, my family had spent three months in London. There, my mother had converted to Christianity. Since our return, teachers had been probing me for information. Maman and Baba were respected in Isfahan. They had medical offices and friends and degrees from Tehran University. Maman had round, melancholy eyes and Diana haircuts in jet-black. She wore elegant dresses and a stethoscope. Her briefcase was shiny polished leather. No schoolgirl rawhide and click-buckle for her. But Maman was an apostate now, handing out tracts to her patients, a huge cross dangling in her windshield. Baba may have remained respected and generous and Muslim, but that wasn’t enough to protect me from abuse when I declared myself Maman’s ally.

‘What is your religion?’ the teachers would ask, every day during recess. They would pull me aside, to a bench between the toilet cave and the nightmarish Khomeini mural and they would ask this again and again.

‘I’m Christian,’ I would say. In those days, I thought Muslim literally meant ‘a bad person’, and no individual or event helped dispel that notion – not even Baba or his mother, Maman Masi, who was devout. We lived under constant threat of Iraqi bombs. We endured random arrests, executions, morality police roving the streets for sinful women (Gashte-Ershad or ‘Guidance Patrol’, they called it). Though they were picked off and dragged to gruesome fates, the underground Christians we had befriended seemed consumed with kindness. Meanwhile, my teachers pecked hungrily at us all day, looking for a chance to humiliate.

Later in life, far from Isfahan, I would meet kindhearted Muslims and learn that I had been shown half a picture: that all villainy starts on native soil, where rotten people can safely be rotten, where government exists for their protection. It is only amongst the outsiders, the rebels, foreigners and dissidents that welcome is easily found. Since our return from London, we had lost our native rights; we were exiles in our own city, eyes suddenly open to the magic and promise of the West and to the villains we had been.

 

*

 

We were converts in the Islamic Republic, illegal Christians in an underground church. We endured three nightmare years before the day of our escape – three years of arrests and threats, of armed revolutionary guards (pasdars or Sepâh) slipping into the back seat of our car at traffic stops, bursting into Maman’s medical office. Three years of daily terrors and Maman’s excuses about faith and higher callings.

It was a daily whiplash. The idyllic village life of my father on Fridays, sitting in my sweet grandmother’s lap, kissing her henna hair, listening to her reedy voice, eating her plum chicken or barberry rice, then travelling back to the city, to another phase of Saddam Hussein’s War of the Cities (a series of missiles that killed thousands in 1987 alone) that waited at our doorstep. Every few days sirens blared. We taped our windows and ran to basements, where we chatted in the dark with our neighbours.

That Maman chose this moment to become a religious activist out of her medical office baffled Baba – they fought night after night. Making a life after the revolution had been hard work. Baba had learned which patients to prioritise, which palms to grease, which tailor altered suitcases, whom to smoke with in relative safety. But now Maman hurried down unsafe streets pulling two children along, her scarf falling back as she slipped into strange doors to meet Christians. She broadcast her story over an illegal Christian radio station, tucked tracts into women’s chadors under the nose of the morality police and did everything a person could do to draw attention to her apostasy. Maybe she feels guilty, Baba thought. She had once been a devout Muslim and though she was never political, preferring to make her strict, conservative father happy, Maman had joined other medical students in the streets to protest the Shah, willingly covering her hair.

Teachers began to pull me away at recess. When I tried to opt out of weekly Islam classes, they held me in the schoolyard and told me that Maman would be jailed, beaten, maybe killed.

When I told Baba that Khanom had torn our proud, far-reaching Ks and Gs, his eyes flashed. My Baba was known for his pleasure-seeking ways: his riotous humour, his sumptuous feasting, his devotion to poetry. We were kindred spirits in our secret excesses. His vices, though, weren’t all bright and merry. He loved the poppy and it made him rage. His anger was slow to ignite, but God help you if you were the one to light him up.

The next day in the schoolyard, we lined up by grade and performed our required chants, straining our small lungs. An older girl, a fourth- or fifth-grader, pressed her lips to a bullhorn and led us in muffled pledges we didn’t understand: I am the daughter of the revolution. I am the flower of my country. Death to America. Death to Israel.

Then Baba stormed through the metal gate, striding in his Western shirt and tie past the Khomeini mural. In seconds the principal and two teachers were surrounding him, nodding, lifting and lowering hands. I could only hear snippets. ‘Yes, Dr Nayeri . . .’ ‘. . . I’ll speak with her . . .’ ‘. . . Sir, we’re in the middle . . .’ When old Ms Yadolai arrived, he calmed down, because she was sweet and harmless, like Maman Masi, his mother.

Then Khanom stepped out from in front of our line and started toward him. Suddenly she looked small, like one of us. Was she twenty? Twenty-five? She was trying to look strong, professional, but Baba was on a crusade. He wanted her heart. ‘She’s just a child!’ he shouted across the blacktop as he approached her at twice her pace. ‘You’re a grown woman. She isn’t responsible . . . She’s not your enemy.’ Khanom began muttering that this was only about the handwriting. Baba railed on. ‘She worked hard and I checked the work. How dare you! Where did you go to university?’

I noted that the last question was germane to the proceedings. That it affected her credibility, her allotment of power against my father. Baba was no sexist. If she had lifted her shoulders, bellowed out ‘Tehran University’ and defended her actions, if she had said, ‘Dina is chatty, fussy and odd. She has an itch in the brain and bad handwriting and one of her eyes is too small,’ he would have shown some respect for her methods. I know this because Baba – though he smoked opium and beat my mother and was incapable of lifting a finger for himself – instructed me never to cower to men. If you flinch, they will hit harder. Show your fangs, not your throat. But this was 1987 Isfahan and most Babas didn’t teach their daughters these things. The poor woman didn’t have the training.

She cried. She leaked before a man who shook his head at her and walked away, stopping to wave to his daughter who stood spellbound in a row of muppety grey heads, quietly growing a coarse new skin.

That night we walked along the Thirty-Three Arches and Baba took us to Hotel Koorosh, my favourite restaurant, where Baba and other local doctors had a membership. We ate schnitzel and crème caramel on white tablecloths. We drank yoghurt soda with three sprigs of mint. I knew now that my teacher wasn’t scaly or witchy or a demoness and that it was important not to bend. And I knew that I was capable of rooting for someone who wasn’t totally on the right side of a thing. In war, villainy and good change hands all the time, like a football.

 

*

 

A few days later, Maman was stopped in the streets by the Gashte-Ershad. We were at a traffic stop and my younger brother, Khosrou, opened the back door and jumped out into the madness of Isfahani morning traffic. I was in the front seat beside Maman, so I didn’t see him do it. All I saw was Maman throwing the car into park and hurling her body out of the car, dashing across three lanes and snatching him up. In the process, her scarf slipped back a few inches revealing half a head of loose hair. Then we heard the shouting, a pasdar was pointing and ranting at Maman. ‘Watch your hijab, woman!’ As he crossed the asphalt, his shouting grew louder, angrier. He began to curse, calling her vile names.

‘My son ran into traffic,’ she said. She had already fixed her hijab so that every strand was tucked away. But he towered over her, threatening, spitting. They stood by the open driver’s side door. If he had leaned in, he would have seen the huge cross hanging on her rearview mirror. Maybe he would have made an issue of it. He shouted a few more times, gave Maman a warning and returned to the other officers watching us from their car.

When he was gone, Maman’s cheeks glistened with rage. I wonder if she imagined herself in a country where men are punished for such things, where women can defend themselves. I wonder if she ever fantasised about slapping some fool hard across the face. Khosrou and I sat in that car, conjuring violent scenes. My brother glared silently at the car roof. Later he told Maman stories of how he would protect her, build her a castle in a mountain far away, fill it with Smarties.

Maman dropped me off at Baba’s dental office while she ran errands with Khosrou – my chronic motion sickness made me a terrible passenger. I slipped into the surgery, sat in the nurse’s chair to watch Baba fill a tooth. Long reddish hair fell over the back of the chair. I leaned in to get a better look. The patient wore a silky blouse and jeans. Her chador hung on a rack near my face – in Baba’s office, women could cover as they pleased if the door was closed. ‘Aren’t you going to say hello, Dina joon?’ said Baba.

I mumbled hello. Baba frowned. ‘Since when are you shy?’

I glanced at the woman’s red lips and made-up eyes. She was a stranger. And anyway, who can recognise a face with the mouth pried open? But then Baba leaned back and she sat up and spat. ‘Hello, Dina joon,’ she said. I knew that voice – it was my first-grade teacher, Ms Yadolai. Old Ms Yadolai, restored, it seemed, to twenty-five or thirty by some witch’s spell. ‘I saw you in the waiting room, telling everyone to shush,’ she said. ‘Where did you get that sweet nurse’s costume?’ She meant my photo hanging across an entire wall of Baba’s waiting room, my finger to my lips.

I shrugged. I was too transfixed by the miracle I was witnessing.

‘Dina, don’t be rude,’ said Baba.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘Ms Yadolai, what red hair you have.’

Little Red Riding Hood was one of few storybooks not banned by the clerics; that joke was well-worn. She laughed, thanked Baba and gathered her things. ‘See you in school,’ she said, whipping her black chador around her body, tucking at the temples. Despite makeup, she gained twenty years in one swing of her arm. A good scrub would cost her another twenty and all her power, returning her by morning to old Ms Yadolai.

Now, finally, I understood the function of hijab.

I started to believe that Christianity was feminism. Years later, my mother told me that when she had been a Muslim she was simply searching and Islam fit only some of what she held sacred. In Christianity, she found her beliefs in their purest form. I now know that I was searching for feminism and, along the way, I shed every doctrine and institution that failed to live up to it. Islam went first. Later, all religion would follow.

Our church wasn’t underground; it was behind gates and thick curtains. A rotating schedule in the homes of Assyrians and Armenians who, if they could prove their ancestry and refrained from proselytising, were theoretically left alone. Only apostates and Pied Pipers risked arrest and death. By allowing us into their homes, the Christian-born who hosted us tied their fates to ours and this bonded us beyond friendship.

News of pastors, even Armenian ones, being shot or disappearing into the notorious Evin Prison wasn’t rare. Political prisoners were routinely tortured and killed in Evin. We focused our attention elsewhere. Once we slipped past the front gate, headscarves came off and we sang songs and planned Christmas celebrations and heard funny sermons from our portly, heavily bearded Assyrian pastor, Brother Yusuf. The year we returned from England, Maman explained Christmas to us. She told us about Father Christmas and stockings by our beds and it struck me that this character sounded like an older Brother Yusuf.

‘If he visits all the children in the world,’ I asked, ‘why didn’t he come to us before?’ Maman told me that he only visited Christian children and now we were Christians, wasn’t that exciting? ‘But I didn’t know about Jesus before,’ I said. ‘You said Christianity is fair. If I didn’t know, why would he skip me? What about kids who are too young to have a religion? Does Father Christmas only visit houses with Christian parents?’

Maman blinked a few times. ‘Dina, it’s for fun. Maybe it’s Father Christmas. Maybe it’s Brother Yusuf in a costume. Do you want a stocking or do you want to sit in protest for all the ones you didn’t get?’

‘Yes, I want one,’ I said, and immediately suspended disbelief.

‘Good,’ she said, then added (as she often did), ‘keep asking these kinds of questions. You can think for yourself now; no more reciting.’

For a while I did this. I read my Bible, found inconsistencies and presented them to Brother Yusuf. I often asked my questions over meals at our sofreh, or his sofreh, with several families sitting around a feast on the floor. Brother Yusuf was the slowest eater I had met. He delighted in every bite – relishing and savouring and licking his lips, his big bearded cheeks bouncing as he chewed – nodded slowly and complimented the chef. He treated my questions as he would an adult’s, as if I were part of an important theological conversation. Though, he didn’t always solve my problem. Most contradictions were dispatched with one of two answers: ‘The rules were different under the Old Testament,’ or ‘That reads differently in the original Hebrew.’ It didn’t matter. The important thing was that he was impressed, that he called me clever.

When Brother Yusuf and the Christians visited, Baba disappeared to Ardestoon or stayed in his office – he despised Brother Yusuf, called him ‘that dirty Assyrian’ or ‘that bearded charlatan’.

Sometime in 1987, while the war raged on, sirens shrieked and the days thrummed endlessly with news of executions, Maman was arrested. I didn’t know the details, only that her office had been stormed, the patients sent home and she had been questioned for hours. She had been given a choice: spy against the underground church or face arrest and execution.

Maman and Baba fought. Baba threatened to take Khosrou and me away. One night, Maman took us to a hotel, but they wouldn’t accept a woman alone with two children.

Having found her purpose, Maman intensified her efforts. She kept stacks of Christian tracts under a thin blanket in her back seat, passing them out to patients and acquaintances. She started studying braille and sign language, so she could reach out to the deaf and the blind.

Maman was arrested again, her office ransacked, her records stolen. She grew rigorous in her domesticity, sewing complicated, lifelike stuffed squirrels and cats. She found thin mattress foam and made a stuffed car for Khosrou. As the gaze of the morality police grew hotter and more unbearable, she leaned heavier on the church and on Brother Yusuf. Sometimes when I spied on them talking in his home office, I detected an intimacy that felt like a betrayal to Baba – their talk was too playful. It was a strange habit of new Christians, these overly loving exchanges that were supposed to mimic brotherly or sisterly love. ‘My dear sweet’ this or that. Each time Maman met with the pastor, his office door remained wide open.

One afternoon, a car screeched to a stop behind the high wall separating the street from Brother Yusuf ’s front gate. His wife rushed out of the kitchen, scooping up her baby girl, Rhoda. His son, Yoonatan, and I stopped playing cards. Maman and Brother Yusuf stashed their Bibles away. Maman fixed her hijab. A hard knock shook the metal gate outside. ‘I’ll break it down!’ a man shouted. And though his voice was angry, almost violent, all my fear dissolved. I knew that voice and no matter how much he shouted and whom he threatened to hurt, it brought me only joy.

Khosrou was terrified, though. He screamed and jumped into Maman’s arms. He cried for a while, then his brow furrowed as if he were accepting new orders, a new role.

‘Don’t worry, Maman. I’ll protect you!’

Brother Yusuf had hardly opened the gate before Baba rushed in and grabbed him by the throat. He shouted terrible things. ‘You dirty Assyrian,’ he spat into the man’s face as he hovered over him, his shirt collar still in his fists. ‘Don’t you have your own wife to corrupt? Do you know what trouble you’ve caused?’ Why had Baba come today? Maybe he had been smoking, or had a visit from the moral police. Baba didn’t harm Brother Yusuf. He released his anger and, when the women managed to calm him, turned back toward the door, leaving Maman to apologise again and again.

The war made everything seem like the last of its kind. Every lazy afternoon, every family dinner, every drink of water. Some days at school, only a third of the students were present, the classroom eerily quiet and breezy, because parents had heard of a coming bomb raid.

My teachers reached in deep and planted gruesome images. They told me just enough to make me ask around and fill in the gaps. 1987 was a brutal year. For some, 1988 would be worse. Thousands of intellectuals, leftists and political dissidents disappeared that year, massacred by firing squad and hung from cranes, dying slowly. Sliced feet and skinned backs, hot irons to the thighs, their deaths covered up – it was a purge unprecedented in Iranian history. These images competed in my nightmares with scenes from the Book of Revelation and movies about the rapture: horsemen and plagues and the Antichrist. Which was the worse fate? Did most eight-year-old girls have such choices?

I decided to talk to my teacher, to make peace. One day after class, I waited for the room to empty, straightened my scarf, checked my area and meandered to her desk. ‘Khanom,’ I said. She didn’t look up from her papers. ‘I’ve been practising my handwriting.’

‘Good,’ she said, her head still down so that all I saw was the grey fabric lump of her head. ‘That’s why we’re here.’

‘I didn’t tell Baba,’ I said, trying not to let my dignity leak away. ‘He looks at my notebooks. I didn’t . . .’

Now she looked up with her stony eyes, folding her arms over her papers in a rehearsed, wooden sort of way. ‘Miss Nayeri, the world is brutal for women. It’s a thousand times harder than for men. Whatever our private conflicts, we don’t betray each other to men. Do you understand?’

I shook my head. ‘Baba isn’t one of those men. He was just angry . . .’

She rolled her eyes, capped her pen and sat back. ‘Who’s your biggest rival in the class? Who do you hate more than me?’

‘I don’t hate you, Khanom,’ I said. What a terrible mess this was.

She waited. I didn’t want to answer, because Pooneh was also my best friend and a distant cousin. I loved her and craved to beat her so much that sometimes when we kissed hello, on both cheeks as our parents had taught us, I squeezed her face hard to calm my itching teeth. It was a painful, confused affection like a Mafia boss kissing a rival brother goodbye.

Now Khanom smiled. Even though I came in first twice as often as Pooneh did, I was the one always chasing, because I was the one who publicly cared, while she shrugged and smiled and puffed her porcelain cheeks. That I would have to suffer another twenty years of sprinting alongside Pooneh exhausted and thrilled me. ‘Whatever you do to each other to win,’ she said, ‘the minute you run to a man, you’re a traitor.’

Then she went back to her work. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, though I felt that the story had been unfairly rewritten. ‘I’ll do the work over. I do love you.’

She gave me a strange look. I had said the wrong thing. You don’t tell teachers you love them. Why had I said it?

For a moment, we both stood our ground, Khanom determined to ignore me, as I remained planted in her line of vision. I shifted onto my other foot, moved my messenger bag to my back.

She glanced up again, smiling kindly now. ‘It’s OK, Miss Nayeri,’ she said. ‘I’m OK. I’m stronger than you think.’ She made muscle arms under her chador and we both laughed. ‘How would you like to do a very special job that only the top students can do?’

My fingertips went cold – I knew my school’s rituals and rewards and yet I wanted so much to please her. She lifted herself off the chair with a weary sigh and opened the book cabinet behind her. She pulled out a piece of paper tucked beneath the red bullhorn. When I didn’t move, she waved it at me until I reached up and took it from her.

‘You can lead tomorrow’s morning exercises,’ she said. ‘Don’t be sad.’ She leaned down to my height and touched my cheek. ‘We’re friends again.’ Then she hugged me and muttered encouraging words in my ear. She smelled like my mother’s soap and I wrapped my arm around her neck. Under her chador, a familiar lump comforted me; a ponytail, bound low, hanging down to the top of her shoulders. It made me trust her: yes, my teacher was a person. Her body wasn’t covered in scales. She had real hair tied up in a girlish ponytail. I didn’t want to stop touching it, but a moment later she pulled away.

I slogged home in cement shoes, feeling the breath of the four horsemen on my neck. Was there any way to escape hell if I led a schoolyard full of girls in chanting death to Israel, God’s own people? I might as well drive the nails into Jesus’s hands and feet. I pictured Rhoda and Yoonatan, Brother Yusuf savouring my mother’s Salad Olivieh and strapping on his Father Christmas belly. I would be betraying them all.

Alone in my bedroom, I agonised. I took off my uniform and dropped it in the laundry basket. I sat at my desk, tried to do math through tears. How would I survive tomorrow? Aside from damning myself to hell, it would be humiliating. I had been so brazen and boastful about my new faith. A few hours later, Maman burst in. ‘What is this?’ she said. She was holding my manteau in one hand, the scrap of paper with the chants in the other. ‘Why is this garbage in your pocket?’

The metal bar was so far up my throat now that I could hardly take a breath. I confessed everything. ‘You cannot do it, Dina,’ she said, then she went on to repeat the story of Peter denying Jesus three times and Judas and every other betrayer in the Bible and in history. ‘When the class lines up for chants, what do you normally do?’

‘I don’t say them. I ask Jesus for strength, like you told me to.’

‘You tell your teacher that your mother forbids you. Tell her that in our faith we don’t recite things. Don’t argue with her about the text. Then get back in the line and do as you always do, OK?’

I nodded.

The next day, I dragged myself to school. I separated from my body with each step and by the time I passed through the school gate, crossed the blacktop and climbed the podium, I was numb and limp, hovering outside myself. I was already in Baba’s car speeding toward Ardestoon, toward my Morvarid’s withered henna arms. The stage was only inches from the ground. I read the words into the red bullhorn, barely waiting for the back chant. I conjured up the blond London boys who had punched me and severed my finger and I thought, maybe viciousness is genetic; maybe some people, like British boys and Persian girls, are bred for it.

When my volume dropped, a teacher straightened my back and the bullhorn so that it touched my lips and I tasted plastic and metal. I said the final words and started back down the podium to join my class, stopping as I passed to return the paper to Khanom. The moment the last syllable dropped like phlegm from my mouth, I began praying for forgiveness; I prayed all day. I never told Maman what I had done. Maybe she knew. It took months to escape the nausea of that morning and even then, I was marked: long after the Islamic Republic, the war and the refugee years had receded and I had become an ordinary American, I would still be someone who once stood on a podium in an Isfahani schoolyard and shouted Death to America into a bullhorn.

 

*

 

For a few weeks in the spring of 1988, everything was on apocalyptic pause – that’s how it felt when sirens warned of bombs already on the way. A pause as we looked up to the sky, waiting for word that our daily labours were worth continuing, that in an hour we would still have homes and schools. Or bodies. The television blared out insanity – was it propaganda or had the producers succumbed to madness? I shiver at the memory of a drama in which two boys with shaved heads and long white robes, good Muslim boys from less sophisticated cities, walked through the bombed-out rubble of their neighbourhood looking for the bodies of their parents. They passed a weeping man carrying his son’s limp body – their friend. When they stumbled upon a wreckage that had been their roof, they sat atop it and cried, caressing the ground, now a family gravesite, with the sacred touch of new orphans. This drama played at 3 p.m., during children’s hour.

I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t deserve to breathe. Nothing was mine to keep. ‘Maman,’ I ran to her and cried into her skirt. ‘Tell me a riddle.’

School was a ghostly place, nearly empty now. The teachers didn’t bother with lessons. We sat in lonely silence and wrote. During breaks, we wandered the hallway and the blacktop one by one. No groups remained. Pooneh didn’t come. I missed her. I needed her to make me try my best.

‘A worthy rival is a precious thing,’ said Baba.

‘You shouldn’t compete with anyone but yourself,’ said Maman.

Had there been a day when these two agreed on one single thing?

Isfahan grew quiet and sad. People tiptoed, exchanging ration coupons for basics and rushing home, taking their tea to the bomb shelter. The New Year slowed things down. It brought smoked fish and spray roses and tiny pink buds, but little hope. We cocooned in the church and listened to news of our murdered brothers and sisters and we prayed for rescue.

Meanwhile, in the Ministry of Intelligence, one man was making Maman’s case his pet project. She was arrested a third time in her office, thrown in jail for the night. Next time, the man said, if she didn’t agree to disclose church secrets, she would be executed. Baba paid them to release her into house arrest. As she was leaving, the man promised Maman that tomorrow she would have her final chance to accept his offer, or she wouldn’t return home again. That night, police cars surrounded our house.

Maman didn’t sleep. She packed. ‘We are leaving. I know we are. This is the moment when Jesus will perform miracles.’

Khosrou grew tense, his little brow always furrowed. It seemed he would have to act fast, if he were to build Maman that castle in time.

‘Your Jesus is going to save you?’ Baba bellowed. ‘At least admit that the person performing the miracles will be me. I’ve lost my family because of this lying, grifting, Pied Piper man. Please be sure to thank him for me.’

The arrival of this day struck Baba like a rock hurtling down a mountain; he had tried so hard to keep that boulder moving upward. But now Maman was taking his children, abandoning him, her country, her life.

Baba spent the night on the phone. Maman in prayer.

The next morning, to allay suspicion, Baba went to his office as usual and I walked to school. A handful of teachers and girls in halfhearted hijab roamed the halls. In class, we read silently and I left early. At home, I packed my things. The itch pawed and suffocated me. I stared at my animals and books all lined up, my solar system and the Victorian doll with folds in her dress for hiding secrets. I couldn’t bring the squirrel with its furry white belly, or my cat, elephant, or duckling. They would be safer here, Maman had told me. Remember Babaeejoon?

I clenched my fist around some dried sour cherries, warming and loosening there, staining my palm bright red. I stared into a drawer of dried berries and fruit leathers. I ate the hot cherries in my hand.

Despite everything, I was excited to go: beyond our borders lay every kind of possibility. If I could just pull myself away from my things . . .

We waited in the kitchen for my Uncle Reza – my father’s younger brother. Baba had sent him to fetch us in a borrowed car. A few months before, we had moved from the house with the pool and the spray roses. Now we lived in a third-floor flat and the plan must have been to climb down the fire escape and leave from the back.

Reza was thirteen when I was born. Now twenty-one, he had soft chestnut hair and a lazy smile, faded jeans, the kind of youth and freedom that Iran granted only to some men and only briefly. I couldn’t imagine a more heroic person. On Fridays in Ardestoon, Reza would put me on the back of his motorcycle and we would whiz through the countryside, past rivers with ducks and orchards full of sour cherries, mulberries, almonds and green plums, to a mountain where sheep grazed. The back of that motorcycle was peace for me, a place of no worry. It was freedom, my hair flying as I clutched his stomach and screamed into his shoulder. How would I live without those afternoons? Who would be my new Uncle Reza? What if it took him years to follow us? What if he never did?

At the kitchen table, Maman underlined her Bible in a third or fourth colour (one for each year). I began to panic about leaving. I had two months left of the third grade. I’d have to learn English. How long would that take? How could I be number one in school if I didn’t speak English?

‘Maman,’ I said. She continued to read. ‘Maman!’

She looked up. ‘What is it?’

‘How do you say the word “write” in English?’

She told me, then frowned and said, ‘Why?’

‘Because,’ I said, ‘math will be the same, but during dictée, the teacher always says, write this, write that. So if I just listen for “write” and sound out what comes after . . .’ After three years of Iranian dictée, after Khadijeh, I divided tests into two kinds: the easy kind and the kind with a chadori teacher breathing down your neck, shouting sentences that must be written verbatim in calligraphy, with a fountain pen.

Maman laughed. ‘English spelling isn’t like that. You’ll see.’

Reza arrived just as sirens began screaming. We watched the surveillance cars from the kitchen window; they hesitated, then scattered. ‘Let’s go,’ said Reza. A lucky crack had opened in Maman’s house arrest; I held my favourite uncle’s hand for the last time and we ran through it.

We scrambled into the back of the car with our suitcases. The street was deserted, just a long sun-streaked hollow where I played with the neighbourhood children. Blurred by rain and tyres and shoeprints, our chalk hopscotch ladders still coloured the street from top to bottom. We weren’t going far on this leg of the journey. We would fly to Tehran, then drive to Karaj, where we could hide in the home of Maman’s elderly grandmother (Moti’s mother). She had pillows lining a wall beside a small television, a bed-ridden husband and cherry trees that would be blossoming now.

Earlier that morning, before he left for work, I had asked Baba, ‘When are you coming?’

‘Soon,’ he said. ‘I’ll come to Karaj.’

Uncle Reza drove us past Baba’s building; his office was on the third floor, his operating room facing the street.

‘Wave goodbye to your Baba,’ he said, his voice too quiet and low.

I squinted at the man in the window and waved. I knew the window, the big chair beyond, the desk with our photos scattered under glass. I couldn’t see his face. We were in a moving car and he was three storeys up.

In the front passenger seat, Maman stared at the streets with grieving eyes, taking in every shop sign and utility pole. Waving to Baba had unnerved me. Maman always told me the truth. She told me about her arrests, the death of church leaders. But now I understood that we were sealing a door even tighter than I liked, that I’d never again see this life from inside. I may never sit beside my cousins, glance for my name above Pooneh’s, or tuck in Maman Masi’s hair. Morvarid would die without me.

I made promises to myself. If we made it to the United States or England, I would work twenty times harder to avoid Khadijeh’s fate. I would learn English and become exceptional. In the West, the criminals wouldn’t be in charge. Teachers would be kind. Worthy rivals would abound.

 

 

The above is an excerpt from Dina Nayeri’s The Ungrateful Refugee, a timely, provocative and personal examination of the refugee experience that is available from Canongate Books on 30 May.

Image © Hamed Saber

The Sole Purveyor of Madame Bovary in Beijing circa 1989
Binyavanga Wainaina