Ever since Hossein Malekzadeh turned in his visa application, any knock at the door, any phone call, and any time he heard his name yelled in public made him jump. Were the police after him again? When the IRGC inevitably arrested him, would he be so lucky to get released a second time?
So he heard a knock and jumped. He tiptoed to the door. He straightened his posture in a way he thought an innocent person might, then, he cracked it open to find Mariam, his old girlfriend. She was holding bananas, mangos, and his favorite: pomegranates.
She breathed a sigh of relief, as if she were glad he was still alive.
“No one has seen you for weeks,” she explained. “I thought you might be sick.” She pushed the fruit into his hands.
Since the recent death of Hossein’s father the lacquer box maker, Miriam was the only person who risked coming to see him. It was making it that much harder to leave. So he took the bag of fruit, and backed away from the threshold. “I’m feeling a bit sick today.” He shut the door.
He decided to take a journey to Darband, his favorite place in Tehran, in the north of the city near the Tajrish bazaar, overlooking the chaos and pollution. Here he had passed the best—and worst—days of his life. Here he held hands with a girl for the first time, and here a year later, right by the fountain, he kissed Miriam gently on the lips when no one was watching. It was dawn, during the years of hope. Khatami was president, and every month gave birth to new possibilities. Hijabs were getting looser. Men started wearing t-shirts in public. But the most important change was not about clothing: reform was underway. Here too, during the years of darkness, after he graduated from the University of Tehran, had he sought consolation in poetry. Russian literature was his major and his passion, and, he had read, in fits of delirium, the Russian poets who wrote of atrocities even worse than those he had witnessed: Mayakovsky, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva. Here too he had come immediately after his release from prison. Sure, he felt discrimination when universities refused to hire him because he would not cooperate with the IRGC, but he consoled himself that many brave souls before him had faced greater challenges. So long as he kept a low profile, he knew he could avoid arrest.
When he arrived at the Tajrish metro station at the end of line #1, he hurled himself into a taxi headed in the direction of the park. He felt like he was being chased by a merciless demon. He opened the door before the taxi stopped and rushed up the steep slope leading to the park.
He perched himself above a waterfall, and gazed at the foothills of the Alborz mountains in the distance. Snow-capped Mt. Damavand lingered on the horizon.
“With all this fear,” he said aloud to himself, after checking that no one could hear him speak, “Why do I even bother? Every change comes with risks. Leaving home is always a danger. But lovers of freedom cannot expect peace.” After a pause he added, “Soon, I’ll be thirty-five. By the time dad was this age, he had a career and a future.”
Although no one had been listening at first, passers-by had begun to stare at him as if he were possessed. But it felt good to be uttering the words that had been buried in his heart for too long. There was no one left to assuage his grief. He was an orphan. His audience was the river, the trees, and his beloved Tajrish, where the water flowed like champagne.
When the crowd became too dense for him to complete his soliloquy to the waterfall, he took metro line #1 back to his temporary home on the edge of Honarmandan, the park named for all the artists who worked there. Located in Iranshahr Street, Honarmandan honoured creators like himself: sculptors, visual artists, playwrights. The park even had its own theatre, Tamashakhaneh, right in the center. Walking through the sculpture garden reminded him of the many sweet days he had spent there, watching plays by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, David Mamet, and Rita Dove, sometimes alone and sometimes with Miriam, who had dreamed of becoming an actress, before she gave up and left him for a man who was willing to have children with her and support her financially. From that small corner of Tehran, anything seemed possible, and no law had the power to destroy his life, or to deny him a career. He then consoled himself: surely the theatres of St. Petersburg were just as captivating as those in Tehran.
Exactly two years ago, he had been arrested for his cartoons of the Ayatollah. They were not intended to be offensive; he had hoped to show the human side of this revered figure. He thought of it as a way of paying homage, to humanize the leader of his country.
Hossein did not publicize the cartoons himself; he knew better than that. But once at a party with university friends, they were sharing their deepest passions and he mentioned that he liked to draw cartoons. When the students asked what they were about, he could not resist telling the truth. Perhaps it was his bragging, or perhaps it was the simple yearning of an artist to have his work known. Whatever it was, it landed him in jail. Not immediately. Everyone at the party expressed admiration for his courage and promised to keep his secret. He had no reason to believe that anyone who heard him speak had any particular reverence for the Ayatollah. Still, Hossein could easily guess the culprit: one of the more obsequious students who gushed over his talent and asked if he could copy some of the images for himself. He had always dreamed that someday somewhere his images might give someone pleasure.
The next thing he knew he had attained a huge following on all social media, including those banned within Iran: Twitter, Instagram, Telegram, and Facebook. It was then that the authorities began to pay attention. He was arrested and handed a ten-year sentence in Evin for defaming the Islamic Republic. Then suddenly, in one of those arbitrary miracles that made life in the Islamic Republic so unpredictable, the prison authorities decided to have mercy on him. It was Nowruz, the beginning of the Iranian New Year when prisoners were typically selected for pardons. Citing his compliant behaviour while in prison, they let him go three months after he entered. There was only one catch: he had to vow that he would never draw cartoons again.
The fresh breeze had caressed his face after he exited Evin. He remembered all the friends whom he was leaving behind in their cells. When would they be free?
The prison guard yelled at him from a distance, “Go home! Start your life over again, far from here. It may be your last chance.”
Since turning eighteen, he had been reading Soviet poetry. He had lived vicariously through the executions of Mandelstam and Gumilyev, the suicide of Tsvetaeva, and the banishment of Brodsky. He knew the executions that awaited poets who felt compelled to speak the truth to power. He was confident that he would be spared such a fate, not because he did not fear his jailors, but because he knew he was not made to be a martyr. If he were ever pressured again, he would bend. This too was why he had to leave. If he was ever to have a career, to become a man like his father, that could only ever happen outside Iran. It took him more than fifteen years—and his father’s death—to fulfil his plan.
Finally, one bright Friday morning, a letter arrived from the embassy, wrapped in bright blue tape. He tore open the envelope to find a one-month tourist visa to the Russian Federation, but he would extend it once he got there. He would claim asylum, like the Christians and Bahais. Or find someone to sponsor him. Or do whatever he had to do in order to stay. St. Petersburg at last! He hurried to the travel agency on Vali Asr Street and booked a ticket for next Friday, using the money that his father had bequeathed to him in his will, with the proviso that he use it to learn how to become a man.
There was a lot more to learn than language. He planned to set up shop on Liteinyi Prospect, honouring his father by selling his carefully crafted lacquer boxes, with poetic inscriptions on the insides and on the tops, intermingling verses of Hafez, Sadi, and Rumi. All his life he had refused to carry on his father’s craft, but now his father was dead and it was all he had. He would become a street artist, an everyday craftsman. And maybe, just maybe, his new self would discover freedom for the first time, far from the land of his birth.
On the day of his flight, he awoke at dawn. He wanted to see his beloved country when no one else was looking. How he would miss the mountains of his homeland! Mt. Damavand, hovering high on the edge of the horizon. Ramsar, where he was born, and where he lived before he moved to Tehran to attend university. The Mazandarani dialect that his mother used to speak to him while rocking him to sleep in her arms. The Caspian with its fresh fish, that scientists said was becoming radioactive, but which seemed to him to simply be gaining in iridescence. The forgotten beaches. The white marble hotel owned by Reza Pahlavi, relic of an era that had vanished by the time he was born.
Unlike his parents, he could not feel nostalgia for Iran before the revolution. Unlike his friends who had migrated to the United States, the UK, Germany, he had had passed his life in Iran without ever wishing to leave. He was not good enough to become a professional box maker for the Iranian bazaar, but in Russia he hoped his boxes would be exotic curiosities. He would make a living, finally, as a cliché of himself, a stereotype of the employer Iranian intellectual, shipwrecked in a foreign country.
Still, Iran felt like his destiny. He did not despise the revolution. He admired the anticolonial ideologies of early revolutionary thinkers like Ali Shariati, and their solidarity with oppressed peoples everywhere. He just doubted that the revolution had achieved its aims. What would Shariati think of what the Islamic Republic had become, he wondered? Streets were named after Shariati, but wasn’t that what always happened to revolutionaries who die conveniently before the revolution begins?
He understood why the shah had to go. What he didn’t understand was why it continued, growing more corrupt every year. Revolutionary fervour begat bloodshed, and bloodshed begat corruption, and before you knew it, there was no difference between an atheist state and a theocratic one.
None of it mattered anymore. He had his visa in hand, and he was leaving Iran later that morning, to start a new life somewhere on the other side of the Alborz mountains, first in St. Petersburg, and then in the Caucasus, closer to home.
Given his recent experience in Evin, Hossein was worried about what might happen at the border. But he passed through passport control ease. The line was long, and the guards seemed to be in a hurry. They barely checked his passport, and did not ask where he was headed. They did however ransack his bags, as they did with everyone passing through. All they found were bottles of sealed rosewater, which he had planned to give as gifts in Russia. Or to sell on the black market, if he didn’t manage to make any friends. He had deleted all his text messages before entering the airport.
There was an hour left before his flight was due to depart. He wondered through the food court, staring at the different ice-cream flavours displayed behind the glass: pistachio, saffron, sour cherries. Faloodeh, sweet frozen noodles in rosewater. Koloocheh, stuffed with cinnamon and walnuts. Sohan, made of saffron. And his favorite: gaz, made of nougat and pistachios.
The intercom blared with the number of his flight: Tehran-St. Petersburg, Aeroflot 211. St. Petersburg, the city built on water. He couldn’t wait to wander along the Neva under the blazing white sky, accompanied by the ghosts of Mandelstam and Akhmatova. Now was the chance to live the dream that had percolated during his university years, back when he imagined himself becoming a university professor, or entering some other respectable profession: lawyer, doctor, banker. Now, instead, he was going to become a box maker. There were certain advantages to obscurity, he reminded himself. For one, you were less likely to be spied on by the authorities.
Petersburg, I don’t want to die, he began to hum the lyrics of Mandelstam to the tune of Alla Pugacheva. He remembered Mandelstam’s poem comparing Stalin’s moustache to cockroaches, and told himself he would never write like that. His days of dangerous living were over. He just had to learn to abandon his old self. In becoming a migrant, he would also become a man.
“I have to try,” he told himself, mumbling aloud just as he had done in Darband. “Revolution might be the only solution,” he mumbled, “ I don’t want to get swept up in it. I am made to be a migrant, not a martyr.”
He recalled the prophetic words of Lermontov, who had been exiled to the Caucasus in 1837 after writing a poem critical of the tsar. It was one of the many poems he had memorized in during his first year at the university. Back then, he could never have guessed what they would mean to him now. Lermontov’s words resounded in him like a prayer to a God unknown:
Good-bye, unwashed Russia,
country of masters and slaves.
Good-bye to your blue uniforms
and to you, a people deceived.
Maybe, behind the wall of the Caucasus,
I will hide from your pashas,
from their all-seeing eyes,
from their all-hearing ears.
He composed a variation on Lermontov’s poem:
I will reinvent you in a distant country.
I’ll deterritorialize your geography,
to inscribe a map of my homeland
onto my beloved’s body.
It was the first poem he ever wrote. He expected it would be the last. Miriam had liked his poetry.
“But unlike Lermontov, I will return someday.”
And then, aloud, he questioned his own words. “Will I ever return? For what? To visit my father’s grave?”
He stood frozen in the airport, speaking to the air. He knew that the closed circuit TV was monitoring him, just as it had been for most of his life. He checked his watch. 8PM, exactly when evening performances began in the Honarmandan theatre.
He stepped onto the plane. As soon as he sat down, he closed his eyes and imagined he was flying. The plane hoisted him high over Mt. Damavand
He remembered his father and the lessons he had taught him in modesty as they crafted pen boxes together when they lived in Ramsar, before he entered the university. “The artist must forget himself and his ego,” he used to say to his son, “in order to create works of beauty.” Didn’t his favorite writer, Dostoevsky, once claim that beauty would save the world? As the plane soared above the earth, he regretted how little he had heeded his words. Now, all he could hope for was that the plane would make a U-turn in the sky.
When he was detained at the border soon after his arrival in St. Petersburg, with his bag full of undeclared goods, he was hardly surprised at all. The Iranian authorities had been tracking him ever since he left the airport, but had decided to let him cross the border first, before he was arrested by their partners in Russia. He would be more useful to the Iranian authorities in the prisons of Russia. But then again, he’d been let out of prison once for good behavior. Why not twice?