An extract from “One Halal of a Story”
My mother, whose name is Ella, likes to tell me about the exact moment she decided she would have me. It was 26 September 1981, and it was the day she was not executed.
“Oh you can’t start a story with that!” my mother says over wine one evening in her inner-western Sydney home. “It’s so glum. How about the story of coming to Australia? Start on 16 January 1988.”
Naser, my father, offers an alternative. “Why not start with the 28th of July 1983, the date of your birth? During the Iran–Iraq war, and how we had to bring you straight home from hospital because they were out of water and out of medicine.”
“No,” I tell them. “I don’t think I can tell a story about living and coming to Australia if I don’t include a story about dying.” I want to start on 26 September 1981, the day my mother was not executed and decided she wanted to have me. It was also the day my father lost his best friend.
“The problem,” my father tells me, “is that you have a very Australian view of death.”
My father goes quiet whenever the conversation turns to the period between the Iranian revolution in 1979 and my birth in 1983. This, despite it being the four-year period when both my sister, Azadeh, and I were born. “Survivor’s guilt,” my sister tells me. Neither of us is a physician, but we have done what every child does – try to diagnose our parents.
Our father has dealt with this particular period of his life mostly by pushing it away. Not until I was well out of school did he ever speak to me about his best friend, Hassan. Not to protect me but, I suspect, to protect himself.
My mother talks through her stories as though they belong to someone else. She’s as detached as he is but in a very different way. My father deals with his past by relying on denial, summed up in the question, “Why does any of this matter?” And yet, despite his predictable turning away it is quite clear that all of it matters, certainly to him.
My father is seated on a deckchair on his balcony, holding a glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Wearing dark-brown chino pants and a cream shirt, he looks every bit the inner-city champagne socialist. Except, unlike most of them, the experiences with which he wrestles are real. Named Naser after the Egyptian leader, Abdul Naser, he is six foot tall and striking. But he has absented himself from our discussion and broods, silently.
At five foot tall, my mother is dwarfed by her husband. Both of my parents are funny and gregarious and, though different in many ways, they are bound together by their lifetime of shared experiences and by a genuine, deep and lasting affection for each other.
“What is so ‘Australian’ about my view of death?” I ask.
“Perhaps not ‘Australian’, but certainly very western. You keep trying to find a point to death. That people have to be killed or die for a reason. When the waves of terror came, each individual death didn’t make sense – they didn’t have to,” my father says.
He is right. The indiscriminate nature of individual deaths is something I have never been able to comprehend. It’s not that I don’t understand murder as a political tool; while morally repugnant and reprehensible, it is hardly unique. But the death of an activist, to my way of thinking, always had to have a point. “Was so-and-so’s death to stop X or Y?” I will ask my parents and they will always say “no”. “They were killed because they were there.”
“The deaths were about stopping ideas. Dissent. That was it. Once you view it from that framework all of them make sense even though every individual one doesn’t.”
It’s not that Hassan’s execution came as a real surprise. While the Iranian revolution took place in 1979, the real battle for control, the bloodbath, occurred in the years immediately after that. Different Islamic groups, who no longer had a common enemy in the king, turned on each other. Many of the student activists, Hassan being one, had taken a more aggressive stance in striving for the removal of the Islamic regime and pushing for a democratic alternative. In the chaos, however, were the least prepared, the least organised and the most easily liquidated.
When, during a random car stop, a semi-automatic magazine case was found in Hassan’s car, the young man’s fate was sealed. He would be summarily executed. Of course, there was nothing random in this at all. A tipoff had led the militia police to him. The case was perhaps planted; it didn’t matter. The decision to kill him had already been made before the arrest. They seized him and dragged him to the courtyard of the prison, where they would line up those who would be killed.
“It was from the paper that we found out he was dead,” my mother goes on to say. The paper published a daily list of the names of those who were being executed. “We would buy the paper to see who had died. It was part of the terror, printing the names in the paper. Making you wait every day when someone had vanished. If you called the police you were just told to buy the paper the next day.”
Perhaps it was while my mother was being arrested that Hassan was being executed. Perhaps it was later that afternoon, when she was dragged into the courtyard of the No 3 prison in Tehran for processing. Perhaps even it was that evening. We can’t be sure. All we know is that he was killed that day. The details, the timing, the nature of the charges remain a mystery. All these things, my father would say, are insignificant. And he is right, in a way. Once you know that Hassan was killed that day and that my mother wasn’t, what else matters? If I could give you the reason, or the exact time, nothing would be different. Hassan’s body would still have been found a few days later in a mass grave, and my mother would still have made her way to Australia.
For my mother, it was possession of a political pamphlet that brought trouble her way. She read propaganda in the form of a newspaper. This might seem innocent enough when others are killing each other with bullets and bombs but the regime understood that ideas mattered.
My sister was with my mother that day. Azadeh was just two and a half years old – rounded up in the street and taken with our mother when she was arrested. “Surely I can leave my daughter with my family,” the desperate mother pleaded but they wouldn’t hear any of this.
The police station was full and doubled as a holding space for those who would be taken to prison and those who would soon be executed. There was a calmness to the murder that went on. A bureaucracy had been built around it, exemplifying what Hannah Arendt once called “the banality of evil”. Death was normalised. The screams were no longer heard.
My mother was blindfolded and had her hands tied behind her back. My sister was free to roam.
“They took me to the courtyard and held me there. Your sister was treated well. They were angry with me but they weren’t angry with the children. They saw them as the future guardians of the revolution. Souls to be saved.”
My sister thinks she can remember the courtyard. But memories of a toddler are notoriously unreliable. Later she was told what danger they were in but at the time it was another day playing in a courtyard. She will tell you she remembers the faint smell of urine. The gritty concrete grey walls leading to the cells, a contrast with the colours of autumn outside. The flower bed in the corner – now just a handful of weeds. She will articulate her memories as though she is describing a photograph.
She was only a child and was given sweets if she agreed to tell the authorities if any of those arrested were moving or talking while they waited for processing. And so she goes from being the sweet child playing with the flower bed to unknowingly being an enforcer of a system that was possibly going to execute her mother that day. All within minutes.
“Tonight you will be executed, you son of a bitch.” My mother could hear the guard yelling at someone who had been thrown into the courtyard. Her blindfold had risen enough that she could get a glimpse of a skinny 17-year-old boy wearing a bandana of the rival Islamic faction of the regime.
“There had been a rally that day in a different part of town. Those wearing the bandanas were the organisers; they would be killed immediately.” So my mother told me. “The regime wasn’t after information, they didn’t need to interrogate. They knew what they wanted to know and just wanted to remove them. That was all.”
In life, you are defined by moments. Increments of time add depth to your being; your experience is layered by the accumulation of years of pain, or love or suffering. But there are brief moments in time that stand still in your memory, perfectly formed. Moments that change everything.
A lot of questions clamour in my mind. I want to know how my father found out that the police had my mother. I want to know how deeply the news of both Hassan’s death and my mother’s arrest shocked him. I want to know if this was why my grandmother burnt all of their photos – why there is only one photo of their wedding left. I want to know why my mother was let go while the others in the courtyard were, most likely, all killed. And why, after my mother’s release, did they go into the relative obscurity of her home town? How had this move led to my being born? I want to understand the random nature of life and death.
Questions spawn further questions but I notice my father isn’t talking any more. He is sitting back in his chair, quietly. I know what he is thinking: what does it matter – Hassan was killed and your mother wasn’t. There are a few more minutes of silence. “I think your father has had enough,” Mum whispers to me and I leave.