On an unusually calm afternoon, I left my father’s residence at a “care home” in a northern suburb of Tehran to go for a walk. The primary reason for my visit to Tehran, which was to manage my father’s “care,” had gone well; at that moment he was playing backgammon with a nurse whom I had interviewed the day before. All was in place, and I could meander for an hour in the neighborhood.
A few minutes into the walk, arriving at a major shopping center, I noticed a small crowd. I perceived two women shouting at each other, at the brink of a physical fight. Others were trying to separate them. I stopped 20 meters away from the scene out of instinctual and habitual sociological curiosity, carrying my IPhone in my palm. I did not understand yet what I was looking at, but suspected a domestic brawl. Above all, that they were women shouting obscenities in public intrigued me.
I stood there for not more than 30 seconds, absorbed, listening.
Then, as if a character walking out of a movie screen and into real life, I saw a woman in black chador emerge of the crowd and walk directly over to me, grab my phone out of my unresisting palm, then turn around and disappear into a parked van behind the crowd.
Following my phone, thinking instantly that it is my only means of communication with the world outside, I went after her, crossed that invisible threshold into the scene. A man who must have followed the events told me, “get your phone before they take off.” I went towards the van, and through the sliding side door asked for my phone back. I heard her say: “To bia bala [You, get in].” At this moment, I still did not know I was dealing with the notorious “moral police,” or what I later heard mockingly referred to as “fatemeh commandos.” I went onboard. Once in the van, they shut the door and instructed the driver to drive away.
But a group of civilians were blocking the way. Inside, I saw two young women with a nonchalant air, clearly in custody for insufficient hejab. I realized then I am detained as well, even though I was covered and wore no makeup. One commando was trying to unlock my phone, and the other instructed the driver to get out of the situation as quickly as possible as she called for ‘backup’ on her walkie-talkie. The civilians continued to block the way, by standing casually in front of the car. One woman at the side door was shouting and pounding on the glass:
“Who gave her a right to hit me? She has to come out to apologize, she has to wait for the civil police to arrive.”
The Commando Sisters in the van ordered the driver to press the accelerator pedal.
I noticed the driver’s strange state, a disturbing mix of reluctance, apathy, ineptitude, and for an instance, a visible grin which I read as sign of pleasure. The pleasure he seemed to be getting from being in the midst of a drama, with a full cast of women. He pressed on the gas and pushed through, slowly at first and then gaining speed; but one woman held on to the side door to prevent the van from leaving, kept running, was dragged, and eventually fell rolling on the asphalt before the van broke free of her body. One commando sister kept talking on her walkie-talkie, still asking for backup, saying that they had “escaped [farar kardeem].” The other kept playing with my phone.
I started to talk, beginning with a plea that I did not know they were police, otherwise I would not have stopped to watch. That line of argument did not help me, and I was mocked and called a liar. I said that I had not filmed anything. They mocked that as well, and after getting my phone code they shouted that I was lying.
“Where have you hidden it?”
I showed them all the videos under the colorful apple icon; videos of my father and other compelling characters of the nursing home; the old, the vulnerable and the disabled. First they mocked me for my interest in banal matters, such as someone’s sneeze; and then, again and again, “Where have you hidden it?” I told them I didn’t know what they were talking about. How does one hide a video?
We were going to the security center on the other side of town, through mid-afternoon traffic. During this time I was going over my life to evaluate my current existential condition: Who would know that I have disappeared? Who would know where to look for me? Since I had not taken the video of the scene – perhaps I had not had the chance to– what else on my phone could be compromising? Do I have any embarrassing selfies? Had anyone sent me compromising images? I had not disabled my Facebook page before leaving London this time. What nonsense had I posted there unwittingly? Again, who would know how to find me? I did not remember that I am a US citizen, or a university professor. I did not remember that I am Jewish. These facts were irrelevant, probably because by then I had already realized that any of these matters could be as dangerous or problematic as simply having my father in a nursing home, for which they had already shouted at me….. All these facts were equally indefensible in that van.
We arrived at the center. The Afsar, the “boss” who was a chador-covered older woman asked about me. I explained that I did not know they were police, otherwise I would not have stopped; and after all I had not taken any videos of the scene. She said, “You want me to believe that you didn’t know they were police? You take these videos and put them up on internet…” I explained again that I had not taken any video recording. Her answer made me realize that I was in the midst of a absurd situation beyond my comprehention: she said to me, “Pas mikhasti ham begiri?” which translates into “As if you would even dare do such a thing.” But that was precisely the reason I was brought there; they thought I had. Now they realized I had not, and they were saying, it doesn’t matter whether you do, or you don’t:
“Take her and create a parvandeye siasi” — a political file – “for her, keh dars ebrat beshe baraaye digaraan” — to teach others a lesson. “Take her in.”
I watched the woman from the car reply that she was tired as she had already dealt with two detentions, and she added casually as in an afterthought, that they had searched my iphone for an hour and could not find the video.
“I will leave her to you,” said the boss with an irritation and impatience that is the prerogative of power; “you decide what you want to do with her.”
The Sister in whose charge I was left was the one whom I had seen instructing the driver to run over the woman on the street. But at least, we had already spent a few hours with each other, and she was involved in the context of my detention.
She took me out and said, “boro” — go.
Do you know what I did? —-I hugged her. Out of what? Gratitude? Relief? Fear? She was probably 25 years old. She looked 60 to me. Resentment acting with impunity. Or fear; I had also detected that unmistakable emotion on her face when sitting next to her in the van…. I still do not understand my own reaction.
On the way back to the nursing home, I passed the shopping center. The two women who had been in the fight with the commando sisters were still there talking to civilian police, probably bringing charges. My instinct again was to stop. I wanted to talk to them and hear their story. To tell them how much respect I had for their courage.
To insist on dignity, on apology, when so vulnerable, is heroic. I wanted to meet the heroines who are fighting for the public presence of women on the streets. But, I did not stop. I was already afraid.
The person who filmed Eric Garner’s last words and death on an Staten Island street last fall was arrested and spent months in jail, I learned.
London, June 2015.