The streets echo with Farsi, reverberate with the sounds of decaying cars wallowing down the road, ring in the calls of vendors. In the old parts of the city, calls to prayer drift down the streets. The sun is beginning to set, flushing the white high-rise buildings lining Tehran's skyline with pinks and oranges. And beyond the city . . . well, the city never ends. It continues, choppy outcroppings of businesslike buildings punctuating long, alley-traced neighborhoods. The city goes to the edge of the world, then disappears into an indistinguishable tan haze.
As Tehran fades with the sunset, it mirrors the waning of the sweltering thirty-five-degree Celsius heat. When I was little, Mamma would take me out to our balcony at sunset. As the sun sank down in the sky, we would watch the murals of the ayatollahs on every block disappearing into the darkness. By day, their stern eyes watched the city from fifteen-meter heights, and by night, they vanished. "Someday," she would tell me, "those murals won't even be there, watching us by day. Someday, when we are free." That's what I think of at sunset.
Today is Friday, bringing welcome relief from the tedious hours of studying that Saturday through Thursday encompass. It is the day my mother takes off of work from her editing job; my father leaves his office. We have Fridays off for prayer, a religious holiday. The streets fill up today, more than usual, the numbers of bright vending stands increasing, more people milling, more life.
I'm sixteen, old enough to go to pre-university soon, after high school. Old enough to vote in the elections this year—but Mamma says voting doesn't really matter anyway. Elections are irrelevant. Religion dominates by rule. Mamma has told me this since I was little, her calm voice merging with twinges of bitterness.
Today I spent the day with my friends, playing tennis in the park. But Friday nights are our most special. My father and brothers leave to pray, returning at eight for dinner. Since I was thirteen, Mamma has invited a group of her friends over during late afternoon. "For tea," Mamma explains to my father when he asks. "Just tea." The truth is, it has never just been tea. There is always tea, yes, but only to serve as a disguise for those who stop by without warning.
I remember when Mamma first told me about the group. I was eleven, still in elementary school. She was folding my hijab for me, freshly washed, black and soft. "Shusha," she had said, "haven't you ever wished you didn't wear the hijab each day?" Of course I didn't want to wear it. I wanted to run limitless, play soccer and tennis, free of the awkward cloth.
"I haven't always wanted to wear it, Mamma. Not always."
Her fingers stroked the soft cloth, reminiscent but rough. I had always noticed that she treated her own veil roughly, not taking the same pride in the covering as she took in her other possessions. "I wouldn't wear the veil if I didn't have to," Mamma told me. "If the clerics didn't enforce it as a sign of purity. If I could be safe without it." Mamma's soft voice was strangely frank, distorted to fit the voice of a stranger, confiding in me as she never had before. I was unaccustomed to this new version of Mamma, treating me as if I was an important adult, as important as her intellectual friends, the filmmakers and writers she socialized with. "Shusha," she said, her eyes deep and sincere below her sharp eyebrows. "Would you like to come with me this afternoon to have tea with my friends? We're meeting at Gelareh's home."
Mamma left every Friday afternoon to meet with her friends, women who treated me like the little girl I was. I had never been interested. "I don't know, Mamma," I answered, trying to be polite. I didn't want to go.
She smoothed my sleeve absentmindedly. "Shusha, we do not go just to chat, just for tea. It is a political group. A secret group."
"Oh." Why was it secret? Mamma had told Baba about it every Friday at dinner. "Yes, I enjoyed myself this afternoon," she would tell Baba, her voice polite. Or, "We talked about Sattareh's new movie." I had never once heard Mamma lie.
"Why don't you come, Shusha?"
"All right, Mamma." I smiled with my eyes, but my mouth was frozen. A secret group?
"Good girl. But if Baba asks you anything about it, you mustn't mention what we talk about. Say the tea was good."
"Yes, Mamma." Mamma shouldn't have talked to me this way, showing disrespect for my father. I knew Baba didn't always like what Mamma wrote about in her women's magazine. But she didn't lie; she didn't do things Baba wouldn't approve of.
That was the first time she had told me about the group. I had gone that night, to the gathering at Gelareh's house, feeling uncomfortable and shy and brave. I had gone the week after, and the week after that, until I wanted to go, not just because Mamma wanted me there. I had become a member of the group, talking, organizing, writing. And I had always told Baba the tea was good. He was proud of me, proud that I was joining my mother's circle of friends. Eventually, the meetings were moved to our house, conveniently held during my father and brother's prayer time.
That was five years ago. And today, I keep walking home, hurrying to make it home before it gets too dark. By darkness, our neighborhood is like a graveyard, only bearing the residue of the day's busy activities. The only life that leaks onto the street is from houses, small amounts of light and noise that drift out into the cool evening air.
Finally, our block comes into view, cars dispersed along the street near our home. I'm the last to arrive. I let myself in through the front. It's cooler inside the house. Refreshing, like the subtle taste of lemon in a chilled glass of water. "Salam," I call out, hello. "It's me, Shusha." I know they will be relieved to hear it is I, not someone else intruding onto their privacy I leave my shoes at the door and pad down the hall.
"Salam," they chorus. "Chetor é?" How are you?
I shrug. "Alhamdolellah." Fine.
They are gathered at the back of the house, in the sitting room. Tonight, the group isn't as big as usual. Only six or seven. The teapot sits as the focal point, resting on a pedestal centered in the room. Mamma motions to the seat beside her. "Better not be out late again." She gives me a kiss. "Where were you, Shusha?"
"With my friends. Tennis. Internet cafe."
Mamma frowns. "Those Internet cafes. I don't like them." When we're alone, Mamma calls them self-deprivation caves of endless computers.
Mamma turns back to the group."Bebakhshid. Mahnaz, you were saying . . .
Mahnaz's words begin the way everyone else's do, "Someday, when we are free . . . " Speculating, planning, fantasizing, believing.
And I am once again taken back to my childhood, to Mamma's words in my ear at sunset. Her breath catches my wispy hair, blowing it into my ear, fielding. Someday, when we are free.