This story was published online by a web site which no longer exists. It was one of my first successful attempts to invert the adage "write what you know" into "learn what you don’t know." My curiosity about the Muslim world, sparked by the terrorist activity already common in the ‘90s and what I perceived as mutual xenophobia, later matured into the character of Jalil, an Islamic Los Angeles police officer, in my novel, γ.
The first bottle of vodka, which Mahmoud cradled like a baby, having smuggled it home inside a wool blanket, was so beautiful, mounted like a jewel in the dark wool, that Fatemeh had to feel it with her hands. "You crazy bastard," she said, not taking her eyes away, only absently acknowledging the danger, the coming trouble this bottle should have augured.
Mahmoud gave her a long, unrolling laugh he had inherited from his rug-merchant father, a proprietor's laugh, not quite complete without the slapping of a hand on a good, thick rug. "From Russia," he said. "Not the best. But good enough."
"You'll get us both eighty lashes. Where did this come from?"
"A customer at the Azadi, on business from Baluchistan."
"A drug dealer. We'll be shot."
Mahmoud laughed again, carrying the bottle by the neck into the kitchen. "I haven't had a drink in months." He dragged the bottle across the countertop, maybe to hear the glass ring over the tiles, or maybe just because he was a big ape, proud of this piece of fruit torn from the trees. He ambled to the cupboard and brought down two small glasses. "Get some juice."
Hurrying to the refrigerator, Fatemeh forgot the bottle momentarily, afraid she had not made more orange juice. She opened the refrigerator. "We drank it this morning."
Fatemeh turned, holding the refrigerator door open. Mahmoud waited beside the two glasses, his hand on top of the vodka. "All we have is tomato," she said.
"Forget it." A jolly smile lifted his graying mustache. "Let's see what this greasy Armenian gave me." He unscrewed the metal cap and splashed some liquid into one of the glasses. "You can make juice for dinner." He poured another glass and handed it to her. With a grin he made a toast. "To azadi."
She touched her glass to his, not quite understanding the toast, happy just to see her husband in such a good mood. At first she thought he was lauding the hotel as it had been renamed after the Revolution, but then she saw that he meant the word azadi: freedom.
His large brown eyes shone in the warm kitchen light. With one hand, hot with the exhilaration of the crime, he stroked her bare arm, admiring her from head to toe. "You finished the outfit," he said, rolling a spoonful of liquor around the bottom of the glass.
She had taken her knee-length house dress from the horatory pages of Zan-e-Ruz, replacing the drab ocher the editors had chosen with lemon-yellow cotton. A change in the design had been necessary. She didn't want to look like the sketched, veiled model in the magazine, the ink cartoon in place of the real model, whose legs, arms, and head had been cut away for decency. "I finished this morning." She turned slightly for him to see.
"Very good." He rolled the last of the drink into his mouth, set the glass on the counter, then took both of her naked arms in his hands. "You look good," he said. "Remember how a good drink makes you all warm inside?" His hands moved up her arms, under the material, and onto her shoulders.
She felt warm already. Looking up into his big eyes, she raised the glass again. "To freedom," she said. She sipped a little of the stinging liquor.
That first bottle lasted more than a month. Mahmoud wanted each of his friends to have a taste. He invited one after another over for dinner, saving the prize drink for last, a surprise for some, the anticipated climax for others, a toast to friendship for all. Mahmoud was never more grand or generous than during that first month, when he wanted to show everyone just how connected he had become since his promotion to manager of the Azadi.
A second bottle, a decent red wine from Azerbaijan, soon followed, and this time Mahmoud invited the greasy Armenian to dinner. He called ahead, so when the two men arrived dinner was ready and she was wearing a black tunic and a new headscarf, suspicious of the smuggler but curious to meet him nonetheless.
It was at this dinner, during which she said very little aside from offering more wine or abgusht, that Fatemeh first began to distrust this return of alcohol to their lives. Mahmoud, a big drinker in the years before and just after their marriage, tossed down glass after glass of the Armenian's wine as though stoking a fire in his belly. The red filled his cheeks and made him laugh even more than he usually did with guests, his breath blowing over the table in bitter waves. He was overjoyed to have such a well-mannered businessman—a seller of manufactured robes and blankets—as a dinner guest, although his mood was hampered in some way, because every once in a while he gave Fatemeh a quizzical, almost distressed glance. She wondered whether she had done something wrong, or whether he was just uneasy in the businessman's company.
"Ask no more about my beastly cloth goods," said the Armenian at one point, whose name was Gagik. "This is your house. Tell me about your own business affairs. You must know people from all over, managing a hotel like the Azadi."
"Please," said Mahmoud, grinning, bracing his bowl with one hand as he mashed the beef abgusht with vigorous thrusts of his pestle. "We don't get nearly the same range of clients as the big hotels downtown. Ours are mostly Iranian."
"Still, Evin village is a nice area, and your hotel is very fine. Only the best of Iranians could stay there."
"Indeed, you are proof of that."
Gagik laughed gleefully, as though Mahmoud had just made a bawdy joke about the Imam. Mahmoud joined him, absently, for at the moment he was preoccupied mostly with preparing his food.
Gagik slapped his thighs and took a long swallow of his Azerbaijani wine, which sobered him. He cleared his throat. Casting a slightly apprehensive glance at Fatemeh's veiled form, he continued. "Plus, you've lived up here in the hills for many years—how long did you say? Twenty? You must know most of the people around here."
"Some," agreed Mahmoud. "We've lived here a long time."
"The classiest people in Tehran!" Gagik bounced both fists off the table.
Noticing that the Armenian had stopped eating, Fatemeh rose to get tea. She continued listening from the kitchen.
"I have all sorts of friends," said her husband.
"Tell me," said Gagik, lowering his voice. "What did they think of my Russian vodka?"
"What makes you think I didn't keep the whole bottle for myself?"
"A man of your generosity?" Gagik was torn with laughter. "You don't strike me as a hawk, as a beast which carries its prey high into the mountains to some hidden lair. . . ."
Fatemeh entered with three cups of tea and a bowl of sugar cubes, wanting to say, "He's a camel, with one hump for every known type of drink," but she held her tongue.
"You're a good friend, Mahmoud; you would share your good fortune."
Mahmoud continued eating, not yet ready for tea. "You know me too well already. How will I ever lie to you?"
"Nobody can tell Gagik a lie. Now tell me, what did they say about the vodka?"
"They liked it very much. They all wanted to know where it had come from."
"And what did you say?" Gagik hesitated before putting the sugar cube into his mouth, his hairy eyebrows lifted. He fixed his eyes on Mahmoud, who had a mouth full of bread and meat.
Swallowing hard, Mahmoud replied. "Russia, of course."
The men laughed heartily. Gagik placed the sugar on his tongue and slurped the tea through it. "Excellent," he told Fatemeh. "You put the finest restaurants to shame." She thanked him in a quiet voice.
The men continued talking, Gagik very gradually and cautiously advancing a business proposal, while Mahmoud let him go on, by no means hostile to the Armenian's suggestion.
"You know what I'm talking about," said Gagik. "This dirty-basement raisin shit they make in Tehran is okay, okay for your average drunk, but those who can afford a luxury or two want the real thing, and they will pay more."
Fatemeh sipped her tea quietly, without sugar, wishing she could slip away from this smuggling talk. Her husband had no business getting mixed up in such a thing. A Revolutionary Guard might overlook a bottle or two in someone's trunk, but Mahmoud was wrong if he thought no one besides the clergy cared about smugglers. Just that afternoon, the IRIB news had shown three men convicted of selling opium shot dead by a firing squad.
After Gagik left, Fatemeh walked right over to where Mahmoud was standing by the fountain in the courtyard. "Keep that man and his cheap drinks out of this house. He just wants you to do his trading so he can make a profit and not get caught."
"I'm not a fool," her husband replied loudly, almost roaring, far more drunk than he had seemed at table, his droopy eyes floating above her then returning to look her in the eyes. "I know he's a crook. A blind man can see that." Looking down, he reflected a moment. "Still, a few bottles for Hossein wouldn't hurt anything. He wanted me to get him some."
"Be careful, Mahmoud. If you sell it once, you'll sell it twice."
Nothing aggravated her husband more than her nagging good sense. Probably agreeing with her, Mahmoud threw up his hands in exasperation, looking for a way to twist free of her scrutiny. "Now, what's the meaning of this?" He took the lower corners of her headscarf in his hands, pulling the material taut. The black cloth was spotted with small white flowers.
"It's a design," she said.
"You can see right through these holes."
"It's pretty. I'm tired of plain black and brown." Wearing the new scarf had been a little risky, since her husband had not seen it, but women in town wore much more showy scarves than this.
"Gagik was looking at you the whole time. Is this how you want guests to see you?"
"This is a conservative design."
Mahmoud shuffled off to the bedroom, muttering over his shoulder. "You shouldn't call attention to yourself." He dropped onto the bed and was asleep long before she had cleaned up the dinner mess.
These counterattacks of her husband's were an inevitable hazard, particularly when he knew he should listen to her. She lay down next to him, knowing he would go ahead in his deal with Gagik but hoping he would not get pulled into a routine.
The third and fourth bottles of liquor, a red and a white wine, arrived together, part of a dozen or more Mahmoud distributed among his friends. After them came two more, and soon Fatemeh had to create a liquor cabinet. Fortunately, the first really large party Mahmoud threw got the attention of the local komiteh. A white Nissan jeep, followed by a second, brought a total of six bearded komiteh men. With olive-green fatigues and Chinese machine-pistols, they imposed a somber intermission, while they took down everyone's name and made disapproving comments to the women who had worn makeup. The wine was buried in shoes in the bedroom closet, so no arrests were made, but the episode thankfully discouraged Mahmoud from hosting such a lavish event a second time.
The festive mood of those first few weeks subsided, and Mahmoud relaxed back into his old self, tired, harassed by the trivial matters of running a hotel, bothered by little pains in his neck. As soon as he lowered his heavy body into bed a torpor would come over him, strengthened by whatever he had been drinking that day, his eyelids would fall, and he would sink like a stone into sleep. He made love so rarely that she wondered if he did it just to satisfy his lawful obligation as a husband.
On two successive nights she tried to read him a letter from their daughter Tahereh, but both times he fell asleep before she could finish. Finally, she had to read it while he ate.
"Why doesn't she just call?" he said when she was done. "The university's ten miles down the road."
Spurts of alcohol smell reached across the table. The smell had been there even when he had arrived home. He had never been an alcoholic, but he was acting like one, making up for years of deprivation. Fatemeh said, "It's good that she decides to write, good practice. Engineering students seldom learn to write well."
"How about speaking? Don't engineers talk?"
"You will call her on Friday and she will speak. Then you will thank her for this nice letter."
Mahmoud growled like a sleepy dog, sopping up meat sauce and rice with his bread. "Okay," he said.
He had to be prodded into doing the smallest things, like calling his son or his daughter, or getting the old Paykan a new muffler. Their household still felt the absence of the children—an overwhelming loss of urgency. She herself lay around most of the day, squinting through a hissing snow at the dirty shows on Iraqi television, getting up only to throw together a freeze-dried lunch for her husband and to start the electric samovar—or, maybe, on good days, to go biking through the neighborhood. The crusade against women's bicycling hadn't reached Evin yet. Though guarded fences were going up downtown to hide and monitor the women who liked to ride, the komiteh in Evin were used to seeing her pedaling up the winding road out of the valley, which led to a wonderful view of the city. Seeing her standing alone at the overlook, her bicycle at her side, they would avert their gaze and drive on, leaving her in peace to contemplate the brown film over the city, to mark the spots where Tahereh went to school and Ahmad designed radios, and to let the dry breeze billow through her polyester tunic, sharp and cool against her perspiring body.
What she would do if the Hezbollahi took away her bicycle, Fatemeh did not know. She would suffocate in her home like a Saudi woman, there for Mahmoud alone, a world away from the city and her children. At the time of the Revolution, she had been one of the first women to go into the streets clutching a chador around her body in defiance to the Shah. For her, it had been a thick, dark curtain against the bright clothes, face paints, commercials, litter, bad thoughts, bare faces and bodies, crimes, and disease of the West. The Shah had forced open a window she had wanted closed. Now that the window was closed, however, and now that the social order had been repaired, so that fathers like Mahmoud could send their daughters away to a university and women could walk the streets at night, the clergy were drawing the curtain inward, covering more and more, more than wearing hejab ever could. Khomeini had never been this strict. He had been a kind man. His successors, more uncertain of themselves, were lost without him, flailing about with black blankets, trying to smother women out of existence, the way you smother a fire.
But it was nice that Tahereh could go to the university, something Fatemeh herself had had to pass up. And since Tahereh could not remember the days before compulsory observance of hejab, she would not feel smothered the way her mother did sometimes. She would have a good job if she wanted one, a nice family, and she would be happy.
Her daughter's successes, caught in pieces of phone conversation, visits home, and letters, was perhaps what Fatemeh enjoyed most in life. When a very long and serious letter from Tahereh arrived later that year, the joy it brought her was greater than anything she could have felt for herself. Her daughter had made the acquaintance of a man studying in her field of engineering. They had been friends for some time, and, with graduation only a year away, they had decided to marry, if their respective families could be persuaded to approve the match.
Fatemeh called Tahereh immediately. "So, who is this fine gentleman you have been hiding all this time?"
"You got the letter."
"We will bring him over for dinner."
"What did Dad say? Does he still expect me to marry the King of Persia?"
"Your father will adore him. Give me the young man's number, and we'll call him."
"Not yet. Give Dad a few days to get used to the idea."
Fatemeh tried to dismiss Tahereh's concern, yet her daughter was the one who grasped the situation. Though she made sure dinner was perfect, and let Mahmoud put the work day behind him before presenting the news, Fatemeh failed to get a sympathetic reaction.
Mahmoud's manner was subdued, but in the way he tipped his teacup from side to side, just barely touching the table, and in his quiet, almost rasping voice, she could sense a deep, contemplative, mounting displeasure. "She has known this man for some time, then, and this is the first we hear of it?"
"I'm sure she was afraid we would disapprove."
"I wonder what she does all day at this university, visit this man? Doesn't anybody watch her?"
"The students are allowed to talk to one another."
"It's dangerous to give young people too much freedom. They will go and make messes of their lives."
"Give the boy a break; he's going to be an engineer."
"Yes, but will he be a good engineer? We don't know, because we don't know his family." Mahmoud set down the teacup, crossing his hands in front of his plate. In a softer, more serious tone, he continued, "Really, Fatemeh, we must be reasonable. We can't have Tahereh running off with the first boy that she meets. This is a big decision. We all have to think very carefully about it."
"We should listen to what our daughter wants. At least call the boy and have him over for dinner."
"I hear what she is saying. She thinks she is ready for a husband, and maybe she is right. We have to begin looking."
"Do you completely distrust Tahereh's judgment?"
"We will decide this together, all three of us, the proper way. Her prince is not eliminated, but we must look around. You know, as I do, that the feelings of youth last only a short time, whereas a marriage lasts forever."
Several weeks later Mahmoud brought home a doubtful story about a rich oil man from Isfahan with two eligible sons. The man, a hotel guest, apparently expressed great interest in securing an educated girl like Tahereh. "Our family has a very intellectual character," he had said. "The men need stimulating company from their wives."
"You see," Mahmoud boasted, "I have a very wide net. Let me cast it as far as I can."
To Mahmoud's disappointment, the Isfahan man faded away, not responding to a formal letter and never staying at the Azadi again. No new candidates surfaced for several weeks.
Meanwhile, Mahmoud was becoming a drunk. The bottles he brought home were always half empty, and by morning they were often completely empty. Fatemeh could not name the devil that haunted him, but it was more than the shame he must have felt to have raised barely a single prospective husband for his daughter. Some days he came home perfectly clear-eyed and happy; other days he was a wavering shadow. Once in a while he worked late, and on those days he came home so drunk that Fatemeh wondered how he could even lift a pen to sign his name. His alcohol trading had escalated, but Fatemeh could only guess by how much.
About this time, a woman from the komiteh came to visit while Mahmoud was at work, her white face poking out of the black chador just a couple of centimeters too far, eyes dark, unblinking, and active, aware of the periphery. Fatemeh brought her into the living room, hurrying to kill the Iraqi broadcast she'd been watching. Graciously ignoring the TV, the komiteh agent discarded her chador, revealing various komiteh insignia and a long-sleeved olive shirt, took a seat on a long floor cushion, and complemented Fatemeh on her well-kept house. She had already introduced herself as Khadija.
Fatemeh thanked the woman and offered her tea.
"No, thank you. I can only stay a moment. I just wanted to come meet my uncle's friends from the Azadi."
"He stayed there a month ago. He tells me the place was outstanding, more than he could have expected so close to my husband's and my house."
"I will pass your uncle's compliment on to my husband. He cares a great deal for his guests."
"My uncle even met your husband. Mahmoud, yes? I've heard his name around town."
"He knows people all over," said Fatemeh.
"He is very well-known, which can be a good and a bad thing, I suppose, depending on how the public treats a person. Mostly, I hear what a hospitable gentleman he is—good things."
Fatemeh had sat too far back on the pillow she had pulled into the middle of the room. She was holding her knees to keep from tipping back but dared not move a muscle. "And have you heard bad things, too?"
"Oh, nothing, really, just rumors. I didn't come for that."
The komiteh woman sat coolly, her placid face slightly upturned, watching Fatemeh, awaiting the next question.
"Rumors?" said Fatemeh.
"Yes, little things. Lies, I'm sure. Some say Mahmoud is a seller of wine. Others say he sells Russian vodka. Others, still, say that his business finances terrorists in the Mojaheddin. People say Mahmoud is a revolutionary and all kinds of crazy things."
All Fatemeh could think about was the cabinet containing the alcohol. Khadija only had to poke around in the kitchen to put Fatemeh and her husband on the whipping table. Barely able to smile, Fatemeh said, "Well, Mahmoud will have a good laugh about that. A terrorist! Who says this?"
"Who knows how such things get started? People will believe anything. The important thing is to stop false rumors before they do too much damage."
"I'm glad you told me."
"And to find what small truth got them started." Khadija smiled coldly, as though she saw right through Fatemeh. "The komiteh suspects your husband, Mrs. Mehta. The komiteh also knows that often the wife does not know what the husband does when he is away from home. Therefore, the komiteh does not suspect you."
"I assure you that Mahmoud . . ."
"Often, the wife of the most vile traitor has a virtue that is as sweet as honey, so sweet that she is left a free woman after her husband is put to death."
Fatemeh swallowed. The time for her to speak had passed.
Khadija continued, "The komiteh will get Mahmoud, and we will get him soon, Mrs. Mehta. The difference depends on you. You can tell him about this visit, in which case he will break off his activities and live in fear until we arrest him anyway, or you can help us find the real criminals, who are using him and his hotel."
"You could question Mahmoud. . . ."
"We can get his confession anytime. What we want is to catch the smugglers in the act. They use the hotel; we know that much. Tell Mahmoud what we know, if you think he will help us. If not, find out for yourself when and where he buys his liquor. The komiteh promises not to go after your husband if he is not the source of disruption. And understand that we will show our gratitude for any help you give."
As soon as Khadija was out the door, Fatemeh emptied all of the illicit bottles, smashed them beyond recognition in a stone flower pot, then filled the pot with dirt from the garden. Then she refilled the empty cupboard with pots, a bucket, and some towels.
The first thing she did when Mahmoud got home was show him this cupboard. "They're gone," she said. "No more liquor in this house. Everyone knows how much you drink. It's only a matter of time before the komiteh raids our house." Instinctively, she wanted to see him make a rational decision, rather than go into a panic when she told him about Khadija.
Instead, he wiggled his fingers in the air and squealed with amusement. "Praise Allah. We're saved. The troopers are staking out the garden right now. I heard them when I came in."
His face shiny with sweat, he lumbered into the kitchen, as drunk as ever, sticking his finger into the stew. "This better be good; it's costing me 5,000 rials."
"Are you listening? I hear people talking. Everyone knows you're selling the wine. How long do you think you can stay invisible?"
"I can trust my friends."
Mahmoud went out to the car to fetch a bottle of wine. "One lucky dissident escaped the purge!" he hollered triumphantly, returning to the kitchen. "Tonight, he tells us about his sins."
"Go sit down. I'm almost done."
Her husband poured himself a large glass of wine. Calming down, he took a long drink and sighed. "Want to listen to the dissident's sins?" He proffered the bottle.
Fatemeh lifted the pot of stew. "Sit down."
"Somebody is grumpy tonight."
They went into the dining room. Silently, she spooned soup into Mahmoud's bowl. Mahmoud kicked a leg of his chair as he sat down, almost spilling the wine, but once he was seated he assumed a dignified stillness. "I'm serious, Fatemeh, what got into you? You could have asked me to get rid of the alcohol. If it bothered you, you should have said something."
"I've been complaining all along. You don't listen to a thing I say." She started serving herself.
"I didn't know you were so afraid."
For a while, they ate in silence. The first time he took a drink, Mahmoud gulped down the whole glass of wine. He refilled it without looking up.
Fatemeh had been searching for a way to begin. At last, she set her bread down, prepared to say what was on her mind. "Tahereh called today."
"Classes end next month. She's anxious to return home."
"It will be good to see her." Mahmoud picked his teeth with a fingernail, reaching for the stew pot.
"She still wants to marry the Jamshid boy."
"Oh, yes. I'm sure she does." He spooned more stew into his bowl.
"How is your own search for a spouse coming?"
Mahmoud continued filling his bowl. "I'm looking around. Several near-possibilities are out there."
"Maybe your gangster friends have available sons. Have you asked them?"
Wrestling the stew pot back to the center of the table, Mahmoud scrutinized her. "You're not finished yet, are you? You destroy 5,000 rials worth of my property, and still you want more. What is it? What do you want?"
"I want a husband for my daughter. I was just thinking that since you have such good connections in the black market, maybe that's what you should target. If you keep after these oil men, I'm worried that you'll continue getting brushed aside."
Mahmoud's eyes were so wide he might have just seen his own firing squad. "I don't understand. . . ."
"You've got to take what you can get. Tahereh would understand. She knows her father can't do everything. If you talked to her, I'm sure she'd accept a marriage with a gangster. Why not? At least she would have money."
"Enough!" Mahmoud closed his eyes and grabbed his ears. "Stop it! Shut up! You stupid woman, do you think husbands just fall from the clouds? It takes time. Give me a few months before you decide I'm worthless." He let go of his ears to drink down the rest of his wine. "I don't want just anyone."
"You want someone rich, who will make you feel like a big man. You could care less about Tahereh."
"Why don't you go put the tea on. I'm sick of this."
"You disrupt Tahereh's life because you can't admit that she doesn't depend on you. Meanwhile, the gangsters run your hotel—You can't even do that, run a stupid hotel."
During all of this, Mahmoud held his belly, wincing now and then. "Please stop. You're upsetting my stomach."
"I can't stand the sight of you."
"That's it." Breathing heavily, Mahmoud used his napkin to wipe the profuse sweat from his cheeks, throwing it down when he was done. "I can't eat here. You're impossible. I'll see you tomorrow morning. I have to work late tonight." He shot to his feet, giving the table a heavy, cacophonous bump, and headed for the door with a hand on his belly.
The next evening, the boy's father called—Jamari Jamshid, the father of the boy Tahereh wanted to marry. He wanted to know why Mahmoud refused to see his son. "The long silence is very strange," he said, his low, sonorous voice flowing sweetly, a voice like a diplomat's. "My son has asked me to make a formal request, to get this thing resolved one way or another. If there's a problem, he wants to know about it. He doesn't understand why your husband won't speak with him."
"Mahmoud thinks this idea of getting married might be a passing thing. He thinks Tahereh doesn't know what she wants."
"Then he must decide. Either she is ready or not. If not, my son must make other plans."
"Let's not rush to a decision. He will be persuaded in the end."
"Tell him I want to talk. I am going to demand an answer."
Mahmoud reluctantly agreed to have Jamari to dinner the next day. He came home ten minutes late, looking run-down and distracted. "Business around town," he said stiffly to the neatly dressed gentleman sipping tea in the living room. "Come, let's eat."
"I hope your business affairs have left you some time for reflection. My son very much wants your approval."
Fatemeh almost interrupted with a comment about Mahmoud's "business affairs" around town—little alcohol deals arranged mostly so that he could park his car outside some of the wealthier households and feel like a big man. That was what it was about, she had decided, getting around town, having a drink with this man and that man, feeling well-liked and important. But it was not her place to be making trouble just now. She served the meal.
"My son wants to meet you. He's sure that once you know him and how he feels for Tahereh, that you will want to see them married."
Jamari had changed the subject, moving away from the irrelevant hotel business her husband had been describing.
Mahmoud pinched at his bread with a troubled expression. "Assad sounds like a good man. An engineer, correct?"
"Yes. Not the top of his class, but he is doing well."
"He will make a good living someday."
"He's a young gentleman. He will make a very good impression on you."
"Unfortunately, Tahereh is not ready for marriage." Only slightly drunk, Mahmoud looked at Jamari with the steady, hooded eyes of a mullah. "She is very young and prone to rash decisions. We must wait for her blood to settle, and then she will decide."
"The situation does seem to have ignited suddenly. I've been worried about my own child's temperature. Perhaps we should consider a limited sigheh, so that they can first spend some time together."
Mahmoud gulped down a mouthful of food with a stricken expression, as though he were swallowing a whole potato. "What kind of people do you think we are?"
"I'm not saying—"
"I don't know how you do things in your family, but in my family the bride is pure on her wedding night."
"The arrangement doesn't have to involve sex."
"Tell me how you let two young people go off alone and stop them from having sex."
"I'm just trying to be flexible. What do you want?"
"He has a good idea," said Fatemeh from behind the black curtain of her headscarf, afraid Jamari's visit was about to completely unravel. "If we want to give the children more time to make up their minds—"
"Be quiet. I will hear no more about sigheh. Tahereh is not ready to be married. She needs to graduate first. That's the final word."
"She's going to grow up sooner or later," said Fatemeh.
"I said be quiet!"
Jamari did not stay for tea. He excused himself as soon as his plate was clean, leaving Fatemeh and Mahmoud to finish eating by themselves. A fragile silence endured while Fatemeh waited for her husband to speak, then she chose to break it. "Tahereh's best prospect for marriage just left. You do realize that."
Mahmoud was leaning back in his chair, his gut piled under his white button-down shirt like bottles in a plastic bag. He sipped his tea with long, forlorn slurps, eyes narrowed onto the sugar cube he held in his fingers. "She's just a girl," he said.
"She's a grown, educated woman."
Mahmoud lowered the tea. "A girl."
"How can a poor smuggler like you pass over an engineer like Assad?" Fatemeh removed her headscarf and laid it over a chair back.
"I don't have to listen to you." Mahmoud set down the tea, making no move to leave.
"You're just a dirty crook. You say Tahereh should be pure—how can she be pure with a father like you?"
"Be quiet. You make so much out of nothing."
"You get in the way of everyone's happiness. In the end, we'll both get arrested by the komiteh and shame the whole family."
Mahmoud stood up and started for the door.
Fatemeh stayed at the table. "Where is the big gangster going?"
"No more of that talk! I have work at the hotel."
"It's nine o'clock."
"I have things to do."
Mahmoud slammed the door on his way out, and it was then that Fatemeh realized how steadfast he was. Whether the drink had brought it on, or whether he had always intended to be this stubborn with his daughter, she did not know. But she had had enough. He could not go on hurting everyone just to please himself.
She called the hotel to verify that Gagik was staying there. Then she called a cab, which picked her up fifteen minutes later. Wrapped in a chador up to her eyeballs, she told the driver to take her to the Azadi.
Being Mahmoud's wife, she had no problem convincing the man at the desk to give her the number of the room her husband occupied—Gagik's room, she discovered—though the young man countered, rather timorously, that Mahmoud did not want to be disturbed. She also found it in her power to use the hotel's phone, with which she notified the komiteh that an alcohol party was happening at the Azadi. Hanging up the phone, she said, "Now give me the key to the room."
"I'm not allowed to do that, even for you."
"Do you want to get in the way of a komiteh operation? I can get you thirty lashes without a trial. Give me the key."
She held out a hand, clasping the chador over her face with the other. The young man was so befuddled that he handed over the key without further protest.
She let herself into the room.
Mahmoud and Gagik were playing dominoes at a table by the window. A strange man lay on the bed with an Egyptian woman, who wore a petal-blue minidress. In all, the scene was very subdued, rock music playing very softly from a cassette deck, bottles here and there, mostly empty, the couple falling asleep, Mahmoud and Gagik just playing dominoes. Still, this was what the manager of the Azadi did when he worked late?
Fatemeh walked straight through the room, impervious in her chador to the numberless little sins on all sides, and came to a halt before her husband. He could only gape at her. "You pollute the family," she said. "You can't continue this way."
He just shook his head.
"I had to turn you in. Sorry, Mahmoud."
At that moment, a rush of footfalls was heard in the hallway, then a squad of komiteh burst into the room. In no time, the three men and the woman were all handcuffed and pushed against a wall. Mahmoud, overweight, old, and tired, looked sorry and misplaced next to the younger people. He was weaker than they were. The komiteh would search his car, find maybe ten bottles of wine, and put him away as a smuggler. A smuggler. It was something she had called him a dozen times but which did not seem to fit at all right now. He and his friends were such a pitiful little group of gangsters that she could only feel sorry for them. She could not stop thinking that their real crime was loneliness, loneliness and blind foolishness. Yet they had broken the law. They would have to face up to that. Mahmoud especially. He was too old to be playing around like this.
She gazed out the window at Evin Prison while her husband was led away, aware that he would soon disappear behind those dark, hill-hugging walls, the site of so many tortures and executions. He was lost to her now. They would do what they wished with him.
Khadija found her still gazing at the prison several minutes later. She touched Fatemeh on the shoulder. "How do you feel?"
Fatemeh could not even summon the willpower to shrug her shoulders.
Khadija moved to the edge of the window and looked outside. "You have made an incredible sacrifice. For the Republic. For Allah."
"He's probably there already. He's gone. I can't get used to the idea that he won't be coming back."
"You'll be fine. Do you have a son?"
Perplexed by the sudden question, Fatemeh turned, wondering what Khadija wanted with her children. "I do," she said.
"Then he will take care of you. And if he can't, then the Republic will take care of you. It's your right as a woman."