The heat in Ahvaz is getting to me so my husband’s cousin decides to take me to a Public Bath. It is just for women and though feeling warm and a bit sticky, it is still refreshing. I might even smell the hint of chlorine which is a great alternative to the dank smell of human sweat in this ungodly heat.
When we enter, they give us towels for the pools of water we sit in. After a time, we make our way to the showers and it’s odd how some of the women still have some underclothes on. The incongruous picture in my mind of the belly dancer, barely dressed and gyrating at Nasser’s wedding and these women’s modesty feels sort of ridiculous to me.
After our time away from maleness, after sitting in shallow pools and showering, and after yet another stark contrast from the world I come from, we clean up, dry off and walk back to the house. Once there, I scoot into the rooms my husband and I share and crash on the bed. Waking later, I reluctantly go back to the frigid living room with the air conditioning set at sub zero temperatures. I’m aware of accumulating an internal shrinkage of my very own self, voiceless and small, without power or influence in a world I do not know.
The next day we go to a club on the edge of town. It seems to be a social club with maybe some sports activities but it is unclear what they might be. We sit on a veranda, looking off to an endless horizon, sand and yet more sand as far as the eye can see. In the distance is what looks like a mile high flame. I ask my husband what it is. A burn-off from gas or oil, he’s not sure which, but says it’s common in the oil fields of Iran. Nothing in this place—or the entire country for that matter—is familiar to me, nothing, and for the first time I begin to feel more and more desperate to go home, to things I know.
A Hundred Thirty Degrees
In contrast, next we walk along the streets of Ahvaz. It is dusty, hot, perpetually hot! People everywhere, like all cities but noisier, I swear. It seems there are more pedestrians than cars. There are a lot of open window shops, no glass. I tell my husband I’m thirsty and he guides me into one of them and asks if they have water. Out someone comes with a glass full, grimy and sticky. While horrified, I’m so thirsty I drink it down anyway and pray I don’t get dysentery!
We make our way outside again, hitting the dusty streets. Perpetually people ad infinitum! We walk by an open-air meat market. Glassless windows reveal hanging slabs of meat. They appear to be legs of lamb. Horrified yet again, flies roam around their exposed flesh like vultures, with attendants occasionally swatting them off.
The troubling part about all this unfamiliarity is the aura of potential danger the entire atmosphere poses. How do people survive here? I seem to be more and more afraid in this environment. It’s not just even after what has happened with my husband’s jailing; it’s more than that. It’s the foreignness, the unpredictability, potential danger lurking everywhere. That, and the sense that all surface activity and function is camouflage for the real Iran underneath, for things more nefarious. At times I’m not even sure I can count on my own husband. Questions I ask him float into dismissals by him, in camouflage style behavior. Am I becoming paranoid? And who would blame me?!
Back in our bedroom after the events of the day I’m alone again, consumed with fear. It envelops my mind, my skin, the walls. It feels like they’re closing in! Is it hard to breathe? Yes, I do believe it is. And yet, more than anything I am acutely aware I cannot “lose it” here. There is no one, no one—not even my husband— who can save me from this culture, this madness. After all, it is the world he comes from, his normal, the world that locked him up. Bizarrely, it is predictable in its unpredictability to him, one he understands and accepts. Me? I know nothing of such things and it is clear that as an American and as a woman, I am adrift without a liferaft or even a life jacket. In Tehran there seemed to be more resources, access. Here? Only my husband and his family. Foreign, all! I am so very alone.