It is dawning on me in a deeper way that I am not safe here. My husband cannot keep me safe. He comes from a place I do not understand, cannot know. It is becoming clear there is a part of me that is “on my own”—-separate from a husband I thought I knew, could understand. I thought we are alike more than different. The opposite seems true. I spend more and more time in our rooms “resting” just to be away from this foreignness.


When I’m alone I have more time to think, so that’s what I do. Think and think and think! I am beginning to feel betrayed by my husband. He might have gotten arrested no matter what, since his name was already on a list, but Savak likely wouldn’t have kept him as long as they did had he not brought anti-Shaw literature in our luggage. He was naive and wouldn’t listen to me prior to flying. I tried to convince him it could be risky. He brushed it off. Angry? I am free to feel angry now. At him! A kind of fury is seeping inside me, like water looking for a low spot that keeps dribbling into an ever deeper pool.

I am not trusting my husband’s judgment on all kinds of things. He himself is suspect to me now. It is not a question of love. I sure still love him, desperately even, but a new reality is feeding an expansion of my own will, a sort of separation, part of a couple yet not a couple, like a limb tearing. Oddly, I can be in the same room with him yet feel like he’s very far away, an unknown commodity. Or is it me? I’m very far away. Marooned. 


My husband has gotten ill. Dysentery. His dad sends for a doctor who comes to the house. He is very dehydrated so the doctor orders an IV. Remarkably, my husband remains in the living room, on the floor like everyone else with tubing in his arm to pump fluid into it. He seems to be recovering before our very eyes. One of his brothers has also gotten sick. Probably something eaten from a vendor on the street. No wonder! He recovers quickly though with only rest. My husband takes longer to get well but it still doesn’t take a long time. Quicker than when I was at my most extreme from the food.

After a few days, my husband is recovered now from whatever made him ill. His dad decides we should get married by a Moslem priest, so our union can be blessed, legitimate. I begin to see all of his family more and more foreign. I am so very far away from them culturally. A moslem wedding I know nothing about, do not understand? I don’t really want to do this wedding business but part of me thinks “what the heck, I won’t know a word of it anyway.” 


The priest comes the next evening. We all sit on the floor like this is an ordinary activity but the mood is different. Everyone has a serious look on their face except one of my husband’s brothers. He sits removed and behind the priest a bit. He starts making funny faces at me, mimicking the priest but in an exaggerated way. It’s all I can do to not burst out laughing! Even though I can’t take this event seriously, it would be scandalous and rude to laugh. Oh God, won’t this ever end? At least all I have to do is act chaste, serious myself. How hard is that?

The following day we pack for the trip back to Tehran and home. My home! I can’t wait to get out of this country! I have never in my life felt so insignificant and small, as if something too long in a dryer has shrunk to half its original size from too much heat! At least it won’t take as long to get back to the capital since we will fly instead of taking the train. While the slower journey through the countryside was interesting, it took much longer. At least there’s speed with a plane.


Once at the Ahvaz airport it is hot, incredibly hot. Like Mehrabad Airport, most of the terminal is open-aired. We finally front up from the tediously long line to go through security. My father-in-law has bought us first class tickets so there’s a small mercy to look forward to since I’ve never had the pleasure of my anticipated comfort. 

We finally arrive at the endpoint for a final check before boarding. There are separate queues for men and women, which strikes me as odd. It becomes clear why, however, once I become first in line. The female officer frisks the woman in front of me, patting her down. Next, me! She goes through the same procedure from my neck, shoulders, breasts, waist-front and back, groin area and thighs. I don’t feel violated as much as I feel like a presumed suspect of sorts. It is chilling. Vulnerability writ large.

August 1977

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.

After the car accident, we hitch a ride with a kind stranger. By the time we get back to Karaj it’s dusk. There is a palpable sense of relief for all of us, quickly followed by an onset of diarrhea for both myself and the bride. Nerves, contaminated food or dirty plates, who knows the cause. Regardless, the one bathroom in Nasser’s house is getting quite the workout!

Heading to Gas and Oil 

Several days of recuperation pass and Habib makes plans for us to head to his hometown of Ahvaz by train. His English-speaking cousin will go with us which is a comfort. The train is a semi-modern affair and we have our own little compartment, though we’re still free to move around to other carriages. After putting Tehran’s smog and density behind us we are in the countryside, at first rocky and then a bit hilly, though not for long. 

It doesn’t take much for us to level off to arid patches of ground speckled with shrubs and brush, along with occasional clusters of trees. There’s a stream that runs along meandering for a time too until the geography slowly becomes much more arid and dry. Small villages begin to pop up. I’m struck with the stark simplicity of houses, adobe-like, appearing to have no glass in their windows. They look poorer and poorer as we continue south.


At some point we lumber into Ahvaz train station and are met by one of  Habib’s brothers. It is 130 degrees when we crawl out of the train car! Once at his house, we are smothered in hugs and cheek kisses. I feel overwhelmed. The family home is so different from anything I’ve seen so far. It is a large two story affair with a huge courtyard in the middle. Someone else lives on the first floor but there are still many rooms that Habib’s family occupies. One of his brothers, wife and small son have a suite of rooms besides Habib’s parents. The household has a live-in maid.

Once the initial arrival hoopla has died down, we settle in our room on the other side of the house. We have to go outside on a covered walkway that hugs all four sides of the house to get to our room. At some point, I feel an overwhelming need for peace and quiet, a respite from the family crowd. It seems no one is allowed to be introverted in this culture! I tell my husband I need to rest—which seems to irritate him—but I leave and go to our bedroom. Ahhh, sweet quiet. It almost feels alien in this culture, having time alone. 

A Slow Unraveling 

The silence is monastic yet almost alarming in the contrast of previously constant overstimulation of people all talking at once. The smells in and outside the bedroom are an odd mixture of spice, mustiness and days old sweat. The floor level squat toilet is adjacent. Still, I crash onto the bed and instantly fall asleep. 

I wake sometime later and go back through the indoor/outdoor hallway to the living room. It’s as if I never left it with four or five people, including Habib, all talking at once—still! How do they know what’s being said? Or by whom? The noise of it all is staggering and I’m instantly overstimulated by these crows squawking once again. Couldn’t they take turns? Regardless, I resign myself to the cacophony of it all, lowering myself onto a cushion on the floor.

A Symphony of Noise

It’s strange, really, how different cultures are in style and tone. There is a settee and chair or two along the walls but no one sits on them. Instead, they plop down on cushions on the floor as if parking a car and remain there. All of the human energy and noise rises up from it, relentlessly. 

Most of the attention is on Habib of course, which is natural given what has happened and how long it’s been since they’ve all seen one another. I sit; I watch. At some point Habib’s cousin whom we traveled with comes and sits beside me, sensing my separateness. She translates parts of others’ conversation before changing the subject onto other things. I’m relieved to be apart even though I’m beginning to feel like an outsider—truly, a stranger in a strange land, straddling the world. 

Bizarrely, we are on our way to the Caspian Sea with Habib’s brother and his new bride. It seems the family felt so badly after my initiation into Iranian life with my husband doing time in Evin Prison, that they show me some beauty after the ugly visit’s beginnings.


Habib and I are in the backseat, perpetually clutching one another, with Nasser and his bride up front, driving and navigating. As we begin to climb through the foothills of the Alborz Mountains, for the first time in the last six weeks, I begin to really see and appreciate the beauty of the terrain. It slowly becomes wooded, picturesque and quiet, without the cacophony of the smog shrouded capital of Tehran.

We make a brief stop at a park along the way and I begin to feel more of my guts unwinding. A few hours later we’re at a posh resort at the outskirts of Ramsar, nestled a short distance overlooking the Caspian Sea. Once settled in the suite of rooms, Habib and I room around the hotel a bit, giving the bride and groom their privacy. I begin to hear more English speakers, see paler complexions and soon realize this is a haven for American and European expats. It would almost feel incongruous if it wasn’t for the fact that I’ve been starved for my own tribe! 

Habib and I walk down to the sea, the beach being calming in its way though surprisingly dirty, the soil a bit dank smelling. It startles me to contemplate that on the opposite shore is Russia. The whole scene feels more foreign than anything I’ve experienced so far, which says a lot about my altering perception of the world at large. How can it be that things become stranger in this place after all that has happened.


We’ve been at the resort for a few days now and Nasser has decided we’ll try a local cafe away from the hotel. It’s a small place but feels so authentically off-the-beaten-path Persian. There’s a bit of grime in spots along the walls, incongruous against the incredible fragrance of spices and heat. Once we’re settled at the table, I straighten my plate and mismatched utensils. I notice a smudge of what appears to be partially dried egg yolk on the plate. I hand it to Habib and ask him to tell the waiter I need a new one, that this one is dirty. He takes it, telling me it’s not that bad, wipes it with a napkin and gives me his instead. A small shaming but shaming nonetheless. I’m beginning to see my husband through different eyes these days.

After about a week of what feels to be a strange experience, a combination of relaxation and quiet mixed with an odd separateness in the presence of my own husband, we get ready for the trip back to Karaj. The drive back through the mountains is initially uneventful as I watch the beauty of the terrain wiz past us. We’re coming down the other side of the mountain and stop at the same park we briefly visited on our way to Ramsar. After a time, we get back into the car and pull up to the park’s exit. Waiting for traffic to clear, Nasser sits at the highway’s edge, and looks both ways. I assume he sees the car on the left attempting to pass another car that I also see. But, Nasser doesn’t see it. He pulls out and we are broadsided, spinning us to a sideways stop.


It all happens fast. I realize in a split second had I said something to Nasser about that passing car it likely could have been avoided. Besides the relief of none of us getting seriously hurt other than bumped around a bit, it dawns on me yet again the price of female passivity in a culture that “waits and does not challenge” males. And besides this dawning, holding back my own much more assertive nature, the increasing chasm between myself and Habib continues to grow yet again. How will we ever survive the place? (And what has happened to my husband?)

And not just “we” but “I” — how will I ever survive here? The slow seepage of ever growing suppression of myself is becoming scary for me. It’s an insidious thing, contemplating the diminishment of the self. It creates an actual emotional distance between Habib and I, one he’s clearly unaware of. And how could he be? He’s swallowed up by his own upbringing culturally. As I think this thought I wonder what our future holds, here or anywhere else for that matter. Yes, I am “on my own” and my heart is broken in a new and unfathomable way. And while I am bereft at the thought, I also sense an internal steerage slowly coming into view. A part of me must rely on an unnamed emotional and psychological survival mechanism.

I’m thinking we can enjoy the rest of the visit in Iran, now that Habib is out of jail. Nasser’s wedding has been rescheduled and the family is happy. I feel more relief than joy though I do allow myself to fill intermittent cracks with happy feelings. Still, I’m guarded. Still, I’m nervous though it is definitely ratcheted down.

Just before the big wedding event, a whole lot of relatives have descended to Nasser’s house. Everyone is happy, excited. Why am I not affected by this; why do I not share the same feelings of joy? All I can think of is why can’t everyone just leave? Why oh why am I not allowed to recover, just Habib and I, from the most traumatic event in each of our lives?


Instead, the jailbird time has been all but forgotten, a “well, glad that’s over with” moving on sort of thing that makes no sense as if it was as ordinary as eating breakfast or crossing the street. I am to discover much later the dictatorial acceptance, even if hated, is weirdly accepted. Maybe that’s the only way they can survive emotionally, psychologically, preserving a necessary denial of costs to their personal dignities.

Anyway, I continue observing the very noisy, almost raucous flock-of-squawking-crows comprised of friends and neighbors in Nasser’s living room with Habib at my side. There’s a strange energy that shifts to the women in the room as several of them lead the bride-to-be down the hall, twittering, presumably to the master bedroom. Bizarrely, even in the absence of four or five of them temporarily gone, the living room is no quieter! It’s as if, there is a noise ordinance level that must be maintained.

I ask Habib what the bride-to-be and the small matronly flock is doing since there seemed to be a secretive formality about it. He’s vague, dismissive even. Later I learn the journey to the bedroom is to establish the bride-to-be must prove her virginity on the wedding night, from an examination of the sheets! The old world quality of this feels both quaint and repulsive.


It’s “the big day.” The wedding is this evening and I’m looking forward to a party, though in a way, it feels anti-climactic and odd that there’s been so much gathering of friends and relatives prior to the big event. Still, this is to be in a ballroom. There’s supposed to be a brief marriage ceremony as well but the happy couple has already done the legal part.

It’s late afternoon near dusk when Habib and I arrive for the big event. The place is impressive—a large, open dance floor with a live band and stage of some sort. There are already guests here but it is to swell even larger in terms of what is to become a near raucous enormous crowd. It already feels celebratory to me though odd in a way, given what has transpired the first month in Iran! 


I’m dressed in a long crème colored gown and, if I do say so myself, look svelte! Habib is in a suit, handsome, and sports a happy face as if just 10 days ago he’d never been in jail! Even for me the juxtaposition of what was and what is currently seems jarring. I haven’t even begun to come down sufficiently from the ratcheted higher level of anxiety that still lurks underneath as some sort of substrate.

The ballroom is quickly filling with more and more guests and they seem to move like a noisy school of fish. As if on cue, they separate like Moses’ Red Sea suddenly, just enough to allow the bride and groom to enter the middle of the room. The couple glows.

In a rush, the swarm surrounds them, hugging and kissing cheeks with congratulations and well wishes. I remain off to the side, in the background really. While I have definitely gotten caught up in the overall mood, my reluctance to fully embrace all the joy as if nothing has happened in my or Habib’s personal life feels contradictory somehow. Oddly, Habib’s response is with the throng, as if nothing has happened. Has he already blocked out a month of solitary confinement? Is this strange disconnect how they all survive here?


What appears to be toasts, congratulations by a speaker, music by the band follows, and, shock of shocks to me, a belly dancer starts her gyrations. I continue to smoke, lost in the small sea of humanity, alien in every sense of the word. In a surprising turn however, our friends  Kathy and Ali suddenly appear, having just arrived from a car journey through Turkey from Europe. They are here to stay, setting up a new home after Ali’s recent training for the Iranian navy. Their presence makes me feel grounded again, at last a more meaningful lifeline.

In a dark turn, I see an older gentleman standing aloof, talking to no one. He surveys the crowd like a bird on a perch, removed, above it all. Watching him for a bit, I turn to Habib and ask him if he knows that man; is he a friend of his side of the family or the bride’s. “No”, he says. He’s SAVAK—-the Shah’s secret police. A chill runs through me. We are being watched!

I hang on to my emotions and, I guess, my sanity by a very fine thread. Days, weeks at this point have gone by after Habib was arrested, after the books’ removal, after meeting the innocuous former Savak detainee held for three years. Still no Habib! The energy around the whole thing, whatever all that thing is, has settled to a dank fetid pool surrounding my psyche. Even Nasser seems a bit resigned when he’s home, although it seems he comes back from Tehran less frequently.

And after asking numerous times if I could visit Habib when Nasser is home, I have given up, despondent about any realistic chance of it occurring. Of course not! It seems hope is a funny thing, mercurial in nature. At times it surfaces with the potency of a rich promise: things will change, a corner will be turned. And then, poof. It is gone, evaporated. The very thing that feels like a lifeline, frays bit by bit until all threads have exhausted themselves, even those holding me together.

A consequence of more resignation and despondency, I continue to lose weight. Nasser becomes concerned I guess, and takes me to a doctor. The first guy I see speaks no English and my Farsi is too limited so Nasser translates my symptoms: extreme fatigue, nausea and weight loss. The doctor tells him I’m probably pregnant. But I’m on The Pill? I know it’s not that. This guy is useless!


Sometime later when over at Soriah and Mohammed’s their ex-con doctor friend is there again visiting with his wife. I ask Soriah to translate my ongoing symptoms of nausea and chronic diarrhea to the guy. He ends up saying it’s probably dysentery due to bacterial levels in foods they’re systems are used to but mine is not. He prescribes some sort of pills and kaopectate paregoric, a potent anti-diarrheal. As it turns out, this cocktail of sorts slows the symptoms down dramatically though there is still some frequency.

As the days drift by, I become increasingly more anxious and continue smoking up a storm! How I have not had a heart attack is beyond me! I’m 25! I think of Habib. I try to block out of my mind how Savak might be torturing him. The ex-prisoner friend had been periodically tortured, Soriah tells me. He had been jailed for three years and I try to imagine Habib surviving something similar, either in abuse or length of time, and can’t. Then of course I try to speculate how long I can wait. For what, you say? I can’t think!


I walk. I smoke. I walk. I smoke. Perpetually for both, like a pendulum moving equally back and forth. Sometimes I just sit and stare out the living room window. Then, I rise and walk into each bedroom, the small kitchen, eventually ending up squatting over the floor level “toilet”, relieving myself. Will I ever stop having such frequency? Will my bowels ever calm down and be regular? The paregoric has helped a lot though not completely eliminating the problem. More resignation.

Occasionally, I let myself imagine living in Iran. Perpetually, indefinitely, world without end, Amen. How I’m surviving on yogurt, rice, occasionally some boiled chicken or eggs and cigarettes is beyond me. Oh, and the bread. Sort of a not-completely-flat bread, pita style but far more flavorful, specially fresh. There is a shed within walking distance not far outside this little compound community that sells it baked early in the morning. It’s warm when I get it. Sweet salvation, I start eating some even on the walk back to the house.


It’s been weeks since Habib was arrested and Nasser has argued against me trying to visit him in prison. He says it’s delicate now as Habib is to have a “trial” soon and we should not press things. I know he’s not telling me all that’s going on behind the scenes but this information is more than I get out of him most days when he returns. He even suggests he take me back into Tehran to stay at his aunt’s house for part distraction and/or if the situation shifts.

I fantasize once again about calling home—my parents, anyone—to tell them what’s going on but I know I can’t since the phones are tapped. Am I getting paranoid? It’s several years later before I read an article using the term “justifiable paranoia” in Psychology Today. I think I’ve got it whether I knew of the term at the time or not! This whole society is paranoid, as well they should be. The life-death risk that is ever present is its own fetid ecosystem and saturates the cells of a body and soul.

I take Nasser up on his offer for me to stay at his aunt’s house in Tehran for a while. At least I’ll have a change of scenery. And one of the cousins there speaks English, quite well in fact. When we’ve met before she tells me of the literature she’s reading in English, citing Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee as one that particularly impacts her. It seems strange to have this discussion of US history from a Middle Eastern perspective. Plus, the irony of that book in the current moment of my own experience is bizarre, uncanny!


We arrive at Nasser and Habib’s aunt’s in Tehran, a lovely little house with lots of light, bathing the front yard with shards of it reflecting off the small pool in the front. It seems strange for a swimming pool to be in this place on the property, yet it’s lovely nonetheless. As we walk in the front door, the aunt greets us all cheery in demeanor as if for a party. The justaposition of this mood and the massively mounting tension I feel in my gut makes me jumpy, as if spooked.

After we get settled a bit with tea and cheese and fruits, the phone rings. It’s for Nasser and ends up as a brief call. After hanging up the receiver, Nasser spits out something in a rush to his aunt, then turning to me, says it was an agent who told him he could go pick up Habib! Huh?? Where? When? Now? Can I come with you? “No,” he tells me, and rushes out the door leaving heightened and frenzied hope in his wake like a motor boat.

I can’t sit still so I smoke, my pacifier of record for what has seemed like a neverending event although could it be possible… that it will end? I pace then sit, then stand and pace a bit more. But mostly I just sit in perpetual angst! Waiting—I’ve never been good at waiting. I’m sure I have been born with a massive need to manage and control situations in part so I could get to the end of them. A perverse sense of accomplishment either real or imagined!

Nasser has been gone for a while now and the longer I wait, the more anxious I get. Until, all of a sudden, Nasser bursts through the door with Habib behind him. It feels surreal that after a month of not knowing anything, whalah, here is my husband. A different kind of disbelief and shock!

We embrace, hug, clutch, cry, shake. Habib has a tremor even after we pull away from one another. In a rush, aunt, uncle, cousins, me, all talk at once, asking how he is, do you want food, here, sit down ad infinitum. My husband, my Habib looks overwhelmed, still trembling subtle though it is. There’s a strange look in his eyes—a combination of relief and ongoing shock. I can tell he’s struggling to “re-enter” what had previously been normal but now seems foreign to him.


Questions, food, drink until we eventually leave Habib’s aunt’s house and Nasser drives us to Karaj and his home. It’s odd how I don’t remember where we sat in the car? Were we in the back seat? Was Habib in front with Nasser and I in back? My mind seems to want to clear away a foggy image to instead bring it into focus with us in the back seat together but I truly cannot reclaim the reality. 

It remains hazy. Instead, what comes into focus in my mind’s eye is the overwhelming feeling of entering Iran for real this time. The airport scene now seems only a precursor of a wider barely suppressed ironfisted culture that does not blink during repressive acts. It stands clear-eyed ready to use any tool available be it imprisonment, torture or death to maintain control of its population. The smiles employed are merely tools of misdirection. Iran, I am to learn, is a culture filled with not just contradictions but hidden underneath, lurks a menacing energy where the unspoken message is one of repression and brutal control.


Why did I not see this nature before coming to Iran? Why was I unable to see the bifurcation that permeated the culture, not just their political institutions? When I think back on the argument Habib and I had in DC before traveling, that he thought he could get past SAVAK’s scrutiny with his anti-Shah literature, I see now how naive we both were: I, from a wholly different social and political system of democracy, and he from a belief he could use the tools of subterfuge in an autocracy that is far better at deception than he could dream to be.

I know now I cannot live here. I do not know if he can. But for the first time in our one and a half year marriage, I feel a shadow over us, a tall one, an inescapable one. What’s more, I sense a separateness from him even though he sits in the car with me, regardless of placement, regardless of clutching, regardless of wanting to make it different than it apparently seems to be. And for the first time in 28 days, a shudder from a very different kind of chill runs through me, as if I know deep down there’s more to come!

1977 Tehran, IRAN—As far away from my world, further than the 10,000 miles suggest. The first 48 hours after Habib is arrested I’m still in a sort of shock-yet-arrogantly-pissed-off state. It becomes clearer however, that there’s little I can do to impact the situation. I am a stranger in a strange land after all. 


Nasser makes clear to me that I will not be allowed to visit my husband. As it turns out, neither can he. Savak, the Shah’s secret police, hold all the cards. After a couple days, I go to Nasser’s house in Karaj, a suburb about 30 miles from Tehran. His house is in a small but newer housing development on the edge of town. Oddly, he and I both maintain a peaceful coexistence which has not always been the case in our relationship. Back before Habib and I were married, Nasser’s disdain for me was obvious. However thin the thread, it is just as obvious now that we both share a strange kinship in tragedy.

As the days drift by like so much dead wood in a fetid river, Nasser is kind to me. He introduces me to Mohammed and Soriah, two doors down from his house in Karaj. They both speak English, which is a godsend, Mohammed having been in the US while he completed a PhD in economics. An added benefit is that he is funny, energetic and engaging, Soriah, warm, compassionate and sympathetic. 

I wander down to my new friends’ place most days while Nasser has gone into Tehran to his engineering firm, and to push for Habib’s release. Sometimes my new friends feed me but I have noticed no matter what I eat, I’m starting to get the runs! I deal with this and my overall stress load by smoking up a storm! If I’d had a pacifier I would have used that too!


After I-don’t-know-how-much-time, my diarrhea becomes chronic and I’m losing a lot of weight. Nasser takes me to a doctor who diagnoses me as pregnant. Impossible! I’m on the pill!! After ten days or so, it’s also clear Habib may be held longer than I’d ever believed possible. I read every book in English I can scrounge in Nasser’s house, as well as a few I brought myself. All this between walks alone in the little housing community and visits to Mohammed and Soriah’s. Still, I grow increasingly more nervous, frightened, and am filled with a sense of dread. 

Some nights Nasser stays in Tehran while I grow lonelier and more isolated. At some point, he takes me to Tehran to stay with his aunt and her family for a few days. One of her daughters is attending university, an English literature major, at last a verbal lifeline and connection! We talk about the book Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. What a strange story to bind over. 

I press both Nasser and his aunt’s family to at least let me call my family back in Michigan. They have no idea what’s happening. Emphatically, No! The phones are bugged—it’s impossible to call as Savak will likely be listening, making it riskier for Habib. These Iranian relatives try to distract me, cheer me up, and while small snippets of time I feel some relief, it never lasts long. 


Nasser sends for his dad and I meet my father-in-law, Aziz, for the first time. He knows no English and my limited Farsi offers only a small link for communication. A short, slightly portly man, Aziz has a generally happy face, cheerful even, given the circumstances. But our greatest link is obvious, a grim potent fear we could lose a young man we both love. The weight of this lies just beneath our individual and collective interaction like quicksand lurking just below.

Aziz takes me to a large bazaar one day and buys me all sorts of things—a dress, gold jewelry, and other trinkets. This kind of shopping is new to me. Not only is the bazaar’s narrow lane lined with shops on both sides, it is filled with lots of booths, creating a carnival feel. Owners hawk their wares to draw in customers. It’s loud and boisterous with everyone talking at once, indicative of the Iranian culture. Once these hawkers smell a live prospect, they ratchet up the volume and start haggling. I find it intriguing but alien. Their energy is unnerving for me, aggressive even, yet I find the whole environment fascinating and oddly for a time, I forget about Habib.

The smells in this place are intoxicating, filled with foreign spices and sweat in the 110 degree heat, fragrant and pungent. We stop at one stall and Aziz buys me pistachios, which I love. If ever Iran was to claim a National nut it would be pistachios. There are empty shells all over the paved walkways for foot traffic. We open the nuts and donate more to the ground beneath.


It’s been more than two weeks since Habib’s arrest and I’m becoming more scared by the day. I deal with the fear and stress by smoking, perpetually smoking. My dysentery increases. One day while I’m down at Mohammed and Soriah’s they have visitors, a couple, who have come for lunch. I’m off by myself after we eat, on the other side of the room, observing. They speak in Farsi and I understand very little, they speak so fast. I might as well be on the other side of the planet which, quite frankly, I wish I was!

After they leave, Soriah comes over and we talk. She tells me the husband has given me a prescription for my dysentery. Evidently he used to be a doctor but can still write prescriptions. I ask her why he’s not practicing medicine anymore and she tells me he lost his license after being arrested by Savak and held in prison for three years. 


She tells me he had been tortured repeatedly. One way they tortured him was to hang weights from his testicals for extended periods of time, leaving him unable to have children. I am horrified, knowing Habib could also be tortured and maybe in this way too. I think my heart stopped for a whole minute at this thought, shocked as if I’d been hit with a high voltage cattle prod. 

This whole episode is a turning point for me. While I want Habib back, I am shocked to think I want to get out of Iran more than anything—with or without him. I would be ashamed of this if I didn’t also know I was hanging on by the thinnest of psychological threads. A new sense of awareness dawns on me, one so pervasive not just because of a heightened terror but also because for the first time I realize not only could I leave Habib behind but also because I realize I’m as imprisoned as he is, just in a different way. I do not yet know I can’t get out of this country by myself just yet!

Of course I can only process this feeling of emotional betrayal alone, filled with shame yet loaded with an innate sense of self preservation. I tell myself it’s natural, warranted, to be expected. It’s the way of the animal kingdom, to survive. Yet in all my naïveté I feel the tonnage of guilt. I wish I could talk to my friend, Carol. She and I process everything with all the psychological effects of the neurotic which we both acknowledge that we are. But of course I can talk to no one about this—not one single soul! My fear mounts, could I go insane here? 


Back in Nasser’s lonely house I’m glad he’s not there a lot. Gives me time to just be ‘me’ — the me I recognize still tethered to some sense of my American-ness. I can wring my hands and smoke more without the disapproving presence of Habib’s oldest brother. Nasser and I had always had a tenuous relationship at best while he was in America. It had become much more accepting since Habib’s arrest, much more. Far from warm, it was closer, respectful in a way, and more compassionate on both of our parts. Even so, his demeanor was still more guarded and reserved than is typical in the average American male. While it felt respectful of me now, more open, his attitude was still paternalistic in nature, unequal. Regardless, I am grateful for the improvement.

I continue my walks around the little housing community alone, imagine living here and can’t wrap my head around it. How naive I have been! My visits at Soriah and Mohammed’s house also continue. What would I do without them? The medicine helps my dysentery a lot though I still have some runny stool, just not as often, not as extreme. At least I don’t have to squat on the floor level toilets as often, which is a relief in and of itself.


Nasser has been gone for a few days in a row but all of a sudden, he and Mohammed burst through the door, anxious and rushed, bringing with them a weather front of fear. “What’s going on?” I ask. “We have to get rid of all the books,” they spit out, staccato fashion. They race from one room to another collecting books and bagging them. Their combined fear escalated, infecting me too, implying they are at risk with Savak, and maybe I am as well! Oh my, a new level of terror has infected me! 

After gathering every book they can find that might be remotely perceived as anti-Shah, they leave. Again, I’m alone, again to imagine something worse than what has already occurred. How much more can I take? I do not know. I only know the tension tightly wound inside of body and soul is ratcheted up yet again. What is my breaking point?