The Secret Letters from X to A

Chapter 1

A family visit, Tehran, 2002


One evening in June, Faraz was watering the garden, when he heard the doorbell ring. His father called out, ‘I’ll get it.’ Faraz’s girlfriend Nasim, who was sitting reading, jumped up and went into the hall to peer through the window. On seeing who it was, she immediately ran upstairs. Faraz’s uncle Rohulah strode in like an intruder, though perhaps he realised that if he had called first some of his brother’s family would have stayed in their rooms, pretending not to be at home.

It was more than a year since Faraz had seen his uncle; he wasn’t happy to see him. Every time they met, Faraz discovered something new about Uncle Rohulah that he didn’t like. Now Rohulah seemed to take up all the space, making it difficult to breathe. Faraz even felt the scent of jasmine sucked out of the air.

‘Faraz, I have a job for you, the money is good.’

They sat on the carpet on the verandah floor where Ana, Faraz’s mother, was painting a small watercolour. She quickly put it behind the wooden pillar, so Rohulah couldn’t see it.

After greeting her brother-in-law and asking about his wife and children, Ana poured tea from the samovar. There were all kinds of fresh fruit in a large engraved copper tray, as well as dates and pastries.

‘Have some of the cake. It’s from yesterday, Faraz’s twenty-seventh birthday.’

‘Inshalah, we will one day be eating your wedding cake,’ said Rohulah to Faraz.

Faraz did not respond. As ever, Uncle Rohulah reminded him of the night he learnt about his cousin Forood’s death. He had been just seven years old when, late one evening, he was woken by the sound of missile defence and overheard his parents whispering.

Now, looking at his uncle, Faraz wondered what kind of human being he was and how strange that Forood could have been so different. How close the two families had been up to Forood’s arrest, when after his death they never saw each other. Nima and Rohulah, his father and uncle, were estranged. Normally once a year his uncle came to see them, but Nima didn’t visit Rohulah’s family at all. Sometimes they met at a wedding or funeral but greeted each other as strangers.

Until he grew up, Faraz always thought it was only teachers who treated children and women as equal to men. Although his father was a teacher, it was his love of Forood that had influenced Faraz to become a teacher, too. His older cousin had been his role model, his hero.

Faraz’s mind jolted back to the present. His uncle and father were talking about the job offer and Nima was speaking through gritted teeth, ‘Which interrogation centre is it?’

‘The Joint Committee. We want to transform it into a museum.’

‘What kind of museum?’ asked Nima.

‘Prison museum. They have one in London. The supreme leader and many of the ministers spent some time in this interrogation centre during the Shah’s reign. We’re going to show how the monarchy tortured prisoners.’

‘What about its use for the last twenty years? Are you going to show that as well?’ Nima enquired.

Rohulah avoided his gaze. He stared at the fountain pouring water endlessly back into the little pool. Faraz felt the tension in the air. He could hardly believe this was why his uncle had come.

‘Well, we didn’t use it as much as they did.’

Although his father was angry Faraz was intrigued by the thought of getting inside the interrogation centre. He assumed that the only way to go in was as a prisoner or  interrogator, or as someone else who worked there, like his uncle Rohulah. Faraz’s heart beat faster as he remembered an ex-prisoner describing to him how they used to communicate with each other. He had laughed as he told Faraz that some of his letters were still there, because they had all been transferred without warning and his friend couldn’t take them.

Faraz watched his uncle Rohulah dip a cube of sugar into his tea and put it in his mouth; he slurped noisily from the cup.

‘What do you say? Would you like to work there during the summer?’ asked Rohulah, biting into a baklava. ‘It’s very good money.’

‘Why are you asking us?’ Nima demanded, trying to control his anger.

‘I have to recruit trustworthy people. I only trust my family.’

Faraz thought how ironic that his uncle, who didn’t trust his son, was talking about his trust in his family!

‘I’m sorry. I’m too old for such excitement,’ Faraz’s father said.

‘What about you, Faraz?’

Although he was sorry for hurting his parents by accepting the job, Faraz didn’t hesitate. The chance to get into that terrible place and see where Forood had been held, to understand something of what had happened to him, was too important to miss. ‘Yes, okay then,’ he said. ‘When does the work start?’ He was grateful his parents weren’t going to humiliate him by challenging his decision in front of his uncle.

‘Next week. Can you be at the front door next Saturday morning at eight?’

‘Yes, I’ll be there.’ Faraz saw the gleam of triumph in his uncle’s eyes.

Rohulah left and Faraz looked at his parents. They were deeply upset.

‘How can you bear to go there?’ asked his mother.

‘I want to see where they locked up Forood. Was he tortured there as well?’

‘Of course he was. They wanted information about his friends.’ Nima almost spat the words.

Faraz had never seen his father so angry. ‘Did Uncle interrogate Forood?’

‘He told the chief interrogator that he didn’t want to see him or hear anything about him, and they could do whatever they wanted to convert him to Islam and make him collaborate with the “state of god”,’ Nima snapped.

‘What did Uncle do when Forood was executed?’

‘He said there should be no difference between the treatment of our sons and other people’s sons. Infidels, spies and anyone who undermines national security or revolts against our holy leader should all pay with their lives,’ growled his father.

‘So, he believes in equality, then?’

‘Yes, sure.’ Nima paused for a second before asking, ‘Why are you involving yourself in this?’

‘I’m keen to see this prison for myself. They’ll convert it into a museum anyway, whether I help or not. Someone else would do it if I don’t,’ Faraz argued.

‘You can go and see it when they turn it into a museum,’ shouted his father, his face wine red with anger.

‘No. I want to see it now while it’s still the place where people went through the doors as prisoners, not as visitors. I want to see the place that Forood saw. I want to see it before it gets sanitised.’

Their raised voices brought Nasim out on to the verandah. Seeing her startled expression, Faraz stood up. He took her hand and led her away, upstairs to their room. He sat on the sofa and pulled her small body on to his lap. Their heads and faces were at the same level now.

‘What’s going on?’

‘I accepted a job my uncle offered  and my father thinks I shouldn’t take it.’

‘What job?’

‘It’s to help convert a prison into a museum. A summer job.’

‘And you accepted?’ Nasim’s jaw dropped and her eyes widened.

‘Why shouldn’t I?’ he touched the back of her neck. It was a year now since she had stopped shaving her hair, yet it was still short.

‘I guess he is paying a lot. Do you need money?’

‘It’s not for the money. Anyway someone else would do it, if I don’t.’ Faraz shrugged his shoulders. He needed to have her in his arms. He tightened his palms around her waist, not letting her move away. She seemed frozen.

‘Think about it, Faraz. That someone else is ready to do it is the worst justification for accepting.’

‘But I want to see it before it changes.’ He kissed her. ‘Please try to understand. I want to see what all those prisoners saw.’

‘You’re wrong if you think you’ll see what they saw or experienced there.’ She looked at the floor, stiff in his arms.

‘You trust me, don’t you?’ Faraz kissed her head. He put his finger under her chin pulling her head up. Her brown eyes were clouded with disappointment.

‘What’s your uncle up to? Why you?’

‘Yes. It is very strange.’