Art by Samira Abbassy
When the people first stormed the streets, Mina’s brothers had cheered and clapped. The Shah is gone. We’re rid of his evil ways. But then her mother’s miniskirts were outlawed and now bearded men covered every corner of every street dressed in army fatigues holding guns. And all that was legal before—bare legs, alcohol, loving America—was suddenly against the law. Kellogg’s cornflakes were nearly impossible to find.
Saddam had dropped the first bomb—the first one in the middle of the night when she’d been asleep. Bam. The house shook and down they all went to the basement. He had very good eyes, she knew that much. His planes could see mice at midnight under no moon. Why else would the entire population of her city cover their windowpanes with aluminum foil?
He would kill her once he found her. That much she knew. The men in her country had almost all gone mad—growing beards, carrying around speeches of new Ayatollahs, holding in their hands knives and yelling, “Death to the Shah!” even though he was already dead from cancer, frozen with grief under the soil of a foreign country. But the biggest most frightening madman of all lived in the country next door. In Iraq he sat, drinking tea and holding conferences with advisors who wanted to kill her.
They would all, she knew, kill her if they could.
She darted to school and darted back—no longer confident that his planes wouldn’t dare try bombing in broad daylight.
At night, as she said her prayers, she almost felt like the basement was a finer place to rest her head than her bed. For, surely, and this happened often, he dropped his bombs in the middle of the night, and there she and her parents and brothers would be, crowded, shivering, huddling as close as possible to the earth. If she could slide under the ground to escape the bombs, she would.
She couldn’t let him win.
As she spread sour cherry jam on her barbari bread, she vowed he wouldn’t get her or anyone else left in her family. She imagined him drawing on his chart with a huge black felt-tip pen, tracking her moves. Did he know she swam on Wednesdays at her cousin’s house? Probably.
Every night before bed she bargained with God. Keep my mother alive. I will not lie about anything ever again. Keep my father alive. I will stop procrastinating on my homework. My brothers. I promise I won't argue with them anymore. Keep us alive and don’t, please don’t, let Saddam win.
And God—he must be on her side. She didn’t call him “Allah,” just khoda, the Persian word for God. She prayed to a God that looked much like a picture of the ancient poet Rumi.
She wagered that she would live and that he, Saddam, would die first.
One day she made a list of all the things she still had yet to do. Finish elementary school. Get my period. Learn to cook like my mother and grandmother. Master eighty-eight double-dutch jumps in a row, no pausing. Kiss a boy (one day). Help poor people all over. Memorize at least one hundred ghazals of Hafez. Learn to roller skate. Make lots of paintings. End all wars somehow. The list went on and on. Plenty. See that, Saddam? She had plenty left to do. So for him to bomb her country and kill her just wasn’t going to work out with her plans.
But he was everywhere. She saw an outline of his mustache in the clouds. In the sheen of the oily water of the city’s sewer joobs, she was sure she counted his fat fingers floating. Parts of the tufts of his hair appeared in her lentil rice. When her grandmother died in his bomb, Mina knew then for sure that Saddam’s goal was to stomp her spirit dead.
As she cried at the funeral holding onto her mother’s hand, she promised—even as she looked above for his planes—that he wouldn’t get her. He would not kill, he would not erase her from the world, he would not prevent her from accomplishing the important work laid out for her.
Iran started to swell and then fold in on the sides, deflated finally to a bump of prickly sadness. She wanted to go to the post office to mail a letter to her uncle in America, but Saddam had bombed the place. She went to her other cousin Reza’s house to play cards with him now that he was back from the war, but Saddam had blown his hands up. Men, her brother’s friends, disappeared in small trucks, vowing to fight him to the end. Get him.
It was practically 1982 and Saddam was still parading around. If she were to cup her hands around her mouth and shout out to the world to come help them, would anybody hear her? The world hated her country more than they hated his. Her brother said that the US and Britain sold arms to Saddam because they preferred him over them. Could she drag Ronald Reagan by the hand and convince him, the most powerful man in the world, to stop the war? Could she show President Reagan the chemical weapons Saddam used, could she convince him to not help Saddam so? Mr. Reagan wouldn’t listen to her though. He’d probably slap her across the face and say, “Girlie girl, your country took the hostages!” Then she’d have to walk across town to where the lunatic-fanatic students who held the American hostages stayed and try and have them change their minds.
Her cousin’s friend smuggled an issue of a teen magazine from America. That was the most enticing possession she had to barter—every girl in school (except the brainwashed regime zealot Farnaz) envied her for having the magazine as they pored over its pages in the bathroom.
But the students who held the hostages wouldn’t want Seventeen magazine.
What did they want?
She wasn’t sure. If Ronald Reagan couldn’t help, then really it was hopeless because no one was more powerful than him. So strong. Clearly, he didn’t mind that Saddam was killing them or that her government was killing the Iraqi people. He was busy, she knew. Plus, the hostages. That made everybody hate the whole country. Those damn fanatic students.
To pack the right books for school, to memorize the history dates due that day, to learn Arabic words, to not get killed at daytime, or especially at nighttime, to find a way to get Mr. Reagan to hate Iran less than he hated Saddam—she had a lot to do.
Which was precisely why she couldn’t die.
As her mother braided her hair, Mina counted the number of ways she could get him. A ten-year-old girl didn’t have much access to equipment. Her options were limited. But he’d already killed her grandmother and she couldn’t let Saddam keep killing more.
Could she get to his palace? The borders were closed. She couldn’t escape the country, couldn’t carry a weapon into his bedroom at two in the morning, look him in the eye, tell him he had killed her grandmother, the postman, blown off her cousin’s hands, murdered half her brother’s friends, and turned the playground into rubble. Oh, but if only she could. Saddam would pause, beg her to reconsider. Mina would, at that point, beat his ugly face with both her fists, punch him hard, bash his head against the headboard of the bed, maybe even stomp on him till he begged for mercy.
Afterwards, she’d become a hero. The Iranian government would praise her and hold a huge ceremony. They’d award her a medal for stopping Saddam. At the celebration she would give a speech where she’d thank her mother for all her hard work and pay homage to the spirit of her grandmother. Mina would tell the whole country about the thick Aush soup her grandmother made, how Mamani loved Rumi and how she’d spent time picking out new juicy pomegranates for Mina the day that she died. Which is why she died. Which was what was killing Mina. Then Mina would boldly announce that some girls hated being forced to cover their hair and bodies, that it wasn’t right, and she’d be brave enough to say out loud that the new laws were far too restrictive, and people shouldn’t be put in jail just because they said something bad about the regime.
There would be silence. People would slowly nod, look at one another, then clap and soon the whole crowd would cheer and yell, “Freedom! Freedom! Demokrahsee!” The new Islamic hard-liners would hang their heads in shame and say they were sorry, they didn’t know what was wrong with them, they had punished and imprisoned and executed so many people for no reason and if everyone would just give them a second chance, they’d like to try again and be a democracy this time. But the people would yell, “Get the hell out of here, you lousy hypocrites!” And the hard-liners would flee for their lives and move to Pakistan.
A few suggestions would be made for a new leader. Mina’s name would be thrown around. People would trust her to lead in the tradition of the ancient child-emperors in China. A petition would be drawn to have her elected. But Mina would politely refuse, say no, she was busy with school and the obligations of fifth grade, and finally, reluctantly, the people would let her go. They would get to work setting up plans for a new election and the beginning of democracy.
And that day the country would be free. Everyone would dance in the streets till two in the morning, just like after winning a soccer game, only more, and the women would throw their headscarves triumphantly up in the air, not even caring anymore that their hair showed. Her mother and father would do a jig in the middle of the town square. Food trucks would pass out celebratory cotton candy and popcorn and small round colorful chocolates, the exact kind Bita had served at her tenth birthday party. Mina would be given a tiara to wear like the one her Barbie doll had when Barbie dolls were still allowed in the country. Barbie dolls would be allowed again. Mina’s parents would buy her a new red bicycle which she would ride to school as her hair blew freely in the wind and no men with guns guarded the street corners at all.
At recess they would play dodgeball and gossip again, instead of singing war songs and death chants. Girls and boys wouldn’t have to go to separate schools anymore. There’d be no more bombs at night at all because Saddam would be gone.
And everyone could start off 1982 with hope that there really could be peace in the world.
Spring / Summer 2023
The Iran Issue
Marjan Kamali is the award-winning author of The Stationery Shop (GalleryBooks/Simon&Schuster), a national bestseller, and Together Tea (EccoBooks/HarperCollins), a Massachusetts Book Award finalist. Her novels have been published in translation in more than 20 languages. She is a 2022 recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship.
Samira Abbassy (b.1965 Ahwaz, Iran) graduated from Canterbury College of Art, Kent, UK. She moved to New York in 1998, where she co-founded the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts and EFA Studio Center. Abbassy is known for her figurative oil on gesso panel paintings depicting the human figure, mythological creatures, and scenes of war. Over the course of her thirty-year career her work has been shown internationally and has been acquired by private and public collections including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rubin Museum, and NYU’s Grey Art Gallery (all in NY); The British Museum; Farjam Collection, Dubai; Devi Foundation, New Delhi; and the Omid Foundation, Iran. Abbassy has been awarded grants and fellowships by Yaddo; Pollock-Krasner Foundation; Joan Mitchel Foundation; Saltonstall Foundation; NYFA; and the University of Virginia.