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Short story

By Ali Hosseini
August 6, 1999
The Iranian

Friday night. Around ten o'clock I call. It is early Saturday morning back home. I hold the receiver to my ear - the electronic tones, some static, and then a deep silence. Hello . . . hello. Only my own voice, hello . . . hello, echoes back. As if I have lowered my head into an ancient well, my voice sinks into a deep darkness and dies out. I dial again and again. Finally, over the static, and a mixture of foreign-speaking voices in the background, from the other side of the world I hear a hello. Hello mother? Is it you? Hearing her voice, my heart, as if forgetting it's normal routine duty, suddenly takes off.

Last night at eleven o'clock we took him to the airport, she says. He left for Istanbul and was supposed to catch the plane for Germany the next day. She becomes silent for a long time and then with a broken voice continues. Do you think he will be okay? As long as I remember she has always been worried about somebody. For many years, it was her brother who was in the army somewhere in the border mountains. One day his broken body was brought to us, and we were never told what really happened there. Then I left to come to the U.S. Then the revolution and the Iran-Iraq war started and my younger brother was drafted. Now the same brother, having survived the war, has left to go abroad to school.

I wonder who she sits with and talks about her sorrows these days, now that my grandmother is dead. She asks me to call her as soon as my brother gets in touch with me. He couldn't stay; she says. He was eager to get out and go somewhere else. Try to help him to get to America, she says. I tell her not to worry, I will do my best. I say goodbye and hang up.

I wonder why he didn't let me know he was leaving. All day I wait for his phone call and pace the apartment up and down. I keep asking myself why I encouraged him to leave again. Wasn't enough two years ago when he made it to Turkey, knocked at practically every embassy in the city, and finally had to return home. Where is he now? Had he been able to leave the country? I remember two years ago, the day that my father called. Try to get your brother to America, he said, and take care of each other. Don't call home anymore, it is not safe. I felt the sadness in his voice whispering from thousands of miles away, and felt that he didn't want to tell me the whole story. I persisted. Finally he said that they came two days after your brother left and asked, What is your son doing in America? Why doesn't he come back? Where did your other son go? . . . Why? Where? What? . . . This is what they are asking of everybody and everything these days.

Around midnight the telephone rings. It is my older brother, calling from home.

Hasn't he called you yet? he asks.

No. Did he call you?

No. We have been waiting by the phone.

Was he going straight to Germany? I ask.

No, he was suppose to change planes in Istanbul.

I try to not sound worried. I say that it is possible that his flight was delayed. There is no need to worry. I am sure he is fine. I wait until he hangs up.

I must to keep calm. I tell myself that there shouldn't have been any problem. If they were suspicious of him, why did they gave him a passport in the first place? Besides, he is just trying to get somewhere so he can start college. Is it possible that he might have tried to enter Austria as a refugee and that the Austrian police arrested him or sent him back to Iran? I have read that the number of refugees wandering around Europe is increasing, as well as the hostility toward them. He had mentioned a few times that Austria is sympathetic to Iranian refugees and that he wanted to go there. He wanted to be able to be someplace where he could work, where he wouldn't have to depend on me. Maybe the Austrian government sent him back. It is impossible to sleep with these thoughts rushing to my mind.

Early in the morning I jump up with the ringing of the phone. I had fallen asleep on the sofa. Hello . . . Hello. From the noises on the line I realize it is an overseas call. I am excited, but as I open my mouth the line goes dead and a continuous electronic tone pierces my ear. I look at the phone for a few seconds and then hang up. It rings again and I grab the receiver. Hello . . . hello. It's my older brother. He says somebody has called and told them my brother has been taken from airport to a district court and they should take food, cigarettes, and blankets to him and then had hung up. My mother and sisters have been crying since then and the whole family has gone to the courthouse. The authorities said nobody with that name had been brought there.

I feel like my apartment circles around me. Tears come to my eyes, and my brother's tall skinny figure appears in my head. I remember him the way I saw him almost two years ago in Turkey, a sadness and loneliness in his eyes, as if he wanted to tell me a secret but held back, lowering his head to avoid my eyes. Hello . . . hello. I hear my mother's voice, and my heart races again. She tries not to cry. She says, I don't know what wrong I have done that now this misfortune is happening to my family. Don't worry about us, she says, we are all here together; you are the one who is alone in a strange land. Take care of yourself, you hear me? Our life has turned into hell here. I stand still, my eyes wet. Okay, I say, and hang up.

I start to walk up and down in my apartment, thinking about two years ago when my brother went to Turkey. He was excited, hopeful that he finally could get out and have his future in his own hands. How he was anxious to come to the U.S. to go to school. We talked about what he should study. How I wanted him close to me and how I was tired of being alone. How our dreams were shattered when he was refused a visa each time he applied to the U.S. consulate in Istanbul - five times. It devastated him. I tried to keep his spirits up, telling him there are hundreds of young people his age who would do anything just to get out of the country. Telling him not to give up, that there must be a way out. If not America we would try another country, and another and another. I think about those dog days he was running from embassy to embassy, and to the United Nation's refugee office. Finally, he got tired and went back home.

I went to see him in Turkey. Skinny and nervous, he smoked cigarette after cigarette. He talked about the war, about friends and our neighborhood. I listened tense and in silence. I hear him telling me the same stories over and over. Now I picture him on the torture table, handcuffed, with a sack over his head, as they scream at him, tell us, you heretic, Why were you going abroad? Who are your friends? Where did you get money? Who is your contact?

I feel like my heart is going to split. I pace, and talk to myself. It was all my fault. I am responsible. I am the one who encouraged him to leave Iran in the first place. What can I do now? Agitated, I pick up the phone and call home. I want to go back - maybe I could help. My mother says, Don't even think about it. We will do our best. We will find him. Don't worry yourself, you hear me?

Days pass slowly. Work is unbearable. I call almost every night. No good news. My family go to the courthouse and are told to come back the next day. Next day it is the same story. Chaos. The go-betweens come. They say they will find him for certain price. They eat, drink, go away, come back with conflicting messages. I'm not sure if my family is telling me the whole story.

I wish I knew what was going through his mind the day we went to apply for a visa in Istanbul. Hope, disappointment? Maybe he was telling himself just one time, just this time, he will get lucky, his life will change for the better. His future, his life depending on a visa. In Turkey, you go to the U.S. consulate to apply for a visa. The long line moves and you stand anxiously at the window. A man on the other side of the glass window picks up the documents. He looks at you briefly with cold eyes. He knows nothing about you - your frustration, your past, what you have gone through, your dreams, your anxieties, how you got there. Nothing. He looks at your passport and the documents you hand him. Your heart pounds against your chest, wondering what his decision will be. No visa. The papers are pushed through the opening under the glass window and your dream is shattered into a thousand pieces. I want to talk to the consulate, explain to him, make him understand, but his look is cold, and a line of anxious people from my country is behind me.

It is more than a month. Confusion and nervousness are becoming routine. I call home. Everybody is upset. They still don't know his whereabouts. My father whispers. Don't call anymore - they are listening to the phone conversations, they are opening your letters. Don't call anymore. Don't worry about us. We will survive. You just take care of yourself. We all will survive. I don't know what to say. The conversation is over and I am furious with the helplessness of my family and the hopelessness in my homeland.

A few days later I pick up the phone and dial a number. As the telephone rings, my mind wonders. I see my brother, disappointment added to the secret of his dark eyes. We hug and say goodbye. I watch him in the Istanbul airport terminal from behind a glass wall, the uncrossable line to America, and to me. He walks away. His tall skinny figure looks vulnerable as he melts into the crowd. I am startled by a women's voice on the phone. Hello. This is Amnesty International, may I help you?

December 1991

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