Outside of the box
Based on a true story
October 29, 2006
It was another hot August morning in Tehran, choked with thick smog. Gordia was sitting on a long cement bench beside a bunch of Kurdish and Afghani men under a noisy highway bridge. She was forty-two years old with short, straight salt and pepper hair, and in men’s clothing. She looked like a nineteen year-old boy and everyone on the street knew her as Gol-Agha. She placed one leg over the other and lit a second cigarette. Most of the men were carrying small bags of heroine or lighter drugs for sale. She sometimes went there to buy heroine for her addicted friend, Sudi. This time, she had not yet seen Ardalan, the Kurdish man who knew her as an occasional customer. She took a drag of her cigarette and blew the smoke out into the sunrays, watching it curl away in the deafening street noise. The sound of thundering trucks on the high bridge above and motorbikes and tuk-tuks racing by were mingled with whistles, people yelling their destinations to the passing taxis, and old cars revving their engines, blowing hot licks, as they were heading off north and south. Gordia looked at the cloudless sky and the smog that was hiding the snow-capped Mount Damavand from sight. Nerve-wracking music from passing cars resonated through the air smelling of diesel, dust and pot. She took another long puff on her cigarette and blew it out slowly.
Suddenly two Police vans came off the autobahn onto the circular lane and pulled over to a stop in front of the mostly drug-dealing crowd. Gordia crushed her cigarette-butt on the bottom of her shoe and flicked it over her shoulder by force of habit. Out of each van jumped two policemen, shouting and rounding up everyone. "Get in, get in, all of you. You all get in. You too." They gathered every single man sitting, standing or lingering in that infamous open hangout. Within minutes, up to twenty men were pushed into the vans and taken away. Gordia was among them.
Inside the cramped van without a window, Gordia was pressed to sit in the middle, having to rest one cheek of her buttocks on the wet metallic floor, the other on Rashid’s thigh. He was a sickly man with a white beard, Kurdish turban and baggy pants. He was singing a Kurdish song, encouraging his fellow townsmen to join him. Gordia could feel the van driving at top speed. She thought that it was usually the Islamic militia who were after the druggies and traffickers, taking them to the Committee to see if they should be detained or freed upon paying their customary bribes. This time it was the police and God knows how they were going to be treated. An Afghani man called her name, bending his head down modestly with his hand on his chest.
"Your devoted servant, Gol-Agha," he said.
Gordia bowed her head in return. She had been keeping her hair short, wearing pants and appearing as a man in public since the summer of 1980. She was adamantly opposed to the wearing of the veil that became compulsory at that time. She was then twenty-five, an artist, making a living as a private English teacher; a job she kept through the years. She was aware of her good luck of being the only grandchild of a man who used to own the whole of a large strategic province. Her family wealth allowed her to buy off occasional Islamic authorities that pestered her. She lived in one of her grandfather’s homes in northern Tehran - a huge old house with a large walled backyard without inquisitive neighbours. Over the years, she had met and befriended several younger women who had chosen, like herself, to be dressed as boys. A few were from Tehran secular upper classes, who loved to shave their heads and ride fast motorcycles along the highways. But most of them were runaways or thrown-outs who came from lower classes of either Tehran or provincial towns or villages. They preferred to do odd jobs as males instead of being forced into selling their bodies as females to survive. Gordia’s kind heart and sense of compassion often made her come to the rescue of these destitute women whenever they needed help. Life on the streets of Tehran as a boy was harsh and unrelenting, even dangerous. Men were as much after boys as they were after girls. She always had a protector in the bazaar; namely Haj Esmail, who owned a beads-shop and knew her family as their servant in his youth. Through Haj Esmail, she had managed to find a few decent, influential men of the bazaar who agreed to be her friends’ protectors against full-time sexual predators. However, one of them, seventeen year-old Sudi, had been lured into taking heroine to suppress her sorrow at having lost her family. She was now addicted and unable to provide for her dependency. That morning, when she pounded on Gordia’s door and asked her friend for help, Gordia made a pact with her: she would provide her with one last fix to overcome her intense pain if she promised to present herself to the Addiction Clinic of Rouzbeh Hospital immediately afterwards. Sudi gave her word and Gordia rushed to the hangout of the drug pushers.
After fifteen minutes of driving through traffic, the van stopped for a long while and everyone held their breath for what they didn’t know was coming. Soon, it turned, started to back up slowly and came to a halt. The van’s side doors opened and the detainees were ordered to get out. Gordia’s brown eyes narrowed and began scanning the surrounding area. They were standing in the front courtyard of a Police Station, joined by the detainees from the other police van. She had been arrested twice before, but never carried to a Police station. On both occasions, she had drug in her pocket, but had paid off the Islamic militia and was immediately released. This time, although she was clean, she felt apprehensive by the unknown. The policemen slapped some of them on their heads and shouted invectives against the jittery detainees, ordering them inside the building. They made them work their way through a zigzagging corridor with old cracked walls, smell of stale tobacco smoke, and bare-looking offices on both sides. At the end of the corridor, they were pushed out into a foul-smelling backyard.
She saw different policemen coming out of the building and ordering the suspected drug-dealers to stand apart in rows of four, facing the southern wall. She reckoned that the policemen were about to search everyone for drugs, and as she had nothing illegal on her, she would be released. For a second, her fear of her arrest faded away. Then she heard something unbelievable, outlandish. One of the officers ordered everyone to strip to the skin, deposit their clothes on the ground on their right side. Did she hear it right? She saw some of the detainees beginning to take their shirts off. Her heart sank. Fear grew in the pit of her stomach. Everything had changed in a matter of seconds. She was seized by sheer terror of being naked in front of dozens of unsuspecting men and being discovered by the forces of the Islamic regime. She knew that she was going to be thrown into jail for indecency and immoral acts of impersonating a man and getting naked before strangers. She would be hanged or stoned to death. A cold sweat appeared on her forehead. She had to control this sheer terror that was about to make her faint.
Upon the bark of an officer snapping orders to get undressed completely, Gordia became an instinctive force. She began getting undressed as if in a dream. First she took off her jeans. Bending down to place them on the ground, she saw a naked man in the front row further to the left who was holding his hands in front of himself over his genitals. That was a precious thing, she thought. This custom of decency and shame was so very helpful to her now. She took off her light blue T-shirt and bent down to put it over her jeans and to see if her breasts would hang down too much. She had small breasts and had never been pregnant. She stood up, straightened her back and thought of fat Agha Karim with his sagging bosoms. This was not going to work; she was thin and so were all the detainees. She swiftly took off her underwear and covered her crotch with her left hand. She bent over, made a bundle out of her three pieces of clothing and left it on her right side on the ground. She anticipated the pain of the lashes on her body at the Evin prison. Or were they going to torture her right here in the police station? Was this smell coming from a mutilated body?
From the corner of her eye, Gordia saw the Kurdish men still busy getting disrobed. The shouting of the officers resumed and Gordia was waiting to be discovered as a source of vice and corruption. She turned her head slightly to the left and watched the Kurdish men. They had only taken off their flat knitted footwear and unwrapped their detached sleeves from their covered arms. They had not yet even unwrapped their turbans. The Afghani men were already totally naked, with their heads down in shame. But the Kurdish men, the majority, were taking their time and the policemen seemed accustomed to their lengthy stripping due to their complicated costumes. Each turban was a long, narrow strip of black and red or black and silver fabric, with many fluffy, thin black balls tied close to each other at the end of the fabric. When the turbans were taken off, Gordia noticed that each man was wearing a crocheted cap. The caps had to come off as well. Soon their heads were exposed for further humiliation: some had white hair, some had reddish blond hair and some others, hennaed red hair. They untucked their short black sash that looked like a kefiya. Then, they untwisted and uncrossed their long, shiny and colourful waistbands three times in the front. They grabbed the ends, untucked them, pulled them forward and pushed them backward, uncrossing and untwisting them. Until they ended up holding the centre of the band in the back, letting all the waistbands come off and drop on the ground. Gordia was trying to lose herself in this sight and forget about her doom. The Kurdish men took off the drawstring that held their billowing pantaloons with pegged bottoms, letting the pantaloons come off. Finally, they took off their cotton shirts and light collarless jackets that were closed at the waist with a V opening from the neck to the waist. They shuffled and gathered their clothing in one spot with their feet and stood upright with their hands over their crotches.
Gordia was standing naked in that smelly courtyard amid up to twenty naked men. One of the police officers barked like an army drill sergeant from behind, ordering them to do seventy push-ups. Seventy Push-Ups? No, it couldn’t be. Gordia thought she did not hear it right. Could she be that unlucky? The shouting voice reminded the naked crowd that they had to do the seventy push-ups together, all at the same time. She struggled to get in position to do push-ups, going down, her hands and toes touching the ground, her body and legs in a straight line, her feet slightly apart and her arms at shoulder width apart. Keeping the back and knees straight, she lowered her body, then backed up. She went up and down like the rest of the naked crowd, in time to the barking officer’s counting with one complete push-up about every five seconds. The rest of the officers began searching the men’s outfits for drugs. What could she do when one of them would come close to her to search her clothes and notice her breasts hanging down? A sober sense of foreboding crept upon her spine and her heart began pounding.
Gordia was a heavy smoker and not an athletic woman. But, most of the detainees were addicts in bad shape as well; and there were a few old men among them. The forced exertion was becoming painful as she went along and followed the crowd’s cadence. She could hear the sound of the men’s grunts. The sunrays had turned into small daggers stabbing her skin. She emitted loud sounds of fatigue and was in pain. No longer had she time to think of her breasts or how much they were hanging. She had to struggle with the push-ups. Her eyes were closed tight, her teeth clenched, and her face contorted from the pain. Perspiration came out around her forehead and more whimpers escaped from her mouth. She heard number ten followed by a tormented scream that ripped through the courtyard. What was going on? The officer shouted eleven, exhorted his charges to do complete push-ups, and everyone went down again. Gordia did her movements very slowly and with great effort. She had to put forth a lot of effort to get these push-ups done.
By number forty, her whole body was covered in a sheen of perspiration. Her arms were shaking with each push-up in a strive to lift herself against the force of gravity. As they moved up from one push-up to the next, the sun moved closer to the centre of the sky, tapping harder on her skin. Sweat was pouring off her face. The sound of her heavy breathing became one of the many in the courtyard. Grunting from the effort, she felt the presence of a figure that picked up her bundle of clothes. Her body felt both light and heavy at the same time. She was burning up. She saw a pool of sweat on the ground beneath herself; her arms and brow were feeling hot and red. She could almost hear the scowl, the pinched expression on her own face. They were reaching the target number of seventy. She saw an officer stepping on the front man’s fingers, ordering him to keep doing push-ups. The officer was angry; he should have found drugs in the man’s clothing. She was not going to be tortured like that. The crowd had a rough time, now taking a lot more time to complete each push-up. Finally, when the number seventy was pronounced, Gordia did her last up and down movement very slowly; her arms buckled beneath her and she fell to the ground, almost passing out. She could not move. Her ligaments were strained and her muscles had involuntary movements. Her body was scorching and her skin, cold.
The officers shouted and ordered the punished detainees to get dressed. Gordia hastily put her T-shirt on and lay on the ground in a fetal position, holding her forearms between her legs. She was breathless. Pairs of worn-out legs passed by her sight. She had to get a grip on herself and get up. Exhaustion turned into icy shivers inside each cell in her body. She wiped the sweat off her face and put on her jeans. Most of the men were detained after they dressed and were kept seated in the sun, hands behind their backs, facing the northern wall. Standing among the clean minority of five perplexed souls, she was pushed into the building and along the corridor towards the Police Station’s frontyard.
Gordia was furious. She had been subjected to torture for no reason and her friend Sudi would now be agonizing, shaky and delusional, and waiting in desperation for her return. She wanted to get even with the brutes who had wrecked her day. She told the policeman that she needed to speak to the Captain. The policeman reluctantly showed her to the Captain’s office. Gordia walked to the office doorway and was stopped by another policeman.
"What do you want?"
"I need to speak to the Captain," said Gordia.
"What’s your name? What do you want?"
"My name is Gol-Agha; it’s a private matter," said Gordia, her face turning cold.
A robust voice from inside the office ordered the policeman to let Gol-Agha enter. The policeman moved aside, Gordia entered and approached the Captain’s desk with all her dwindling strength. Dispirited and having nothing to lose, she wanted to tell the Captain how much she was in pain, to make him feel ashamed, to make a point. She gazed deep into the man’s black eyes and smiled like a light bulb had lit up.
"I just wanted to let you know that I’m a girl, Captain Sir," said Gordia, her voice echoing off the bare walls.
Their eyes locked into an intense gaze. A thin and dark-lipped policeman moved closer to his superior and came to his rescue.
"Captain Sir, don’t listen to him. He is one of those hermaphrodites; one of those sickos."
The Captain averted his gaze and muttered something under his breath to his officer, and they both chuckled. Gordia smiled like a magician eyeing a gullible audience and kept insisting that she was really a girl. But the Captain was unmoved. He shook his head, and his face turned impassive.
"Go away, son! May God give you wit!" said the Captain, letting traces of an order seep through into his voice.
A sarcastic smirk worked its way into Gordia’s lips and tugged at their corners. She turned and walked out of the police station into the wonderful stillness of the noon time street. Limping along the sidewalk on cramping legs, she lit a cigarette and took a long, interminable drag on it. Squinting against the glare of the sun, she crossed over the narrow aqueduct and waited for a taxi at the edge of the street.
Gordia was home within half an hour, running from room to room, looking for Sudi. On the second floor, old Naneh appeared in the doorway of her room and restrained the panicked woman in the hall.
"You didn’t come back soon enough," said Naneh, tears welling up in her eyes. "Sudi was screaming her pain out. She begged me to give her my chador. She pulled it over herself and rushed out onto the street, without shoes. I looked out through the window. A white car drew up to a stop in front of her and took her away."
The two women burst into a cry of grief and held on to each other tightly. In a while, Gordia lay on a sofa and Naneh brought her tea. A bitter smile reached Gordia’s lips as she closed her eyes and let her mind be swept into much-needed sleep. They never heard from Sudi again. Comment