It’s day eight since I last heard from you. I know WhatsApp is not allowed in Iran, but I habitually check my phone every few minutes expecting a funny meme, a photo or just a “how’s it going, Hanhan?”
Then I remember that we don’t know anything about your whereabouts. And I shatter.
The other day, I passed by your classroom and popped my head in, half-expecting to see you there in front of the SmartBoard, telling your students yet another fascinating story about the Roman Empire or the WWII. But then I saw yet another one of our colleagues covering your class, doing his best to make the lesson at least half as enjoyable as you would have. A tear escaped the corner of my eye, and I walked heavily to my class.
You might think it stupid of me to write you these letters, but that’s the only way I can talk to you right now. Technology failed us this time.
Please be well.
Thinking of you always,
Last night you were in my dream. I dreamt you were wearing the dress we bought together for your brother’s wedding. Only in the dream, the satin looked unrealistically luminous, and the purple sequins sparkled too brightly, like your big, twinkly eyes. You were dancing with your brother and his bride, only they looked nothing like the photos you’d shown me. They looked frail and small as you tried to clap your hands around them to get them going. The music was too loud and too cacophonous. I couldn’t make out any instruments, just a screeching noise. Then there was this sharp smell of some wet metal, like how the iron railing tasted when I licked it as a child. Everyone turned their pinched faces to look around for the source of the smell. And then I saw it. You were lying on the tiles, blood oozing from your ear.
I jolted in terror and found Sienna watching me. I was so relieved that it was just a dream. Please be OK. The videos coming from Iran are… frightening.
Every time I think of you, I send you a prayer. I imagine a gust of wind outside my window, ready to carry a bundle of energy and strength from my very core to yours. A little crumb of hope to sustain you, wherever you may be. Hopefully alive and well.
Now that I’m on holiday, I have more time to organise your petition. I’ve posted it on all social media platforms. I opened a Twitter account so that we could reach more people. The school has also put up the petition link on the website! Now all parents and alumni can sign it too. See? A perk of us teaching at an international school is that we have parents and students from all over the world. Many of them have shared the story of your… disappearance. I can’t believe I’m using this word. We’re all worried sick but holding on to any flicker of hope. As long as your family haven’t heard anything about you, you could still be somewhere. Are you waiting for us to find you? We’re doing everything, I promise.
We have 3000 signatures so far. The head of the Office of Immigration said if we reach 5000, the Bundesregierung will have to take it seriously and do something to negotiate with the Iranian government and get you out of wherever you are.
You know what’s interesting? I'm surprising myself by doing all this work to get your story to the press and the German government. I never thought I had the strength or the will to do something so… big.
Johannes is loving this new fierce Hannah. Who would’ve thought that the Hannah you always pushed to voice her opinions in faculty meetings could be so relentless?
I wish this side of me had come out through better circumstances, though. I would’ve been content with staying Timid Hannah forever if it had meant you’d be here.
Anyway, I’m really hopeful that Germany will come through and get you back to your husband and daughter who love you. To your students who miss you. To me!
Hold on tight to the ropes of hope,
It’s Christmas. I know Christmas isn’t your holiday, but you celebrated it anyway for Oliver and Azadeh. Last night we celebrated Christmas with them. It was Johannes who told me to invite them. I wasn’t going to celebrate Christmas this year. How could I put up a tree and hang bright lights and beneficient angels by the blazing fireplace when I knew my best friend and sister away from home might be grasping for a glimmer of light or a glimpse of an angel?
But the idea of your two dearest people sitting alone at home at Christmas, missing you and running a million unpleasant scenarios in their heads saddened me and gave me the will to put a festive dinner together. Within a few hours, Johannes found a scrawny Christmas tree that surely nobody wanted and decorated it with Sienna while I went hunting for a last-minute turkey.
When Oliver and Azadeh rang the doorbell, we all froze. We didn’t know what to do with our faces. Should we open the door with big, welcoming smiles? Sad, sympathetic smiles? No smiles? Sienna settled for an excited smile to see Azadeh, while Johannes and I put our down-to-business faces on and welcomed them in.
My girl has always loved your girl. Even at eleven years old, Azadeh is strong and confident. She holds herself with pride and grace just like you do. She has your twinkly brown eyes and thick, wavy hair, but she also has her father’s casualness, this German manner of not taking oneself too seriously. They just “be”.
Throughout dinner, we carefully danced around the topic of you. A sad and awkward dance that was. Whenever you came up, we made it sound like you were simply vacationing somewhere or busy doing something else. Azadeh’s lower lip trembled a few times at your mention, but she composed herself, especially because her little fan demanded her attention.
Isn’t it amazing how our girls turned out to be? Confident, carefree, strong, both physically and emotionally? I know I’m English and Sienna should theoretically have no issues like what you battled with in the Middle East, but not so unlike in the Middle East, I was raised to be quiet, careful, pleasant… to keep the peace so as not to disturb Daddy darling. I do my best to make sure she turns out tougher and more self-assured than I did.
You, on the other hand, you were raised the opposite way. Your family empowered you, emboldened you, treated you like an equal to your brothers. Your country, however, did the opposite. Told you to make yourself scarce, not to laugh too loudly, dress too loudly, or think too loudly.
At any rate, I’ve philosophised too much. All I actually wanted to say was that you have a lovely family. More than anything, I hope you will return to that tremendous love.
When the girls went upstairs to play, Oliver was finally able to let down his guard. Forever the comedian, I was shocked to see him break down and cry. Bahar, I can’t wrap my head around the fact that NO ONE in your family was able to tell him anything about your whereabouts. How could that be? In this day and age of information technology?
It breaks my heart.
Please hold on a little bit longer. We will find you.
Sending you more love and happy thoughts,
29. 12. 2022
I don’t know how I feel about today’s news. A few hours ago, when I delivered a casserole to Oliver and Azadeh, Oliver looked like he’d been crying for hours. I went in to see what was going on and found Azadeh in the living room pretending to read and eyeing her father who had clearly kept whatever was troubling him from her.
Oliver led me to the kitchen, and I sat at your table while he put the kettle on. There was a photo of you on the fridge. You were standing under a pomegranate tree. You loved your anar so much, you almost named your daughter after it. Oliver and I had to talk you out of it. I remember joking that only the ultra-rich and famous can get away with naming their kids after fruit. You then settled for Azadeh, freedom!
The photo on the fridge showed you standing with your family in an orchard of ripe, bright red pomegranates. You all had the same toothy smiles and dancing eyes, overjoyed to be together. You and your sisters had your headscarves loosely draping your necks. This was likely a private orchard where the “Morality Police” couldn’t enforce covering women’s hair.
Oliver sat down with our tea and looked at what I was looking at. He nodded in recognition of the loveliness of the photo, and a shaky smile crept onto his lips.
In a hushed tone, Oliver whispered, “Bahar’s brother called me this morning. They know where Bahar is.”
“What!” I almost screamed.
“Shhh,” he looked nervously toward the living room. “But he couldn’t talk to her or see her…”
“Where… is she?” I asked, dreading the answer.
“In the hospital,” he dabbed at his eyes with a kitchen towel, “she’s being heavily guarded by the police, and no one is allowed to see or talk to her.”
I felt the ground beneath my chair spin and had to hold on to the table to steady myself.
Your brother paid hefty sums to get to someone who found you in a dirty government hospital in Esfahan. Apparently, a bearded man from the Morality Police told you off for not covering your hair correctly. I can only imagine your cheeks getting red and your quick response firing at him. I wish you could’ve been quiet, my friend. Though I always envied your eloquent answers to racist remarks here in Germany, for once, you should’ve bowed your head and done what you were told. Talking back to an old German bigot is not the same as talking back to rabid dogs, high on power, carrying guns and clubs amid nationwide unrest and violence.
“So, is she OK?” I tried to swallow the lump in my throat.
“She’s alive, Hannah,” Oliver covered his face with his palms, “but according to her brother’s source… she’s not responsive.”
He wept in silence and so did I.
Bahar, my love, wake up, please. I beg of you.
Today I did something I never thought I would. I cut my hair very short… in public.
Some Iranian women here in Munich organised a protest against police brutality in Iran and the lives that are being lost there. Sendlingertor and Stachus were full of people of all ages and nationalities chanting for freedom and support for Iranian women.
Johannes put Sienna on his shoulders while I carried a banner that read, “Azadeh for Bahar, Azadeh for all women”.
More people joined us as we walked and chanted. We ended up in front of the Rathaus. There was a stage where speakers chanted, gave fiery speeches, cried, and sang. It was beautiful, moving and heartwrenching all at once.
Then three young women from Iran got up on the stage, took big scissors and cut off their hair while onlookers gasped and cried. I watched the women remove the epitome of their femininity with tears streaming down their faces. The chanting in the crowd grew louder and more fervent, and as if in a trance, I let go of Johannes’ hand and got up on stage. A woman with a new shaggy haircut looked at me in a silent question. Was I sure? I nodded. She smiled with trembling lips and offered me her scissors. They felt cold and heavy. Centuries of oppression and objectification resided in those blades.
I couldn’t help but wonder why many cultures insisted on suffocating the feminine. Why did they store their honour between women’s legs and trap it in their hair?
While up on stage, as everyone cheered while I slowly chopped off my curls, I looked at the civilisation around me and thanked my lucky stars for being European, for raising my daughter in a country that respected everyone. A country where women didn’t have to dress a certain way or cover up what made them women so a man wouldn’t accuse them of arousing him, tempting him to sin, forcing him to control his urges.
I looked at the police protecting the protesters, preserving their freedom of speech and expression. I looked at Johannes and saw tears in his eyes and a proud smile.
My Bahar, I know chopping off my hair will not heal or get you out of where you are. It won’t bring back your fractured dignity or broken bones, but it is a token of solidarity. This is all the helpless can offer. Thoughts, prayers and solidarity.
I wish I could weave my hair into a lucky charm, a dream catcher, an amulet that will protect you and give you strength. But I can’t.
Hold on tight. A miracle must come.
Today has been the most surreal day of my life. An absolute rollercoaster of emotions.
It started off with a text from Oliver:
“BAHAR HAS OPENED HER EYES! HER BROTHER WILL VISIT HER SOON!”
Let me tell you, I cannot remember being this happy about anything since Sienna was born! I jumped out of bed and woke Johannes to tell him the news. He hugged me for a long time while I let the tears of joy wash over me.
Over breakfast, Johannes decided to take Sienna to his parents. He reminded me that the 6B parents had given me a spa voucher as a Christmas present. He wanted me to go and spend the day swimming, going into the sauna and getting as many facials as I could.
On the drive there, I took in the snow-crowned trees, the quiet streets, the relaxed atmosphere. The whole world around me seemed brighter. I rolled down the window to get some fresh icy air while “I Want to Break Free”, one of my all-time favourite songs, came on Antenne Bayern. Things were looking up, my dear!
When I got into the pool area, the smell of warm chlorine air welcomed me. It reminded me of lazy Sundays from when I was little. Every Sunday, come rain or shine, was pool day. I preferred winter pool time, the heated pool, the echoes of shrieks and laughs, and the cheese and ham sandwiches. Pool time was happy time. Peace and contentment for the whole family.
I was surprised to see it almost empty. I suppose most people were either at work or away skiing while the sun was shining and the powdery snow was tufting.
I descended a few rungs into the blue water and flung myself into the middle. Because there were very few people, I could do what I’ve always loved doing in water: float.
I would float, swim back and forth on my back, smile, hum, count the slats in the ceiling, go back to floating, trusting that the water would carry me. Swim slowly, swim a little faster, keep my ears underwater. Listen the muffled noises that seemed to come from another planet. Think about my life. How lucky I was to have the life I had, my job, my friends, my safety, my supportive husband, my precious daughter… you! You, alive.
There was nothing more I could ask for!
Then I got out of the water and decided to sit in the sauna for a bit before going back into the water. When I approached the sauna area, I found the dreaded sign that said this sauna was to be used in the nude. Ah, being a Brit, I never understood those saunas, and they usually meant that I turned around on my wet heels and walked away. But it was a fantastic day. Life was beautiful again and the spa had very few people.
I opened the door and tiptoed inside in my bathing suit. There were two saunas. The traditional Finnish one had a man in it, so I walked into the other one. I put down my towel and sat on it, sweating out of my eyeballs. It was delicious. I left after about twenty minutes. I opened the door and stepped out to find the older man from the other sauna waiting for me. He was now in his bathrobe.
When he saw me in my bathing suit, he shouted, “RAUS! Raus hier!”
It took me a minute to fathom what was happening.
He was kicking me out of the sauna.
When I looked dumbfounded, he shouted even louder that this was a nude sauna and that I was abusing the space with my “clothes” on.
I froze. I wanted to explain that I had sat on my towel, that I was alone in there… that he had no right to talk to me in that manner.
I must’ve looked like a stupid goldfish, moving my mouth but unable to produce anything but bubbles.
To clarify his point, he proceeded to open his bathrobe and show me what I should’ve been like in the sauna.
I felt the blood rush to my ears and the sweat flood my skin.
I retreated out of the sauna and into the pool area.
This was the flip side of Esfahan.
Where is Bahar when one needs her?
I can’t wait to have you back,