The theocracy of modern-day Iran continuously attempts to oppress and regulate social identity, resulting in cross-sections of the pious, defiant, condemned, and invisible. The concept of sexuality navigates these boundaries in frightening and sometimes disastrous ways. Because of strict Muslim Law and punishment, sexual relationships exist either within the confines of heterosexual marriage or in secret underground networks constantly in fear of discovery. More dangerous than the hidden world of heterosexual dating is the life of an Iranian homosexual. Iran’s Theocracy does not tolerate homosexuality to any degree. The transsexual, however, can find a relatively safe, if not widely accepted, place in society. While homosexuality is a crime punishable by death, a transsexual is considered to have a health problem for which hormone treatment and sex reassignment surgery is an acceptable medical treatment. The government subsidizes such surgeries and provides gender authentication paperwork to help assimilate individuals who have undergone treatment successfully. It is a booming business, and Iran is now second only to Thailand in the number of sex reassignment surgeries performed annually. This system arguably brings some relief for transsexual Iranians, but it creates a dangerous climate in which homosexual Iranians can be pressured into having surgery in order to position themselves in a societal structure that uniformly rejects and persecutes them. The outcome is often tragic.
Nothing absorbed death’s scent. A shame, this one looked young. Bahar stroked the graying cheek. She traced a line down the shoulder, across the arm, along the wrist bone, detouring to the ring finger. A faint outline marked a removed wedding band. She imagined the girl’s skin flushed, a beating heart pushing vessels open in response to her husband’s touch. Bahar disliked the female body, too soft and forgiving, all curves where angles should be. She let go of the finger and spread the body’s legs just a little. She pulled a puff of cotton and placed it over the hairy part, then gently closed things back.
There was a time, in Tehran, when all family members were allowed to wash and anoint their loved ones before they were lowered into the ground. But now, due to overpopulation and the laws of supply and demand, that privilege cost more than many could afford. So, most mourners made due spectating behind windows as bodies moved along the “prep for heaven” assembly line. She doubted the men’s Wash House was a ridiculous as the women’s, with all the wailing and chest beating. Just like a zoo, they lined up three or four thick to watch. Bahar wondered how many belonged to this one, blubbering and staining the glass she would eventually have to clean. Her finger moved along the leg, pushing into a fading bruise.
They’ll lift your lifelessness and tumble you into a concrete tub for everyone to see, washing your delicacy away with cold water and lye. You won’t gasp. Your skin won’t bump at the cold. Those who loved you, those who envied you, even those who hated you will grieve for one dead so young, so beautiful. But when they see your toes curled in, your eyes open and clouding, your limbs flopping like a fish out of water, it’s fear they push away. They know, we all know, that death will one day kiss our feet too.
“Stop playing with the body, freak.” The supervisor stood close, breathing down her neck. “I didn’t want to give you this job,” she whispered. “But for your family name, I would have said no. Do you hear me?”
She started pulling the trolley away. Bahar straightened herself and squared her shoulders.
“This clay, so strong of heart, of sense so fine, Surely such clay is more than half divine—‘Tis only fools speak evil of the clay, The very stars are made of clay like mine.”
The supervisor stopped. “What did you say?”
“Nothing you would understand,” Bahar answered.
The supervisor snorted and moved on. Likely she had never read anything but the Koran, much less heard of something as delicate as Khayyam’s poetry. Bahar watched the body go, wishing for her own turn. She braced as they came one after the other for the next eight hours. Brush the hair, cover the indecent, on to the wash-room: her own private hell of nakedness and decay. Some fat, others old and frail, sometimes shaved where the cotton goes, or gray and patchy. Each body emptied of whatever animates, a silent sack of fingerprinted life decomposing. She had that in common with them. In this way she understood them best.
At the end of her shift, she shed her plastic clothing. She wrapped herself in a black Chador. Though not compelled to by law, Bahar pulled it up to cover her face. She would never be the stylish woman who wore a light scarf toward the back of her hair and tight fitting over-clothes. The more pious she seemed, the better for slipping under everyone’s radar.
If she had the choice, she would stay indoors, always. But her husband wanted her to work, pay her own way. She feared it was because he planned to leave, abandon her, and his conscience would take it softer if she could stand on her own. She cried, a lot. But he just told her to look for a better job if she was unhappy and the subject was closed. He knew very well, for the likes of her, there was no better job.
Bahar clung to the thin layer of material shrouding her. She looked down and shoved through crowded women swaying like black seaweed in a strong current. Sometimes, when the thought of going home was too much, Bahar stood by the small opening at the far end of the Wash House. The finished product slid out, wrapped in beautiful white gauze, cocooned like the ancient mummies she’d read about as a child. Bahar wondered if death ended pain. Not just the hurt that crawled through her, shifting sides in her chest, racing around her stomach. She learned to live with that, and the strangeness of her body. It was the physical pain that haunted her.
She shook her thoughts away. She had no time for poetics today. It was his birthday.
Last year they didn’t celebrate. She was recovering. Pink skin formed layers of new tissue as itchy cuts and stitches healed. The year before was the most perfect they had ever been. A time she chased in every thing she did. They baked a cake. A hideous inedible thing made from throwing flower and cracking eggs over each other’s heads. But they laughed back then, and he touched her, leaving imprints of his lips on her flour-covered neck and chest. The batter sat congealing in a bowl while he made love to her on the kitchen floor, pushing and pulling at her with such a force that she secretly swore to give him anything.
The memories kept her from leaving. She constantly resurrected moments when time lapsed like water carelessly spilt. How they walked street markets, crowds of people a barrier for the electricity between them. Or the feel of him as they slept naked beneath sheets, she, afraid to move because he clung to her so tightly the slightest breath might wake him. Now she listened to the city stretch and yawn alone, in her own separate room.
When she stepped into the market. Agha Samir greeted her with a cold nod. She forced herself to meet his glare.
He pointed to the section of the store she needed. There was a beautiful white one with fresh cream filling. He would love that. She chose a fruit tart instead. She paid, her Chador falling for a moment as she gathered her things. When she left, Bahar tried to ignore the young girl asking her mother what was wrong with the lady buying the cake.
Words lure so effortlessly. The holy men say there is no more sin in it than changing wheat to flour to bread. They make it sound so simple, dressed in clean pressed linen robes, meting out Allah’s words. A parade of success stories and testimonials intended to leave no doubt. But you make up my mind for me with that beautiful voice. Don’t you love me? How many times do you ask? And I, in my stupidity, forget to ask back. You swear so sweetly that you need me to be yours, legitimate, in the open. Now I wonder, were you the charmer or the snake?
Their flat was a beautiful three bedroom in the northern part of the city. Her husband made a profitable living as a lawyer and he came from a very rich family, not that they helped anymore. Bahar checked herself in the mirrored hallway. She tried to get her stringy hair under control, wiped the sweat off her face and repositioned her Chador. She unlocked the door and walked in. He was sitting on the couch, drinking beer from a bottle.
He glanced at her and looked away. She felt her ribs give against the sharp jab in her chest.
“I got you cake,” she said.
Her voice sounded more excited than she meant as she lifted the box up. Her husband just sat, honey eyes focused on the TV playing Arabic music videos.
His guilt once comforted her. Now, she didn’t even have that.
“Joonam, when do you expect her back?” a voice asked from the bathroom. “You know I don’t like to be here when she gets home.”
Bahar put the cake on the counter and moved into the kitchen, getting knives out to cut with. She ignored the spikes in her stomach, reaching up her spine, wrapping around her neck and prickling her cheeks with heat. She fought back tears as she got plates out with shaking hands.
The young man came out. When he saw Bahar he paused. She didn’t need to look at him. She knew her husband’s tastes. Perfectly amorphous, this one mastered the skinny jean and trendy tee. She could have worn the same thing before hormone therapy made her soft and plump. She wiped the infuriating tears streaming down her cheeks. He stood staring at her with bleached hair and sympathetic eyes. She hated him to the point of rage, but not for what he did, for what he had. He inched closer to her.
Disappear, right now, she willed.
“Shhhh,” he whispered. “Don’t.”
She should have clawed his eyes out. She could smell her husband on him, not just the bitter scent of his ejaculate, but the musk of his passion. She drowned in envy. He put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed tight. She felt herself stir, grateful for any touch, and then she remembered the empty place, stripped of function, alien to any purpose. She felt useless, ugly, alone. And she had done it to herself.
Bahar began to cry again. The young man’s arm wound around her.
“He loves you in his own way,” he said.
It was a gentle thing to say.
“Come on, get yourself together. Let’s try some of that cake.”
She found the invitation repugnant but felt grateful for it. Damned or no, she would rather this than give him up. So Bahar cut the cake while the young man put plates on the table. Her husband smiled at him and wouldn’t look at her. They ate and awkwardness gave way the more they drank. The young man served as a strange conduit. She felt him watching her. She shifted in her seat. What must he think of her? Disgust? Or even worse, pity? She couldn’t meet his eyes. The moment passed, evaporating into the young man’s chatter.
Her husband, never very good with alcohol, fell asleep on the couch. Bahar sat with the young man on the balcony finishing what was left of the cake. She looked at Mt. Tochal, its white peak towering over the city’s dirty maze. Why couldn’t she be that tall?
“It’s guilt,” the young man said.
“The reason he doesn’t touch you. He still loves you. Will always love you for what you did.”
Bahar laughed. She drank the last of her beer.
“For in and out, above, about, below, ‘Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show, Play’d in a Box whose Candle is the Sun, Round which we Phantom Figures come and go.”
There was a long pause.
“Rumi?” the young man asked.
The young man nodded silently. “He told me you had the heart of a poet.”
Bahar sighed. “He was never going to want a woman, was he?”
The young man laughed bitterly. “You think he wants me? He uses me to remember you.”
They were broken shards of the same glass, and she was too tired to play “which piece is sharper.” She stood up, wobbling a bit, and he reached out, putting his hands on her waist to steady her. The alcohol dulled her instinct to pull back. In a rush of courage she leaned down and kissed his lips. She pulled away before he could.
“Stay the night,” she said. “I won’t fight it anymore.”
Bahar went back into the apartment, past her snoring husband, to her bedroom. She shed her layers, brushed her hair, slipped into an oversized T-shirt and spread her legs wide under the starched sheets. She wiggled her toes and waited for her mind to still, pushing away thoughts of the young man helping her husband to bed, undressing him, slipping in beside him. Their mattress would learn his body now, give to his contours. She couldn’t cry any more. Her body chose sleep instead.
She woke to the sound of them making love. Bahar pulled her knees to her chest. Her small, distorted breasts pushed up against her and she felt rage pull back and surge into an uncontrollable wave. She screamed, loud, low, letting her old voice fill her chest.
Before she knew what she was doing, she was in the kitchen with a knife in her hand. She would have done it, cut them from her body, the breasts that weren’t hers. She would have mutilated whatever parts of her still wanted him. But he stopped her. His strong arms grabbed her wrists, squeezed so hard she dropped the knife. She felt a strange calm as his body pushed against her. She shut her eyes and smiled, thinking he might hold her, or whisper something kind.
He let her go.
“I can’t live like this anymore.”
She realized she’d missed his tears. Seeing them now gave her a strange satisfaction. It was her last tie to him, and it would have to be severed. He read her thoughts just as perfectly as he once used to.
“You have to leave,” he said.
Saveh was an expanse of sunflowers and pomegranate trees sprung from dust. Bahar hadn’t been home in three years. Finally, at the end of a long two-hour drive they arrived at the family plantation. The gates were shut. Bahar got out and hit the intercom. She didn’t recognize the static voice on the other end.
“Please open the gate,” she said.
“Who is it?”
“Halim agha’s daughter,” she said.
Then she heard her father’s voice in the background. “Open it! Open!”
As they made it down the winding drive, Bahar’s stomach sank as she saw the servants lined in front of the house. She wasn’t up for grand gestures, and these people would judge harsher than any other. The driver took her bag out for her.
“How much?” she asked.
“Ghabel,” he answered.
Bahar sighed. “Please, how much.”
“It’s my pleasure.”
“Please tell me what I owe you.”
Everything in this damned country was a game of pretend. She wondered what would happen if she started saying okay when merchants bowed politely and refused to set a price for their services. Even at her wedding, Bahar had to go through the traditional pretense of saying “no” twice before accepting him. As if wanting something was shameful.
She gave the driver 95,000 Toman and one of the servants inched close to take her bag. Bahar felt the weight of raised eyebrows. She could almost hear the whispers forming in their minds. They would have a lot to talk about over their dinners.
“Pesaram,” her farther said.
“Don’t call me that,” she said.
He was a short, stocky man. Since Bahar could remember, her father wore a varied version of the same brown suit every day, always a handkerchief in his pocket. Her father hugged her tight and for just a moment she let herself relax. She shut her eyes and his warmth seeped into her sagging body. She breathed deep, her arms at her sides, her cheek resting on his dusty lapel. A familiar scent of Paco Robanne mixed with earth slid through her.
“Your mother is in Tehran,” her father said. “She will be sorry she missed you.”
“No, she won’t,” Bahar answered.
She pulled away from her father and let him lead her into the house.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”
“I didn’t know,” Bahar said.
“Is everything okay, Pesaram?”
Bahar fought back tears. “I said don’t call me that.”
Her father pat her on the back. “Let’s have tea.”
“Baba Joon, I need to rest.”
Her father nodded, his eyebrows coming together in a bushy frown. “I keep your old room ready for you. But if you will be more comfortable in the new part of the house…”
The property at Saveh had been in their family for five hundred years. The original part of the house was small, with stunted rooms and plastered walls. Bahar’s mother commissioned an architect from Tehran to build the new wing in a way that flowed seamlessly from the old, hiding air conditioning and satellite television beneath hand-crafted cobalt and turquoise tiles. Bahar found the modern wing sterile, empty of character. In her room, she heard aged whispers as sheer curtains flapped in the wind. She felt memories slide down the walls and wrap around her.
She shut her eyes, mostly to avoid the unchanged décor of wrestling trophies and soccer jerseys. Everyone had been so proud of her back then. She was strong and beautiful, with rosy cheeks and wiry muscles. She hid it as long as she could. But eventually, she gave in. A young boy that worked for her father kissed her, and in that moment, everything made sense. She no longer cared for Allah’s word, or her family’s shame. The force of her happiness when they were together erased all other costs. But they could not hide forever, and they were caught. Her father used his influence and their family name was left out of it.
The town stoned Majjid to death.
Allah forgive her, Bahar remembered every bloody break in his face.
I watched them do it. Did you know that? I didn’t want you to be alone. I snuck away and hid in the shadows. Did you feel me there? The coward that let you die, that stood there while they bruised and battered you for something we both did, wanted. Your own family threw stones in hatred.
“Be happy for this moment, this moment is your life.” I used to whisper that to you when you felt scared, worried they would find us. You never knew the words were Khayyam’s not mine. And you believed me. What the hell did I know? I still hear your screaming. You were the brave one, even if by force. I have been in hiding since that day. And now I can’t recognize myself. This is not my body. This is not my life. I should have let them stone me, too. That pain lasts only once.
“Pesaram, do you need anything?”
Bahar curled into herself. “Why do you call me that? I’m not your son anymore.”
Her father came in and sat by her. “Look,” he said.
Her father held a picture of seventeen year-old Bahram. He was just about to go to Tehran to clerk in a law office, hoping to get into law school. But he met his husband at the firm, and all other things faded. In the picture, he stood between his parents. His mother kissed his cheek and his father smiled for the camera. The sun fell on all of them in such a way it caught their happiness like a suspended dust particle.
“You will always be my son. I will always see the boy in this picture. Allah doesn’t make mistakes, Pesaram. And whatever mistakes you have made by listening to foolish men, they can be undone. We can send you to Turkey, or Europe, even Amrika. The doctors there are very good.”
Bahar felt calm for the first time in two years. Her father was right. It could be undone. But not with a trip to some other place, where doctors would cut and mutilate her again. Not with pretty words that lured her from the one thing she’d wanted since they killed that boy. It could not be undone by pretending anymore.
“You’re right,” she said. “Thank you.”
Her father got up and smiled. “We will talk more when you’ve slept.”
Bahar laid her Gender Certification Papers on the dresser next to the trophies. She wanted to take her wedding ring off, too, but it was too tight, and in truth, she hated to part with it. Who was she if not his? Instead, she took a piece of paper, put his name at the top and with trembling hands wrote.
“I sent my Soul through the Invisible
Some letter of that After-life to spell:
And by and by my Soul return’d to me,
And answer’d: ‘I Myself am Heav’n and Hell.”
Would he match her tear stains with his own when he read it? Would he remember that he recited the poem over hot tea on a late night in the office? Could he even conjure up the young man whose eyes grew so wide with awe that someone else knew Khayyam by heart? She read the words again, laughing bitterly. Her stomach ached and her heart raced. Bahar ran her hands along her chest, down her sides, waiting for some pang of remorse. Not even her own body asked to be saved.
Atossa Shafaie received a BA in English literature from George Washington University and an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University. She was Fiction Editor for So To Speak and Publications Assistant at AWP. She is currently Senior Editor for Bartleby Snopes, A Literary Magazine. Her work has been published by Scribes Valley, Dream Quest One, Coffee House Fiction, Fish, Savage Press, Winning Writers, and forthcoming in Paycock Press. Her fiction was also part of Call and Response, an exhibit in George Mason’s Fall for the Book festival. Her flash fiction earned honorable mention by Glimmer Train. She is currently working on her first novel. You can find her on Facebook here and on Twitter @AtuShaf.