When I pick up my 9-year-old daughter from school, the first thing she does, as soon as she clambers up onto the backseat and dumps her heavy backpack aside, is to squeeze her petit torso between the two front seats and, like a trained parakeet, bend her head to offer me my bribe, a kiss to the crown of her head, smelly as cheese from a long day of excitement. Simultaneously, deft as a pickpocket, Shirin has snatched my iPhone from my lap and slips back to her seat to buckle up. I put the car in drive; she starts her playlist. BLACKPINK blasts in the car. On her face, though, when a few minutes later I glimpse it in the rearview mirror, just before taking the ramp to the highway, I don’t see the usual smile. In the faint blue light of the phone, she is frowning at what she sees. And she sees what she shouldn’t.
This time, it is the photo of a young Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, lying unconscious on a hospital bed, that unleashes the deluge of mediocre art on the Internet, various forms of expressions of solidarity with the victim and disgust aimed at the Iranian regime. The photo, perhaps taken and leaked by a family member, or as likely by a medical staff, offers little information; yet, its limited details are enough to support the rumors about the woman’s violent arrest and her beating at the hands of the morality police. It is believed that the beating has led to her traumatic head injury and subsequent hospitalization. This is why Mahsa is in a coma. This is why no one knows if she will survive or not.
“Shirin!” I raise my voice. “Didn’t you hear me? I said I need the phone!”
She shows no gesture of recognition, no indication that she would comply with my demand. My foot presses the accelerator more eagerly. The speedometer ticks up constantly: 76, 77, 78.
“Shirin!!!” I snap at her, my arm, awkwardly twisted, reaching between the two seats, waiting. She slaps the phone in my palm.
We have our unspoken rules. I trust her judgment if she decides to tap on my phone’s notifications. Nine out of 10 are texts or photos from my wife, Seima, occasionally from other relatives. Once in a while the notification could be from myself, what I’ve sent to my phone earlier in the day, delayed due to weak signals at my school. If I come across any smart memes or cartoons online, I like to save a screenshot of them to later share with Shirin. It’s a dad-daughter thing, a nice way for us to decompress, sometimes right before bedtime. There are also random notifications on what Shirin likes to search on my phone: slimes, baby animals, cooking shorts. But content like the news and images of Mahsa Amini from Iran are a rarity on my devices. Checking the news from Iran is a once-a-week curiosity for me, nothing more. Two continents away and after twenty years of separation, I like to believe that my umbilical cord is cut from my homeland, at least on a day-to-day basis.
I crank up the volume. I need Shirin’s loud music more than she needs it, some noise to mask the din in my head, or to dilute it. In the slowed down traffic, I feel people in other cars might sense the throbbing in ours. K-pop is uncompromising. The speakers boom and vibrate with the blasting of instruments, screams. Korean syllables, as soft-toned as the teenage singers are, sucker punch your ear with their Samurai-like diction.
“Did you see the photo?” I ask Shirin during the silence between tracks. “Of the woman?”
She returns my gaze through the rearview mirror, deadpan. Eventually she nods, and turns her head back, looking out her side window.
Near Mass Pike the congestion worsens. Bumper to bumper. After each inch of movement, the brake lights go on in succession like a DJ’s strip lights. On my lap, I have unlocked the phone screen. I am looking at Mahsa Amini’s photo, again.
Despite being in a coma, the face in the photo exudes a natural youth, a flower-like beauty. There is no sign of defiance on her face, which renders her angelically harmless, innocent, fragile. Quite noticeable is the largeness of her eyes, this, despite the eyelids being shut. In fact the eyelids themselves are conspicuous among her features because of a soft shimmer on them, the effect of a peculiar, faint perspiration common to the skin of unconscious patients. The same shimmer appears around and above her lips and at the side of her right nostril that faces the camera. She is tubed in the mouth and nose. The way the tubes loop around her head and the way the massive gauze pads carefully cushion the larger tube against her cheek and neck to prevent it from slipping, indicate a finishing touch to the medical care provided, a signal that suggests the doctors have done what they could. Nothing could be done but wait.
Then there is the hair, the full black hair, on display on the pillow. The composition of the hair and the semi-profile face forms the appearance of a head bust belonging to a mythical creature, an ancient goddess. Traces of gentle waves in the hair makes one wonder if Mahsa’s parents, standing by her side, have just run their fingers through it, maybe even murmuring her name to plead with their daughter not to slip away into the dark realm, not yet. It is thanks to the revealing of the same hair in public, only a strand of it from under her scarf, that the whole tragedy unfolded. That is all the psychopathic morality police needed to pick on her on the streets of Tehran, to accuse her of not wearing her hijab properly. They pounced on her as if she was a trembling bunny rabbit. It is rumored that she had begged them not to detain her, that she was just visiting her relatives in Tehran for a short vacation before going back to her hometown in Kurdistan province to start her first semester in the university. They wouldn’t hear a word of it. They forced her into their van.
For millions of Iranian women who go about their daily lives on the streets of Tehran and other major cities, defying the strict Islamic dress code is part of who they are. In public places like subway stations and malls, in parks and bazaars, even in workplaces like hospitals or private business offices, the majority of women do not cover their hair fully. Their choice of make-up and outfit is also in stark contrast with what the hardliner government demands from them. Within this context, Mahsa’s dress and hijab at the time of her arrest is nothing but modest. This is evident by another cell phone photo shared online by Mahsa’s brother. It shows her a few minutes before being stopped by the morality police. She is seated in a subway car, smiling at the camera, with a water bottle in hand, nothing out of the ordinary by any standards, Iranian or otherwise. If a random survey was done, in a police lineup fashion, none of the Iranian contestants would have picked Mahsa as a subject of arrest by the morality police. That’s how modest she looks in her last photo before her arrest. That is why her family feels that even according to the morality police’s cruel and nonsensical rules, they have treated their daughter unfairly.
It takes a couple hours in a dim bedroom, and 1300 milligrams of Tylenol, for the storm of pain in my head to subside. Now, on one side is a shipwreck of soaked and ruined memories, crushing thoughts of survival guilt, the usual stuff for the mind of an immigrant who has left his troubled homeland and people behind. On the other side lies a nearly-drowned Gulliver of a conscience that has to keep up with life. A tired giant in tattered clothes who wants to be left alone on the shore. But a shower of Lilliputian arrows pricks him awake. These are questions of what, when, how, and where that Shirin directs at me as soon as I join Seima in the kitchen to help with the dinner. Shirin, soft-mannered but eager, interrogates us about the news. She is kneading a fistful of homemade slime, twist-twirling it and slapping it with dexterity on our granite countertop. She only goes quiet when she wants to hear the crackling of the slime in her vigorous squeeze. Her questions aren’t easy.
“But which is worse, hijab or jail?”
“Who beat her? How?”
“Where was her father? Did they arrest her brother too?”
“When will she wake up? Will she ever be able to speak again?”
I put up with the torment of each question. I have to. In a perfectly democratic procedure, Shirin and her mom have won the two-to-one majority vote. They want the matter at hand, the situation of Mahsa Amini and the mistreatment of women in Iran, to be discussed. Had Shirin been older, had Seima been less of a feminist and the passionate activist that she is, I would have let Shirin scroll through the bad art created on the subject on social media, learning about it as much as she can. Memes, posters, graphics, animations, cartoons, digital or hand-drawn, and all hashtagged together, doesn’t matter. The rudimentary and unsubtle nature of them, the rigid duality of good versus evil in them, and the catchy slogans and songs, would have sufficed.
But she is not old enough, and we ought to formulate some age-appropriate answers, something that she can understand.
Seima excuses herself to use the bathroom and that’s a much-needed time-out for me, too, to pause the difficult conversation. In the past hour, this is her third time. I suspect she goes in there both to check her cell phone and to wipe her tears, maybe freshen up a little. When we first got home, I could tell from her red nose and puffy eyes that she had been sobbing all day. I assume there are updates about Mahsa Amini that people post online from Iran. There must be a world of difference between what a woman goes through compared to what a man feels while they all follow the same news about Mahsa. I have no illusions about that. And yet, I know that every Iranian in the world is waiting to hear that Mahsa has woken up, that she won’t succumb to death. It is going to go down to the wire.
“I never wore a hijab,” I say, as soon as Seima returns to the kitchen. “Shirin wants to know how one can wear their hijab ‘bad’?”
“Well,” Seima explains, “you can wear your hijab bad like wearing a shower cap badly. If your hair gets wet, that means you didn’t do it right. According to the mullahs.”
A hush falls on the kitchen as we think about her answer. For one thing, it is hard to imagine Seima’s own massive curls fitting under any shower cap. She has tamed the end of them in a ribboned ponytail and let it dangle over her right shoulder. In her tight black leggings and black blouse, she is formal and overdressed compared to what I am wearing, shorts and T-shirt, but maybe not with respect to her masterly prepared tahchin. This is Shirin’s favorite Iranian dish, aromatic rice mixed with yogurt, shredded chicken, barberries, and saffron. With each cut that Seima makes into the baked rice, steam threads dance upward in her face. I keep busy at the sink, discovering the raw pleasure of tearing apart one’s food barehand, in this case an iceberg lettuce.
Shirin resumes her questioning; we engineer something of an answer.
“But why shouldn’t men see a woman’s hair?”
“Why dad?” Seima passes that over to me. “Why is it bad?”
I explain that is not what all Iranian believe, that only a handful of people hold those radical views.
“But I think it is just an excuse to suppress women,” Seima says.
“I don’t get it, though,” Shirin says. “For those who really believe it, what is bad about it?”
“They think if men see the women’s hair, they might act immorally,” I say.
“Means they don’t behave,” I say. “They do bad things.”
“Like what? They steal?”
“Not per se.”
“Well, they think it’s like someone’s private part. Others shouldn’t see that.”
Exactly. I have screamed with her, inside me. I feel helpless, knowing that this is eating at my daughter regardless of our convictions about our answers. More than once our trip to the supermarket has ended in her crying for the creatures on display. Particularly, the fish section is the stuff of nightmares for her, not as something grotesque, but cruel, inhumane. The red snapper’s lifeless eyes, the swordfish’s gaping mouth, or worse, lobsters crawling against the fish tank wall with their claws tied up with blue rubber bands. I have spent hours explaining to her the food chain, the reality that almost every living thing in nature is food to some other living thing. She wouldn’t budge, and seafood has been completely crossed out from our shopping list and outing menus. Now, how in the world a heart like that could fathom that some humans— humans?— would beat another human for showing a bit of her hair? How?
After dinner, we prompt her with her bedtime routine a little earlier than usual.
“But we have time,” she protests.
“Not really,” Seima says. “It takes time to wash that hair.”
“Washing my hair?” She protests harder. “Tonight?”
“Yes, lady,” Seima says. “You had slime all over it.”
“No. Where?” Shirin holds a long strand against the light.
“Go, Shirin,” Seima says. “Picture day tomorrow. You want to look nice.”
“And you had PE today,” I say.
“How do you know?” She makes a face at me.
I sniff her hair. Two soft blows to my arm before she darts away. I pretend that I’m going to chase her. She screams and hides in the bathroom.
I load the dishwasher and Seima puts away the leftovers. Our listless domestic debate oscillates between two dilemmas, two puzzles. On one hand, we keep whispering to each other: “Why can’t we do anything about Iran? Why so powerless?” On the other hand, we remind ourselves that we should contain the sadness from seeping into Shirin’s life. We shouldn’t let the news related to Mahsa traumatize her. Isn’t it already too much for a 9-year old?
When she learned about a policeman murdering a black man by kneeling on his neck, she had nightmares for months. We hadn’t told her. She had overheard some older cousins discussing George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. The irony was that she knew all about racial disparities thanks to Seima’s activism and ongoing multi-year art project. Shirin has been to Seima’s numerous workshops where the main participants were incarcerated fathers and their children, mostly African-American. Seima could eloquently explain to her the systemic injustices in the US that hurt black Americans. To some extent. But the savagery of a single act, the heartlessness of it all is hard to verbalize. The only words that I could muster, and perhaps the wrong ones to describe a criminal and his criminal act, were “sick,” and “unhinged.” How else could I explain that?
Still in the shower, Shirin is calling for a towel. “Toasty, please!”
I throw the towel in the dryer to warm it up for a minute. While waiting, I check on Seima. She’s seated on a stool at the kitchen counter, one hand around a steaming cup of tea, one hand scrolling down the screen.
“Maybe we put our phones away until she’s asleep,” I suggest.
Seima keeps scrolling.
“I don’t mean only for her. For ourselves, too. It’s not healthy.”
Seima blinks at the screen and slurps her tea.
I go and hand in the towel to Shirin. A minute later, she’s standing at the door of her bedroom.
“Can someone sleep next to me tonight? Pleeeease!”
Seima gets off the stool. Our eyes meet, angry, grieving, asking why. She leaves her phone on the countertop, facedown. I pour a cup of tea for myself.
The element of hair repeats almost in every piece of art that is created based on Mahsa Amini’s news. In one of the popular images, Azadi Tower, Tehran’s magnificent landmark, is photoshopped as a marble woman who has let her hair loose, with wind blowing in it. Another repeated element is the turban and beard, the representation of clerics who rule the country heavy-handedly. In several graphics, the supreme leader is hanging from the tip of Mahsa’s hair, either by his beard or his turban. With his bulging eyes and cartoonish buttocks, the supreme leader is kicking and screaming to be saved, but a pair of scissors is about to cut him off and let him fall to his demise.
The dominant colors in posters are red, black and green. Red signifies Mahsa’s lipstick and blood; green represents the Iranian flag. It is also a reference to the Green Movement, another massive uprising that took place more than a decade ago and the government put it out violently by murdering hundreds and arresting thousands. Black color seeps into other areas, giving shape to the map of Iran, or to a silhouette of fists raised to protest, or words in boldface that read: # Mahsa_Amini, or: No to Mandatory Hijab!
The last piece of art that I check on Facebook in bed is a set of four squares of CT scan images in a strip. I suppose these are taken from Mahsa Amini’s brain, somehow leaked out of the hospital. In the first image, the bright circumference line of the skull has a dark crack in it that connects to an even darker spot, the location of a massive hemorrhage. Frame after frame, the dark spot, the hemorrhage, expands over the light gray of the brain until it shows a complete map of Iran enclosed inside Mahsa Amini’s skull.
I scroll down a few more pages. A news outlet has reported that Mahsa’s father has denied any claim by the government that Mahsa has had pre-existing conditions, heart issues specifically. Besides that, there are no other updates on Mahsa’s conditions. Lots of slogans, numerous messages of sympathy, from the public and celebrities alike, some indication that activists are organizing to protest. And yet the thing that has left a bitter aftertaste in me, is that dark, hemorrhaged map of the country, like a bad omen. I think about Mahsa’s head, about the anatomy of the broken floor of her skull. I think about her parents whispering her name to her ear while running their fingers in her black hair. I fall asleep, feeling uneasy, regretting why I didn’t leave my phone on the countertop next to Seima’s? Why did I bring it to bed with me? But it is too late for that.
The next day, I am determined to stick to a self-imposed penance: no checking phone, no news, not until lunchtime. The fact that my three morning classes are all on the second floor helps a lot. My phone gets no signal on the second floor. I don’t even get text messages. Kind of a dead zone. And for privacy reasons I never connect my phone to the school WIFI. So, my blackhole period goes according to the plan.
At lunch, on the third floor, I check my phone. Before any social media, I have an email notification popping up. It is from Shirin’s school. The sender is not her teacher, and that makes me nervous. It reads:
“I just wanted to make you aware of an incident that occurred this morning where Shirin bumped heads with another student while bending down. They were lining up to take a class photo. She has a small bump and she has ice on it. She is okay but wanted to let you know in case she came home with a bump on her head. Please let me know if you have any questions.”
It’s signed by the nurse.
I text Seima. She calls back. A short, breathy chat.
“Where were you?”
“On the second floor,” I say. “I got no signal there. What’s with your voice?”
“Nothing,” she says. “Can’t you get her earlier?”
“Why?” I am alarmed. “Is it bad?”
“No.” Seima says. “Not at all. I spoke to the nurse. She said she’s fine, but I thought… haven’t you seen the news yet?
Instead of finishing my slice of tahchin, I stare at the photo on my monitor. I read a few lines from the BBC report on the death of Mahsa Amini, but I mostly stare at the photo, at her head on the pillow.
In front of Shirin’s school, my car is the first in the line. The young, small-framed administrator nods at me and speaks to his radio, calling on Shirin’s teacher to send her out.
A minute later she’s sauntering towards my car, with a little smile, slightly mischievous. She has a story to tell.
She clambers up to the back seat, throws aside her heavy backpack. Quickly, she pushes her body between the two front seats. She bends her head, and I kiss the crown of her head, smelling the faintest trace of shampoo in her hair. Her hand has already snatched the phone from my lap.
“What are you doing, Dad? Careful, I bumped my head today. Dad? That’s a long kiss. What are you doing?”
What am I doing?
I am holding her head, gentle but firm, in both hands, like a fortune teller holding a crystal ball. I sense it all, hair and skull and the brain inside it, with all the joys and sorrows floating in it.
Other cars behind us are getting impatient.
Shirin buckles up, and I put the car in drive.