Friends

A warden takes me by the arm as I slip on my blindfold and step out of the cell. I'm led down several corridors and seated down somewhere as a door swings shut behind me. I raise my head to peer out from underneath my blindfold, and see I'm facing the wall, in a concrete cell with no windows. Half an hour goes by and I realize I'm trembling with increasing intensity, the muscles in my lower abdomen undergoing unfamiliar jarring motions.

In mythico-historical allure, Shekufeh prison comes fairly close to the football stadiums in Santiago de Chile. Nobody knows the figures, but everyone knows the anecdotes, the many graphic details of how before and after the Islamic Revolution, Shekufeh was the favored locus of systematic torture and countless executions, graphic details I myself have recounted many times over latte macchiatos back in Europe.

The door is opened and shut. Someone pulls up a chair and sits down behind me, while the many graphic details go prancing through my head in a wild and spirited little dance. Mambo or merengue, I think, grappling to maintain that jaded, urbane, ironic inner voice.

"So. Azizam. Listen closely now," someone slowly, emphatically croons into my left ear. "If you tell the truth, we'll find a solution for you. If you don't, it will cost you dearly. Is that understood?"

"Yes." A feeble, high-pitched croak. I sound like an emasculated water toad.

"So tell me something. The simple truth. Don't try to act smart. Please. Let's not waste our time here. Which is better?" He pauses. I wait, tracing the spasms in my abdomen. "Europe or Iran?"

I hesitate, but only briefly. "Actually", I manage, "until yesterday, I would have said I preferred Iran." The interrogator chuckles to himself, and I can hear an office chair creak as he leans back in his seat.

"So why were you filming the Revolutionary Courthouse."

"I wasn't filming the Revolutionary Courthouse."

"I see. You were not filming the Revolutionary Courthouse. You were filming -" he waits for me to finish his sentence.

"We were filming the flower stand. The one that said TEHRAN FLOWER in orange. Neon orange."

"You were filming the flower stand. And indeed, why not. It's a really nice flower stand, no?"

***

"What is your opinion of Imam Khomeini?"

"I'd say every human being has weak points and strong points."

"How interesting. Do tell us his weak points."

"He had none."

"I see. So tell me, you disapprove of the theocratic State, don't you."

"Why should I disapprove?"

"You grew up abroad, and you don't disapprove?"

"There was a referendum in 1979."

"Indeed there was. How observant of you."

The interrogator is wearing a turquoise suit and beige rubber slippers, sporting a four-day stubble and an impeccable blow-dried coif, even after sixteen hours of interrogation, resorting to the most polite and self-denigrating etiquette as he brings tea and sugar and apologizes for smoking. Yet he is perfectly happy to scream, threaten, and bang his fists on the table from time to time, in a show of exquisite virility. And he is but one among many. The Information Ministry, I decide, offers the most promising masculine paradigm of our time. A sphere of innocence untouched by the adulterations of media-honed sex-appeal, holding many untapped authenticities, a promise of fresh returns of the referent and tantalizing new styles.

Later that night, I look on in handcuffs as they search my Zirzamin apartment, perusing and scrutinizing everything from Moleskine notebooks to snapshots of teenage beach parties, to spiteful letters from an ex-girlfriend, asking obvious questions, none of which I can answer convincingly. Particularly when it comes to photographs of Tehran's concrete vistas, or tacky monarchist memorabilia. How to explain a voguish fascination for generic cities, let alone retro kitsch, to a heavily armed gentleman who is trying to discern precisely which smoke-filled room, which Intercontinental Plot and Scheme you hail from, and murmuring little sweet nothings like, "Really takes an imbecile like you to dig his own grave."

The heavily armed gentleman points to a ceramic ashtray with a hand-painted portrait of Shah Pahlavi, posing on a US warship with his wife. "And what's with the Shah?"

"I never liked the Shah. He was the worst thing that could have happened to Iran. I'm serious. I'm not saying that to please you."

"You have Shah salad bowls, Shah keychains, Shah wristwatches and Shah coffee cups, but you never liked the Shah. And this is because," he adds, with a hint of fatigued sarcasm, "he was the worst thing that could have happened to Iran. And you're not saying that just to please me."

"I mean, the salad bowls, it's retro. It's retro and kitsch, and, well, jokey, you see. For example, it's, if you overdo something, if you turn it into a toy, you criticize it. You make it funny. You take control over it. You know?"

"So you turn it into a toy, and make it funny, and take control over it. I see. Very nice." He points to the Ho Chi Minh postcard. "And who's this gentleman? Are you taking control over him, too?"

"My grandfather. Maternal grandfather. On my mother's side."

At four in the morning, the agents, suspecting the CD collection of containing information for Mojahed comrades in hiding, sit around the coffee table listening to random tracks by Dr Dre and Vanessa Paradis.

***

From beneath the lower rim of my blindfold, I see agents in flabby suits of turquoise, beige, maroon and scarlet come and go, all of them asking precisely the same questions, over and over. This particular interrogation has taken three hours thus far. Where was the film material we shot before "fire bombing" the Courthouse, what did we think of the regime, who were we filming for, how did I meet the girl, did I have sex with her-come on pal let's hear it you can tell us you know-what did I know about her father, who were we filming for, how did I meet Mehrangiz. And Stella; how come I, of all people, knew someone like Stella.

At noon, I'm handed buttered rice with beef, tomato and lentils in a picnic bowl. Shortly after lunch, before resuming the interrogation, the agents casually pick up a conversation more gentle in tone.

"You know we saw that women's rights stuff on your bookshelf. Ebadi and Kar and Lahiji and the rest of it. Are those yours?" I hesitate, but then claim I borrowed the books from Cyrus. "Look. Ever been married to an Iranian? Nakheir, nope, you haven't." I receive a chummy clap on the shoulder.

"Iranian men, we're all pussy-whipped. That's what we are. We're one big Pussy-Whipped Men's Club." In the background, I can hear several agents chuckling and mumbling their approval. Vala be khoda.

This is followed by more of the same. Where was the film material, what do we think of President Khatami, what were we taking pictures for, how did I meet the Stella girl, what did I know about her family, why was I in Kuala Lumpur last year, what was I taking pictures for. After which, all of a sudden, a very different discussion starts taking shape.

"Work for us. You know how to build websites? And make video films?"

"Perhaps."

"We need you. We need people who speak foreign languages. None of our boys know how to work outside Iran."

I'm reminded of Zsa Zsa's stories of incognito SAVAK agents sitting in the Promessa thirty years ago. "Gorillas in a tanning salon," as she once put it. "To think they were trained by Mossad. What a waste of time. Of taxpayer's money."

"And about your friend Stella, see, we know a thing or two about her. Did you know she set you up? Did you know she's using you? Plotting against you?"

"Of course. She hates me. And so do Dr. Dre and Vanessa Paradis. They're plotting against me too."

Two minutes pass by in silence. I can sense that one of the men is sitting only inches behind me, while another is slowly walking back and forth across the cell, when the door swings open, and someone walks in with a kettle of tea. I hear someone pouring the liquid into small glasses.

"Look. Let's not make this any more complicated than it already is. Just go visit the opposition groups abroad. Get the names." The interrogator's breath is tinged with buttered rice and lentils. "Create a database. Get us some material, some names and addresses. There'll be money. Lots of it."

Upon which, rather than attempting to look like a hero, or a foreign legion guerillero, I haggle, lie, misquote, understate and hyperbolize, offering vague promises and obscure suggestions, until I finally sign a statement.

I am willing and able to contact Iranian opposition groups abroad, and inform the Information Ministry on all that I come to know during the course of my meetings with the members of said groups.

I'm now led back to my cell, another chummy clap on the shoulder as I leave, the warden gently holding my upper arm, guiding me down the corridor. "And lay off the feminism. It'll do your head in, valla be khoda."

From Softcore. Copyright 2007 by Tirdad Zolghadr. Forthcoming in June 2007 from Telegram Books. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.