This is an excerpt from the novel Zendegi by Greg Egan, first published in the United Kingdom by Orion/Gollancz and in the United States of America by Night Shade Books. Copyright © Greg Egan, 2010. All rights reserved.
تهران، فروردين ١٣٩١
Tehran, March 2012
“Bidar sho! Agha Martin? Lotfan, bidar sho!”
Martin stirred, his head throbbing. He squeezed the button for the light on his watch; it was just after two in the morning. He recognised the voice: Omar, his neighbour from downstairs, was banging on the door, pleading with him to wake.
What was Farsi for fire? Martin had picked up a smattering of Dari – the Afghani dialect of Farsi – when he’d been stationed in Pakistan, but even after two months in Iran, most of it spent working with a professional translator by his side, his Farsi remained rudimentary.
“Aatish?” he called back. That was fire in Urdu, but he was fairly sure it was the same in both languages.
“Na!” Omar’s tone was impatient, but not baffled, so at least the question had made sense. “Lotfan, ajaleh kon!” Omar usually spoke English with Martin, but whatever the emergency was it had apparently driven the language from his brain.
Martin switched on the bedside lamp, got into his trousers and stepped out into the entrance hall of the cramped apartment. When he opened the door, Omar was tinkering with his phone. Martin suppressed a groan of irritation; it had been bad enough in Sydney, but in Tehran nobody could go five minutes without whipping the things out and doing something pointless with them.
Omar handed the phone to Martin. Sometimes the tinkering wasn’t so pointless: the screen displayed an email message that had just been translated into English by a web service. It took Martin a while to make sense of the mangled syntax, but he suspected that in their present state he and Omar would have needed an hour playing charades to get the same information across.
There had been an accident on Valiasr Street, one of Tehran’s main thoroughfares. The two drivers, along with two passengers from one of the cars, had been taken to hospital with minor injuries. One of the passengers was Hassan Jabari, a high-ranking jurist and politician. The other passenger’s identity was unknown, but a bystander had filmed the aftermath of the accident on their phone and a still from that movie was embedded in the message.
Martin squinted at the ill-lit image of a paramedic helping a woman from the wreck. “Could that be his wife?”
Omar roared with laughter; his English hadn’t deserted him completely. The woman was flashily attired, with glittering pendant earrings and a tight-fitting evening gown. Tehran certainly had its Gucci set, and behind closed doors – or the tinted windows and dividing partition of a limousine – even the most respectable woman was no longer bound by the rules of hejab. But looking again at the still, he thought perhaps that was stretching the bounds of probability.
“Okay, so it’s his mistress. Or a prostitute.” Even so, Martin was a little surprised that Omar and his friends would treat such a revelation with anything more than cynicism. Dozens of young Iranians had told Martin that their rulers were two-faced hypocrites, moralising endlessly in public while they embezzled oil money and lived like kings. One student had shown him a famous cartoon: in the first panel, the despised former Shah cupped his hands beneath a torrent of gold falling from the sky, with just a few stray coins spilling out from between his fingers to reach his subjects below. In the second, a glowering, bearded mullah stood in the Shah’s place – and this time every last coin was caught, with nothing slipping through.
Omar wiped tears from his eyes. “Bebin!”
Martin looked at the picture again, wondering what he was missing. The woman was statuesque, with striking bone structure – was she a famous actress, or a singer? Perhaps it was just the poor quality of the image, but there was something theatrical, almost mask-like, in the excess of make-up she was wearing—
“Mibinam,” he said. “Mifahmam.” He understood, now, why Omar had woken him.
Hassan Jabari, former government prosecutor and current member of the Guardian Council – the body that had declared more than two thousand aspiring candidates for last month’s election to be insufficiently loyal to the principles of Islam – had just been caught in his chauffeured Mercedes Benz in the middle of the night in the company of a glamorous, begowned transsexual.
“Berim be—” Martin struggled.
“Hospital?” Omar suggested.
“Dorost,” Martin agreed.
Behrouz, Martin’s translator, had taken a fortnight’s leave to visit his parents. With the non-event of the election over and half the country shut down for Noruz, the Persian New Year, Martin was officially on leave himself, but he’d decided to stay in Tehran and catch up on paperwork.
As they drove into the city, Martin contemplated the task ahead of him with unease. He recoiled from the prospect of treating anyone’s sex life as news – least of all when there was a potential death penalty hanging over the participants – but the email was already circulating, the revelation a fait accompli. The real story now was not Jabari’s behaviour, but the way the regime and the public would respond to the exposure of his hypocrisy.
“We should call him ‘Hugh Grant’ Jabari,” Omar suggested – rather proudly, as if the time was long overdue for an Iranian celebrity to grab the attention of the international tabloid media.
“I’m pretty sure Hugh Grant was caught with a woman,” Martin said.
Omar racked his brain. “‘Forty-Eight Seconds’ Jabari.”
“Keep this up and you’ll be hosting the Oscars.”
Omar owned a shop that sold consumer electronics – and the odd bootleg DVD under the counter. His English had come back to him completely now, but Martin wished he wasn’t so reliant here on Omar’s help. Omar was a partisan player in all this, an unashamed pro-reformist; Martin was grateful for his tip-off, but it would be both naïve and unfair to expect him to act as an impartial colleague, like Behrouz.
They drove down Taleghani Avenue, past the “Den of Espionage” formerly known as the US Embassy. The walls of the compound were emblazoned with bombastic slogans – helpfully translated into English for the edification of tourists – and a series of murals that included a skull-faced Statue of Liberty that would not have looked out of place on a Metallica album. Even at this hour Tehran’s traffic made Martin nervous, with the ubiquitous Samands and old fume-belching Paykans weaving between lanes without warning, and motorbikes zigzagging into every tiny space that opened up before them.
As he turned his company Peugeot Pars into the cramped hospital car park he hoped they hadn’t arrived too late. In a perfect Orwellian police state, Jabari’s companion – and every witness to the crash – would already have vanished without a trace, but Tehran was a very long way from Cold War East Berlin. He doubted that Jabari’s double life had been an open secret among the rigidly pious regime’s upper echelon, and while elements of VEVAK, the intelligence service, might have known about it – keeping it on file for a time when a political favour was needed – it would not surprise him in the least if they had not yet even heard about the accident; the email had been distributed in encrypted form to a relatively small number of people. In the first instance Jabari’s driver would be charged with keeping everything under wraps, but if he were out of action, who would call in the fixers?
Martin turned to Omar. “So what does a paramedic do when he comes across a man dressed as a woman?” He was assuming Jabari’s companion was pre-operative, though that wasn’t necessarily the case; Ayatollah Khomeini, no less, had issued a startlingly enlightened fatwa in the eighties, declaring that gender reassignment surgery was a perfectly acceptable practice.
Omar said, “For a heroin addict lying in an alley, who knows? But for this, I think he acts like he doesn’t notice. Why make te-rouble?”
Martin pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes. A male paramedic had an excuse to play dumb, but what happened when a female doctor examined the patient more closely? Notwithstanding Khomeini’s ruling, there was no guarantee that a man who took oestrogen and put on an evening gown was going to sail through the segregated medical system without igniting some form of commotion.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked Omar. “If I screw things up myself, the worst anyone’s going to do to me is deport me.”
Omar looked irritated. “I want you here as a witness, but no way you could do it alone. Berim.”
It was a busy night; Omar spent ten minutes in a queue at the reception desk before a polite but harried woman could speak with him. Martin stood at his shoulder and tried to follow the conversation without letting the effort show. Omar said his wife had been in an accident. What was her name? Khanom Jabari: Ms Jabari. Martin’s skin crawled at the audacity of it, but this scenario offered them their only chance. Iranian women kept their family names when they married; Hassan Jabari’s sister would remain Khanom Jabari. If Jabari’s companion was still passing as a woman, it would surely be too risky to register as his wife, so claiming to be his sister was the only respectable option left.
The receptionist typed something into her computer, then glanced up at Omar. “Shokouh Jabari?” She gave a date of birth.
“Dorost, dorost,” Omar replied impatiently, as if these details were trivially familiar to him. Martin waited to see if the receptionist would ask Omar to confirm his own name against a recorded next of kin, but she had better things to do. “Bekhosh shishom,” she said. Ward six? Omar was already walking.
Martin caught up with him. “Your first wife will be thrilled by this addition to the family,” he joked.
“Fuck you!” Omar snapped back angrily. Martin was startled by the intensity of his reaction, but on reflection he realised that he had no right to be surprised. Omar loathed political and religious extremism, but the DVDs under his counter tended more to Rambo than Transamerica; on this issue he was probably to the right of the ayatollahs. He was here for the sake of political expediency; this was not some humanitarian rescue mission.
At the entrance to the ward, Omar spoke with the nurse on duty; she glanced inquiringly at Martin, and Omar said something that sounded like dayeam: my uncle. The nurse summoned someone else to organise the visit; fifteen minutes later the two of them were led into a small, curtained-off space, where a figure dressed in a baggy grey manteau and a black shawl and head-scarf sat in a wheelchair, one foot bandaged and elevated. For a moment Martin thought there’d been a mistake, but the hospital must have supplied the modest clothing. The angular face beneath the scarf was the face from the emailed image of the crash site.
The three of them were left alone.
“Salaam khanom,” Omar greeted Shokouh nervously. “Chetorin?”
“Bad nistam,” Shokouh replied. “Shoma chetorin?” Martin found it hard to judge how her voice would sound to a native speaker; she spoke quietly in a slightly reedy falsetto, but it was not forced or uneven.
“Tell her we’re her friends,” Martin said, “or she’ll think Jabari sent us.” Shokouh looked up at him, startled, and he realised he’d just managed to put that idea right out of her head. “Ruznaame negaaram,” he explained. I’m a journalist.
Omar spoke in a low voice; Martin could follow only a small part of what he was saying. Shokouh replied, heatedly, at length.
“She wants to go to Europe,” Omar announced, dismayed. “She’ll only come with us if we es-wear to get her to la France.” On their drive into the city Omar had mentioned safe houses, but his plans clearly hadn’t stretched as far as Paris.
Martin said nothing. He still had the phone numbers of some people-smugglers in Quetta he’d interviewed for a story a few years before, but he decided against offering Omar an introduction; the smugglers had sometimes dealt with Iranian clients, but he doubted that Shokouh would be safe travelling through Baluchistan, even fully veiled in a burqa. In any case, he was meant to be covering this story, not orchestrating it.
“Maybe there’s a way,” Omar mused. He sounded doubtful, but then he added decisively, “If we do it, we should do it quickly. Before everyone wakes up and knows what they’re missing.” He spoke with Shokouh again, and they seemed to reach an agreement. He told Martin, “I get the—” He mimed crutches, and disappeared in search of a nurse.
“Ingilisi baladin?” Martin asked Shokouh.
“Very less,” she replied. “Parlez-vous français?”
“Une petite peu.” He’d studied it in high school, but by now his French was probably worse than his Farsi.
Shokouh lowered her gaze to the floor. Martin set his frustration aside; if Omar could pull off this miracle, Sandra Knight in the Paris bureau could interview her face-to-face in a language they both spoke fluently. Even if he’d had Behrouz beside him it would have made little difference; whatever promises of discretion he’d offered, Shokouh would have to be crazy to disclose a long list of potentially suicidal details while she was still in the country.
Omar returned with a pair of crutches and together they helped Shokouh to her feet. There was some paperwork to complete, but Shokouh had already been medically cleared to be discharged.
As they were leaving the ward, the nurse stopped them. There was a brief exchange before they moved off down the corridor. Once the nurse was out of sight, Omar’s forced smile evaporated, and he urged them forward.
“What was that about?” Martin asked.
“She said Khanom Jabari’s cousin has arrived at reception, wanting to make a visit. I said tell him we’ll meet him there. But maybe he doesn’t want to wait.”
“Okay.” Martin digested the news. “At least it wasn’t another husband; that would have been awkward.”
They reached an intersection with a side corridor; Omar tilted his head and Martin took Shokouh’s arm and helped her to make a sharp right turn.
They should have borrowed the wheelchair, Martin realised belatedly. This was hopeless; the “cousin” would reach the ward and double back to find them before they could get even halfway to the car park, and if he had colleagues covering the exits—
“We’re screwed,” he said.
“Not yet,” Omar declared.
Martin glanced at Shokouh. She was hobbling as quickly as she could, but her face was tensed against the pain. They’d moved away from the wards into some kind of service area, and only every third of the ceiling bulbs were lit.
Omar tried a series of doors in succession until he found one that opened into a tiny utilities room. There was a mop, bucket, cleaning products, and a small sink. Omar and Shokouh had a terse exchange.
Martin said, “What’s the plan? We can’t hide in here all night.”
“You hide. I’ll send someone to get you.”
“Me? It’s not me they’re looking for.”
“We need your ca-lothes,” Omar explained. “For disguise.”
Martin’s stomach clenched painfully. “No, no, no!” He gestured at Shokouh. “It won’t work! Look at her eyebrows!”
Omar addressed her in Farsi. Shokouh took off her scarf and shawl; the earrings from the crash were long gone. She went to the sink and, with the aid of a few drops of floor-cleaner, washed off every trace of make-up. Then she ran wet fingers through her thick black hair, quickly reshaping it. The end result was a slightly dated male Persian pop-star look, the fringe flopping down to all but conceal her forehead. With no pencil darkening her plucked eyebrows, close up she looked more like a burn victim than anything else.
Martin said, “Whoever’s looking for her, they’ll know she can pass as a man.”
“But if we’re quick,” Omar countered, “they won’t expect it. The nurse will tell them one woman, two men.”
There was no denying that a rapid switch could improve the odds. Tehran had dozens of crashes every night; the injured would be coming and going until morning. So long as they could sneak out of the wing unseen, a young man on crutches crossing the car park with a male friend would not be an obvious target – and anyone trying to maintain a low profile for Jabari could hardly throw a cordon around the hospital and check everyone’s sex before letting them pass.
Martin steeled himself. He couldn’t tell Omar to do the swap himself; it was clear which one of them was the better fit. Lurking half-naked in the women’s wing of an Iranian hospital was not a risk-free proposition, but the truth was, he was more afraid of humiliation than any actual physical harm.
“Okay,” he said.
Omar left them. Martin turned his back on Shokouh as they undressed. When he handed her his clothes it was impossible not to notice her breasts, but the sweater he’d worn was loose, and would be looser still on her; this was not a lost cause, not yet. She handed him her own trousers and manteau, and after a moment’s hesitation he put them on; it was worth it for the warmth alone, and there was nothing blatantly effeminate about the garments to creep him out. In fact, he could have walked down any street in Pakistan dressed like this; it was almost the same as a unisex shalwar kameez.
Martin opened the door. Omar saw him and pressed his fist into his mouth, stifling a guffaw, but he regained his composure rapidly.
“Car keys,” he demanded. Martin handed them over.
“My fe-riend will be-ring you ca-lothes,” Omar stuttered, battling his way through the English tongue-twisters.
Shokouh picked up the crutches that were leaning against the sink. “Merci,” she whispered.
“Bonne chance,” Martin replied.
He closed the door and stood in the dark, listening to the sound of the crutches as she moved down the corridor, hoping the hospital’s cleaners wouldn’t start their shift before dawn.