Escape to freedom
Maryam sat in the back of the old Peugeot, her heart pounding. She clutched her bag with one hand, and the other gripped her dark grey hijab to prevent it from slipping, her eyes darting around as the car weaved through the crowded streets of Tehran.
“Are you sure this is safe?” Maryam asked the driver.
He glanced at her in the rearview mirror. “Yes, don’t worry. I know some back roads.”
Maryam nodded but couldn’t shake the feeling of unease. Speaking out against the new regime could lead to arrest, torture, or worse. And she had spoken out loudly and often. She had done so without thinking about her family. She saw that now.
Her friends at the university warned her of danger in a message last night. They told her to get out, use her voice for good, and let the world know. They said they had heard Narges Mohammadi was being tortured. They gave her the name of a man who had helped others flee Iran. Maryam contacted him through another student, who told her where the Peugeot would be waiting.
She planned on leaving without telling her family, contacting them once she was out of the country. She hoped they would forgive her, hoped they would not suffer, not be punished for her disappearance. The last time she had spoken to her father, they had sat and drank tea as they held saffron sugar cubes in their mouths. That’s when he had told her: Fadat besham! I will sacrifice myself for you! She had stared at him with tears welling in her eyes.
As they approached the city's outskirts, the driver turned onto a dirt road.
“Where are we going?” Maryam asked, her voice trembling.
“I have a friend who can help you,” he said. “He lives in a small village near here.”
Maryam nodded, unsure of what to do. After an hours-long, rough ride, the Peugeot stopped at a small house.
The driver knocked, and a bearded man answered, then nodded at Maryam.
“Come inside,” he said. “You’ll be safe here for a few days.”
Maryam followed him into a living room lit with one dim lamp, where a couple sat without speaking. They looked at her but said nothing.
“Thank you,” she said to the bearded man. “I don’t know what I would have done without your help.”
He nodded. “We are used to helping those like you. We know what it’s like.”
Maryam sat down on a rickety chair, her mind racing. She needed to escape Iran. But how?
As if reading her thoughts, the bearded man spoke up again. “I know someone who can help you cross the border into Turkey. It won’t be easy, but it’s your best chance. As you know, we can’t use the official border crossings, like Gürbulak–Bazargan, since you are on their watch list. They probably are looking for you now. The man they put in charge of you has been punished for allowing you to leave his sight, we have heard.”
Maryam nodded, grateful for any help she could get.
Over the next few days, she waited in the tiny house, listened to the news on the radio, and prayed she would escape discovery. The couple offered her food and water but spoke little.
The bearded man returned with news one evening. “It’s time to go,” he said. “We have a car waiting for you outside.”
Maryam’s heart leapt into her throat as she gathered her bag and followed him outside. The car was an old beat-up Saipa sedan with no air conditioning and a broken radio, but it didn’t matter. It was her ticket out of Iran.
As they drove towards the border, Maryam couldn’t help but feel a sense of relief. She made it this far; with luck, she'd reach safety.
But as they approached the border, they saw a line of military trucks blocking the road.
“Take this next street. We’ll have to turn around,” the bearded man whispered to the driver. “We’ll have to find another way.”
Maryam’s heart sank as they took side streets that led them back the way they came. She knew that every minute they spent in Iran was a minute closer to being caught.
The bearded man instructed the driver to take them to a nearby village, where he knew someone who could help Maryam cross the border on foot. This man was tall and wiry, with a thick mustache and a rough voice.
“Are you ready?” he asked her.
Maryam nodded, her heart pounding. They set out into the darkness, walking through fields and over hills, avoiding any roads or paths. Maryam stumbled a few times, her feet sore and blistered, but she kept going.
At last, they reached the border. The man showed her a narrow path through the mountains.
“Follow this,” he said. “It will take you to Turkey.”
Maryam clasped her hands and touched them to her forehead in thanks, tears streaming down her face. “Thank you,” she whispered.
She set off down the path, her heart full of hope. All that mattered was escaping Iran, her homeland.
Maryam represents all the brave souls, like Narges Mohammadi, who willingly put their lives in danger against fascist regimes.
In a press release, PEN America stated that the Nobel Peace Prize, given to Narges Mohammadi on 6 October 2023, acknowledges her exceptional bravery in opposing the government's oppression of women, writers, activists, intellectuals, and cultural figures who suffer severe repercussions for expressing their opinions or writing. Narges Mohammadi is an Iranian writer, human rights activist, and recipient of the 2023 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award.
Read the Nobel Prize lecture given by Nobel Peace Prize laureate 2023 Narges Mohammadi, delivered by her children Ali and Kiana Rahmani, Oslo, 10 December 2023.
This is the video I created (with the help of Canva) to introduce this flash fiction piece on Instagram and other social media.
Celebrating the season:
Winter’s Grace Notes, 20 December 2023
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