In Memoriam: Zahra Bani-Yaghoub 16 October 1980-13 October 2007.
Tongue removed from cheek today, to share the inspiration behind my story ‘In the Service of the Demon’, recently published in the Willesden Herald anthology ‘New Short Stories 6.’
It wasn’t Zahra’s story I wrote. I do not know it; I did not know her. But reading about her tragic death gave me a reason to persevere with a story I had lost faith in my ability to tell, and the confidence to send it out into the world.
|Like a tree in spring, my life is full of blossom
I have a lap full of flowers-who should I give them to?
Oh breeze of life, come to me tonight
As otherwise I will not last so full of flowers until dawn.
I had been writing about the Iran I remembered from 1978-79, the time just before the bloody people’s Revolution which drove out the Shah along with a whole tier of Iranian society, including ex-pat families like my own. I knew I needed a contemporary perspective, but I was already struggling with issues of cultural legitimacy and ownership, and I was afraid. Who was I to claim insight into the struggles of Iran’s women under the Islamic regime? I was a child when I lived in Iran, and although I experienced directly the early throes of the uprising, and sympathised with the exiles’ painful nostalgia for the vanished beauties of this ancient land, my family had fled as the barricades drew in, and the reforms I suffered growing up were Thatcher’s, not Khomeini’s.
Zahra Bani-Yaghoub was a young doctor practising medicine in a poverty-stricken, remote Iranian town prior to selecting a speciality and completing her studies back in Tehran. She and her fiancé were strolling in a public park on a warm autumn day when they were arrested by a ‘morality squad’. Her fiancé was quickly released, but Zahra was kept overnight until her parents could arrive to claim her. They were presented two days later with her lifeless, battered corpse.
I’d read book after book, mostly harrowing first-person memoirs, of lives that began in innocence and happiness and ended in oppression, humiliation and brutality. But I’d had no idea how I might begin to condense a narrative thread that was respectful and authentic, until I came across the news piece about Zahra’s death. It was at the back of the paper, almost an afterthought, and it snagged me, would not leave my mind for days. The journalist’s sorrow and passion, the resignation with which he appeared to accept that interest from the West in the story would be limited, and action non-existent, awoke in me an answering anger, and finally I began to see how I might stand witness.
What struck me was not what I shared with Zahra, the things we had in common – gender, education, a loving family – but a key difference. She was a devout Muslim. At the time of her arrest, her head was fully covered as the law required. There had been no kissing, no hand-holding, no touching at all – she and her fiancé strolled a respectful foot or so apart. The two of them were able to prove that they were engaged to be married, indeed had actually contracted a legal ‘temporary marriage,’ and were therefore permitted to be alone in each other’s company. SHE FOLLOWED ALL THE RULES. Despite this, so her friends and family believe, she was raped and beaten to death.
“Now people see that even an ordinary person does not have basic security; and a person simply can get arrested on a street and, instead of returning home, their bodies are buried in a cemetery.” – journalist Isa Saharkhiz.
This comment haunted me. I had been trying to understand Iran’s problems from my own place of safety, but suddenly it clicked: it was not people like me the zealots hated, but people not like them – as it always is. What’s more, it was clear that to be female in Iran was to be both dangerous, and in danger.
The two female characters in ‘In the Service of the Demon’ are ordinary Iranian girls. They are not rebels, activists or feminists. They are getting on with their lives in a place where simply wearing sandals without socks can earn you a whipping. And while the regime claims a divine mandate, Roya and Pari understand that the path to God does not require State mediation.
I will not submit, Roya says in the story. She is echoing the many brave Iranians kicking against a regime that would deny them their very being.
The authorities continue to insist Zahra’s death was suicide, and to date there has still been no judicial investigation into the circumstances behind it.