A Night in Tehran

By Suong Kyu Lee


"Suong Kyu-Ya, wake up…wake up!"

I had no idea how long Mother had been trying to wake me. Usually, I would just ignore her and go back to sleep, but there was something in her voice that stopped me from doing so. Curiously, she lowered her voice so that no one could hear except my sister and me; her trembling voice indicated urgency. The voice came from a desperate woman who obeyed her instinct to save her children from imminent danger. With half-opened eyes I watched her as she tried to wake my sister as well. Her face was pale with fright and desperation. Then I heard something that explained her panic. "Tang, Ta-Tang"—gunshots! They vibrated in the cold air of the desert. As soon as the tranquillity was restored, the silence was once more broken by a half-religious, half-frenzied cry, "Allah-Akibal!…"

The shooting had been going on for a few months. Usually, it began at about ten in the evening and ceased when the sun rose. At the time that the TV was rambling about OPEC and the oil crisis, my only concern was getting into kindergarten so I could play with the other boys. Suddenly, like a disease, rumors of the revolution were spread from mouth to mouth, and life in Tehran suddenly became dangerous and uncertain. After a few months, riotous, bloody clashes between the police and demonstrators were shown on television. In the daytime, the streets were as quiet as the desert just outside the city, but the nights were filled with gunshots and the raucous, manic cries of "Allah-Akibal," which means "God is one." We knew that someone was getting hurt because Iranian girls were going door to door to collect ice for the wounded.

I peeked out of the window which was taped to prevent the glass from shattering in case of a gunshot or bombing, though I couldn’t see anything but dark, empty space. The sound of the gunshots was metallic and penetrating, cold and sharp, leaving an irritating echo. If danger or threat had a voice, it would probably sound like gunshots. They always frightened my mother. She reacted as though the piercing sounds stabbed her right in the heart, and these past few nights, the gunshots routinely went in and out of her heart. Mother had a weak heart to begin with.

We never knew who shot the guns. The shooters might have been the police, the revolutionists, or the neighbors. Regardless of how devout the cry might be, "Allah-Akibal" always sounded as if it were from a ghost. Perhaps it was the same ghost who both shot and shouted, hiding behind the night’s cold, dark air. Then I heard mother yelling to get away from the window.

She was running from one corner to another as though she were on a super-charged battery. Her paranoid behavior reminded me of an animal trapped in a cage. I thought if my father hadn’t been on the night-shift, Mother wouldn’t have reacted this way. I asked her what she was doing, but no reply came back. I wasn’t even sure if she heard my worried question. Suddenly, Mother pulled out a huge black suitcase which she had used on the way to Iran. It was put away the day we moved in the apartment and never touched since. "Mom, what are you doing?" I asked her for the second time. She replied hastily as though she were fighting for every second, "We are going back to Korea!" and began packing our clothes.

Immediately, I realized that the woman I was watching couldn’t be my mother. I was watching someone who was distressed and frenzied, desperately trying to protect her children by escaping danger. What she really ended up escaping from, however, was her sense of reality. Even a seven-year-old boy realized that going back to Korea would mean a lot more preparation than some frantic packing in the middle of the night. My mother was the most reasonable person I had ever known. The woman I was watching wasn’t the same woman who explained why I should be polite to other people or who patiently tried to teach me how to read the time. I was terrified. I was not afraid of getting shot, but of my mother’s insanity. I wouldn’t have been scared even if a man had pointed a gun at my head and threatened to kill me, as long as I was next to my mother. My only protective shield in the world was gone.

As helpless as I was, I couldn’t cry. Somehow, I felt obligated to take care of both my mother and sister. I felt I was next in command. Even though I was only seven, I reminded myself that I was the first-born son of the family. I sat down, getting out of her way while she was packing, and watched her carefully.

Mother moved as though possessed by a spirit. She thought she was packing, but what she was really doing was indiscriminately grabbing anything her hands could reach and stuffing the suitcase as hastily as she could until it puffed up like a blowfish. Pieces of clothing were strewn everywhere; my little socks flew across the room from the dresser. The suitcase looked like the head of a rabid animal, its mouth wide open, foaming with clothes.

I didn’t tell her to calm down. I didn’t even ask her why she was acting so frantically. To me, the answer was all too clear. Packing to leave Tehran was the only available physical expression of her will saying, "We don’t want to die!" And she was doing just that, whether it made any sense or not.

The only thing that stopped her from packing were the gunshots. The gunshots didn’t go off continuously; they were fired in a sporadic pattern. The distance of the shooting was as random as its frequency—some shots seemed distant, and others seemed much too close for our own safety. Like from a powerful electric shock, Mother was jolted every time she heard the shots. Each shot seemed to paralyze her muscles and momentarily constrain her from moving. Like a marble statue, she stood still, looking pale and absent. Her shivering hands and the cold sweat gathering on her face showed her exhausting efforts to piece herself together after each shot. After she had forced herself to calm down for the next several seconds or so, she picked up from where she had left off and continued packing. She repeated this behavior for every gunshot heard, as if she were a rodent hooked up to an electrical circuit made by a sadistic experimenter.

My responsibility was to confirm whether the shooting was really over every time it let up. Mother turned around and asked me, "Is it over? Tell me, is it over?" I faithfully executed my duty; I listened and waited, hoping the silence would last a second longer. Then the shooting would resume just when I was about to assure her, "Yes, it is over." It was a cruel, repugnant game someone was playing on her; a deliberate systematic conditioning to break her nerves and make her paranoid. It would finally drive her insane.

Then there was one shot that sounded awfully close to where we were. It must have been less than ten meters from the front door. When she heard it she sprang up and put both hands over her heart as if she were preventing it from bursting. She stood motionlessly for about five minutes before she resumed packing.

Finally, the sun slowly rose. We knew that in the morning the city would be peaceful once again, denying all the violence that had occurred the night before. The fanatical cries were slowly fading with the darkness of the abhorrent night. With its generous warmth, the powerful desert sun rose carefully to soothe all the troubles of the night. The gunshots and the cries evaporated in the dry heat of the sun. for about fifteen minutes she stood silently, listening to make sure that it was really over. For the last time, she asked me, "Is it over?" Assured by the orange rays leaking through the taped window, I told her that it was. She calmly said, "Let’s go back to bed." The night was over. She became my mother again.

We didn’t leave Tehran the next day. Nor did we leave the following day. A few months later, we were evacuated from Iran on a charter plane sent by the Korean government.

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