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A Cup of Tea, Summer of ‘72

his short memoir was originally written in Farsi (Persian) and will shortly appear in a collection to be published in Tehran in honor of Paul Sweezy. Borzoo Nabet translated Sweezy’s The Theory of Capitalist Development into Farsi in 1975. The translation, however, was published after the revolution in 1979. Borzoo now lives in the Netherlands, the country he entered as a political refugee in 1997. Siamak, who appears in this memoir himself, translated it into English. He immigrated to the United States where he has lived since 1985.

My sister was the only one who had sensed something about the issue. I had just stepped into the room from the terrace one day when she jumped in front of me and said, “What the heck is going on with you? Every time the bell rings you grab your briefcase and step out on the terrace.” She was loud and her tone was angry. I don’t remember her exact words. She may have added, “Do you think that you can just grab your briefcase and jump over the wall if they suddenly show up?”

Come to think of it, more than thirty years have passed. It was sometime in the summer of 1972, or maybe ’73, when she said those words, and I am trying to remember them in February 2004. Whatever she said, I guess I responded, after a few moments, “What could I have in my briefcase? Here, look at it for yourself.” Perhaps she responded with a nervous laugh, “Do you think I am so dumb that I could not see that you were hiding your stuff in it in the other room?” Well, maybe she was more polite and did not use the word “dumb,” but, as I said, how can I remember her exact words after thirty years?

Later that evening, I must have called Siamak. I say “I must have” because he was the only one who knew what I was doing. This was our arrangement: I would call him and hang up after a single ring. Then after twenty to thirty minutes I would call him again and this time we could talk. Sometimes it happened that his mother or father picked up the phone. Not knowing what to do I would hang up. I had to do that otherwise they would become worried if they found out that we still met with each other. Besides, it would be better for them to have limited information in response to a question such as, “With whom does your son have visits?” Yet, calling after half an hour as we had agreed was practically never possible. Usually I found the phone booth occupied, and if there was either a housewife or a young girl inside, there was no prayer that would get them out of there. The next booth would also be occupied and, if not, that usually meant that something was wrong with the phone. In that case I would have to walk for another ten minutes or so to get back to the first booth hoping to find it vacant. Gradually I had acquired a good sense of the status of each neighborhood phone booth. I knew which one was less frequently occupied, which one was usually broken, which would eat my change, and which would return the coin if you banged on it. The general rule that I discovered was that the message would get there sooner if I walked to the destination, than if I called from a public phone. Moreover, I was not supposed to use the phone booths that were close to my house. Someone who might have been watching me, or even some curious neighbor, would become suspicious of me using a public phone rather than my home phone.

If I were writing this as a novel, perhaps I would have elaborated more on details like the yellow color of the booths, their broken glass, the stores that I had to stop in to get some change or the young guy who talked and talked for fifteen minutes in a phone booth one time. I finally hit my coin on the glass and he came out. When I rushed inside I found out that the earphone was missing. I noticed him walking away toward the end of the street, his shoulders shaking with laughter.

Yet, on that specific day I don’t remember any of these events. Perhaps Siamak had picked up the phone himself the second time. I might have said something like “How are you doing young man? Long time no see.” He might have said, “Not bad, I’m watching some movies on TV.” Then, maybe after some short chatting about the soccer games or the weather, I would have asked, “Why don’t you swing by, I shall brew you some hot tea.” I don’t know, but I guess he might have replied, “Hot tea in this hot weather?” Finally I must have concluded with the main point, “I might stop by around six.” He paused. His voice somewhat hoarsened and turned serious, it was as if I could see him frown. “Okay,” he said, “stop by if you get a chance.”

Well, I am somehow making up the sentences about the tea business—just to record what I do recall. How could I remember the exact words? However, I do remember the exact words “I might stop by around six,” and I will be able to repeat them, just as exactly, thirty years from now. All the words in this sentence were necessary and to miss any of those could have put us in trouble. Suppose I said, “I must see you at six o’clock sharp.” If a third party were listening, they would certainly sense that something was going on. Then the chances were that they would chase me and get to Siamak. “I will stop by” was also a good phrase because it was not clear where I would meet with him. It might make them think that I would go to his house. Previously though, Siamak and I had made our arrangements carefully. “Around eight o’clock” meant eight sharp. Our meeting spot was determined in person. In my thinking, using words like “perhaps” and “around” were of utmost importance. I said to myself that the third party might conclude that this guy isn’t sure if he will see his friend or not. Yet deep down I also had a feeling of suspicion. I worried myself with the thought that those eavesdroppers must have a keen ear for our real meaning. Because of that, I still exercised all routine precautions when I left the house. Leaving one of my shoelaces loose—this was my own creation—I placed my packet inside my pants under my shirttail, tightened my belt a little, made sure that my clothes looked normal, and then I hit the road. Jahangear, a good friend, shared with me a technique he had discovered. “The most critical moment,” he said, “is the moment you step out. If someone is waiting and watching your house, he will inevitably get a bit shocked to see you and will perhaps try to look away. That moment of that shock is very short but if you remain alert you can sometimes notice it at the first instance.” This is why I would rush out the door when I left home and try to take in a 180-degree view in the first moment—I called it my “panoramic viewing.” Well, I have to say that neither on that day, nor on any other day, did I find anyone who appeared even a little bit shocked to see me, and nobody looked the other way, not even slowly.

I began walking on the wide busy street. I passed by the real estate agency, the butcher shop, a site where some laborers were demolishing or constructing a building, and then turned onto a less busy street that I always used. On such streets one had a better chance to determine whether one was being followed or not. I don’t remember whether the following technique was my own creation, or I learned it by listening to a revolutionary radio station named Meehan Parastan (Patriots). The idea was that one must pay attention to the license plate numbers of the cars passing by when walking on a street that is not busy. If you saw the same car again, you could tell that it was trouble and you had company!

And again, neither on that day nor on any other day did the same car pass me more than once so that I could tell that I was being watched. On the contrary, my arrest had happened in a simple way. I was cracking some walnut shells to prepare my lunch in the dormitory of the university when a man opened the door and stepped into my room. Acting like the most harmless person ever in existence he said, “There is a mail packet for you downstairs; you need to come and sign the papers for it.” I had a feeling that the mailman could not be so enthusiastic about his job that he would climb four flights of stairs only to say that. Furthermore, I would not expect a mailman to be so huge. Obviously there was no way around it. I put my clothes on and went downstairs to the courtyard with the guy only to find three other “mailmen” sitting in a car waiting for us. Not only did they not avert their eyes as we approached, but one of them got out and directed me to sit between two of them in the back. I got into the car and did not dare to ask about my mail packet.

At the same time, one could not assume that a second arrest would happen exactly as the first one. It was therefore prudent, especially for someone who had been released, to comply with all security—or antisecurity, so to speak—precautions that one had learned. So when I was crossing a street to turn onto a side street I would use the opportunity to look behind me. It seemed quite natural to turn my head and look when I crossed a street. That did not totally assure me though. After a minute or two I would stop and fasten my shoelace. By putting my foot on the curb and bending I had the advantage of peeping through the side to glance at the street entrance. Again, I can’t remember if it was the advice of that radio station or my own belief that the worst thing you could do would be to turn your head suddenly and look back for no reason. This was as if you were saying to your potential pursuers, loud and clear, that you had a chip on your shoulder and that you were into something unlawful. If any person or car did not enter the street while I fastened my shoelace, then I would feel relieved. Otherwise, I would sneak into the bakery located at the corner. Inside the bakery, while I pretended that I was looking at the pastry on the showcase, I had a good chance to see if any passerby appeared like a hunter who has just lost his prey. And again, there was yet another chance to catch a good glimpse of the street on my way out of the shop. This was the reason that anytime Siamak saw me carrying a bag of pastry, instead of having fun and eating them, he would frown. He knew that I had not felt safe. We had agreed that we would not show up at the designated spot if we did not feel comfortable about what was going on behind us. In the event that we saw each other under such circumstances, we would walk past each other pretending that we did not know each other. Correctly, Siamak used to say, “Well, those guys cannot afford to place a team to watch and chase each student dismissed from the university for political reasons. They may do it only once a month or perhaps once every six months. Yet the point is that, that one time, might be this very time.”

On that day we were supposed to meet at 5 or 6 p.m. I also know that I carried a bag of pastry and it was not so late that it was dark. They said that SAVAK (the secret police) had special binoculars, which allowed them to see in the dark. By setting the appointment during daylight we deprived them of an opportunity to use at least one of their high-tech devices.

So, I guess we met on that empty narrow street that was bright enough for our “inspection at a glance.” We must have watched the surroundings, and then I must have pulled the packet out from under my shirt for Siamak to put it under his. Perhaps I told him “My sister has become suspicious; that’s why I had to see you earlier.” We must have smiled and agreed that our next appointment would be a couple of streets away from that one, said goodbye, and parted quickly. On the days that we exchanged packets it did not make any sense to hang around and walk together. He would go straight home to hide the packet by the ones that he had gotten from me previously, and I would go back home without it.

I don’t recall whether I went straight home that day or went for a walk first, staring at the windows of the shops. Yet, when I got home, I did not feel like working. I sat at my desk. It was an old military folding desk in dark brown color. One of its legs was so loose that no nail could fix it. As usual, I organized my desk: a pencil, a sharpener, five blank pages, and my dictionary. Then I pulled the book out of my briefcase.

Now I had some peace of mind. If they stormed in they could find only one item that might be of interest to them, a book in English, and only its subtitle, “The Principles of Marxian Political Economy,” would be likely to arouse suspicion. I had not kept even one page of what I had translated. I sharpened my pencil, pulled the blank sheets in front of me, and started to translate from where I left off. But no, I could not concentrate. “Surplus value,” “over-production crisis,” and “the declining rate of profit” all appeared as if they were some meaningless figures. Also, the sentences looked too lengthy. I could understand a sentence, yet by the time I reached the end of it I had forgotten the beginning. I could not continue. Something was missing.

I began to play some beats by tapping on the desk when I saw my sister standing there, holding a tray in her hands. It seemed that she had been there for a while, staring at me. She came closer. Her eyes were red from crying. In a hoarse voice she said, “Earlier, I spoke for your own sake.” She paused for a moment. Then she picked up the cup of tea from the tray and placed it on my desk, and to its side, the sugar bowl. She said, her voice getting hoarser still, “What will happen to mother if they arrest you too? Have you ever thought of that?” She left as quietly as she had come in.

No, I didn’t feel like translating. I closed the book. Suddenly I remembered the bag of pastry that I still had not opened. Now, having a hot cup of tea with it would be really fun.

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