|Outside the tunnel
Story of an escape
By Banafsheh Dastyari
November 6, 2002
In 1982, at the age of 12 my family and I escaped through the mountains
to Turkey. We were caught as soon as we crossed the border by the Turkish guards
and spent two weeks in jail while our fate was being decided.
Recently I began recording our experiences in a memoir: "Facing Iran: A
family's struggle to survive". It begins with September
8, 1978, follows the events in our lives during the revolution, Iran Iraq
war, our escape and ends with our arrival to Australia where we currently live.
The first excerpt is what happened on the way to Tehran from the Caspian Sea when
martial law was first declared. The second excerpt (coming soon) is my parents first
demonstration. I trust you enjoy reading my work as much as I have enjoyed writing
September 8, 1978
The Kandevan tunnel is half way between the Caspian Sea and Tehran. It was built
60 years ago and is only wide enough to allow the traffic in one way. A traffic light
at the mouth of the tunnel determined whose turn it was.
The travellers use this time to climb out of their over crowded cars and stretch
their legs. Today the traffic stretched for miles down the winding Chaloos Mountain.
"Oh my God, look at this traffic Nina." Dad stuck his head out the window
to get a better look.
All around us people were climbing out of their cars. The anxiety of wanting to get
home, clear in their eyes. Most smoked. They took long deliberate drags from their
American cigarettes. The buts, they threw in to the green bushes, that the rain later
washed down the mountain to settle on the rice fields, which formed a patchwork at
the foot of the mountain.
The clock on the dashboard told us it was close to 6pm.
"Damn. At this rate, it could take us hours before we get home." Dad turned
off the engine and rolled down his window. He turned to look at us.
Behzad was asleep. He held his foam pillow, with it's jagged edges, close to his
chest. Dad smiled. Behzad had refused time and time again to give his pillow up in
favour of a new one. Dad wondered how long he should wait before trying again.
"Let's get out for a cigarette Kamal." Mum pulled out her packet of Rothmans
from her handbag and stepped out of the car.
They leaned on the bonnet, close together. Dad cupped his hand around the gold lighter
to first light mum's, and then his own cigarette.
The sun hung low in the sky, throwing peach coloured rays across the sea of cars.
There was a faint smell of kebab in the air. It all looked far removed from the turmoil
behind the dark tense eyes of the travellers.
"Kamal Look! Something's happening." Mum stood, straining her neck "I
think there's a fight."
I squeezed myself through the sunroof to get a better look.
Ten cars ahead of us, in front of a vendor selling kebabs, two men, one in his late
teens and the other middle-aged, were having a heated argument. A crowd was building
around them. A frail old woman was pleading with the younger man to come away with
her. She pulled at his sleeve. It seemed to have worked at first. But then the older
man said something that angered him. The younger man punched the other, sending him
flying to the middle of the road. A car coming from the opposite direction swerved
to miss him.
The older man flew into a rage. He threw off the two men who tried to stop him and
ran to his car. He was parked two cars behind us. He climbed in and seconds later
came out waving a butcher's knife. Behind him, a woman pleaded with him.
"For the love of god Asghar! He's only a boy. Please... Let him go."
"Get back into the car woman." Asghar spat out.
"I said get back in to the car."
Asghar's bloodshot eyes scanned the crowd for his victim, his nostrils flaring.
He found his assailant hiding behind a white Renault.
The younger man started to run. Dodging between cars and pushing people out of his
way. Asghar chased after him, threatening to kill anyone who tried to stop him.
The man suddenly changed direction. He was now running towards our car. Asghar surprised
and tired by the chase was slower to react.
Dad threw his half-smoked cigarette away. Mum, stunned was glued to the where she
stood. Dad pushed her towards the passenger door.
"Nina get into the car... get down from there." He pointed at me. "Roll
up your windows and lock the doors." Dad himself, climbed back in, rolled his
window up, and locked his door. He had one hand on the ignition key and the other
on the gear. His shoulders tensed.
Behzad dazed, blinked, wondering what all the commotion was about.
"What's going on? Are we nearly home?"
No one answered him.
Outside the younger man was almost at our car. He turned to see how far ahead he
is, when he suddenly tripped and fell.
To break his fall, he stretched out his arm and landed on our bonnet.
The boy looked up. His black hair wet with sweat was stuck to his forehead. The blacks
of his eyes had dilated till there was almost no white visible.
Behind him, Asghar had reached our car. Asghar's wife ran behind him. Screaming.
Pleading for Asghar to stop.
The boy rolled onto his back just as Asghar caught up with him. He tried to get away,
but his feet kept slipping, throwing him back on the bonnet. In desperation he rolled
across the bonnet, and fell between our car and the mountain.
Asghar followed, his knife raised high over his head.
"Close your eyes... don't look." Dad yelled at us. He turned the ignition.
The engine roared into life.
Ahead of us the traffic had started to move.
I pulled Behzad's face on to my lap. I bent over him, with my arms folded over our
heads. Outside a woman scream above the roar of the engine.
Dad pressed his palm on the horn and kept it there. Our wheels screeched. The car
swerved, throwing Behzad and I off our seats. Outside, the tyres fought to keep their
grip on the road. The nauseating smell of the petrol mixed with burning rubber filled
the car. Behzad and I were pressed between the driver and the back seats.
There was a sudden change in the surface of the road. The gravel crunched beneath
our wheels just before we stopped.
The engine hummed as if catching its breath.
Neither Behzad nor I get up from where we had fallen. My head felt like shattered
glass. No one spoke.
I waited until I no longer smelled burning rubber.
"Daddy, can we get up now?"
"Yes sweetheart. It's OK."
Behzad and I sat up. Behzad startled had started to cry. He climbed over the seats
to find comfort in the soft roundness of mum's arms. He wrapped his arms around mum
and buried his head in the crook of her neck.
We had stopped on the other side of the road, not far from where we were originally,
with our car facing the oncoming traffic.
The cars on the other side of the road were travelling slowly towards the tunnel,
their passengers looking curiously out their windows at us.
Mum with Behzad in her arms, had her head in her right hand. Her shoulders were shaking.
Dad placed one hand on her shoulder and handed her a Kleenex. She blew her nose loudly.
"Did you see their faces Kamal?"
Dad remained silent. Instead he rolled down his window and lit another cigarette.
He put the car into first gear and with some difficulty pushed his way into the moving
traffic. The car behind us beeped, annoyed at being forced into giving way.
When we stopped again, we could see the tip of the Kandevan Tunnel.
Dad turned off the engine. Mum's crying had subsided into a sniffle. She looked out
the window with unfocused eyes. Dad pressed his temples.
All of a sudden, he opened the door and got out.
"Where are you going?" Mum called after him.
"I'll be back soon." Dad answered over his shoulder.
There is a Police station on both sides of the Kandevan Tunnel to direct the traffic.
The traffic Police with white caps and whistles, ensure the cars enter the tunnel
one at time and to stop drivers from running the red light.
Kamal walked up to the first one who was issuing a fine to a driver. The driver was
not co-operating. He kept pleading his innocence.
"Officer, I want to report a possible murder." Kamal interrupted.
The officer looked up, annoyed. "What murder?"
"There was a fight and one of the men pulled a knife and..."
"OK, OK." The officer put his palms up to stop him going any further. "You
need to see the Sergeant over there." He pointed to a group of 15 or 20 people
which, were gathered around a heavily built man in a dark blue Police uniform. The
officer then returned his attention back to the offending driver.
Kamal inhaled through his nose controlling his anger.
As he got closer to the group, he saw the young
man who had been in the fight. He looked unharmed.
The young man's white shirt was grey with dirt and sticking out of his jeans. There
were streaks running down his dirty face. As Kamal got closer, he noticed the boy's
eyes were puffed as if stung by bees and the faint smell of dried urine on his clothes.
Standing next to the Sergeant, were Asghar and his wife. Asghar stood silent with
eyes down cast. His heavy frame tired by the physical exertion, sagged heavily above
his belt. A dark patch, the colour of bruised fruit had formed above his left eye.
His wife beside him was whimpering while she spoke.
"I swear on the Koran, my husband is a good man."
She lifted Asghar's chin up with her cupped hands so everyone could see his face.
"Look what this boy did to him." Pointing to the other man, "anyone
in my husband's place would lose their temper."
Some bystanders nodded in agreement, enjoying being jury to this open-air courtroom.
The young man was talking rapidly to the Sergeant who was trying to slow him down.
"As Allah is our witness, this man here tried to kill me... He's a lunatic...
If it wasn't for his wife, I'd be dead now."
"But Alham-doreh-Allah." The sergeant began. "You're alright
There's been no harm done. You yourself have not been completely guilt free."
Raising his index finger at the boy " So come now, do the right brotherly thing.
Kiss and make up." The Sergeant extended his arms in a gesture to bring the
two parties together. He was eager to close the issue.
"But..." The boy began to protest.
"No buts!" The sergeant retorted impatiently. "Can't you see the traffic
building up? Come. Kiss and makeup and get back to your cars... That's a good lad...
And stop making anymore trouble for me."
With a wave of his hand, the Sergeant beckoned the men to kiss one another and dismissed
Reluctantly, the crowd that had gathered around them slowly dispersed.
We saw Dad walking back to the car, smiling and shaking his head as if enjoying a
private joke with himself. The lights had just turned green and dad had to run the
last few steps to make it to the car in time. The cars behind us beeped their horns
"What happened to you?" Mum asked narrowing
her eyes, puzzled by the expression on Dad's face.
"I went to report the incident back there."
Mum sat up "And?"
"They were both already there. Sufficed to say, the problem was solved in the
good'ol Iranian way." He flashed mum a knowing smile.
We didn't get back to Tehran until well past midnight. We were only stopped once.
The soldier shone his torch at my parents tanned faces and the two sleeping children
in the back seat, and waved us through.
We climbed into our beds gratefully, not realising that we had our first taste of
the chaos that was to rule our lives for the next few years.