1 A Chance Encounter
A RED LIGHT
A Red Light
A red light burns, a red light glows,
A red light yearns but never shows The truth behind the flickering flame
Where life is just a drawn out game.
Each day alone adds to the pain
Of degradation, guilt and shame Until the source becomes obscureThe red light fades then is no more.“A RED LIGHT”
1A CHANCE ENCOUNTER
A sleek, red, sports car cruised through Tehran Noh, the red light district of Tehran known as New Town. It was early evening in the midst of summer and Farid Nezam, bored by the idle pursuits of the rich, had left his parents sipping cocktails by the swimming pool of their villa in Amirabad - an exclusive suburb in the northern part of the capital.
The traffic in Tehran was always congested, and the intense heat only added to the frustration of the drivers as they crawled slowly through the airless, dusty streets. Rivulets of sweat trickled down their faces as they shook fists at each other or invoked curses in the name of all infidels through their open windows.
Farid sat relaxed behind the wheel of his air conditioned Camaro, listening to the latest Western pop music on the car radio. As the stream of tired traffic crept slowly into south Tehran, he noticed the buildings starting to look shabbier and dirtier, the streets becoming narrower and littered with refuse, and an occasional beggar squatting on the pavement staring soulfully at passers by. Children ran about barefoot dressed in old, cotton pyjamas while their mothers did their washing by rusty street pumps, and along the way appeared huge stalls of fruit and vegetables making a riot of colour amidst the drab, brown blocks of houses, flats and shops.
New Town was an area of bright neon lights, lurid posters, cinemas showing sexy films, and heavily made up females of all ages, shapes and sizes. It was a haunt for rich and poor from all walks of life, and abounded with pimps and prostitutes, drug dealers and addicts, and people of all sexual orientations. It was a place where a nice girl would not even venture for an innocent stroll.
Farid turned the car down a side street and drove slowly along the narrow one way alleys, curious to see how the New Town ladies plied their trade. In some houses the windows gave out a harsh, red glare. Others discreetly displayed small cards offering massage or modelling services. Several women crouched in doorways covered by their ’chadors’ as if ashamed of their profession, whilst others, dressed in mini skirts or tight trousers, lounged against walls chewing gum or smoking a cigarette, and moving suggestively when a man passed them by.
Farid suddenly slammed on his brakes as a turbaned figure crossed the alley in front of him. He looked furtively at Farid before disappearing into a house with an upstairs window suffused in red light. Farid recognised him as the mullah who came regularly to his parents’ house to read the Koran, and wondered wryly whether the occupant of the house, which the mullah had entered, paid the mullah for his services or vice versa...
So far, Farid had had no inclination for a backstreet adventure. His father had warned him of the physical dangers of sexually transmitted diseases, and, in any case, he had a steady stream of beautiful girlfriends most of whom had no reservations about jumping into bed with him. His physical desires were always satiated but, nevertheless, something was lacking. He had never, for example, spent a whole night lying next to a warm body, or woken up in the morning with someone’s arms embracing him. His amorous pursuits were limited because he could not spend too long with a girl in his room, cars were uncomfortable, and going to a girlfriend’s room was unheard of.
Farid was startled from his thoughts by a shadow looming over him. The alley was wide enough for his car, but did not leave much room either side for anyone to pass. A slim figure was trying to squeeze past the car, and he looked up at the beautiful face of a young girl gazing shyly through the windscreen.
Her long, dark hair hung to her waist and her thin, cheap, cotton dress clung to the slender curves of her body. He pressed the button to lower the window and whistled.
“Hello, gorgeous! Would you like to come for a ride?”
The girl looked at him, took a deep breath as if making a calculated decision, and nodded. Farid was startled. He had not expected her to agree, but blush, maybe, and shake her head... The passenger door was too close to the wall, so he opened his door and got out of the car.
“You’ll have to get in over my seat,” he said, and watched as the girl moved gracefully into the car, stretched her legs across the gear box and settled into the passenger seat, lifting her face gratefully to the current of cold air blowing out of the air conditioning vent. Then he turned and looked at her more closely. An uncertain smile hovered on her lips, and she curled her hair nervously around her fingers. Farid noted her flawless, olive skin, long eyelashes framing eyes which were almost black, and the way the setting sun caught the red highlights in her mass of black hair. The relentless heat outside had made damp tendrils of hair cling to her face and under his scrutiny her cheeks started to blush. He pondered for a while in silence. The girl’s hands were clenched tightly in her lap.
“She couldn’t be,” thought Farid to himself. And yet, the speed with which she had accepted his proposal...Even his most ardent girlfriends had said no the first time. He wondered how such an exquisite creature could have found her way to this vice ridden quarter.
“Where shall we go?” he asked her at last. She didn’t reply. She wasn’t sure what Farid meant. Usually men told her straightaway what they wanted to do, but this young man disconcerted her. As he gazed at her waiting for a reply, she thought to herself that he was the handsomest man she had so far met in New Town. He was tall and slim, was well dressed in casual clothes, had thick, black hair cut quite short, a black moustache, brown eyes and a short, straight nose. His mouth was a little thin, she thought, but his moustache almost hid the top lip and the overall impression was that of a good looking, well assured young man.
He repeated his question and this time she answered.
“I don’t really know. I don’t know Tehran very well except for this area.”
“OK,“ replied Farid.“Well, how would you like a guided tour?”
“With you?” she asked hesitantly.
She was only used to men wanting to go straight to her room, having sex, paying and leaving. No one had ever offered to take her out before. Did he want to pay her for her company, she wondered. She needed to earn some money for the rent and some food. She had none left and if she went gallivanting about the city, there would be no customers for her that evening.
“Yes, of course with me,” he answered, “or don’t you like the idea?”
“I’d like to very much,” she said softly, “but...” and she stopped.
“But what?” prompted Farid.
The girl looked down ashamed.
“I ..., well, I...I need to work this evening,” she stammered almost inaudibly.
“Work?” repeated Farid, “are you a waitress or ...?”
“No. I... entertain,” she answered, her voice trailing off.
“Oh, a dancer or singer,” suggested Farid.
“ Are you a prostitute?” Farid asked bluntly. He watched her wince at the word.
“Yes, I am,” she admitted unhappily. “I never meant to do it, but you wouldn’t understand.”
“I might,” replied Farid. “When I first saw you, it never crossed my mind that someone as young and as beautiful as you could be one of them. Not until you leapt so eagerly into my car. I’d like to know what drove you to such a life.”
“It’s a long story,” she sighed, “I don’t know if I could stay with you for long.”
“What’s so important about working this evening?” he asked.“Have you a special customer coming?”
She blushed and shook her head.
“No, but I need money for rent and food and if...”
Farid cut her short. “Don’t worry. I’ll give you some money. We’ll go for a drive, and you can tell me about yourself.” He started the car, and she settled down in the passenger seat while Farid made his way through the maze of alleys. He felt hungry and thought that she must be too. He couldn’t take her to the Steak House on Pahlavi Avenue because he’d be bound to meet someone he knew, and as pretty as she was, her poor dress was not really suitable. Even the waiters would not miss an opportunity to be supercilious. He decided to find a more local Chelo Kebab restaurant.
“What is your name?” he asked as they got caught in the inevitable traffic jam.
“Zahra,” she replied. “What’s yours?”
“My name is Farid.”Zahra turned her head suddenly and looked at him. Then she told herself she was being foolish. He couldn’t possibly know, It was just a cruel coincidence. Farid noticed that she looked suddenly upset but he didn′t say anything- he’d wait until she told him her story.
Amongst the flashing neon lights, he suddenly detected the illuminated sign of a Chelo Kebabi a few yards ahead and, as luck would have it, a parking space just in front. He pulled in and switched off the ignition, then got out of the car and went to open the door for Zahra. She looked at him in surprise and he realised that he hadn’t mentioned stopping for a meal.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “I thought we could have something to eat. I’m starving and we can go to this Chelo Kebabi.”
“Oh, thank you,” she said taken aback.“That’s very kind of you.”
Farid held out his hand and pulled her up.
The cafe wasn’t very crowded and he made his way to a secluded corner with Zahra so that they could talk without being overheard. The owner, Ali Jaffari, had noticed that Farid seemed more affluent than his regular customers and followed him immediately with the menus.
Farid thanked him and told him he would let him know when they were ready. He handed a menu to Zahra.
“Would you like to choose something?
“I’ll have the Chelo Kebab and salad, please,” said Zahra without taking the menu.
“Would you like something to drink?”
“Yes, a coke please.”
Farid beckoned to the owner who was still watching them. He came over straightaway.
“We’ll have two Chelo Kebabs with salad, please, and two cokes.”
“Yes, sir,” replied Ali and hurried away into the kitchen. Farid watched him disappear through the coloured plastic fronds hanging from the top of the door, and then turned to look at Zahra.
“You don’t come from Tehran, do you?” he asked.
“No, I come from Mashad. I’ve been in Tehran about two months.”
“Why did you come here? Have you run away from home?”
“Right first time,” answered Zahra.
Farid thought he detected bitterness in her voice.
“Did your parents want you to marry someone you didn’t like?”
“No. Actually, they didn’t have anyone in mind at first. I met a young man who was a friend of my brother’s, and we used to meet secretly. My parents found out and told me I couldn’t see him anymore. My brother was very good and used to take me to a coffee bar to see him, but he never let us be alone together. You know how it is.”
“Well, one day Farid- that was his name- he got a letter to say he had to do his military service, and a month later he was gone. He wrote me a letter saying how much he loved me and missed me but my parents found it and we had a terrible row. They called me a cheap whore and that I wasn’t fit to be their daughter. None of it was true, you know,” she said sadly, “not then. I felt I couldn’t stay there any longer. I had some money saved up and I thought if I came to Tehran I could find some sort of job and live by myself until Farid left the army.”
Farid noticed that she had torn a paper serviette into shreds while telling her story.
“Is that why you looked at me so suddenly when I told you my name- because his name was Farid too?”
“Yes, “ said Zahra, closing her eyes for a second.
“What happened next,?” asked Farid gently.
“Well, one evening my mother asked me to go and get the bread for dinner. I took all my money with me and went to the bus station. There was a bus departing in half an hour for Tehran. I didn’t take anything with me in case my parents suspected I was leaving. The bus travelled all night and arrived at the bus station in Tehran the following day at lunch time.”
Just at that moment Ali arrived with the food. He set down two plates piled with steamed rice and topped with barbecued tomatoes. The lamb kebabs, cooked over charcoal, were hidden under the rice and smelt delicious. Farid sniffed the aroma appreciatively and immediately opened the small packet of butter to spread over the rice. He urged Zahra to eat first and continue later.
Ali returned with two cokes and retreated.
As they ate in silence, he watched them discreetly in between serving his other customers. He was puzzled by Zahra’s appearance. She was very beautiful, but her dress looked cheap and was in complete contrast to the young man’s expensive clothes. One could see at a glance that he came from a rich family, but the girl he couldn’t place.
After pondering about them for a few minutes, he shrugged his shoulders and decided that she must be his girlfriend. Obviously, she was from a much poorer family and, maybe, the boy′s parents didn’t approve of the relationship. He went up to their table beaming kindly.
“Is the food alright, sir?”
“Yes, it’s delicious, thank you,” Farid assured him.
Ali beamed at them again and then moved away to attend to some new customers who had just entered the cafe.
Farid looked at Zahra. She had nearly finished her food. She must have been ravenous, and he wondered when she had last eaten. Zahra looked over at Farid and noticed that his plate was still half full.
“Oh, you must think I′m very ill mannered to eat so fast,” she said apologetically.
“Don’t worry. Of course I don’t. I’m sure you needed it,” answered Farid, “I hope you feel better now.”
“Yes, I do, thank you. I haven’t eaten for two days. I only...”
Farid put his hand up.“Shhh..., you don’t have to tell me. Just go on from where you left off. What happened after you arrived in Tehran?”
Zahra finished her coke and drew a deep breath.
“Well, I got off the bus with the other passengers. Most of them had friends or relatives waiting for them and disappeared very quickly. I wasn’t sure what to do and the bus driver seemed to be the only person I could ask. So, I asked him if he knew of any restaurant or hotel where I might find a job. He looked at me in a strange way and then said ’Why don’t you try New Town? I am sure you will find something there. In fact, I know a lady there who is looking for someone for her guesthouse. I’ll take you there if you like.’
She paused, then carried on. “Of course, I was really pleased to find something straightaway and I jumped at the chance. Little did I realise at the time just what he meant. He took me to a house in New Town to meet the lady who was called Madame Ziba- I think she must pay him for every new girl he brings to her. Anyway, she seemed very pleasant and said that in return for a room and food she would like me to clean the house and help in the kitchen. I didn’t mind that so I agreed, but later I noticed that only girls lived in the house and a lot of men used to come and visit them. Then, slowly, I realised what sort of place I was in. Madame Ziba told me that she only wanted me to talk to the men occasionally. There didn’t seem to be any harm in that, but after about three weeks, she told me that I would have to start paying for my room and food. The only way to get money, she said, was by...by sleeping with the men. She didn’t say I had to do it all the time, but she wanted her rent regularly and to hear no complaints about me. I didn’t seem to have much choice. I couldn’t go back home. I didn’t have anywhere else to go, and if I had left, I would probably have ended up in an even worse situation.”
She wavered and briefly leant her head on her hands, then looked up at Farid.
“The first time I had to do it, I drank nearly a whole bottle of wine from Madame Ziba’s kitchen and it didn’t seem to matter much. After that I only did it when I needed money for food and rent. I don’t know which is worse- living at home imprisoned by my parents, or living here hating myself and not being able to get away.”
Farid saw tears springing to her eyes and leant across the table taking her hands in his.
“Don’t cry, please. It’s not too late for you to get away from New Town.”
Zahra looked at him miserably.
“Where would I go? What would I do? I′m not trained for any job.”
“I’ll help you,” said Farid. “I’ll give you some money for a few days and I’ll see what I can arrange. But don’t go with anyone else. Alright?”
“Well, have you had enough to eat?”
“Oh, yes. Thank you very much.”
“OK, then. We’ll go for that drive, shall we?”
They rose from the table. Farid stopped at the counter, and paid Ali, leaving a generous tip. Ali was very pleased. He opened the door for them and invited them to come again.
“Yes, we will, thank you,” said Farid. Outside he opened the car door for Zahra to get in. It was still very hot and airless, but now it was almost dark. The traffic had diminished, street hawkers had cleared away their stalls, and most children had been rounded up by their parents and sent home to supper and to bed. Only a few urchins remained, some stirring through rubbish with long sticks, others playing games with stones. One or two even approached passers by for rials to buy sweets. On one street corner a shepherd and his small flock of sheep had settled down for the night. He had sold several animals and would remain in Tehran until they had all been disposed of.
Farid got into the car and noticed that Zahra had closed her eyes.
“Do you feel unwell?” he asked.
“Oh, no,” she replied opening her eyes, “I feel very well, but after that lovely food I’m so full up that I could go to sleep!”
Farid laughed. “Please don’t go to sleep or I shall have no one to talk to. And besides you will miss the guided tour!”
Zahra sat up. “I promise to stay awake. I am very curious to see the rest of Tehran. It must be nicer than here.”
“Well, it’s definitely cleaner, but maybe not as interesting,”conceded Farid.
He started the engine and slowly moved away watched by several admirers of his car. Although cars were not a novelty, they rarely glimpsed such expensive models in south Tehran.
The Camaro sped northwards towards Pahlavi Avenue and from time to time Farid stole a glance at Zahra who was noting with interest the changing facades, cleaner and wider streets, better dressed people and brightly lit department stores.
On the way, Farid pointed out Tehran University, Ferdowsi Square with a statue of the poet, Ferdowsi Avenue where most of the embassies and newspaper offices were situated, Rudaki Hall where ballet, opera and concerts were performed and then Pahlavi Avenue leading to the northern, affluent suburbs of the city. Most of the large stores were closed, but their windows were still brightly lit displaying all kinds of goods ranging from furniture, lighting, carpets, toys, glassware, books, haute couture clothing, shoes and sparkling jewels of all shapes and sizes.
Zahra hadn’t spoken since they had driven away from the Chelo Kebabi.
“What do you think, Zahra?”
“It’s very different. Much nicer. I’d love to get away from Madame Ziba’s and live somewhere in this part of Tehran. Do you think I’ll be able to?”
“Of course you will,” replied Farid, “but you must give me a few days to sort something out.”
He looked at her and frowned, and then asked her suddenly, “Is that all you have to wear?”
“Well, do you mind if I bring you some of my sister’s clothes? My younger sister, Samira, is about your size and she has masses of clothes which she’ll never wear again. I’m sure she won’t mind giving me some for you.”
“You’re being very kind to me,” whispered Zahra.“I’m putting you to a lot of trouble.”
“Oh, think nothing of it, “ said Farid.“It’s my pleasure. I don’t like to see such a beautiful girl in distress.”
He was quite enjoying his new found role as benefactor, and it gave him something to do during the long summer break before he joined the Navy as an officer cadet...cocktail parties, swimming pools and barbecues could be so boring...
Zahra smiled, “I can’t thank you enough,” she said.
“No, don’t,” said Farid, “I haven’t done anything yet, but I’m certainly going to try. Anyway, I must drive you back to your place now because it’s getting late and I must get home. My parents still worry about me even though I’m twenty one !” And he grinned.
“You haven’t told me anything about yourself,” said Zahra as they drove back to south Tehran.
“No,” replied Farid, “I’ve heard all about you tonight. Next time you can ask all the questions.”
As they neared the alley where Farid had met her he asked, “Where do you want me to drop you off? Tell me where to turn to get to Madame Ziba’s.”
“Oh, no,” said Zahra, “if you stop in front of the house, she’s bound to see you because she’s always at her window at this time of night to see who the girls come home with. If she sees you, she’ll ask me all sorts of questions and I don’t really want to answer.”
“Alright,” said Farid. “Is it far from where we met?
“No, it’s just around the corner.”
“Right. I’ll drop you off there, and you can meet me there in three days at the same time. OK?”
Zahra nodded. When Farid arrived at the spot where he regretted having slammed his brakes on, he stopped the car and took out his wallet.
“How much is the rent for a week?”
“One thousand rials.”
Farid counted out one thousand five hundred rials.“There’s the money for your rent and some for food. Tell Madame Ziba that you went to a customer’s house and he liked you. But don’t show her all the money.”
“Thank you, Farid,” said Zahra softly, “thank you very much. I shall sleep much better tonight than I have for two months.”
She leant over and kissed Farid on the cheek, then opened her door before he could get out of the car, and sped quickly round the corner out of sight.
Farid leant back in his seat for a few minutes and racked his brains over a solution to Zahra’s predicament. He could probably get her a job as a waitress, and a room not quite as far south as this, but if she moved too far north the rent would be prohibitive. He would start asking around in the morning. Turning on the ignition and headlights he made his way out of the narrow alley and headed home.