The ﬁrst thing Ryan saw was the smoke. It hung beneath the ceiling, threateningly thick, a poisonous vapor that had collected in the apartment. Musa and two other men were sitting cross-legged under the cloud, bent in towards one another, their heads like the points of an equilateral triangle. In the middle of them stood a bottle of arak, surrounded by three glasses that formed another triangle. Two ashtrays, both overﬂowing with cigarette butts, interrupted the symmetry. A bowl of olives imparted a touch of freshness to the morbid scene. All three men had cigarettes between their ﬁngers, and they took turns dragging and blowing smoke, continuously plumping up the haze, lest it thin away.
Ryan took off his shoes. One man rose, stirring the smoke with his head. He approached Ryan with his index ﬁnger crossed over his lips. His hand came down to shake Ryan’s, then his palm unfolded to demand something. Ryan looked at him in confusion. The man brought a hand up to his ear and twitched his lips to mimic talking into a cell phone. Ryan took it out of his pocket, and the man walked away with it into the bedroom.
“We’ve heard that they can use our phones to record us,” said Musa from the ﬂoor. “It is probably just a rumor, but who knows.”
The third man, holding an empty glass in his hand, nodded. Musa introduced his friends to Ryan. Salman was the scrawny one sitting next to Musa, a nervous smile stretching his thin lips under a big, slightly twisted nose. The man who had taken Ryan’s phone, Hamid, seemed to regard Ryan with some suspicion. Ryan sat cross-legged in the space the others had squeezed open.
“Ryan’s parents are Iranian,” Musa explained to his friends. “He is born and raised in America, but his Farsi is perfect. I’ve never seen someone who didn’t grow up here speaking like that.”
“I can’t get rid of this terrible accent though,” Ryan said. “Where in America?” Salman asked.
“I grew up in California, but I’ve been living in New York for the last ten years or so.”
“Very nice,” said Musa in English. Ryan wondered whether it was meant to be a joke.
“What do you do in New York?” Hamid asked.
“I am a PhD student. I am working on a thesis about cities as living organisms. Tehran is my focus. I’m trying—”
“How did you learn to speak Farsi?” Hamid interrupted, his hostility now out in the open.
“My grandparents live here. I’ve traveled here every year since I was a teenager to spend summer with them. And I grew up speaking Farsi with my parents at home.”
“I thought you couldn’t travel here on American passport,” Hamid said. “I am a dual citizen.” Ryan knew that Hamid suspected he was a spy. This was not the ﬁrst time people in Iran had those thoughts about him, but that evening he felt more oﬀended than usual. He wouldn’t answer Hamid’s next question, whatever it might be. But Hamid fell silent and looked away.
“You were going to say what your thesis is about,” said Musa.
“Well, I am going to argue that there’s an excess of life in cities that comes from having so many people living so close to one another. It’s like cities extract life from people and become living organisms themselves—they develop their own survival and adaptation mechanisms. I want people to appreciate the agency of non-human, even non-living, entities and to understand that anthropocentrism is simplistic and reductive.” Ryan talked fast and said all the technical terms in English, which he hated when others did. He could tell that the men had gotten bored while he was speaking.
“You mean a city can think and act independent of its dwellers?” Salman asked.“ Like brick and cement and asphalt think on their own?”
“Yes, but ‘thinking’ is probably not the right word. They don’t do it in a way we can articulate. We are a very limited species and know very little about other entities. We have no idea what it means to be a rock or a piece of glass.”
The smirk on Hamid’s lips and Musa’s slight, unwitting shake of head did not faze Ryan. He was used to much worse when he talked about his project.
“I am working on Tehran for my thesis,” he continued. “A week ago, I came here to collect data, then I got caught up in demonstrations and was so fascinated I totally abandoned my work. I have been in the street all the time, but I couldn’t ﬁgure out what was going on until I met Musa. This guy knows so much.” He patted Musa on the back, and then noticed his face for the ﬁrst time that night. It seemed to Ryan that Musa had aged since they met two days before.
Ryan ran into Musa on Inqelab Street during a rally, ﬁve days after Iranian protesters started holding mass demonstrations against the outcome of the 2009 presidential elections. Ryan had traveled to Tehran a week before the election, clueless and fully unprepared for the uprising. He was thrilled when it happened, though, and hoped it would be a breakthrough for his research, which had been going nowhere. The city was unsettled and disorderly, its mask of peace and order rent open by the seismic shocks and convulsions of street politics. Ryan thought that if he found a way to get close, to peek through the cracks, he might get a glimpse into the inside of Tehran. Ryan spent the next ﬁve days in the street. He took part in every rally, inhaled tear gas, got beaten with batons, and ran faster than he ever had in his life. At night, he shut himself oﬀ to scour the Internet in the room his grandparents always gave him when he visited. He read the opposition websites and the Facebook pages and Twitter accounts of famous activists and watched many broadcasts on Iranian politics, ranging from the monarchists in L.A. to the state TV in Tehran. This exposed him to an overwhelming amount of information, but he still couldn’t understand this place he was in, couldn’t connect with it.“It’s not a miracle that you escaped. If you know the city well, it’ll protect you.”
On the sixth day of the protests, Ryan and Musa happened to be walking together during a rally on Inqelab Street. They didn’t exchange a word for half an hour. Ryan’s previous attempts at talking to people in the street had been disastrous. No one would open up to a young man asking odd questions in a funny accent. The few smiles and nods he exchanged with Musa over that half an hour encouraged Ryan to try again.
“Do you think the militia will attack us today?” he asked, expecting a terse yes or no that would end the conversation. Instead, Musa gave him a lecture. They wouldn’t be attacked, he said. The guards only attacked small crowds; large ones had to be broken up into smaller portions. Attacking large crowds was risky, more dramatic, and therefore more likely to promote outrage. On that day they had no feasible way of breaking up the crowd, so the protesters would be safe.
Ryan asked more questions and Musa had full, complete answers for all of them. He sounded like an old general discussing military strategy. They walked and talked until the protest ended and then hung out for an hour after that. Eventually, they swapped phone numbers. Ryan called Musa the day after, and Musa invited him over.
Hamid went to the kitchen and brought another glass. Salman ﬁlled it with arak without asking Ryan whether he drank. Glasses were raised without a toast. The men looked around at one another and drank down the arak in one go. The alcohol burned Ryan’s throat, bringing tears to his eyes. When the others reached for the bowl of olives and each picked one up, Ryan copied them. Then the packet of cigarettes was passed around. Ryan had quit smoking ﬁve years before but didn’t want to disappoint Musa, so he took one.
“This arak is good,” said Hamid.
“It is,” said Salman. “I need to get really fucking drunk tonight. You guys don’t want to believe me, but I am sure that this was the last serious day we had. From now on it’s going to be shit.”
“You keep fucking saying that,” Musa snapped. “Just shut up and let us relax for a second.”
“You react like that because you know what I’m saying is true,” said Salman, words coming out of his mouth on the back of wisps of smoke. “We should cancel the next rally. It’ll be a complete disaster.”
“That’s exactly what they want you to think,” said Musa. “Today was the ﬁrst time they caught us by surprise.”
“What happened?” Ryan asked.
“In the rally on Takht-e Tavus today, more than twenty thousand people showed up. We were sure it was going perfectly well; then they attacked us in a way we hadn’t predicted.”
Ryan stubbed out the cigarette. As if by signal, all three of them stooped down for the bottle. Musa took it, and Hamid laid out the glasses. Salman emptied the ashtrays into a trash basket next to the kitchen door. Musa ﬁlled the glasses to the rim again, and the men lit new cigarettes.
“We organized this one so well,” said Musa. “The people did what we asked. They walked up and down the sidewalk and poured into the street at ﬁve, so the police wouldn’t have time to break them up. We took over the street in no time. The ﬁrst half an hour was the best show we have ever had.”
Ryan had seen enough rallies to know what the best show ever would be like. Thousands of clapping hands in the sky, cathartic shouts rising from deep inside the body of the crowd, full-hearted demands for new elections and the release of political prisoners.
“I could smell it, though,” Hamid said and grabbed the bottle by the neck. “It was too good to be true.”
Salman lined up the glasses. Hamid ﬁlled them and continued. “I noticed this very young guy, chanting louder than everyone else. He was so excited he made me suspicious. Then I saw the change in his face, the way he looked around. He nodded at a bunch of people near him, and next thing I knew, they were attacking people with sticks and batons and knives and brass knuckles. I hadn’t seen so many cops in one place in my life. There were groups of them in the crowd every ﬁfty yards or so.” He turned to Musa. “Do we know how many of them were out there today?”
“If I had to estimate, I would say that one out of every ten people was an inﬁltrator.”
“Today they attacked people with so much bitterness,” Hamid said. “The guy who hit me was red as a beet.”
“How did you get hit?” Ryan asked.
Hamid rolled up his sleeve to show a large black and blue bruise. Ryan winced. “It’s nothing,” Hamid said.“ The guy only had a stick. Others knifed people, smashed their faces with the brass knuckles. They arrested so many. It’s a miracle that we escaped.”
“No, it isn’t,” Ryan said abruptly. The others turned to him, taken aback, but he offered no further explanation.
The next glass did it for Ryan. The alcohol burned as it slid down and curdled his stomach. Sweat gathered on his face. He jumped up and ran to the bathroom and slammed the door shut, but before he threw up he heard the others speaking. “Who is this guy? Why did you bring him here, Musa?” That was Salman’s voice. Musa murmured a response. “Have you lost your mind?” Hamid snapped. “You can’t just bring some random American you just met in the street.” Musa murmured another response. “He is pretty weird, too,” said Salman. “Something is off about him. What are these ticks and shit? What was that crazy thing about cities he said?” Musa began to raise his voice, but Ryan couldn’t listen anymore. The vomit had made it to his mouth. He kneeled by the toilet and gagged several times, but his empty stomach produced nothing but yellow bile.
When he returned to the room, Musa and his friends were silently dragging on their cigarettes. Ryan quietly sat back in his spot. Vomiting had intensiﬁed the feeling of intoxication, and the room began to spin before his eyes. The smoky cloud had settled low enough to dim his sight and make him feel suffocated. The heads of the others were engulfed by the smoke, too. Ryan shook his head hard to get his eyes to focus, but as soon as his eyes settled on something, it would bifurcate into two versions of itself, and he would feel dizzy. He leaned back against the wall and shut his eyes. He felt overwhelmed by a sense of epiphany. He began to speak, his ideas ﬂowing wildly.
“It’s not a miracle that you escaped,” he said in English. “What?” said Salman.
Ryan repeated the sentence in Farsi. “If you know the city well, it’ll protect you.”
“What do you mean, ‘if you know the city?’” Hamid’s voice was belligerent.
“I don’t mean streets and addresses. I mean an intimate knowledge, a personal relationship that enables you to look under the surface of the city.” “Oh, for God’s sake,” Hamid said and leaned on the opposite wall. Ryan was too far gone to pay attention.
“The city is alive,” Ryan continued. “It’s an organism with its own will and thoughts. We just don’t understand them. If it has decided that you respect it and get along with it, it will protect you.”
“And how are you supposed to know that? Does the city call you up?” asked Salman.
“Imagine you are at a protest,” Ryan said. “The police show up, you run, they chase you. You turn into an alley, and when they are about to catch you, a door opens, and someone pulls you in, or you see a big car and crouch behind it, or you ﬁnd a narrow passage at the end of an alley and disappear into it. How many times do accidents like this happen to you?”
“Sometimes, I guess,” Salman said. “Sometimes you’re lucky. Sometimes you aren’t.”
“It’s not just luck. That’s my point,” Ryan said. “In a city like Tehran there are inﬁnite possibilities for everything. That car could’ve been parked two feet away. The person who opened the door could have lived a block away, or gone out on that day, or could have been sleeping. But there are certain people who go to all the protests and always get away. They seem to always be lucky. But many others get caught the ﬁrst time they do the same thing. It’s not luck. The city protects the ﬁrst kind of person and abandons the second.”
Ryan paused to take a breath. The three men were totally focused on him now, their attitudes ranging from incredulity to boredom.
“It is no accident you guys go to the protests every day and get away. It’s not because you are lucky or smart or know how to hide. It is impossible to calculate your moves correctly when you are on the run in this city. It’s because the city is on your side.”
“You think we are idiots, don’t you,” said Hamid. He dragged twice on his cigarette. “You think because you are American doing a PhD, you can come here and bullshit us, and we’ll just praise you with our jaws on the ground. Fuck you, man. Just fuck you.”
Ryan watched Hamid extinguish his cigarette. Salman and Musa looked away and ﬁddled around with their hands.
“When is the next demonstration?” Ryan ﬁnally asked. “This Thursday,” Salman answered.
“Yusef Abad, main street.”
“Ok. I’m going to meet up with you guys there, and when the cops show up, I will run over to them and do something to piss them off and make them follow me, then I’ll run away. You’ll see how the city will protect me.”
He left Musa and his friends around two in the morning, hopped into a taxi blind drunk, and all the way to his grandfather’s house fought down a relentless urge to vomit. His own voice echoed in his head. “If you know the city, it will protect you.”
He had been talking at himself through Musa and his friends. The work on his PhD project had gone on for three years without any real progress. By then only his performance of consummate, unshakable faith in his idea had kept his advisor from ditching him. But this trip to Tehran might well be his last chance. If he didn’t come back to New York with real, tangible evidence of the city acting as an independent operator, responsive to the people who called it home, they would probably terminate his candidacy. He felt viscerally that he was right, yet he didn’t know how to argue for his case. Musa and his friends were a test. If he could convince them, he could convince anyone.
The next morning Ryan’s eyes opened to sunbeams lancing through the blinds. He told his grandparents that he was traveling to the shore of the Caspian Sea with a group of newfound friends. He spent some time choosing his most comfortable clothes and ended up with a pair of jeans, sneakers, a cotton T-shirt, and a light spring jacket. He grabbed some money, a pen, and a notebook and dragged his hungover bones to the street to catch the Yusef Abad bus.
The summer of 2009 in Tehran had been unusually pleasant. Balmy days followed cool nights, and between them, crisp early morning breezes freshened the air. The week was expected to be sunny, too. Ryan took the weather as the ﬁrst positive sign that the city could be open to him.
Yusef Abad, a neighborhood he had never visited, was centered on a long, narrow, busy street, lined on both sides by small shops and restaurants. A quaint, hip urban scene that reminded Ryan of gentriﬁed Brooklyn ﬂourished there. A side street branched off every hundred feet, so that plenty of escape routes existed on a demonstration day. Ryan wandered around to check out cul-de-sacs and alleys, hiding spots and connections to parallel streets. Around noon, walking down 19th Street, he came upon Shafaq Park.
He only knew it because of a small placard posted next to a short ﬂight of stairs, leading to an entrance no wider than that of a residential building. Unlike other parks in Tehran, it was protected by a long row of metal fencing, and a row of leafy trees shielded the inside from view.
The stairs led to a narrow path that snaked through dense greenery and wound up at a pristine grassy area surrounded by thick bushes and healthy trees. Across the grass, a cobblestoned semicircle hosted a dozen retired men playing chess and backgammon on stone tables and seats. Ryan crossed the park to a large cultural complex on its north side and from there went down to the other side of the grass and back to the semicircle. He sat on a bench watching the chess players until he made up his mind. This was the place. If the city would provide him refuge during the demonstration, it would be in this park.
That night, Ryan took apart two cardboard boxes and used them as blankets, as he had seen homeless people in Tehran do, on a small patch of grass hidden away behind the cultural complex. It was obscured by round bushes that came up to his waist, and when he lay down, no one could see him from the street. He drifted into sleep right away.
A few hours later, he woke up to a splitting headache and immense pain in his bones. Cold dew had seeped through the cardboard into his T-shirt and numbed him completely. He left his sanctuary and shuﬄed around to try to dry off. Nothing moved anywhere in the park, not even a leaf on a tree. He paused by a maple, which, in full darkness, seemed like a giant dead on his feet. He walked around the tree, caressing the trunk and the leaves and taking deep breaths, trying to absorb some of its steady energy. His headache got better, but his bones still hurt. He returned to his wet cardboard and rolled over until his eyelids grew heavy.
At dawn a nightmare woke him up. He sat on the cardboard soaked in sweat and cursed the world. Finally, he staggered up out of the grass and slumped on a chair. In the grayness of the early morning, a group of older people had begun exercising in front of the cultural center. A few sparrows alighted on the branches of the tree behind him and shrieked deafeningly. Down the path, two cats were hissing into each other’s faces, working themselves up to a ﬁght. Ryan picked up a pebble and threw it at them. They paused, looked at him implacably, and soon returned to their standoff.
“Fuck this city,” he said under his breath, then in a raised voice. “Fuck this city and everyone in it.” The cats looked at him again in surprise. It was probably the ﬁrst time in their lives they heard a human speaking in a language other than Farsi.
When the sun was fully risen, Ryan took a walk around, resisting the desire to just give up and leave. He ended up in a corner of the park he had never visited. Two white berry trees stood among the leafy sycamores and maples there. Heavy fruit weighed down the branches, and the ground was covered with ripe, fallen berries. The sight made him hungry. He sat down and gorged himself on the fruit, observing the tree like he was Newton. At the very moment he had been about to convince himself to stop his pointless experiment and go home, the park had thrown a feast for him. It must have been a sign, though he couldn’t decipher it.
He walked over and put his ear on one of the trees. He heard the throb of the roots that had wrestled their way deep into the dry soil to extract drops of underground water, the pulse of vessels undulating, pumping water up to the leaves, which grumbled under the burden of soot, their thirst never fully quenched. He heard the vessels rubbing their walls erotically against the ﬁber cells, the rustle of twigs and branches in the breeze. Vegetal harmony seeped through the tree bark into his ear.
When the sun set again, Ryan sat on a bench and started frantically writing down his observations from the last two days. Before he ﬁnished the second page, a shadow fell over his notebook. He looked up and saw a gigantic silhouette obstructing the lamp. A bearded man in ragged clothes was watching him with curiosity. Ryan cringed, then gave a tight, small smile. He looked around. No one was near them. The man put out his right hand. Ryan held it. The man didn’t let go of it.
“My friend,” said the man, “I am not going to harm you.”
Ryan nodded and tried to pull his hand out of the man’s clench. The man tightened it.
“I said I mean no harm,” the man said. “I just got out of jail and need some money to get home.” His left hand came forward and opened slowly, like he was imitating a blossoming bud. When the palm became visible, Ryan saw the prison stamp.
“I need money enough for a taxi to get home. That’s all I’m asking for.”
“I don’t have money on me, sorry.” Ryan said. He made another attempt at extricating his hand.
“Where are you from?” said the man. Ryan’s accent must have confused him.
“Kermanshah,” Ryan answered. The man looked at him in disbelief. “Listen,” he said, “I am not mugging you, ok? I just want to get home.”
“I am sorry, I—”
“So you don’t believe me.”
“No, I do, I just don’t have money with me right now.” He looked around. They were alone, hidden from the rest of the park by the thick trees. “You know what,” he said. “Now I’m offended.” His left hand slipped into his pocket and produced a switchblade. He clicked it open and held it up cinematically, making the blade shimmer. “Look,” Ryan tried to explain, “I really don’t—”
The man grabbed him by the collar and brought the knife close to his face. “Listen you little shit, if you—” He stopped abruptly, and his eyes widened, because Ryan’s body, in an uncharacteristic act of bravery, had reacted to the danger. Despite his cowardliness, he had managed to knee the man in the groin.
The shock was brief. The man’s survival instinct, hardened by years of street ﬁghting and jail, took over. He let go of Ryan’s hand, but before Ryan could run, the knife ﬂashed up in the air. Ryan managed to jump to the right just in time. He saw the man correct the knife’s trajectory and thought that his life was over, and no one would ever know what he was doing at midnight in Shafaq Park.
But the knife didn’t connect with his body, because Ryan had inadvertently jumped behind a branch of the tree that stood behind the bench. It happened in a fraction of a second, and the branch asserted its presence only when the man’s wrist hit it. The knife fell from his grasp to the ground. Ryan ran. In less than a minute, he was out of the park and past the Yusef Abad main street. Three blocks over, he was out of breath and hid behind a tree, gasping. He wandered around the neighborhood until midnight and returned to the park only when he could barely keep his eyes open.
He ﬁrst stealthily checked all the corners and secluded areas to make sure the man was not lying in wait for him. Then he went to the bench. His notebook and pen were there on the ground. He picked them up, kissed the branch that saved his life, kissed the tree trunk, and went to sleep.
The incident had made him certain that the park was on his side, that it would protect him on the day of the demonstration in the same way it saved his life that night.
The next morning, he woke, again with a splitting headache, and shuﬄed over to the old maple tree. He stroked the branches, whispered to the trunk. The tree was unusually still. The leaves hung totally motionless even though a breeze was blowing in the park, like they had paused for a moment, waiting for him to go.
Ryan took a last walk around. Bewildered park-goers stared as he touched the trees one by one, fondling their leaves and branches, and speaking softly to their trunks. He beseeched each tree to protect him the following day. An hour later he returned to visit the maple one last time.
The tree looked the same, but something had changed on the grass in front of it. Under the lowest branch, a circular patch of ground had gone bald, leaving a small circle of soil uncovered. He had no doubt that the spot had been green in the morning. He knelt and touched the smooth soil, scooped it up, and let it slip through his ﬁngers. Then he stooped down into Sadjdeh and reached his forehead to the earth and talked to it.
Ryan stayed in that position a while and told the park about his intentions, his doubts, his thesis, why this test for him was a matter of life and death. He talked about Musa and his friends, the movement they were involved in, and explained how his success could give them the upper hand with the police, help them escape safely.
Ryan left the park at sunset. The dim glow of dusk sparkled off the leaves and grass blades. He looked back before descending the stairs and decided that, overall, the two-day experience was satisfactory.
On Friday afternoon, Ryan got off the bus at ten minutes to four. Save for a scattering of anti-riot guards that gathered around a parked van, the street bore no sign of an upcoming demonstration. Ryan turned onto 19th Street and approached the park. He lingered by the stairs but didn’t step up them, fearing dissolution of the conviction he had worked so hard to build up.
When he went back to the Yusuf Abad main street, people had already showed up. The crowd milled silently around the sidewalk, waiting for the right moment to take over the street. Ryan joined them. Down the block, he could see the city police in their familiar uniforms, accompanied by special guards outﬁtted like gigantic beetles, arrayed along the sidewalk to watch over the pedestrians. They brandished their batons, glowered and snarled, and made obscene jokes—anything that would provoke the crowd.
Then Ryan ran into Salman. They exchanged polite smiles and Salman walked past. Ryan called to him and introduced himself.
“Oh, of course,” Salman said. “Sorry, I drank so much that night I barely remember what happened. Good to see you. I have to go; I’m very busy now. But thanks for coming today.”
“Where is Musa?”
“At the corner of 17th Street.”
Ryan found Musa leaning against the wall behind a linden tree. His reaction was slightly warmer.
“What are you doing here?” asked Ryan.
“This street is the widest one that comes into the main street. We heard rumors that today they might bring out the heavy vehicles. If they do, they have to come through this street.”
“Are you ok? I was a little worried about you the other night.” “I’m ﬁne. I’m going to do what I told you guys about.”
“Stuff about the city and protection.” “I’m not sure if I remember.”
“I told you guys that if you make a bond with the city, it will protect you.”
“Oh that. Did you mean it? I thought you were just drunk.”
“No, I wasn’t. Follow me for half an hour today, and I’ll show you.” “Look, I can’t leave my post.”
“Have someone ﬁll in for you. It will only take half an hour.” “Everyone is super busy. I’ve got your number, I’ll call you tonight and ﬁnd out how it went. How about that?”
Ryan walked away, blood boiling in his veins. Now he would do something that would make it into the news in a way that Musa and his friends couldn’t miss, and then those ignorant assholes would scramble around to get in touch with him.
The protest had begun. The crowd had spilled out of the sidewalk and the street was jammed with traﬃc. Ryan walked out among the cars. Except for occasional honking, the street was threateningly quiet.
Ryan passed a bus crammed with passengers. The noise of a quarrel rolled out of the windows, and then a man put his head out and shouted, “Down with the dictator!” His voice was strong and deep as an opera singer’s. The words rippled through the street and shattered the silence. The man yelled again and ducked back into the bus. Another voice from nearby shouted the same chant. Then another one. Soon people in the street picked it up and set the air astir with their bellowing.
Guards raced over and encircled the bus, bashing it with batons. They wanted to get aboard, but the driver refused to open the door. They went around the bus, broke the windows, and insulted the passengers. Other drivers, outraged by the attack, pressed their horns. Pandemonium broke loose. The noise drove the guards mad. They fanned out and bore down on cars, smashing windows and mirrors, dragging out drivers and beating them up on the asphalt.
A middle-aged man in an old Toyota four cars away from Ryan refused to stop honking. A guard rushed over and hit his car with a baton, but the man didn’t stop. Ryan inched closer to see him better. The man’s face was pale and expressionless, staring ahead through thick, round-framed glasses. He didn’t even look at the guards who were destroying his car. He kept honking like his life depended on it.
The guards pulled him out of the car. He insulted them and encouraged others around him to ﬁght back. Now three guards were kicking and punching him, but none of them could keep him from yelling. Then Ryan saw a baton above the domes of guards’ helmets before it cleaved the air to strike the man on the head. He fell like a chopped oak, face-up, open-eyed. Ryan saw blood slowly trickling out from under his head and tracing its way down the street.
The crowd exploded. People attacked the police with their bare hands. A shroud of tear gas soon gathered over the asphalt and people dashed around with wet eyes, setting trash bins on ﬁre to offset the effect.Guards raced over and encircled the bus, bashing it with batons. They wanted to get aboard, but the driver refused to open the door.
Ryan retreated from the mayhem and spotted a ﬂight of stairs at the entrance to a residential building that offered a good view of the street battle. He climbed it to see the scene from above.
He looked to see where the police were. They had formed four echelons. The ﬁrst one was the muscle, lined up in the front to directly face the crowd. Big men with batons and brass knuckles were indiscriminately beating anyone who happened to be in their way. The beetle-looking guards formed the second line of oppression. They were there to stop the crowd from pushing. When the front line fell short, they spread out and wielded force to restore the boundary. Behind these two lurked the gas-throwers. Protected by the other guards, they had time to spot where the crowd was concentrating and began throwing cylinders to disperse them.
At the very back, stood two men with walkie-talkies running the operation. Ryan squinted for a better look through the tear gas. The men were both in jeans and sport coats. They moved around and watched the people through the cracks between the gas-throwers, periodically screaming into their walkie-talkies. One was tall and skinny with brown, slicked-back hair and light skin, the other was short and dark and chubby and bald. A ten-day stubble was the only feature they shared.
Ryan selected them as his target. If the city protected him against them, then no one could question his theory. It would certainly make it into the news, and Musa and the others would be ashamed of treating him like a delusional crackpot. He picked the tall one, the aggressive, handsome man, who reminded him of a CIA spy straight out of Hollywood.
Ryan stepped down the stairs, walked through the belligerent crowd, and got around the ﬁrst two echelons with surprising ease. The guards were busy beating people and hardly noticed a skinny nerd shuﬄing past them. The gas-throwers’ line was tighter than what he had assumed from his vantage point on the stairs. He walked along it and spotted a crack through which he could see the tall man yelling into his walkie-talkie.
Ryan took a deep breath to muster all his courage, clenched his ﬁst, and took oﬀ. He blew past the gas-throwers to the tall man. Before the man could put up a defense, Ryan punched him in the face.
The muﬄed sound of bone fracturing made Ryan’s stomach heave.
Blood splattered over the man’s white shirt. He screamed in pain.
Ryan ran off towards the park. He didn’t need to look back to know that the enraged police were on his tail. Before going up the stairs, he peered over his shoulder. He was safely ahead of the guards. He ran up the familiar pathways of the park and stopped in front of the maple tree.
Under the lowest branch, where the bald patch emerged the last time he was there, the earth had opened.
Under the lowest branch, where the bald patch emerged the last time he was there, the earth had opened. There was a narrow ellipse ten feet in length that tapered sharply at the ends. Dug-up soil ran along the edges of the crack. Ryan looked inside. It was pitch dark. He sat on the edge and hung his feet down. They touched the ground. The stomp of policemen around the park was audible. Ryan closed his eyes, stooped into the ﬁssure, and lay down.
Inside his body became weightier. He felt heavier by the second, and soon his body mass became so enormous that it exerted its own gravitational pull. Plants and leaves bent towards him and the ground curved around his body. The city had responded to his call. He closed his eyes and smiled.
Then cold metal landed on his wrists and clicked. His eyes snapped open, and he saw a round, bearded man putting on the handcuff. The man stood up and gaped at him. Ryan opened his mouth to say something, but a kick in the ribcage cut his breath short. The man grabbed his shirt collar, hoisted him off the ground, and dragged him along. Ryan only managed a quick glance at the place where he had lain. It was nothing but a dead spot in the thin, yellowing grass that surrounded it.
“What the fuck were you doing?” asked the amused guard.
Ryan kept staring at the spot, waiting for a sign, an explanation from the ground. He didn’t doubt what he had experienced. The city had cracked open under the tree branch, embraced him, allowed him contact with its throbbing core. But then it changed its mind and betrayed him, exposed him to danger. He had gotten too close to the nerve, and the city was not willing to tolerate that. Or maybe he was just not the right person. Maybe outsiders weren’t supposed to get too close to the core of Tehran.
The guard pushed him. “Are you deaf? Why were you lying over there?”
“The city took me in,” Ryan said, “and then it spit me out.”
“Shafaq Park” by Amir Ahmadi from the Iran issue of MQR.