The night’s last hour was the worst. That was when they came. The car that pulled up outside, the muffled growl of the engine, doors slammed shut. The clattering of heels on the paving stones, the front door torn open. And the steps in the staircase. Brief, harsh, like gunshots. And their faces, vacant and menacing above black uniforms. Indifferent, machine-like voices. The gun barrel against the naked skin. And after the ordeal, resignation, and the terror of knowing what was to come. She had heard the stories. When they were together, they had avoided the subject. Nothing would happen to them. They were safe. Nobody would find them .
But sometimes the stories had penetrated their silence.
The executions had frightened her. At first, they had been presented as public entertainment. In squares, markets, in the most heavily trafficked areas. But when people had started to keep away from these events, a different strategy had been adopted. Suddenly, without warning, they would come with forklift trucks, cranes, and trucks with victims. W ith black hoods pulled over their heads, they sat there, motionless amid stone-faced soldiers. The gallows, bright against the blue sky. The nooses around necks. The bodies, first moving frenetically, then writhing slowly before they started to rotate lifelessly, dangling high above the crowd.
The soldiers barricaded the streets. It was impossible to get away from it.
She had tried. To look away, close her eyes, pretend it didn’t happen. But it was impossible. Knowing made it impossible. Even though death probably came as a relief to the v ictim s.
She had an idea of what they had had to undergo earlier.
The first time, she had run home, locked the door, drawn the curtains, and just cried. For hours she had lain there, incapable of thinking rationally, overwhelmed by what she had seen. Paralyzed by fear, powerlessness, and later, apathy. The second time had been almost as bad as the first.
Later she had learned to be more watchful. To run as soon as she heard the trucks coming. To flee, and not to look back, or show any interest. As if they didn’t really exist.
Now, lying rigidly in her bed, wide awake, unable to sleep, she was trying to fix her eyes on some imaginary point on the ceiling. The darkness was waning. The silence was disrupted only by her short, hectic breaths.
Soon daylight would be there. She could never get used to these long Scandinavian nights. Even now, in late October, darkness ate up much of the day. In this country, which she had barely heard of less than two years ago, people seemed only to live during a brief summer before they returned again to a state of silent, heavy hibernation. Even in this small city, they were strangers to one another. They passed her on the street with their detached, closed faces. In her homeland, women wore veils. But their eyes revealed emotion and commitment.
She knew that it wasn’t true. These people had their lives too. They loved and hated, fought with their God, struggled to improve their existence, enjoyed the company of friends, cried about their enemies, communicated their emotions. It just didn’t seem like it when she saw their faces.
Sometimes she was so filled with longing it was physically painful. Her family, friends, some of her colleagues, all the people she had depended on. And the small, close-knit group she had been a part of. Dangerous, demanding, but very stimulating, even though they had only been able to meet in secret.
She could still see them. Her mother’s sorrowful look when she handed her the envelope with money, passport, and visa. The ticket to another life. They had known this
could be the last time they saw each other. Her brave father. She missed them both. But the longing for her father was more painful . He was the only one that had really understood her. A wise man.
A bus, or maybe a big truck, rumbled past. For a brief moment, the room was bathed in the light from its headlamps until darkness hid her again. She could see the street from her window, but she wouldn’t have time to react if somebody wanted to get inside. A front door that was usually unlocked, a few steps, a flimsy door into her apartment.
The tension in her body increased. It started in her stomach and spread from there, first to her legs, which felt stiff as boards, then up toward her heart, which beat so fiercely that all other sounds were blocked out. But her head was clear. Her thoughts were cold, almost cynical as she lay there. Nobody would come. She should be safe here. But she knew it wasn’t true. W hat had paralyzed her wasn’t some vague uneasiness, but real fear. The day of reckoning would come. And she would have to pay the price. That was the lesson she had learned. Once, when she was a little girl, she had believed in a benevolent and just God, a God that forgave and understood. But the God she had come to know was different. He was harsh, unbending, and merciless. Much like the Devil, she thought in a moment of overconfidence. One who never understood. Who didn’t want to understand. Who condemned his subjects to eternal torment.
The hour before dawn. The hour of fear.
Soon darkness would give way to the liberating light.
I looked up from the newspaper and over at the telephone, which was ringing disturbingly loud. The front-page story of the local newspaper had caught my interest for once.
Growing Anti-Immigrant Sentiments Rumors of Militant Activist Groups
According to the article, the municipality didn’t have room for more refugees and asylum seekers. The system was overloaded. There was a housing shortage, the child welfare services were overburdened, and the local communities were protesting the planning of new refugee reception centers. Reportedly, the atmosphere was so heated that some people were willing to take the matter into their own hands. These fortune hunters had to be stopped before the city’s crime problem got completely out of control. An invasion, the protesters called it.
I let the phone ring. Hulda looked attentively over at me from her spot on the couch.
On the radio news, the Prime Minister explained the social democrats’ new and strict immigration policy. Stealing ideas from other political parties was evidently not against the law. I couldn’t see that there was a huge difference between his new approach and the one the far right had advocated for years.
It was a late Friday afternoon. Everybody had vanished from the commercial building where I had my office. To be honest, I didn’t intend to do more work this day myself. An observant spectator would probably point out that it wouldn’t make much difference anyway.
“Yes?” I had surrendered at last. “This is attorney Foyn.”
“I’m surprised to reach you in your office at this hour.” I searched in vain for a note of irony in her voice.
“I tried your house first. And you’ve turned your cell phone off.”
“I do have a job,” I said. “Did you forget?”
She laughed. Mrs. Svendsen ran the law firm I used to be a partner in. Even though
she was old enough to start thinking about retirement, she was as active as ever. She had always assumed a maternal responsibility for me, especially after my colleagues had decided to get rid of me during a murder investigation in which I had been taken into custody. Allegedly, I was damaging the firm’s reputation.
“As far as I remember, you didn’t use to let that get in your way.” She turned serious. “Are you busy tonight?”
We had lunch together from time to time. I got this cruel pleasure from hearing gossip about my old colleagues. But she rarely invited me out in the evening. “No,” I said uncertainly. “No more than usual, I guess.”
“Well.” Her voice was eager. “You know about the support group I’m in, right? Forum for Cross-cultural Understanding?”
“Sure.” Mrs. Svendsen and a group of other idealists, primarily elderly ladies, invited newly arrived immigrants to meet ordinary Norwegians. The response had not been very good. But the ladies didn’t give up easily. I knew several of them.
“We’re inviting people for dinner this evening. Ethnic food, you know. I think you’d like it. Besides, we would like to get some new members, people from different social classes. There will be a lot of interesting people there.”
I hesitated, trying to come up with an excuse. It was undoubtedly a good project. But I had planned to enjoy the evening in a different way. Coltrane, cigars, and Bache-Gabrielsen cognac. “Where is this to take place then?” I pictured some sad community center that hadn’t been redecorated since the fifties. Meeting places like the People’s House had never really appealed to me. The one in Tønsberg had been torn down, but there were definitely several similarly unattractive places left to choose from.
“We have joined forces with the museum café at Haugar. First there will be a guided tour of the gallery. Have you seen their latest exhibition?”
The county-museum building, which had originally belonged to the old College of Nautical Professions, was truly a magnificent construction. I hadn’t had the chance to see the urban photo exhibition yet. “No,” I said, having no excuses left. “I’ll think about it.”
“Good.” She clearly considered the matter settled. “We begin at seven o’clock. You’ll have time to change.” The fact that I already had a mother didn’t seem to affect her.
I suspected that Mrs. Svendsen had an ulterior motive. There would certainly be several people in need of legal assistance in this group, but according to my accountant, pro bono cases were in no way to be on the top of my priority list. Then again, she had always been a pessimist. I guess accountants had to think that way.
I turned to my newspaper again and let the Prime Minister dig his own grave. Behind the seemingly sober news article, I sensed a worrying development. The number of asylum seekers had increased a lot this year. That was an indisputable fact. That the increase was a consequence of conflicts in other parts of the world seemed to be beside the point. So, too, the fact that Norway was far from alone in having to meet these challenges. The situation was worst in the countries closest to the conflict areas, often destitute countries. In any case, it was possible to sympathize with people who worried about getting these problems too close to
themselves. And there had been unpleasant, even potentially dangerous incidents in this peaceful little city too. Even though local characters were without question responsible for most of the crime. As a publicly appointed defense counsel, I knew many of them. Thinking about it, I didn’t really know that many others.
A little on the late side, I peeked warily into the café. I had decided to make some investigations before announcing my arrival. The thought of having to sit by myself as the only nonmember throughout a Friday night did not exactly appeal to me.
I was pleasantly surprised. Not only was the place jam-packed, but the crowd seemed unexpectedly diverse. The Norwegian elderly ladies were there of course, but they were in the minority. A group of European-looking young men, probably from the Balkans, were sitting at the bar counter. Some Asian people, mostly women, were setting up the buffet. Some of the African people were busy installing the sound system. A woman who looked Middle Eastern was sitting at Mrs. Svendsen’s table along with some young people. The woman had to be a bit older, but it was hard to tell how old she was. She was wearing European clothes. My guess was Iran or Iraq. The Somali women in their traditional costumes had gathered in a corner.
I was still standing by the entrance door, hesitant.
Mrs. Svendsen lit up when she saw me. “I’m so glad you could make it! The tour is just about to start.”
The curator, a well-known local art expert, appeared behind me. “Follow me, please.” He switched to English. “If there’s anyone here that doesn’t understand English, I can give my lecture in French, Spanish, or maybe German?” He smiled smugly. The guy was obviously a real intellectual snob.
The crowd trooped obediently after him. In spite of my prejudices, I had to admit the guy knew his stuff. Whether his listeners got anything out of his lecture is another matter. At least they got a chance to demonstrate their willingness to acquire knowledge about something Norwegian. Most of them were probably only going to live here for a short time. Fewer and fewer were allowed access to our wealth.
She was now standing right next to me, the woman from the Middle East. She was strikingly beautiful. Unlike many of her fellow sisters, she was tall and lean. She was not wearing a lot of makeup, no gold jewelry or rings, only a pair of plain silver earrings. She was dressed in dark, tight pants and a short jacket. Her white blouse contrasted sharply with her long blue-black hair. Her tall boots revealed an elegant sophistication. Her eyes were dark, almost black.
She touched my arm. “You’re a lawyer,” she determined in surprisingly good Norwegian. I looked at her in amazement. “Is it that obvious?”
She smiled with white, perfect teeth. “She told me.” She nodded toward Mrs. Svendsen, who was conversing passionately with some of the young people. “She told me about you.”
“Not too much, I hope?” I looked into her eyes and experienced one of those rare moments, the kind that changes your life. I knew with inexplicable clarity that this was such a moment. I extended a hand. “Svend,” I said. “Svend Foyn. And it’s true, I am a lawyer.”
Her hand was shapely and cool. Her fingers touched the palm of my hand ever so lightly. “Jasmin,” she said in a low voice. “Jasmin Alavi. I’m like you.”
I must have looked more confused than usual. I couldn’t imagine in any way that she was like me.
“That is, a lawyer. Or, used to be. I’m from Iran.”
Normally I don’t find lawyers particularly interesting. But I was willing to make an exception in this case. “That was my guess,” I said. “How long have you been here?” We
moved toward the café and sat down at one of the tables, where we stayed looking into each other’s eyes.
I had stopped noticing the people around us.
“Almost two years.” She had placed her hands on the table. Her fingers were long and well-kept, with dark-red, almost black nails. “But I’m not working.”
“Really? Do you have a hard time finding work? Your Norwegian is certainly excellent?”
“I used to have a job, but I don’t have a permit anymore.” Her eyes were beautiful but sad. “My application was rejected.”
“Do you have to go back?”
“I have appealed. Now I’m just waiting.” She was silent. The buzz of conversation around us faded and disappeared. It was as if we were alone in the room. Suddenly she switched to perfect English. “They don’t believe me.”
The bureaucrats at the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration had heard every conceivable explanation before. They didn’t believe anything they were told anymore, not even the truth. And in the appellate body, things were even worse. In the Immigration Appeals Board, the politicians had considerable influence. They were supposed to protect the interests of the people. “Why did you flee your country?” I asked.
She leaned toward me. Her dark eyes seemed more alive now. “Do you really want to know?”
I nodded. “Yes.”
“Not now,” she said quietly and looked around. “Some other time, maybe. Some other place.” She fumbled with her bag while staring at a point behind me. “I have to leave now.” She rose quickly and walked toward the exit. I remained seated gazing after her, not sure what to do with myself.
A Middle Eastern looking man followed her keenly with his eyes. I couldn’t remember seeing him during the tour.
As I was getting up to follow Jasmin, I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Leave her alone, Svend.” It was Mrs. Svendsen. “It’s because of something that happened to her in Iran, while she was in prison.” She shook her head sadly. “She gets these panic attacks, and then she needs to be alone. She has done the exact same thing when she’s been at my house. I’ll give you her phone number. She lives near here, and is just waiting to be deported. I’m sure you can imagine how stressful that must be.”
“I thought she had appealed,” I said. “They can’t throw her out until her appeal has been processed.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. She wouldn’t be the first. The police can come for her any moment.”
“Who’s her lawyer?”
“Some guy in Oslo. He is the kind that has hundreds of asylum-seeker clients. I think his name is Skjeggerød. He has become filthy rich from his business.”
I had seen his name in the paper. On one occasion, one of the leading financial newspapers had scrutinized his practice. His office handled asylum cases by the dozen and almost never won.
Mrs. Svendsen scribbled something on a lottery ticket. “Maybe you can help her?”
Asylum cases were difficult. “Do you know anything about what has happened to her?”
“Very little, I’m afraid. She doesn’t want to talk about it. It’s got something to do with politics of course. I understand she used to be a prominent lawyer in Tehran. She is quite special, don’t you think?” Mrs. Svendsen had always had this strange ability to read my mind. “And beautiful,” she added. “Or maybe captivating is a better word.”
“Is she a Muslim?” I asked.
“I really don’t know, but I think that’s part of the problem. She is considered an unbeliever. And you know what problems that can cause.” She shook her head sadly. “Wouldn’t you like to taste our food?”
“Of course,” I said hesitantly, but I had lost my appetite. I left as soon as I could without seeming rude. The man that had stared at us had disappeared.
I couldn’t stop thinking about her. On Monday I was still able to call back to mind the soft touch of her fingers against my hand. Several times I had almost dialed her number but had stopped myself. I wanted to know more about her before I called.
Her lawyer, Skjeggerød, was surprisingly accessible. Not only was he in his office when I called, but he answered the phone himself. According to evil tongues, he was too cheap to hire a secretary, although he supposedly had more than two thousand clients a year, something that would give him an income of at least five million.
“Jasmin Alavi?” The fact that he didn’t remember her name made me suspicious right away. He must have a bad case of dementia not to remember this woman. “Let me see.” Judging from the noise, he was leafing through some papers. “Her application has been rejected,” he said in a neutral tone. “There isn’t much more we can do in this case, but we have appealed of course. She’ll be on the deportation list soon, I’m afraid. But maybe they’ll wait a little while.” It didn’t seem to bother him much. “The climate is not on our side at the moment,” he added. “The rejections come in rapid succession. Some years ago it usually took some time at least.”
It almost sounded as if he hadn’t lost all sense of decency. “I’ve been told she was politically active,” I said. “And that she was imprisoned. Isn’t that sufficient grounds for giving her residency?”
“Of course. But she hasn’t documented what she claims to have been subjected to.” “Why is that?”
He gave a resigned sigh. “This is a fairly common problem. But in her case, it seems
almost as if she didn’t want to talk about what they did to her.” “Which was?”
“You have to understand that I cannot pass on such information. She is my client.”
“I promised her I’d take a look at her case,” I lied. “Could you send me what you’ve got?”
“I need her authorization before I can do that.”
“Of course. But that’s only a formality, you can simply transfer her case to me.” I realized this wasn’t exactly in accordance with the bar association’s directives concerning good business practice, and that I would have to get a confirmation from her, but I took the risk.
It just seemed right. That was my only excuse.
“Okay. Good luck, then.” He sounded relieved.
Later I tried calling her, several times. I had almost given up when she finally
answered. “Yes?” Her voice was low and cautious, as if she feared the worst.
The police wouldn’t call her before they came. They would be at her door without
“It’s Svend Foyn,” I said, in a low voice too. “The lawyer.”
“I would like to talk to you,” I continued.
She didn’t answer. Not until I had repeated the question. “Why? Why would you like
to see somebody like me?”
I could imagine all sorts of reasons. Not all of them strictly professional. “I don’t want
to see somebody like you,” I said.” It’s you I would like to see.” “You do?”
There was something in her voice that hit me hard. “I would like to hear your story,” I said. “About why you had to leave your country. Maybe I can help you.”
“Do you think so?”
“I have spoken to your lawyer,” I continued encouragingly. “I would like to take over your case.”
“It’s not that I’m not grateful.” Her voice had come to life. “I would like to meet with you. Very much.” She hesitated. “But it’s a bit difficult. Do you understand?”
“Not exactly,” I said. “What’s so difficult?”
“No one can help me.” Her voice sounded frighteningly sincere.
“Try me. Can we meet today?”
She must have changed her mind all of a sudden. “Can I come to your office?” “That would be fine,” I said. “Shall we say around twelve?”
“I know where it is.” She hung up.
She knew where it was.
My doorplate didn’t attract attention. And my office was pretty secluded.
When the door slid open without a sound, I had not only managed to carry out a large-scale cleanup project in my office. I had also bought lunch and forced Hulda down where dogs should be. On the floor, not on the couch.
She made a halt in the entrance and looked around.
I searched her face for a smile but didn’t find it. Only a scrutinizing look.
I got up. “Please, sit down. I hope you don’t mind dogs.” Hulda lifted her head, ready
to greet her. But I pointed a warning finger at the animal. Some people feel a bit uncomfortable when a hundred and seventy pounds of St. Bernard wraps itself around them.
She placed herself at the edge of the couch, as if she were ready to escape.
“Tea?” I offered and placed a cup in front of her. “And maybe a bread roll?”
“Thank you,” she said quietly. I sensed a slight trembling as she took the teacup.
I studied her while she sipped her tea. Today her clothes were less formal, jeans and a
black leather jacket. A turtleneck sweater covered her slender neck. She looked just like any modern Norwegian woman. Maybe a little darker than most.
She looked up. Her eyes stayed fixed on mine for a moment. “What do you want to know?” she said in a strained voice. “Why did you ask me to come?”
I gave her a form I had already filled out. “Just sign this, and we can get started. Then you’ll be officially represented by me. Is that a good enough answer?”
“I won’t be able to pay you. I don’t get more financial aid.”
“Forget it,” I said. What my accountant would have to say about it seemed completely
irrelevant all of a sudden.
“I will not.” But she signed the document. Her handwriting was even and beautiful.
“Then I’m in your hands. Can one say that?
I liked the formulation. “Absolutely.”
“Where do I begin?” She spoke Norwegian with only a slight accent. Her vocabulary
was evidently more than adequate.
I waved my arms around. “With the beginning. Tell me what I need to know.”
She looked like she was thinking hard. “I used to work at the university in Tehran, but
I lost that job five years ago. It was then I started up my own practice.”
“Why did you lose your job at the university?”
She took a deep sigh. “What do you really know about Iran?” Although her voice was
neutral, I could sense her impatience. An annoyance with everyone that didn’t know, that had no idea of what was happening in this former empire with a population of over seventy million. A society that appeared to be modern and well developed before we had as much as formed a state here.
“I’ve tried to keep up with what’s happening. So I’m not completely unaware.” I tried to rephrase my question. “What was the specific occasion? I understand you were seen as a dissident?”
“I was a feminist. I took part in organizing groups among the female students.” “And that was not allowed?”
“Many things are allowed on paper, as long as you don’t do anything that conflicts
“But you did?”
“Feminism in itself is a threat to the rulers. And when you try to raise questions about sexuality they get even more provoked. Women are not supposed to express such feelings. That’s only for men.” She made a long pause before continuing. “As I’m sure you know, women don’t have a high standing in today’s Iran. By that I mean in practice, not in theory. Women are worthless compared to men. You’ll get severely punished just for going out of your house without a hijab. Your everyday life is governed by regulations to an extent you can’t even imagine when you live in a country like Norway.”
No more than a couple of decades ago, Iran was a modern, Western-friendly society.
“The clergy’s agents are everywhere. When I was summoned by the faculty administration, I knew it was over for me. I didn’t stand a chance when they accused me of having set myself up against God.”
“Were you politically active?”
“There is no such thing as ordinary political activity in Iran anymore.” Her voice was bitter. “They call it politics, but it is only a cover. We get to vote for different politicians, that much is true, but it’s all supervised by The Guardian Council. No one is allowed to put forward a view that has not been approved by the council. Even the President has to follow their instructions. That is why the free elections are mere travesties.”
This wasn’t new information to me, but I didn’t always know who to trust. Western media wasn’t particularly balanced in their depiction of countries like Iran. “What about your family?” I said. “Do they still live there?”
“My father used to be doctor. He was a respected internist in Tehran. At first he welcomed the revolution, but it didn’t take long before he fell into disfavor.”
“Used to be?”
“He disappeared five years ago, about the same time my problems at the university started. I had just finished my thesis and had gotten a permanent position there.”
“He hasn’t turned up? You don’t know what happened to him?”
“You don’t understand.” She gave me a resigned look. “Thousands of the people the
regime call dissidents disappear every year. When they can’t prove that these people have actually broken the law, they find other ways of dealing with them. They kidnap them and place them in prisons where they are tortured, and killed when they aren’t useful to them anymore. Most are never found, but some turn up after big natural disasters.”
I must have looked puzzled.
“Have you heard about the big earthquake in Qom?”
“There they placed hundreds of victims, people that had disappeared earlier. When the
bodies where uncovered, they found people who had never been in Qom while alive.” The office became quiet. “What had your father done?” I asked finally.