Skinny size me: some women dramatise their inner conflict by shedding weight. Photograph: Ben Stockey
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The anorexic statement

Trust me, notice me, feed me: every female body conveys a message. So, when a woman starves herself, what is she saying?

I knew a woman whose job it was to take anorexics to the swimming pool. She was an occupational therapist: eating disorders were her field. She worked at a nearby clinic and we bumped into one another from time to time.

I found myself curious about her work, or more truthfully about her patients, those singular modern-day martyrs to the cause of their own bodies. Without quite knowing why, as I have grown older I have become more interested in – it could even be said, more respectful of – what might be called the anorexic statement. Perhaps it’s because, as the 45-year-old English mother of two children, my body has little power of provocation or utterance; or rather, that what it’s said or tried to say through the years hasn’t seemed to have added up to all that much. Quite what constitutes the anorexic statement I’m not entirely sure. All the same, it has a great power of disruption. It’s a stray spoke under the wheel of things that otherwise have the capacity to hurtle on headlong: family life, fashion, the destiny of the female body. The statement might be: help me. Or it might simply be: stop.

My therapist acquaintance herself had not been allowed to be picky in life, growing up in a family of brothers on a farm in the Australian outback. She knew how to shoot, drive a tractor, ride a horse bareback. She had left that rough home and come to the UK, where every couple of years for the sake of change she moved job and town – Slough, Birmingham, Chelmsford – though her solitude and her line of work did not alter. She neither sought nor seemed to expect much in the way of pleasure. In the evenings she made a sandwich and read a book in her rented room; her main meal was lunch in the canteen at the clinic, where food was plentiful and cheap. This somewhat joyless attitude to nourishment could come as no surprise, given that she spent her days among females who regarded the ingestion of a teaspoonful of peas as a physical and spiritual crisis. Once a week she led them to the poolside, skeletal and pale, for all the world to see. Even at the swimming pool these curious beings detected the threat of penetration, of the outside coming in. They didn’t want to get in the water, not, apparently, because they felt self-conscious or exposed, but for fear that they might swallow some of it without its calorific content having been established.

The easiest thing that could be said about my acquaintance was that she herself was impenetrable. Her choice of career must have sprung from some initial attraction to or sympathy with the anorexic state, but most often what she appeared to feel for her waifish charges was irritation, even anger. Anger is a common response, it seems, to the anorexic statement. At the very least, returning from a day spent on the receiving end of that statement, my acquaintance was hard put to feel – as they say – good about herself. If the anorexic is someone for whom the relationship between female being and female image must, on pain of death, be resolved, it may be that she denies that resolution to those who cross her path. They become the witnesses of her vulnerability; as such, she is more real than they. Like with the ascetic of old, her self-denial is a form of chastisement, yet the extremity of her appearance is confusing. Being female, it seeks attention, but of an unusual kind. It asks to be mothered – yet what if its aim is indeed to challenge the reality of the mother-figure and overpower it, to triumph over her, to consign her to flesh and steal her image? The anorexic is out to prove how little she needs, how little she can survive on; she is out, in a sense, to discredit her nurturers, while at the same time making a public crisis out of her need for nurture. Such vulnerability and such power: it brings the whole female machinery to a halt. My acquaintance had tales of rudeness and tantrums and sulks, of behaviour more commonly read about in childcare manuals (of the kind whose purpose, we are told, is to “test the boundaries”), even of a degree of personal insult which at the very least, I suppose, mothers aren’t paid to tolerate. She had no children of her own. And so, in an admirable interpretation of the social contract, she recognised she had something in that line to give.

Jenefer Shute offers some riveting descriptions of such interactions, between the anorexic inpatient Josie and her carers, in her novel Life-Size. “In the body,” Josie chillingly muses, “as in art, perfection is attained not when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.”

Armed with this credo, she can exercise contempt on everyone around her (“They say I’m sick, but what about them, who feast on corpses?”), in what becomes a radical reliving of her primary experiences of nurture. And it needs to be radicalised: this is the moral value of the anorexic statement, that it asks questions not just of mothers or fathers or fashion editors, but of the whole societal basis for the female image. This time around, Josie can speak her mind. She can criticise the people who care for her; she can re-experience the powerlessness of childhood and know it for what it is. So unpleasant is she to the “freckled cow” who nurses her that she finally gets the reprimand she has apparently been asking for:

“Josephine, I must ask you please not to speak to me like that. I’m not your servant.” And then, unable to contain herself: “And would you please look at me when I talk to you? It really gets on my nerves.” Coldly, victoriously, I remain precisely as I am. She really should have more control.

Soon after, however, the 68-pound tyrant, having agreed at last to eat something or be force-fed through a tube, makes a revealing request of her nurse: “I want you to feed me,” she says.

My acquaintance found it hard to muster much interest in herself at the day’s end. She rarely went out or saw people: it was as though her work had bled her of confidence. She sought not public interactions but the determined security of her private boundary. In the evenings she changed into loose clothes, shut herself in her room, shut herself into a book. She wanted to be where no one could demand anything of her, like a depleted mother, except with none of the prestige of motherhood. She never kept company with men, and her female world was wholly predicated on an insidious notion, that certain women are there to give attention and others to receive it. Sometimes it seemed that her patients had indeed stolen her image and left her with nothing to trade, nothing to barter with for some share of the world’s interest. They had stolen her image and left her a mere body that could find no reflection or definition for itself. She went back home for a few weeks on holiday and returned browner, more animated, and heavier. All that meat they went in for, meat roasted over a fire and served at every meal. But more to the point, a world in which food was an entitlement and a human bond.

In her own world food had become a weapon: her evening sandwich and her indifference were a kind of savourless pacifism she exercised against it. She spent her days among people who denied themselves food in order to experience, perhaps, power, whose apparent intention to make themselves invisible made them, in fact, visible, who had discovered that by becoming less they became more. And no­where was this clearer than in the fact that they required her as their witness, for disappearing was no fun unless someone noticed you’d gone. But if anyone was disappearing, if anyone was becoming invisible, it was she.

The question of how she had come to be stranded in this place remains difficult to answer, but its source may lie in the very practicality – the tractors, the horses – she had crossed the world to escape. Denied her own experience of femininity, she had perhaps embarked on a kind of pilgrimage to find and serve these notable victims to the riddling perversity of feminine values. She could help them, sit with them while they wept and shrieked over a teaspoonful of peas, she who had never had the temerity to question or refuse anything she had been given; she who was not important enough, as it were, to be anorexic, for the hieratic significance of the anorexic body depends on it having been ascribed a value in the first place. Had she tried to starve herself on the farm where she grew up, she might simply have died: her protest, in any case, would not have been understood. She had taken photographs of this place, on her recent trip home. In order to capture its isolation, she had photographed it from a distance, recording the miles of surrounding scrubland in a sequence of separate frames that she laid one next to another across the table in a long connecting strip. Amid these featureless wastelands she defied me to locate her home, and though my eyes searched and searched the landscape it was true that I could find no evidence of human habitation. She laughed, with an unmistakable and strangely exhilarated pride, and laid her finger over a low brown shape that crouched amid the boulders and bushes that extended all around it, on and on to the white horizon. It was so small her fingertip covered it. “There it is,” she said.

It may seem superfluous for a 45-year-old mother-of-two to say that she does not exult in the life of the body, but let’s just call it a place to begin. At the very least, as a statement, it raises numerous lines of inquiry. One might be: is it obligatory, or even a moral duty, to take pleasure in one’s own physical being? Leaving aside for a moment the question of what definition of pleasure one could possibly arrive at in this particular hall of mirrors, is the value of the physical quest in any way comparable with that of the artistic, the emotional, the spiritual?

I understand the anorexic’s notion of pleasure far better than the hedonist’s. Sometimes it has seemed to me that the second kind of pleasure is consequent on the first, that the life of sensation can be accessed only from a place of perfect self-discipline, rather as strict religious practices were once believed to constitute the narrow path to heaven. The anorexic, like the ascetic before her, publicly posits the immolation of the flesh as a manifestation of a primary physical discontent she is on her way to escaping: she represents a journey whose starting point is disgust. Body is found to be not only intolerable to but weaker than mind – how, then, can its desires and yearnings be taken seriously? The anorexic statement suggests a second body, one that will be painstakingly encroached on and attained; and hence, a second template for desire. This second body will belong to its owner as the first did not: its desires, therefore, will be experienced as not shameful, but true.

The female form is inherently susceptible to this duality, but the difficulty with the anorexic statement is that once it becomes open to other readings it breaks down. At some point in the journey a line is crossed: the slim body becomes the freakish starved body, and one by one the anorexic’s grounds for superiority are discredited and revoked. She is not beautiful but repellent, not self-disciplined but out of control, not enviable but piteous, and, most disappointing of all, she is publicly courting not freedom and desire but death. Even she may find these things difficult to believe. How to go back, on that journey? How to retrace one’s steps? For in getting where she needed to go the anorexic had to sacrifice the concept of normality. In a manner of speaking she sold her soul. She can never be “normal” about food or flesh again. So, how is she meant to live?

If the anorexic arouses irritation, even anger, it may be this quitting of normality that is to blame, because the female management of normality is a formidable psychical task from which most women don’t feel entitled to walk away. By quitting it she exposes it, she criticises it as a place to live, and moreover she forces each woman who passes her way to choose between denial and recognition of her statement, disgust.

Is it disgusting to be a woman? Menstruation, lactation, childbirth, the sexualisation of the female body – in recognising these things as her destiny, a girl is asked to forget everything that her prepubescent instincts might formerly have suggested to her. In becoming female she must cease to be universal, and relinquish the masculine in herself that permitted her as a child to find the idea of these things disgusting indeed. Likewise that masculine is now embodied for her in men, so the question becomes – do men find women disgusting? The anorexic statement dispenses with that perspective. It returns the woman to the universality of the child, and from that fusion formulates itself: I find myself disgusting.

If it has become a cultural cliché that women want to be thin more than they want to be loved (the three most cherished words these days, so the saying goes, being not “I love you” but “You’ve lost weight”), and moreover that they want to be thin not for men but for one another, the general observer might be tempted to view this as making the case for male innocence (at last!), even male redundancy.

Yet, looked at another way, the male and the preponderance of male values are perhaps more culpable in the incrimination of the female form than ever. An eating disorder epidemic suggests that love and disgust are being jointly marketed, as it were; that wherever the proposition might first have come from, the unacceptability of the female body has been disseminated culturally. Is it possible that disgust has finally got, in the famed male gaze, the upper hand? From whom, after all, has a woman ever wished to hear the words “I love you” but a man?

In Life-Size, Jenefer Shute posits the anorexic state as having two separate sources, one in the female (subjective, mother) and the other in the male (objective, father). Between them they engender in the anorexic subject the confusion between being and image of which one might suppose her to be merely an extreme cultural example. Mother – the female body – is indeed the source of disgust, but it is father – if one can be permitted the leap of seeing father as analogous with male and, indeed, with society – who makes that disgust public and hence catalyses it into shame. Without father, mother might merely have passed her disgust silently on to daughter, where it would have remained as an aspect of her private, interior being. But father brings it to the surface: it is something not just felt but now also seen. These confirmations, in Shute’s narrative, of interior suspicion (am I disgusting?) by outward commentary (yes, you are) are fatal to female self-perception in ways that might seem obvious but are none­theless intractable.

Outside and inside – image and being – are now held to be one: the girl/woman revisits and tests this impossibility by becoming the observer – the male – herself, looking at and remarking on the bodies of other women. Naturally, the discovery that image can be changed is not new: it is and always has been part of becoming a woman, in a sense that, although slenderness has long been a feminine ideal, self-hatred and the compulsion to starve oneself to death have broadly not. The question of disgust returns, accompanied by its shadow, the question of pleasure.

A personal admission: not long ago, in a period of great turmoil, I lost a considerable amount of weight. The first thing to say about this is that I was unaware, inexplicably, that it had happened. That my clothes no longer fitted passed me by: I noticed it only because other people told me so. They appeared shocked: each time I met someone I knew, there it would be, shock, a startled expression on the face. At first, I was startled in turn. They were not seeing who they expected to see; who, then, were they seeing? After a while I got used to it: indeed, I came to expect, almost to require it. A newborn baby needs to be mirrored by another human being in order to grasp that she has an outward surface, that this “self” has an appearance, that her image speaks. Through the shock of others I learned that I, too, had been shocked, that I was no longer the person I once was. My image was speaking, to me as well as to other people, telling me things I did not yet appear to know or realise.

But eventually the question of “normality” returned, as it must in the life of a 45-year-old mother-of-two. Stop, help me, feed me: this may have been my cry, but the truth was there was no one, any more, to answer. There could be no illusion, as an adult; I had left it too late to stage this apotheosis, this defeat of the first body, predicated as it is on the expectation of rescue. I had to draw back from it myself. And this was where the problem arose, because, like the anorexic, I found I could not retrace my steps, could not, as it were, go back to sleep. For years I had lived in my body half-consciously, ignoring it mostly, dismissing its agendas wherever I could, and forever pressing it into the service of mental conceptions that resulted, almost as a by-product, sometimes in its pleasuring and sometimes in its abuse. People were always telling me I should do yoga: this was one of the running jokes I had against my own flesh, for the idea that I would suspend the intellectual adventure of living even for one hour to dwell in the dumb and inarticulate realm of the auto-corporeal was as unappealing as that of spending an evening with someone I disliked. Now, as the weeks passed, instead of shock, my appearance was beginning to elicit milder manifestations of concern. I didn’t know what it meant: had I changed again? Was I no longer fragile and vulnerable? I had no idea. Never before in my life had I dared to be fragile, and all I knew was that I wasn’t ready to leave what I had become. “Have you ever thought of doing yoga?” someone said.

As a teenager I had been tormented by hunger and by an attendant self-disgust, for I saw in other girls a balance, an openness of form, that suggested they had nothing inside of which they need be ashamed. Their bodies were like well-schooled ponies, handsome and obedient, whereas I had a monster inside me whose appeasement was forever disrupting the outward surface of life. It craved so many things it could barely discriminate between them, and so indiscrimination – the failure to distinguish between what mattered and what didn’t, what helped and what didn’t, what it needed and what just happened to be there – became its public nature. It wanted, in fact, what it could get, in the light of what it couldn’t.

How thoroughly the tangible and the in­tangible confused themselves in those years. Creativity, the placement of internal material into space, the rendering tangible, became my weapon against that confusion.

When I left my boarding school – the blue serge uniform and the Cambridgeshire drizzle, the plates of stodge that were so predictable and real, the torturing sense of female possi­bilities that were not – I learned to manage the monster, more or less. Like the first Mrs Rochester it had a locked room of its own, from which it sometimes succeeded in breaking free to rend into shreds my fantasies of femininity, but I had set my mind on higher things. By locking up the monster I was making myself at heart unfree: what did I know of freedom in any case? I was accustomed to fantasy and to the safety – albeit uncomfortable – it supplied, and the notion of an integrated self was the most uncomfortable fantasy of all. In a sense, it was the monster: I could neither kill it nor live with it, and so there it remained, caged, bellowing and banging intermittently through the years, creating perhaps the sense of something amiss in those who came close to me, but caged all the same.

Yoga, understandably enough, was out: nothing could have persuaded me to enter that cage armed only with a sun salute. But my sudden emaciation in middle age did bring me into contact with the monster again, for, amid all the other losses, there in the rubble of the desecrated life, I appeared to see it lying dead at my feet. The Jungian notion of the “middle passage”, in which at mid-life all the templates for self expire or fall away, in which with sufficient destruction one has a chance to return to the blankness of birth, might have explained that death well enough to avoid detection: it simply went up in the fire, the horrible secret, along with everything else. And here, after all, was a chance to be free of my own image, the bind in which my body had held me for all these years, because, while wanting more than anything to be feminine, I had only and ever found my own femininity disgusting. This image, knitted together over time by questions and confirmations (Am I disgusting? Yes, you are), was one I was now prepared to sustain: I was poised to make the anorexic statement, to vanish, to let image and being finally become one.

But of course, no such thing occurs: there is no “letting”, no seamless transposition of the flesh. The anorexic body is held in the grip of will alone; its meaning is far from stable. What it says – notice me, feed me, mother me – is not what it means, for such attentions constitute an agonising test of that will, and also threaten to return the body to the dreaded “normality” it has been such ecstasy to escape.

For the first time since my teenage years I found myself tormented again by hunger: the monster had awoken from its slumber, bigger and more ferocious than ever. The route back to normality being blocked, I have had to devise other ways of getting there, or of seeming to. My occupational therapist acquaintance tells me that many of her patients are women of my age, women who have suddenly tried to slip the noose of their female flesh once its story – menstruation, lactation, childbirth – has been told in all its glory and shame.

When I relate this to my female friends they take it humorously, rolling their eyes and laughing, gallantly owning up – oh yes, they say, we know – to monsters of their own. Most of them haven’t delivered themselves into its jaws quite so thoroughly as I have; their dislike of their own bodies is a kind of low-level irritant, a necessary component of the female environment, but to think about it too much would spoil everyone’s fun.

I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun, either, though for now I have spoiled my own. It did seem, for a while, as though the death-state of physical denial might contain the possibility of transcendence, the chance to step out of my self-disgust and make true contact at last: contact of my “real”, my second, self with the outer world. That I felt this had always been denied me, that in the negotiation between being and image all, for me, had been lost, was a stark kind of truth to face up to. Passing other women in the street these days, I seem to hear their bodies speaking. A lot of what they say is unclear to me, or at the very least so foreign that it takes me a moment to translate it. For instance: I accept myself. Or: respect me. The ones I like best are the ones that say, trust me. What I will never be able to hear unequivocally, whether whispered or shrieked, is: desire me. Notice me, feed me, mother me. Passing by the anorexic girl, stepping lightly and silently in the shadows, I hear her message and in a way I salute her for it. Other bodies have other messages, but for this one I have ears.

Rachel Cusk is most recently the author of “Aftermath: on Marriage and Separation” (Faber & Faber, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

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Flight: an essay

A story about leaving by imprisoned writer and human rights consultant Ali Gharavi.

This is the lucky night you will try to flee your country.

You do realise you are one of the luckier ones, don’t you?

You will fly out of Tehran’s main airport. Your aunt had to hike through the snow-capped mountains of Azerbaijan Province.

You get to say goodbye, if only to your grandparents. Your aunt left on ten minutes’ notice.

She didn’t say goodbye.

Yes, you are lucky, all right.

But you don’t notice feeling lucky. You don’t really notice feeling anything. There is fear, of course. But these days fear is a constant companion, lingering like an impending migraine pestering you right under your skin.

And daily life provides the prospects of getting shot on the street, being bombed from the sky, getting attacked by street thugs, getting arrested by the morality police, being hijacked off the city bus by lecherous men, or being hunted in a local school by lecherous boys.

These days, daily life paints the fear-stretched canvas of your soul with vivid splashes of terror.

But tonight, if you successfully get on that plane, it will be the last night you will spend in your home. The revolution has taken hold, and the revolutionaries do not tolerate your kind, with your western-educated parents, your feminist aunt, your apostate uncle and your military-general grandfather. The revolution is out on a purge of your corrupt way of thinking, your decadent way of life.

So your departure has been kept a secret. They are not asking you to leave, they are not allowing you to leave. They are demanding you and the likes of you repent, become someone else. Even within the confines of your own house, you have to conform to their wishes. You must pretend to recoil at what they deem evil and rejoice at their brand of joy. Inside your home, within your country, you have become an outsider. Your leaving without ever being ordered to is validation of the sneaking sense that you no longer belong.

They have beaten your aunt on the streets, they have harassed you at school, they have spat on your mother in the market, they have threatened your grandfather in his own home, they plan to send you to win or die in a war that cannot be won, they have forced their way into your most private places to bring you their version of salvation. 

In this new social order, you are an unwanted pest, but not allowed to leave. Leaving will mean sneaking out, the quiet scurry of a cowardly rodent.

And yet you must be thankful for the opportunity to choose your life over someone else’s conviction, even though it means deserting your family and your country in their time of dire need. For your escape, you are even allotted a suitcase—a red Samsonite hard-shell—and three weeks for packing a lifetime. Lucky again, since your lifetime has been only 16 years. At first you welcome the distraction from the world outside and the uncertainty within.

But this, too, proves daunting. It is one suitcase, after all, and you can put in all you want, as long as it weighs less than 30 kilograms. What you pick, you will keep for a long time; what you leave behind, you will never see again. What books to take? How to pick from the 400-strong collection of Matchbox cars? Will you leave your father’s Zenith camera, your main inheritance, behind? Will you part with the complete collection of your Tin Tin adventure series? Maybe this will be your rendition of a Tin Tin adventure. He is always able to travel lightly to unknown places and find new friends. Speaking of friends, you will obviously not be able to pack any of those in the suitcase. None of them will be going with you, and none of them know you will be gone.

News of this monumental event affecting your lives and friendships will remain trapped in your throat: you will have to deprive the little words tickling your vocal chords of the air that would give them flight. Your friends will remain oblivious until the first day of eleventh grade. They will file in to your second-floor classroom on the first day of fall, hear your name called for attendance, see that your seat is empty, and will realise it always will be. You're leaving your home and hometown, Tehran, is a secret dressed up as a summer vacation.

***

On this moonless night at two in the morning, you stand wide-eyed atop the stairs leading  to the walled front yard of your home, next to a slightly bulging suitcase, looking down at the flower garden, the family’s Mitsubishi Gallant, and the heavy sheet-metal gate leading to the dark street. Your eyes scan past the small bush with cloudlike flowers, underneath which you helped bury grandfather’s military medals, past the spot on a stone step where you had a bonfire of your aunt’s poetry.

You look at the dirt-filled pond where you practiced long jumping and military crawling, shooting bb guns at pickle cans and building snow fortresses after wintertime roof-shovelings. You stare at the crevice between the flowerpots and the basement steps, where you snuck out with your grandmother during nighttime air raids and together rode the seesaw of panic and curiosity set to the score of anti-aircraft fireworks.

The creak of the house door behind you sets things in motion. Your mother and grandparents step onto the landing, and the procession towards the dark unknown begins.

Suddenly everything is vivid, all senses keen. Your grasp against the suitcase handle jiggles and jolts as you drag the suitcase across the slate stairs and onto the driveway. The marble steps showcase every fault line, reminding you of days you pretended they were maps of unknown places far from here. The crusted paint on the railing scratches your hand; the same paint you spent a summer applying wrongly, waiting for it to dry, stripping and sanding it, and reapplying it again, wrongly.

The brown Mitsubishi stands quiet, headlights shyly looking straight ahead; the same headlights you helped tape over with slitted-up blue carbon paper for driving during air raid blackouts. You run your fingers along the pockmarked hood, onto the windshield and the broken side-mirror. Your eyes scour the backseats for the remnants of previous trips, spilled cocoa-puffs and pistachio nuts, or the hard candies your grandfather requested with clocklike frequency en route to the Caspian Coast: Two please, one for each cheek, because you always want to go through life in balance.

You peel your glistening palm from the Samsonite handle to touch the cool of the garage doors. The foreboding, three-meter-tall metal doors that protected you as best they could from bullies and bullets; who thanked you for a proper paint job by divulging the secret to unlatching them with one hand; the doors who screeched with dismay when the revolutionary gunmen stormed into your sanctuary, unable to keep them out; the same doors who will grumble because they cannot keep you in.

The sparkle of the marble fault lines, the bumps of the slate driveway, the aroma of specks of dirt, the smoke-cloud flowers, the chipping paint, your many eyes in the broken side-view mirror, all stretch invisible arms to embrace you, to keep you home a moment longer.

But it is the real, open arms of your grandmother you find yourself lunging for. Her embrace is as always soft and safe, but for the first time it is also tenuous. She doesn’t speak or ask questions, but her staccato breath tells you a thousand times over that she is parting with the first of her children, your mother, and the first of her grandchildren, you. As you climb into the waiting taxicab, busy with leaping into an unknown and adventurous journey, she must go close the grumbling metal doors, walk past the quiet car, up the marble steps, into the house, to confront the empty rooms that her last remaining child and grandchild once called home.

***

The sleepy city does its best to go unnoticed past the taxi windows: an early bird street sweeper here, a hobbling stray dog there. The Azadi monument, the white Arc-de-Triomphe of yesteryear, flashes past your window as if ignoring a trespasser; or maybe it is too sad to look you in the eye and bid you farewell.

The airport is awake and awash in bright lights and a white-noised hustle. You and your Samsonite follow your mother and hers through the doors and onward to the departure hall. Somewhere on the other side of this labyrinth of a building stands the airplane that will lift you from here - if you reach it.

You must successfully pass with your age undetected through an obstacle course of checkpoints. At sixteen you are not officially barred from leaving. But sixteen year-olds aren’t officially dying by the busload at the war front either.

Your lack of facial hair and “girly” voice have been fodder for constant taunting by classmates and cousins. But here, prepubescence is an asset in the calculus of safe passage through the document check. Your mother’s passport, in which you are noted as a child co-traveler, sits in a cubbyhole behind a control desk. The attendant spends eternal seconds to locate it, check the picture against your mother’s face, hand the passport over unceremoniously and wave the two of you by. The first of the gauntlets is traversed.

Next, a baggage controller demands you carry your luggage and follow him to his pedestal. He is wearing a grey, sweat-stained dress-shirt with sleeves rolled up to elbows; dark, dusty slacks; and worn-out dress shoes fashioned into slippers, which he drags on the smooth mosaic of the terminal as he saunters to his perch.

The control is meant to prevent illegal exportation of goods. The caveat is that there is no indication of what constitutes an illegal good. You are at the mercy of your baggage-controller: of what he considers illegal, what he might find of interest for him to keep, and whether he finds your face appealing. You can see your mother undergoing a similar fate with a larger suitcase and a large, veiled woman. They are more animated, one woman lifting this blouse or that, saying something to the other’s flushed face, and the other taking it from her, folding and putting it back.

Things are less controversial with your controller, in the beginning. He ensures all items are sufficiently disturbed; the one Tin Tin book you couldn’t part with flipped through and scoffed at, stacks of your shirts and pants kneaded and stretched, some socks twirled in mid-air, your Rubik’s Cube scrambled some more. After your suitcase is adequately ransacked, he waves the back of his hand to motion you off his pedestal. You will be past the second gauntlet as soon as you are able to get your Samsonite’s jaw to close over your vagabond possessions.

But you take too long and will pay for it soon, because lingering near these new compatriots means drawing attention, and attention means interaction, which is almost always unpleasant. 

He suddenly looks back.

“Is that your brown bag?” he points at the brown paper bag by your feet. You are carrying this for your mother; a token homegrown souvenir for her friend in Germany.

“Yes, it is ours.”

“What is in it?”

“Cucumbers.”

He suddenly chuckles.

“Are you planning a picnic?”

“No Agha.”

“Are you taking these…(by now he has dumped the cucumbers on top of your heap of clothes, counting them)…eleven cucumbers to Germany?”

“Yes, Agha.”

He turns to another baggage-controller and chortles, “Asghar, look, he has brought us cucumbers. Hope he has bread in another bag, and some cheese in his pockets. I’m getting hungry. Say boy, you don’t have any Bulgarian cheese with you?”

“No, Agha.” You don’t know if you should smile or be annoyed, or neither.

“Wait a second. Are you hiding something in these cucumbers?”

You choose smiling, which is a bad choice.

“Is something I am telling you humorous? Are you hiding some gold or jewelry in them?” he says, this time with no dimples on his face, and a half-threatening move in your direction.

“Oh, no, Agha!”

“Don’t they have cucumbers in Germany?”

“Not Persian ones like this, Agha.”

“Well, you’ll have to eat one of them here, just to make sure they’re actually cucumbers.”

And it is so, that at 4.20am on your last day in your country, you start biting into a randomly selected cucumber off your stack of unfolded underwear. You remind yourself of an animal at a zoo, performing tricks to amuse its masters. You continue making crunchy cucumber chewing sounds as this man stares at you with folded arms. Luckily, the constant stress of being found escaping has made you mentally absent about the real contraband you are smuggling out: your life. Instead, you resign yourself to watching the man examine every cucumber-cum-smuggling-canister (which actually are all cucumbers, it turns out), then wipe his hands on your clean, knitted-by-mom blue sweater, all the while nagging for you to chew faster because this is no fruit market for hanging around eating. You catch a glimpse of a jumbo jet's tail in the corner of a distant window, beyond another passport-check, waiting.

***

Your next task is to stand in the men's line for the body search. An official walking down the line demands you produce your passport.

“I am in my mother’s passport.”

 “Well then why aren’t you with her? You can’t just run around by yourself. You can’t be separated from the person in whose passport you appear!”

“We told them this, but the baggage-controllers separated us.”

“What idiot told them to separate you?”

Panic sets in and you answer this rhetorical question, realising too late that silence would have been a better answer.

“Agha, it is because I am a boy, and because my mother had to go to women’s line for baggage-control, and they told us the rule is that only sisters can open sisters’ bags.”

“Be quiet, you chatterbox! It is bad enough you are loitering here like a lost goat.”

He grabs you by the elbow, drags you back to the fork in the line where he commands you to stand there, summons a veiled sister to go and locate your mother who can produce a passport for you.

This is when your mind has you being taken away into a jail or a dungeon or whatever other terrible place it conjures up. In the meantime, the sister is arguing with the brother. She has already checked you against the passport, she says (though you have never seen her before). Then you get shaken by the elbow and scolded for not saying this in the first place. Years of practicing lies and deceit to survive have not trained you well enough to corroborate other people’s future lies.

He drags you to the front of the queue. He grumbles that you are stupid, that he is angry for you wasting his time, that children like you should be punished, that you must be hiding something, that he is not to be trifled with, that he will find whatever it is you are concealing, that he will teach you a lesson. He pushes you through the middle door of a bank of five doors, too fast for you to read the title of the room. He tells you to strip off all your clothes except your underwear, and to do this at once, while he goes and fetches the key to lock the door.

The room is small, rectangular and white, as wide as your wingspan, and as long as seven steps between two doors. Behind a waist-high, off-white, grungy fabric partition, there is a waist-high slab of cold, smooth metal, dented here and stained there. Nothing lines the walls, and a single, bright incandescent light bulb hangs out of reach from the center of the high ceiling. You feel confined nevertheless. Voices start dueling inside, one telling you to think of this room as a vestibule (why else would there be two doors?) — while another convinces you this is a jail cell (why else would he need a key to lock the door?).

In the moments while you wait for the man to return to be alone with you and the light bulb as your witness, you can’t bring yourself to undress. Instead you stand there, frozen, biting your lips, fighting back tears, and feeling the blood drain from your clinched fists, still holding onto the suitcase and the paper bag.

To your surprise, the vestibule’s other door opens, and an older man in an old uniform steps in. He is orderly, serious and official. He is a remnant of the border patrol of years past, he explains to you.

“Wait a moment here please,” he says, and slides past you to open the other door. His torso leans out and you hear his part of a conversation:

“I am processing the young boy in Number Three.”

“No, I have it under control—

“Yes, I will make sure—

“No, you won’t. I told you—

“NO! Go ahead, tell Brother Lari the supervisor.” 

Then he mumbles something to himself about cursing the devil for being stuck with hoodlums for colleagues.

He explains to you that he is an old border officer. He tells you not to be afraid.

“Yes, Agha.” You obey in words, but not in thought, because these days, you don’t trust anyone except members of your family (and not even all of them, either).

“What did the other officer say to you?”

“Nothing, Agha. He was upset about my mother and I not being in line together.”

“Well, you should tell him that it is their own rules.”

“I tried, Agha, but he didn’t like that either.”

“Is there anything they do like?” he asks, mostly to himself, shaking his head and motioning you to step around the screen. He asks you to stand next to the slab, remove and pass him your pants. Your body complies while your mind processes only snapshot images; your hands on your belt, your kneecap out of the pant leg, the mosaic next to your shoe, the unwrinkling of your pants as you lift it, the man’s hairy hand as he reaches across, the runaway coins twirling on the ground, the man snapping the pant legs, his hands running at the seams and the hems. His voice snaps you out of the images.

“Has anyone sewn anything inside the seams?”

“No, Agha!”

“Not even a tiny gold chain?”

“No, Agha.”

“I believe you.”

 He then tells you he has to pat you down. “I have a son your age,” he says, “around thirteen, right?” You nod, and don’t offer to correct him. He pats your shirt at the armpits and sides, then pats your behind and legs. He tells you he will not pat your private parts, and instead he will take a look.

He sneaks a peek, and you don’t know what will happen next. It is one of those instances when the next moment won’t arrive for a long, long time.

Then he steps back.

“That’s all,” he says.

“Oh?”

He steps behind the screen, and says, “Get dressed on the double, and leave this area.”  He leaves through the door you came in.

You do not linger.

You put your clothes on as fast as you can, and exit through the other door, out of that white and stained room.

You find yourself in a window-lined hallway. You can see a Lufthansa jet off on the tarmac.

The banging on the glass wall behind you turns you around. It is your mother motioning to you. You go closer, only to hear her muffled voice, unable to pick out the words. She shows her necklace in her hand, and motions to you.

You shrug your shoulders and squint.

She motions you to walk back through the vestibule to the other side.

No, you think to yourself, but you walk that way.

You crack open the second of the five doors, next to the one you have just exited. Inside, there is the man who wanted to punish you squatting behind another man who has his pants down, his legs apart. The officer keeps asking where it is hidden, and the naked man keeps swearing in a trembling voice that there is nothing he has hidden.

Neither of them has noticed you. You just back away and leave the door ajar. You go back to the glass wall where your mother sees you again. You just stand there and slowly shake your head no. Something in your face makes her understand, so she motions with the palm of her hand for you to stop and stay right there.

So you stop and stay right there, perilously close to the door through which adult voices of confrontation ooze out.

From another of the doors, the older border patrol steps out. He is holding the bag of cucumbers. He shoves them in your hands and says in a hushed forceful tone,

“Son, have you been eating donkey brains to make you stupid? I told you to move away from these doors. Do you not know what body search could mean? Get as far away from here as you can, and don’t look back, you understand?”

You don’t look at the half-open third door, and you say “Yes, Agha.”

By the time your mother makes it out, many others have come down the hallway from the border-patrol area: first the naked, straddling man, in shock and with teary eyes; then many women who come out two and two, whispering incredulous, indignant whispers and clucks. They all walk through the double doors where the airline desk and the staircase to the shuttle bus await their passage.

By now, it is noon. You and ten wilting cucumbers are all but stranded in this empty glass-enclosed hallway, thinking all manner of thoughts about the whereabouts of your mother for the past hours.

And then she walks out, cheeks flushed, headscarf clinging to the back of her head. She spots you, and scurries your way. She runs in that discrete manner of the women of your family, with feet moving and torso staying stationary, floating forward as if on a conveyor belt. Her eyebrows say she is angry; her dry eyes say she is determined. You want to scream and hug her, but instead you lift your luggage and speed up to meet her stride towards the airline desk.

Why all the delay, you ask, and she explains that the "sister" searching her refused to allow her to pass with her necklace, so she had to backtrack all the way to the parking entrance to leave her necklace with your grandfather, then had to wait in all the lines to get back to the "sister" and be searched again.

“Did you have to get naked?” you blurt.

“What?” her head snaps your way.

“Nothing.” You assume she didn’t. After all, you are sixteen, and no longer feel at ease talking about nakedness with her. But you cling to the belief that she has been one of the luckier ones.

As you climb the staircase among the last of the passengers, you concentrate on the open door of the plane, the dark portal away from the daylight of your last day at home. You hesitate a moment at the causeway and the flight attendant bids you welcome. You glance at her, and then at the dim silhouette of the Lufthansa emblem painted on the panel inside; a solitary, slender golden crane flying up and away. You don’t look behind at the terminal building where you passed through all the gauntlets. You don’t look to your right at the snowcapped mountains in the distance. A warm breeze rustles past as you step through the threshold. Your country’s goodbye is a last warm breath ruffling your head of hair. It will have to suffice.

Hours later, as you watch the mountains rolling slowly below like a sliding, crumpled, brown blanket, the captain announces that the plane has cleared Iran’s airspace. A spontaneous burst of applause is followed by some women taking off their scarves and overcoats, butterflies squeezing out of their cocoons into a new life. You look back out the window, craning your neck to see the imaginary border you crossed towards your supposed future. Inside you, a faint voice amidst all the excitement reminds you that somehow you have distilled your whole family into just your mother, and your life into a frantically bundled bunch of clothes in a red hard-shell Samsonite.

Ali Gharavi is an Iranian-Swedish writer and information technology consultant, who for 20 years has worked with human rights organisations to improve their digital strategy and security.

On 5 July 2017, Gharavi and a colleague were facilitating a workshop in Istanbul with eight activists from Turkish human rights organisations when they were detained by police. On 18 July they were all charged with “aiding an armed terrorist organisation” – six of the group, including Ali, remain in prison.

Gharavi has for several years been working on a fiction/memoir project about family and migration, from which this story is drawn.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?