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Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

Photo: Getty
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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 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit