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Society & Culture

The Interview

August 31, 2015
Ali May
14 min read
The Interview
The Interview

The Interview


For a calm, September day, the flight has been unusually turbulent. From his 28F seat, not quite the tail, but not too far off, he watches the khaki runway and takes a deep breath. His fidgety fellow passenger tries to peek through, squashing his shoulder in the process. The landing gives him a last full-body shaking.

“Welcome to Imam Khomeini International Airport. The outside temperature is 29 degrees celsius and there is a northeasterly breeze. May I remind you that alcoholic beverages are strictly prohibited in Iran. Enjoy your stay in Tehran or if you are transiting, have a safe onward journey.”

The endless corridor is narrow, half the floor in cheap granite, the other half consumed with the travelator. The ceiling is low, a lot lower than Schiphol and Heathrow and Kastrup. His left hand drags the soft, grey suitcase on its two wheels; his right hand clutches his passport. He thinks he shouldn’t have drunk the small glass of merlot at the start of the flight. He hopes the guard won’t smell it on his breath. 

Twenty minutes in the queue and he finds himself in front of the young officer with two stars on each shoulder of a nicely fitted uniform. “Salam” he says and gets the same in response. His passport is scanned and his details are checked. He feels his heart racing. The officer is looking intently on the screen and goes through the pages of the passport, every visa, every stamp, but not even a brief look at the owner. It is the sound of the entry stamp that gives him the permission to breathe again. He takes the passport back, unceremoniously, casually, without much fuss. “Merci,” he says, in the fashion of most urban Iranians, with a soft, rolling ‘r’ and walks slowly around the cubicle. 

He is halfway down the crawling steps of the escalator that he hears his name on the loudspeaker. Is he imagining it or is it really happening? No, there is his name again; and the instruction to report to the information desk. As he steps off the escalator and onto the floor, he feels as if his heart has fallen into his stomach, nauseated and a little dizzy. He does as ordered, goes to the counter and says his name. The soft-spoken woman asks him to wait, dials a number and announces his name. A man runs down the escalator and gets to the information desk as quickly as he can. He is bespectacled, scruffy and out of breath. He doesn’t waste any time, “your passport,” he demands. “Follow me,” is his next statement. The agent leads him upstairs back to the same level where passport control supposedly cleared the visitor to enter. 

The agent goes into a small room and invites him to take a seat while he continues going through the pages of the passport and making notes. When he asks what is going on, the agent makes a placatory gesture, but remains silent. At last, the agent stretches his arms, makes another note and hands him a piece of paper, a receipt with his passport details. 

“You should go to an interview on Saturday,” he says, which is in a week’s time and not part of the weekend in Iran. 

“What interview? What is the problem?”

“Why do you think there is a problem?” the agent asks, with a smirk on his face.

Now on his feet, he slaps the back pocket of his jeans twice: “Because my passport is not here. And my return flight is at 3 a.m. on Sunday.”

“Don’t worry, it’s just a few questions. You should be fine to get to your flight. But you can call the number on the receipt if you want an earlier appointment.”

His yellow cab races down the highway towards his family’s neighborhood. The sky is not as clear as he hoped it would be, neither is his head. The golden dome of the ayatollah’s mausoleum shines from the distance. Cars overtake one another as if something better than a traffic jam awaits them. He asks the driver to put Radio Payam on, so he can try and calm down to some chill out music, tunes modified, vocals chopped off, so that they adhere to the Islamic code. The music doesn’t work. What if they don’t give his passport back, don’t let him leave? How about his life back in Brussels, his beautiful beagle Charlie only booked into the kennel for a week? 

After embracing every family member on arrival, he puts his index finger on his mouth and nose and makes them understand that they should hand in their mobile phones to him without saying a word. He dumps all the devices on one of the beds and covers them with a few pillows, comes out and closes the door, then herds the family to the farthest corner of the house from that bedroom and tells them what happened at the airport. For the sake of his family, he reassures them that it must be a mistake but best be safe. 

“You never know if they use these phones to listen to our conversations.” 

After everybody goes to sleep, he has a quick look at his email. Then he opens Grindr, out of curiosity, just to see if it does work in Iran, if anybody is on it. He takes an unusual pleasure in realising that there are a lot of guys on the app, and some seriously hot ones. They must be courageous to be cruising on a gay app in a country that could hang you for homosexuality. He first inserts the disclaimer on his profile: “In 021 until Saturday. Get in line, boys!” He likes several of the candidates and it doesn’t take long to get the first match. 

“And where can one find you after Saturday, mister?” opens the conversation.

“Oh, that’s a secret I cannot disclose,” he replies. 

“Why not? You’ll have to kill me if you tell me?”

“Something like that ;)”

“So, we’re gonna stick to the present?”

“That’d be ideal.”


“Whereabouts do you live?”

“Bang in the centre, near Revolution Square.”

“That sure brings back memories!”

“Did you go to Tehran University?”

“I did, and that makes me feel old. It was ages ago.”

“Why don’t you come refresh those memories?”

“I’m taking that as an invitation.”

“You bet your sweet ass ;)” 

“How about Saturday at 12:30?”

“Is that a hint that I am cooking lunch for you?”

“As long as it is not bloody Ghormeh Sabzi, yes!”

“Ha ha ha! Any other dietary requirements?”

“Not that I am aware of...”

His appointment is in an ordinary government building, the office for immigration and passports, at 10 a.m. Of course, the twist is that he is to go to the out building on one side, with a sign on the door saying “The President’s Representative Office,” code for the Intelligence. He is asked to take a seat in the waiting room that resembles one in a hospital, rows of green plastic chairs, nobody waiting apart from him. He is finally summoned to go into a room, where two men await him, one in a light grey suit, the other in a white shirt over his black trousers and sporting a thick beard. They both shake his hand and say hello.

“Who are your friends?” asks the suited man, without preamble. The other agent, younger, seems to be the junior. He has an A4 notepad in front of him and makes notes with a blue Bic.

He tries to speak, but his tongue has turned into dry wood with rough edges, it rubs against the rest of his mouth and he feels it will bleed any minute. He finally manages a few hardly audible words: “Can I get a glass of water, please?”

“Of course. I’ll get them to bring you a nice cup of tea.”

“Water, please.” 

Water comes and is consumed. The question is repeated.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean a list of all of your friends.”

“I have lots of friends.”

“And we have a lot of time. Actually, all the time in the world.”

That statement scares him. What does it mean? Will they keep him? His flight is in 16 hours. Will he make it? 

“But why am I here? What is the problem?”

“Why do you think there is a problem?” 

It is still the man in the suit talking. The boy hasn’t uttered a word.

“If there is not a problem, why am I here?”

“What’s wrong with having a nice chat? You don’t like chatting to us?”

How can he possibly answer that? He produces some random names that the young agent diligently notes down. Does he even know how to spell non-Persian names? There is no question about what he does, what his life is, or why he is back. It’s all about his friends. 

“Look, I honestly don’t know what you are after. But one thing I’m sure about is that I have no skills or interests in keeping with your line of work.”

“Is that so?” asks the suited agent in a tone that has changed from softly interested to one invested with several shades of dread. He stops talking and watches his prey, lets him suffer under the gaze, sweat drop by drop. His blood roars in his ears. “Get out of my sight!” The agent suddenly shouts, and it is over.

Startled, he gets to his feet shakily and looks first at one and then the other of the two agents. Swallows. Decides to try, “But how about my passport?”


He goes out to the waiting room with all that a confiscated passport means marching through his head in fast-forward. The young agent follows him out soon enough, fortunately, and puts an end to that trail of miserable thought. 

“It’s OK, don’t worry. My colleague can have a temper at times. You’re cleared and will get your passport back.”

So, you’re the good cop on time delay, he thinks.   

“My flight is in 15 hours or so. Isn’t my passport here?”

“No, but it’s absolutely fine. Somebody will deliver it at three o’clock.”

“What do you mean by deliver it?”

“Be at this address,” the agent says, handing him a scrap piece of paper. “There is a park bench at the corner of the main road and the small alleyway. Be on time.” He shakes his hand once again and goes back into the interrogation room. 

He stands there, puzzled. He looks at the address and remembers that it is a couple of minutes’ walk from the headquarters of the Ministry of Intelligence, a brutalist building with very tall walls, Soviet style, give or take. 

He hops into a shared cab in the direction of the Revolution Square, where he is meeting his date, Ramin. He sits in the front and checks his phone. He feels the throbbing in both of his temples. Was it a good idea to arrange a hook up for today? 

Ramin is well built, with a jaw that resembles Rodin sculptures. He greets him at the door to his flat. He smells like the duty free perfume shop, in a very pleasant way. He speaks Persian with a sweet Isfahan accent that gives each word a twirl or a stretch. They enter into an open plan living room with a kitchen located at the far end.

“Can I have your phone, please?”

A little taken aback, Ramin asks why.

He puts his index finger over his mouth, hinting silence is required and extends his hand to take Ramin’s phone. He obliges, but seems to be alarmed. He takes his own mobile phone out of his pocket and puts both phones in the fridge.

“What the hell are you doing that for?”

“I’m sorry, this looks mental, but I am not crazy. I assure you.” And he explains why he is doing that. That he is on his way back from interrogation, that his passport is somewhere held by Intelligence. 

“Oh my God! But why? What have you done to deserve it?” Ramin’s jaw has literally dropped and his eyes are alert. He finds it sweet to see all that fear in Ramin’s face, a person that he has met just a minute ago caring enough about him to be so horrified on his behalf. 

“Nothing. I live abroad. I have my own business. I have nothing to do with politics. I really don’t know.”

“Maybe it’s just a mistake. Maybe your name is similar to somebody else's.”

“Maybe. Or maybe they wanted to recruit me as a snitch.”

“Oh my Lord! You didn’t say yes, I hope. Mind you, it would be hot to fuck a spy.” 

“Hell no! I said I was otherwise preoccupied. I was thinking of you.”

As intense as the situation is, that comment feels like a mountain breeze on a hot summer’s day in Tehran, the breeze that reminds you there is life beyond the hell of forty-two degrees, that you shouldn’t give up and drop dead right there and then. They laugh and agree to stop talking about all that shit.

Ramin strokes his hair and ear. They kiss on the sofa and undress one another. 

“You smell divine,” he tells Ramin and keeps sniffing his neck. There is a leathery quality to his skin, buttery soft. It reminds him of the boy he lost his virginity to in middle school. Young lovers, doing the loving hush hush, at every opportunity they found or created, during all the skipped lessons and imaginary basketball games.

They fuck against a north-facing window and to the phallic view of Milad Tower. He is surprised that he can get an erection with all that is on his mind. 

They put on kitchen aprons instead of their clothes and eat sitting on their bare bums. 

He notices that the time is coming to two o’clock.

“Shit, will I make it to the other side of the city in an hour?”

“The traffic shouldn’t be too bad at this hour, but you better hurry.”

He gets dressed as quickly as he can.

“Don’t forget your phone,” Ramin says. “Do you want me to go with you to the taxi stand?”

“No, you better not be seen with me. I may sound a bit paranoid, but better be safe.”

“It was great to meet you, crazy man!” Ramin says by the door as they kiss goodbye.

“You too, scented bender.”

As he steps out of the building, a motorbike hoots at him. He’s heard that some bikers work as taxis. Must be his lucky day. He jumps on the back of the Honda CGI 125, no helmet provided, but speed guaranteed. 

He gets to the location twenty minutes too early. He sits at the bench and closes his eyes. What is going to happen? A van, five men in balaclavas and him pushed into the back and disappear for an uncertain amount of time? What else could be waiting for him? 

The little park is adjacent to a highway heaving with cars and the roar of their engines, the refuse of their odorous gases, the madness of their drivers. 

He hasn’t told anyone that he is out there to get his passport. Nobody but Ramin. 

At 3 p.m. sharp, he sees a man halting his motorcycle by the side of the smaller road, removing his helmet and walking towards him. He seems to have a limp right arm. Isn’t he the guy who was at the reception of the interrogation place in the morning? 

He comes and greets him warmly, shakes his hand with his left hand, and produces the passport. He feels his mouth has dried up again. 

“Thank you,” he says as he puts the passport in his pocket.

“Don’t worry, it’s fine. What was it all about? Why did they want to talk to you?”

“I have absolutely no clue. They kept asking about my friends.”

“Oh, that! Well, have a safe trip back to Belgium, son. And give me a receipt before you disappear.”

“A receipt?”

“Yes, a receipt that I have returned your passport.”

“Oh! But I don’t have any paper. Or pen.”

“Here,” the man hands him a scrap of paper that he finds in one of his pockets. And a pen.

“What shall I write?”

“All your details and that you have received your document safe and sound.”

He writes that down in a couple of lines, using the passport under the paper so that he can do the writing.

“Don’t forget your passport number and your father’s name.”

Back at the airport, his heart is thumping. He is queuing for the passport control and he is in no way convinced that he will get the exit stamp. There are still a few people in front of him when he feels a hand tapping his shoulder. Startled, he flinches and turns around.

“Hey, are you OK?” says a man probably his age, a couple of inches taller, wearing an open neck, short sleeved shirt that displays his sculpted arms. “You seem stressed.”

“No, no, no.” He realises that he should control his nerves and slow down his words. “I have a lot on my mind, a lot to do when I get back.”

“Where are you off to?”

“Brussels. I live there. How about you?”

“Ah, we’re almost neighbours. I live in Paris.” 

“Shall we have a cup of coffee after passport control?”

“Caffeine doesn’t agree with me much. Why don’t you invite me for Belgian beer over a weekend?”

“Boy, you’re quick. And I thought I held the record.”

“Here’s my card. Call me.” 

He looks at him, smiles, puts the card in his wallet and walks to the immigration officer.

Read IranWire’s interview with Ali May

This story is included in Geography of Attraction by Ali May

Geography of Attraction is available as an e-book internationally on Amazon and in paperback here


Follow Ali May on Facebook and Twitter: @AliMayTV



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