Naz Riahi reflects on how the violent death of her father when she was a young girl impacted the rest of her life
But mostly, I know my Baba the way I might know a famous actor—distantly. He was kind and fiercely intelligent, I’ve been told. Studious and organized.
“He was a good swimmer, like you,” my mother says. “He was stubborn and candid, like you,” my brother, who is twelve years older and knew him better, tells me. “The bottom half of his face looked just like yours.” It feels as though they’re trying to convince me that he and I existed, though briefly, at once. That, more than just coming from him, I carry him on.
I envy all the things they know first-hand, all the time they spent with him, all of the memories that will never be mine. But I’m also desperate to know him, so my only choice is to listen. To listen and try not to cry.
They came to our house, the government officials, and they ransacked it. I was eight years old and kept thinking, when Baba gets home, he’ll take care of this. He’ll deal with them. They’ll be sorry. In the meantime, I sat on the couch with my mother as strangers pillaged our house, tearing open drawers, pulling out mattresses, turning over cushions, removing rugs—like a scene from a movie. Chaos. They found our contraband: playing cards, western music, Disney cartoons, homemade wine. I thought they’d take it all and leave. But that’s not why they’d come.
My mother asked if she could get my doll for me and they said no, ordered us to sit still. My mother asked if I could go to the bathroom and they said no. Ordered us to be quiet. I cried. In my memory I am floating above the living room, looking down, as scary men pull our life apart.
When Baba got home, I floated back down. He told us everything would be all right. He spoke with the men in another room and then came out and said, “I have to go back to work for a little bit.”
I ran after him, out the front door.
“The VCR is broken and I can’t watch Cinderella,” I said. It was all I could think of to keep him from going.
He came back toward the house, picked me up in his arms, and kissed me.
I wrapped my arms and legs around him tightly. He could have let go and I wouldn’t have fallen.
“I’ll fix it when I get home,” he said.
“Do you promise?”
“Yes,” he said. “I promise.”
I was relieved. He’d never break a promise to me.
From our front door, I watched him walk away, escorted by two men. He entered the back seat of a sedan. It was February. Our grass was yellow and dry. The honeysuckle that adorned the fence around our house wouldn’t come in for some months. The long branches of the white birch trees that lined our street were bare. The songbirds were gone. The sun hadn’t set yet. I could see everything. I watched the car drive away and disappear down the street.
I dream about him. In my dreams, there is an unreachable distance between us. I see him in other dimensions or we talk on the phone. He says he’s been calling, sending me letters all these years. But I haven’t received them, even though I’ve been waiting, desperate for any sign of him.
What cruel madness.
My mother spent nine months trying to save his life. I tagged along. I tried to help. We went to offices and courts, begged officials. We visited him in prison when they allowed us. I saw him through a plexiglass window. It had tiny holes. I stuck my thumb, my pointer, and middle fingers through them and touched his fingers on the other side. Other times I saw him through a glass partition, each of us lifting a receiver to our ears. I showed him my report card, my good grades. I saw him in the lobby of a government building once. They took my mother and me into a room and left us alone with him. I thought it was a chance encounter. I thought it was luck. “The room was probably bugged,” my mother would later say. I pulled off my hijab and showed him how long my hair was. I sat next to him on a bench, pushed my body against his, placed my head on his shoulder, lifted his arm and buried myself beneath it, held his hand in mine, fingers woven. He whispered to my mother and I tried to overhear. What I heard, about the condition in his cell, in his life, was devastating. I didn’t want him to think I knew about this indignity. So, I stopped listening. I focused on his hand. I inhaled his smell. I looked at his hair, his grown-out beard, his tired eyes.
Another time, I saw him in the room of a trailer in the prison yard. The sun was shining brightly through the windows. There were no chairs or couches. He sat on a rug on the floor, my mother and grandmother, too. I sat on his lap. He hugged me and kissed me and talked to us, but I don’t remember what he said.
I pretended that everything would be okay. I wanted him to feel happy. I pretended that maybe he would just walk out with us, come home. If I prayed hard enough. That is the cruelty of God.
In my dreams, there is an unreachable distance between us.
I moved to the US. I learned a new language, and then another. I went to college. I lived in Spain. I graduated. I moved to New York City. I got jobs. I got into grad school. I fell in love. I got married. I moved to California. I had my heart broken. I got divorced. I got fired. I started a company. I wrote a book. I published stories. I was invited to the White House and President Obama read and responded to my essay about the visit.
My Baba didn’t see any of that. He doesn’t know me. He never will.
I failed a lot, too. I moved a lot. I was sad a lot. I lost a lot. I was alone so much. I wondered, often, how my life would have been different, better, safer, if he’d lived. Would he have taught me how to change a tire? Would he have paid my rent when money was tight? Would I have known which men were lying? Would I now be less scared, less scarred?
Nine months. He was in prison for nine months. We tried to save him for nine months. He was tortured for nine months. He was brave for nine months.
When I am brave, I am brave for him.
Sometimes, I close my eyes and enter his prison cell. I sit down on the cement floor next to him in the dark, damp room I heard him whisper about to my mother. I scan his body, imagining where his skin has broken open. I gently run my fingers over his wounds, his scars, softly move from his wrists up his arms and down his back. I tell him he is not alone, that he never was. I ask him to let me carry his pain for a while. It pulses through me, moves up my arms and my back, catches in my throat, gathers in a lump and stays there for days at a time.
It’s been thirty years since he was executed. That’s the word I couldn’t say. He was hung. That’s the moment I can’t stop thinking about. It’s been thirty years since I heard the news on the radio in a taxi and looked out the window at the rainy streets of Tehran as my mother, seated next to me, screamed at the top of her lungs. It’s been thirty years since that night when I began to stay quiet and strong.
When I am brave, I am brave for him.
It’s been thirty years that I’ve imagined him to be alive, hiding somewhere in the world, living a good life, checking on me online.
“It’s been thirty years,” I text my brother. “That’s a lifetime.”
He calls me right away, “Baba?”
We’re both silent for a beat. We’re both pushing our tears down, steadying our voices for each other.
“It is a lifetime,” he says.
I thought it would get easier. But it doesn’t. It doesn’t get better or less violent or less tragic or less painful. There’s just a further distance between us. Between me and him and the things I remember about him, fading. With each passing year, we are more strangers.
Naz Riahi is a writer, living in Brooklyn. This essay was adapted from her forthcoming memoir, Bad at Love. To learn about the book, find Naz on Instagram @nazriahi or sign up for her infrequent newsletter at nazriahi.com. Naz's writing has been published in Longreads, Guernica, Doré and The Fader.