“I am so, so sorry Mum. In case I am dead and you find this, it was a guy in a white car. The side mirror and the inside of the passenger seat door are broken. I made a mistake. Woops, sorry. Lots of love xxx”
Finding this note between the pages of my travel journal, scribbled on a torn piece of paper, gave me chills. I had written it months earlier, partly to try to make myself laugh, and partly because I thought it might be useful. I’d written it while sitting on a stranger’s bed in Northern Iran, having been locked in his room against my will for several hours.
Earlier that day, I’d been in the back of a battered Toyota Corolla sharing a cab ride with two giggly young girls, their colorful veils pushed back to reveal elaborate hairstyles, and an older man with deep wrinkles and hooded, inquisitive eyes. Two stout, conservatively dressed middle-aged women shared the front seat, and every so often they would crane their neck to steal a glance at me. I smiled and turned my gaze out the window, resting my head on the glass as I watched the lush, thickly forested foothills of the Caspian coast pass by. One by one the passengers filed out, and then I was alone with the driver. He was young, maybe in his mid-twenties, with a thick crop of dark hair and a V-neck white t-shirt that looked several sizes too small.
He stared at me through the rearview mirror. “Let’s have chai,” he said, his wide eyes and giddy smile betraying his excitement.
“Thank you,” I grinned back, “but I need to go to the campsite.”
“It’s dangerous to camp,” he said in broken English and Farsi, “you can’t go alone.”
“Pease just drop me there. If I don’t feel safe I’ll find a hotel,” I insisted meekly, not wanting to offend him. He seemed nice.
This was my second trip to Iran, and I was surprised at how easy it was for me – a young European woman – to travel there alone. I was overwhelmed by people’s hospitality and gentleness, and over my two trips I encountered several kind men whom, if I had followed the advice outlined in ‘how to travel as a solo woman’ type articles, I should have stayed away from. But I always followed my instinct, and got to know countless wonderful people because of it.
But that day in the taxi in northern Iran I got it wrong.
The driver turned off the main road and into an open gate. With the help of my pocket Farsi dictionary, I managed to ask, “Is this your house?”
“Do you live with your family?”
I stepped out of the car onto the gravel and looked around. We were in a small garden with perfectly trimmed little hedges; tidy flowerbeds surrounded a bungalow with ornate bars at the windows. I turned back as he was lifting my bag out of the trunk, and I tried to tell him – with my hands on my heart and my head bowed in gratitude – that it was not necessary, thanks, I would not be staying for long.
“It’s ok, it’s ok,” he laughed as he patted me reassuringly on the shoulder and proceeded to put my bag in a little annex, next to the main house. I was used to being invited into people’s homes for tea, so I didn’t hesitate. It’ll be ok if his family lives here, I thought. No harm in a cup of tea.
As we walked through the front door into the living room, I noticed lots of framed photos of his family: mom, dad, and sister, smiling, on holiday.
But no one was home.
He bounced around, whistling to himself, happily preparing platefuls of dates, fruit and sweets, which he laid out on the floor on a wipe-clean laminated Persian rug. We sat, legs crossed, sipping sweet chai, for a couple of hours, laughing as I practiced my Farsi and he his English. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had gotten myself into a bit of a situation, and I was itching to get away.
“No camping. Men in Iran – no good” he said gravely, shaking his head, when I mentioned I should get going before dark.
“But I’m strong, I can protect myself,” I joked, getting into a boxing stance, trying to keep the mood light. I didn’t want to offend him by showing just how eager I was to get away.
In late afternoon, a few hours after first getting to the house, he agreed to take me to the forest for a walk, but insisted that it was dangerous to camp. My bags stayed in the annex.
In the car during the short drive to the forest I could feel my jaw clenching as the frustration of being told what to do – and not knowing how to stand up for myself – welled in my chest.
Twenty minutes later I was sitting under the shade of the thick canopy, as I inhaled the fresh, earthy smell, a relief after the oppressive pollution of Tehran, and watched as families laid out tea making paraphernalia, shisha pipes, and piles of Tupperware – the essentials of a Persian picnic. But, with him next to me, I felt detached from this peaceful, bucolic scene, as if I were staring at it through a cage.
At this point, I was still reassuring myself that this man was just like others I had met – a little too pushy, but ultimately just looking out for me. I hated the idea of overreacting and causing a scene – something that, as a woman, I have been socialized to avoid.
Not that I’m for holding back when someone grabs me in a club, or catcalls me in the street. But there are other actions that feel just as intrusive, yet are harder to react assertively to – I can’t count the times I’ve sat through a conversation I didn’t want to be in, or accepted to dance with someone I didn’t want to dance with. All because, as women, we are taught to always be nice. And no one wants to be that bitch.
It was dark when we drove back. This time, rather than letting me into the house, he led me to the annex, where my backpack was. As we stepped inside, he locked the door behind us.
I shuddered, my anger turning into fear for the first time. “Why did you lock the door?” I asked, deflated, my pulse quickening.
“No problem,” he smiled, giving my arm a reassuring little squeeze. He pointed to the bed, “stay here. It’s ok.”
“Ok, I don’t need to camp, but can you take me to a hotel?” I pleaded.
“No hotels,” he said, his eyes hardening.
He turned to leave, locking the door behind him from the outside. Clunk.
Alone, my pulse slowed, and I listened to my own slow breathing. The walls of the small room were bare and white. The door was made of glass panes and metal bars and from there I could see the inside of the main house. Above the bed, a small rectangular window with fine wire netting looked out onto the street. I wondered whether I would be able to reach it and fit through it.
I caught a glimpse of my face in a mirror. I saw it, pale and makeup-less, a veil loosely falling onto my shoulders. A nervous giggle rose inside my chest and I pursed my lips to stop it from bursting out of my mouth. My face. It was strange to see it and think that soon it might not be so alive.
But surely it would not get to that, I thought. He’s just being overprotective, and it’s frustrating, but he won’t hurt me.
Minutes later, I heard the metallic clunk of the key turning in the lock, and he was there again, fidgeting and smiling nervously. He took a deep breath and a tentative step forward.
Pointing at himself, then me, with his eyebrows raised and his head tilted to one side, he said: “Sex?”
I suppressed a snort of laughter.
“No,” I jeered, shaking my head. Sitting on the edge of the bed, I fingered through my dictionary and tried to explain in Farsi why I did not want to have sex with him, and why he should let me go.
He raised his hands in surrender and smiled uncertainly, embarrassed. “Sorry, sorry,” he mumbled as he walked out, locking the door behind him.
Minutes later, he was back, all trace of awkwardness gone from his demeanor. Eyebrows furrowed and jaw clenched, he came towards me, grabbing my arms tight and pushing me hard against the wall. He jammed his knees into my legs so that I couldn’t kick him. I struggled, but within seconds all determination seemed to leave his body and he stepped away. Breathing hard and trembling slightly, he mumbled his apologies and left again. I heard the lock again: clunk.
There was an eerie stillness in the room, in my mind and in my body. I sat motionless, my mind completely blank.
He came back a while later with tea and biscuits, smiling warmly, as if nothing had happened. “Are you cold?” he asked, handing me a blanket.
I thanked him.
But minutes later, I was again struggling to get him off me as he wrapped his fingers around my wrists and demanded with a hiss that I let him kiss me. Once again, he gave up and left. He came back and did the same two or three times.
He was forceful, awkward, gentle, angry, shy, and scared his behavior was so confusing that I wasn’t sure whether I should head-butt him and kick him in the shins, or thank him for being so hospitable.
After the fourth or fifth time he came into the room and left again, I wrote the note to my mother. I felt ridiculous doing it, so I tried to make it sound funny by adding the “woops,” because surely I wasn’t going to be killed and I didn’t want to be dramatic. But I added the details about the car just in case.
After turning the lights off, I lay fully clothed on the bed, clutching my silver penknife.
Suddenly there was a loud roar as his car came to life, the crunching of the gravel beneath its wheels as he drove away.
The next thing I remember is peering into the house through the glass door and seeing a group of three or four other men sitting on a sofa, as my captor/host stood facing them, topless, making gestures which looked like thrusting and grabbing. I heard the word farangi – foreigner – and lots of laughing.
Even if they don’t do anything, I won’t be able to sleep if I stay, I thought to myself. What a strange and unimportant thought. Yet the prospect of a sleepless night is the one that finally convinced me that I should try to escape.
I piled some covers and pillows onto the bed and stood on them. From there I could just about reach the small window, and with a little push the wire netting popped out. I got back down again and made a few calculations. Would my bag fit? Would my body? And where would I go? It must have been past 2 am by then.
There were two main things stalling my escape: my favorite Birkenstocks – a lovely, plummy purple leather pair – were locked outside, where I had slipped them off before entering the annex. I stared at them through the glass and sadly dug through my stuff to find another pair. The second thing was the unshakable feeling that I was overreacting.
I still, inexplicably, didn’t want to be rude.
I finally told myself I had to go. I took a deep breath.
I lifted my backpack over my head, pushed it hard through the opening and it landed with a thud on the other side. I could only reach the windowsill with my fingertips, so I jumped and managed to hook myself onto the ledge with the nook of my elbows. I hoisted myself up and squeezed my body through the tiny space headfirst, somehow managing to land with a roll.
I was in an unpaved alleyway; to one side was the main road, which was well lit but deserted. In the other direction, the alley just disappeared into complete darkness.
Aware that the man and his friends had probably heard me, in a fraction of a second I made the decision to sprint in the direction of the pitch black, away from the light, hoping that it would offer the best cover.
When I finally stopped running, I was surrounded by tall, thin trees. The moonlight reflected off the blade of my little penknife, which I was clutching with unnecessary force as I crept around, breathing hard, eyes peeled. I was lost in the forest for a while and too scared to go toward the light in case he was looking for me.
Eventually I made my way to the main road, where a group of young Tehranians took me in and offered me swigs of their illegal alcohol. I remember thinking, stupidly, that the overwhelming high of being free and alive was almost worth the whole ordeal.
For weeks afterward, I walked around with a bounce in my step, happily humming Destiny’s Child’s “I’m a Survivor” under my breath.
When I tell this story I often give it a comical slant by focusing on small and ridiculous details, like my unwillingness to leave my favorite sandals or my use of the pocket dictionary to try to deter the man from assaulting me. It’s only when I remember the tears streaming down my mother’s face as I told her what had happened or the fact that for a few months I felt uncomfortable in small rooms with white walls that I’m forced to admit it was more than just another funny travel anecdote.
Over the years I’ve grown a lot more comfortable with shutting down pushy men, and I’ve learned to ignore the awkward looks of those who are uncomfortable with my rage. But at times I still smile when I don’t want to, or let someone strike up conversation when all I want is to read my book.