Marooned in uncertainty

Negotiating an island of ambivalence

KISH, CHRISTMAS EVE 2015. Thirty or so men and women have gathered in a dimly lit restaurant to celebrate. They sit around large tables, singing freely and loudly along to Tagalog songs playing from a karaoke TV mounted on the wall. They feast on an alcohol-free dinner of fried noodles, sweet-and-sour chicken and salad. They are oblivious to the food and its quality – which though good, might bare only a slight resemblance to the home-cooked meals of the country they have left behind. But this is the best they can get under the circumstances. In this restaurant, the women can even let their scarves fall to their shoulders, and those who hide the taboo of their punishable homosexuality beyond the doors can be open here in the company of their friends and those close to them. A Christmas tree lights up the centre of the restaurant with pink and purple fairy lights.

This is the closest they will get to celebrating Christmas in this country. Two pictures of Khomeini and Khamenei, the nation’s past and present supreme leaders, mounted on the wall near the entrance as part of the permanent (and almost obligatory) fixture of any public space, sternly preside over them. A reminder that they are in the Islamic Republic of Iran – in case anyone forgets.

I observe this situation with interest from the back of the room. We have had the privilege of being invited by the owner, Josephine – Bahar’s mother, my niece’s best friend – on this special occasion. Those enjoying the merriment are mostly Filipinos who have come to the island of Kish, to the south of Iran on the Persian Gulf, in order to renew their visas to work in the United Arab Emirates.

The UAE gives a visa that typically lasts only several months to most workers who are employed in construction or domestic service – and in order to make their renewal, those workers have to come to Kish. Kish’s popularity as an optimal visa-exchange location is political, geographical and financial. Kish is a visa-free zone, which means that foreign nationals can enter Iran here without a visa. But visa-free entry is only valid on the island. Try to get on a domestic flight to Tehran – or anywhere else – and you will need a visa as a foreigner. Kish is extremely easy and quick to get to from UAE, from where the majority of visa exchangers travel. Just across the water from Dubai, it is a thirty-five minute plane ride that costs less than two-hundred dollars return.

For some, this is an easy and joyous trip – a few days of escape from the hard labour they have to endure on a day-to-day basis in the Gulf countries. They come in groups, and if the women are not dressed according to the Iranian Islamic rules, the authorities at the border give them long skirts, jackets and scarves. Some stay only a few days to get their visas – and enjoy a quick holiday on this paradisiacal island. Some unlucky ones, however, end up staying here indefinitely if their employers refuse to renew their visas or if they have a problem with their paperwork. Horror stories of long-staying Filipinos who have been here in limbo for an extended period are sometimes heard. Those stories tend to end in prostitution and, sometimes, suicide.

Today, a group of Filipino visa exchangers are gathered in Josephine’s restaurant, Maryam – one of the few on the island catering only to foreigners – to celebrate Christmas. With her scarf wrapped tightly around her head, Josephine mingles among her countrymen and women, commanding her Iranian staff in her accented Farsi to serve more noodles and drinks. The staff are local men from the island who have been taught to cook a sort of generic South-East Asian cuisine. But aside from them, and us (who are special guests and have been snuck in to sit in the back for the night), Iranians are not allowed to be served inside the restaurant – which, under the regulations of its permit, is only allowed to provide service to foreigners, most of whom happen to be visa exchangers.

Near midnight, when Maryam is expected to close its doors under the strict watch of the authorities, the guests begin to leave in groups. They pay their share of the bill to Josephine’s sister, who is helping her as the cashier. They have the option to pay in Emirati dirham or Iranian rials. Business seems to be going well.

As the restaurant empties, we follow everyone out and lounge around the outside area at the front of the joint. December is one of the most pleasant months on this island – the temperature is in the cool and pleasant twenties. A few wooden poles have been erected with a canopy on top to keep out the hot Kish sun. We sit around high tables with Bahar, Josephine’s Filipino-Iranian daughter, as well as my niece, my sister, her boyfriend and his friend Ali. The staff bring us a double-apple flavoured hookah and tea served in thin short glasses. We all sit comfortably, sip on the tea and merrily smoke the hookah – except for Ali. He is a middle-aged, well-off real-estate agent who thinks the world revolves around him and his views. He refuses to sit, drink the tea or smoke the hookah. He feels, and has been feeling, ill at ease even during the dinner. And he has not been hiding it. I am annoyed at him but say nothing.

‘You will all get sick,’ he says. ‘They are not clean. Who knows how they have washed the cups and how they keep the hookahs.’ He seems oblivious to the fact that Josephine’s daughter, Bahar, is sitting next to us.

‘Don’t worry. How do you think they do it in the so-called high-end hotels you are used to? You don’t see the back end of it.’ Mahshid, my niece, Bahar’s best friend, tries to gloss over the awkward situation. Mohammad, my sister’s boyfriend, gulps down his tea and turns to Bahar. In a racist manner that has now become part fun to everyone, which infuriates me, he pulls his eyes into a slanted shape to resemble Bahar’s Asian eyes, and says, ‘Ching-chong – lets go play a game of pool.’ This has become accepted behaviour for Bahar. I cringe, but she doesn’t even flinch, desensitised to the racial implications she has had to live with her entire life. She laughs along with everyone, and we all head to the tables. But it soon begins to rain, bringing our game to an abrupt end. We huddle back and sit on the coarsely covered chairs. Ali stands. We wait for Josephine to wrap up so we can thank her and wish her a merry Christmas.

A bit after midnight, Josephine joins us. As soon as she sits down, Ali says he has to go – and leaves without a word to her. Not even a thank you for dinner. I can see she is offended at his attitude, but she says nothing. I open my mouth to say something, but nothing comes out.

‘Merry Christmas,’ we wish Josephine, as she takes a deep sigh and sits next to her daughter. One of the staff quickly scurries over and asks if she wants a cup of tea. ‘Yes please,’ she says with authority, and tells him to bring us all another round. We sip tea together and smoke from the hookah as the rain falls. When the staff turn off the Christmas tree lights and head out, we all leave together. ‘We hope you have a great year,’ my sister tells Josephine.

‘I can’t ask for anything more! Business is going well – and my daughter is beautiful, Alhamdulillah,’ she says, half in English, half in Farsi, and throwing in the Arabic words for ‘thanks God’. Neither her English nor her Farsi is fully comprehensible unless you have been around her long enough to pick up the nuances of her idiosyncratic accent.

On the way to our cars we catch up with a group of the Filipinos who left the restaurant to head to their nearby hotel. Farabi Hotel is another space catering specifically to foreigners and visa exchangers. A low-rise, hostel-like complex with several white buildings around a courtyard boasting ancient, thick-trunked trees, Farabi has over a hundred rooms that house seven to eight hundred people at a time.

The night guard, a middle-aged man by the name of Khalilipour, oversees the flow of people in and out of the Farabi. Josephine knows Khalilipour well. They wave to each other at the entrance as the Filipinos wave goodbye to us and head inside the gate. For the last ten years, Josephine says, Khalilipour has been standing by the cubicle at the entrance to Farabi from six at night to six in the morning. He has to control the large flow of people, sometimes with a turnaround of up to seven hundred a day, who come in and out of the place. ‘The hotel is packed every single day,’ she says.

Although there are a few other spaces they can go to, the visa exchangers prefer Farabi. It is the cheapest and it has an on-site coffee shop, plus lots of open space where they can hang around outside, smoke and play games into the small hours of the night. Because of this, sometimes hundreds of people prefer to stay overnight in the open courtyard inside the compound and order snacks until the early morning, until a group leaves on the first of the seven flights to Dubai and their room can be taken.

Khalilipour, who speaks only broken English, watches over them all night long, trying to ensure noise is kept to a minimum. When his shift is over, he leaves his post, exhausted but stimulated. The Filipinos make him happy with their games and laughter. But most importantly, he takes home a pay cheque that ensures his teacher wife and young children can live a happy life.

Even though Khalilipour and Josephine seem so different, they are also alike. Both of them occupy the margins of this society – and their livelihoods depend on the flow of another sector of marginalised people. Together they silently turn the wheel at the centre, a wheel that is subject to the will of popular groups and sometimes irrational leaders, who can quickly reverse this flow and crush them all without mercy, without even considering the consequences.


ON THIS CHRISTMAS Eve two years ago, neither Josephine nor Khalilipour, nor even the visa exchangers or myself, have any idea that the wheel is about to turn the other way on this beautiful island. Josephine has no idea that this is the last Christmas she will celebrate at Maryam. Khalilipour doesn’t suspect that he will almost lose his job. And the visa exchangers have no idea that, soon, some of them might be stuck here indefinitely or that this might be the last time they can conveniently renew their visas on the island. Even I have no idea that another turn in the wheel soon after will push me – a seemingly privileged Iranian well in the centre of things, holding an Australian passport – into the tightly claustrophobic corners of a marginal minority.

Yet, even if they knew – if we knew – there’s nothing to be done. It has nothing to do with us but is the consequence of the radical views of various groups and people elsewhere, in another city, another country, another continent, with beliefs very different to our own. And yet we, like many others, are just another group of innocent and silent victims of those acts that are beyond our control.


MID JANUARY 2016: ‘Welcome to the beautiful island of Kish.’ I get an automated SMS as I near the airport. Everyone who comes near the airport gets this SMS even if, like me, they are about the leave. The SMS reminds me of the beauty of this place, despite the recent chaos. For Kish is truly beautiful and peaceful. With a population of around thirty thousand permanent residents – which includes my parents, sister and her family – strict road rules, white sandy beaches, villas and luxury apartments, it is a paradise away from the chaotic life of the mostly landlocked major cities of Iran. Every time I come to visit from Australia, I admire my parents for their choice to leave the hustle and bustle, smog and madness of Tehran behind and resettle here.

The airport, which today is operating beyond its capacity, is the heart of the island. For the majority of the islanders, including people like Josephine, their livelihood depends on the inflow of people. Kish is a free-trade zone, which means prices are relatively cheaper here than they are on the mainland. Every year, several million domestic tourists from around Iran flock annually to the numerous shopping malls on the island to buy what they think are genuine Western designer brands – Gucci, Versace, Mango, Burberry and Zara – at bargain prices. They pay good money for fake Chinese-made copies, believing they are buying an authentic piece of the Western lifestyle as well as the ideals it represents, as seen on the internet.

But for some, as for Josephine, business does not depend on rich domestic tourists. Instead, like a few other local businesses, her livelihood depends on the tens of thousands of people, mostly Filipinos, who come to the island of Kish for visa exchange.

I have seen the flock of these visa exchangers every time I have come to Kish to visit my family. Often I have been the only Iranian who takes this strange route, transiting through Dubai, sitting on a flight packed with Filipinos and the occasional gorgeous young Russian woman, who always says she works in ‘restaurants’ though the true nature of her work is revealed after a few minutes of conversation.

These free-floating foreigners have been essential to the economic life of the island. While domestic tourists arrive during holiday and festive seasons only, the visa exchangers are guaranteed to come all year round, some returning at least every quarter. They bring with them good business and an interesting vibe for the residents and domestic tourists. They make the streets more vibrant by speaking English, playing games and generating a happy energy that one rarely finds in the usually uptight groups of Iranian tourists who come here to demonstrate their wealth and status. Domestic tourists, some coming from remote regions of Iran who have never seen foreigners, mingle with them in order to practice their English.

The shopping malls, the streets and the promenade by the beach, however, are the only places where the Iranians and the visa exchangers can socialise freely. The local council has dedicated numerous hotels and hostels specifically to accommodate the foreigners. These spaces often house up to ten people in a room, and at very cheap rates. The staff in these places, like Khalilipour, speak broken English – just enough to make themselves understood. Although the visa exchangers have a choice of where to stay and what to eat, they often choose to stay together, in these allocated locations, as it is cheaper and the food, often, is to their liking. Overall, the visa exchangers, whose status is not known to the rest of the people in Iran, create an additional layer of vibrancy, economic benefit and excitement in Kish. Or they did – until an international dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran completely disrupted the life of the island.

While Kish’s domestic airport is suitable for the dozens of daily flights in and out, the small international terminal is not designed for the crowds that flock here today. It is filled beyond capacity with hundreds of people attempting to figure out the fastest way to get back to Dubai. The two check-in counters prove inadequate for the dramatic increase in demand. The terminal is so small and the flight schedules usually so obvious that there isn’t even an information desk. So the guards and check-in staff are left to tend to queries. We wonder what’s going on as we shuffle our way through. I hear the airport staff, tired of repeating themselves in English, telling the many Filipinos hanging around to go back to their hotels and wait. The next available flight that could take anyone out of Kish to Dubai is not until next week.

I manage to leave on a packed flight because I booked my return to Australia through Dubai in advance. As on many other occasions, I am the only Iranian on the flight. But the mood is not gleeful. No one really seems to want to strike up a conversation. So I sit through the short flight, like everyone else, in confusion. Why the rush? What’s going on?

In Dubai, during my three-hour stopover, as I am dropped into a pool of impatient passengers from around the world waiting to get to their next destination, I read up on what is happening.


2 JANUARY 2016: the executions and their aftermath. Here is the cause of the panic on Kish, as I discover on a variety of news sites. But the reality can be so different. Who knows what really happens behind the scenes politically, and whose personal interests are invested in such a quick change in international affairs? Here is what I conclude has taken place.

On the second day of the new year, the Saudi government executed forty-seven people. Among them, a prominent Shia leader, Sheikh Nimr, who the Saudi leadership accused of being a terrorist. Some believe his execution had nothing to do with terrorism and that it was his criticism of Saudi officials that led to his death.

Protests against the executions erupted around the world in cities as far apart as London, New York and Canberra, as well as in countries throughout the Middle East.

Among them the Iranians reacted with the most aggression. The Iranian supreme leader, Khamenei, publically condemned the act. The Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution followed their leader’s statement by comparing Saudi Arabia to ISIS. The Iranian president, Rouhani, called the act ‘non-Islamic’ and ‘inhumane’. The speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani, followed his commanders, saying the execution would create a ‘maelstrom’ in Saudi Arabia. Iranian lawmakers, consequently – and naturally following protocol – asked to downgrade diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia.

The masses responded to their leaders. A mob of Iranians violently attacked the Saudi embassy with Molotov cocktails while shouting ‘death to the Sauds’.

Angered by this attack, the Saudi government summoned the Iranian ambassador in Riyadh, and broke off all diplomatic relations with Iran.

Two days later on 4 January, the United Arab Emirates also decided to recall its ambassador from Tehran and downgrade diplomatic relations with Iran over its ‘interference’ in the affairs of Gulf and Arab states. It lowered diplomatic representation to the level of chargé d’affaires and reduced the number of Iranian diplomats at its embassy in Abu Dhabi.

This translated to a severing of diplomatic relationships between Iran and UAE, including and end to the issuing of visas in the Iranian offices for the Filipino workers.


I FINALLY GET it – parts of it anyway. It is this chain reaction, which started with a Saudi Shia cleric’s execution and the chest-beating of a few leaders from around the region, that led to the sudden stopping of visas being granted to visa exchangers on Kish.

As much as I hate to admit it, my concern over this issue lasts as long as the flight to Melbourne. As I get further from Iran, the tiny and peripheral island of Kish and the visa exchangers, I fall comfortably back into my life in what I think is the centre of things. I try to recount this to a few people here. But it has so much backstory and historical explanation that people lose interest. No one cares because they are not affected by it. Gradually I stop talking about it altogether, and eventually I completely forget. And for the next year I hear nothing at all from any source about this event and its severe consequences. It is like it never happened and no one was affected. Until I travel from my periphery to another.


LATE JANUARY 2017: I am back in Kish. And the consequences of the visa-exchange cancellation are apparent even before I arrive. Instead of a choice of seven daily flights from Dubai, there are now only two. Barring one company, all other airlines have cancelled their flights on this route. During my eleven-hour stopover in Dubai, my nephew, a pilot, tells me that many people have been made redundant from those airlines around the nation as a result of the flight cancellations. When I finally board the flight, it is almost empty. There is only me and a handful of Indian men going in a group with an Iranian man, obviously on a business trip to Kish.

On the island, too, the difference is felt. The streets are emptier at night. A number of businesses – such as a centre which used to cater to the Filipinos who needed to photocopy documents, send faxes or access the internet – have boarded up their windows. The city feels less vibrant. But that’s only what can be seen on the surface. Below the skin, the event has really caused some serious and irreversible damage.

Since I have been back, I’ve seen Bahar hanging out a lot with with my niece, Mahshid. Bahar seems to have put on a lot of weight. I ask Mahshid about her. She tells me Bahar has been very depressed since her mother was forced to close down their restaurant.

A few weeks into the visa-exchange cancellations, soon after I’d left Kish, there were almost no Filipinos left on the island. Where Josephine and Bahar had been serving up to four hundred people a day, that number soon dropped to the odd three or four who had somehow still remained. Since no Iranians were allowed into their restaurant, they had to sit and watch nearly a tonne of imported specialty food rot. They were not the kind of goods they could sell on to other restaurants or even local supermarkets. Almost six weeks after the event, they could no longer afford to pay the rent. They threw away all the food and closed down. And Josephine, who had managed one of the biggest speciality restaurants in Kish for ten years, found herself without a job for the first time since she was a teenager. Bahar and Josephine, whose Iranian husband had died over a decade ago, now had no source of income. Managing a restaurant is the only thing she knew how to do well. On the island of Kish, where jobs are scarce even for the locals, Josephine – with her incomprehensible Persian accent and no other skills to offer – found herself completely unemployable. For a while she and Bahar thought about moving to the north of the country where her deceased husband’s family, who she dearly loved, lived. But there was nothing for her to do even there. First, they sold their car. Then they put their house up for sale, with the hope of living off the interest from the money they made from selling it.

I am saddened by her situation, and ask Bahar to bring her mother out on our occasional outings. One excuse follows another and she never comes. She sleeps until two or three in the afternoon and does practically nothing the rest of the day. I feel bad for her and her inability to get out of her situation. I wish she could snap out of it and move on.

It is during this time that I get some good news about funding for my work. This means that I get to travel to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, one of the largest literary networking annual conferences in the US, and to the Jaipur Literary Festival in India.

I know that since last year, as a dual citizen of Iran and Australia, I need a visa for the US on my Australian passport. Since I have heard the news of the funding while in Iran and since the conference is coming up fairly soon, I need to apply for a visa here. But the US doesn’t have an embassy in Iran. All Iranians who are to travel to the US need to apply through the closest American consulate – in Dubai or Turkey. I put in my application on my way back from India in Dubai, leaving my Australian passport in their embassy, and return to Iran on my Iranian passport. They tell me it will take three to five business days for them to process and return my passport.

And then Donald Trump is sworn into office. One of his first acts is to ban travel from seven Muslim-majority countries to the US. This includes dual citizens of those countries, including Iran.

The wheel has turned again. Overnight my Australian identity is questioned. No longer does being Australian give me the ability to be at the centre of things. It is now what lies on the other side of the hyphen of my dual citizenship – Iranian – that is highlighted. And I find myself pushed into a peripheral corner I have never experienced. What am I supposed to do? I am to travel in less than ten days. Will the US authorities grant me a visa so I can visit their country? Even if I get a visa there is a chance I might get deported. What if I go there and a war breaks out between Iran and the US? Can I come back? Will I be stuck there? If I don’t go, my employers will regard my behaviour as unprofessional in my first year in the job. The funding I’ve been granted specifically covers this trip. How will I be able to justify it? Should I buy my ticket? Should I wait? Maybe I should wait until I hear back from the embassy. Or maybe not. I really don’t know what to do.

Five days to go, and still no news. There is no phone number for me to contact and my emails go unanswered. I spend many nights awake thinking not only of myself but all the others affected by the situation. I imagine myself in the place of those refugees and asylum seekers who have nothing to turn back to. I cry myself to sleep. Despite my parents and family’s attempts to rescue me, I dwell in a constant state of anxiety. I overeat. My escape becomes sleep. Some days I sleep until one or two in the afternoon. I really cannot find a solution to this problem, a problem imposed on me by a vicious ruler on the other side of the world, and a bunch of bureaucrats who follow orders. The worst is that there is nothing I can do, even though the problem is not of my making.

My mother forces me to go for a walk. I walk alongside the water and find myself passing the former restaurant Maryam. It is boarded up and for sale. I keep walking and find myself facing the middle-aged doorman Khalilipour at the front of Farabi. I am glad he is still there at least. He looks much older and fatter than I remember him. I wave and start a conversation. He is well, he tells me. He is lucky to have kept his job. Farabi has now turned into a hotel for transiting pilots and air hostesses of the local Kish airlines. I notice as minibuses enter and leave the hotel, the crew almost always ignore him. He tells me he is bored all night long. No one engages with him. He is feeling depressed and wants to change his job. But no one will give him one. He doesn’t have any special skills and his accented Persian doesn’t give him any added bonuses. They have cut down his pay by a small amount, the amount that used to pay for his daughter’s English classes. But he says he is grateful that, at least, they didn’t throw him out and completely close down Farabi.

My depression escalates after this walk. I return home, take a shower and hit the bed at 9 pm. My family worries about my sanity.

And then one night, still in the purgatory of no response from the American embassy, and with Donald Trump’s face haunting me in my dreams and waking life on every TV channel, Josephine invites us for dinner at her house. We are surprised. I am reluctant to go. I don’t feel like dressing up and going out. My pyjamas and tracksuit pants have become my two outfits of choice. My mother is angry and demands I pick myself up, take a shower and get ready. I have little choice but to go for their sake. I pick out a green dress, force myself to put on some make-up and off we go to Josephine and Bahar’s.

Josephine greets us kindly. She is much fatter than I remember her. She has frizzy blondish-orange hair – a bad hair dye gone wrong that I assume she never had the money to fix. The Christmas tree with pink and purple lights that used to sit in the centre of Maryam now sits, still blinking in late January, on the side of their living room. Josephine has cooked us a Filipino dinner, like the one we had last year at the Christmas party.

I feel very flat and want to get out of their place as soon as possible and go back to bed and ponder on what I should do about this whole visa situation. But then suddenly, as we sit there eating dinner across from Josephine, something in my mind shifts. I realise I am, at this point in my life, no different from Josephine. Although in a much milder way and with less at stake, like Josephine, I too, despite my seemingly secure and mainstream sense of identity, have been pushed to the margins as the result of political actions and reactions beyond my control. And I reacted in almost the same way as her, by going into a cocoon of depression and overeating.

I get home and make the decision to make a decision. If I am given a visa, I will go to the US regardless of the situation. It is my attempt to force the wheel the other way. If I continue to roll in the way I am been pushed, I feel that I’ll just be another cog turning in a cycle of subordination.


AT THE CENTRE of the world: on 7 February 2017, after nearly twenty-four hours en route, being completely woman-handled by airline staff, being humiliated and having my possessions swiped for explosives as if I were a criminal, I land at the place that is perceived to be the centre of the world. At this point, with Donald Trump at the helm, it doesn’t get any more central than Washington DC – a place which seems to be the ruling platform of our current world.

I anticipate the worst on landing. But I am not deported. I am not mistreated or even questioned. To my surprise, I am treated politely and kindly by everyone I come across. I am extremely confused.

I expect Americans to be more jubilant. They live, or so there is a common belief among people elsewhere, in one the most democratic and free countries in the world. But in DC, I feel a sense of depression hanging over the whole city. At the conference, on the streets, in the supermarket and in the taxis, people are talking about Trump. He is on TV, on posters, on huge billboards, on the radio and in the conversations of every person I come across. A fog of angst, sadness and confusion infuses the city, emanating from the collective unhappiness of the masses. Everyone I talk to is wholeheartedly apologetic about the situation. There are protests, candle-lit vigils, rallies and riots against the current administration.

I am continually bewildered by one thing: the number of times I hear ‘I didn’t vote for him’. If no one I come across, ordinary everyday Americans, voted for him, then who did? Who makes up the majority that voted for him?

At the conference venue, I chat to a lady in the lunch queue about the current political climate. As I do so, I get the same sensation I did when having dinner with Josephine. However this lady, who feels that she is marginalised and has no choice about what is going on around her, is not a Filipino living on an obscure island off the coast of Iran. She is a middle-class white American woman by the name of Amber who lives in what is considered the centre of the world.

That afternoon, as I leave Washington to go back to the island of Kish, I have a new perspective on the world. It appears that no matter where in the world we live, be it Washington DC, Melbourne or even on a seemingly insignificant island in the Middle East, we share one thing. As people, as part of the masses, we are prone to be pushed and pulled by the powers of a small number of leaders who convince a sizeable proportion of followers to act in certain ways. Such actions cause invidious reactions in our world.

What are we to do to alleviate the situation? How can we honour this space? On the plane back home, writing in my journal, I think the only thing possible is to recognise the universality of our human condition. It makes it bearable to know that, although we might not be able to change the power hierarchies in our world, we can come together and acknowledge our shared situation as human beings by being respectful and understanding, and taking little steps in our own way to make a difference in our surroundings.

I go back to Kish and I seek out Josephine and invite her to join my family for a picnic. My sister’s boyfriend asks if Ali, the self-centred real-estate agent, can come along. I say no as I don’t like his attitude. This is a picnic to honour our similarities. He makes a face at me. I tell him if that’s his attitude, he’s not welcome either and can go hang out with Ali instead. He makes another dorky face at me.

I smile and feel as if I’ve pushed the wheel the other way, my way, our way. I have no idea where it will go, but I know it will turn in a direction that I have consciously chosen.

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