SHE’S A BRIGHT CHILD – booksmart, but savvy to the unspoken rules, too. Her parents can see it. So, at age five, little Elaheh goes from their home to live with her beloved grandmother near the capital, where the schools are better. Her doting mother can stay there, too, and her father can come and go from his work back home. At the end of primary school, the bright girl aces entrance exams for a selective school.
‘We always knew, even from a young age, not to talk at school about things like having a satellite at home. Certain things are only to be spoken of to friends and family, and not to people you don't know well.
‘But you don't always have a feeling of it being dangerous,’ she says, thinking back. She has a ready, musical laugh, and a wicked awareness of life’s absurdities.
‘Look, it’s tricky, because in Iran basically everything you do is dangerous. Like, the way I went out in the street was dangerous, because I didn't have a proper hijab…. We drank. We played games that were considered gambling. All sorts of life that's considered normal [in the West], we did it there too. But it was only inside our own houses, and, like, everybody knew, but no one knew.’
After university, she has all the energy, idealism and potential that define the brightest young graduates. Returning from Tehran to the family home in the oil-rich southwest, it’s all new to her, but what she sees is the well-documented discrimination against Iran’s Ahwazi Arabs. ‘They're basically living on top of some of the world's biggest oil resources, and they're living in absolute poverty.’ She could help, she thinks. ‘Just maybe raise their knowledge and, like, make them aware of what's going on.’ What’s the danger in that?
When everyday life involves doing things you are not supposed to do, you lose sight of the line. Do you cross it when you start collecting information? Taking photographs? Being a witness who speaks out loud? When you make too many people aware?
There’s a knock on the door, a computer confiscated.
‘See, in Iran you're never exactly aware of the consequences. No one knows – you can commit a huge crime and, like, see minimal consequences, and you can do basically nothing and... disappear and hang for it.’
Elaheh doesn’t risk finding out the punishment in store for her; she leaves in a hurry, without explaining much, without meaningful goodbyes, without time to think about what she would take with her from the only homeland she’d known.
Today, she’s in a country she knew only from Skippy, the tv kangaroo, beamed to the Middle East and dubbed on Iranian tv. But in Australia, too, the rules of her safety are slippery. She has an Aussie twang and a temporary visa. The restrictions of the visa dictate whether her son, a bright five-year-old born in Adelaide, South Australia, will ever get to meet the women who so lovingly cared for Elaheh at his age, one of whom is now battling cancer.