Suri Pahlavi and Nasrin Avesta stood at the threshold of their new apartment in Persepolis. The space was barely adequate for the two of them, consisting of two small bedrooms and a common area to serve as a kitchen, dining room, and living space. Reminders of the previous occupants, unpatched holes in the walls for framed pictures, a pot left in the kitchen sink, and a child’s doll on the floor, littered the space. The small family who had lived here, the landlady had explained, had left for the country during the crisis leading to the war.
Suri and Nasrin moved from the country to Persepolis when the war began, pushing against the tide of people fleeing the city. However foolhardy the decision had been, it did mean they were paying half as much to rent the apartment than they would have a month before. War may be good for some businesses, but not for landlords offering rooms in a city exposed to air raids.
Nasrin wrinkled her nose at their new home. Both women were from families of the country aristocracy. Both of their fathers were high ranking Army officers, and Suri and Nasrin each left a suite of rooms behind when they left home. Living in a tiny apartment in a building full of them was foreign to them both.
They stood for a moment, feeling sad at the prospect of living in such a place. Then Suri spoke.
“Where’s my library going to go?” she asked.
Nasrin laughed. Suri was a booklover and spent every spare moment reading.
“And my dressing room?” Nasrin said.
“And where will the servants be quartered?” Suri responded.
“And the stables for the horses.” Nasrin broke into a laugh. Suri joined in, and they laughed together.
Their levity was cut short. Outside, a wailing noise rose to a high pitch. The sound shook the windows. Both women’s eyes widened, and they stared at each other.
“The air raid alarm!” Suri said. “What do we do?”
“I think we have to get to a shelter,” Nasrin said.
“Where?” Suri asked.
“Let’s try the basement,” Nasrin said.
They started for the apartment building’s stairs, but the hall was suddenly full of people. All the doors opened and filled with tenants. Old men and women, children, women, and a few men, packed into the hallway trying to get to the stairwell. Nasrin and Suri had to fight their way to the stairs against the shoving mass. Their future neighbors had nothing to say to the two women in the chaos.
A large booming sound shook the building. The crashing noise of windows shattering in the apartments all around filled the corridor. The lights flickered, and children screamed in fear. Their parents hurried them toward the stairs.
Suri and Nasrin shoved their way to the stair entrance and joined the throng heading for the basement. Floor after floor passed as they pushed their way down. Suri saw people who had fallen lie in the stairwell, unable to stand against the press of people. Unable to stop and help them, she pushed past. She had to hold herself up against the relentless push from behind. She tried not to step on anyone, but she could feel the soft press of flesh under her feet.
The stampede finally reached the lowest floor. At the bottom of the stairs stood a heavy metal double door. It was the kind mandated by the Ministry of Civil defense for basement air raid shelters and was armored against blast and fragments.
It also, to the horror of Suri and Nasrin, had a lock and chain holding it shut.
The first to arrive in the basement had tried to open the door, realized it was locked, and then tried to go back up the stairs. They got nowhere against the tide of people trying to go down. Helpless, they had been pressed against the walls and door as more and more people descended the stairs.
“Stop!” Suri cried. “Stop! The door is locked!”
But no one heard her. Her voice was blotted out by the cries and stomping feet of the dozens of people around her.
The tiny basement filled with people, and they crushed Suri against the metal door. She struggled, but it was hopeless. Too many people were pushing into too small a space.
She couldn’t breathe. The pressure was so great she couldn’t expand her chest. Suri tried to pull her arms over her head to create more space for her to breathe. She yanked one arm and then the other up and gasped at the hot air. Screams filled her ears.
She was going to be crushed to death! Or she would be smothered! Panic rushed through her body.
Suri desperately forced her way to the door. It was the only possible escape. She had to get it open, somehow.
A chain secured the door handle to a metal loop set into the wall. Suri saw that breaking the loop would be hopeless. It was at least half an inch thick. The chain was also too strong to break. The lock was a simple padlock, and perhaps it could be broken if she had a crowbar or bolt-cutters, but she didn’t, and there was no space to use one even if she had one. She could barely move.
The building shook, and the lights went out.
Whatever order there was vanished. The press of the crowd toward the basement grew. Suri felt the pressure crushing her ribs. Her arms were over her head, and she couldn’t use them to protect herself. She tried to hold her breath. If she fully exhaled, she would never be able to breathe again.
In the darkness, crushed against the door, Suri heard a cry which pierced the panicked screams of the crowd.
“I have the key! Let me through!”
“Over here!” Suri yelled. “The door is over here! I’m at the door!”
She repeated it, trying to be heard over the noise of the crowd. “Here! The door is here!”
She heard Nasrin’s voice for the first time since their descent of the stairs.
“Make way! Make way, or we will all die! Move!”
She felt the crowd around her part. She felt two new figures arrive at her side. One was Nasrin. She could smell the perfume she always wore. She smelled of tulips.
The other spoke in the voice she had first heard. “I have the key!” It was a woman, and Suri recognized the building manager.
Suri felt for the chain. She ran her fingers down the links until she found the lock.
“I have the lock!” she said.
Another surge of people pressed down the stairs. The crowd pushed Nasrin into Suri with such force it knocked the breath out of her. Suri gasped for air.
“I have the lock!” Suri rasped. “I need the key!” She raised her hand over her head. She reached toward the voice.
The air was stale and hot.
She stretched her arm toward Nasrin. Nasrin took her hand.
“Get the key!” Suri cried.
Nasrin reached out with her other hand, and Suri felt the hard metal of the key against her palm. She closed her fingers on it, but it slipped. She felt it falling. If she lost it, it would be impossible in the press of bodies to find it only the floor. Frantically, Suri closed her hand on the key. She caught it the moment before it fell to the floor.
She had it! She turned her body to face the door. She held the lock in her other hand and wormed the arm holding the key down to the lock. It was difficult. Nasrin and the landlady tried to shield her from the crowd, but she was jostled and shoved from every direction. She held the key tightly between her fingers. She brought the key to the lock. In the darkness, she struggled to bring the key to the keyhole. Three times she missed the lock as she was pushed tight against the door.
Then she did it. The key slid into the lock. With a wrench of her wrist, the lock opened. She was barely able to unhook the padlock from the chain. The lock slid free, and the chain was loose.
She reached for the door handle and rotated it to the right. Suri pished, and the metal squealed.
The door didn’t open. Even with the enormous press behind Suri, it didn’t budge.
Suri realized the door hinges were on her side of the door. The door opened outward toward her and the crowd. Pinned against it, she wouldn’t be able to open it.
Suri screamed in frustration.
“It opens out!” she cried to Nasrin. “I can’t open it!”
Nasrin said nothing. Suri wondered if she was gone, crushed under the feet of the crowd inside the basement.
She couldn’t breathe. Suri knew she couldn’t last much longer. The pressure against her would snuff her life out like a match.
Nasrin’s voice rang out into the darkness, over the screams of the trapped.
“Push away from the door! Push! On three! On three!” She sounded calm. Suri didn’t know how she did it. Suri was terrified, and panic filled her voice.
“One!” Nasrin called. Suri felt Nasrin brace herself.
“Two!” Nasrin planted her feet. Suri squared herself away from the door.
“Three! Push!” Suri pushed at Nasrin as hard as she could. Nasrin did the same. There was a momentary release of pressure, but it returned immediately.
“Again!” Nasrin said. “One!”
Suri braced for another push. On “Three!” more people around her pushed away from the door. The press eased for a bit longer. Suri grabbed the door handle, but she was pushed back before she could open it.
“Again!” Nasrin said.
On the third try, the press eased long enough for Suri to open the door a crack. It wasn’t enough to slip through.
“I almost have it open!” Suri said. “Keep trying!”
The wave of people joining with Nasrin to push the crowd away from the door grew. Everyone in the basement joined the effort. Suri wondered about the poor people in the middle, between the press coming down the stairs and the counter-push. She put the thought out of her mind.
This time, on three, a gap opened around the door. Suri pulled back on the handle with all her might. Just as the press returned, she had the door open far enough that instead of being forced closed again, it rotated the other way and crashed against the wall.
Suri yelled in delight. The way was open. She almost fell into the empty space of the air raid shelter beyond, which would have been fatal. Behind her, the press of people shoved her inside the dark room. She ran as fast as she could before them into the empty room. She didn’t dare stop. If she tripped, the crowd would stomp her to death.
She didn’t reach the far wall for what seemed like a full minute. Her outstretched hands felt the brick. She closed her eyes. Would she now be crushed against the wall as she had been against the door?
No. The space was full of people. Suri could hear them and felt some around her, but the press was relieved.
Someone found the emergency lights. The room, revealed, was low-ceilinged with brick walls. The dim light showed people moving like shadows.
The building shook, and dust jumped from the walls and floor. The plaster fell from the ceiling. Someone screamed.
Suri tried to find Nasrin. She worked her way through the people all around her, searching for her friend. Had she survived the last push?
Suri looked through half the room. She called Nasrin’s name.
Finally, she found her near the open door.
“Nasrin!” she said. “You’re alive!”
“You are too!” Nasrin said. “I was looking for you.”
“Me, too!” Suri said. “I mean, I was looking for you.”
The two friends embraced.
“Thank you for saving us,” Suri said. “I thought we were dead.”
“Yes,” Nasrin said. “This door, I can’t imagine why it opens outward. Perhaps someone thought it would resist the blast from a bomb better if the hinges were on the outside.”
“Madness!” Suri said. “We could have all been killed!” She started to shake. A moment later, she began to cry.
So did Nasrin.
“Oh, God!” Suri said. “We almost died!”
“But we didn’t,” said Nasrin. “We’re alive.”
“Why does this have to happen?” Suri asked. “Why do the Azanians bomb us?”
“Because we took what was theirs in the last war. They want their land back,” Nasrin said.
“But this isn’t their land. We’re in the middle of Persepolis,” Suri said.
“War,” Nasrin said. “War has no limits.”
“The stupid Treaty of Zanzibar,” Suri said, wiping tears from her eyes. “It’s been twenty years, and we are back at war. Some peace treaty!”
“Only paper,” Nasrin said. “Nothing written is forever.”
They held each other in the air-raid shelter without speaking. After a while, Suri said, “I wonder how Father is doing.” Her father, Major Pahlavi, had been a reservist mobilized when the war began. “Or Javad.” Her brother was assigned to a unit guarding the frontier.
“Or Basir,” Nasrin said, with a smile.
Suri almost giggled. Her suitor, Basir Turani, was somewhere in the north. She had not heard anything from him since he had departed Persepolis before the war began. The thought of their time together filled her with joy, tempered by the knowledge that he was in harm’s way.
“I wonder about Farad,” Suri said. Farad was a dashing fighter pilot who had swept Nasrin off her feet, but the war had interrupted their romance.
The two women were quiet, and the crowd had calmed. No more nearby explosions shook the building.
Despite the danger from outside, no one could convince themselves to close the metal blast door.
When the all-clear sounded, Nasrin made sure to organize a queue, so their departure from the shelter was orderly. She led the line and stopped the procession each time she found an injured or dead person in the basement or the stairwell. The injured were carried upstairs, while the dead were passed down to the basement. Suri lost count of how many there were. She tried not to think about it.
They reached their apartment much later. Exhausted, they stared at the broken glass on the floor. Their things hadn’t arrived as planned, of course, because of the air raid. It was getting dark, and there was nowhere to sit or lie down.
Suri teared up. What would they do?
Nasrin knocked on their neighbor’s door. She introduced herself to the woman within, who recognized her from their ordeal in the basement. They welcomed Nasrin and Suri inside, and soon fed the pair and offered them a place to stay until their belongings came.
“We still have to clean up all the broken glass in the apartment,” Suri said.
“Tomorrow,” Nasrin said. “Tomorrow.”