Among the Ruins: New Excerpt

Among the Ruins by Ausma Zehanat Khan
Among the Ruins by Ausma Zehanat Khan
Among the Ruins by Ausma Zehanat Khan is the 3rd book in the Rachel Getty and Esa Khattak series (available February 14, 2017).

On leave from Canada’s Community Policing department, Esa Khattak is traveling in Iran, reconnecting with his cultural heritage and seeking peace in the country’s beautiful mosques and gardens. But Khattak’s supposed break from work is cut short when he’s approached by a Canadian government agent in Iran, asking him to look into the death of renowned Canadian-Iranian filmmaker Zahra Sobhani. Zahra was murdered at Iran’s notorious Evin prison, where she’d been seeking the release of a well-known political prisoner. Khattak quickly finds himself embroiled in Iran’s tumultuous politics and under surveillance by the regime, but when the trail leads back to Zahra’s family in Canada, Khattak calls on his partner, Detective Rachel Getty, for help.

Rachel uncovers a conspiracy linked to the Shah of Iran and the decades-old murders of a group of Iran’s most famous dissidents. Historic letters, a connection to the Royal Ontario Museum, and a smuggling operation on the Caspian Sea are just some of the threads Rachel and Khattak begin unraveling, while the list of suspects stretches from Tehran to Toronto. But as Khattak gets caught up in the fate of Iran’s political prisoners, Rachel sees through to the heart of the matter: Zahra’s murder may not have been a political crime at all.

1

esfahan nesf-e jahan.

Esfahan is half the world. Wouldn’t you agree, Inspector Khattak? You’ve been in my city for weeks now, abandoning the urgency of Tehran for Esfahan’s twilight peace. Exploring its attractions, ambling along its boulevards, pausing to read in the gardens of Chahar Bagh. How many times have I seen you under the plane trees, a book in your hands, occasionally lifting your head into the wind? I thought you were reading in your own language, perhaps making a study of a tour book that would tell you about the secret passages behind the Grand Mosque, or the Shaking Minarets of Junban. But when I drew closer, I saw you had set yourself a more delicate task, taking your time to uncover the mysteries of the great Persian poets. But not Rumi for you, no. He’s too often misquoted by too many would-be Sufis. And if we’re honest with each other, as I hope we will always be, English translations are so utterly without grace, so empty of any meaning. I knew a man of your reputation could not be content with translations of Rumi, so I thought, perhaps Sadi or Hafiz? It is Hafiz who extends the invitation, after all: I lay my wings as a bridge.

Yes, Inspector Khattak, think of these letters as a bridge. Between my world and yours, between my thoughts and yours, between my suffering and your unattainable freedom. If you had a taste for irony, you would conclude we are bound up together, chained.

But you aren’t reading Hafiz either. You’ve brought your own book, you travel your own closed circuit. You carry the words of our exiles, a dangerous book to carry on your person—but so many books are dangerous in Iran, so many paragraphs treason, these letters I write to you folly. Hide them for they will condemn us.

Don’t be frightened, Inspector Khattak. I can’t be anything but glad that you’ve come—come to take up my burden—

You will soon have a story to tell.

2

The small town of Varzaneh was a two-hour bus ride from the imperial capital of Esfahan. The bus wound through sand dunes along a rugged road, the early morning light describing the dunes in dust-pink whorls. Esa had been told to visit Varzaneh by Nasih, the proprietor of his guesthouse in Esfahan.

“I see you in the teahouses or gardens all day,” Nasih said. “You need a change of scene. There are places to visit nearby, but if you want to see something a little different, take the bus to Varzaneh, and visit the Salt Lake. You’ll like the pigeon towers, and you must walk along the Old Bridge. The people are friendly, though only a few may understand your Persian.”

Esa smiled.

“Is my Farsi as unintelligible as that?”

“You have an accent,” Nasih said. “I can’t place it, but I like it. Go.” And then surprising Khattak with his knowledge of the English proverb, “A change is as good as a rest.”

So Khattak had found himself on the first bus out of Esfahan, bumping along the eastern road to a town that seemed as if the desert had swallowed it up and spit it back out again, the dun-colored dwellings absorbed into the surrounding terrain. He had dutifully listened to the guide’s explanation of Varzaneh’s attractions: its history of Zoroastrianism, its faithful adherence to the middle Persian language, the craftsmanship of women skilled in weaving the traditional tablecloth of the sofreh.

“You must go down to the river, you will see them laying the sofreh out.”

Khattak had visited the six-hundred-year-old Jame Masjid first, standing beneath the minaret the guide had boasted of, its sand-colored brick rising to a height of sixty-five feet, over the old town and dunes. At its summit, the diamond-patterned brickwork was interrupted by a pair of loudspeakers, out of place in this desert setting. Some distance from the spire, the blue dome made a modest statement, patterns of desert and sky echoed in the old mosque’s architecture and in the inlaid tilework of the blue mihrab.

Khattak paused to read the inscription surrounding the mihrab. Shah Rukh, the son of Tamerlane the conqueror, had captured Esfahan in 1417, inscribing his plea for heirs on the mihrab’s blue kashani tiles. When Esa finished reading, he noticed a screen of tiny, symmetrical crosses reflecting a pattern on the floor, the crosses picked out against a wash of light.

As he turned, two women in white chadors stepped over the pattern, the crosses mottling the fabric of their shawls. It was an arresting image—the blue mihrab, the sandy walls, the rose-gold crosses on a field of white. It took him a moment to realize the women had turned from the screen to face him, the dials of their faces framed by their shawls.

The woman on the left stared back at him, her dark eyes huge in a clear, young face. She was indescribably lovely with high arched brows and softly flushed cheeks, but he was struck most by an impression of sorrow.

She’s damaged, he thought. And just as quickly, I haven’t come here to solve anyone’s problems but my own.

He didn’t know what prompted the thought. The woman didn’t speak to him, didn’t ask for anything, but neither did she look away, as if the space between them was weighted with intangible desires. She was looking at him, he couldn’t be sure she was seeing him.

He transferred his gaze to her companion. She might have been in her twenties, though it was difficult to tell with the enveloping chador that left her face half-hidden. She smiled at him, her glance bold and inquisitive, her eyes and lips tilted up at the corners, a cast to her features that hinted at an impish nature. There was a beauty mark beside her left eyebrow, and underneath this a tiny sickle-shaped scar.

The call to the mid-day prayer sounded. He remembered his manners and glanced away, murmuring a greeting. The women murmured back, one reaching for the other’s hand. They disappeared down a narrow arcade, their figures diminishing under a succession of arches, elegant in their simplicity. He wasn’t thinking of the arches, or the light or the splendid mihrab.

He was left with the impression of dolorous eyes.

*   *   *

Later, in the chaikhaneh teahouse across from the mosque, Esa drank tea from a gold-rimmed glass, a sugar cube between his teeth. He liked strong, milky chai, but he’d learned to adapt in the weeks he’d spent in Iran. He could hear the muted sound of the river rushing past, a gently throbbing loneliness. He felt the welling sweetness of the air against his face, and wanted nothing more than to relax into its embrace. But he knew why he’d followed Nasih’s advice and come to Varzaneh. He was seeking a distraction from the letter.

You will soon have a story to tell.

It read to him like a threat. He’d had a sense of being watched, the letter confirmed it. Someone was following him through the streets of Esfahan, someone who’d come close enough to read the title of the book he carried in his pocket. He’d felt the shadow of a watcher ever since he’d arrived in Esfahan three weeks ago. He’d assumed it was an official minder, sent to act as his detail by a member of the Iranian government, even though he’d applied for a tourist visa with his Pakistani passport, instead of his Canadian one. He’d claimed an interest in making a pilgrimage to various sites of worship, and paid for a tour visiting the cities of Mashhad, Qom, and Shiraz. Esfahan, the city of poets, philosophers, pilgrims, and kings, had been last on his list. He’d thought to reflect on his experiences in the city’s peaceful gardens, but the arrival of the letter had changed that.

Nasih had brought him a book on the Alborz Mountains, written in Farsi, the Persian language. Esa’s name was printed in a small, neat hand on the cover leaf. Pleased and surprised, he’d thanked Nasih for the gift.

“No, no,” Nasih said. “I found it on the doorstep when I went to the market. I don’t know who left it for you.”

Puzzled, Esa paged through the book in the privacy of the courtyard, stationed at his chair beneath the quince tree. When he’d opened the book, soft yellow rose petals had fallen out, along with the folded letter. Holding the letter to his face, he smelled the perfume of the roses. He wondered at first if the book with the rose petals was a gesture in some secret rite of courtship.

But when he read the letter, he knew it for a threat.

Whether from agents of the regime, or from a provocateur, the letter was intended to disrupt the peace he’d found in Esfahan’s early spring.

We are bound together, chained.

He didn’t want to be.

He hoped the letter was a prank of some kind, meant to scare him, or perhaps to startle him out of his lethargy. Though lethargy was an unusual change of pace.

The Drayton inquiry had come to a close after a protracted hearing, vindicating his choices about that desperate night on the Bluffs. The public outcry against the government had been so strong that in the end, the Minister of Justice had paraded Khattak before the cameras as a solution to his problems.

“Yes, we didn’t act on information we had about Drayton, but look what Khattak did to set things right.”

Tom Paley’s missing file on Drayton had turned up as mysteriously as it had disappeared.

In its aftermath, he’d received a cryptic note from his former partner, Laine Stoicheva.

You’re welcome, Esa.

As soon as he’d gotten his visa, he’d left for Iran with a brief stop along the way.

He was still on administrative leave, awaiting a decision on the fate of his stewardship of Community Policing. He hadn’t seen Rachel in weeks, though he called and e-mailed her as often as he could. But every time they talked, they couldn’t bring themselves to discuss the outcome of the case that had resulted in his being placed on administrative leave.

He’d killed a man.

And though he’d sensed Rachel’s willingness to listen, he hadn’t wanted to re-visit that night at Algonquin Park. Enough that it haunted his dreams, he didn’t need to bring the nightmare out into daylight to examine it. He wasn’t ready, though the weeks he’d spent in Esfahan, not thinking of that night in the woods, had helped.

Until the letter had arrived to disturb his sense of calm.

Because either the letter was a threat or it was a demand.

And he wasn’t prepared for either.

He crumpled the letter up, ready to drop it in a dustbin.

Sober second thought gave him pause.

These letters I write are folly. Hide them for they will condemn us.

There was a loose brick in the wall behind the quince tree.

He thought of burning the letter so it would leave no trace, but with a policeman’s instinct, he folded it into a fragment of itself, and placed it behind the brick with care.

Then he realized something else.

These letters I write are folly.

This was only the first.

*   *   *

As he sipped his tea, taking a slow pleasure in it, women in white chadors swept through the mosque’s courtyard and dispersed down to the Old Bridge, a sea of fluttering doves on the breeze. The image charmed him, the white veils unique to Varzaneh, a sight Nasih had urged him not to miss.

These poems now rise in great white flocks.

The letter had turned his thoughts to Hafiz.

He followed the progress of the women along the seven arches of the Old Bridge, the river below surging with browns and blues. At the first arch, two slender young women broke away from the flock. One of them waved to him, it was the woman with mischievous eyes. She blew him a kiss with full, pouting lips.

Mildly scandalized, Khattak looked around. No one had noticed the kiss. The young woman looped her arm through her friend’s, bringing her friend to Khattak’s notice.

It was the woman with sad, dark eyes.

Don’t, Khattak thought. Don’t come any closer.

He raised his tea glass and nodded his head, returning his attention to the mosque. His heart was beating unaccountably fast. He pretended to study the crumbling minaret of the mosque. If he looked toward the river, he knew the woman’s eyes would still be on him. He thought of rising quickly, paying his bill and returning to the station to catch an earlier bus. But he didn’t know why the thought of two young women should frighten him.

Again he had the sense of being watched, that prickling of his nerves. But apart from the mosque-goers who were headed to the river, no one else was in view.

His eyes scanned the mosque. He had exited from the door on the left, and walked along the alley at the rear to view the dome’s exterior profile. The chipped-away bands of ceramic glowed turquoise in the sun. Now huffing around the corner from the exit came a heavyset woman with a bright pink scarf that seemed destined to escape the collar of her smock.

It was a painter’s smock with several strategically placed pockets. She fished through the pockets, muttering to herself, discarding matchbooks, a cell phone, cigarettes. A prolonged search produced a piece of paper. She studied it, grimacing.

The hair bunched thickly on her forehead was a sandy blond touched with gray.

She looked up and met Khattak’s eyes, holding out the piece of paper. After a moment, she lifted her hand in a wave, her shoulders slumping in a gesture of relief.

Despite her haphazard attire, there was an air of officialdom about her.

She’d been searching for Khattak, and she’d found him.

His sojourn in Paradise was over.

 

Copyright © 2017 Ausma Zehanat Khan.

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Ausma Zehanat Khan, author of Among the Ruins, holds a Ph.D. in International Human Rights Law and is a former adjunct law professor. She was Editor-in-Chief of Muslim Girl magazine, the first magazine targeted to young Muslim women. A British-born Canadian, Khan now lives in Colorado with her husband.

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