In the winter of 2007, Zulaikha is travelling from Amsterdam to Tehran when she is approached by Kia, a family acquaintance she hasn’s seen for many years, who is on the same flight. Kia’s father has passed away and he is flying home to attend his funeral. In a shocking twist, Zulaikha suspects that Kia may have had information about her missing brother, Hessam, and their mutual friend, Abbass, who was murdered before Hessam’s disappearance during the Iran and Iraq War.
When the flight is suddenly cancelled, and Zulaikha is later taken into custody and questioned about her relationship with Kia by both the European and Iranian authorities, who ultimately confiscate her passport, a tense thriller unfolds revealing the impacts of war and the consequences for one young woman unknowingly caught in the crossfire of greed, power, and international politics.
This sweeping novel explores many timely topics including issues related to gender, class, race, and interracial marriage. It also sheds light on the tumultuous history of Iran from a new perspective. The novel reveals a forty-year period of war and upheaval in the Middle East, and specifically, in Zulaikha’s home territory of Khuzestan, which boasts the bulk of Iran’s oil reserves, a place of intense tension between Iran and the U.S. still today.
“Zulaikha is an often suspenseful and always emotionally striking account of the inescapable reach of a violent history, and the grip that political realities have over personal truths.”
—Naben Ruthnum/Nathan Ripley, author of Find You in The Dark and Your Life is Mine
“A hauntingly moving and brilliant book that paints a portrait of longing, heartache, love and hope. Zulaikha is an ambitious and powerful debut novel from a brave new voice bringing attention to the politics in Iran and how lives are affected, especially the lives of women. With sensitivity, Niloufar-Lily Soltani weaves a tale of courage, betrayal and forgiveness. Fast-paced and well-written, this story captures you from its first page and carries you along like the achingly beautiful notes of the oud.”
—Sonia Saikaley, author of The Allspice Bath
Why are they leaving me here? Did they forget about me?
Feeling jetlagged, she sat and put her head on the table and fell asleep quickly. She woke up when someone opened the door. It was one of the women from before. She had no idea what time it was. She asked her if she could contact her son or a lawyer and ask for help.
The woman whispered, “We’ll let you know. Come with me.”
They walked through a tunnel with windows to outside. It was shortly after the sunrise and she could figure out where they were taking her. Section 209, the same place that she’d been sent the first time. She was hungry but did not care for food. Every inch of her body was confused and wanted her ordinary life back. Her coughing came back as she approached her cell.
“I may need a doctor.”
“Just get some rest. I will check on you in a few hours.” The female interrogator closed the sliding door. Two other women were inside. They were both sleeping. In the silence of the room, she wondered if the woman who’d liked her Arabic singing still worked there. She did not remember her name.
How can I still remember that malicious smile, even her nose with a sloping tip, but not her name?
She shared a cell with a reporter from an Iranian newspaper, and a university professor. Simin, in her late forties, had a dual citizenship with Canada who’d taught Middle Eastern studies at the University of Calgary and had lectured against religious fundamentalism. They’d arrested her as soon as she stepped off the plane at Tehran’s airport, and had been in that cell for six months. Neda, the reporter, seemed hopeful that she would be released soon. She was sure that her family and lawyer were working round the clock to secure her release and in the process, “They paid them a whole lot of money.”
Zulaikha didn’t have money but they could suspect that she did. Their questions about Sohrab’s job or Kia were possibly to find that out.
Simin asked her why she’d been arrested.
“I don’t know. Perhaps, my brother. This is my second time here. I was here twenty seven years ago too.”
“What about your brother?” asked Simin.
Once again after many years, she reviewed the events ending with her brother’s disappearance, from Abbass’s murder to when she spoke to Assef on the phone and asked him to help her brother, and when she visited Hessam for the last time. Was Sohrab’s intuitions right? Could Hessam have reached out to Kia after his escape? In the beginning, Gholam had convinced her and their mother that he was alive. “I am in law enforcement. I know these things. Evidence shows that he had escaped.” As years went by, she had second thoughts. If he were alive, he would have shown a sign by now. But remembering Hessam’s state of mind when he left, she felt he might have never wanted to look back.
She found herself explaining her history to Simin and Neda. Abbass’s assassination, Hessam’s disappearance and how they escaped Abadan and resided in Tehran since then.
Simin asked, “They can’t be still looking for him after all this time.”
“I didn’t think they were,” said Zulaikha while hugging her knees.
“There is this show we watch in Canada,” said Simin. “It’s called Cold Cases. They open a case if they accidently dig up a file.”
Hessam is my cold case.
“They must have dug up my files then.”
Simin said, “So, you must have seen many things here.”
“Yes, I was in this very same spot, but things are a little bit better now.”
“Really?” said Neda. “You think things are better now?”
Zulaikha felt that the woman was interrogating her, or maybe she was just interviewing her, but she answered with confidence: “Better? Compared to that time, yes, things are better. This section was full of kids, as young as fifteen. The regime was new at that time; it was fighting for survival. They destroyed anything in their way. You were not here, were you?” Zulaikha looked at Simin.
“I was not arrested, but I was in Iran. I guess I was one of the lucky ones. My parents were wealthy. They sent me out of the country as soon as they started arresting and killing.”
“Why did you return when you knew you might be arrested here?”
“I came to see my elderly parents. I was stupid enough to think they would not touch me because I was a Canadian citizen.”
Zulaikha shook her head. Her cellmates seemed nicer and more mature than the ones she’d had years before. They did not fight with each other and treated her respectfully. Zulaikha looked at the writings on the wall behind her left by a past prisoner.
I wonder if you will wait for me!
She touched the words with her finger, connecting to the person who’d written them.
Simin noticed Zulaikha and said. “Where could she be now?” “I hope visiting her son or daughter somewhere in the world like I was.”
“Or had time stopped for her here in this corner,” Neda sighed.