Read The Moving Prison Online

Authors: William Mirza,Thom Lemmons

Tags: #Christian, #Islam, #Political, #Fiction, #Suspense, #Historical, #War & Military, #Judaism, #Iranian Revolution, #Cultural Heritage, #Religious Persecution

The Moving Prison (2 page)

BOOK: The Moving Prison
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“Why doesn’t Mr. Carter make up his mind?” groused Ezra. “Can’t he understand how all this talk about human rights weakens the Shah’s grip? With one hand he builds up the Peacock Throne, and with the other he gives legitimacy to the opposition.” Ezra fell silent, frustration and concern curdling his brow.

“My! You’re on about it tonight!” commented Esther, as she set a plate heaped with steaming long-grain rice in front of her husband. “Since when have you become so intense an observer of political matters?” She chided him slightly, hoping to nudge him out of his pensive mood. She placed a skewer of marinated mutton kabob atop the rice on Ezra’s plate, spooning roasted onions, tomatoes, and peppers over the meat, then she helped herself to a similar serving.

Ezra chewed silently. Esther studied him carefully a few moments, then said, “What is it? Something else is troubling you.”

Briefly he glanced up at her, and then turned his gaze back to his plate. “Oh … probably nothing serious,” he mumbled. “The mullah … he said something.”

Her arched eyebrows asked silently for explanation.

“Not so much what he said, really … more the way he said it. As if he
knew
something.” A few more silent seconds passed.

“He said, ‘When Khomeini returns …’ ”

“And when, since the Shah banished Khomeini, have the Shiites not been muttering about his return?” inquired Esther pertly. “How long has it been—twenty years? And still he must send his curses long distance.”

Ezra looked at his wife, shaking his head. “I told you, it wasn’t what he said as much as his manner. He offered to help me, should I ever need assistance.”

“From a destitute mullah? An interesting notion!”

Ezra took another bite of mutton, chewing slowly and thoughtfully. When he had swallowed, he looked at her again.

“And if the troubles worsen … ?” he asked.

Esther studied his face for a long time. Then she dropped her eyes to her plate and took another bite of rice. Outside, the snow began to thicken.

TWO

Firouz Marandi’s first waking thought was,
Today’s the day!
His stomach began to tense with anticipation. He sat up on the edge of his bed and rehearsed what he must do.

He had to give his boss some reason for not showing up again. Surely the old Jew was getting suspicious—he had been using the excuse of illness for three days now. No matter; the cause was more important than his miserable dead-end of a job. He would think of something.

Next, he had to gather his cadre and arrive at the agreed-upon place at nine o’clock sharp. When the operation started, they had to be in position.

After that, the tide of events would sweep them all along. Firouz did not allow himself to think too much about where that tide might carry him; anywhere was better than here. The force of history was on their side, and also the religious fervor of Islam.

Firouz was not overly devout, but the comrades in the movement had long ago recognized the value of Islamic fundamentalism in organizing opposition to the Pahlavi regime. They of the
mojahedin
were more than willing to ally themselves with the mullahs as an expedient means to a just end. So far, the strategy had paid handsome dividends.

Today began the holy month of Muharram. It was a time of public mourning and self-flagellation in memory of the martyrs under Sunni repression centuries before. But this year, the devotees would have a strategy other than public displays of piety. Today, the passions of the country would be unleashed, and the gauntlet would be cast down. Firouz’s imagination was aflame with the possibilities, the intoxication of life at the nexus of human events. Today would begin the final conflict.

Ezra sat on the swaying bus, deep in thought. It was early morning, and there were not many passengers. Something in the background slowly drew his attention out of its deep well of contemplation. He looked about him. Someone was speaking, and Ezra seemed to have been the only one on the bus not listening. He realized that the voice was a recording—a cassette tape being played by a passenger holding a small portable tape player in his lap. The voice on the tape was that of an old man. His speech was firm and his words had a resolute cadence. Ezra began to listen.

… and in the schools, teachers force boys and girls to hug each other, and to dance in public. That boys and girls should be even in the same school together is scandalous. Women are allowed to forsake the decent chador, and to parade their arms and legs before the lustful eyes of men in the streets. These are the perverted ways of the West, which the Shah has imported into our blessed Islamic country….

Rise up, faithful Muslims, against the unholy tyranny of the Pahlavis. The Shah, like his satanic father, is an enemy of Islam. Do not be afraid. Allah—may His name be blessed—is on our side.

The tape clicked off. The passengers leaned back in their seats, looking at each other, nodding and smiling. One of them was a rug dealer surnamed Noori, with whom Ezra was acquainted. Noori looked over, saw the druggist staring back in some confusion, and moved down the aisle to seat himself by Ezra.

“Good morning,
Aga
Solaiman! A beautiful day, isn’t it?”

“Indeed,
Aga
Noori. Tell me, what were you listening to?”

The rug merchant looked at Ezra in surprise. “Don’t you know?” he asked. “That was the voice of the holy man, Ayatollah Khomeini! How is it you have never heard it before?”

A cold ball of foreboding settled in the pit of Ezra’s stomach.

“Has the Shah relaxed his ban on the words of the … the holy man?” Ezra asked lamely.

Noori chuckled and shook his head at Ezra’s naiveté. “Don’t be foolish,
Aga
Solaiman. The Shah is as violently opposed as ever to the Ayatollah. But the tyrant’s grip is weakening, my friend.” Noori scooted closer to Ezra, punching him conspiratorially in the ribs. “Don’t you feel it? The people in the streets know it. Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s days are numbered.”

Ezra stared at Noori, his face a shifting amalgam of disbelief and worry.

“The Ayatollah’s words are heard daily by thousands of the faithful,” Noori continued. “Many are weary of the hypocritical despotism of the Shah. It is a measure of the people’s disrespect that banned tapes such as these”—he nodded toward the man who had played the recording—“are played on public transportation, in coffee shops, in the covered bazaar.”

“But SAVAK—” protested Ezra in a half-whisper.

“SAVAK is a paper tiger,” sneered Noori. “Each day their shadow grows shorter. Look at the royal cabinet,” he offered. “Every few days, it seems, the Shah denounces the current prime minister, as a sop to the opposition, and appoints a new man in his place. Each time this happens, the SAVAK hierarchy become less concerned about quelling dissent, and more preoccupied with saving their own skins. They smell the blood in the water, just like all the other sharks.”

Ezra stared at Noori a moment more, then looked down. After a moment, he said, “Of course, all this is somewhat foreign to me. As a Jew I do not customarily mingle in politics.”


Aga
Solaiman,” warned Noori, looking solemnly into Ezra’s eyes, “in the days to come, no one will be able to remain neutral. Either by choice or default, you will be on one side or the other.”

Again Ezra’s brow curdled. “But I don’t understand. My people have lived in this country since the days of Darius and the Persian Empire. This is our home too. We wish only to live in peace—”

“Listen, Solaiman,” interrupted Noori curtly, “I don’t need a history lesson. I’m only trying to tell you the way things will be.” Pausing, he continued in a gentler tone. “I say these things as a friend. A great contest is to be tried in this country, and soon. See that you are on the winning side.”

The air brakes squawked as the bus slowed. Noori glanced up, then stood. “This is my stop,” he said. “Think about what I’ve said.” Gripping Ezra briefly on the shoulder, he walked quickly down the aisle.

As the bus accelerated back into traffic, Ezra closed his eyes, Noori’s admonition echoing in his mind: “the winning side … the winning side.”

Sepideh waited, as she did every day, by the stairs in the bustling main hallway. Ten minutes before their first class, she felt two hands slide down over her face, covering her eyes.

“Guess who,” said a mock bass voice behind her. She giggled and twisted about to face Khosrow, who stood grinning at her, his books stacked on the floor beside him.

He was a strikingly handsome boy, the son of a petroleum engineer. He was tall and athletic, and he wore carefully pressed clothes in the Western style favored by many upper-class Iranians.

“Where were you?” demanded Sepideh suddenly. “The bell for classes is about to ring, and I have been standing here all morning.” She stuck out her lower lip and gave him a sidelong pout calculated to produce instant capitulation.

“Ah, Sepi, don’t look like that,” he entreated, “I couldn’t help it. This morning just as I was on my way out the door, my father stopped me and gave me a lecture on which streets to avoid on my way. I would have been here much sooner if I hadn’t had to wait for him to finish.”

Her look changed to one of concern. “Why must you avoid your usual route?”

“Don’t you listen to the news? Today is the beginning of Muharram. The rumor is that some of the radicals will cause trouble in the streets.”

“Trouble?” she asked, still perplexed.

“Little Jewish princess,” laughed Khosrow, “doesn’t your father tell you anything? The mullahs are angry at the Shah, and they’re inciting the barefooted ones to make trouble.” He shook his head at her innocent puzzlement.

“Does your father hate the Shah too?” she asked, fitting her shoulder into the curve of his arm as they walked toward their classrooms.

“My father? No! If it weren’t for the Shah, my father would probably still be selling carpets for Uncle Habib in the covered bazaar. No, we don’t hate the Shah,” he assured her. “Only the ignorant peasants and the mullahs are against the Shah. And when the army gets through with them, I’ll bet they learn to hold their tongues,” he boasted.

“Will there be fighting today?” she asked, her eyes round with apprehension.

Khosrow shrugged. “Who knows? I plan to stay out of the way, so I don’t really care.”

The bell rang in the hallway, accompanied by the sound of scuffling feet, as students hurried to their classrooms. Khosrow leaned close to Sepideh. “Quick! A kiss before I go to class.”

She looked at him warily for a moment, a cautious smile flickering about the corners of her mouth. Quickly glancing up and down the corridor, she pecked him chastely on the cheek, then wheeled and strode off toward her classroom.

“You call that a kiss?” he called after her.

Blushing, she ducked into the doorway of her room.

THREE

Shortly before nine o’clock, the wailing, chanting crowd shuffled along Shah Reza Avenue, filling the broad thoroughfare from curb to curb. Dotted here and there among the roiling mass were the white turbans of the mullahs, shouting their admonitions to the faithful who had turned out to observe ritual mourning for the holy martyrs of the Shiite sect. Along the sidewalks and atop the buildings on the route of march stood army regulars, nervously fingering their weapons and eyeing the huge crowds in the street. Tension crackled in the air with a silent turbulence louder than the shouted Islamic slogans of the wailing marchers.

Firouz and his eight commandos crouched in the lee of a building, just around a corner from the crammed Shah Reza Avenue. The side of the building facing the avenue was windowless, covered with a huge portrait of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

Nervously Firouz scanned the rooftops around them.
Good. The army lookouts are preoccupied with the huge throng in the avenue, and the preparations here in the alley go unnoticed. Just as planned.
He glanced at his watch, then quickly around at his cadre.

“Our time has come, comrades,” he said, his gaze boring intensely into each face in the circle. “Today we strike the first blow against the corruption and repression of the Pahlavis. History is on our side. Let us never forget this.” He gripped the hands of each of them in turn. “Go now. And when you see the signal, do what you have been told.” One by one, the others moved out into the crowd. Firouz waited in the shadows, glancing anxiously at his watch and gripping the neck of the glass bottle in his hand.

When the sweep of the second hand crossed 12, Firouz lit the oil-soaked rag protruding from the bottle neck, stepped quickly around the corner, and flung the gasoline-filled bottle high against the gigantic painted face of the Shah. It struck just below the dark, aristocratic arch of the left eyebrow. The gasoline ignited, spilling quickly down the wall, spreading an orange fusillade of flame across the Shah’s likeness. The paint quickly blistered and curled. “Death to the Shah!” screamed Firouz and dashed back down the alleyway. His cohorts, by now dispersed among the masses in the streets, took up the cry. “Death to the Shah! Death to the Shah!”

The frenzied crowd of worshippers quickly caught the heady excitement of the moment. The slogan ran like the fire on the wall through the throng in the street. “Death to the Shah! Death to the Shah!” After decades of repression, the pent-up anger burst from their throats in a sudden eruption, kindled to the flash point by the burning scar on the mural. With raised fists, they hotly announced the unleashing of the beast, the casting of the die. “Death to the Shah!”

Someone threw a brick through a store window; another followed. A stone caught one of the soldiers in the chest. Shots rang out as soldiers fired their weapons into the air to frighten the mob. Then the burning, choking stench of tear gas burst among the angry crowds. In the street, people began screaming and running back and forth, trampling each other in their panic to escape the acrid fog. A roaring, faceless frenzy swirled through the side streets. Shots rang out as frightened soldiers reacted to the chaotic gangs surging along the avenues.

Six blocks away, in a hidden basement doorway, Firouz heard the commotion of the rioting. A fierce grin gashed his face. History was on his side.

Reuben Ibrahim kissed his wife on the forehead. “Time to open the shop, dearest,” he said. “Revolution or no revolution, people will need rugs.”

“I wish you wouldn’t make light of everything,” scolded Jahan, shaking her head. “These are dangerous times, and loose lips can be fatal.”

“And your lips can be fatal as well,” he crooned, leaning close and pulling her toward him. “Eh? What’s this? Who’s climbing up my shins?”

He leaned over and scooped their three-year-old daughter into his arms. “So, Maheen? You can’t let your papa get a little smooch without wanting in on the act?” He covered the child’s face with noisy kisses as she giggled and squirmed.

“Well, time to go,” he sighed, placing Maheen in her mother’s arms.

“Please be careful,” Jahan warned, as he turned to leave. “Remember how much we need you.”

He turned back to her. “I’ll remember, don’t worry. The Lord and Savior be with you.”

“And with you,” she said, completing their ritual farewell.

He closed the door behind him and walked to the corner to await the bus that would take him to his stall at the covered bazaar. He instinctively avoided the knots of men huddled here and there on the sidewalk, trying to make himself as inconspicuous as possible. Since the rioting began a few days ago, he had had few opportunities to engage in his usual bantering with passersby. People were not in the mood for levity.

“I won’t let them keep me from my shop,” Reuben had told Jahan when the trouble first started, and so far, he had not missed a day, even though she had begged him to stay in the house.

“This isn’t a good time to be Jewish,” she had pleaded. “Just stay home for a few days and see how things settle out!”

But he hadn’t, and it appeared that his decision was vindicated. He had kept to his usual hours and had even managed to make a little money, since customers who came to the bazaar found few of the other shops open.

Reuben glanced at his watch. The bus was due soon, but that didn’t necessarily mean it would arrive. With all the disturbances in the streets, one scarcely knew when the buses would run. He was mildly surprised, then, to hear the approaching rattle and roar of a diesel engine, followed quickly by the sight of the red bus coming toward him.

Reuben stepped onto the bus and sidled down the packed aisle until he found an unused hand-strap. He held on as the bus jerked away from the curb and pulled back into traffic.

“Good day, Ibrahim!” said a voice next to him. Reuben struggled to turn to see who had spoken.

“Ah, hello there, Hosseini,” Reuben managed. “I didn’t see you before.”

“No matter,” the other man shouted over the din of the bus and the other passengers. “I see you are on your way to work, as usual.”

“Of course! As the Americans say, ‘Another day, another
rial
,’” he quipped, then wondered if the Western reference had been unwise.

“I take it that you haven’t given any more consideration to my offer,” said Hosseini, swaying with the other standees as the bus swerved in and out of traffic.

“I’m sorry,
baradar
,” Reuben said, laughing uneasily. “With all the excitement the last few days, I suppose I’ve forgotten what you’re talking about.” He hoped he might have a chance to change the subject, but Hosseini was not to be deterred.

“Allow me to refresh your memory, friend. Why won’t you sell me your space in the bazaar? I have offered you my larger space, but—”

“That corner and I have grown very close,” Reuben shrugged, grinning, “I’d feel as if I were selling a member of the family. Surely you can—?”

“Long live Khomeini! Long live Khomeini!”

Someone at the front had started the chant, and it soon enveloped the entire bus. Hosseini joined in loudly, much to the discomfort of Reuben’s left ear.

Reuben looked at his feet, wishing for invisibility. He was surrounded by chanting supporters of the Shah’s arch-nemesis, and he knew that for safety’s sake he should at least make some show of enthusiasm. But he couldn’t. Each time he tried to take up the cheer, the words stuck in his throat. And so, he kept his face down and wished fervently for the bus ride to come to an end. He prayed that no one would notice.

For Esther, cleaning the upstairs bedroom was a weekly ritual, therapeutic in its repetitiveness. She did not allow the maid to clean the master bedroom—it was her domain. First she ran the new vacuum over all the rugs on the varnished oak floor. Then she dusted the furniture and window sills, lightly brushing the tops and folds of the drapes hanging in the large windows. Finally, she went to the linen closet and removed a set of fresh sheets redolent with the fragrance of the cedar paneling. She derived a childlike satisfaction from the crisp creases running at right angles across the pillowcases, the taut white expanse of the bed sheets tucked in neat hospital corners.

Her world was like these bed linens, she reflected on this Friday morning, as a bright winter sun streamed through the polished panes of the bedroom windows. Crisp, clean—all right angles and carefully folded corners.

One of the things she loved about Ezra, for example, was his predictability. From their first encounter, his gravity—oddly charming in a boy his age—gave her a feeling of security and safety. And through the years her first impression was confirmed. Ezra knew things, knew how to manage. Competence was his hallmark, and his serious-yet-kind manner made customers and strangers trust him almost instinctively. She supposed it was a result of the early age at which financial responsibility was thrust upon him. Whatever the reason, she enjoyed the world he had built for her—the business, this house, their children—an intricate and thoughtfully woven web of comfort and belonging.

Now this all was threatened by the ominous rumbling in the streets. Even with the news blackouts, word rapidly spread throughout Tehran—indeed, the whole country—about the rioting in Shah Reza Avenue and its aftermath. No longer could she pretend that all would be well. No longer could she scoff at Ezra’s worried looks and tense silences. The world was shifting, and all the things she most valued were caught up in the flux. She could not predict what she might lose—perhaps everything. Sighing, she spread the coverlet evenly atop the blanket, pulling at the corners to smooth the wrinkles. Then she went downstairs to pour herself a cup of coffee.

Sitting at the small wooden table in the kitchen, she was startled to see a workman dressed in shabby clothing striding by the window. She did not remember asking the gardener to come today—and then the kitchen door opened and the man stood looking at her.

“Ezra!” Esther half shouted. “You startled me! I thought—” A questioning look came into her face. “Why are you home today and not at work?”

He gave her a sheepish smile. “Today, I decided to stay here. There is little point in opening the shop. With all the trouble in the streets the last few days, no one comes in. I haven’t seen Firouz in over a week. And so, last night when I left, I hung a sign in the door which reads, ‘Closed until Monday.’ So here I am.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

He shrugged and raised his eyes to the ceiling, “I forgot,” he apologized. “And this morning when I awoke, you were sleeping so peacefully that I didn’t want to bother you.”

She shook her head and gave him a look of admonition.

“I’ve done quite a bit of work this morning,” he remarked, shrugging out of his tattered coat and helping himself to a cup of coffee as he sat down at the table. “The cherry trees needed pruning, and I’ve gotten a decent start on that. When I finish, I may work some mulch into the flower beds on the south side of the house.” He cupped his hands around the coffee mug. His cheeks were flushed from his exertions and the cold air. He took a slow, careful sip of the hot black coffee.

Their eyes met.

“What are we going to do?” she asked softly.

He stared into his coffee for ten or twelve heartbeats and then met her gaze.

“I’ve been thinking about nothing else,” he said slowly. “I don’t like the mood here. The mullahs grow bolder every day. The people in the streets talk about the Shah as if he were no more than a distant nuisance. No one is afraid of SAVAK anymore. I think …” He took several deep breaths, then continued. “I think the Shah is going to lose control.”

“What about the army?” Esther asked. “Will they do nothing?”

Ezra shook his head. “Every time a Shiite dies the family and friends begin another of their customary forty-day mourning periods, with all the attendant lamentation and oaths of revenge. Every public funeral is a frenzy of wailing and passion. Is it any wonder that so many riots have started at funerals? It’s a vicious cycle, Esther. And bullets serve only as tinder for the flames. Besides, the enlisted men—the ones who would have to do the shooting—are poor. They don’t feel the same allegiance to the Shah that the generals and officers do. They don’t want to shoot their cousins and uncles. I hear desertions are becoming a problem.

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