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 (21 page)

BOOK: The Moving Prison
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“Here’s what I found out so far,” said Manuchehr, pulling a wrinkled piece of paper from his jacket pocket.

“A couple weeks from now, a Shiite holy man from the mosque in Karbala is coming from Iraq to pay a state visit to the Ayatollah. Something about the problems between our two countries.”

As Manuchehr glanced at his notes, Moosa yawned widely. Rubbing his face, he filched a cigarette from the fellow sitting next to him, lighting it and drawing the sleep-banishing nicotine deep into his lungs.

“Anyway,” continued Manuchehr, “there will be a big party of higher-ups from the Ayatollah’s organization on hand to greet the man at Mehrabad.” He looked cautiously about at the others. “Sounds like our best shot so far.”

Ari scratched his cheek, deep in thought. A few heads nodded in agreement with Manuchehr’s assessment. A strike at the airport, with foreigners certain to be present, would have a good chance of attracting international attention. And the opportunity to eliminate a number of Khomeini’s top aides was a tempting strategic bonus.

Moosa felt an icy twinge of apprehension prickling at his breastbone. An operation at Mehrabad Airport would be complicated. Security was tight there, and simply getting through the gate would pose a certain amount of risk. The logistics were sure to be intimidating. He looked up at Manuchehr. “What gate will this guy be using? Some of the gates are a long way from the airport exits. Getting back out could be suicide.”

Manuchehr spread his hands. “They won’t assign an arrival gate until one or two days ahead of time. There’s no way to know any sooner.”

Moosa grunted, shaking his head.
No way to know.
He should have guessed as much.

In the name of the Merciful Allah:

To all officials and departments of the Islamic Republic.

This is to certify that Ezra Solaiman, a Jew by birth, his wife, son, and daughter …

Ezra looked at the last phrase he had written and slowly put down his pen. Again he heard the echo of Moosa’s wrathful words,
“Perhaps my plans and yours no longer coincide.”
He closed his eyes and drew a sharp breath as a nearly unbearable pang of grief shoved its dagger into his windpipe. As if he picked up a scalpel to amputate his own hand, he took up the pen and crossed out the words, “his wife, son, and daughter,” and replaced them with the simpler, infinitely more painful phrase, “and his family.” When he had blinked back the tears sufficiently to see his work, he continued the draft:

. . . are taking an extended trip to Switzerland for business and pleasure. Aga Solaiman has conducted himself with benevolence toward his Muslim neighbors and has also contributed a large sum of money to a Muslim cemetery which was in need of repair and expansion.

It is our wish to be helpful to him in his journey, in return for his kindness toward Islam and its principles.

You are hereby instructed to expedite the departure of the Solaiman family from Mehrabad Airport.

Affixed is our signature and seal.

Ezra read and reread the letter. He did not think Mullah Hafizi would find anything objectionable in it. They had agreed that under no circumstances should America be mentioned. Switzerland was neutral, and proceeding from there to America would be simple, despite the stamp routinely placed on Iranian passports that read, “Not Valid for Emigration.” Once Ezra was on Swiss soil, no one could force his return to Iran. And once he was on American soil …

He compelled himself to halt his conjecture. One careful step at a time. He must deliver this draft to Hafizi’s house. As he placed the note in an envelope, he smiled, remembering Akram Hafizi’s reaction when she had stepped into the study the night before….

Her husband had said simply, “
Aga
Solaiman and his family are leaving Iran, and he wants to give his house to us. What do you think?”

The mullah’s wife had laughed aloud at the rich jest her husband had just uttered, shaking her finger at Nader Hafizi. “Please forgive my husband,
Aga
Solaiman,” she said, chuckling. “Sometimes his sense of humor borders on the bizarre.”

Her eyes had stayed on Ezra’s face as he slowly shook his head, a tiny smile flickering on his lips. “No, Akram
khanom
, your husband isn’t teasing. He has told you the truth.”

Her smile had evaporated by degrees, leaving behind a blank look of disbelief. She had stared from Ezra to her husband, who nodded, a broad grin striding irresistibly across his features. “It’s true, my wife,” he averred softly. “This house and its contents are to be ours.”

Akram had dropped to her knees so quickly that her husband darted forward, thinking she had fainted. Instead, she clapped her hands together in front of her bosom and whispered over and over in wide-eyed wonder, “Praise be to Allah! How can this be?
Allahu akbar!
God is great! I can’t believe this!”

After many protestations of the seriousness of his intentions, Ezra had escorted the Hafizis to the front gate. As he watched them walk into the darkness, he could still hear Akram softly saying, “This can’t be happening! It can’t be true!” He had felt a small bloom of pleasure at her ecstatic disbelief in her good fortune. That he could be the bringer of such unlooked-for joy was, in some small measure, a reward for his generosity.

His face fell with the memory of what happened next. When he came back into the house, Esther was standing in the foyer, her face a brooding composite of grief, resentment, and confusion. “My darling!” he exclaimed. “What is the matter?”

He would have felt better if she had shouted and raged at him. If she had torn her hair and cried aloud, he might have been able, when her wrath had spent its fury, to calm and comfort. To console.

But instead, she had stared about the foyer and into the rooms on either side. Her eyes had glided coldly over the things she would be leaving, the things he had ceded to the Hafizis. Then her gaze had returned to him, and a single tear, soulless as the path of a snail, traced a shining trail down her cheek. She turned away from him without a word and walked away.

Am I destined to save my family, only to lose it? Will any of them come through this dreadful ordeal with heart and soul intact?
His fingers curled into a fist, pounding at first softly, then harder and harder atop the desk. A strangling cry of dismay struggled at the back of his throat. He longed to shout at them, at the world,
Can’t you see what I’m doing? I want only to do what’s right, and be left alone! Is this so much to ask? Isn’t there anyone who understands?
In an instant, the voice of Reuben Ibrahim was whispering in the ear of his memory,
“Yeshua … Yeshua will protect them.”

A wave of dizziness swept over him, as emotions surged through him he didn’t understand. For a moment, Ezra Solaiman cradled his head on his forearms, pondering the hapless condition of a man whose only desire was for order, yet whose every action spawned chaos.

After several minutes, he raised his head, wiping his face on his sleeve. Then he did the only thing he knew how to do: he set about taking the next carefully planned step. He would deliver this note to Nader Hafizi, so that the cleric might copy it in his own hand and submit it for Khomeini’s signature.

He looked about him at the house he would be leaving behind, shedding it as a serpent doffs an outgrown skin. Pruning.

TWENTY-TWO

Nader hafizi stepped off the bus, which roared away in a swirl of dust and diesel smoke. The
pasdar
commanding the guard detail at the Ayatollah’s gate scrutinized him, then patted him down perfunctorily. With a jerk of the head, he motioned the gray-bearded mullah through the entrance.

Khomeini had his lodgings in Jamaran, a small village in the hills on the outskirts of Tehran. The approaches to the place gave it the appearance of a command center in wartime, with tanks and machine-gun nests bristled along the roads. Heavily armed
pasdars
scowled at any vehicle that drove into view. This was no small task, for a steady stream of supplicants, sycophants, and functionaries wound up into the hills to court the endorsement of the India-born octogenarian, who had returned from exile in the suburbs of Paris to lead this nation of thirty-five million souls.

Upon his arrival from France, the Ayatollah had at first lived in the poor southern precincts of the capital city, but had since moved to an aging villa in Jamaran, the elevated terrain of which made it more comfortable in summer than the crowded, broiling streets of Tehran. Still, the Imam remained true to his image: he reportedly preferred this down-at-the-heels structure to anything newer and more modern that might smack of Western decadence.

Hafizi gave his name to the young mullah outside the courtyard, who sent a runner inside. Presently the boy returned, motioning the gatekeeper to allow Hafizi to enter. Crossing the courtyard to the main doorway, he bowed to the mullahs waiting there, and received their respectful bows in return. Once more patting his breast pocket to make certain the letter and receipt were still there, he took several deep breaths as the doors opened and he was admitted to the presence of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The Imam was seated on a simple straw mat, eating a pear he had just selected from a plain ceramic bowl in front of him. It was odd, reflected Hafizi, how fame changed the way one looked at a person. He had known Khomeini for many years, and for all that time, the man seated on the mat had worn the same garb: dark camelhair robe, sandals, black turban. Yet, Hafizi could not help comparing this man with the countless portraits one now saw on posters, on the sides of buildings, in every Islamic home. Since the revolution, Khomeini had become more than a man, more even than the most-revered mullah in Iran. He was now an icon, a symbol. It was oddly disconcerting to see him seated on a mat in a sunlit room, chewing on fruit. The reality was disappointing when compared to the image. In this moment, the Ayatollah was diminished by his fame.

He glanced up at Hafizi, and his dark quick eyes flickered from the mullah’s face to that of his aide.

“This is the honored mullah, Nader Hafizi, your excellency,” intoned the assistant in a soft, well-modulated voice.

“Of course,” replied the Ayatollah, smiling softly at Hafizi as he indicated a place near him on a mat. “
Aga
Hafizi and I are old friends, are we not? Please,
baradar
,
come in.”

The two clerics exchanged the traditional Islamic ceremonial greeting, each brushing his lips lightly on the other’s cheek. After reciting the formal opening words, Khomeini came right to the point. “Tell me, then,
Aga
Hafizi,” said the old man with the snowy beard, “what brings you up to my perch in the hills?” Licking the juice from his fingers, Khomeini gave Hafizi a quizzical look.

The Imam’s voice was soft but deep, and his eyes were flinty beacons of the quick intelligence behind them. This man bestrode center stage in the drama of world events because of his agile mind and his fierce, uncompromising devotion to Islamic and Shiite doctrine.

Though he had known Khomeini for many years, Hafizi found himself sweating beneath his robe, and not entirely because of the summer heat. He knew that no word, no nuance of this conversation would be overlooked. He carefully gathered himself to speak.

“Ayatollah, I have come here today for the sake of our friendship, and in the name of Allah the Merciful.” The older man bowed his head slightly as Hafizi invoked the name of God. “I seek assistance for a man who, though not a Muslim, has shown much kindness and respect for the true faith, and who, I believe, merits the favor of any right-thinking disciple of the Prophet—blessings and peace be upon him.”

“Blessings and peace,” responded the Imam impatiently. “Perhaps it would be best to state this man’s case,
Aga
Hafizi, and allow one to decide for himself the fellow’s merits or lack of them.”

Hafizi inclined his head, accepting the muted rebuke. “I’m sorry, Your Excellency. Forgive me if my heart intruded upon my tongue.”

The older man shrugged, taking another large bite of the pear. “Tell me more,
baradar
,” he urged, speaking around the plug of fruit in his mouth. “By the way, would you like a pear? They are exceptionally sweet—and fresh fruit is a necessity for an old man such as myself.”

“No, thank you,” said Hafizi, reaching into his breast pocket.

The aide’s eyes widened, then returned to normal when he saw that all Hafizi retrieved from his pocket was paper. The mullah spread the sheets on the mat before Khomeini.

“I hold here a receipt signed by Ayatollah Kermani. For a million
tomans
donated by the man of whom I speak. He gave the money for the refurbishment of a Muslim cemetery near Mossadeq Boulevard. He did this,” said Hafizi, pausing significantly and fastening the Ayatollah with an intent look, “even though he is Jewish.”

The Imam’s thick eyebrows arched. “Indeed?” he responded in an impressed tone.

Hafizi nodded. “In addition, I can give you several instances—some from personal experience—where this same man has shown great generosity to the poor. I will personally vouch for the sincerity and quality of this man, Your Excellency,” concluded Hafizi earnestly. “In light of what he has done for Islam, and the trivial nature of what he is asking, I urge you to help him.”

Khomeini chewed slowly and quietly, staring intently at the place on the mat just beyond the rim of the bowl. At last, his raven-bright eyes glittered up at Hafizi. “What is it that he wants us to do for him?”

Hafizi drew a quiet, deep breath. One hurdle overcome. “He wishes nothing more than to leave the country with his family,” the mullah answered.

“And go where?” asked the Ayatollah quickly.

“To Switzerland, Your Excellency.”

“And for this, he must personally petition me?” rejoined the Imam. “For a man of such excellent report, it is surprising that he would feel the need to leave Iran. But granting that,” said Khomeini, glancing sharply at Hafizi, “why does he require my intervention in the normal process?”

“He wishes the procedure expedited,” explained Hafizi carefully. “Unfortunately, there have been misunderstandings in the application of certain laws and procedures. This man—”

“What is his name?” interrupted the Ayatollah.

“I’m sorry, Your Excellency, I should have mentioned that earlier. Solaiman. Ezra Solaiman.”

The older man grunted, nodding slightly.

“At any rate,” continued Hafizi, “Solaiman has, because of such mishaps, been arrested and placed in Evin Prison as an enemy of the state—which clearly he is not.”

“Is he still in prison?” queried the Imam.

“Fortunately, no. I … I intervened in his behalf with the trial committee, using this very receipt as evidence. He was released, but he is in some anxiety to leave the country.”

Again the Ayatollah grunted quietly, rubbing his beard in a calculating manner. Presently he gave Hafizi another of his incisive obsidian glances. “Is this—what’s his name?”

“Solaiman, Your Excellency.”

“Yes. Is this Solaiman trying, for some illegal purpose, to circumvent the controls we have placed on emigration? How much money is he taking with him?”

“I don’t know. Presumably he will take enough to permit his family to survive until he is settled in his new country.” Hafizi looked diffidently at the mat between his knees, then back toward the older man. “This seems only fair,” he added softly.

Khomeini squinted at Hafizi, then away. Thoughtfully he toyed with the core of the pear he had consumed, as his mind scampered to and fro along the paths of probability and conjecture. For almost two full minutes the two mullahs sat silent—the Ayatollah engaged in tacit analysis, Hafizi feverishly wishing for some indication of which way the die would fall. Finally, Khomeini reached forward, dropped the core into the bowl of fruit, and fixed Hafizi with an intense stare.

“You personally vouch for this Solaiman’s intentions, you say?” the Imam asked.

“With all my heart, Your Excellency,” replied Hafizi, returning the Ayatollah’s level gaze.

“Very well then,” said Khomeini. “It is not our wish that anyone remain in Iran against his will. I will have my secretary draw up something suitable.”

“If I may, Excellency,” put in Hafizi, again reaching into his pocket, “I have taken the liberty of drafting a letter which I hope will meet with your approval.”

Grunting with the effort, Ezra pulled the canvas bag out of the hole in the basement floor. Briefly he peered inside, seeing that the bundles of American dollars had not diminished in size.
Except for inflation
, he thought wryly as he started upstairs, lugging the bag of money with him.

The box built for him by Ahmed Dabirian sat in the middle of the floor of his study. He reached inside, removing the false bottom. Hefting two of the bundles of dollars in each hand, he remembered the awkwardness of his interview with the cabinetmaker, and the skepticism of his wife and son regarding the effectiveness of the box as a hiding place.
“My uncle is a mullah,” Ahmed had said. “I was able to get an appointment as a special agent for the government.”
Sighing a silent prayer that he was doing the right thing, he placed the currency into the box.

A few moments later, Esther walked past the study door and glanced in his direction. He had just finished rolling up the Isfahan carpet and was thrusting it down into the box. He looked up and met the eyes of his wife. For a moment she looked at him, then at the box. Her glance accused him silently of ruinous folly. Without a word, Ezra returned to his work. Esther shook her head and walked away.

The phone rang. Placing the cover on the shipping box, Ezra walked over to the desk. “Yes?” he said, placing the receiver to his ear.

“This is Hafizi,” crackled the voice on the other end. “I have the letter signed.”

Ezra’s heart raced with exhilaration. “My friend, this is the best news I have had in a while!”

“There was one problem, though,” cautioned the mullah.

Ezra’s heart fell into his stomach. “What?” he asked, sudden fear almost choking the word.

“Not to worry, my friend,” calmed the mullah. “The difficulty is slight, and easily remedied. Ayatollah Kermani, whose signature appears on your receipt, has died these two weeks past. I had heard the news, but had forgotten. The Imam has stipulated that you must be willing to take an oath on the Holy Book that the signature is genuine. Since I was present when you gave the money, I have already taken such an oath on the Koran, in the Ayatollah’s presence.”


Aga
Hafizi, I would take such an oath in the very courtyard of the Kaaba itself,” asserted Ezra fervently. “How soon can you get here?”

“I’m on my way now,” answered the mullah. “Take heart,
Aga
Solaiman. Your troubles are almost over.”


Inshallah
,” whispered Ezra hoarsely as the line went dead.

BOOK: The Moving Prison
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