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 (3 page)

BOOK: The Moving Prison
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“Even some of my fellow merchants are caught up in the revolutionary fever. The mullahs fan the blaze—” Ezra broke off, looking out the window and shaking his head. “I don’t see how this can end well for anyone, least of all the Jews.”

Esther kept silent, staring down at the table. Presently Ezra went on, more to himself than to her. “If Khomeini comes back in triumph, the laws of Islam will become the laws of Iran.”

“But Ezra! Jews have lived in this country since—”

“—the days of Daniel the prophet,” he finished for her. “Yes, I know. But I’m not sure it will matter. If there’s one thing Jews ought to know, it’s the danger of being in the minority when regimes change.” He took another slow sip of coffee. After a long silence, he said, “I’ve been thinking about selling the business.”

She looked at him, but his eyes wouldn’t meet hers. “To do what?” she asked.

“Maybe … move,” he mumbled, without looking at her.

Another long silence.

“Move where?”

He looked up at the ceiling, then out the window. His voice sounded as distant as the moon. “To America.”

Esther got up and walked over to the window. She looked out at the back lawn to the pile of branches lying haphazardly near one of the cherry trees. Ezra and his pruning … carefully trimming off the nonessential. She turned to face him. “Are you sure this is necessary?” She barely managed to keep her voice from wavering. “
This
is our country. We were both born and raised here, as were our children. Our daughter’s friends are here, to say nothing of our own. We are
Iranians
, Ezra, not …” She felt her lips beginning to tremble, and she quickly went into the drawing room.

A few minutes later, Ezra found her standing in the middle of the drawing room, hugging her elbows to her sides and staring at the portrait of the Shah, which was semi-obligatory in every upper-class Iranian home. Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was shown in his gold-colored military uniform, a half-dozen medals decorating his breast. He wore the jeweled crown and at his side was the centuries-old scepter of Persian royalty. As Esther looked at the portrait, tears coursed down her face. Her chin was wrinkled, quivering with the effort of silencing her sobs.

Ezra sat down on one of the tapestried Louis XVI chairs. He hesitated to break into Esther’s silent grieving, and gazed instead at the woven medallion in the center of the Kirman rug that covered the floor.

“There are angry people in the mosques and in the streets, Esther,” he said at last, kneading his hands dejectedly. “And sometimes angry people do things they later come to regret. I am grateful to the Shah for all he has tried to do for this country, but … if something happened to you or to Sepi, I would never be able to live with my shame.”

While he spoke, she looked at the floor. Now she turned her tear-streaked face to his. They looked into each other’s eyes for several quiet moments. Without reply, she walked past him, retreating to the kitchen. Slowly Ezra left the drawing room, passing through the kitchen where Esther was once more seated at the table, her face in her hands. She wouldn’t look at him. He put on his coat while walking out the door, to return to his pruning.

Nader Hafizi splashed icy water from the ceremonial urns at the mosque entrance on his hands and head, making his ritual ablutions before leaving for home. The water was so frigid it almost burned his skin, but even such harsh cleansing as this did not wash away the misgivings he felt deep within. The Islamic revolution was still in its infancy, but he smelled a rottenness at its heart that disturbed him profoundly.

Nader Hafizi had been born and reared in a small village in the northwestern province of Azerbaijan. His father had died when Nader was sixteen, and he had worked as a day laborer to supplement the meager living his mother eked out from their three-acre farm with its cow and handful of chickens. For Nader and his two younger brothers, it was an austere, harsh life. They rarely went hungry, but there was never anything to spare.

His mother dreamed of a proper education for her oldest son. Despite his day work—carrying loads and digging ditches for anyone who had the price of his hire—she insisted that he continue his studies at night and whenever he failed to find work. Many were the days when his mother would walk to the school, twelve kilometers from their village, to bring him food. In this haphazard, stop-and-start fashion, he managed to complete the course of study to qualify for graduation from high school.

At his mother’s urging, he began to seek permanent employment. “A good job with a desk” was the phrase she used over and over. Diligently he applied at all the government offices in the district, waiting for hours in the summer sun or the winter cold to be admitted to the presence of some bureaucrat who had the power to make his mother’s dreams come true. And time after time, he was denied. His application would be placed at the bottom of the pile, and the job would go instead to a boy with wealthier parents or better political connections. Resentment hatched within him toward the corrupt system that gave no consideration to worth—only to advantage.

At last, he decided to enter the clergy, for it seemed the only path out of the backwardness his circumstances dictated for him. He spent a year in the mosque at Tabriz, studying the Koran and learning Arabic. For thirty-five years now, he had given his life to the service of Islam. Although his dedication had not given him wealth—he did not even own the small house he and his wife inhabited—at least it had given him self-respect and purpose in life.

The mullah walked slowly along Talleghani Avenue, almost oblivious to the shuffling masses through whom he waded in the graying light of the overcast January evening. The chanting mob of students, gathered outside the gates of the American Embassy compound, distracted him for a moment; but then the same nagging questions kept running through his mind, and he trod slowly homeward along the drab streets, wrestling within himself for the source of his malaise. He remembered a conversation he had just had inside the mosque, with two of his peers.

They sat on cushions in a small side chamber in the mosque; Nader, Mullah Hojat, and Mullah Hassan. The other two men were several years his junior. Hojat spoke of what he planned to do when the forces of Islam achieved final victory over the Shah.

“The first thing I will do,
baradars
,” he announced smugly, “is travel to the village of my family and kill the miserable cur whom Mohammed Reza appointed to administer the land program there.”

Hassan nodded in agreement. “When the Pahlavis stole the land from the mosque in Meshed, this alone showed they were no lovers of Islam, regardless of what they may say in public.”

Hafizi was troubled by the casual malevolence of his two colleagues. It was true that the modernization programs of the Shah and his father had weakened the grip of Islam upon the wealthier merchant classes. He, like the others, had suffered financial hardship, since many of the most devout, on whose tithes the mullahs depended, were desperately poor. Still …

“Brothers,” Hafizi began hesitantly, “should we not give attention to the spiritual struggle, rather than the material? Surely you cannot believe that all the ills of Iran stem from the location of her wealth.”

“You are too forgiving,
Aga
Hafizi,” sneered Hassan. “You cannot expect a people to suddenly become magnanimous, when their rulers have for decades set an example of unparalleled greed.”

“True enough,” agreed Hojat. “For years the Shah and his family have looted the wealth of this country, using their shell companies and the convenient ‘directorates’ they hold, while we, the guardians of Islam, are left to subsist on the scraps of the banquet! When the merchants of the country see such rampant avarice, why should they not assume that bribery and extortion are normal costs of doing business? No,
Baradar
Hafizi, we must rise up and claim for Islam what is rightfully owed! It is time to redress the wrongs of the past! It is time to make them all pay!”

In the self-righteous enthusiasm of Hojat’s speech, Hafizi thought he discerned the lurking shadow of covetousness. “
Baradar
Hojat,” he began, after a long, thoughtful pause, “surely not all the wealthy in this country have prospered at the expense of their poorer neighbors! Should wealth be considered
prima facie
evidence of corruption?”

“Are you trying to protect the Shah and his cronies?” demanded Hassan suspiciously. Hojat’s eyes were glittering slits, waiting for the reply.

Hafizi thought of Solaiman, the Jew who had given him medicine for his son and wife. He looked carefully at the other two mullahs. “I am no lover of the Shah,” he began firmly, “but, my
baradars
, is it possible that you have forgotten? The blessed prophet Mohammed began his ministry after a long and successful career as a merchant in Mecca. He was not a poor man.”

Their answer was hostile silence.

Still deep in thought, Hafizi turned into Javid Street, the narrow thoroughfare where he lived. As he neared his door, he looked up to see a figure approaching from Naderi Avenue. The tall, well-dressed man, obviously not at home in this neighborhood, was peering at the small cinder-block houses as he passed them, as if to check the numbers. As he drew closer, Hafizi saw who it was. It was Solaiman, the druggist.


Aga
Solaiman! What errand brings you to my poor home?”

FOUR

The taxi driver shuttled to the shoulder of the highway, and the jeep accelerated around them in a blast of engine noise. Ezra watched as it quickly shot ahead along the highway, dodging in and out of traffic as they rushed along on whatever emergency had claimed them.

He sat back, trying to relax the screaming cords of tension writhing along his shoulders and neck. He looked over at Esther. She gave him a lifeless smile of attempted encouragement. He saw her eyes stray to the bottom of the case, where the secret compartment was located.

The taxi driver, seeing a small space in the oncoming traffic, jammed the accelerator to the floor. The cab slung gravel and squealed its tires as it reentered the highway….

Sepideh walked through the front door and slid her schoolbooks onto the table by the staircase. Then she went into the kitchen where her mother was seated, reading a newspaper. With a thoughtful look, the girl drew herself a small glass of hot tea from the samovar and sat down beside her mother.

Esther glanced up from her reading. “Hello, dear. How was school today?”

“Fine,” replied Sepi, without much conviction. A small plate in the center of the table contained a few dried apricots and almonds. Idly, Sepi nibbled an almond as she sipped her tea.

Again Esther looked up at her daughter. “What’s the matter, Sepi? Are you sure nothing happened at school to upset you?”

The girl shook her head. “No, Mother, nothing happened. I was just thinking about … everything that’s going on.” Her eyes dropped to her hands.

The newspaper rustled as Esther folded it and carefully regarded her daughter. Sepi looked out the window; then hesitantly she began again. “There was a girl at school today, the daughter of a government minister. She was wearing a
chador
. It was the first time I have ever seen one on anybody besides an old woman.”

Esther remembered hearing her mother speak with disgust about the heavy black
chador
, a loose, sleeveless draped garment that covers a woman from head to toe. Only a small space for her face was allowed, lest any man other than her husband or father see her hair or body and be incited to lust. Like many women, Esther’s mother had celebrated the more liberal policies of the Pahlavi rulers by burning her
chador
. That had happened even before Esther’s birth. Esther owned a
chador
, kept for the rare occasions when they visited the home of a devout Muslim. She had worn it perhaps five times in her life. But now schoolgirls were wearing the hated symbol of repression? “The moving prison returns,” said Esther softly to herself.

“What?”

“Oh, nothing. I just remember my mother talking about how much she despised wearing the
chador
. She called it a moving prison.”

Sepi looked at her mother, concern etching deep lines in her forehead. “Mother, are we going back to the past? Will I be forbidden to learn foreign languages or mathematics? Will I have to wear one of those … things … when I go to school?” Distaste curled a corner of Sepi’s mouth as she pondered it.

Esther signed. “I don’t know, my darling. I hope not.”

“Me, too.” Sepi stared at her tea, thinking about how Khosrow would react if she approached him wearing the huge black tent. She gave a slight shudder. “I’d better get started on my work,” she said, rising from the table.

Esther watched her daughter walk toward the staircase to gather her books. She thought about the possible consequences of an Islamic hierarchy. With no counterbalancing forces, what edicts might they impose on the country? Things worse than the
chador
could lie in Sepi’s future.

Again she picked up the paper, turning to where she had left off. In a lower corner, a small headline caught her attention. She felt her face freezing in apprehension.

Again Ezra scanned the small article. Then he looked at his wife. “I don’t like the idea of this at all.”

She waited, her eyes flickering from his face to the paper he held in his hand.

The headline, tucked innocuously into the society section, read, “Minister Announces Vacation for Royal Family.” The article contained a blithely worded announcement by the Minister of the Court of an impending foreign junket by the Shah and his wife, Queen Farah.

“It is impossible for me to believe the Shah would go on vacation with all the turmoil in the country,” said Ezra gravely. “Whom does he imagine this will deceive?”

Esther looked back at him, her eyes pleading for reassurance, yet expecting none.

“With matters this far advanced, I had better do something about selling the business, and soon,” Ezra mused, worriedly. “When the news of the Shah’s leaving becomes widely known, the breakdown in the country will go like wildfire. If that happens, our chances of getting a decent price for the store will be almost nil.”

“If things are as bad as that, why not just get out of the country and leave the store for the mullahs to run?” Esther asked bitterly.

Ezra’s eyes flashed as he looked up at her. “I will
not
leave Iran a pauper,” he said in a voice that cracked like a quiet whip. “I have worked too long and too hard to walk away from everything without at least trying to keep some of the fruit of my life’s toil.”

Esther held his eyes for a moment, then looked away. Her shoulders sagged, and she covered her face with her hands. “I’m sorry,” she said softly. “I just find it so hard to believe that an entire nation can go instantaneously insane.”

When she looked up again, Ezra was not there. She found him at the desk in his study, with paper and pen, making drafts for a newspaper advertisement. Looking over his shoulder, she read, “For Sale: Profitable Business in a Prime Location.”

Pruning.

Ezra unlocked the door to his shop and went inside. Placing his briefcase on the desk behind the counter, he unfolded the newspaper he had purchased and turned hurriedly to the advertisements. Running his finger along the columns, he found the ad he had placed.

He heard the tinkling of the small brass bell over the front door and looked up to see Firouz entering. Quickly he folded the paper, sliding it into the lap drawer of his desk.

“Good morning,
Aga
Solaiman,” mumbled Firouz, looking at the floor.

“Good morning,” returned Ezra. “It’s good to see you back at work. Are you feeling quite well?”

Firouz quickly glanced up at his employer, but he could find no trace of irony in Ezra’s look or demeanor. Again his eyes fell, “Yes,
Aga
… I think I had a case of the flu.” He shuffled his feet and thrust his hands into his pants pockets. “But I feel fine now.” He coughed slightly, for effect.

Ezra eyed him for a moment. “Good. Then you may begin unpacking the consignment we just received from Sandoz—the large boxes in the back. Be sure to check the invoices against the packing lists.”

Firouz shuffled toward the back of the store. From the corner of his eye, Ezra thought he saw his assistant toss a glance at him over his shoulder.

From just inside the storeroom door, Firouz peeked back inside the shop, at Ezra seated at his desk. He wondered what the old Jew was so nervous about and watched as Ezra quietly slid open the lap drawer and carefully produced a newspaper. He eased open a page, looked for a moment, then just as quietly folded the paper and replaced it in the desk drawer.

Thoughtfully, Firouz turned to the task Ezra had assigned him. He decided to keep his eyes open. Something was going on.

BOOK: The Moving Prison
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