Friday, January 01, 2016

People of Shahrud

Many of you probably have read my post about my sister. If you have not, read the Faranak post first. It will help you to follow this one. I have been working on my memoirs for some time and the post about my sister is part of it. I wrote that piece after her death. It was not a eulogy. It was a slice of our lives tucked away in my mind and when it poured out I also saw in it a reflection of the situation of women in Iran at that time.

A piece of our lives keeps on living in our memory because it is an event. We have activities, see things or try to figure out contexts but we do not recall them later. Some of our actions or observations in life, irrespective of their size, small or large, for one reason or another etch themselves in our mind. They become the events which mold our person, the conscious one. We recall these events and at times share them with our family and friends, often verbally. Sometimes we even forget that we have already recalled an event for others and we repeat it again. The space in our mind is significant and not the recall itself. Rarely these recalls, verbal or written, turn into another event occupying another space for themselves in our minds. My post on Faranak did. So by definition it is a candidate for my memoir

After I posted that piece, I received a sharp criticism of my post calling my story about my sister a "lie". Although the email of my critic was not private the name of my critic is not material. What the criticism evoked is more interesting to me.

The criticism alleged that in Shahrud "There was not a hint of danger of chopping a female head off" and my mother "did not require any protection". My critic added that at the time "there was no garrison" in Shahrud. The critic contends that people of Shahrud were a loving people as it is true for any small town. My critic seems to think that people of Shahrud were so loving and open minded that "less than a century before", the event of my story, Ghoratolein "gives a speech there to hundreds of sympathizers". Ghoratolein, Qurratu l'Ayn or Tahere, were nomenclature attributes of Fatimah Baraghani, an important figure in Bábí faith in Iran. She was executed for her faith and maybe unveiling herself in front of men had something to do with her tragic end.

The 1979 victory of the Islamists in Iran and Khomeini's agitation for introduction of mandatory hijab, women covering, and sheepish acceptance of its compulsory nature by the majority of the Iranian Muslims should have been enough evidence to satisfy my critic. In addition since the forced institution of hijab in Iran a large number of women have been mistreated in public, imprisoned and flogged for the improper display of hijab, not unveiling but improper display of hijab. This should have been evidence enough for my critic. It demonstrates the level of danger women of Iran face if they tried to confront the clergy's will for dominance. The only barrier and defense of my mother against Shahrud's mullahs was clearly the rule of the Shah which could not have been questioned at the time. Without it there were enough zealots in Shahrud to sharpen their blades at the agitation of the local Islamic leader.

Mentioning my post to my mother I said, "Is this fellow crazy calling me a liar about the state of affairs in Shahrud?"
"Well," she said with unsympathetic tone, looking down and away from me.
I cut her off with a pointed voice, "Did you know that not long before we arrived in Shahrud there was بهائی کشی (pogrom of Baha'is) in that town. And some of the killings took place in or near the house we lived in!"

I had not mentioned this story to her before. It was not my habit of sharing with my parents what went on in my daily life. I kept to myself when I was growing up. I had heard about the pogrom from a class mate in primary school. He gleefully and matter-of-factly told me how the Baha'is were dragged out of their home and hacked to pieces in the street and their belongings were taken or burned.

I had not seen a dead body and until then the concept of death had not seriously formed in my mind. Hearing that someone could be dismembered, as it appeared right in front of our house, was so immeasurably horrendous that I could not comprehend. I had several sleepless nights trying to understand what those Baha'is went through. Comprehension came through repeatedly dragging myself down the stairs, through the yard, through the covered hallway, to the street and being dismembered by a crowd, frozen with fear sweating in my bed.

My mother's neck stiffened looking straight at me with eyes wide open, "Yes, I knew about that. I even heard from several of the town's people that their carpets were spread across the living room of Haj Agha Bozorg. They had seen it with their own eyes!" with a voice that took the command of the moment.
"Who was Haj Agha Bozorg?" Bozorg meaning grand.
"He was one of the top mullahs!"
"Do you think you could have survived, if you wanted to insist on your ways, without the Shah's force."
"No. I couldn't, but there was no garrison in Shahrud at that time!" looking away from me again.
"Which garrison! There is no mention of any garrison in what I have written!" with an irritated voice.
"Well, maybe you do not say that, but you say there was martial law in town. There was no martial law in Shahrud!"
"I do not mention martial law either!" I chuckled "But, I have written that there was a military governor in Shahrud. Military governor is not the same as martial law". I began to laugh! Martial law in Farsi, حکومت نظامی, if translated back into English word by word will be "military rule".
"Well, maybe I misread it!"
"I did not invent a military governor for Shahrud, my story did not need a military governor. There was Shah's rule in town! But there was a military governor in Shahrud also. It was Pedar who told me about him the first time that I heard of it. He called me and said that he had to go and show up at the military governor's office."
"I did not know that!" my mother said with a baffled look.
"Yes, and after that every time that he left home for his report, he would call me and tell me that he is leaving. I never thought that you would not have known about it." After a long pause, "To think of it, I can understand why he would have kept it from you!"

Pedar was my father. We had moved to Shahrud in 1956 because of his assignment by the ministry of health. There was no real job for him in Shahrud. My father was a pathologist and there was no medical lab in town for him to work in. Every morning he would go to the only hospital/clinic in town where he was assigned. He had his newspaper or a book, he would find a corner, spending his morning reading. On occasions he would hang around having tea and long chats with his colleagues, most of them were general practitioners. At noon he walked back home and at the end of the month he was paid. He sometimes laughed at the stupidity of the system and at times complained of boredom.

The system was not entirely stupid. My father was a member of the Tudeh party, Moscow affiliated communist party of Iran. He had been arrested several times, imprisoned and tortured. The last time that he came out of prison was right before we moved to Shahrud. By then Tudeh party had been reduced to an skeleton with majority of its members abandoning it. The most active and dedicated, either moved abroad or were completely demoralized. My father was of the latter category. He gave up active politics and was looking for work. The only opening for him were jobs at the ministry of health and its network of hospitals and clinics. There, they told him that he could not work in any major city. He had asked where could he work and Shahrud, a small city more like a town, was their offer. Behind the scene it was the government security organization which was making the offer. They wanted him isolated and easily under observation. They were willing to pay for it too. Shahrud was his unofficial internal exile.

It was a few years into our stay in Shahrud, we were in the house that Faranak was born in, my father called me into the yard. After a pep talk that I am the oldest son and I need to know about certain things he told me that he had to go and visit the military governor. He said that in case he did not return I must act responsibly. I understood what he was saying but I was not sure what it meant other than to worry about him seeing the look of concern on his face. I already knew that he had been imprisoned for his political activity.

I hung around the yard waiting for my father as if I was guarding the door. When he returned it was like a load off my shoulders. He told me that nothing important happened but keep to myself what he had told me. Keeping to myself was the easy part, that was my habit.

Periodically he would call me and let me know that he was leaving to show up at the governor's office and little by little he filled me in about some details. Military governor was a colonel, every time he went there the colonel ordered some tea, they would have tea and chat for a while. The content of the chat seemed to be benign and was never about his past activities or any expectations of my father. The last time that he went for his report, on his return he told me that the colonel has told him that they are satisfied with his record and he does not need to show up at his office anymore. I also learned about the position this colonel filled in the hierarchy of Shahrud. Every official in the city from mayor, governor, head of all offices even the top clergies had to report to him regularly.

Some time after my father's visits to the military governor had ended, it was late afternoon, I was in the yard when I heard a knock at the door. The door at the south side of the yard was opposite of the building containing eight rooms on two floors. The outhouse was a tiny room in the southeast corner of the yard. On opening the door I met a sharply dressed man. His presence was glaring. A grayish suite and tie and his meticulous grooming did not have the Shahrud feel. The number of people in Shahrud who wore tie and suite were few. It was limited to the doctors circle and the heads of governmental offices and some teachers. Their suites and ties and above all their grooming at no time was a match with what I was seeing. The suites and ties that I was familiar with had a tired and sleepy feel of Shahrud. The man in front of me had a fresh look that I had not seen.

The man asked for my father, I opened the door more and he stepped into the yard. A very young man walked in behind him. His stiffness did not present him as a companion. He was told to wait at the door and he immediately responded with a standing at attention military salute, "Yes sir!" The scene was quite strange to me, the commanding man did not have a uniform. His suite looked civilian to me! By then my father was in the yard from the building that was our residence. One of the rooms was allocated to his laboratory. That one room laboratory was the third that my father had established in Shahrud – that is a story in itself.

The man smiled broadly and walked toward my father with his greetings. My father returned the greetings but he seemed almost as stiff as the young man standing by the door. With his hands straight on his side, soldierly my father took a couple of short step forward while the man took a few faster long strides. Reaching my father the man extended his hand. My father reached the man's hand while his left hand was still on his side, lowered his head and bowed. My father was a very humble man toward everybody. Bowing his head meeting people regardless of their position was familiar to me but this bow was different. It had a humility that was irritating to me. The man's posture was indicative of some social position.

After a couple of usual exchanges of "you first!", my father followed the man into the building, entering the lab, the first room on the left side of the corridor. The whole sequence of events was confusing to me. I knew and had met all the elites of the city, who was this man that my father showed such a deference! My curiosity kept me in the yard, keeping the young man by the door company, at a distance.

After a good many minutes, my impatience probably made it feel longer, the man and my father stepped back into the yard. The man walked toward the door, thanking my father. My father slightly walking behind him, with almost the same stiff polite posture as he met the man, "It is my duty sir, you are very kind". My father noticing me in the yard, "Your servant's son, Siamak", introduced me. I said "Salam!" The man smiled at me with a slight shake of his head. The young man opened the door with a military salute. The man leading, both disappeared behind the door.

My father seemed to have noticed my bewildered look. He walked to me, pointing at the door, "That is the man that I had to report to I was telling you before." He smiled, shaking his head, "He is a good man! He has a job to do!"
"Why I have not seen him in the Doreh?" Doreh is Farsi for round robin party. Every few weeks it was held in someone's home. The participants were the doctors, most of the cities governmental agencies heads, basically the secular elite of the town, along with their wives. At our family's turn I would get a chance to meet and see members of the Doreh and I had not seen that man there.
"His real life is in Tehran and he does not mingle with the locals. He was here today for some tests." That was probably an indication of the growing popularity of my father's professional work. The colonel had every chance to visit a whole range of pathologists in Tehran.

A few days later I had a chat with my mother about the pogrom of Baha'is in Shahrud. I mentioned, "Maybe stationing a military governor in Shahrud had something to do with the pogrom when the other agencies failed to prevent it!"
My mother thought that the Baha'i pogrom could not have taken place under the rule of the Shah. She thought that it must not have happened under the rule of the Shah's father, Reza Shah, either. "The story must belong to the time before the rule of the father and the son (the two shahs). It must have been way back!" she said.
"What about the carpet story, people seeing them in the home of Haj Agha Bozorg! That story could not have been that old!"

My mother could not convince herself that the pogrom would have been close to our time in Shahrud. After she left I resorted to the fact finding tool of our epoch, the Internet. It just took a few key strokes to reveal, "In 1946 in Kashan and Shahrud a number of Baha’is were murdered, but the murderers were not pursued or arrested." That was ten years prior to our arrival in town. It was right after WWII, 5 years after the abdication of Reza Shah which was the beginning of almost 12 years of instability in Iran. Enough time for a clergy to agitate for robbing a few defenseless Baha'is of their wealth and life.

Why my father told me and not my mother! There were two factors that could explain this. One was that my mother would not miss an opportunity to remind my father what a heavy price she had to pay for his political activity. How hard she had to work raising her two sons alone and her days and nights filled with worries about where my father was or whether he was alive. While my father never contested my mother's hardship he never liked to hear this criticism. He thought that his activity in Tudeh party brought to him certain view of life that he yet valued. Telling her about going to visit the military governor probably would have renewed her criticism with an added oomph. Plus, if the military governor was going to keep him, he wanted to prepare me to be more of an assistant to my mother, a role that I had already taken on for some time.

The other was about his past activity. My father was habitually a very hard and dedicated worker and a very trustworthy, kind and humble person. These were integral part of his personal character. You could not pry these out of him no matter how excessive they were at times. I think these characteristics had something to do with the two critical assignments that he carried out for the Tudeh party.

One assignment was that after the 1953 coup he hid Khosro Roozbeh in his home. My mother was living in that house at the time. My father had introduced him to my mother as one of his acquaintances under a pseudonym. His real name even if it was known to my mother would not have meant much to her. Roozbeh, an officer, was the chief leader of the secret military branch of the Tudeh party. At that time, he only had importance to the party and to the government's security organizations at his pursuit. It was after his arrest and execution that Roozbeh found national notoriety and also became a hero in the leftist circles. This episode is another story by itself.

The second assignment was that my father played a cover role for Noureddin Kianouri, a member of the central committee of the party, and his wife Maryam Farman Farmaian. Pretending Maryam being his sister, he rented a home under his own name for Kianouri and his wife. This was during the underground activity of the party. His role seemed to be limited to renting a house and checking on them regularly so the fake family relationship would look normal in the neighborhood. Kianouri and his wife later escaped from Iran and lived in East Germany until 1979.

During the imprisonment and interrogation of my father, he was successful to hide this two pieces of information. He always had a worry, especially during our years in Shahrud, that somehow his role gets uncovered and he would be in trouble again. Many times he told me that if SAVAK, Iran's intelligence service under the Shah, "during those years" had known about his role, they would have come down on him much harder and he might have been executed. He thought that the Shah's government was particularly sensitive to his hiding of Roozbeh.

I can only guess that my father's worried look and telling me that he might not be able to come back home was based on this nagging concern of his.

No comments: