Love seemed at first an easy thing, but ah, the hard awakening.
On 6 July 1980, Mohammad Ali Khosroshahi woke up when he heard a bird twitter in his garden. It was still dark but he put on his dressing gown, unlocked the back door and went outside. The beech, ash and elm trees stood in silence. He liked this time of the day when the world seemed so fresh and so infinitely beautiful. The entire universe had poured itself into this garden right in front of his eyes. It was the closest he came to prayer.
Soon the sun would rise and obliterate everything in its glare. He was reminded of a verse he had once read in the Bhagavad Gita: ‘I am the creator and destroyer of worlds.’ The stray memory now darkened his mood. The air was still, the palms dry. He found the hose to water his plants and let the water run. The gardener had not come for weeks. Maybe he was ill. Maybe he had gone to his village, or maybe he had joined the revolutionaries and would return in triumph, no longer a servant but a master, and then there would be no-one to snip the dead flowers off the bougainvillea.
The clouds were slowly turning crimson. After Khosroshahi had watered his plants, he went into his study for his morning exercises. He did a set of yoga stretches and breathing exercises that he had taught himself from books. Since the servants had long since gone, he brewed his own coffee on the stove and drank it down with fresh barberi bread.
He turned on the light in his bathroom and closed the door behind him. He turned on the tap and leaned over the marble sink to look in the mirror. He lathered his face with his brush and shaved, carefully running the razor both along and against the grain. The ritual of shaving was one of his pleasures in life but this morning, like most mornings lately, his mind was unsettled.
Known by the honourific Nosrat Daulah, Khosroshahi had been a diplomat and adviser to the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi. At 65 he was a straight-backed man, fit and lean from years of horseriding. He lived with his wife and grown-up son in the neighbourhood of Farmanieh in North Tehran, a part that many considered affluent.
He had been a prominent person during the Shah’s time, the only Iranian to be appointed an Officier de la Légion d’Honneur, awarded for services rendered to the nation as a diplomat; a Commander of the Order of Infante Dom Henrique, conferred by Salazar, and recipient of numerous Pahlavi decorations. He knew everyone, from the Shah and the empress to his valet and her chef de bureau. He was at ease with the clerics, those in power and those not, and he could speak with the bazaaris in their own terms. The bazaaris respected him because he was scrupulously honest and because of this the clerics respected him too.
Then came the revolution and everything unravelled. The old order crumbled. Nosrat Daulah was thrown on the scrap heap. Everything that he had worked for lay in ruins. Many of the Shah’s closest officials awaited trial. Executions were taking place regularly. One night 22 people were shot, among them ministers and courtiers who had spent their lives serving the country. Another day it was the turn of the generals. Bad times were coming.
Nosrat Daulah had been interrogated several times about his involvement in the counterrevolutionary movement. One night, the doorbell rang at midnight and within a few minutes half-bearded teenagers with guns were searching his house. They turned the house over, gaping at the bibelots and rugs and muttering at the very opulence of his home. Each time he had been let go but sooner or later his luck would run out.
He came down the staircase into the dining room and saw his wife chatting with his son. He sat down for tea. His wife served them in her favourite Limoges service. The cups were of luminous blue china, from the service made to commemorate 2500 years of the Iranian monarchy. The unforgettable evening seemed like a dream now. He had sat on a table between Queen Ingrid of Denmark and Queen Fabiola of the Belgians. The serenely beautiful Princess Grace of Monaco had sat opposite him. The halycon days. The irretrievable past, lost forever.
His wife was talking about how everyone was leaving the country until things settled down. All the friends she knew from their circle were taking down the paintings and locking up their houses. Everyone who had supported the old regime was suspect.
‘At this rate, soon there won’t be anyone left,’ she said.
‘We are swimming against the tide,’ he remarked.
He stirred the sugar in his tea. Never before these troubles had he had doubts about his service to the Shah. Never had he had the desire to explain to anyone and assert, like Pangloss, that the Shah’s Iran was the best of all possible Irans, but as that Iran slipped away from him other things started to slip away too. Instead of moving forwards the people went backwards. The women took to the veil. The men grew beards. That’s what prosperity did to them, the fools.
The worst that can happen is that I will be shot, he said jokingly to his wife. It will be a quick death: a bit of noise and smoke, that’s all.
There was a knock at the door. The men who came for him said they would release him after asking a few questions, but he knew that the game was up. He filled his overnight bag with toiletries and clothes, and explained to his son how he should look after his orange trees.
Nosrat Daulah reached out and put his arm around Manucher’s, tugging him gently towards him. His son gave him a stiff half-embrace. He said goodbye to his wife. Some things were difficult—to touch, to hug, even impossible.
The men led Nosrat Daulah by the arm to a black Mercedes waiting outside. A mullah sat in the front seat, holding an automatic rifle. Propped upright, its barrel stuck out of window. As the car drove out of the driveway, he looked at his garden one last time. The orange trees needed a lot of water to grow.
He looked at his captors and looked through them. He could smell their breath, their sweat. They hemmed him in. It was like being among animals. They were nothing to him. There were always people who wanted the opposite of what they’re given. One can never do the right thing by them because their notions are completely opposite to one’s own. That’s who his captors were—men with their own private idea of justice and right and wrong—alas, they hadn’t been set straight. If it had been up to him, he would have sent in the tanks but the Shah was soft and so it had come to this. It had to come to this, to his kind against their kind simply because men like him had the power that they wanted for themselves. That’s how violence begins.
So this is how it ends, he thought. He was part of a conspiracy to bomb Khomeini’s residence and the airport and other key installations. This was to be followed by a land-based operation where royalist forces would take control of the capital. The plan had failed. It wasn’t meant to fail but it had and there would be consequences. In a way, it did not matter because he had done what needed to be done. Life was life and death was death and soon he would become death. He had no doubt about it. To live without fear, one had to live like that, without vacillation and doubt. In the midst of life we are in death, he remembered, and that’s how it was. Such a pity though.
In the court room, several hundred people sat on tightly packed seats, elbows and shoulders touching. Dozens stood pressed against the walls. A couple of tables had been joined together at one end with half a dozen chairs, giving it the appearance of a crowded classroom. The room was stuffy, the air rancid and heavy with body odour.
It was past ten o’clock in the morning when Nosrat Daulah was brought in and placed in a chair in the middle of the audience. He was wearing a pale yellow sweater and was unshaven. He drank a glass of water and refilled it from a jug on the floor. He held a sheaf of paper that was his defence. There was the piece of cardboard dangling around his neck with string strung through two holes. His name was scrawled with a black marker on it. He recognised several of the journalists but they averted their glance when they saw him.
A mullah billowed past, his robes swirling around him. He wore a large turban and sat down on the joined tables with the prosecutor and a gaggle of advisers in ill-fitting suits. He squinted over his papers and looked impassively at the audience.
‘In the name of God the merciful,’ he recited and declared the court in session.
‘Mohammad Ali Khosroshahi, son of Salim Mirza, born in 1915, birth certificate number 1752, issued in Isfahan, previously courtier of the deposed court, and diplomat and bureaucrat of the Shah’s government, is accused of:
- Plotting against the Islamic Republic Party by conspiring with the Mojahedin and at the behest of anti-government forces;
- Participating in acts of sabotage, terrorism and assassination against the Islamic Republic Party; and
- Collaborating with United States, England and colonialists for the oppression of the people of Iran.
No sooner has the list of charges been read than Nosrat Daulah spoke.
‘May I have a clarification, please?’
‘You should introduce yourself to me.’
‘I am Ray Shahri,’ the mullah said. ‘I am an investigating judge of the Revolutionary Court. I will interrogate you and if I find evidence against you, I will convict you.’
‘Then I do not know if this procedure is legitimate.’
The mullah arranged his papers while his gaze was fixed on Nosrat Daulah.
‘This court is exempt from ordinary law,’ he said. ‘I have special privileges and I am not even bound to hear your defence.’
Nosrat Daulah noticed that the man’s hands were covered with little black hair, like monkey paws. ‘So please tell me—by what right do you have these special privileges?’
‘The Imam Khomeini has ordered that all people who committed crimes against God, against Islam and against the Imam be tried by the Islamic Revolutionary courts.’
Nosrat Daulah’s eyes widened. ‘By what right do you call the Ayatollah an Imam? Where does it say in the Koran that an Ayatollah can claim to be an Imam?’
Very slowly the mullah brought out a pistol from under his robe. He snapped a new magazine into place and put it on the table. A murmur ran through the court. ‘Don’t use foul language,’ the mullah said. ‘You are charged with crimes against God and the enemies of Iran. We all know that you are guilty of every crime. Yes, that’s right. We don’t want to hear your lies. There’s no escape for you. It is the will of God.’
‘If that’s what you think then why don’t you just kill me?’
‘I want you to confess to your crimes.’
‘They are charges, not crimes,’ Nosrat Daulah replied, shrugging.
The mullah cleared his throat. His tongue flickered. ‘You served the traitor Shah, did you not?’
‘I worked for the good of Iran. I believed that the Shah was the only hope for this country. There was no alternative.’
The mullah stared at him with an expression of contempt and incomprehension. ‘And you favoured a military solution to oppress the people?’ he said. ‘You served that dog Bakhtiar whom the Shah left behind.’
‘I did not believe that a revolution was in the best interests of Iran. There were a lot of people who wanted to topple the Shah and turn the country over to the communists. I could not let that happen.’
Murmurs of disapproval rose from the crowd. ‘There!’ exclaimed the prosecutor, addressing the judge. ‘Look how easily he confesses. It’s an obvious sign of his guilt. Convict him.’
‘God will convict him,’ said the mullah plainly. ‘Perhaps you have a sense of guilt for the people the Savak tortured and killed and put in prison? Did that ever occur to you, or does it now, as you look back on it?’
‘It occurs to me that the Savak failed to stop this revolution. Naturally I think that most unfortunate.’
‘Are you saying that the repression and torture your regime carried out wasn’t a crime?’
‘I’m against brutality and torture. I don’t favour putting my own people in prison and shooting them, but a state cannot exist without the threat of violence. It must use violence, overt or otherwise, in its laws and its arms for it to exist. We had no choice. My regret is that we were too weak, we let things go too far. We were afraid to be accused of repression and torture and so we never really put our boot in. The result is the anarchy that we see now.’
‘There!’ the prosecutor cried again. ‘These hypocrites are all the same. They have different measures for different people. Ask him why the Islamic Republic shouldn’t apply the same principle against those who seek its destruction?’
‘Tell me, then hypocrite,’ the mullah said.
‘We did what we did because we wanted Iran to become a modern country. We wanted the best for our people. We wanted Iran to be great. It is different with you lot. The revolution, yes—people wanted the revolution but you mullahs usurped it. You betrayed the people who brought you to power. That was never the plan. The reprisals and executions that you carry out against your own people are made in the name of the revolution but they are to protect you and keep you in power. Tell me, doesn’t the killing sit heavy on you? Don’t your victims come to haunt you? By what right do you put a bullet in their heads? By what right do you drag them out of their homes? Is it because they were sympathetic to the Shah? Since when did sympathy constitute a crime? No, tell me this—how many people have you killed simply because they were related to someone else who was guilty? How many have you shot on trumped-up charges? When was guilt ever proven in your sham courts? Never. To be lined up against the wall and shot, for whom? For what purpose? For spreading vice on earth?’
Nosrat Daulah’s eyes blazed with anger. ‘Khomeini has turned this country into a theocracy. That was never the plan.’
The mullah rose, conscious of the audience watching him. ‘How dare you defile the Imam’s name? The Imam is a gift from God. He is the most pious of men, the most learned in Islam. God is with the Imam.’
‘He is also the arch-traitor to Iran.’
‘Kill him now and be done with it,’ the prosecutor said.
The mullah ignored him. His beard was shaking with wrath even though he tried to make his words sound virtuous. ‘I look at you and I see a man intoxicated by the West. I see a man whom God has left in darkness. I see a man who thinks things are the opposite of what they are but whether he is told or not, it is all the same for him. He will not know or understand anything because he is deaf, dumb and blind. He will speak with conviction but Allah will turn his words against him, so that he will only deceive himself. Great is the penalty that he will incur. Awful will be his doom, Insha’Allah.’
‘Don’t “Insha’Allah” me,’ Nosrat Daulah replied. ‘We cared about basic rights. We gave women their rights. What do you care about? You can call your reign of terror anything you want, sanctify it with the banner of Islam and bless it in any manner you like but you are just tyrants by another name.’
For a moment Nosrat Daulah thought the crowd would rise up and lynch him but a hushed silence had fallen over the assembly. The mullah picked up his pistol and waved it at Nosrat Daulah.
‘Go ahead and shoot me. You can only kill me once,’ he said. ‘Life and death are all the same to me now. It makes no difference.’ There was a sardonic smile on his face and he was entirely without fear.
The pasdaran manacled his hands behind his back and led him away.
There were 12 other prisoners in the cell with him, including army officers, a senator and businessmen who had links to the deposed regime. Some of them were deeply loyal to the Shah and still in shock at how quickly the monarchy had fallen but there were also a growing number of Mojahedin prisoners who were being arrested after the armed insurrection against the clerics. The youngest ones were the most selfless. Some of them insisted on standing up against the wall at night so that Nosrat Daulah and the other more elderly prisoners could lie down and go to sleep. It was their mealtime and they had spread an oil cloth in the middle of the room, around which they would sit on the floor.
They invited Nosrat Daulah to join them but he had no appetite. He felt gutted. He sat on the hard floor, his head between his hands. Since the regime had fallen he had become occupied with the idea of failure. Not just failure of the monarchy and failure of the state but a deeper failure, the failure of a people and deeper still, his own failure, as a man. He reflected on his life and wondered if he had lived a good one.
All his life he had believed that he was on the right side of history, only to be proven wrong. He had worked hard, ten hours a day, only to be damned. He had thought himself heroic, only to turn out to be the villain. The times, yes, they had failed him but what about him? Had he failed too?
His son barely talked to him now. Nosrat Daulah had tried to connect with him but he had turned to Khomeini. He had tried to tell him that resistance wasn’t about being arrested or going to jail. True resistance, the resistance that brought about real change, was the quiet struggle within. Nosrat Daulah told his son that the problems of Iran were a legacy of its past—des accidents de parcours—and that the Shah was the country’s best hope. A secular nationalist, he had no faith in communism or religion, but his son did not listen. Khomeini, Khomeini. If one went on saying the name often enough, it turned into a spell. The young fool.
Nosrat Daulah remembered the cold winter day in January ’78 when the troubles began. He and his wife were coming home from Dizin where they had gone skiing. As Nosrat Daulah turned the Range Rover into the driveway, the front door opened and Manucher rushed out. At first he thought his son was coming out to greet them but he only wanted to give him the news—500 killed, including women and children. Police opened fire when people gathered in the streets. Those present tried to flee but the police blocked all exits and kept firing, unleashing bursts of gunfire at unsuspecting civilians until blood ran down the streets and corpses lay strewn everywhere. Nosrat Daulah remembered his son eyeballing him, his eyes alight. He was not so much passing on news as passing sentence on him—that he was complicit in the crime, because he supported the Shah and therefore aided and abetted his corrupt regime, receiving favours in return and prospering on ill-gotten and illegitimate wealth while the Shah put his opponents in jail, exiled them, tortured them or had them shot.
The French got rid of the Bourbons and what did they get?
The revolution won. They called it the spring of freedom and the jails filled up fast. Generals, ministers and courtiers loyal to the Shah were picked off one by one. Ten or 15 people were executed every night. It was possible to hear the gunfire from downtown in Farmanieh. Every 15 or 20 minutes, a burst of gunfire then silence for another 15 minutes followed by more gunfire, and then silence again, occasionally broken by single shots for the coup de grâce. Every day the faces of the dead appeared on the front page of the papers. Framed photographs of his friends who had been shot in the first week of the revolution were still on Nosrat Daulah’s mantelpiece.
Nosrat Daulah’s eldest brother was a banker at the Industrial Mining and Development Bank. The pasdaran went after him because he had lent money at interest. Friends in the air force flew him and his family out of Turkey but his younger uncle, Anoush, who had been doctor to the Shah, languished in jail. Nosrat Daulah became depressed. He would pour himself a glass of whisky in the morning, another after lunch and more in the evening. He listened to Wagner’s ‘Liebestod’ on his gramophone.
His wife loathed the drinking. When she smelled alcohol on his breath, she could not even bear to talk to him. It was a matter of everlasting shame for the poor woman. What rankled her wasn’t that he was an alcoholic or that he ever drank to excess but the fact that drinking was frowned upon in society and he did not care.
‘It is my house,’ he would rage. ‘I can do what I like here.’
He wondered what she would do with his drinks cabinet. The fine and rare collection of whisky would go, empty and half-empty bottles, all clanging together in a plastic bag that would be taken to a rubbish tip far from home.
He smiled because they had had their share of good times too. He remembered Ezzat on the shores of the Caspian, laughing as the surf came up to her knees. He remembered lying with her in bed, listening to the sound of her slow breathing. He remembered the time they went to Isfahan on their honeymoon. They visited the monuments, the palaces; they watched the river from the old bridges and wandered through the vaulted alleys of the bazaar. The city came to life for him. Its beauty crept up on him and charmed him. He remembered watching her as she bathed their infant son. The light, the splash of water on her skin and the sparkling drops of water falling down from her glistening arm. Her soft laughter as she drew the baby into her arms.
Three decades of married life decanted to a few memories, some good, some bad. He wished he had said a proper goodbye. Had he been a good husband? Had they been good together? He wished he knew.
A warden came to take him into the courtyard for his daily exercise. Birds chirped in the trees. Nosrat Daulah could hear the flutter of their wings as they swished past. The sunlight fell through the dappled leaves. The sky was so blue. It seemed remarkable to him that he had never noticed its colour before. The warden was standing in the shade. He asked him for a pen and paper and went back to his cell.
He wrote a letter. He did not hesitate with his words and wrote whatever came to mind. As he wrote, the weight lifted from his heart a little and he started writing more quickly. When he finished writing, he read through it. It surprised him that he was even capable of saying these things. It surprised him how easy it was. Tears came to his eyes. He sat still for a long time thinking of nothing.
After nightfall a prison guard came to his cell and called out his name. He was blindfolded and led down the corridor. He was being kept in building number nine, which consisted of 12 cells along an L-shaped corridor. After a turn, he knew that he had reached the end of the corridor, where the bathrooms and toilets were. He lifted his blindfold slightly and shuddered at the sight of 40 to 50 young men and women sitting next to each other quietly in front of him along the entire length of the corridor. They were waiting to be executed in the courtyard outside.
The executions took place after midnight. Nosrat Daulah consoled himself with the thought that being shot was less terrible, less horrible than being hanged. He was led out into the yard and the blindfold was lifted from his eyes. He saw about half a dozen wooden stakes dug in the ground in a row against the wall. The walls were peppered with bullet holes and there were brown stains on the ground. The stakes had been cuffed by gunfire. He was tied to a stake and left alone.
Wide awake, he looked around. Jupiter shone in the night sky. The air was soft and warm. All at once, he could feel the eyeballs in his head. It was as if all the parts of his body, his limbs and organs, now came to account for themselves. He could feel the tips of his fingers tingling. His senses were alive. He was seeing, feeling and hearing. His thoughts were now like a river flowing, deep and wide. He looked at the armed men as one might look at a herd of deer. They were just boys loading their rifles. The mullah was just a man drinking his tea. He looked at them and knew at once that they had no choice. It had to be this way because the universe had unravelled this way. It was just so.
There used to be a reproduction on the wall of his library of a painting by Vernet that showed Napoleon giving orders to his marshals at Austerlitz. Nosrat Daulah was fond of the Napoleonic period. His library was filled with books on Napoleon and he had spent years of his life studying the man. Had he been born in his time, he would have been one of his marshals.
He had always wondered why Napoleon lost his last battle at Waterloo. He had spent years, if not decades, thinking of all possible reasons and tinkering with an essay to find an answer. It was like studying a game of chess. He would abandon it for months, sometimes even years, and then return to it with a new idea. When Manucher was a small boy, he would let him sit on his lap and let him press the keys of the typewriter. When the boy asked him when he would finish what he was writing, he would tell him that he would finish it when he was an old man. He did not know how to end it.
It was 18 June. Daybreak. The sound of thunder, the dark clouds overhead. If it had not rained the night before, the cannonade would have started at first light, when Wellington’s soldiers were stiff from the cold. Now at first light they stoked their campfires. For many it would be their last day on earth but their army would be victorious because Napoleon could not unleash his guns upon them—the ground was drenched with rain. The bombs crashed in the mud and failed to explode. When the guns opened up at 11.15, it was already too late. The rain had lasted too long. It delayed Napoleon’s bombardment. The Prussians showed up too.
Now he could see that the answer was right in front of him. Napoleon did not lose the battle because of Wellington or Blucher. He lost it because that is what happened. It rained. The Prussians arrived. There was no single cause. There was no one reason. It happened because of everything that had happened, not just that day or the night before, but since the beginning of time. It was futile to speculate what might have happened had this or that not happened because nothing ever happened on its own. Everything happened because of everything else. The whole of existence was one.
This revelation struck deep at his heart. Nosrat Daulah had lived his life the only way he could have lived it. He did what he did because that was all he could do, because that was all he was capable of. In every moment of every day of his life, he did only what he was capable of. Perhaps he was not a kind man, a nice man, or even a good man. But it was just so. He could not be any other way. Perhaps he could forgive himself a little and accept all parts of himself, even the parts that he did not like. There were no shoulds in his life. Every moment and every day of his life had been complete.
‘I am what I am,’ a voice in his head said and he trembled. It felt as if for the first time in his life he had heard his own true voice. His mind became so still now that all thoughts ceased. His body was just form. His voice was just sound. His thoughts were no longer his. They were just thoughts. His face was streaked with tears but he was not sorry. He was free.
When the firing squad saw him watching them, they sent a man over to put the blindfold back on his eyes. He heard them pick up their rifles. The ocean roared in his ears. His jaw quivered. ‘Aim for the heart, men!’ Nosrat Daulah called and nine gunshots rang out.
Ezzat was resigned to her husband’s death. They had killed so many like him that they must kill him—so went her logic. Death might have meant nothing to him but for them, for those who were left behind to pick up the pieces, it was everything. It took everything. She dreaded the paperwork she would inherit. She dreaded sorting through his belongings. She rummaged through his drawers and his briefcase and the files he kept in a wooden trunk. She found birth certificates, titles to land, copies of official forms, affidavits—everything except the typewritten will.
‘How could he have left things in such a state?’ she sobbed.
Manucher assured her that there was bound to be some order. Nosrat Daulah was very methodical in organising his affairs. He asked her to sit in the drawing room and went into the kitchen to put the kettle on for tea. Her fear unnerved him too. He couldn’t quite steady his hands. The tea burned the back of his throat.
‘We have to find that sheet,’ he said and started going through his father’s papers again. A sheaf of photographs slipped out of an envelope and fell on the floor. Manucher had not seen these before, studio portraits of his grandparents in sepia, black and white photographs of his uncles and aunts at their betrothals, and colour photographs of their children. He picked up a snapshot of his cousins bathing in the surf on the Caspian when they were children.
‘What is it?’ she asked.
The cold realisation that these were just photographs. That the past was gone. That he could not breathe.
Manucher lit up a cigarette.
Ezzat looked at him full of reproach.
‘I want no photographs in this house,’ she said.
‘What will you do with the albums?’
‘I will burn them.’
‘Give them to me,’ he reached out.
She clutched at the album. ‘The past is best forgotten.’
The telephone rang. Manucher answered.
It was the voice of a man who had asked for a one million toman bribe if they wanted Nosrat Daulah released. If the money were delivered, he said, he would have Nosrat Daulah sitting in their house the next day. But the next day he raised his figure to 50 million toman.
‘Is this Nosrat Daulah’s son?’ he asked.
‘What do you want?’
‘Your father was executed a few minutes ago.’
Ezzat was standing across the hallway. She knew at once.
The newspapers were covered with pictures of his body. In one paper he was shown at the Salaam ceremony in court uniform and ceremonial sword, bowing to the Shah, and in the next picture his corpse lay in a steel drawer with his name scrawled with a marker on his chest. The press legitimised the execution. Nosrat Daulah was a Freemason at the Foroughi Lodge, a Bahai and a staunch imperialist, one report said. His cigarettes were flown in daily from France, claimed another report. He was in cahoots with the Zionist, American and British agents to overthrow the Islamic Republic. He spread corruption on earth. He fought God and God’s creatures. He turned over the resources of Iran to foreigners. He allowed the expansion of American imperialists. He ate pork at home. The indictment went on and on.
There was a time when Manucher was in love with the revolution. His dream was to make a documentary about the revolution. When the troubles began, he would go out on the streets with his 18-kilo Arriflex on his shoulder and a four-kilo pack of batteries in a knapsack. He had poured his heart into it. He still had footage of a film from when the Shah left the country. It showed crowds cheering and dancing in the streets. There he was standing on top of an Iranian tank making the victory salute. Then the mullahs unleashed a bloodbath. The revolution devoured its own. Like so much else in Iran, he had been taken in by lies. Not just the lies that others told but the lies he told himself.
Lies, all lies! Manucher wanted to climb up on the roof and scream at the top of his lungs. As God was his witness, his father was a patriot! He tried to do the right thing and he was dead. And look at what kind of people lived on!
He drove the Range Rover to the morgue to identify the body. The coroner took him into a vast hall where the floor was strewn with covered and naked bodies, arranged in rows. He had never been in the presence of so much death. He swooned at the thought that he would have to peer into every one of those blue faces, but the coroner held him by the arm.
‘What will they think if they see you like this?’ he said quietly, nodding at a couple of pasdaran with automatic rifles, as if the two of them were allied against them.
Manucher was comforted by his manner. Quietly he accompanied him as they walked past a row of corpses until they stood next to his father’s corpse. He looked at the tag on the big toe. The coroner handed him the report: ‘Male … height, 180 cm; weight, 68 kilos, crown on upper left tooth; gunshot wounds in chest and legs.’ He brushed the lock of hair from his father’s forehead and, for no reason at all, he leaned close to his face. There was no breath, no air passing through the nostrils. The chest no longer rose and fell. He was cold to the touch, like a stove that had gone out the night before.
The coroner suggested that they go to his office to complete the paperwork. He locked the door behind him, pulled a chair and fetched him a glass of water. He was a soft-spoken man in his late fifties, with curly white hair and horn-rimmed glasses.
He handed Manucher the letter that Nosrat Daulah had entrusted to him before he was shot. He could do one of two things, he said—he could either take away the body now or at a later time agreed between themselves. He said that when prominent people were executed, crowds often gathered outside his office and tried to desecrate the bodies when their families came to arrange for their burial. So it was best to come early in the morning to avoid the chance of detection.
Manucher did not know how to thank him. He mumbled something, his voice so hoarse that he could barely understand himself.
Life and death were in God’s hands, the man said. He was only doing his duty.
The next day Manucher drove to the morgue at sunrise to take his father’s body to Kahrizak graveyard. It was a quick burial. The gravedigger had dug the grave already. It was deep and fresh and the shovel lay beside it. Manucher and the gravedigger laid the shrouded body in the grave and covered it with moist earth. There was no headstone. Manucher pressed some money into the old man’s palm. He shuffled away and everything was quiet. He sat down in the dust by the grave and opened his father’s letter.
My dear son,
The judge wanted me to write my will but I refused. To write a will would be tantamount to accepting the legitimacy of this sham court. The tribunal was a farce. It was all correctly done but everything was staged for a predetermined outcome. Maybe what has happened had to happen. Maybe everything is predestined. It’s a comfortable thought but I don’t know if it’s the truth. I only hope that it all adds up on judgement day when I will ask the Almighty to give an account of himself just as he will ask me. Instead of a will, I have written this letter. I have given it to a good man and I hope it will reach you.
I am proud of what I did for this country. I served the Shah because I believed that he was our only hope. I believed that I was doing the right thing. I worked hard. I believed that I was on the right side of history. The mullahs have nothing to offer except to bicker about when the moon shows itself for them to declare the new month. Their reign of terror is far worse than anything that the Shah inflicted on his people. Thousands have died in their purges and thousands more will die if they are not stopped.
Sooner or later, we all bring about suffering. Unless we are saints or hermits we all become complicit in the violence around us. There is no way out. The only thing we can do if we are to act according to our conscience is to make sure that if we bring about suffering, we do so in order to avoid greater suffering. That’s the only thing that saves us. If we don’t do that, we lose our humanity, we lose our conscience and it becomes impossible to live.
I took up arms because I could not sit by and watch like an idle spectator while they carried on their slaughter in Allah’s name. I was ready to kill a dozen so that a hundred would not die, a hundred so a thousand would not be killed.
Do you remember that we used to have the Shah’s pictures everywhere? Now we have Khomeini’s pictures. People were so happy when Khomeini came, dancing in the streets and on rooftops. They were so happy with the revolution but no-one is happy now because nothing has changed. Revolutions change nothing. The people in power look after themselves, the poor suffer and the dead always look the same.
Tell your mother that I loved her. Do not mourn for me. I had a good life, though short. Love those who are close to you. When I shut my eyes, I see you as my little boy. I love you so much.
Every living thing ceased to exist for Manucher. The sun was without warmth, the sky was leaden and airless. He was without care, without thought. He knelt down and raked the soil with his fingers, catching the dirt between his finger nails.
‘Rest here, father. I am with you now.’
The deathless clouds floated past.
When he was little his father would wade out into the sea with him. The beach was a few hundred metres from their holiday house. They would go in the morning down a narrow path through the shrubs. The sky would be getting light. The sand was like a hardened floor. Small crabs rose from underneath the shingles and scuttled away at their approach. In the distance, fishermen pulled in their white nets with their haul of fish. Seagulls flapped their wings but seemed stationary against the breeze before breaking formation and flying in different directions. He remembered the grip of his father’s hand.
What was he thinking before he was shot? Did they feed him? Did they blindfold him? Did they drink tea themselves before they shot him? He imagined that if he prayed ardently enough, God would turn back time. God would raise his father from the grave and Manucher would go back home to find him there. Of all his impressions of his father, he remembered him sitting in front of his gramophone, listening to Puccini or Verdi, a glass of whisky beside him. What would he not give to turn back time?
He cast his eyes around. Fresh roses lay on the new graves. Everything was quiet and still. His father was right there with him. The letter was lying on the ground. He picked it up and walked back to his car. •
Azhar Abidi was born in Pakistan and lives in Melbourne. His novels include Twilight and Passarola. His work has been published in Meanjin, The Best Australian Essays and Granta.