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TWO STORIES BY Mahbod Seraji

In the early days of the Revolution in Iran, it was against the law for men to wear short-sleeved shirts. The penalty for violators was a night in prison and thirty-eight lashes on the back. Women are still forced to wear Chadors to cover their entire bodies.

The Short-Sleeved Man
By Mahbod Seraji

Mr. Mansoori was an unimpressive individual. Tedious and aloof, he went about his business as if no one else worked with him. He arrived late in the morning, left early in the evening and usually took a few hours for lunch. He spent the last two years of the Shah's reign in Iran as the director of Internal Affairs for the National Petroleum Corporation of Iran--also known as the "Bureau". Six months after the Islamic revolution, Mr. Mansoori was arrested and prosecuted for the crimes he had allegedly committed while in office.
The news of Mr. Mansoori's detention astounded most of the people who knew him. He had been shelved as an undisruptive, introverted man who managed both his personal and professional affairs in a private manner. No one could recall having seen him show emotions of any kind except when his assistant, Mr. Javan, came to work wearing short-sleeved shirts. Mr.
Mansoori always summoned Mr. Javan to his office, chastised him for flouting
the law, and then sent him home to put on appropriate attire.
Mr. Mansoori's alleged crimes were listed in the paper-- the misappropriation and embezzlement of government funds; the establishment of private foreign bank accounts; spying for the British and American governments; custom building a home with bribe money; and abusing his authority by firing an underprivileged employee that he personally disliked.

His colleagues at the Bureau gathered in the coffee room regularly to discuss the case. Most people thought that Mr. Mansoori was too incompetent to mastermind the listed offenses. This was just a tragic mistake, which was going to result in the death of an innocent man. The courts had appointed the Judge to his case-a ruthless man known for his volatile temperament, his extreme political positions and his five wives. No one dared to criticize him for the first two traits. As for his wives, everyone accepted that the Judge was only fulfilling his religious duty by rescuing women facing poverty and destitution when their husbands were killed in the
revolution.
****
The following facts were established during Mr. Mansoori's trial: he had a small sum of money in his personal bank account in Iran; he held no foreign accounts; it was his predecessor who had illegally fired the underprivileged individual; he had no British or American contacts; and he was living in a
small rented apartment.
Despite the overwhelming evidence proving his innocence, Mr. Mansoori was pronounced guilty on every count and sentenced to death by firing squad. The date of his execution was to be determined based on the availability of the squadron, which had been extremely busy in the months since the Judge had been appointed to preside over similar cases.

To defend his decision, which had been questioned by a few courageous newspaper columnists, the Judge admitted that Mr. Mansoori should have been cleared of all charges given the poor job that the prosecutors had done
presenting a case against him. But he added, "If you know with certainty
that a crime has been committed, would you let the accused go because there is no evidence against him?" Jabbing a gnarled and boney index finger at the rapt crowd, he continued, "In the worst case, imagine that this man was innocent, and I just condemned him to death. Let this be a lesson to the real criminals, for if I can condemn an innocent man to death in my court, a guilty one should know where he stands with the law!"

When Mr. Mansoori's execution date was announced, people at the Bureau, even those who felt ill-will toward him, felt sad. "He was a good man," they whispered to each other. "He had never hurt anyone, except when he was a bit rough with Mr. Javan for wearing short-sleeved shirts. He was harmless, sweet in his own ways, quiet and unobtrusive. He may have been an ineffectual director, but he didn't deserve to die, not this way. in front of a firing squad, at such a young age. How old was he anyway?" No one really knew. "What a pity!"

* * * * *
Three weeks later, everyone was busy at work when someone ran in with a newspaper and announced that Mr. Mansoori had been pardoned. The authorities had given no reason, and the writer of the report had refrained from speculating.

* * * *
Outside of a small circle of political insiders, no one knew why Mr.
Mansoori was granted clemency. Those who knew the whole story rarely discussed it. Apparently, the Judge made it a point to personally witness the executions of the people he had condemned to death. He considered it his divine duty to ensure that the enemies of the revolution were sent to hell.
In his eighteen months as a judge he had worked hard without a single day off--personally overseeing more than nine hundred executions. Although he was reputed to have been blessed with nerves of steel, his increasingly unprovoked aggravation was becoming a matter of concern to those near him.
Those in his immediate circle feared that they might become the next subject of his indiscriminate wrath, so they held a secret conference and decided to convince him to taking a vacation as soon as possible. Arrangements were made, and he was to be flown--by helicopter--to a posh villa on the Caspian Sea.
The unexpected vacation, however, meant that the Judge would not be able to witness the execution of the many men who were scheduled to meet their fate during the week he was on holiday. Shirking responsibility was not something that the Judge looked favorably upon. To address this concern, he solved the problem with a brilliant bit of planning. He moved up the execution dates of those scheduled to die during his vacation so that they would be carried out the day before his departure. Then he thanked God for showing him the way and vowed to marry two more destitute women when he
returned!
To meet the Judge's new timeline, those in charge hastily reviewed files, identified the subjects swiftly, and summoned the condemned to Tehran.
Within a few hours of the initial order, a shuffling line of fourteen prisoners in handcuffs and blindfolds entered the Evin Prison.
The continuous, synchronized crack of the firing squad kept everyone awake and pacing throughout the night. The Judge was reportedly so pleased with the speed with which his troops had carried out his orders that he issued monetary rewards for everyone involved and left for his vacation, confident that the offenders had met the proper demise. It wasn't until after the Judge had returned that the authorities realized that the number of people to be executed before he left was supposed to be thirteen, and not fourteen.

A frenzied investigation was conducted, and it was discovered that in the mayhem created by the rush to meet the Judge's deadline, a man--in prison for wearing a short-sleeved shirt and awaiting his mandatory flogging--had
been dragged out of his cell and executed by mistake.
After hearing the news, the Judge scratched his thick beard and shook his head dismissively. He probed his mouth with a toothpick, and extracted a piece of grizzle that had gotten stuck between his molars. "God makes no mistakes." he stated, "It was his will for the short-sleeved man to die along with the infidels--may the wrath of God rain on them in hell." He spat the piece of grizzle onto the floor as his voice grew more passionate.
"Who knows what the short-sleeved man might have done after leaving the prison? He could have driven his car into a sidewalk full of innocent pedestrians and killed them all, or gone home and killed his innocent wife or child." The Judge paused to take in the nodding heads that surrounded him, and then continued. "A man wearing a short-sleeved shirt lacks good judgment. If God wanted him dead, then his death must have been designed to prevent greater disasters. We're helpless in the face of God's will."
The Judge was about to ask everyone to forget the subject, when he had a thought. "We must restore order in the universe; therefore a condemned man
will go free."
His followers nodded passionately, praising him for his prudence.
And so, Mr. Mansoori was pardoned, and his life was spared.

****
Everyone at the Bureau was happy to see Mr. Mansoori back at work. He seemed tired and older to his co-workers. Obviously, the pressure of the trial, and the fear of execution had made him age. People didn't expect a long lecture from him, and he didn't deliver one. He thanked them for their prayers, mumbled a few words about being happy to be back, and then walked slowly back to his office. He noticed that a "Welcome Back" sign was on his door. He stopped, looked at it, smiled and turned and waved at everyone who was standing in the hallway. Right before entering his office, he looked toward, his assistant, Mr. Javan's empty desk. "Where's he?" he quietly inquired from someone who was standing near him.
"He was arrested near a mosque last week for wearing a short-sleeved shirt,"
the woman reported back. "We haven't heard from him since."
"A repeat offender," Mr. Mansoori shook his head. "They'll keep him in there for a while this time." Then he contemplated hiring a new assistant.
"He has never been reliable," he whispered to the woman standing next to him. "Not trustworthy, not trustworthy at all. I should hire someone else to replace that idiot."
Mr. Mansoori entered his office and closed the door behind him.

Mahbod Seraji

 

 

 

The tenth day of the month of Moharam is known as Ashura, the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein--mourned and commemorated by Shiites around the globe.

 

Ashura by Mahbod Seraji

The day’s leaden heat did not keep crowds of people from the surrounding villages from flocking to Rostam-Dasht--a rural community balanced on the sloping belly of the Alborz Mountain. Regal clusters of cypress and stone reached skyward on the inclines leading up to the village, while a ribbon of pristine water tumbled down the slopes. The valley below--peppered with slow-grazing livestock--stretched sparse and tan beneath the summer sun. To the north, a chain of mountains rose and fell in crisp silhouette--a rarity due to the presence of dense clouds on most days of the year.

The Taazieh--an annual Ashura reenactment--drew hundreds to the village square every year. The performance illustrated the martyrdom of the exalted Imam Hussein at the hands of the degenerate, cursed Shemr--Yazeed soldier of the Arabian dynasty that had robbed Imam Ali’s sons of their right to rule the Moslem nations.

The spectators were dressed in black, the official color of mourning. Shimmering hot air made the crowds ripple like waves of midnight under the midday sun, and despite the somber mood there was plenty of socializing. Strangers met, old friends reunited and young boys and girls mingled cautiously beneath the watchful eyes of bearded men and Zeynab sisters--self-appointed guardians of Islamic values and traditions. Women wrapped in chadors waved whatever they could find to fan themselves while unshaven men, steeped in sweat, looked on with solemn interest.

The celebration began with the mullahs’ cries, moaning the Imam’s story with a cadence punctuated by the rhythmic beating of their heads and chests. Some facts were repeated by all the mullahs--the scorching heat on the first Ashura, 1,383 years ago; the humble size of the Imam’s army; the vast numbers of his enemy; the thirst suffered throughout the ordeal and the Imam’s decapitated head sent to Damascus--each one sung with greater expression each time it was repeated.

The mullahs were followed by the first Dasteh--groups of men and boys--marching through the square while pounding their bare chests and chanting the martyr’s name in unison. This procession was followed by more mullahs wailing into microphones, cursing the Shemr and any non-believers in the West, the East, or anywhere in-between. These didactic songs were frequently interrupted by passionate, impromptu chants calling for death to America, Israel and England.

Later in the day the role of Shemr in the Taazieh would be played by nineteen-year-old Reza who, dressed in the villainous red outfit, would wield his sword--pretending to behead the followers of the Imam, often played by Reza’s classmates who would be dressed in the innocent white and holy green. In the last three years, Reza had performed the role with the precision and fervor of a professional actor. He had been labeled the best Shemr in the region--a compliment he enjoyed immensely because acting was his passion.

Reza sat in the widow of his father’s grocery store in the square and watched the procession, trying to absorb the bracing atmosphere in preparation for his performance. He had read in a magazine that great actors like Sir Lawrence Olivier and Marlon Brando used similar techniques to prepare themselves for their performances. He took his role as Shemr seriously, and rehearsed every move and expression in front of a mirror for days before the event. He often wondered how Brando and Olivier would have rated him as an actor.

As children, he and his little brother Mustafa had gone to the movies every Friday. They normally caught a ride to the nearest city--twenty kilometers away--and bought one ticket, because that was all they could afford. They would beg the man at the door to let them in, promising to occupy only one seat. They kept their promise every time, even when the theater was half empty. One of them sat back in the uncomfortable chair while the other perched on the edge of the seat, then they switched positions halfway through the movie. They especially liked the old, American Westerns in which John Wayne killed scores of Indians--the Shemr’s of the cowboys--for massacring innocent white men, women and children. They also loved the James Bond movies, where the British Shemr-like villains tried, in vain, to destroy the world.

Reza had always dreamt of moving to Tehran to pursue an acting career, but anytime he mentioned Tehran, a distended vein sprouted on his father’s forehead--signaling him to change the topic. Reza had the requisite cinematic looks--tall, with broad shoulders and a chiseled face that featured tawny eyes that made girls blush when he walked by--but Tehran was the capital of corruption and immorality as far as his father was concerned. Furthermore, cinema was a dirty art form managed by men and women addicted to alcohol, drugs and sex. Reza’s father had done his best to raise his sons as devout Moslems, which meant no alcohol, no drugs an no pre-marital sex.

Reza’s father liked the fact that Reza played the role of Shemr in the Taazieh, however. In his mind, the more convincing Reza was in the role of Shemr, the more he helped guide the young away from the decadence that had permeated society. He had no idea that playing the role kindled Reza’s desire to act until it burned to oblivion everything that he had planned for his eldest son’s future.

- - - - - - - -

Reza savored his tea as the second Dasteh marched through the square. Men and boys dressed in black pants and black shirts flailed themselves with chains attached to wooden handles. Their arms swung in unison--three lashes over the left shoulder, followed by one firm wallop over the right shoulder. Their blood stood out in deep patches on the dark cloth while wives, sisters and mothers held their breath and thought ahead to when they would clean and soothe the angry wounds.

Reza spotted his brother, Mustafa, among the chain-beaters. Mustafa knew that his father and Reza were watching, and it inspired him to swing the chain wider, and hit himself harder--careful not to grimace because he knew his mother was watching as well, with a heavy brow. Mustafa kept his eyes forward and tried to cultivate an air of pensive maturity. Reza noted the serious gaze and smiled, “My little brother is turning into a man,” he thought to himself. He remembered a time when a gang of kids from a nearby village had chased Mustafa--cursing and threatening him. Mustafa had run hard for at least two kilometers and was out of breath and trembling with fea when Reza showed up.

“There are eight of you, and one of me.” Reza had said, in a deep voice. “You can probably take me down, but I will break every bone in the bodies of at least four of you, so go ahead and try.” The kids had turned tail and run back to their village. Reza remembered the proud look in his brother’s eyes, and the feeling of satisfaction he himself had experienced protecting the little boy who was of his own flesh, of his own blood.

Flailing himself with the chain, Mustafa was careful not to respond to the almost tangible gaze of the little seventeen-year-old Pari, their neighbor’s daughter. He could feel her anxious eyes like a caress at the nape of his neck, and knew that she would be biting her lower lip and trying to hide her concern by pulling the tips of her chador tight over her pretty, freckled face. Despite his father’s warnings, Mustafa and Pari had fallen headlong into a fully developed relationship, which they managed to hide from everyone except Reza--Mustafa’s confidant and compass. But today, on Ashura, the holiest day of the year, Mustafa was not about to acknowledge his lover’s anxious gaze. Ashura was a day devotedentirely to mourning and remembrance of the martyrs of 1,383 years ago. This was the day that he fully and willingly followed every rule his father had taught him. The vitality of the celebration and the rituals evoked a fierce devotion in him. Martyrdom would have been a small price to pay on such a day, when on any other day, it may have sounded unappealing and even overrated.

-------------

Reza shifted his weight on his stool and noticed that the chain-beaters were making way for the ghammeh zans--men and young boys in immaculate white with sabers aloft, dancing and chanting, Hussein! blades whirling, Hussein! arms dropping down with a twist of the wrist, Hussein! and the saber’s shining edge biting the wielder’s scalp to release a crimson shower of blood, Hussein! that flowed over the face and chest, dripping down towards the dust.

Reza understood the resolution behind the practice, but found the ritual horrifying to watch. He silently questioned the value of demonstrating one’s suffering by inflicting more pain on oneself, but never questioned the purity of the swordsmen’s spiritual aim. He had been taught not to ask such questions, however… not even in the privacy of his own mind, and the reflection drew embarrassed blood to his face that flushed the surface of his skin.

Reza turned back to watch the ghameh zans, and saw that Nemat, Pari’s brother, was among the swordsmen. Reza was wary of Nemat, who had heard people say that his sister went on walks with Mustafa along the banks of the river. The rumors infuriated Nemat, who was certain that everyone in the village must think that his sister was a whore. A girl who was having a casual relationship with a man would not only shame her entire family, but could become pregnant and be stoned to death.

Nemat, himself, justified having a mistress--a widow, considerably older than him with two kids that she could barely support. To keep their relationship sanctified in the eyes of God and sanctioned by society, he seeghed her every time they were together--marrying her for a few hours by reciting a verse out of the Koran and accepting her as a temporary wife. The arrangement did not appear as hollow to Nemat as it did to everyone who knew. He was often heard arguing that men had seeds that must be sown, and the small amount of money he gave his occasional wife provided financial relief, which she sorely needed.

After hearing the rumors about Mustafa and his sister, Nemat had beaten Pari with a horsewhip--telling her that each rising welt was a gift from him to help her remember what happens to filthy whores. He had then stormed into the grocery store, where Mustafa and Reza were taking care of things in their father’s absence.

Nemat had kicked over a bucket of cooking oil and knocked down a shelf that held stacks of fragile teacups before Reza could react. When Mustafa jumped forward to object, Nemat had brought the whip down across his face with such ferocity that the leather left a bleeding gash from temple to mouth.

Reza had leapt over the counter and tackled Nemat before he could bring the whip back for another strike. The two had struggled like a pair of mythical giants, trading blows and wreaking further havoc on the interior of the shop. Reza proved to be the more skilled fighter in the end, and had thrown Nemat--bruised and bleeding--into the street in front of those who had gathered to watch the fight. Reza remembered tying the whip into a knot and tossing it at Nemat’s feet--drawing cruel laughter from their neighbors. Nemat had promised to retaliate as he was pulled away from the scene by his friends.

Reza watched Nemat brandishing the saber with its long, gleaming blade while his eyes searched the crowd. Reza followed Nemat’s gaze, which lead straight to Pari. She looked at her brother as if frozen, her eyes dark with fear. Neither Reza nor Nemat could see the images that were tumbling through Pari’s mind--Mustafa’s smooth, adolescent skin pressed against hers, his breath hot and fast on her neck as he moved inside her, the prick of pain that unfolded into an incandescent tide that came and went behind her navel. She could hear his moans but she herself did not dare to make a sound out of the fear that God may hear. She knew the time they spent in the shade of the trees--hidden from the eyes of strngers was forbidden, but the offense withered when she imagined the laughter of the children and grandchildren she would treasure one day.

Reza watched as Pari’s horror-stricken gaze shifted to her left. He followed her eyes and spotted Mustafa--a bright, oblivious smile warming his face. Reza looked back at Pari, whose chador had dropped, revealing a waterfall of chestnut hair that hung to her waist. She pushed the person standing next to her aside, shouldered the next one away, and pushed through the crowd, struggling to get to Mustafa before her brother did. She was shouting but she couldn’t be heard over the wailing of the mourners, the thumping of the drums, and the blaring of the horns.

Reza dropped his cup of tea and took what felt like one, two, three gigantic steps before he was at the door. He flung it open, and knew exactly which way to turn to get to his brother. The crowd seemed to have converged on one spot. Reza pushed through the blank swarm of dark heads, everyone standing on their toes and craning their necks to see what had happened. Sweat slipped into his eyes and slid down his back as a stream of broken curses--uttered in his father’s voice--rose above the crowd. It felt like he was trapped in the climactic scene of a movie, when everything flows in slow motion towards an inescapable horror. For a split second he imagined theunimaginable. Was this his personal Ashura? Was Nemat his Shemr? Was this what those involved in the real Ashura had experienced? Never in all those years of acting had he felt or conveyed anything like he was feeling then. Brando and Olivier would have been disappointed with his acting.

Just when he thought his legs would fail under the weight of his dread, the crowd parted and a narrow path snaked open in front him. This was no movie… this was life without mercy. The faces of the people around him seemed distorted, their eyes too large… their pity too sharp. There, in the dust crouched two figures--the mothers of Mustafa and Nemat--stooped and rocking, their howls of grief twisting in harmony over the still bodies of their sons. Nemat had killed Mustafa and himself.

THE AUTHOR:

Mahbod Seraji