Nowhere else in the world is everyone so indiscriminately lumped together as in Iran. After five years of nomadic life and emotional turmoil, I had not yet caught a glimpse of Iran’s holy ground from the deck of the ship when I heard the chants of the Gilaki boat people from Anzali singing “Balam jan, balam jan” (My dear child, my darling). They swarmed around the ship like ants around a dead locust and became a nuisance to the passengers. Every passenger was harassed by a multitude of rowers, boatmen and porters. But my situation was the most deplorable of them all. The others, mainly businessmen in long coats and short hats from Baku and Rasht, clung more to their money than to their lives, defying threats and orders as if they were facing the Angel of Death himself rather than parting with a single coin. But I, devoid of luck and maternal care, had failed to replace the foreign pith helmet that had traveled with me from France, identifying me in the eyes of these menas a wealthy pilgrim’s son – a tempting target. They shouted “sir, sir”,” surrounded us and made every piece of our luggage the bone of contention for a horde of porters and a fleet of unscrupulous boatmen, resulting in an endless cacophony of screams, shouts and chaos. Overwhelmed and confused, we searched in vain for a way to free ourselves from the clutches of these marauders, trying to escape by some ruse or trick, when the crowd parted and two vicious, foreboding passport officers emerged. They stood before us like grim enforcers of a divine decree, flanked by red-clad helpers adorned with lions and suns, scowling and sporting fierce mustaches as signs of despair, harbingers of doom. When they checked our passports, they reacted as if they had received the news of the Shah’s demise or a decree from the Angel of Death himself, with distorted grimaces and shaking heads. They scrutinized us thoroughly, as if they were measuring us for a shroud, to use a Tehran child’s word, until finally one asked, “Well, are you Iranian?”
I replied: “Mashallah, what a question! Where else would I come from if not Iran? My ancestry goes back seven generations to Iranians. There is not a single person in the entire Sanglaj region who would not recognize me as clearly as a cow with a white forehead!”
But these words failed to convince the master. It was obvious that this dilemma could not be solved with a mere coin or a handful of dinars. He ordered his servants to “watch the ‘Khan Sahib’ until further investigations could be carried out.” One of the servants, who pulled a baton as long as a sword hilt from his worn scarf, grabbed my wrist and demanded, “Go on,” and I, realizing the gravity of our situation, clutched tighter to my belongings. At first I was inclined to protest loudly and cause a commotion, but under the circumstances I thought it prudent to keep my composure.
May the unbelievers never experience the mercy of the gatekeeper clan! Only the Almighty knows what rapid devastation they have wrought upon us. Miraculously, we only saved my foreign hat and our unshakeable faith, which fortunately was of no value to them. They left no bag unfilled, no corner unchecked and ransacked with bureaucratic efficiency before depositing us in a dimly lit cell behind the Anzali customs house. This cell, more inviting than a fresh grave, was decorated with a tapestry of spiders on the walls and door. Secured from the outside, they left us to divine providence. During the short journey from the ship to the shore, I learned from conversations with locals and boatmen that Tehran was once again embroiled in a dispute between the Shah and the parliament, triggering a new wave of arrests. Directives from the capital ordered vigilant screening of travelers, which explained the ordeal we were subjected to. In particular, an overzealous officer from Rasht, eager to prove his diligence and skill, had arrived that morning and cast a wide net over the defenseless population like an animal gone wild. His actions not only extended beyond the borders of the beleaguered governor, but also ambitiously targeted the administration of Anzali, ensuring that the telegraph lines to Tehran had been humming incessantly with reports of his undertakings since dawn.
At first, the overwhelming darkness of the hold blinded me. However, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I realized that we were not the only occupants. My gaze first fell on a figure reminiscent of those un-European types who have always been synonymous with frivolity, garrulousness and ignorance in Iran. In a hundred years’ time (may the devil turn a deaf ear), such characters will probably still be causing laughter in Iranian theaters with their antics. This pseudo-European, wearing a collar as high as the chimney of a samovar —and now looking like the sooty smoke of Caucasian oil trains — was perched on a ledge, engrossed in a novel, the collar pressing against his neck like a yoke in the dim light. I was tempted to step forward with a “Bonjour Monsieur” to prove my own cultural finesse, but a whistling sound from the corner of the cell diverted my attention. There, something caught my eye that I initially thought was a shiny white cat lolling on a bag of coal dust. On closer inspection, it was a sheikh assuming the pose of a seminarian, knees pressed to his chest and wrapped from ear to ear in his cloak. The supposed white cat was in fact his turban, which had been torn open and was now wrapped around his chin, taking the shape of a cat’s tail, while the whistling turned out to be the sound of his prayers.
It turned out that there were three guests in total. I thought this number was a good omen and hoped to start a conversation with my companions, perhaps to share our problems and look for solutions. Suddenly, the door to our cell swung open loudly and a young man in a fedora was thrown in before the door slammed shut. It appeared that the special officer from Rasht had detained this innocent youth to intimidate the people of Anzali by claiming that he had served a Caucasian in the early days of the constitutional revolution and subsequent oppression.
After realizing that his moans and groans would not alleviate his suffering, the newcomer dried his tears with the hem of his dirty coat. Noticing the absence of a guard, he uttered a torrent of curses typical of our Iranian culture, such as gorgab watermelon and hakan tobacco, and cursed the ancestors of various people. Then he kicked the walls and the door with his bare feet. When he realized that despite its decay, the door was still more resilient than a government official’s heart, he spat out in resignation, looked around the cell and realized that he was not alone.
As a foreigner who could not contribute much and received no answer from the fake European, I quietly addressed Sheikh Sahib. After watching the Sheikh for a moment, the young man spoke in a trembling voice: “Your Eminence, Sheikh, by Hazrat Abbas, what is my sin? If only you could end your suffering and find peace from the tyranny of man!”
Hearing this, the Sheikh’s turban moved slightly, like a cloud, revealing a pair of eyes that glanced faintly at the fedora. Then a voice rang out from beneath the turban, slow and deliberate, giving comfort to the listeners: “O believer! Do not give in to anger and rage, for ‘he who restrains anger and forgives others…'”
The young man in the felt hat was taken aback by these words. He barely understood anything other than “Kazem” from Sheikh Sahib’s speech and interjected, “No, sir, my name is not Kazem, but Ramadan. I just wish we knew why we seem to be buried alive here.”
Sheikh Sahib replied with unwavering calm and clarity: “May Allah reward you, believer! Your concern has not escaped me. Patience is indeed the key to relief. I trust that the reason for our imprisonment will soon be revealed and will reach us sooner or later. In this time of waiting, it is most useful to occupy ourselves with the remembrance of the Creator, which is always a noble task.”
Ramadan, who could not understand the Sheikh’s sophisticated Persian, feared that the Sheikh might be communicating with invisible beings or reciting spells. A look of fear crossed his face and he whispered a prayer, thinking of a silent retreat.
Meanwhile, Sheikh Sahib, seemingly invigorated, stared at a point on the wall and continued his monolog without addressing anyone in particular: “Perhaps our imprisonment has a hidden benefit, or perhaps it was just an arbitrary decision. Therefore, there is great hope that this situation will soon be resolved without further complications. It is possible that we have been overlooked and left to our gradual ruin regardless of our status. Therefore, we should seek help from higher authorities by all means, be it directly or indirectly, in writing or verbally, openly or covertly. As the saying goes, ‘Effort breeds success’ We will undoubtedly prove our innocence, as clear and undeniable as the midday sun among our peers”
Ramadan, who was completely disheartened, paced around the prison, casting suspicious glances at Sheikh Sahib and muttering curses to himself. To protect himself, he recited something similar to the Ayatul Kursi and blew over his head, his fear palpable in the shadowy confines of the cell and his courage dwindling. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.
Sheikh Sahib, meanwhile, seemed unable to hold back his flow of words, as if his speech had been unleashed. With his arms, as wooly as a sheep’s, sticking out of his sleeves and his coat folded back, he gesticulated wildly, his intense gaze fixed on an inconspicuous spot on the wall. At times he would launch into violent tirades against the absent passport officer. He berated him with titles such as “blood clot”,” “unknown entity” and “corrupted faith” — all serious accusations that could warrant severe punishment in a Muslim household, although I can barely recall all the epithets he used.
At other times, Sheikh Sahib’s tone changed to a calm dignity as he lamented the disregard of scholars and followers of pure Shariah, denounced the constant insults they were subjected to, and warned of the grave consequences, both in this life and the next. His exhortations became so convoluted and esoteric that not only Ramadan, but perhaps even his ancestors, would not understand a single word.
And I, though I pride myself on my knowledge of Arabic, acquired through years of scholarly debate and complicated grammatical discussions, found Sheikh Sahib’s speeches incomprehensible. My academic endeavors, which had once made me proud, seemed worth little in the face of the Sheikh’s confusing monologs, so I reflected on the years I had spent in fruitless discussions, a part of my youth that I had wasted in vain.
The un-European gentleman jumped up from his seat when he heard the ongoing discussion, carefully closed his book and put it in the wide pocket of his coat. With a sympathetic smile, he approached Ramadan, extended his hand in greeting and said, “Brother, brother,” as if to initiate a handshake. Ramadan misunderstood the gesture and backed away, forcing the gentleman to awkwardly move his hand towards his mustache in an attempt to regain grace. Determined not to appear impassive, he placed his other hand on his chest and ran his thumbs through the armholes of his vest. With his remaining fingers, he tapped his chest rhythmically, making a cheerful sound.
“Dear colleague and compatriot! Why have we actually been locked up here? I have pondered this question for hours and have come to no conclusion, for better or for worse. It is completely absurd that I, a young man with an education and a respectable background, should be regarded as a criminal and subjected to such humiliation! But given our history of despotism, lawlessness and the arbitrariness that comes with such rule, this situation is hardly surprising. In a nation that prides itself on a constitutional identity, one would expect there to be legal forums to prevent such injustices. My fellow sufferer, wouldn’t you agree?”
Poor Ramadan was at a loss, for the Lord’s refined speech was far beyond his comprehension. He did not understand the nuances of expressions such as “racking one’s brains” — a direct translation from French, which indicates intense thought and could be compared in Persian to “I kill myself by thinking…” or “I bang my head against the wall…”— . The term “subject to injustice”,” another French expression meaning injustice, only confused him further. When he heard “subject” and “injustice”,” Ramadan, who was limited in his understanding, took the false European’s lament as a reference to feudal oppression and promptly clarified: “No, sir, your servant is not a peasant. I work only twenty paces from the customs house, as an apprentice in a coffee house!”
The monsieur just shrugged his shoulders, continued to beat his chest rhythmically and began to whistle as he paced back and forth, engrossed in his own thoughts. He explained: “Revolution without evolution is unimaginable! We, the younger generation, must guide the destiny of our nation. I have written a detailed treatise on this, in which I have irrefutably argued that it is pointless to depend on others and that everyone must contribute to the good of the nation to the best of their ability. That is the only way forward! Otherwise, we face inevitable decline. Unfortunately, however, our words seem to fall on deaf ears. Lamartine has spoken wisely in this regard…” He then launched into a long recitation of French poetry, which I immediately recognized as the work of Victor Hugo and not Lamartine, further highlighting the complexity of the conversation and the cultural and intellectual chasms between the cell’s occupants.
Overwhelmed by the confusing and alien discourse, poor Ramadan lost all semblance of composure. He rushed behind the prison door and burst into loud sobs and weeping. His despair quickly attracted attention outside the cell, where a crowd had gathered. A gruff and coarse voice barked through the door, making even Sheikh Hassan’s stern tone seem gentle in comparison: “Mother of so and so! What’s all this noise about? Are they trying to murder you or what? Enough of this madness! If you don’t stop this charade and this nonsense, they’ll come and gag you…!”
In a weak and desperate tone, Ramadan pleaded, “By the love of God and the Prophet, what have I done to deserve this? If I am a thief, let them amputate my hand. If I am guilty, let them flog me, pull out my nails, pin my ears to the door, blind me and expose me to bastinado. Put splinters between my fingers, scorch me with candles, but please, for the sake of God and the Prophet, free me from this nightmare, from the grip of these madmen and ghosts! I beg you, by the saints and the prophet, I am losing my mind. They buried me alive with three others. One of them is a damned foreigner whose mere appearance demands atonement, and who stands there with a predatory look, ready to strike. The other two are completely incomprehensible, they speak no known language, are more jinn than human, and should they decide to end my miserable existence, who will bear the blame before God…?”
Completely exhausted, Ramadan could no longer articulate himself, his voice choked by his weeping as he succumbed to tears. Once again, the same mocking voice rang out from behind the door, delivering a volley of cruel taunts to the inconsolable Ramadan, adding to his agony and despair in the cell.
Moved by Ramadan’s plight, I approached him and placed my hand on his shoulder in a gesture of solidarity. “My boy, when was I ever a foreigner? All foreigners be damned as far as I am concerned! I am an Iranian like you, a brother in faith. Why this despair? What has happened to you? You are young, why do you give in to such despair?”
When I realized that I really understood Persian and spoke it fluently, Ramadan’s reaction was profound. He grabbed my hand and pressed his lips to it in a fervent gesture of gratitude and relief, his happiness immeasurable, as if he had received the greatest treasure. “I would sacrifice myself for you! By God, you must be an angel sent to save me,” he cried, overwhelmed by his feelings.
I urged him to regain his composure. “Take it easy, my boy. I’m far from being an angel; sometimes I even question my own humanity. A man must have courage. Why burst into tears? If others saw it, they might make fun of you and bring shame on you…”
His reply was characterized by frustration and relief. “May misfortune befall these madmen! I was on the verge of madness with fear. Did you notice how incomprehensible they were, how they spoke in an unintelligible language, as if they were possessed by djinns?”
I tried to reassure Ramadan: “Brother, these people are neither djinns nor madmen, they are Iranians, just like us, our compatriots and fellow believers.” Ramadan, who must have thought I was joking, gave me a skeptical look and burst out laughing. “By Hazrat Abbas, please don’t make fun of me. If they were really Iranian, why would they speak in tongues so foreign to human speech?” I tried to enlighten him: “Ramadan, they speak Persian, but…” But it was obvious that he didn’t believe me. In his eyes, no amount of time would be enough to convince him, and I realized that my efforts were in vain. I was about to change the subject when the prison door opened abruptly.
An orderly came in and ordered: “We’ll take roll call, then you can go. You’re all free…” Contrary to what you might expect, Ramadan’s reaction was not one of joy, but one of apprehension. He clung to me and held my coat tightly: “I swear, that’s exactly what they say when they want to hand over a prisoner to a fearsome commander. May God protect us!” Ramadan’s fears were quickly allayed, however. The passport officer from the morning had been replaced by a new, more influential official from the Rasht administration, who had decided to reverse the actions of his predecessor, starting with our release. We thanked God and were about to leave the prison when we observed a young man, who by his dialect and appearance was probably from Khoy or Salmas, being escorted to the prison by the morning porters. The young man articulated his complaints in a distinct Persian dialect, which I later recognized as being influenced by Istanbul, and implored the bystanders for “mercy” and hoped for their sympathy.
Ramadan stared at him, stunned, and exclaimed, “In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful, one more arrives. Lord, is today the day You send all Your eccentrics here? We are grateful for what we have been given and equally grateful for what we have been spared!”
To spare Ramadan further confusion, I refrained from explaining to him that the newcomer was also an Iranian who spoke a regional dialect of Persian. Instead, I concentrated on arranging a carriage for our journey to Rasht. Just before we left, as Sheikh, the fake European, and I were about to get into the carriage, Ramadan hurriedly approached us. He handed me a bag of nuts and whispered to me: “Forgive my boldness, but I can’t help thinking that your peculiarity has rubbed off on you. How else can you explain your willingness to travel with them?”
I replied playfully: “Ramadan, we’re not cowards like you!” His reply was a sympathetic one: “May God be with you. If you ever get tired of your confusing chatter, eat these nuts and think of me.” As the coachman spurred the horses on, we set off and began our journey.
The ride to Rasht was full of hilarity, especially when we saw a new passport officer hurrying towards Anzali. The irony of the situation elicited such laughter from us that we were almost in tears as we recalled our common dilemma and found solace in the humor that had underscored our otherwise confusing experience.
© Ali Salami 2024