Ali Salami

The Autumn-Stricken Valley By Jalal Al-e Ahmad

In the afternoon, the final whistle of the mine sounded traditionally in the cold, misty valleys of Zirab. The sound meandered everywhere: it snaked through the branches of the barren trees, slipped under the iron roofs and wooden cladding visible along the valleys, and penetrated the long, dark tunnels where it turned people’s lives into fine particles of coal dust, only to give it back to them again.

At its call, the work stopped. Faces unrecognizable under a layer of coal dust, with only the whites of their eyes — and for those who smiled, the yellow of their teeth— – collected their miner’s lamps. Equipment in hand, they made their way home, weaving through the trees and climbing over flooded pits.

There was absolute silence, not even disturbed by the fluttering of a stubborn, indestructible crow. Everyone walked home in a silent procession without a sound, as if they were leaving a cemetery, shrouded in solemn silence.

At Zirab station, a conveyor belt led down into the valley from the edge of a large platform— on which freight train wagons were loaded with coal from the mines, smelting furnaces and tunnels of the valleys—. It arched over forests and disappeared into the misty gloom at the end of the valley. At the foot of the conveyor belt ran a road that led to the mine tunnels and the workers’ houses, disappearing under the forest canopy before reappearing in the open.

The valley branched out at its end and cut into the mountain from several directions. On the slopes of these valleys, the workers’ houses could be seen through the foliage — some isolated, others huddled together, scattered individually or in groups. The “9 Units” building, which dominated the landscape from a hill above the main valley, “stood out as the central building of the Zirab mine from a large, barren area and drew attention to itself.

The conveyor belt that stretched across these valleys, towering over the defiant trees, moved with the urgency of a snake aiming for its prey. Throughout the working day, the sound of small wagons loaded with coal rattling along the tracks echoed through the valley. These wagons, clinging tenaciously to the metal strands like stubborn spiders, slid and tumbled down, their screams piercing the valley.

As the working day came to an end, the mine manager also finished his work. He changed into his work clothes, put on his coat and made his way home. His home was on the opposite side of the valley, slightly higher up than his office and half an hour away. He approached the ridge overlooking the valley, but had not climbed far when the terrifying sound of machine-gun fire echoed through the valley. Seized by sudden unease, he stopped and scanned his surroundings, but nothing was visible from his position in the deep valley. He quickened his pace up the slope, reached his office out of breath and dialed the Sadan Clinic, located on the opposite side of the valley from the “9 Units” building. In a mixture of haste and fear, he inquired: “Hello… hello… what was that? … Who brought a machine gun into the mine? What?”

Startled, the phone slipped out of his hand. An unfamiliar voice had answered briefly and succinctly: “What’s it to you!”

He hurriedly washed his hands and face while the sound of gunfire continued. He called for the mine vehicle and was just putting on his coat when the phone rang again. He picked it up: “Yes… it’s me… the mine manager… An armed worker? … Where was this observed? Impossible… That was machine gun fire, not individual shots… What are you implying? … I am the mine manager…”

After hanging up, he instructed the driver to go to the clinic. The driver, who was equally shaken, told alarming news during the drive: “Before the end of the working day, seven gendarmes went through the trees behind the ‘9 Units’ building and hid in the woods.”

The engineer thought about the sequence of events from the previous day to today, attaching importance to even the smallest details in the hope of grasping the big picture. Suddenly he remembered: that morning he had watched ‘Colonel D…’ navigate the entire expanse of the mine valleys, inspecting every nook and cranny thoroughly. He remembered their encounter and the dialog they had had. When he introduced himself, the colonel had inquired: “Mr. Engineer… You are an employee of the state. The government has invested in your education and training, right? It certainly retains some rights over you. There comes a difficult time when people like you have to show their appreciation. You understand that better than I do, of course. What else can I say?”

At that moment, the engineer had not understood what he was getting at and naively replied: “Indeed… Colonel. It’s a collective responsibility. I am in charge of two thousand five hundred workers here. What greater contribution could there be? Right? That’s my official duty. Besides, productivity has increased by twenty percent in the two months since I took on this task… As a matter of fact, it has…”

“What location were you transferred here from?”

“From Behshahr.”

Hearing this, the colonel became even more attentive and with a scrutinizing look he continued: “The morale in Behshahr is miserable. No, it really is. But that does not matter to me. I do not care about the increase in production. Am I right? The focus is on this place. Their labor force… there’s something strange about them. The government has received certain reports that may be unfounded. However, one cannot completely dismiss these rumors. The government’s policies are invariably pro-labor, even more so these days. Of course, you are more familiar with the finer points. I trust that you will shoulder your responsibilities and cooperate willingly with the government authorities…”

With these words, the colonel had finished his admonition and continued his inspection. His parting words, “cooperate”,” were so sarcastic that they worried the engineer. Now, as he pondered this unforeseen meeting with a high-ranking officer in the Zirab valleys, the engineer began to piece together the big picture. Although the details of the impending news escaped him, it was obvious that a significant event was on the horizon. Even the crunching of autumn leaves under the car tires seemed to give the engineer a hint of impending developments.

When he reached the mine clinic at four o’clock, the scene was tense. Ten soldiers were positioned in front of the clinic, prone and with their fingers on the triggers of their weapons, all facing the “9 Units” building. A sergeant with a light machine gun over his shoulder stood at the end of the line, waiting for an order.

The engineer made his way to the clinic director’s office, where he found a third lieutenant behind a desk, meticulously cleaning his revolver. After introducing himself, the engineer asked, “Were you the one I spoke to on the phone both times?”

The lieutenant’s response was dismissive, as he had already indicated that the matter did not concern the engineer.

When the engineer tried to broach the subject of responsibility, the officer interrupted him with a sharp, mocking laugh: “Mr. Engineer, we’re long past such discussions, aren’t we? Please, continue…”

The officer resumed his meticulous weapons maintenance, leaving the engineer perplexed for a moment. With some reluctance, he steered the conversation away from the sensitive subject and asked: “So, what was the reason for your soldiers shooting?”

“You are mistaken, Mr. Engineer… It was actually your workers who did the shooting. They barricaded themselves in the ‘nine units’, didn’t they?”

At that moment, the engineer realized the full implications of the situation. He gave the young officer, who seemed somewhat overwhelmed by the assumption of his responsibility, a brief, thoughtful look. When he had calmed down again, he confirmed: “Indeed!”

Then he moved to a quiet corner to sit down.

The officer was a petite, gaunt figure with a pale face and puffy eyes. His combed-back hair, which gleamed in the dim light of the room, was neatly parted in the middle. On the table next to him was a submachine gun that he could easily reach.

The engineer’s mind wandered to a conversation he had had the previous evening with a worker from Shahi, who had brought news and urged caution.

No news had come from Tehran. The mining department was eerily quiet, not even acknowledging his latest report, which spoke of a significant increase in production.

“All right, Mr. Engineer! We’ve received reports that your miners are armed. Why the concern? The government has ordered us to disarm them with your help. That is the current order. You are aware of the precarious situation. I bear no responsibility for it. Just today, at the end of the shift, an armed worker was spotted. And a few moments ago, shots were fired by your workers. You must have heard it, right?”

The engineer kept his composure and replied: “I’m not privy to any of this.”

“But I expect you to tell me the truth of these reports.”

With a sardonic grin, the engineer replied: “I doubt it.”

The officer stood up, adjusted the revolver on his belt, clasped his hands behind him and began to walk across the room.

“Anyway, I’ve been ordered to inspect the mine thoroughly. We absolutely must search the workers’ homes and confiscate any weapons brought to Zirab by Shahi and Behshahr. They are well aware of this.”

“If I’m in charge here — and yes, Lieutenant, I am — I can’t allow anyone to go into the tunnels armed. What do you say to that? A simple inspection by you or someone else is of course permissible, provided it is officially authorized.”

The officer reacted with explosive indignation: “Mr. Engineer, if your workers are armed and shooting at my troops and have seized control of all the mine’s explosive charges with these very weapons, how can you forbid armed entry into the mine…? That’s absurd!”

As he walked towards the exit, he said, “Come on, I’ll show you the proof.”

The engineer followed him and took advantage of a moment of inattention to signal his driver to use the phone to inform the workers of what had happened.

Sergeant Heydar Babakhanloo, following the commander’s order, moved forward and reported that three shots had been fired from near the “9 Units” building at 15:05, whereupon the workers retaliated with gunfire and were now awaiting further instructions.

Faced with the escalating situation and the uncertainty of what lay ahead, the engineer felt his options dwindling. Resigned to the circumstances, he was forced to follow the commanding officer’s instructions and relinquish control of himself and his vehicle. Together they drove to the station, where the commanding officer informed his superior of the day’s events by telephone. The engineer, who felt obliged to tell the truth, also picked up the phone to refute the allegations.

As the evening progressed, the fog thickened, obscuring even the nearby loading dock, which was only a hundred paces from the station area, making it barely visible through the enveloping fog. A handful of soldiers roamed the station grounds, keeping vigilant watch. The expected passenger train had not yet arrived, which added to the tense atmosphere. From time to time, the commanding officer glanced at his watch, a gesture that betrayed his growing impatience.

The commanding officer broke the silence and turned to the engineer: “Mr. Engineer, from this moment on you will remain at my side. I must apologize for this imposition. The situation has been formally documented and a full report will be forthcoming. You are expected to acknowledge this report with your signature.”

The engineer, rendered speechless by the circumstances, found solace in the temporary escape, smoking on the wooden bench outside the station’s veranda and letting his mind wander in a haze over the impending fate of Zirab and its inhabitants.

As the clock approached five of the clock, the anticipation of the 5:30 p.m. train grew. The train driver, now locked in a secluded room of the station with a guard at the door, could only wait. When the half hour had passed, the passenger train glided silently away, leaving the Zirab valleys and leaving behind the looming specter of events yet to come. The train driver’s concern was palpable; he wished for news from Tehran or a brief respite through a radio broadcast. But there was no such consolation. Only the uniformed and armed figures were his companions, and there was no radio to be had. After the train departed, he was allowed a guarded freedom to roam the station grounds, his mind so consumed with worry that he barely recognized the familiar faces of the switchmen and station workers. His identity as their supervisor was eclipsed by the shadow of the unfolding drama that seemed to permeate every corner of Zirab.

When the report was finally presented to him for signature, the engineer responded with a snide laugh that needed no words. The commanding officer, who initially adopted a tone of feigned sympathy, said: “It would have been in your best interest to sign, wouldn’t it?” When the engineer steadfastly refused, his stance hardened and he replied: “Damn! Did you think that without your signature our report would be considered a forgery? Yes?”

With that, he directed the engineer to his car and they drove towards the village of Zirab. When they arrived, they were greeted by a squad of soldiers, and the engineer, who was now only acting as an observer, saw from a distance how an arsenal of five heavy machine guns and numerous rifles was methodically arranged against a wall. The commanding officer’s instruction that the engineer should use his car to transport the weapons to the mine clinic was flatly refused. Nonetheless, the soldiers loaded the weapons into the back of the engineer’s car and waited for the next move. A truck that had just arrived was suddenly commandeered. Its driver, a dirty and fear-stricken man, was hastily briefed on his task. With careful hands, he took the wheel, not wanting to soil the commanding officer’s clothes.

As the engineer was no longer needed for their operations, the commander ordered him to return to the same room, while the soldiers were instructed to make their way by hidden routes to the rear of the “9 Units” building to link up with another battalion that had set out from Shahi the previous day and planned to approach through the woods.

When the car disappeared in the fog, the engineer was escorted back to his solitary confinement. At six o’clock, the sudden roar of machine-gun fire broke the silence and its echo reverberated through the twilight.

In the confines of his room, the engineer paced restlessly, his thoughts consumed by the escalating crisis that seemed to hover like a colossal specter over the valleys of Zirab, mercilessly trampling down human lives. The sporadic gunfire interrupted his train of thought, weaving it into a mixture of chaos and fear. As darkness enveloped the landscape, there was a sense of dread and sadness in the air, emanating from the barren branches and silent stones of the valley, untouched by the gentle flow of water.

The military presence had grown to over fifty soldiers. Three machine guns were strategically positioned in front of the clinic and thirty soldiers fortified the area. As night fell, the remaining troops, armed with two heavy machine guns and additional rifles, were tasked with securing a vantage point over the “9 Units” building and surrounding houses from the curve of the valley. The battalion from Shahi announced its arrival with a series of shots to signal its readiness. Sergeant Heydar Babakhanloo carefully moved his men into position amid the growing tension and reported their readiness to the commanding officer at 6pm: “Lieutenant, sir! Everyone is in position and awaiting further instructions…”

With a disdainful grin, the commanding officer readjusted his revolver and stepped decisively outside to give the order to open fire.

The darkness made visibility almost impossible, but the targets were already marked and the soldiers were ready to unleash a barrage at a moment’s notice. Incessant gunfire could be heard until midnight, with both machine guns and rifles contributing to the noise. The once tranquil fog in the northern mountains was violently interrupted by the relentless shelling, robbing the inhabitants of Zirab of any semblance of peace. As the darkness of night enveloped the area, the gunfire left no corner untouched. By dawn, after a night of exhaustive and indiscriminate raids, every house bore the scars of a violent intrusion and no soul was spared from being tied up in a row with ropes freshly delivered from Tehran. In the morning, the entire captive population, over five hundred and twenty people, found themselves locked up in the cramped quarters of the Zirab station’s goods warehouse.

After the turbulent events in Zirab, the military hastily convened a court martial, which sentenced three people to death just seventy-two hours after the soldiers arrived. Two of them were locals who had managed to find legal representation and thus postpone their fate. Vesali”, however, was not so lucky; his execution was carried out with terrifying speed. He died the following misty morning in December in a remote valley of Zirab and his name went down in the tragic history of the region.

Vesali was a man of imposing stature, known for his tireless dedication to physical fitness, who never missed a training session during his visits to Shahi or Sari. He shared an apartment with Assad, who, lacking a family in Zirab, found a substitute home with Assad’s mother. Assad was aware of the personal sacrifices Vesali had made, including a fiancée he had left behind in Khalkhal, while he overcame other challenges in life. Inspired by Vesali’s discipline, Assad wanted to emulate his rugged lifestyle, although an early morning dip in cold water proved too strenuous and he fell ill after just a few days.

Vesali’s presence attracted attention. His physical prowess not only made him a figure of admiration, but also gave his companions a sense of greater self- confidence and strength. Although he was not the most cunning or informed of his peers, his stature commanded respect. Perhaps it was this visibility and perceived leadership role that marked him out for execution by military tribunal. In a climate where accusations and judgments were made hastily, Vesali’s imposing presence made him an easy target for those who wanted to exert control or make an example.

On the night of their arrest, there was a mixture of laughter and despair, for neither Vesali nor Assad could have guessed the gravity of their situation. The camaraderie that prevailed in those dark hours stood in stark contrast to the terrible circumstances that unfolded.

In the midst of these events, a rumor circulated among the workers that Sergeant Heydar Babakhanloo had a brief respite from the chaos, a brief interlude where he smoked a cigarette in the stillness of the night. In the meantime, the commanding officer, momentarily distracted by thoughts of personal accolades, had neglected his immediate responsibilities, only to be snapped back to reality and hastily resume the order to fire.

Sergeant Heydar Babakhanloo had inquired as to the purpose of the indiscriminate firing: “Sir! Who are we shooting at? We have already wasted a lot of bullets…”

The commanding officer, visibly irritated, interrupted: “Damn it, shoot! The enemy is approaching!”

After Sergeant Heydar Babakhanloo had fired three volleys of machine-gun fire, he reported with exertion: “Sir, the enemy has retreated!”

Assad and Vesali told this story to their friends, to hearty laughter.

The future remained uncertain. The more pragmatic among them were busy suppressing the weight of their thoughts. Some clung to a semblance of hope and saw their situation as a great spectacle. By midday, rumors circulated that by evening their fate would be sealed. In the afternoon, the first nine were taken away, leaving a palpable sense of fear and uncertainty. In the evening, the remaining prisoners were lined up on the station forecourt, where soldiers and some local celebrities selected people they recognized or wished from the group. Among the twenty-five people selected by the commanding officer for the second group was the chief engineer of the mine. The arrival of a new commanding officer in the platoon at 5:30 p.m. to take command signaled to everyone that the events unfolding were consistent with the unrest in Chalus, Shahi, and beyond.

Vesali’s trial, the last of the original nine, ended remarkably quickly, surprising even the executioners. Tehran’s approval for his execution was obtained immediately, reflecting its desire for a speedy trial.

His trial was uncomplicated: his name and surname were recorded, the pre-prepared indictments were presented and he signed without coercion. Unlike others who were tortured for their confessions under the lashes of Sergeant Heydar Babakhanloo in the makeshift court under the station’s veranda, Vesali complied without resistance.

When Vesali learned of his impending execution the next morning, he met with a clergyman to administer last rites and record last wishes. After a silent conversation and a short prayer, the cleric asked Vesali to write a will. Vesali thought about it and then asked: “Do you know Assad?”

“No.”

Vesali hesitated and initially wanted to leave a message for Assad, but then he withdrew his request and murmured: “… No… no! Don’t bother trying to find him. I have nothing more to say to anyone. Not even to you.”

Despite the cleric’s persistent efforts, Vesali remained resolute and finally drove him out of the room with firm determination.

At ten o’clock the next morning, his captors came to fetch him from the coal shed where he was being held. Given the urgency of the situation, they dispensed with handcuffs and instead bound his hands with a length of the new white rope that had accompanied the firearms from Tehran. They stood him upright in one of the autumnal valleys of Zirab, near the mine’s clinic, overlooking the slope of a hill with a narrow, frozen stream at its foot.

The dense fog that shrouded the valleys of Zirab and the surrounding area muffled the echo of the eight shots and laid a new air of sadness and cold over the region.

© Ali Salami 2024

About the Author

Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, a giant of Iranian literature, continues to stimulate discussions about identity, modernity and cultural integrity. His journey, which began in a religious family, led him across all ideologies to a bold critique of blind westernization and uncritical modernization.

His groundbreaking work “Gharbzadegi” (Westoxification) sparked nationwide discussions about the erosion of Iran’s heritage through the cultural and technological dominance of the West. Al-e-Ahmad conveyed his critical discourse through his engagingly personal narrative, creating a lasting impact.

Although he was disillusioned with Marxism, his later engagement with Islamic issues did not mean a capitulation to orthodoxy. It reflected his unwavering search for a framework that filled the cultural and spiritual gaps he perceived in Iranian society.

A literary giant, his diverse body of work included novels, essays and travelogues and served as an important reference point for understanding the socio-political and cultural landscape of mid-20th century Iran. He is also known for some of his short stories such as Someone Else’s Child.

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