THE CELL PHONE RANG, and Ahmed, son of Abdollah of the town of Aliabad in the province of Golestan, knew who was calling, and more importantly, why.
He felt a rush of irritation and let the phone ring four times before answering. It was Omid, commander of the religious Militia in Aliabad and the son of a prominent cleric of Gorgan.
“The order just came down from Tehran, Ahmed. We’ve been called up.”
Ahmed was not surprised. He had been following the news of protests that had broken out in Tehran over the election results. With each passing day came reports of more demonstrations in Tehran, and also in Mashhad, Isfahan, Tabriz, and other big cities. Foreign broadcasts that could be accessed even in a small provincial town like Aliabad predicted the ayatollahs would lose control of the streets and would be unable to hold on to power for much longer. The militias of outlying provinces had already been mobilized to beef up security forces across the land, but so far the Golestan militia had only been put on alert, meaning, to prepare for a call up.
“It will be your responsibility to contact the volunteers of your section and ensure they arrive on time at the assembly area.”
Omid gave him the details: Two buses would take the Aliabad contingent to the militia headquarters in nearby Gorgan, the capital of Golestan. There they would be given riot equipment and duty assignments.
“Where are we going?”
“Tehran. Our people will be spread out among different barracks. Tell everyone to come as they are, but bring a change of clothes and something to eat because nothing will be available while we’re on the road.”
Since his early teens, Ahmed had been a faithful member of the militia and an unwavering supporter of the Islamic Republic. How could it be otherwise? His father was remembered in Aliabad as one of the martyrs of the Sacred Defense, and Ahmed was honored as the son of a martyr. Nevertheless, he had been thinking about refusing to go if they were mobilized, and even resigning from the militia if necessary. He could not bring himself to disagree with the demonstrators. It was certain the election was rigged. Even before the voting closed, many of the polling stations favoring the opposition candidates ran out of ballots, while in some stations entire ballot boxes were found stuffed with fraudulent votes. The official count was the exact opposite of what almost everyone was forecasting. Even worse, some of the opposition leaders, their staff, and student leaders from Tehran University had been jailed on charges of subversion. Some were beaten, and there were rumors of shootings.
“If they’re not going to respect the vote, then why even hold an election?” Ahmed said to his mother, Amineh, a seamstress who owned a cloth store in downtown Aliabad.
Technically, he could leave the militia any time because it was a volunteer organization. But he would face a number of serious consequences. For one, he would lose the monthly stipend he was given for organizing cultural meetings such as those commemorating the martyrs of the Sacred Defense and patriotic rallies celebrating the victory of the Islamic Republic. To date, that had been his primary role. Additionally, he would likely be expelled from the agricultural university in Gorgan where he was pursuing a degree in agronomy, a school that he was able to get into tuition-free thanks to his membership in the militia.
But much worse was the fact that he lived in a conservative town in a province where most of the people believed the time was fast approaching that the Mahdi would emerge from a millennium of hiding to bring peace and justice to the world under the banner of Islam. The coming of the Mahdi was the rallying idea of the Islamic Republic, and he himself had been raised to believe in him and pray for his appearance. The purpose of the religious militia was to support the Islamic Republic; the purpose of the Islamic Republic was to facilitate the return of the Imam of Time, as the Mahdi was called. If Ahmed refused the mobilization order, he would be treated with suspicion that he was disloyal to the Republic, that he was an enemy of the Imam himself.
He felt like a coward when he said to Omid, without enthusiasm, “I will do as you ask.”
Even before the election, he had been struggling with doubts. It was not that he rejected the idea that the government should be guided by God or disbelieved that the hidden Imam would one day re-appear. He had begun to question the doctrine that it was the obligation of the religious leaders to create strife in the world to hasten his return. The greater the chaos, the sooner the return of the Imam of Time, for it was prophesied that he would appear during a time of universal chaos. He had been taught this idea since he was very young and had only recently begun to question it.
“Isn’t that evil?” he said to his mother, the only person to whom he dared trust with his doubts. “It means starting wars and bringing about the deaths of countless people. Isn’t that what the Islamic Republic has been doing ever since the revolution? The Imam of Time is supposed to bring universal peace and justice, which is good, but how can committing evil be justified as a way of bringing about good?”
His mother was a good listener, but she had no answer other than to say that she agreed with him about everything. She cautioned him that he must keep his thoughts to himself. “Your own companions in the militia would turn on you if they heard you talking like this.”
He also confided to her about a recurring dream that was troubling him. These dreams started the year before, infrequently at first, but recently they came almost every night, and it was always the same: He enters a cave; it is pitch black inside; he is fearful of going into the darkness, but he is compelled to go deeply inside. At some point a brilliant light appears, and he becomes frightened and awakens with a start. “This dream keeps coming back, Mother. What does it mean?”
“Maybe it’s related to what you’re troubled about,” she said. “You’re searching for something.”
His doubts finally drove him to seek guidance from a cleric at the Aliabad mosque whom he suspected might sympathize with his doubts, or at least he would not repeat anything said to him in confidence. Mullah Koushiyar had a quality about him that led people to call him “Baba”—“Father.” Ahmed could not recall that he had ever heard him speak about the revolutionary ideas of the Republic during the Friday sermons. Most of the clerics spoke in angry tones and wagged their fingers with warnings for people who did not pray for the return of the Imam of Time, whereas his sermons were simple homilies that encouraged people to perform good works.
The mosque was not far from his mother’s shop. Baba Koushiyar had a round face, a trim gray beard, and cheerful eyes behind thick glasses. He invited Ahmed to sit on the carpet with him in a corner of the prayer area. He listened politely, nodding his turbaned head now and then.
When Ahmed was done explaining the reason for his visit, the cleric closed his eyes as if meditating, and after a moment said, “What you speak of are matters that are far beyond the provincial world we live in, don’t you think? The Imam will return when he chooses, and I’m certain he will reveal good things to us. Instead of concerning yourself with such questions, isn’t it best to strive to perform good works here in our town and to be forthright in your everyday dealings with people? That is the formula for contentment in these troubled times.”
The cleric was being evasive. Ahmed tried to approach the subject from different angles, but the mullah kept going around it. “Baba Koushiyar,” he said finally, “I would like nothing better than to perform good works, and I do whenever I can, but I have a sincere concern that doing good works won’t resolve. I can’t resolve it on my own. I need your guidance. What we’re called upon to do is evil. How can evil done in the name of Imam of Time be justified as a way of bringing about good?”
The mullah shook his head and repeated what he said before. As they talked, Ahmed noted that the cleric avoided looking at him directly, but instead stared at the carpet or at the windows. He wondered if he was boring him, but then it finally hit him: The mullah did not trust him. He was a member of the Basij, as the militia was called. Everyone knew he was a section leader. Everyone knew that one of the roles of a basiji was to inform on people. Was the mullah afraid he would report him if he said anything that was not in line with revolutionary doctrine? Was Ahmed an agent trying to trip him up? He left the mosque feeling angry with himself that he was untrustworthy to someone like Baba Koushiyar.
The election came soon after his visit to the mosque, and it was followed by massive protests in the big cities and reports of shootings, arrests, and disappearances. And for Ahmed it was followed by more dreams of a cave, and each time there was a burst of brilliant light deep inside that caused him to wake up with a start.
“What does this mean?” he wondered.
Before he left for the buses that awaited the militiamen, he visited his mother to tell her that he would be gone for an unknown length of time.
“There’s no telling where these protests are heading. Our country could easily spin out of control.”
Amineh kissed him on the forehead. “Whatever you do, my son, don’t hurt anyone.”
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