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Chapter Two: The Boulevard of Death

Tags: ahmed behrouz

BEFORE LEAVING FOR Tehran, Ahmed and the volunteers from across Golestan were issued black helmets and hard rubber truncheons at the militia headquarters in Gorgan and were assigned to one of dozens of buses. Most of the men on Ahmed’s bus were from different towns, young agricultural workers with short dark beards and trim moustaches.

Several of the militiamen from Aliabad boarded Ahmed’s bus after he did and followed him hoping to sit next to him, but Ahmed chose a window seat next to Behrouz, a former in-law. A crop-duster pilot and avid soccer player, Behrouz was popular among the paramilitaries for his jokes and the crazy acrobatics he sometimes performed in his airplane. Ahmed had been married to one of Behrouz’s cousins, Shadi, who died the previous year as a result of an accident. They remained close friends, but even so, Ahmed never dared to reveal his doubts to him.

Every time their paths crossed, Behrouz had words of consolation for Ahmed’s loss. Shadi suffered from a severe form of epilepsy, but at times she refused to take medicine that kept it under control. She would do this over his protests because her illness sometimes brought about experiences of such extraordinary joy that they made her feel like she was “wrapped in the arms of the divine,” as she used to tell him. But one day after she had not taken the medicine for more than a month, she suffered a grand mal seizure while descending a steep concrete stairwell in downtown Aliabad. She struck her head on a sharp corner at the bottom and died a few days later from the injury.

They spent a few minutes recalling fond memories of her, then after a long silence, Behrouz tapped his truncheon against the palm of his hand. He glanced over at Ahmed. “Tell me the truth. Do you really think you could hit someone with this?”

Ahmed shrugged.

Behrouz hit his palm hard with it, making a smacking sound. “Do you know what I said to them at headquarters? I said to them, ‘Wouldn’t it be better for you to make use of my talent as a pilot? Let me fly over the protesters and drop pamphlets on them warning them of hellfire if they don’t go home!’”

“What did they say?”

“One of them said, ‘They don’t have crop dusters in Tehran.’ Then another one handed me this truncheon and said, ‘Drop this on their heads.’”

Behrouz continued the patter for another hour before settling in for the long drive. Ahmed fought off sleep by leaning his forehead against the window and watching the road lights flash by. The lights were bright streaks and made him think of the “cave dream,” as he now called it. It was always the same dream except that each time there was more detail. In a recent dream he had to climb a slope covered with sharp broken rocks before getting to the cave entrance. In another there were trees on one side of the opening. He wondered about the light. Maybe the explanation for it was prosaic: Someone was inside the cave with a flashlight who thought he was an intruder and frightened him by flashing the light in his eyes. He recalled a video about spelunkers with lights built into their helmets. But dreams were never prosaic. It was certain the dreams had a deeper meaning. The last time he had the dream the light seemed more a translucent glow, brilliant in the center, yet not blinding. What was the meaning?

He resisted going to sleep out of fear of having the dream again, but the late hour, the drone of the bus, and the zipping lights soon lulled him into sleep. And once again he was in the cave; once again he was fearful as he stepped into the darkness; once again the brilliant light appeared, and he was startled into awakening.

He looked around the bus. The interior was dark, the motor was humming. Behrouz was asleep. Everyone was asleep. The lights along the road continued to flash by. They were bright like the glow of the cave. “O cave,” Ahmed groaned. “What do you want? Why don’t you leave me alone?”

The bus arrived in Tehran in the early morning and stopped in front of a barracks near Niloufar Square. The words “Islamic Republic of Iran” were inscribed on the arch over the entrance to a courtyard that was filled with motorcycles. The barracks was a single-story building, and it was laid out in such a way that it made Ahmed think it was once a school. Instead of desks, the rooms were lined with military bunks. In the wide hallway were lockers, and on a bulletin board various notices were tacked, among them a list of “brotherings,” as one of the commanders called it. Each of the Golestan militiamen was paired with a local basiji.

Ahmed heard his name called. A stocky man, older than most of the militiamen, signaled to him. He was shorter than Ahmed, gruff, with a salt and pepper beard, the leader of a squadron of ten motorcycles.

“I am Reza,” he said without extending his hand when Ahmed came up to him. “You will ride with me. You will do everything that I do, and you will do everything that I tell you to do. Is that understood, Bumpkin?”

Ahmed nodded, but was irked at being called “Bumpkin,” a word big city people sometimes used for people from the agricultural provinces.

“You have a few hours to relax and catch up on sleep,” Reza continued. “Go find a bunk and stretch out. You need to be sharp when we go out. Do you understand me, Bumpkin?

“Yes, I understand,” Ahmed said.

When it was early afternoon, the entire barracks assembled in the prayer room. The room was packed. Most of the men wore street clothes and held black helmets and black truncheons at their sides. Some of the local militiamen also wore side arms.

After leading prayers, an older mullah, thin, with a sparse beard and a scholarly air, stepped onto the dais. He wore the garb of a cleric, a flowing tan tunic over a collarless white shirt buttoned tightly at the neck. His turban was black, the symbol of descent from the bloodline of Muhammad. His voice shrill, he spoke into a microphone: “My greetings are first to Imam Mahdi, the one whom all beings on earth and in heaven love without end. My greetings are then to all those who are preparing for his appearance, for they are those who await the rising of the sun. Our beloved Mahdi is the Imam of Time, the pure one who mirrors God’s soul, the perfect human, the inheritor of all prophets from Adam to the last, our beloved Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him. Imam Mahdi will fill the world with justice the same way the world is now filled with injustice.”

The mullah surveyed the room, and it seemed for a moment to Ahmed that he looked directly at him. “I bring you good news, my brothers. Our Supreme Leader, may God inspire him with the greatest wisdom, has assured us that the Imam will make his appearance soon. I can tell you with the utmost confidence: The promise of God for his coming and for the establishment of the peace and justice of an Islamic civilization throughout the world will soon be fulfilled.”

In a voice that verged on hysteria, the mullah listed the portents that were unfolding even as he spoke, proofs that the appearance was at hand. Among the signs of his imminence were the protesters who now flooded the streets of Tehran. “They are the enemies of God, of the Imam, and of the Supreme Leader of our Islamic Republic.”

When the mullah was finished, the barracks commander took the microphone. He had close-cropped gray hair, a narrow face, and an angry voice. “Soldiers of Islam,” he began. “It is now time for us to perform our duty. Our duty is to defend the Islamic Revolution from its adversaries. Our duty is to hasten the coming of the Imam. You must obey your commanders in all things. Your commanders obey me just as I obey those who command me. And those who command me obey their righteous leaders. And through this chain we all obey the Supreme Leader, who obeys the Imam of Time who in infallible. And it is the Infallible One who is calling us to action today.”

He denounced the enemies of the Islamic Revolution. It was the Zionists who were causing trouble in Iran. Their agents stirred up the populace against the revolution with false claims the election was fraudulent.

“We are certain about the results,” he went on, “but the people have been duped by these enemies, the same enemies who have promoted immorality in our cities and towns. These are the enemies who have vowed to rape your mothers and sisters and burn your holy mosques. But we have a word for these enemies, and the word is ‘death.’” He shouted slogans that the militiamen repeated while thrusting their fists in the air: “Death to the enemies of God! Death to the Great Satan! Death to the Zionists! Death to enemies of the Revolution! Death to those who hate our beloved Imam and fear his coming!”

Ahmed had heard these slogans at rallies in Golestan, though at those events people mostly mouthed the words and never appeared to be carried away. But with expert cadences, the commander injected intense anger, and the room was quickly swept up in electric rage. Ahmed felt himself being carried away too, and he had to pull himself back by breathing deeply. He glanced to the right and the left. Everywhere he saw angry mouths and inflamed eyes. He closed his eyes. “This is not Islam,” he kept repeating.

By the time the commander was finished, the men were pumped up for action. They jammed their helmets on and rushed to the motorcycles in the courtyard. Ahmed followed Reza and others of his squadron. Dozens of motorbikes roared to life. Ahmed looked around for Behrouz, but could not see him. He had been assigned to a different squadron, and Ahmed could not tell where he was in the crowd. Everyone looked the same in black helmets.

The burly Reza, his grizzled beard sticking through the helmet strap, jumped on one of the motorcycles and started it up. “Get on behind me, Bumpkin, and hold onto the seat strap. These bikes go fast, and if you don’t hold on, you’re going to fall off and break a lot of bones. Save the breaking of bones for those filthy traitors and enemies of God.”

Reza zoomed to the head of his squadron and went through the courtyard entrance. The motorcycles raced into the street and sped through neighborhoods of apartment buildings. With each acceleration Ahmed was propelled backward, and he had to dig his fingers under the strap to keep from falling. As they sped along the street, he noticed people spit in their direction.

At a residential street corner a dozen blocks from the barracks, Reza signaled for the squadron to stop. Other squadrons simultaneously stopped at corners farther up and farther down the street. Additional militiamen jumped out of black vans and formed into small groups on the sidewalks.

Reza tapped Ahmed’s leg and pointed ahead of him. “The traitors are up another block, Bumpkin, thousands of them on the boulevard. We will stampede them with our motorcycles, and if they don’t budge, we get off and start swinging. Hit them hard so they’ll never forget what God’s punishment is like.”

Ahmed’s head began to hurt. It was all so surreal, like a bad dream. Only the day before, he was in the comfortable, predictable world he had always known, and now he was thrown into the middle of chaos. He did not want to be part of it, but he had let himself get dragged into it. He should have had the courage to walk away. Now it was too late.

At Reza’s signal, the squadron zoomed down the last remaining block before entering the boulevard. At the corner, a dumpster was ablaze and stones were strewn about. When they turned onto the boulevard, they were faced with an enormous crowd. Ahmed had never seen so many people before, not even at regional soccer matches at the stadium in Gorgan. People filled the wide boulevard in loose groups from one side to the other and as far as he could see: young men, young women, the middle aged, even grandmothers and elderly men. They looked no different from anyone he knew. His mother could have been among them. Many were thrusting their fists in the air while shouting, “Give us back our votes!” or, “Death to the dictator!” Others waved placards with the same slogans. They wore green as the color of protest: headbands, headscarves, wristbands, and T-shirts, all were green. Some of the younger women even painted their faces green. Some women wore black chadors, but many were fashionably dressed and only covered their hair with a loose head scarf.

A hundred feet from the line of protesters, Reza halted the squadron with a hand signal. In unison, the drivers revved their motors to send out a menacing roar. A block farther up, riot police with plastic shields charged into the crowd from a side street, and it seemed to Ahmed the intention was to isolate the entire block of marchers from the main body that stretched farther up the boulevard. As the riot police bore down on them, the crowd panicked and many of the protesters rushed for safety behind parked cars while others threw stones at the police. Yet others retreated in the direction of the motorcycle squadron.

“Crack those hypocrite heads, Bumpkin!” Reza shouted over his shoulder while signaling to the motorbikes to advance on the protesters. Ahmed realized what was about to happen and tried to jump off, but it was too late. All ten motorcycles dashed into the crowd, and with the exception of Ahmed, both drivers and riders stuck anyone they could reach with their clubs.

It turned into a free-for-all. The crowd cheered when two of the motorcycles were knocked over. Young protesters collared the militiamen riding them and set the motorcycles on fire. By then, all of the riders had jumped off the motorbikes and were attacking small groups of men and women who were separated from the main body of protesters. Everywhere he looked, Ahmed saw militiamen beating people while the ones being beaten protected their heads with their hands and arms, pleading to be left alone. Another motorcycle squadron arrived and joined the attack.

As the ferocity unfolded around him, Ahmed became frozen. Not far from him, Reza and four other basijis stood over a young man who was laying on the ground. A woman in a chador kneeling next to him pleaded, “Don’t hit my son, please don’t hit my son! He hasn’t done anything wrong. We have a right to protest!”

Reza kicked the man in the ribs and dashed off with others toward a group of men and women near the sidewalk. As he turned to attack them, he spotted Ahmed and shouted, “What are you doing there dilly-dallying, Bumpkin? I told you to do as I do. Give these traitors God’s punishment.”

He pointed to a woman standing alone next to a car parked about twenty feet away. “Start with that whore. Beat the crap out of her!”

The woman stared at Ahmed. She was young, pretty, and frightened. In his entire life he had never done anything that caused anyone to fear him, and it tore him to see the fear he was causing her. He wanted to protect her; he wanted to lead her away from danger, but if he took even one step toward her she would become terrified. He raised his hand in a reassuring way. “I’m not going to hurt you. Run, save yourself!”

They were both distracted for an instant by the sound of gunfire, popping sounds that echoed across the boulevard. The shooting seemed to come from the rooftops. Ahmed searched for a sniper, but could not detect one. He looked back at the young woman and shouted, “Run, save yourself!”

Another gunshot rang out, this time from behind him. The bullet hit the woman, and the impact threw her against the car. She touched her upper chest and looked in horror at the blood on her fingers. She slid to the asphalt and fell on her back. Several men ran up and dropped to their knees next to her. One of them pressed down below her neck where the bullet struck.

It was a matter of seconds before her head rolled to one side, and it seemed to Ahmed she was looking at him, now with a quizzical look as if to demand why she had been shot. Blood began to spill from her mouth and nose and dripped to the pavement. Her eyes rolled upward.

“Those dirty assassins,” one of the men shouted. He shook his fist at Ahmed and screamed, “You steal our votes, and now you steal our lives.”

Ahmed felt dizzy. “This is not Islam!” he shouted. He threw his truncheon to the ground. He ripped his helmet off and let it fall to the pavement. “This is not Islam!” he shouted again, looking at various people who crowded nearby. He stumbled backward, shouting, “I am not a part of this. This is not Islam.” He kept shouting it to everyone while shaking his head.

People were furious with him because he was with the militia. Several men shoved him, but a young woman, fashionably dressed and wearing a loose head scarf, stepped up to his defense. “I saw who shot her. He’s not the one who did it.”

Another woman said, “At least one of them has come to his senses. Leave him alone.”

Ahmed looked again at the woman laying on the pavement. He wished he could have stood in front of her so that the bullet hit him instead of her. Blood now covered the side of her face and pooled on the ground. He heard more gunfire and looked around the boulevard. Several people were crumpled on the pavement. The militiamen were swinging their clubs at people farther up. Clouds of stinging tear-gas mingled with the acrid smoke of burning tires rose a couple of blocks away and spilled in Ahmed’s direction. Everywhere there was shouting, screaming, and panic. And again more gunfire.

He had to get away. He saw people run down a side street and followed them. Some disappeared into apartment buildings; a few jumped into cars and drove off. Halfway down the long block, a woman threw open a garage door and shouted to a group of men and women, “Come this way, quickly,” and closed the door after they ran inside.

Ahmed did not know where he was going. He felt dirty inside, and the only way to cleanse himself was to get as far away as possible. He kept running, but when he reached the first intersection, a group of basijis turned the corner. They were young, had stubby black beards, and wore street clothes with their shirts hanging out, street toughs who swelled the ranks of the local militia. He turned to run, but they were on him in seconds. Truncheon blows rained down on his shoulders and back. He stumbled to the ground and tried to protect his face and head with his arms, but one of the blows landed on his cheek. One of the militiamen kicked him in the side so hard it felt like his ribs caved in.

“Hit the bastard hard, hit the enemy of the Imam, crack his skull,” cried one of them.

They had to be from the barracks. They had to have been in the same prayer room with him barely an hour before. He did not dare declare himself to be one of them. They would haul him back to the barracks for interrogation, and there was no telling what would happen to him.

They did not let up until a motorcycle screeched to a stop right next to them and someone yelled, “Hey, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Ahmed was relieved when he recognized Behrouz’s voice. The militiamen straightened up, and one of them said, “What do you think? We’re giving this traitor God’s punishment.”

“You idiots! You’re beating one of your own.”

The men looked at each other. One of them said, “He said nothing to us. Where’s his helmet? This means he was running away, a deserter.”

Behrouz got off the bike. He had an athletic build and a strong voice. “You’re mistaken. The Zionist sympathizers knocked him off his bike and overpowered him. They ripped off his helmet and beat him. I rescued him and told him to get to this corner to wait for me so I can take him to a hospital. Now look what you’ve done. You’ve hurt him even more.”

“Where’s his ID then?” one of them said. “I want to see his ID card.”

Behrouz stepped toward them as if ready to take them all on. “I’m his ID. I’ll vouch for him. Shame on you for hurting him. I can assure you that this matter will be brought before your commander if you don’t let him go.”

The men grumbled insults, and after hesitating a moment they walked away.

Ahmed groaned and sat up.

Behrouz said, “Anything broken?”

“I don’t know. Maybe a couple of ribs.”

Behrouz grabbed him under the arms to help him to his feet. He climbed on the motorcycle. “Get on quickly. We have to get out of here. They might get wise and come back.”

Ahmed got on and leaned against Behrouz. He hurt all over and felt weak and wanted to forget everything, but he could not get the chaos of the boulevard out of his head. He could not get the young woman out of his mind. He could see her face as clearly as if she was standing right in front of him, first her shock at being shot, then the blood coming out of her mouth and nose, and then her eyes that seemed to plead with him to explain why this had been done to her.

“The dirty bastards,” Ahmed said. “I don’t care what anyone says, this is not Islam.”

The motorcycle hummed. Building after building whizzed by. The farther away they got from the boulevard of death, the cleaner Ahmed felt.

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Chapter Two: The Boulevard of Death


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