THE MOTORCYCLE RUMBLED down a residential street lined with tall block apartments. Behrouz said over his shoulder, “I saw what happened to the girl. Someone behind you shot her. It wasn’t anyone from Golestan. It was someone from the barracks, a local guy. I saw you run, so I grabbed a motorcycle and followed to make sure you were all right.”
“I don’t want to go back to the barracks,” Ahmed said. “I don’t want anything more to do with the militia. I just want to go home. Take me to the train station.”
Fifteen minutes later they were at the railway station on the east side of Tehran. Ahmed bought a ticket, and they sat on a bench in the waiting area for his train to depart. His cheek had become swollen and throbbed, and a tooth near the swelling felt loose. He was in pain everywhere, particularly in his ribs, and it was difficult to sit straight.
Revolutionary guardsmen were patrolling the station. Ahmed worried they would question him because of his swollen face, but Behrouz kept his black helmet in plain sight and smacked the truncheon impatiently against his palm whenever they came near to make it clear he was a basiji. The guardsmen left them alone.
“I couldn’t hit anybody,” Ahmed said.
“Me neither,” Behrouz said. “I pretended. There’s a way to do it that looks like you’re hitting someone without actually touching them. I told people to run and let them get away.”
“People were afraid of me,” Ahmed said. “Nobody has ever been afraid of me before. It made me feel sick. When the girl was killed, I felt like I died too.”
He was certain that by the evening he was going to be listed as missing and by the next day tagged as a deserter. Before boarding the train, he told Behrouz to tell their commander that he intended to resign from the militia. “Tell them I will take care of it in Gorgan tomorrow.”
The train was soon out of Tehran. Ahmed tried to empty his mind by watching the countryside flash by. The rhythm of the rails soothed him. When the train slowed into Pishva, barely half an hour out of Tehran, the turquoise dome of the mausoleum of Imam Zadeh Jafar, son of one of the twelve Imams, came into view. Ahmed could name all of the Imams from memory, starting with Imam Ali, the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad who married his daughter Fatima and started the bloodline of the twelve Imams. He knew them all going back to the last of the Imams—the Mahdi, the long awaited Imam of Time.
The pale blue dome made him think of a bus trip his grade school class made twenty years earlier to visit the mosque of the Imam Mahdi in Jamkaran. He remembered it as clearly as if it happened just the day before. There were thirty boys accompanied by a Quran teacher and several chaperones. He remembered the joy he felt when he saw the domes and minarets from the distance. They arrived in Jamkaran on a Tuesday evening when the spirit of the Imam was believed to be present. The mosque was always filled that day with worshipers who were there with petitions for the Imam. During the bus ride, the Quran teacher repeated what they had been taught throughout their young lives: The Imam was hidden in a cellar when he was only five years old for his safety. The eight previous Imams, all direct descendants of Imam Ali, had been assassinated to keep the leadership of Islam out of the hands of the descendants of the holy family. The Imam remained in hiding throughout his life, and he was still in hiding the day Ahmed arrived at the Jamkaran mosque. Nevertheless, he was present in spirit and guided believers who prayed to him. He would return in physical form one day, and when he did he would emerge from the sacred well at the mosque. Jesus would return soon after, and together they would defeat the enemies of Islam and bring universal peace and justice to the world.
For Ahmed it was a heartwarming story. His father Abdollah was killed during the Sacred Defense against the invading Iraqis while he was very young. He now had only vague memories of him, but while growing up he had always felt his absence.
When he and his classmates got off the bus, he uttered a silent prayer for the Imam to come out of the well so he could rush up to him to tell him how much he missed his father and how much he longed for justice in the world. He would pledge himself then and there to fight for the Imam’s cause. He would gladly become a martyr. As they went inside the mosque, he kept saying, “Please come! Please come, O Imam!”
The students prayed between the pillars of the huge prayer room, then they were taken to the Well of the Mahdi on one side of a large courtyard. Ahmed remembered how his heart leaped when he saw it. A rectangular receptacle had been built over the well with slits in the top that allowed people to drop petitions to the Imam. His class had composed a joint petition they all signed. As the son of a martyr of the Sacred Defense, he was given the honor of dropping it through the slit. He remembered how his hand trembled as he inserted it, saying, “Please come! Please come, O Imam. Please come and bring peace and justice to the world!” He felt disappointment that the Imam did not emerge, but it was said that if he was pleased with a petition, a cool breeze would come from the well, and Ahmed was certain he felt a slight breeze caress his cheek.
The visit to the Jamkaran mosque made such an impression on him that after returning to Aliabad he worked hard to memorize much of the Quran. To better understand it, he devoted himself to the study of classical Arabic under the guidance of the Quran teachers at the Aliabad mosque. He eventually learned how to write Arabic in classical script and earned regional recognition for his achievement.
He excelled to such a degree that the clerics recommended he enter the seminary at Qom to pursue religious studies. They commissioned a genealogical inquiry. It revealed that through his father, the esteemed martyr of the Sacred Defense, Ahmed was a blood descendant of the holy family of the Prophet Muhammad. Clerics with such a distinguished genealogy wore a black turban to show their lineage. Ahmed would therefore have the honor of wearing a black turban. But he decided against it. He had been raised with the soil under his fingernails, and he often spent hours sitting in fields to watch seeds germinate. “If you want proof of God’s power, all you need to do is watch a seed become a plant,” he used to say. Rather than become a cleric, he wanted more than anything to become an agronomist, and by becoming a member of the Golestan militia, he was given tuition-free entry to the Agricultural University of Gorgan.
As the train left the Pishva station and the mausoleum of Imam Zadeh Jafar disappeared in the distance, Ahmed felt throbbing pain build up in his cheek. He could see the swelling in the reflection from the window. He rolled up his sleeves and inspected the bruises on his forearms. They were deep purple with yellow blotches around them. His shoulders hurt. He was sure he would find bruises there too. And on his ribcage. He felt stabbing pain where he had been kicked. The bruises were ugly, and people in the coach stared at him. He wanted to tell them his story. He wanted to tell them about the murder of the young woman. He wanted to scream to them about the injustice that was breaking out everywhere, that it was not true Islam. But he remained silent.
The train went east to Garmsar, then veered north over the pass through the mountains toward Saria. After Saria, it was only a couple hours to Gorgan. Before reaching Saria, he dozed off, and after a string of dreams with people running and screaming, he dreamed again of the Cave, but this time it was different. The young woman was in the dream with him, and when they were near the cave she looked at him and became frightened of him, just as she was frightened of him in the street. Then she was laying on the ground, staring at him. Blood was coming from her nose and mouth. He climbed the loose rocks to the cave entrance. As he had dreamed many times before, he saw the light after he stepped into the darkness of the cave, brilliant but not blinding. It made him afraid, and he backed away from it, but this time it came rushing toward him. He struggled to push it away, but it enveloped him, and he woke up with a start.
It took him a few seconds to remember he was on the train. People in the coach were looking at him, some amused, others with blank stares, and he did not know what to make of it. Had he been thrashing out in his dream, or screaming?
A taxi took him from the Gorgan train station to Aliabad and left him in front of his mother’s home, which consisted of several rooms above the cloth store.
Amineh gasped when she saw him. She cupped his face in her hands. “O my poor Ahmed,” she said as she broke into tears. “What have they done to you?”
She sat him down on the sofa and ran to prepare a cold compress. While he held it to his cheek, he told her everything, leaving out not a single detail. She shook her head constantly and wept when he told her about the shooting of the girl.
“We heard of people being killed,” she said. “Everyone in Aliabad is talking about it. This is surely a portent, Ahmed, a sign of the coming of the Imam. I have this certainty in me that he’s about to appear.”
“Mother, all my life I have been raised to love Islam, but what I saw was not Islam. I’m confused. I don’t know what to think anymore.”
He took off his shirt. Amineh nearly broke down in tears again when she saw the bruises. “Were they wild animals who attacked you? Only vicious animals would do something like this.”
She prepared a balm of healing oils and applied it to the bruise, then fetched a length of black cloth from the shop that she cut into a wide strip and wound it around his chest. She clasped it with safety pins. It made him feel better.
Hanging on the wall was a portrait of Imam Ali, the cousin of Muhammad and the father with Fatima of Hasan and Hossein. He had never visited a home in Aliabad that did not have an image of Ali prominently displayed: a green turban highlighting a manly face, the eyes half opened. His eyes were always enhanced with eye shadow, giving him an air of sensual spirituality. There was usually the hint of a halo in the background.
Ahmed stretched out on the sofa and contemplated the image. He finally said, “Why can’t it be like it was with Prophet Muhammad and Ali and Hasan and Hossein? Theirs was the real Islam. How I wish I could know their Islam, the true Islam.”
His mother warmed a bowl of lamb stew for him. She sat next to him on the couch so he could lean against her to relieve the pain in his side while he ate. While eating, he told her about his talk with Baba Koushiyar. He only wanted to share his doubts, just as he had shared them with her, and seek his guidance. “But he didn’t trust me and didn’t answer my questions. I think it was because I was a member of the militia.”
“Go to him again. I think he’ll trust you now.”
The next day, Ahmed went to the mosque for the afternoon prayer, and after following the prayer leader in prostrations and recitals of Quran verses, he asked to speak with the cleric.
Baba Koushiyar was startled when he saw him. The swelling on his cheek had gone down, but the bruise remained. “What happened to you, Ahmed?”
“I need to speak with you, Baba, in private.”
“Come this way then.”
Ahmed followed him to a small office. On one side were shelves lined with books with gilded spines, a desk with a computer screen, and a swivel chair, but on the other side was an open area with a large floral carpet covering the floor and thick cushions propped against the wall. An oversized portrait of the Supreme Leader was on the wall along with another of Ayatollah Khomeini. The mullah gestured for him to sit against one of the cushions.
Ahmed sat down with difficulty. Rather than sitting cross-legged as did Baba Koushiyar, he stretched out his legs. As an explanation, he rolled up his sleeves to display the bruises on his arms. He unbuttoned his shirt to show the tight wrap his mother had applied around his chest. “I’m black and blue all over.”
He told the cleric everything, not leaving out any detail or any thought that had come to him or any emotion he had felt. When it came to the shooting of the young woman and other demonstrators, the mullah closed his eyes and shook his head. “There were reports about this in the foreign media.”
Ahmed became heated. “This is not Islam, Baba. This is not right! The Imam Mahdi is goodness. What they do is evil, and they say they do it to bring about his re-appearance. How can they justify doing evil to bring about good?”
The cleric sighed. “You’re right, there is no justification for any of this. People who understand what’s right and what’s wrong don’t behave like this.”
Ahmed repeated what he had tried to tell him weeks before. “We’ve strayed from the Islam of Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali. How I wish I could know true Islam, the pure Islam of those days.”
He pointed to the bookshelves. “You’re learned in these matters, Baba. Please, please, give me guidance.”
The mullah broke into a chuckle. He leaned forward and touched the bruise on Ahmed’s cheek. “It looks like you’ve already learned what you want to know.”
Ahmed was quiet for a moment. He tried to absorb what the cleric said and wondered if the mullah was mocking him. “There’s something else,” Ahmed said finally. He told him about his recurring dream
As he spoke, the mullah looking searchingly at the carpet. At one point he squeezed his eyes together and kept them shut. Ahmed wondered if he had made a mistake by talking about the dream. It was a stupid, boring dream. He was taking up the mullah’s time. At any moment Baba Koushiyar was going to glance at the clock or break out in a yawn.
But he kept talking about it. After he described how he would became frightened by the light and would run from the cave, the cleric opened his eyes. He said softly, “Tell me more about the light, my dear Ahmed.”
“When I first had the dream, I thought I dreamed that someone was in the cave and that I was an intruder. Whoever it was shined a flashlight at me to scare me away. But when I had the dream again, the light was different. It was translucent and brilliant in the center, but it wasn’t blinding.”
“Did it move at all?”
“Only once—yesterday, when I was on the train coming back from Tehran. The light rushed toward me, and I fought it off. Then I woke up.”
“When you went up to the cave, did you see trees?”
“A few, yes, on one side. Everything else was rocky.”
The mullah’s eyes became moist. He took off his glasses and dabbed his eyes with a handkerchief.
Ahmed became concerned. “Are you all right, Baba? I’m imposing on you. Perhaps I should leave?”
“No, no, I’m fine.” The mullah fell silent again, then finally said, “I know of a cave that matches what you described.”
Ahmed brightened. “Where?”
“About half an hour from here. I have an open schedule for the next few hours. If you want, I can take you there, and we’ll find out if it’s what you saw in your dream.”
The mullah owned an older black Paykan with bad suspension. He drove on the highway part of the way, then turned off on a road that went through the small town of Kordabad and continued over the bridge to Zarringol, a village nestled in a fold of the Alborz Mountains. He parked where the road ended and a narrow trail up a canyon began. They followed the trail through dense trees until they reached a creek bed. The more Ahmed walked, the more his ribcage ached, but he ignored the pain. With each step he became more determined to find the cave. After hiking for fifteen minutes, they reached a steep slope covered with loose rocks. Above the craggy slope was a sheer cliff. At the base of the cliff was a cave. To one side were three tall pine trees with thick branches.
“That’s it! That’s what I saw in my dream.”
He scrambled up the loose rocks, but after going up a dozen yards, he became alarmed. The same fear he felt in his dreams swept over him. He looked back. Baba Koushiyar was still at the bottom leaning against a boulder.
“Aren’t you coming with me?”
“Whatever for? It’s your dream. Go on, I’ll wait for you here.”
Ahmed continued up the slope, slipping several times on loose stones. When he was in front of the cave entrance, he looked back down the slope. Baba Koushiyar now appeared hardly bigger than the tip of his thumb. The mullah waved at him in a shooing motion to keep going. The entrance was narrow, forcing him to slide in sideways, but it opened up wider inside. Shafts of sunlight beaming through the entrance lit up the ground, but farther inside the cave was in total blackness. He shuffled his feet to avoid tripping over something and dragged his hand on the rough stone wall to guide himself. As in the dream, he dreaded to go in deeper, but he felt the same compulsion to find out what was in there. Maybe there was no light. It was just a silly dream, and it meant nothing at all. This was just one of a thousand caves he could have found in Golestan, a cave like any other.
When he was twenty paces inside, he was startled by a light that appeared in front of him, first as a tiny point, and then it grew. It became large and brilliant, but it did not illuminate the cave. It flared out suddenly, and he drew back in fright.
“Who’s there? What do you want of me?” he demanded as he backed against the wall. The jagged wall dug into his back, and he became aware of the pain in ribs. His heart pounded.
The light flared bigger and brighter. It did not float toward him as it had in the dream, but grew bigger so that it seemed it would encompass him. He struggled to keep it away. He felt panic rising in his throat and then into his head. Surely he was insane, first to have such dreams and then to go into this dark place. He was sure he heard a voice, but he could not make out the words. He backed up a few paces, then turned and ran toward the shaft of sunlight that came through the entrance. He squeezed between the narrow walls and scrambled down the slope, sliding several times before reaching the bottom.
Baba Koushiyar was still leaning against the boulder. “Baba, I saw a light,” Ahmed said, barely able to contain his panic. “I must be going mad. It’s one thing to have a dream, but it’s another to see something like this when you’re not in a dream. I think I was hallucinating. I’m sure I heard a voice. The light spoke to me.”
“What makes you think it was a hallucination? You’re wide awake.”
“Whatever it was, it frightened me.”
The mullah looked at him sternly. “You came to me with your dreams and your questions. Maybe you’re afraid of getting answers? You must go back. If you don’t you may never have the opportunity again.”
Ahmed took a deep breath and got a grip on himself. “You’re right. I’m behaving foolishly.”
He climbed back up the slope. He took one last look at Baba Koushiyar way down below, then slid through the cave opening. It was as dark as before. Maybe nothing was there. It was just his mind playing tricks on him. He had been having dreams of a light in a cave, so now that he went into a cave, his mind conjured up the light. That had to be the explanation. His mind was playing tricks. He went deeper into the cave, shuffling his feet as before to keep from stumbling, and ran his fingers along the wall as a guide.
When he was twenty paces into the cave, the light appeared again, at first dimly, and then it flared out. It was the same luminance as before, brilliant yet not blinding. He fell to his knees and raised his arms in the direction of the luminance.
“Who are you?” he said with a trembling voice.
There was no answer.
“O light, what do you want of me?”
The cave was silent.
“I have dreamed of this, and I’ve had questions that I can’t find answers for. Can you help me? Is that why I’m here? Will you help me to understand?”
Again there was silence.
Ahmed said, “Who are you?”
After a moment, a voice said, “I am you, and you are me.”
It was a voice unlike any that he had ever heard before. He could not tell if it came from outside of him or inside, but it was clear and distinct: “I am you, and you are me.”
He was surprised that he was no longer frightened. “O light, I don’t understand what you mean. I want to know. I want to understand because there is so much that I don’t understand. All of these things that have been happening, they’re so confusing. Please, can you help me to understand?”
The light suddenly expanded. It encompassed him. He did not fight it as he had done before. He surrendered to it, and as he did a feeling of joy like he had never felt before swept over him.
After a moment in the embrace of the light, his head began to spin, and then his body. It seemed like the ground dissolved from under him. He reached out to steady himself, but he could not find anything to grab hold of. His body seemed to float on a cushion of rushing air, but the light was gone. It felt like he was falling, and he imagined he was falling from an airplane in the darkness of the night. The blackness was so total that he became fearful again. He was sure he was having a nightmare, but with his eyes wide open. Then colorful lights appeared in flashes and disappeared just as quickly. Roars and whistles and grinding sounds assailed him.
And then he was wet, soaking wet. He was immersed in water, warm water. It was not a dream. There was no question about it. He was underwater, and he had to hold his breath. He kicked his legs furiously to swim up. When he broke to the surface, he reached out and felt stone and grabbed onto it. It was craggy and allowed him to take a firm hold to keep from sinking.
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