The Naked Woman in the Snow
Kilometers away, while we were finishing our breakfast, an elderly woman regained consciousness, shocked by her incomprehensible condition. Her skin was dark with frostbite and bruises. She could taste blood in her mouth, feel the jagged edges where her lips were torn, her teeth broken. And from deep within her, the worst pain of all.
She stared at the hunks of hair and bloodied scalp that rested near her head, then recognized them as her own. She could not stand; her ankle twisted under her. Naked and numb, she began to crawl toward a distant light. Around her, the snow fell, whispering as if in pity—or complicity.
The snow had nearly covered the misdeed, and her body. Yet some willpower remained, and slowly, she continued toward the distant doorway, where the light and curlicue wrought-iron gate offered a possible sanctuary. Her only thought was the prayer that she would live to see her husband and children once more. To her, the world had already ended; she could not have known that it was also ending for many thousands of others. She had only been one of the first.
Bit by bit, the previous evening came back. After spending six hours in an Islamic religious ceremony at a friend’s home, the woman had welcomed the cool wind as she walked out onto the street. A rose-violet light filtered through the falling snow.
The heavy fabric of her black chador was now damp as she walked in the quiet night, accompanied only by the moonlight, faint as a shred of gauze. Passing between bare trees, branches now outlined in white, the woman left a trail of footprints in the snow. Her eyes began to water from the wind, and she clutched her chador to keep it closed. Through the blur of snow, she could see the glow of lamplight only half a block ahead. She relished the thought of her warm home; there would be hot food, the embraces of her family, kisses on her cheeks.
Then she heard the engine behind her. She pulled the chador even tighter; in the past six months, there had been so much unrest. Lootings and assaults had become more common.
“Ya Allah . . .” she whispered, her prayer rising up as vapor in the cold night air. God would keep her safe. This was, after all, her childhood neighborhood. Suddenly, she heard the sound of the car’s tires braking. Startled, she slipped on the icy pavement; when she tried to stand, her ankle buckled under her, broken or sprained.
When she didn’t hear the car doors close—only the sound of the engine and footsteps behind her—she turned, hoping a neighbor was stopping to help her. But silhouetted in the headlights of a Paykan car, two teenage boys were coming toward her. The taller one pulled a whiskey bottle from behind him and slammed it on the wall near her head, shattering the bottleneck. As they approached, a scream rose in her throat, but somehow she could not make a sound.
“What are you afraid of, sexy lady?” asked one of the boys. He couldn’t have been more than 17.
“Salaam. I have a grandson your age,” she said, a survival reflex. “Perhaps you know him? Ali? He is a good boy, as I’m sure you both are.” The stench of alcohol on the boys’ breath reached her nostrils and her throat burned.
“Don’t be afraid of us,” the smaller boy said. He came close. She could smell his hair: unwashed, long, and stringy with grease. He offered her the broken whiskey bottle, as if encouraging her to drink. She pulled the chador tighter around her, exposing only a sliver of one eye.
“You don’t want to have fun with us? Come on, we just want to talk to you about God!”
She tried to stand, but collapsed, her newly twisted ankle anchoring her in place.
Taking a drink from a whiskey bottle in his other hand and waving the broken bottle in the air, the boy put his foot in front of her, blocking any move, and pushed her. She was on the ground—trapped.
“Where are you going? You too good for us? Too godly?” he asked.
He raised the heavy glass bottle and slammed it against the back of her head. She felt her mouth force shut with the impact, involuntarily biting her tongue. Blood surged in her mouth.
“We’re inviting you to a party. I said, take a drink!” the other boy hissed, pinning her arms to the icy ground.
She struggled to push the boys away. As the taller of the two pushed the broken bottle against her mouth, she began to retch. Her resistance and his drunkenness made his first attempts unsuccessful, but he did not stop until he was able to force the strong brown liquid down her throat. The force of the bottle’s impact broke her jaw; she heard her teeth crack, and screamed as the jagged edges of the glass tore her lips.
They dragged her, gagging and choking, and threw her into the trunk of the car. As she fell, through the red blur of pain, she caught a glimpse of her house—the white-decorated gate, the glow of light reflecting on the snow. In front, a stray dog gazed at her, the only witness.
After a cold, bumpy car ride, in which she drifted in and out of consciousness, the boys hauled the woman out of the trunk and dumped her on the ground. She landed on her back, hard against the snow-packed road. She tried to scream, but the boys crammed her chador in her mouth. They pulled at her clothes; she could feel her bare skin against the cold earth. She tried to cover her nakedness, the boys kicking and punching her body as if she were already dead.
At last, when she was almost unconscious, they held down her legs, and parted them wide. Then, one after the other, the boys shoved themselves inside her. They panted like animals; she felt their hot breath in her face.
The woman closed her eyes, picturing the smiles of her husband and grandchildren. She had never known any man but her husband, in the sacredness of their long marriage. At last, the boys—hot and bloodied—were finished with her.
When she heard the car speed away, her body began to shiver and convulse. She thought she was dying. But then, the convulsions stopped. For a moment, she turned to her side and opened her eyes, trying to focus on the moon, now half covered. Then everything went black.
Dawn broke; the woman had managed to crawl, inch by bloodied inch, toward the dim lights ahead that promised a possible sanctuary. When she reached the doorstep of the first house, she rang the doorbell before she fell into a fetal position, curling her knees to her chest to cover herself.
The woman who answered the door screamed, and at once removed her own chador to cover the stranger’s nakedness. With gentle hands, she pulled the wounded woman inside her house and began to clean her, murmuring that she would be all right.
The woman, almost unconscious, flinched when her protector brought the warm washcloth toward her ripped mouth. “Time and God will heal you,” she whispered. Wrapping her in a cashmere blanket, she rushed to the black rotary phone and dialed the number of someone important: the Grand Ayatollah.
Two nights earlier, Baba had witnessed a confrontation in front of the Rose Hotel that he dismissed as “an incident.” He imagined that he had headed off the conflict, not comprehending the larger implications.
Hostilities had been building with the government ever since Baba had openly denied the shah’s political cronies access to the Rose Hotel. His reason was that they refused to observe his strict religious codes of conduct: no alcohol, no music, no women who weren’t covered in a chador, and no unrelated men and women together.
After that perceived insult, the shah’s officials would pull up in the driveway of the hotel in armored cars, jeering out the window. This most recent time, they had pantomimed shooting at the hotel, aiming with their fingers as if poised on their automatic rifle’s release. The guns they wore at their hips were real enough. Baba was not intimidated. “Get out. You are not welcome here,” he told them.
As owner of one of the biggest hotels in the city, Baba took his orders from God, not the monarchy. It did not take long for the story to get around.
Unrest had been building for a year. Rumors were that the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini’s son had been assassinated while being interrogated by the Savak, the shah’s feared and hated secret intelligence organization established with the help of the CIA. The first antigovernment protests had begun, and the Shah’s attempt to stifle public dissent had resulted in many civilian deaths. Iran was thrown into political turmoil, which was fast becoming a national movement to end the shah’s rule.
The United States and Britain were seen as the powers behind the Pahlavi regime. A long history of resentment had been festering against the two countries since 1953, when both nations led the military coup d’état against democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.
By the winter of 1978, Mashhad was in the throes of massive unrest. Baba was sympathetic to the growing Islamic movement, as were the majority of Iran’s people. The shah, with Western and U.S. support, had full authoritative control in Iran, leaving no room for involvement of average citizens. The people could not yet foresee what dangers lie ahead; all they knew at that time was that they preferred the religious leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to the shah. The shah was viewed as a corrupt and irreligious monarch who was fueling his own lavish lifestyle with Iranian oil, while average citizens suffered and income disparity worsened.
The daily protests were beginning to affect every aspect of daily life. Mistrust filled the air, and unrelenting strikes by transportation and oil industry workers, as well as street demonstrations, paralyzed the country.
As we innocently enjoyed our last peaceful breakfast, the revolution had begun. During this turmoil, two decisions tore apart my family: the first, my father’s, and the second, my brother Abdollah’s.
What followed was inexorable.
The phone call might as well have been a draft notice for our father: Grand Ayatollah Shahami’s call to Baba would enlist our family in the forthcoming regime destined to become the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Ayatollah Shahami, an important member of the clergy, had asked Baba to marshal the hotel staff to search for the two boys accused of raping the woman and apprehend them. It was easy for Ayatollah Shahami to draft Baba for the job.
“Only a man with your courage and sense of duty to God could do this,” he told him.
Baba gathered a search party of his hotel employees who each headed in different directions, combing the streets of Mashhad. For 11 hours, they hunted for the two teenage boys.
The victim had provided few details: a white Paykan car with a broken back window, a taller teenager with arrogance in his voice, and his meek and shorter accomplice who was thinner and had longer, tangled hair. Everything else had been a blur. Baba had little to go on, but he was determined to find the attackers.
The team had been searching since morning. Now the moonlight was brighter, the wind cooler. From a distance, he spotted the Paykan. Pigeons scattered as he sped down the dimly lit alley toward the muddy car. The headlights reflected the edge of the broken back window as he began to inspect the bumper, then the scraped, dented trunk. When he saw the dried blood, he knew he had found the perpetrators. Anger rose in his chest. He went up to the house where the car was parked and pounded on the door with both fists.
The door opened, only a crack, and a teenage boy with long tussled hair peered out, meeting Baba’s glare.
The smell of alcohol was strong. “Come outside! Now!” Baba demanded.
The boy squinted. “Who are you?” he asked, lacking the usual politeness that was customary between strangers.
Baba slapped a hand on the door frame. “I said come now, or I’ll wake up your entire family. Where were you last night?”
“Nowhere. I wasn’t anywhere.”
Pushing the door open and grabbing the boy’s arm, Baba pulled him down the alley to the Paykan, and pointed to the brown stains smearing the trunk. “You want to tell me how this blood got here?”
The boy’s lower lip quivered.
“Is your father home?”
Baba squeezed the boy’s arm again, twisting it. “Open the trunk.”
Drenched in the stench of liquor, the bloodied chador and the victim’s ripped blouse and skirt sat in a tangled heap. When Baba saw a chunk of gray-streaked hair, he slammed the trunk and shoved the boy against the car.
“You were ‘nowhere’?”
The boy began to cry. “I want to call my parents.”
“What, you want to call your Savaki father?”
The boy shifted from foot to foot. Everyone knew that members of the Savak would be hunted down and executed by the new regime for the crimes they committed against opponents of the shah’s regime.
“He’s not a Savaki. He left the shah a long time ago. I want to call him.”
“Get in and shut up,” Baba ordered as he pushed the boy into the backseat of his car. Livid, he didn’t notice that the boy hadn’t yet pulled his foot in the car before he slammed the door. The boy let out a yelp. Shattering the winter quiet, Baba hit the accelerator and sped down the street, scattering the pigeons again.
Baba cursed the boy under his breath as he weaved through the dark street; he did not slow down, even when the car tires hit potholes. Instead, he sped up.
“It wasn’t my idea,” the boy mumbled from the backseat. “I can’t even remember what happened.”
Baba reached the main street. He hit the brakes and turned to face the boy behind him. “Where does your friend live? Direct me!” He accelerated, then slammed on the brakes; the boy’s chest hit the seat in front of him. Baba pointed his finger at the boy’s eye. “Right or left?” Baba didn’t bother asking him for his name, it didn’t matter. The boy’s crime was what identified him.
“It was his idea, I swear to God.” But he lifted his arm and pointed to the right.
As they approached the home of the co-conspirator, Baba kept his hand gripped tightly around the boy’s arm, preventing him from escaping. When they reached the front of the house, the boy knocked on the door, asked for his friend, and took a step back when his accomplice came out. Baba grabbed the new boy by his shirt collar, and, paying no attention to his flailing arms or shouts, pulled him toward the car. The first boy tore at his hair and wept; head down, he got into the backseat and didn’t look up when Baba threw his friend in next to him.
The second boy stared out the window, avoiding eye contact with Baba in the rearview mirror. His body was wobbling, his eyes almost shut by the swell of a hangover as his head bounced on the headrest.
Baba broke numerous speed limits crossing town to the Grand Ayatollah Shahami’s home. He wasn’t worried about getting pulled over by the police. He was on a mission, above and beyond the law.
Because of the widespread turmoil on the streets, the boys were unlikely to be arrested or even put on trial for rape, so Baba knew that getting them to Ayatollah Shahami was imperative. The ayatollah had told Baba that until order had been restored, he would lock them in his son’s bathroom. This was the best plan for the time being.
Baba was confident that these two boys would be properly dealt with. After an 18-hour ordeal, having done his duty for his community, he headed home.
Baba and Abdollah pushed through the crowd of protesters chanting “Death to the Shah!” Posters of the stern Ayatollah Khomeini were stapled to sticks. Graffiti slogans were painted on walls on every street. My father and brother made their way, not joining in, careful not to be jostled into the drainage ditch near the screaming crowds. Burning placards of the shah curled at the edges; pieces of ash floated in the air. Baba ducked to avoid being hit by a poster depicting a bloody fist smashing the shah’s face. The Islamic revolution was in full flame.
It struck Abdollah as odd when Baba turned down a side street and stopped at the large double glass front doors of an anonymous-looking building. He hurried to catch up. “Where’re we going?”
As Baba touched the door handle, two men rushed across the cream-colored marble floor to pull it open, and a third man ran to meet Baba. He clasped his hand and began kissing Baba’s cheeks before reaching out to embrace him.
The shouts of the protesters grew fainter as the doors slid shut. Placing his arm around Abdollah’s shoulder, Baba kissed his cheek.
“This is my son, Abdollah. He’s the noor, the light of my eyes, and has made me very proud.” Baba gently guided Abdollah into the one-car showroom, and then pulled out the heavy wooden chair at the manager’s desk. “Let’s talk price and make this finally happen.”
Abdollah was shocked—buying a new car in the midst of a revolution? It didn’t make sense. Nonetheless, he was 15, and his heart pounded with joy at the thought.
He stared at the sleek black 240-horsepower Camaro parked in the center of the marble floor. He was accustomed to receiving lavish European and Kuwaiti gifts from Baba, but this was extreme. No one in Mashhad had such a car, and certainly no boy his age. He looked at Baba, “This is too much, Baba jaan.”
Baba winked at him and turned back to leafing through papers. Abdollah stepped closer to the Camaro and placed his palm on the gleaming hood. “But I can’t drive yet.”
That my 15-year-old brother would not be eligible for a driver’s license for another three years was of no concern to Baba; he had let Abdollah regularly practice with the hotel vehicles in the parking lot. Baba was determined to buy his firstborn son this imported foreign car even if, in part, it symbolized the excess of the Western world—the same West whose influence Baba feared and fought. He didn’t see the contradiction.
While the salesmen refreshed Baba’s tea for the fifth time, Abdollah circled the shiny, two-door sports coupe, studying each detail and curve: its brushed aluminum panels, the shiny leather interior, and the responsive six-cylinder engine. Since the age of six, when he first saw a Camaro in a magazine, he had dreamed that one day he would drive one of these powerful machines. He had even imagined driving one all the way to Mecca or through the streets of Paris.
In response to Baba’s bargaining, the dealer suggested a less expensive car. “No, no. It’s got to be this car, this make, and this model. Nothing else. My son has been talking about this car for some time. Make the price work.”
After Baba walked out several times and the dealer begged him to come back, the two men put down their teacups and embraced.
“Let’s go home, son.” Baba handed Abdollah the keys. “We’ll take the back roads.”
Abdollah, dazed at his good fortune, hopped behind the wheel, “This is the best day of my life,” he said. He turned the ignition and drove off, into the revolution.
Abdollah had owned the Camaro for only a week when Baba summoned him to the office with the news that they had to drive to a house on the other side of Mashhad. He ordered the porters to fill the Camaro’s trunk with enormous packages of food and supplies. Baba insisted they go after midnight and observe the speed limit. “We can’t be pulled over. We can’t risk anyone finding out who lives there.”
When they arrived at the distant house, it was dark inside and the curtains were drawn. It appeared to be deserted. Baba knocked twice, and then paused. He knocked a third time, offering a signal to those on the other side of the door. The man who answered grasped Baba’s hand; his eyes were moist. “We’re forever indebted to you. For the first time in weeks, we’re wearing clean clothes and having a fresh meal.”
Abdollah blinked. He recognized Ayatollah Khabazi from the newspapers. An intimate from Khomeini’s circle, Khabazi had been arrested and tortured for treason when he had openly challenged the shah for executing anyone who opposed the monarchy. He was rearrested for the fourth time when he spoke out against the Savak, accusing them of more terrible acts than those of the KGB. The shah had ordered Ayatollah Khabazi’s execution, but the holy man had disappeared. The truth was that he was right here, in Mashhad, under Baba’s protection.
Now Abdollah learned that Baba had been hiding Khabazi and his family for months in the home he had bought for his own aging aunt, supplying them with everything they needed from clothes to appliances. The family never left the house, except when Khabazi went to the Haram in disguise to pray. They had not registered their children in school.
Abdollah shook Khabazi’s hand and kissed his cheek. He noted the cleric’s tightly buttoned white-collar shirt and his long black cloak, which was wrinkled and worn. While the men spoke, Abdollah gave the bags of food to a woman whose face was almost entirely covered by her black chador. Abdollah recognized her by the shape of the tip of her nose. From that point on, he would bring groceries to Khabazi’s family after dark, and then secretly drive him to the mosque for prayer.
It was official: Abdollah was a man. And now he had a greater purpose: He would use the Camaro to commute across secret lines—lines that would soon be redrawn between factions of the Islamic revolution. They were lines that would impact his own life, writing an ending he never could have foreseen.
He was 15. Abdollah, the “servant of God,” drove forth on dangerous missions, glad for the car and the thrill of the forbidden.
After Baba brought Iman and me back from our illicit afternoon at the Rose Hotel, the number “314” was whispered often. We were not allowed to leave our house, and the hotel was forbidden—even the lobby. And especially the third floor.
“If they ever go anywhere near there . . .” Maman said, late at night to Baba. I had not meant to eavesdrop, but the intensity of their exchange had traveled like electricity through the wall.
Hadi, older and more adventurous, was also curious. Over the past few days and nights, he had reported mysterious activities. Why did strange men enter the hotel at regular intervals? Why was there a sudden flurry of motion on Sunday night? Why did we continue to see one light on the third floor when the rest of the hotel was dark?
Before Hadi could find out more, Maman discovered the truth.
We were sitting in the kitchen, eating oranges and waiting for Maman to create tiny human shapes from the peels—one of our favorite treats. Suddenly she slammed the receiver onto the phone’s cradle several times before hanging up. I had never seen her so angry. In fact, I had never even seen her angry. It frightened me, and I felt inexplicably guilty.
“What’s happened that you had me run home so fast?” Baba was out of breath.
“What are you doing, Haji?” Maman called Baba by a nickname earned by Muslims after their pilgrimage to Mecca. “My brother just called,” she said, standing over him as he took off his shoes at the door. “I know what you have done!”
He stopped and looked up at her. “And what did Mohsen have to say?”
Maman, always so adoring, glared at my father. “I don’t care if the Grand Ayatollah Shahami says there’s no police force to take them, Haji. They’re rapists. They may be boys but they raped a woman my mother’s age. We have a little girl. Haji, are you blind? Why isn’t your instinct to take care of yourself and your family first? For God’s sake, Abdollah works there. How could you keep this a secret from me?”
Baba looked down, averting his eyes.
“You are behaving like your father!” Maman yelled. Baba’s father had lived a secret life for years, hiding an affair from his wife. The pain forever damaged Baba’s mother. Of course, Baba was keeping secrets; he knew no other way. But what he was hiding was far more dangerous than a mistress.
Maman closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “It’s not enough that we’re in the middle of a revolution—riots, fires, flying bullets. Now we have rapists staying in our hotel? How can you possibly believe this is a good idea?”
Baba fell into a chair. “I know it’s chaos out there. I know this doesn’t feel good, but it’s the right thing to do. There’s no choice, azizam. These boys would be walking scot-free, sweetheart. At least we know where they are. I promise you, it’ll just be a few more weeks, just until Ayatollah Shahami has an official position and they have a handle on the government’s new police force.”
Maman was livid. “If it’s only a short time, why doesn’t Shahami keep them in his house? I’ll tell you why! Because he doesn’t want to risk exposing his wife and kids to criminals. And yet he asks us to do it!” Maman began to pace, hugging herself. “He’s using you. Do you think about that? They all use you. You don’t need to help everybody, and you don’t need to be a big shot.” She put her hands by her side and let her voice soften. “Please don’t do this for them.”
Baba explained that Khomeini’s ad hoc security forces were jockeying for power over the shah’s police, the Kalantari, and neither police force was willing to apprehend the boys. Under these circumstances, Ayatollah Shahami requested that Baba confine and guard the two boys in the hotel.
“Just for a short time—until things settle down,” Baba explained. “Do you want them to run free? Isn’t that even more risky?”
I put down the orange slice and looked toward the window. What was going on?
Pulling a chair toward him, Baba motioned to Maman. “Sit with me.”
She didn’t sit, but let her body slacken. “What about Abdollah?”
“Trust me. The manager and I will be guarding the room; we’ll feed them. A revolution is coming. We have no tourists; no one is coming to stay at the hotel right now. And no one will, until the boys are gone and sent to a proper jail. I promise you.”
Maman straightened her shoulders, sighed, and dropped into a chair. “Listen to me. Our little children aren’t to put one foot in the hotel until those thugs are gone. I don’t care if the rooms are locked. Not one foot. And it’s only a few weeks, right? You promise?”
Baba kissed Maman’s cheek. “You have my word.”
I stared in the direction of the hotel. How will I get the Kit Kats out of the hotel freezer now?
A week later, Baba burst into the house. “Khomeini’s in Iran,” he declared with a smile. “Everything’s going to change. It’s going to be all right.” Unable to contain his enthusiasm, he piled us into the car to drive down to the celebration where thousands, including some of the shah’s former police, poured onto the streets to welcome Ayatollah Khomeini back from his 14-year exile in Iraq and France.
From the car window, I watched as people threw candy, lollipops, and bubble gum into other open car windows. Men were riding each other’s shoulders chanting, “Esteghlal, azadi, jomhouri-ye Eslami.” They wholeheartedly believed in independence, freedom, and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
People danced, and joy erupted from the crowds that pushed into every corner of the street. I recognized that something significant, something hopeful, was taking place. I could read it on people’s faces. I saw it on Baba’s face.
The shah had fled Iran; the 54 years of the “modern” Pahlavi dynasty was over. For the first time, a religious leader, a Shi’a Muslim, an ayatollah—the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini—would also be the “Supreme Leader,” or head of government. There would no longer be a shah. Power would be delegated to a range of clerics—including religious leaders akin to archbishops. At that moment, no one seemed to consider how dangerous that absolute power might be. No one foresaw that the end of one bloodbath would only be the beginning of another.
Maman was happy, too. And shortsighted: To her, this would be the end of the two boys imprisoned in Room 314. Law, order, and religious principles would be restored.
Across the courtyard, at the Rose Hotel, the boys’ short-term stay had stretched to 65 days. With Khomeini officially in power, there were now ad hoc tribunals and revolutionary courts in place, and Baba was ready for justice to be properly served. It was time for the two boys to check out.
I saw Maman relax at last as Baba made the final call. “I can no longer keep the boys in my hotel,” he told the Ayatollah Shahami. “It is not a prison.” Shahami agreed to turn them over to the new authorities.
As a way of thanking Maman for her patience, Baba took our family on a ten- day pilgrimage to Mecca. He left the manager and Abdollah in charge of the hotel and released the boys into Shahami’s custody. As the revolution calmed down and the new regime established itself, the two boys were held in a real jail cell, without a bathroom or the service of a hotel. At last, Baba believed, they’d receive justice. And they were no longer his problem.
He was wrong on both counts.
If only Baba had never allowed the ayatollah to turn his hotel into a prison. If only Maman had not relented . . .
Holding the door open with one hand, and flipping through the prayer beads of his tasbeeh, the hotel manager was waiting for Baba the day we returned from Mecca. “I need to report something.” He didn’t meet Baba’s eyes.
“Haji, the government has released the two boys.”
“When?” Baba looked out the hotel entrance’s glass doors.
The manager followed Baba’s gaze. “Three days after you left.”
“You didn’t inform me?”
“I tried to get a message to your hotel in Mecca. International calls were impossible to make with all the turmoil here.” The manager twirled his beads.
“Haji, they’ve been here, at the hotel.”
“I warned everyone to keep their distance. They were talking to the staff, especially the cook.”
“That can’t be possible.” Baba slammed his hand on the reception counter.
“They’re claiming they are innocent and that’s why they were freed, and that
you wrongfully imprisoned them. They blame you for their inability to find work.”
“This is not happening.”
“They’ve told everyone you ruined their reputations.”
“Reputations? What reputations? But why are they free? I must talk to Ayatollah Shahami.” Baba turned and entered his office, slamming the door behind him. At first, he spoke loudly to the ayatollah; slowly, his voice quieted. He opened the door and called out to the manager.
“The next time you see those boys, bring them to me.”
The manager looked at Baba and then at the floor.
Baba hit his hand on the table. “What now?”
“It’s probably nothing, but I’ve seen them talking to Abdollah.”
That night before dinner, Baba asked Abdollah to join him in the garden. We watched as Baba trailed behind him, raising his hands and yelling.
“It was nothing, Baba. They came to me asking for a job. I felt sorry for them.
They say they’re innocent, and their families threatened to disown them.”
“Sorry for them? I told you never to talk to them. Never!”
As Baba dropped his arms to his sides and came to a halt, raindrops spattere his glasses. “Listen to me. This is important. You need to promise me that you will stay away from those boys. You don’t know who they are or what they’ve done.”
“Well then, tell me about them, Baba.”
“You don’t need to know anything more. Just promise me, if you see them, don’t talk to them. Can you promise me?”
Rain was streaming down Abdollah’s cheeks as he faced Baba. “How would I see them? They won’t come around now that you’re back.”
“Just do as I say. Nothing. Not even a conversation.”
Abdollah lowered his head. “Yes, Baba.”
Walking through puddles, they headed back to the house to dry off and join the rest of us for a dinner of Khoresht-e Karafs, Abdollah’s favorite celery lamb stew with cilantro, parsley, and saffron. During dinner, no one spoke of the boys. Baba felt confident that his son had grasped the gravity of the situation—and that he could count on Abdollah to heed his warning.
Baba paced back and forth in his office. The ayatollah had told him that the boys had repented. Could it be true? The memory of the crime scene—the bloodied clothes, the poor woman’s wounds—was still vivid. Can anyone repent from such viciousness? Though Baba’s mind said no, his faith in God decreed that anyone—especially young boys—could repent and begin again.
Hours later, the two boys stood with their hands folded in front of them, their heads bowed. Adjusting his glasses and taking a sip of water, Baba took in their bouffant hair and gold chains. “Ayatollah Shahami tells me you’ve repented.”
“Yes sir, we have. We’ve learned a new way to be.” The taller boy toyed with his long fluffy hair, trying to flatten it with the palm of his hand.
The other boy nodded. “We’ve learned our lesson. Grand Ayatollah Shahami has been teaching us, and we want to change our lives.”
“How often are you praying?”
The tall boy with extra medallions hanging from his neck spoke for both: “We’ve been making all five prayers, every day, three times a day, sir. We want to live a good life and make something of ourselves, sir.”
“Are you ready to abide by God’s laws and give up everything else?”
Both boys nodded.
Baba stood. “Prayer starts at 5:00 a.m. Arrive on time, cut your hair, throw out your medallions, and button up your shirts.” Baba waved his arm toward the mosque. “You’re to pray three times a day and meet with Ayatollah Shahami regularly. For now, you’ll work here five hours a day. The manager is your direct supervisor. I’ll fire you if you’re caught glancing at a woman, even if her entire face is covered in a neghab. And you’re only to work in the restaurant—nowhere else. You are forbidden to go near the lobby or towers of the hotel. You don’t cross the parking lot. And you keep away from my family.”
When Baba got home, Maman was waiting for him. “Are you crazy? You’ve hired those thugs to work in our hotel? We just got rid of them!”
Maman was incredulous—and furious. She dismissed all of Baba’s rationales that “this way” he could be sure the boys were not around Abdollah or loose on the streets of Mashhad.
“What are you thinking? They will be around Abdollah all the time!”
Baba protested. “Their religious studies can pave a new path for them. And maybe I can do my part to make them change.”
Maman took a step back and shook her head.
“You can’t make anybody change. Why are you putting us all at risk again, Haji? You’re going to regret this.”
“It’s not me, it’s God. They will follow the right path; we will make sure of it.” The decision required Baba to reaffirm his basic faith: that everyone could repent.
Maman would have none of it. “I want those boys out of here. The children haven’t been able to go to the hotel for the two months they’ve been there. Now they’re free and we’re in prison? You don’t see how crazy this is? Is Shahami pressuring you?”
Then Maman did something she never did. She walked away. The door to the kitchen slammed.
My brother Zain, who was watching this, began to bounce his leg rapidly against the table.
By the next morning, Maman was letting Baba sweeten her tea for her. And the last part of Baba’s decision was set into action: The boys began working at the hotel. But Maman’s predictions were to be proven terribly correct.