The Septembers of Shiraz
Isaac stretches his legs, tapping them with his fingers to help his blood circulate. He is glad to have a sink in his room; he rinses his face several times a day and lies back down. He is also glad to have an ant colony, for which he saves his leftover sugar cubes and bread crumbs, distributing them throughout the day and watching the parade of tiny insects carrying the goods. He is not sure how long he has been in solitary. Probably not yet a week since he has neither had a shower nor has he been allowed to take in fresh air. He assumes these to be weekly activities here, as they had been in the communal block, but he may be wrong.
From his basement window, which overlooks a courtyard, he can see feet, and when he gets tired of watching the ants, it is the feet that help him pass the hours. Most are in sneakers, some are in leather boots, some in brown plastic slippers. Some are firm in their step, others drag. Occasionally, when he sees a pair of shoes that he recognizes because of the pattern of a stain or a shaved heel, he counts the number of times the shoes’ owner passes back and forth throughout the day. If the number is even, he tells himself that he will get out of prison alive, if it is odd, then he will not. He has fallen on both odd and even numbers enough times to know that they mean nothing, but each time he ends with an odd number he sleeps with a heavy heart and tells himself that itis possible that he missed one of the shoes’ passages—he may have been washing his face or studying the ants, who knows?
He lies down, too tired this morning to count the shoes. He hears the steps he has grown accustomed to—someone running up and down the stairs above his cell, with the lightness of a child. He cannot figure out what a child may be doing in a place like this.
After his breakfast of tea and bread the door to his cell opens. “It’s time for your shower, Brother,” a masked guard says.
Isaac gets up, his joints and muscles hard and unyielding. His lower back is so stiff that it feels numb. He looks into the guard’s gray eyes and says, “Brother Hossein?”
“Yes,” the guard says. “I have the morning shift on this end.”
He follows Hossein down the hallway and into the shower stall. “You have five minutes,” Hossein says.
The water is cold. Isaac quickly washes himself, then rinses his shirt and underwear with soap and water in the remaining time. He puts on the wet clothes and comes out. Hossein gives him a lip balm. “Use this,” he says.
“Thank you, Brother.” Isaac takes the balm, squeezes a drop out of the tube onto his finger and rubs it on his lips, which are cracked and bleeding. He returns the balm.
“Keep it,” Hossein says. “Come now. You need some air.”
He follows Hossein up several flights of stairs, stopping many times to catch his breath, until they reach a metal door leading to a roof. A dozen benches have been placed here, each one occupied by a prisoner and a guard sitting side by side. The late-morning light is strong, too strong for a man who has grown accustomed to a basement. They walk to a bench and sit.
He feels the clean mountain air on his damp face, smells the soap drying on his skin.
“Brother,” Isaac asks. “Why was I brought to solitary?”
“Sometimes people start in solitary then go to the communal block, sometimes it’s the other way around. I don’t know why.”
“Does anyone get out of here alive?”
“Yes,” Hossein says. “If you are innocent, you will get out.”
“But that isn’t always the case, is it? Many innocents die.”
“Some innocents die, that’s true. And some guilty ones get away. In the end, it balances itself out.”
No, it does not balance itself out, he wants to say. That my life should be nothing more than an X on one side of an equation to balance the other side is of no comfort to me. He looks at Hossein’s callused hands, his stubby fingers ridged at the knuckles, the thick cuticles eating into his nails. He is wringing his hands, looking out into the distance through the holes in his mask.
“What were you doing before you were a prison guard, if I may ask, Brother?”
“I was a mason. I built many homes with these hands. Beautiful homes, with terraces and gardens and porches.” He looks down at his hands for a long time, running one finger on the veins of the other, like a man committing a beloved landscape to memory.
“And which do you prefer, masonry or guardianship?”
“Brother, these are different times. There is a time to build things and a time to destroy in order to build again. Perhaps one day I’ll be a mason again, but right now this is what I have to do. We must take the weeds out of the soil.”
Back in his cell he lies down. He feels lighter after the shower and the fresh air. Again he hears someone running up and down the stairs above his cell—he knows it is a child because of the speed, that lightness in the step that can only belong to one who has his entire life before him, and believes that this life will be good. He remembers how his own children used to race on the stairs of their house, Parviz sliding down the banister, Shirin yelling, “That’s not fair, you are not allowed to slide!” and Farnaz snapping at both of them to stop—someone will end up with a broken head, she said. He enjoyed these sounds—the chaos of a family—even if he himself was only a bystander, reading his paper and sipping his tea in a corner. They were an affirmation of his own existence, proof that he had had enough faith in the world and in himself to have children. Even now, lying here, he is glad that he had once had this faith, like a landscaper who plants an oak tree knowing that it will not be fully grown in his lifetime—but that it will grow.
The door to his cell opens and a guard walks in. “Brother, follow me.” He is led down the stairs into an empty room with two chairs and a desk. Mohsen is on the other side. He says, “Brother Amin, we meet again.” When Isaac does not respond he continues. “Perhaps we will have better luck this time.” He hands Isaac a paper and a pen. “Please write down the story of your life,” he says.
“The story of my life?” Isaac hesitates before taking the paper.
“Go on,” Mohsen says. “Take all the time you need.”
He sits down, holds the pen, which feels foreign in his hand. Something will come to pass very soon with Mohsen, he thinks. If this were a game of poker, this would be the point where Isaac would have to either raise the stakes despite a mediocre hand, or recognize his defeat and fold. He decides to raise the stakes. He will play Mohsen’s game. But how can he reduce his entire life to a few lines? It occurs to him that he is writing his own obituary—the sort of scant paragraph he would read in the newspaper and think, There must have been so much more to this man’s life.
He starts, “My name is Isaac Amin. I was born in the port city of Khorramshahr, to Hakim and Afshin Amin. I am the eldest of three children. As a young man I worked in an administrative capacity at the oil refinery in Abadan. I studied literature and poetry, then gemology, before beginning my own jewelry business. I had wanted to be a poet but realized that words do not put food on the table. I live in Tehran. I am married, with two children. I hope not to leave this earth without seeing my family again.”
He reads the note and wonders if he should have written the last line. Crossing it out now would appear suspicious. He hands the paper to Mohsen.
Mohsen reads it, then says, “So spare, Brother Amin. Surely there was more to your life than this.”
“I told you, Brother. I am a simple man.”
“How come you have only two siblings? Back then people had many more children, did they not?”
“My parents didn’t.”
“But you did end up with that troublemaker brother of yours. The bootlegger. You still wish to go on protecting him?”
“Brother, I swear to you I have no idea where he is.”
Mohsen keeps on reading. “You had wanted to be a poet? How romantic. How does a poet become such a rich man, that’s what I’d like to know.”
“Perhaps the same level of idealism is required of both poetry and jewelry making, Brother.”
“There is no mention here of any friends or acquaintances. Who were your close friends? People you might have had over for dinner…”
“I am an introvert by nature, Brother. I do not have any close friends. I enjoy being with my family, or spending time alone.”
“Ah, a specialist in solitary confinement! Then we’ve brought you to the right place.” He laughs without looking up from the paper. “And of your trips to Israel,” he continues, “you write nothing.”
“I have also not written of my trips to the many other parts of the world I have been to.”
Mohsen walks to a door, which Isaac had not noticed when he first walked in. He opens it. “Brother, I’d like you to listen to something.”
At first, he is not sure what the sound is. He thinks it may be a dog howling. After a few minutes, the voices quiet down. He hears footsteps, followed by the shuffling of papers. A pungent odor of sweat and blood spills into the interrogation room. A voice says, “No change of heart?” Another voice, much weaker, says something, but he cannot hear it. Then it comes, the unmistakable sound of leather hitting flesh, and the shrieks of a man, which he had first mistaken for those of a dog. The shrieks grow meeker as the cable grows louder, and with each hit the first voice says, “Speak or breathe your last breath . . .”
Mohsen leaves the door open and walks away, his arms crossed against his chest. He leans over the desk. “You see how much awaits you that you don’t know about? Now speak!”
“Brother, what do you want me to tell you? I have nothing to say.”
“Tell me about your activities for Israel! And that brother of yours. Where is he?”
Isaac says nothing. Mohsen walks to the door, where the voices have once again quieted down.
“Brother Mostafa, your next man is ready for you.”
No, no, dear God, please don’t. Not this. He feels blood rushing to his head, and a pain in his heart—a tightening. He cannot breathe. I am having a heart attack. Perhaps he should. Better to die here than under the cable, with his torturer’s voice as his elegy. A masked man grabs his arm and lifts him. He is dragged to the other room and is laid facedown on a wooden plank. His shoes and socks are removed. He feels cables snaking around his ankles and attaching them to two poles. Dear God, have mercy on me. So it is really happening. To him, Isaac Amin of Khorramshahr, son of Hakim and Afshin Amin. My name is Isaac Amin, my name is Isaac Amin. Where are you, my Farnaz? Come and see what they are doing to me. And my little Shirin. Come, look at your father. Come see what has become of him. Come, my Par- viz. See your father barefoot and facedown on a plank of wood, about to be beaten like a dog. The cable slices the air before slicing his feet. It is a jagged pain, unidentifiable, which travels through his nerves to the rest of his body. One, two, three, he counts. Four, five, six, seven. “Will you speak now? No?” Eight, nine, ten. He no longer feels his feet. He keeps counting. Eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen. “Still nothing? Repent, you son of a dog!” Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen…
Would you like some tea, Amin-agha? Yes, Habibeh, thank you. Shahla and Keyvan are having a dinner party on Thursday night; write it in your calendar. Didn’t they just have a dinner party? Yes, well, she is your sister, not mine. Baba-jan, what is the capital of Egypt? Cairo, It’s not Alexandria? No, it’s not Alexandria. Didn’t they burn a huge library in Alexandria? Yes, they did. Who did? First the Romans, then the Christians, then the Caliph of Baghdad Bab bah, Amin-agha, welcome, welcome! Will it be just the two of you? No, we will be joined by our friends Kourosh and Homa. Very good Come this way. We have an excellent fesenjan tonight.
A hand shakes his arm, “Brother Amin, wake up.”
He opens his eyes. His cell is dark. A guard places a tray by his mattress. “You should eat. If you don’t eat you will lose all your strength.” The door slams shut.
Isaac sits up, leans against the wall. He cannot feel his feet. He bends and touches the soles; they are all peeled skin and raw meat. A burning sensation travels up his legs. He thinks of Mehdi. He pictures Mehdi in a wheelchair with no legs. He thinks of Ramin. He sees the boy’s body, naked, a hole in his forehead, lying in a morgue. He remembers the ill-fated Vartan, sees him in a metallic cubicle not far from Ramin, his long fingers now resting on his gray, swollen body. He takes the bowl on the tray and fills his spoon with rice. He forces it down his throat.