The Butcher Ayatollah
by Javad Mohsenian
Sitting in the prison yard, General Shahpoor Sasan, the former commander of the Kerman Brigade, was not all that unhappy. In fact, he considered himself very lucky that he had been tried in the province where he served rather than being shipped to the Capital of Tehran to face the well-known Butcher Ayatollah. Sasan received a sentence of three years and escaped the death penalty, which the District Attorney had asked for. The local judge, although a turban-headed mullah, was far more lenient. Besides, Sasan was well-known for being a pious and incorruptible man. He was the only high-ranking officer in the state and everyone knew of him. Quite a few of his subordinates had testified in his favor.
Some claimed that the general was a religious man; the head of the new school of Sharia claimed that on more than one occasion, he broke the feast of Ramadan with the Commander. Sasan’s record showed that he took his vacations in the month of fasting if it occurred during the long days of summer. Some called him Hajji General because on a couple of occasions he had escorted the Hajj Caravan to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage. The fact that, unlike most high ranking government officials, he did not own his house and his children attended public rather than private school was a big help.
The general was so relieved with his light sentence that he did not petition for retrial. In that case there was a good chance that he could be transferred to the capital to face Sarhadi, the executioner of Tehran. In fact some of his fellow prisoners advised him not to ask for transfer to the big city, reminding him of a recent bloody event orchestrated by the Islamic Republic chief justice. Apparently a number of secular activists were on their journey to be tried by the head of the Islamic Republic Court. Some of them were trouble-makers and had resorted to a hunger strike. When informed, Sarhadi had the solution.
“Put them on trial right there and give them what they deserve. Aren’t you guys armed? What’s wrong with your guns? Or don’t you know how to shoot?”
A year and a half past Iran’s 1979 revolution, no accused had escaped the death penalty if he was tried by the Butcher Ayatollah. The revolution had swallowed not only the enemy, but also some of its own prominent brain trusts. It was said that on many occasions, the chief justice was both the judge and executioner. He got a great deal of pleasure from placing the rope around the neck or shooting the convict with his own hand. The fact that the accused was a former high-ranking government official or was a commander in the Shah’s army, was enough to cost him his life. God forbid if he was American-trained, too. General Shahpoor Sasan would have been guilty on both counts. To make the matter worse he was fluent in not only English, but French as well. He was a “westoxicated” man, as they were called. His son was a member of the high-school band, the only one who could play harps, a native instrument born during pre-Islamic era. On top of everything else, his wife and daughters never cared for head cover.
The Grand Mullah was so brutal that he had found himself a place in the expressions, stories and even local poetry. Iranian humor, which tends to exaggerate or make light of things, had coined many jokes about him. A well-known one was about the time the Ayatollah and his entourage was invited to a dinner party. On arrival, he occupied the special seat on top of an Isfahan silk prayer rug and didn’t waste a second:
“My men, what are you waiting for? Take everybody on my left side and hang them!”
“Oh, oh please, my dear Ayatollah, wait. These men are all faithful and brave soldiers of Islam,” the host pleaded.
“Never mind, then. Take everybody on my right side and shoot them.”
The poor host pleaded again for him not to do that.
“Then why the hell did you invite me here? You are wasting my time,” the Mullah bellowed as he stormed out.
There were those who had other nicknames for the Chief Justice that were based on certain facts or events. As an example, prior to the revolution he was known as Ayatollah Cat Killer, which related to a true story of animal cruelty. He was also known to be the number one enemy of pigs and dogs. He preached that the dog’s bark was a call to Satan and should be stopped at all cost; eating bacon, pork or ham would make a person piggish.
There were a good number of intellectuals interested in the case of the Grand Ayatollah, but little was known of his background. It was reported that he came from a broken, abusive family and that he was expelled from high school. In his adult life, he worked in the slaughterhouse for a few years and then moved from Sarhad, his home town, to the holy city of Qom, where he was a street vendor selling sohan, a local pastry, and offering samples of the sweets to the passengers or pilgrims in order to attract them to his employer’s shop. Sasan and his jail mates called him Ayatollah Mordehshoor, referring to a job he held in the holy city graveyard washing corpses and wrapping them in the shrouds for burial. That was where he developed associations with a good number of clergy who blessed the dead by reciting divine prayers for them.
He was shrewd enough to recognize the influence of the clerics and joined the holy city’s seminary school. After a short while, he quit, returning to his home town with a turban around his head and a robe over his shoulder. He claimed that in a number of dreams, God had asked him to return to his birthplace and preach. He married the daughter of a big shot mullah and got himself a number of concubines as Sigheh, the temporary marriage. His intentions of course were only to increase the number of “God’s subjects.”
When his hometown became too small for him, he moved to the capital and got involved in political activities. He was lucky to spend a short period in the Shah’s jail, which became the ladder for his ascension. After the revolution, he joined Khomini’s forces, shoving out the intellectuals and democracy seekers to become the chief justice. In his new position he not only condemned the accused to death, but would witness the execution. He visited the infamous Evin Prison frequently. If he heard someone screaming from torture, he would suggest that they increase the pain. “Don’t worry, if he dies innocent he will go to Heaven,” he advised.
Shahpoor Sasan had a tendency to not live in the past. He looked forward to the future and to civilian life. Unlike many of his colleagues, his knowledge went beyond military. He had only a year and a half left until his release and that didn’t seem to be too long. As bad as Evin Prison was, he was close to his family and friends, who all lived in Tehran’s metropolitan area. He was grateful for the transfer to the infamous jail after his conviction. He was a well-rounded and academic man and had access to the books, newspapers and magazines that were important to him. It helped the time to go by more quickly.
He had built a good relationship with the wardens and fellow prisoners, conducting an English class with a good number of attendees. He was also studying Arabic on his own and kept busy translating western military sources into Farsi. He prayed five times a day and had the reputation for being a true Muslim. He never missed his morning jog around the yard and his daily exercise.
It was during one if his habitual stretching sessions that he was confronted by a man that he had no desire to see.
“Good morning, General. The guards tell me that you exercise every day.”
The General did not expect an unfamiliar voice from behind – it was unexpected and somewhat creepy. However the former commander did not lose his composure. When he turned around, he recognized the bearded face capped with a big black turban and a silk robe over his shoulders. Sarhadi was a well-known face in the country.
“Yes, sir, I exercise every morning.”
“You know that the Morning Prayer is a form of exercise too. That is the reason that the prophet made it mandatory before sunrise. He wanted the followers to rise early and get started. There is wisdom and philosophy in everything he preached.”
“Yes, sir, I pray every morning.”
“Did you pray today?”
“Hmm. Well, uh, no? For the first time in a long time, I woke up after sunrise.” Licking his lips, the general continued, “I am planning to recite the substitute Nemaze Ghaza later. God will understand.”
“Of course, of course. God is most understanding. We, the subjects, all have our share of faults.” Pointing skyward, Sarhadi pronounced, “but you should have prayed prior to your exercises.”
“Yes, sir; but I figured that since I woke up after sunrise, it wouldn’t matter when I prayed for substitution. Although a military man, I know a little bit about jurisprudence.” Then, as if he was looking for a good excuse, he pointed to his striped prison uniform. “Besides, my clothing was not clean for prayer. I was going to wash it.”
At this point a pair of doves landed on the flat roof of the prison and then to the yard.
They were looking for their friends to serve them breakfast. Once they saw the executioner, they
took off and disappeared in the morning clouds. Sarhadi watched them and turned toward
Sasan. “Do you feel alright this morning?”
The former brigade commander couldn’t understand why the chief justice was taking an interest in him, but he tried not to look alarmed. “I think I am coming down with something.”
“You know, we have some good doctors here, on both side of the bars. We don’t want to lose a good general and certainly not when he is in prison. We can use you in the war with Iraq, which is intensifying.”
The prisoner wasn’t sure if the executioner meant what he said or if he was being ridiculed. He tried to take the Ayatollah seriously. “Yes, sir, you probably know that I had the honor of being the top graduate of both the Officers Academy and the University of War, which is exclusive for colonels. That enabled my promotion to general.”
“And his majesty, the king of king honored you.”
That sounded like a warning. “Well sir, he hand-picked his generals. I was selected only because I was the top graduate. My thesis on ‘How to defend Iran’s Borders’ was published and distributed all over the military.”
Ayatollah interrupted, “And with a special copy for the Shah.”
Was that what this was about? “Yes, sir, that was not my choice.” Sasan licked his lips again. “I am sure that it could be helpful and I could help defending our borders against Saddam Hussein.”
Ayatollah applauded the general and laughed loudly, showing his yellowish teeth, more so than before. When he stepped forward to pat the inmate on the back, a cheesy odor filled the air, “Very good General, but we are on the offensive in Iraq, not defensive. Soon we are going to ship Saddam to his supporters in America. Our goal is Karbella, to capture the burial site of the Shiites third Imam. I am sure that we can use the services of someone with your expertise.”
“That would be an honor for me. I am completely useless here. I wouldn’t mind giving my life for my country.”
He intentionally raised his voice toward the end, but the Butcher Ayatollah was a patterned snake. “You also studied abroad, didn’t you?”
There was no point in lying about it. “Yes, sir, all because I ranked number one in my classes. After graduation from the Officers’ Academy, I was sent to France and I spent a couple of years at Saint-Cyr, their National Military Academy. After graduation from the University of War, I was sent to America for two years to study new weaponry.”
The Cat Killer Ayatollah looked like he was having fun. Sasan noted that all the inmates were gathered around the square shaped court, watching the encounter. The Ayatollah reached for his turban and scratched his bald head. He continued as if he knew all the facts and figures, which he probably did. “Yes, yes, you know that the Shah was the number one customer for US arms.”
“Indeed, sir, I know that and I was used in negotiations, but unlike others, I never took bribes. I was used only because of my language and military skills.
Sarhadi was not finished. “And you know that his American trained army couldn’t resist the will of people for a second.”
‘Well Sir, people wanted democracy. They wanted to be free.’
Srahadi laughed loudly. “Democ..racy! Islam is democracy…” And after a short pause, “Let me see, General, you know French and English, but not Arabic, the language of the Koran.”
The General felt like he was on the stand in court, “That is correct, sir. But as someone who loves languages, I am studying Arabic now.”
“Very interesting, very interesting…” and then with laughter, “…You are a very interesting man… you are the only general from the Shah’s military, still alive…, but speaking of Arabic, neither your first name not your last name is a Muslim name… Shahpoor Sasan…Whom?”
“Sir, my name was not my choice. I was born in a military family.”
Sarhadi grasped the green sash tied around his waist. “Do you know what Shahpoor means?” He paused, his hard eyes boring into Sasan’s. “It means ‘son of shah.”
Sasan did his best to keep his face impassive, but he felt the blood draining from it. “Yes. Sir.”
“So you are a crown prince?”
The grand butcher wouldn’t give up. “And you know that Sasaneed’s powerful empire was crushed by Islam’s army?”
“Yes sir, in the seventh century. I know a little bit of history.”
The butcher Ayatollah laughed very loudly, as if he wanted to torture the man he was talking to. “My dear fellow, you are a very interesting man. As a man who knows history, why do you think the well-equipped Persian army that had defeated the powerful Romans on many occasions lost to one that was essentially unarmed?”
“Well sir, many historians cite the wars with the Romans which weakened both sides, internal differences and some…” Sasan paused.
“Yes? Go on.”
“Some relate it to too much influence of Zoroastrian Priests in the court and moral corruption.”
Sarhadi scowled. He didn’t seem to like that and after a short pause he changed the subject. “Going over your case, I noted that you didn’t file an appeal. You are an interesting man and shouldn’t be here.”
Shahpoor felt sweat bursting out on his forehead. “I decided not to challenge the verdict. I am a military man and obey my superiors... sir.”
Sarhadi mocked him, “Yes, superiors such as the Shah… but you should have appealed. The District Authority can ask for a re-trial, too. I will see what I can do for you. We can use a man of your caliber against the infidel Saddam.”
The General did not know what to say. After a deafening minute of silence, the judge stretched his hand toward the prisoner, “I have an important trial waiting for me. I’d better go… you are the only general in prison and a good one. I will see what I can do for you.”
“Thank you, sir.”
It didn’t take more than a few days before the general was called upon. He left the prison dressed in his military uniform as he was ordered. There were talks of discharge and dismissal, but no one saw him again. Most certainly the family had received the infamous call.
The calls were always brief and the same:
“Come and get the body of your dear one, no burial ceremonies, please.”