April 17, 1980: Karoun Prison, Ahwaz
A warm breeze brushed against Waleed, one of five men blindfolded and roped to five poles along the back wall of the prison yard. From beneath his hastily tied blindfold, Waleed could see the sandstorm’s effects on the unpaved ground. He could make out the occasional pebbles that glistened under the first faint rays of the rising sun. Some twenty feet away, he estimated, he heard the footsteps of a guard, and the sound of a paper unfolding. Waleed imagined it had to be the hand-written court verdict, issued a few hours earlier, in the dark of the night.
“In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. Truly, any action against the Islamic Republic is an act of rebellion against God.”
Waleed had heard that the judge wouldn’t be present. Probably he couldn’t be bothered to wake up before dawn. He heard the labored breathing of the four other men tied to the poles next to him. I’m not alone, he thought, but the notion did little to console him. His knees were shaking but he did his best to stand straight up against the injustice of the verdict being spat out. The verdict that made a mockery of justice.
He felt his existence crumbling, just like eggshells shattering between the teeth of a hungry jackal. Waleed’s heart pounded faster and faster, making it harder to breathe. He wished he’d had a chance to see his family one last time. To see the pride in his mother’s face as Waleed pulled faces that made his toddler nephew giggle. But that wouldn’t happen. His last memory of them would be the last time they were together, with his mother wailing, “Why are you taking him? He’s done nothing.”
He had told her he would come back soon but neither of them believed it.
So instead of going back home, he was waiting to be shot in Karoun Prison. He could almost smell death, like dust so thick it blocked one’s nostrils. Three days ago, when he’d been arrested, execution seemed inconceivable.
He regretted the troubles he’d caused his family as a child. The time when he climbed the konar tree and fell off as the branch broke. His dad had to leave work and rush him to the hospital. He had never seen his dad so worried. He went home with a lot of bruises, but fortunately without a concussion. He should have picked up the fresh konar from the ground, just like his mother had said. He hoped his parents would forgive him.
Waleed wondered what heaven felt like. He tried to cheer himself with the thought that when an innocent man is killed, he would go to paradise. Barely nineteen years old, he hadn’t had the time to really sin. But in the eyes of the new regime, being Arab was sufficient evidence of guilt.
His thoughts were interrupted by a monotone voice. It felt like an eternity for the guard to finish reading the verdict. “The Islamic Revolutionary Court of Khuzestan Province finds these individuals guilty of exploding oil pipelines, establishing a sabotage and assassination ring that received financial aid and explosives from the Baathist regime of Iraq, and having attempted assassinations and sabotage. The Court condemns them to execution.”
Waleed heard shuffling sounds. He imagined they were caused by the boots of his executioners, standing in equal intervals in a single line. He knew the men were armed. Their heavy presence was already suffocating him. He squeezed his eyelids tightly together and awaited the inevitable. The next time he opened his eyes, Waleed would see how everything looked on the other side.
Then he finally heard it: the sound of guns being pulled off of the guards’ shoulders, clacking against uniforms in their descent. Probably Kalashnikovs. The sounds of their movements were quickly muffled by the frantic beating of Waleed’s heart.
An officer barked with forced bravado, “Ready!”
Waleed’s heart felt as if it would explode.
A burning feeling scorched his chest. Stomach cramps knotted his body. His brain felt like it had been set ablaze. The combined sensations made him feel like vomiting.
The guns thundered. Waleed heard several shots, bullets flying forward and making their connection with flesh. He suddenly imagined his execution as if watching it from above, like a ghost. He pictured the bullet whistling through the air, piercing his gray shirt and entering his ribcage.
He scrunched up his face and awaited the final impact. The earthly life was over. He was ready for the departure. In just moments he would see heaven and be reunited with his grandma. She would feed him one of her legendary cookies made of raisins and date molasses. He tried to open his eyes to see her in the afterworld. But he couldn’t. The blindfold was now soaked with sweat, making his forehead itch.
Waleed waited. He listened. He heard nothing but the scuffing sound of the guards’ boots. He breathed in and smelled both gunpowder and fresh blood. Something was wrong. This was not heaven.
He breathed in again. His lungs had shrunk. His heart in his chest was still banging. He felt the rope, the pole. Waleed still was trapped in the prison. He heard voices in great agitation, even though he couldn’t make out what was said. He heard the scrape of boots as an officer approached him.
The next thing he knew, his body was being pulled away. Though his hands were tied together, he clutched the pole with all of his power. He locked his fingers around it more strongly than he had the strength to. As he resisted, more hands began yanking him away, tearing him from the pole.
He heard a howling so frightening it paralyzed him. He had never heard such a thing in his life. Like the shriek of a wounded wolf. Suddenly Waleed felt a raw pain in his throat and realized the wolf howl was his own voice.
He stopped howling when he heard someone shout, “Take off his blindfold, you idiot!”
Waleed’s head was roughly pulled back and, within a second, he could see. It wasn’t dark anymore. It was much brighter as the sun rose.
What he saw frightened him more than death. He found himself in the yard, still confined in Karoun Prison.
His lips trembled as he slowly looked to either side. Four bodies were tied to the four poles, but slumped forward. Still blindfolded, but now bleeding from the chest.
They were dead. Quiet. Peaceful.
He felt the sour taste of his stomach acid. He forced it back down. Getting sick at the sight of the bodies would have defiled these men. He didn’t know them but the deceased always must be treated with respect.
Was this a cosmic joke? Did someone press rewind on his death? Waleed wanted to be at peace like the others. He turned around to see the face that kept yelling at him. He saw the face of evil. He recognized the voice spitting words at him. It was the same voice that had read the verdict a few minutes earlier.
From behind a chipped tooth, his breath smelled densely sour. The goo in his eyes had been pulled but not washed away. The face held a hysterical expression.
Waleed found the wolf inside again and screamed as loudly as he could. He hoped to wake up from the nightmare. But as much as he cried, he stayed exactly in place. The guards angrily seized his body and told him to stop.
“Shut up. Why are you screaming like a beast?”
He was quickly distracted by a louder group of voices a few feet away. An officer was bawling out a member of the death squad. The man who had been assigned to execute Waleed.
“What the hell is wrong with you? Can’t you aim?”
“Wasn’t my fault. No one taught me how to shoot.”
“What are we gonna do with him now?”
“Kill me. Please kill me,” Waleed wanted to say. But his tongue would not obey. The sun was rising and the reality of still being in prison weighed heavily on him. He felt his body hit the ground. The guards pulled on his arms to bring him to his feet. He suddenly felt defiant and kicked back at them as hard as he could.
One of the guards yelled, “Be happy you’re alive, you filthy dog!”
The guards were dragging him now. He resisted. He kicked, howled, and shook. Please God, don’t let me go back, he pleaded, no longer sure whether he was saying it to himself or saying it out loud. But nothing was as real as the bitter truth that he was still alive. And still in custody. Still a prisoner of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Within hours, Waleed had a reputation in Karoun Prison. Among the many prison guards and prisoners who had heard him screech, he was now known as the Beast.