01 July 2004

Naipaul on the Hanging Judge of the Revolution

WHEN I WENT TO TEHRAN in August 1979, Ayatollah Khalkhalli, the hanging judge of the revolution, was a star. The Islamic Revolutionary Court in Shariati Street was sitting almost round the clock, as Ali had said. People were being killed all the time in Evin Prison and trucks were taking away the bodies through the blue gates at night.

There was nothing secretive or abashed about this killing. Some revolutionary official was keeping count, and regularly in the Tehran Times there was an update. In the beginning the counting was to show how clement the revolution was; later, when the killing became too much, the counting stopped. In those early days official photographs were taken of people before they were killed and after they were killed--killed and, as it were, filed away, naked on the sliding mortuary slab, in the giant filing cabinet of the morgue. These pictures were on sale in the streets.

Ayatollah Khalkhalli, the ruler of the Islamic Revolutionary Court, was open to the press. He was giving many boastful interviews. I went with an interpreter to see him in Qom. It was Ramadan, the fasting month; and Qom was where the ayatollah had temporarily retired to fast and pray. It was August and very hot in the desert. When we got to Qom we had to wait for more than five hours until the ayatollah had finished his prayers and broken his fast. This was at nine in the evening. We found him then sitting on the floor of the verandah of his modest house, at the center of a little court also sitting on the floor: his guards, some Iranian admirers, and a respectful, formally dressed African couple (the man in a light gray suit, the woman in a chiffon-like, sari-like garment) who were visiting.

The ayatollah was white and bald and very short, a clerical gnome, messily attired. He liked, perhaps because of his small size, to clown. His jokes were about executions, and then his court threw themselves about with laughter. He also liked--and this mannerism might have come with his hanging duties--abruptly to stop clowning and for no reason to frown and grow severe.

He was from Azerbaijan in the northwest. He said he was the son of a farmer and as a boy he had been a shepherd. So, going by what Ali had said, Khalkhalli would have been just the kind of village boy for whom, fifty years or so before, the theological schools had offered the only way out: a room, food, and a little money. But Khalkhalli had almost nothing to say about his early life. All he said, with a choking, wide-throated laugh, was that he knew how to cut off a sheep's head; and this was like another joke about executions, something for his little court. Perhaps, because he had never learned how to process or meditate on his experience, never having read widely enough or thought hard enough, his experience had simply gone by, and much of it had even been lost to him. Perhaps the thirty-five years (as he said) of theological studies in Qom had rotted his mind, pushed reality far away, given him only rules, and now with the revolution sunk him in righteousness and vanity. He was interested only in the present, his authority and reputation, and in his executioner's work.

He said, "The mullahs are going to rule now. We are going to have ten thousand years of the Islamic Republic. The Marxists are going to go on with their Lenin. We are going to go on in the way of Khomeini."

Revolution as blood and punishment, religion as blood and punishment: in Khalkhalli's mind the two ideas seemed to have become one.

And, in fact, that double idea, of blood, fitted revolutionary Iran. Behzad, my interpreter, was a communist, and the son of a communist father. Behzad was twenty-four; with all his Iranian graces, his scientific education, and his social ambitions, he had his own dream of blood. His hero was Stalin. Behzad said, "What he did in Russia we have to do in Iran. We too have to do a lot of killing. A lot."
SOURCE: Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (Vintage, 1998), pp. 200-201

No comments: