by Max Sawdayee


Monday June 15, 1970

Having slept in bed for the first time in six days, though our sleep was uneasy, we take a very light breakfast with the Jassems at four o’clock in the morning.  Then we are rushed to a small pick-up van, where we are crammed one upon the other, together with our jute bags.  We are driven with full speed to the small Iranian strategic frontier town Rezaiyeh, and go to a little hotel, accompanied by the pick-up driver and one of Jassem’s men, without the slightest knowledge yet of the Iranian authorities. 

At this juncture I try to give both men some money and persuade them to leave us to manage our own affairs. However, to my very bad luck, they refuse to do so before making sure – quite innocently, of course – that the Iranian police authorities know all about our case and take care of us.  And here is a fresh problem to tackle, a most knotty one.

At eight in the morning, after a brisk telephone call to the police ‘gendarmerie’ station by the hotel receptionist, the chief constable arrives.  Before I can explain to him that my family and I are Iraqi Jews having escaped illegally and reached this town, our companion rushes to tell him that I am an Iraqi officer who fled Iraq with my wife and two children!  That is it!  A whole new, problematic, complicated affair is given birth.  And this time I don’t know where this fresh ordeal will lead!

While the two men talk about us, I whisper to my wife that if I am taken for questioning at the police headquarters or anywhere, she must at once contact someone from the Jewish community of this small town, if such exists, to inform him of the whole story and request him to act quickly before any further complications may follow.

Later on, when my turn comes to speak and explain, I tell the police officer, Abbas Pour Assadian (so reads the metal badge on his chest) that I am a Jew, ‘Man Kalimi’ in Iranian, and show him my yellow identity card.  He looks puzzled.  I realise I have caused a problem, but I cannot help it.  The truth must be told.  Wife tries her best to make him understand, in English, in French and in Arabic, but he wouldn’t believe a word of it.  He nods curtly to her, but at the same time his nod orders me to accompany him to the military headquarters where the military governor of this strategic border town should investigate.  I request him kindly to allow me to at least to shave, take a bath or shower, or change my clothes.  No use.  He will not listen.  So here we are again.  A new unfortunate scene in the drama!

The children, frightened to see a policeman take their father to the hotel’s main entrance, cry loudly.  Elder daughter Cordia appeals to her mother:  ‘Please stop that man from taking Papi away… to jail!  If you can’t we better return to Baghdad!’  Belinda, still very sick, cries:  ‘Mummy, you said there would be no policemen here.  How come this man is here to take Papi away from us?’  I take the matter as coolly as I can and ask them to keep quiet, saying:  ‘Be nice girls, and I will be back again soon!’  Poor children, they must be at the end of their physical and mental reserves.  They just cannot afford any more resistance, any more suffering.

After about four hours of questioning in military and state security headquarters, I am put in a special army prison car, taken to any army camp jail some thirty kilometres from town and rudely pushed into a ‘spy’ prison cell.  A letter from the security department to the army camp prison reads:  ‘Highly suspected Iraqi military spy’.  So one of the soldier jailers explains to me.

What threw more fuel to the flame was that the authorities here were so perplexed by our case that they could not, and would not, by any means understand how come that I reached Iran via the Turkish borders with their country!  How come that a first telephone call to my sister Violet in Tehran informed them that I was her brother, whereas in a second telephone call, following further questioning with me, my sister’s maid informed them that Violet, her husband and their children had left the house on a two-week vacation, and didn’t say where?  Did my sister suspect any dubious action on my part and leave home with all her family in a hurry to avoid getting involved in the affair?  Did she hasten to escape out of the country for a time to shun or evade such involvement?  The snag is that they did not mention in the first call that I was actually in Iran with my wife and children!  They only inquired whether my sister was familiar with our names, and her reply was that we were her brother, her sister-in-law and the children.  Bad luck!  Indeed!  This fresh problem seems intractable.  I can hardly determine whether it is a dream or a reality I am going through.  I look like any convict from head to foot, physically and mentally exhausted, my nerves destroyed.  My head bursts with three long months of tense thinking, planning and executing a wild escape – and everything appears to have gone wrong!  I pace my four-by-four foot cell.  I stare from its five-by-five inch opening at the prison corridor.  From this hole of an opening I am supposed to receive my food and drink.  Having nobody to help me in this small town I know nothing about, and in the midst of foreigners with whom I am not acquainted in any manner, I just cannot believe that I am myself, or that the present is real!

So dark, so small, so shabby, so lonely, so badly smelling, and so depressing my new ‘residence in freedom’ looks, that I wonder how long I can manage ‘living’ in it.  I do my utmost to forget it, to forget where I am, to think hopefully of better times. But I fail not to see the cell which envelopes me, and my hopes get shattered.

Late in the afternoon I hear a number of soldiers outside excitedly shouting:  ‘A spy for hanging!  A spy for hanging!’  My God!  Here too?!

No!  In Iraq we heard such things lots of times.  These people shan’t do that to me.  Maybe I cannot make out exactly what they are saying in Iranian?  Very likely.  What they say can also be interpreted: ‘Spy brought in!  Spy brought in!’  I don’t know.

At seven in the evening I take my first meal in jail.  The jailer calls my name.  Through the two iron bars of my cell hole of a window he thrusts me a piece of stale bread, probably four or five days old, and a cup of soup.  Can I refuse it?  Extremely hungry, I sit down cross-legged on the rough cement floor, and my teeth begin to challenge the stony piece of bread!  Having successfully eaten my meal at last, I decide to ‘go to bed’!  Stretching on the unkind floor, and cannily cramping up my fatigued body for lack of space, and with no cover to put on whatsoever, I do my best to sleep.

Tuesday June 16, 1970

I awake this morning from a ghastly, nightmarish sleep to find out that not a single damned cigarette is left in my pack.  I badly need one.  My jailer is kind enough to extend my two cigarettes for the day, which I take care not to finish off too soon.

I am taken for questioning at the military security headquarters where an Arab from Kuwait, of Egyptian origin, serves as my interpreter.  Looking at his eyes, I feel this man is not transmitting the truth of my statement.  I suspect that he may be conveying false information.  An my suspicions are right!

Later, the military security officer claims that my case is a very bad one!  I will have to face trial for serious charges.  I guess what is behind his threatening words, but I will say nothing but the truth, and that will be my greatest defence, I hope.  When I inquire about my family, nobody wants to tell me where they are.  That worries me more than anything else.  But I attempt to look as calm as I can manage.

Back to my cell.  I see it more frightful.  I try to think, to plan, to escape from the reality of this horrible ‘lodging’.  It is difficult.  I imagine in what situation my wife and children are.  Strangers in a small town!  Their ordeal may be bigger than mine.

I am tired.  Exhausted.  I lie on the dead-hard floor, staring at the ceiling.  Then I think of nothing, because I cannot.  I simply cannot.  I let destiny take care of the rest.

Wednesday June 17, 1970

I could sleep only three hours last night.  I am not yet accustomed to my new surroundings.  I cannot eat.  I cannot swallow, not even my soup.

A third round of questioning.  It become silly and tiresome, and fills all the morning hours.  I return to my cell, worn out.  In the afternoon a new soldier guards my cell.  He is a most ignorant type.  With all sorts of signs and movements, and of course entreaties, I try to make him understand my inquiry whether he has heard anything about my wife and children.  I have his horrible answer that they must have already been deported back to Iraq.  Although I don’t believe a whit of what he says, I am inclined to fancy that it is one probability, judging from the manner my case has been handled.

Later in the afternoon my cell grows so dark that my brain, too, follows suit.  It is so dark that I collapse into a blackout.  Why do the Iranians treat me this way?!  It is try they have all the right to suspect Iraqis, but weren’t my statements convincing?  Do I look like a troublemaker?  And if my wife and children are treated in a similarly harsh manner, that should put Iranians in a light different from what we have always regarded them.  Oh no. They are wonderful people. I cannot permit myself any impression to the contrary.  At least not yet. 

News in English emanating at eight o’clock in the evening from a transistor radio in one of the solders’ hands in the prison corridor speaks of a big air battle between Israel and Egyptian warplanes somewhere.  I cannot quite make out what it says. Nor do I hear the exact number of Egyptian planes hit.  My ears are incapable of absorbing the words.  They reach me like chirps of passing birds, or a mass of noise.

I lie on the ground or rather fall to it.  I want to analyze or discern why fate has been so merciless to my family and me.  I feel powerless even to think.  This is the third day in jail.  In this tiny cell of mine.