by Max Sawdayee


Thursday June 18, 1970

I didn’t sleep a wink the whole of last night, though I was exhausted. I was drowned in a blackout all the time, conscious of nothing except my spirit of defiance.  In my loneliness and anxiety I mobilize all that remains of my strength to defy everything about me.  I am an innocent man insisting on my right to freedom.  Yet the world treats me like a convict.

I would give anything for a cigarette now.  I would even renounce five years of my life (if I do have this credit balance left!) for one damned cigarette.  Nobody here is charitable enough to present me as much as a butt!

A colonel in the army camp before whom I am taken this morning, and who speaks fluent French, says that I may be transferred to Tehran very soon, that a thorough investigation may be resumed by the State Security headquarters.  More questioning, of course.  Like repeating a record all over, again and again.  The colonel feels sorry for me and advises me to ‘say all you know about everything lest your case should get still more complicated and you may face a serious trial by a military court in due course’.   When I inquire about my family, he replies:  ‘That is the last of your problems now!’

Half barefoot with my half Kurdish shoes still glued to my feet, I look like a character in Hugo’s ‘Les Misérables’.  I return to my cell a piece of human wreckage in which nothing has remained except a confused notion of extreme defiance.  I feel incapable of thinking any more.

May God help me!  If this state of things continues longer, I don’t know where I can draw more patience from, and more strength to resist.

Friday June 19, 1970

When at seven o’clock this evening an Iranian army officer comes calling my name through the hole of my cell and orders me in his broken English to be ready to leave for Tehran tomorrow morning under a military escort, for a new round of questioning and investigation, he has to shout aloud and to speak slowly, twice repeating what he says, to make me catch his words and understand what they are all about.  My head is so confusedly crammed that I am unable to absorb or digest anything I hear with any degree of normalcy.  Pacing my cell to and from exactly like a wild beast trapped in a cage, I am more a mass of flesh and bones than an ordinary human being.  Above all, I feel more lonely and helpless in my ignorance of what has befallen the family, contact with whom has been forbidden me for now five days.  I am not thinking much about my defence before the C.I.D. authorities in Tehran tomorrow.  If I were only sure about the family’s situation, if I only knew whether they are at least a little comfortable, I might take things easy in a way.  This anxiety renders me more defiant still.  ‘These people must and will understand sooner or later that I am an innocent man,’ I tell myself.  ‘But how?  I don’t know.  I’ve got to think about it.  I have to plan my defence.  What defence?!  The truth is my defence.  So far it hasn’t found a listening ear.  Eventually it must be found.  After all, what other form of defence do I have except the simple truth?’

Meanwhile I have two wishes I pray to see realised.  The first is that neither I nor the children see each other prior to my going to Tehran, lest such a meeting should sadden us, torment us, shock us – especially them.  I am in a most miserable condition, and I am afraid they cannot take it.  As to my second wish, it is to see my wife by all possible means.  Whether she is here, in Tehran, or in Iraq, or anywhere else.  I wish so much I could.  I want to tell her to forgive me for all I have caused her and t he children, and to kiss her goodbye in case we may not see each other again.  That is all.  I do not want to tell her that I am wrong, as I am certain in my innermost feelings that I am not.  Besides, that may knock off all her faith and confidence in life.

‘Oh Time, just let me hold on.  Even a little more.  Grant that woman more courage and endurance, whatever she is, so that she may carry on with her burden until justice swings in our favour.  We vitally need each other, at least for the sake of two innocent children who yet know nothing of the intricacies of human destiny, and whose life is like a feather at the mercy of tempestuous winds!’  I wind up this prayer, and await what the misty morrow will bring.

Saturday June 20, 1970

At six o’clock this morning, sitting cross-legged in my cell and meditating, I gear some noise at the door which sounds as though it is coming from far away.  I am loudly ordered to pack up.  ‘Pack up what?!’ I ask.  I collect my belt, my identity cards, and my handkerchief, all scattered on the floor, say goodbye to the jailer and leave, accompanied by two civilians and an army officer, presumably for an airport, a railway station or anywhere else, to be consigned to Tehran.

Drive for some half an hour from the army camp in a nice limousine, and in sunglasses which one of the civilians gives me to put on as I cannot bear too much light, I can recognise that we are once again on our way to the security headquarters, where I was questioned on the first day of my arrival at Rezaiyeh, last Monday.

The civilian security officer there, whom I remember quite well, introduces me in his broken, incomprehensible Arabic to a short, bald, rather serious looking man of about fifty, who he says can help me.  The man, seeing me in such a plight, with my clothes so dirty and torn and with a beard that hasn’t been trimmed for a fortnight, and that has added unspeakable ugliness to my worn-out face, can hardly believe his eyes.  ‘You look like a real miserable convict who has escaped from justice!’  he comments in fairly good French.

‘I surely do, sir,’ I retort.

‘Do you know who I am?; the man asks.

‘No,’ I reply, ‘not at all, sir,’ and request him kindly to raise his voice and speak more slowly.

‘I am a Jew working for the tiny Jewish community of Rezaiyeh.  My name is Benyamin Daoudoff.  I am here to help you, and if possible to obtain your release – right now!  So relax and feel comfortable!’  it is hard for me to believe what I am hearing.  His words are like sunshine on a bleak day!

‘For heavens’ sake, sir, please tell me where my wife and two daughters are,’ I impatiently inquire.

‘Under house arrest.  They are still in their hotel, and are ordered not to leave it.  They are guarded by army personnel.’  I feel grateful for his benevolent approach, and beg him to offer me a cigarette.  ‘I haven’t smoked,’ I remark, ‘for at least four days, and am badly in need of a cigarette.’

‘I don’t happen to have any about me today,’ he apologises, and asks the officer whether he can be obliging in this respect.  The latter courteously offers me one, which I smoke ravenously.  Then the man says:  ‘Now prove you are a Jew, young man!’

‘I don’t know how, sir.  All I can say is that I am circumcised, that’s all,’ I say.

‘That is not enough.  We know that Muslims generally, and even some Christians, are circumcised,’ he says.

‘How then?  Perhaps, would you like me to read something in Hebrew?’ I ask.

‘A good idea!  This comes at a suitable time.  You know it is the Sabbath today.  Go near the wall, put something on your head and recite the whole of ‘Shema Yisrael’ by heart!’

A dirty handkerchief on my head, right hand palm and fingers on my eyes, I recite the first paragraph of ‘Shema Yisrael’ perfectly.  The man is deeply moved.  I notice that his face and voice reflect a profound emotion.  He goes on:  ‘How did you dare leave Iraq with your wife and these small children?  You are a fool!  Jews and non-Jews are killed there for no reason whatsoever!  Just like mosquitoes!’

‘I agree with you, Mr Daoudoff.  That was all the more reason to escape!’ I say.

Laughing aloud over my reply, and still at a loss to realise the plausibility of my statement, Benyamin Daoudoff makes me sign a number of papers, while the security officer earnestly apologises, and repeatedly asks me to forgive him and all his colleagues for the bad treatment to which I have been subjected.  He explains that they could not feel sure I was really a Jew till very late lat night.  He says that they badly suspected that I was an Iraqi officer. Especially in these times when relations with Iraq suffer from unusual tension, the suspicion could only be harboured seriously by everyone of the security personnel.  So they had to investigate in several directions, and with various sources, until reliable information reached them last night.  Forgetting every ill feeling, now that my wife and two daughters are safe and haven’t been roughly handled, I tell the officer that I hope everything is all right now, and that I will overcome these troubles as I did others previously.  His face shines with a friendly smile.

The officer and I kiss each other goodbye and no hard feelings.  Then I leave the security headquarters for the hotel, together with Benyamin Daoudoff.

In the streets people stare at me, seeing me in my present condition.  The astonishment is rendered greater by the contrast arising from my walking side by side with a gentleman.  But that doesn’t bother me now, of course, with all the humiliation my look communicates.  An actor might even be proud of it, I console myself.  I only wonder what they are thinking of me.

Benyamin tells me that a telephone call from my wife, who got the name of a Jew, Dr. Sina, from the hotel receptionist on Monday morning, and informed him of our situation, made the entire Jewish community in Rezaiyeh tremble at the news of our escape from Iraq and arrival in Iran, and sent them making all sots of requests and demands for my immediate release from prison.  The intervention of Mr Menashe Cohen, President of the community, and of his brother, with the military governor here was no less helpful in obtaining my release.

The meeting with Sa’ida in the hotel room is very emotional, but heartening.  Wife will not let the children, who are still asleep in bed, get up and see me before I shave, take a bath, change my clothes and throw off my damned half-gaiwa glued to my feet till this very moment.  She is right, no doubt. I look awful – to put it mildly.

While I take my bath, my wife, still angry though reconciled, comes to hurl upon me a volley of rebuke and to tell me that I deserve all that happened!  I ought to have managed our affairs better!

‘My dear Sa’ida,’ I retort, ‘I can hear only fifty percent of what you are saying, and can understand much less.  It is far healthier to put off arguments for the time being!’

With the children and good Benyamin Daoudoff we celebrate, at long last, our newly-born freedom.  Our togetherness enjoys more intimacy when the waiter, knowing the whole story, joyfully brings us a delicious morning Iranian tea.

Sunday July 12, 1970

After receiving a sincere apology from the State Security headquarters officials, and after giving thorough information about our escape to members of the Jewish Community Council here, I take a nice walk in the beautiful streets of Tehran with Sa’ida and my sister Violet.

‘Fables de la Fontaine’ reads the title on the coloured cover in the bookshop.  ‘That’s wonderful!’ I exclaim.  ‘I’ll buy this book now, women, and stat reading it from tonight.  That will throw me back to my happy childhood!  I’m beginning my life once more!  I am starting from scratch!  From zero!  I hope that this time I will better understand the wisdom of the jungle!’  The women roar with laughter, and I go in to buy this magnificent French book.

Sunday August 2, 1970

‘Saw-da-yee!  Fouad Sawdayee, you are called over the telephone, please,’ the loudspeaker at the International Tehran Airport says in English at eight this morning.  I run for the call. A friend from the Jewish Committee in the Iranian capital calling.

‘Hey, Fouad,’ he says.  ‘Before you leave for Rome I have great news to communicate to you that may render your plane trip happier.  Some seven or eight more Jews have fled illegally and arrived here safely.  I haven’t got sufficient data yet as to the exact number, their names and whereabouts.  I’ll check up thoroughly, and we shall detail a trustworthy man right away to take care of them.  I have just received this thrilling information and thought it worthwhile calling you immediately.  Do you have any idea who the newcomers must be?!’

‘Many thanks for this piece of news.  It is indeed heartening!  I should think it is the Shemtovs – Joe, Dave, Dave’s family and his sister Fahima.  Oh, perhaps his sister Leoni is with them too!  Thanks again and all the best!  Goodbye!’  I put down the receiver.  Wife is excitedly happy at the possibility that the Shemtovs may have arrived safely in Iran.