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The Ayatollah and Me

by Elias Dabby

Iran in the early 1950's. A young Shah rules unsteadily. His prime minister is Dr. Mossadegh, a charismatic nationalist and demagogue who makes little secret of his antagonism to the monarchy. Mossadegh's ally is the Ayatollah Aboulkassem Kashani. Kashani is the undisputed leader of the Shi'ite world of Islam. One word from Kashani, and the streets of Tehran would fill with people. Kashani ruled the religious world in an imperial manner. Even though he was an elected member of Majlis (parliament) Kashani never attended a session. He would communicate with his fellow parliamentarians by letter. When Kashani's letters would be read to the Majlis, all the members would stand up to listen.

Kashani's base were the poor of Tehran. At his home in a working class district, Kashani would receive supplicants from all walks and classes of life. He would hear them out and issue letters of support when he thought there was a just cause.

One day, two men came to him saying they were struggling taxi drivers and needed tyres for their cars. They complained that the business was controlled by Jews and they couldn't get a fair deal. This, of course, was not true. But Kashani took them at their word and wrote them a letter asking for a fair price for tyres. They came straight away to our showroom. (At the time, I had been in Iran for almost a decade, having left Baghdad as the Jewish community began leaving in droves after centuries of peace).

Brandishing their letter from the ayatollah, the two Iranians demanded their tyres. They did not provide their permit numbers like other taxi drivers did. But we sold them what they wanted at a very low price. After all, who were we to go against the ayatollahĂs will? Soon as they left our office, they were spotted outside on the sidewalk selling the tyres at a hefty profit. Later, we found out they had visited other companies and got away with the same deal.

We had to put a stop to this extortion. A meeting was held to decide what to do. I suggested visiting the ayatollah to get him to withdraw the letter. The others thought that was a fine idea, as long as I was the one to go. I was taken aback. "Me a Jew, and not even an Iranian at that!" They insisted and eventually I accepted reluctantly.

The next day I showed up at the Ayatollah's residence in a poor district of Tehran called Sar-cheshme. I walked into a large entrance packed with people, all seated on a floor covered with carpets. Most of them were men, the women sat off to one side. The only chair to be found was occupied by a young Mullah who served as the Ayatollah's secretary. I approached him to give my name, tell him that I was Jewish and wanted to see the Ayatollah on an urgent matter that involved his honour.

A stern looking Shi'ite holy man sitting nearby gave me an angry look and snapped at me, asking sarcastically if my business was more important than that of the others waiting. I told him I was addressing the Ayatollah's secretary and not him. He looked away with contempt and said nothing more. That holy man's face was later to become the most recognisable face in Iran and indeed, the whole world.

Fifteen minutes later, I was called into Ayatollah Kashani's office. It was a small, modest room and the Ayatollah sat cross-legged on the carpet. He extended his hand to me as I bent down. I kissed it twice and put it to my forehead as a sign of respect. He noted I was Jewish and asked me where I was from. When I told him Baghdad, he broke into fluent Arabic and our conversation continued. I told him about the two men who were going around the bazaar holding up his letter and getting merchants to sell them cheap car tyres. How they sold them at exorbitant profits. He grew angrier as our conversation continued, remembering the two men had come to him earlier. His voice grew to a shout when he found out they had claimed the tyres money was going to the Ayatollah himself. At that moment, the Mullah sitting outside his office burst in, thinking a fight had broken out. the Ayatollah put up his hand to stop him. "Leave this Jew alone. We should be glad he came to us. Call the police."

When the policemen guarding his building came running into his office, the ayatollah told them to accompany me downtown and arrest the two men who were buying tyres in his name. He also told them he held them personally responsible for my safety. I thanked him, kissed his hand again and left with the police officers.

When we got downtown, I pointed at the two men, who began running when they saw us. The police gave chase and eventually caught them. A scuffle broke out, the two men were beaten and taken away in handcuffs. I never saw them again.

Elias Dabby is retired and lives in Montreal. His son Victor helped prepare this article.



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