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The sacrificial lamb

A bloody Sunday that ended happily. Nobody got arrested.

September 17, 2002
The Iranian

My friend Asghar has been subjected to constant criticism by his wife for not buying a Mercedes Benz to replace the old family car. At his income level it was not an immediate priority to him but for his wife to have a Mercedes was the most important asset one could possess - especially if it was black with black interior.

So when I picked up the pen to write this article I had in mind to put down something about an issue a bit more serious such as how Bin Laden's last name (it reminds me of Ladan ice cream shop near Poleh Tajreesh in northern Tehran).

So I decided to stay away from current issues and give the British a break and instead write about S320. Not another grim international catastrophe but a local incident, an episode that occurred last week somewhere in the greater Los Angles.

Asghar who goes by the nickname "Oscar". (I wonder if Oscar Wild ever visited Iran? Would he ever consented to be called Asghar Wild?) Oscar has been telling me how much he has been under pressure, due to his inability to keep up with the implied and perceived social status that is expected within the Iranian community -- to drive a Mercedes Benz.

But before I continue let me remind you that when you ask someone what may be bothering them in life, always be prepared to invest a substantial time listening to them.

For example, meet any elderly Russian gentleman immigrant along Ocean Front Blvd in Santa Monica on a Sunday afternoon when they all get together and play backgammon. Ask one of them to tell you about feelings of nostalgia towards Mother Russia.

Well, once I asked, "Do you like America?" and the Russian man sat me down for almost an hour, forcing me to listen to a requiem on how he lost "every seeng zat I had in Raashaa". He said he had been a vet at Moscow's General Hospital and had to leave all his possessions and settle down in a "boring life" in America and play backgammon for the rest of his life.

"But sir," I told the old comrade, "not all, but many veterinarians of the world wish they could retire in Santa Monica and sit in front of the ocean and play backgammon! What is wrong with that?"

I am somewhat skeptical when someone claims to be a former vet. How can I be sure? And I don't want to call them a doctor unless I feel like a dog?

So, back to my Iranian friend Oscar. I asked him what he was going to do about his shortcoming, i.e. not being able to buy a Mercedes Benz to satisfy his wife's needs and fulfill his spousal duties?

Well, he said he had been saving for quite a while. With a loan from his retirement account, he had secured enough money. He had told everyone to keep an eye within a 200 miles radius for a reasonable Mercedes.

So, that was a few weeks ago and we went our separate ways. Then two weeks ago he called and said that his sister-in-law had located a 1991, clean 4-door S model, black on black, low mileage offered for sale by a fellow Iranian.

Well, the first thing that came to my mind was that every time an Iranian describes his "for sale" car as "low-mileage" it can possibly mean one of two things: the odometer has been changed to a newly imported one from Mexico or it has mysteriously been broken on the 35,000 miles marker.

Second, the history of the car usually includes "driven by an elderly lady only to go to the grocery store and to attend church on Sundays." But in reality, the cylinders may have been honed twice, double-barrel carburetors installed to be use the car as a hot rod on the streets of Inglewood and now thanks to an expert detail-artist, they have put enough lipstick on it to fool the potential buyer. We've all heard that before.

So, few more days passed by and Asghar the Oscar called me and broke the good news that he had bought the car and was now wondering if I'd be willing to take a short trip with him to La Canada on the other side of LA on Sunday. I asked him what was going on there. He said he wanted to respect the traditions his father in-law and sacrifice a lamb in front of the car -- to protect the car from "evil eyes".

To best explain this non-satanic tradition is to think of christening a new ship with a bottle of champagne before going to the high seas. The difference is that over there, a bottle of champagne gets wasted but here the lamb is going to be eaten by a crowd with a few bottles of vodka and nothing gets wasted.

Quite surprised by my friend's attachment to old superstitions, I agreed to participate and accepted his offer to accompany them for the trip to find a sacrificial lamb!

On a nice summer day we met at his house at 7 in the morning and there was already commotion in that house. Kids were nagging, the grandmother was cursing and running away from the pet dog, my friend Oscar was admiring his new car and lighting up one cigarette while putting out another.

His wife was forcing their two sons to finish their breakfast and the cat was licking the left over feta cheese on the kitchen counter. And in the midst of all of this there was the ubiquitous TV tuned into a Persian station broadcasting an infomercial with a psychologist giving advice on depression to people who called in. Watching that show by itself can ruin anyone's Sunday and run him to alcoholism, depression and suicide.

To make an already long story short, everyone finally got into the cars and we took off. In addition to Oscar, his wife and I, the group consisted almost an army of pilgrims in search of the sacrificial lamb in La Canada. The list included their two anxious sons whose eyes had that mischievous love for anarchy and lack of any discipline and the uncontrollable urge to keep calling me "uncle" without prior authorization. They kept asking for the time every 10 minutes.

Also came along were his father-in-law and the grandma and a heavy set, mustached man wearing a black chapeau in the middle of the summer -- Oscar's distant cousin. Almost everyone mispronounced his name as "Javat" Agha (instead of Javad). Javad Agha had a heavy south-Tehran accent as he unleashed a chain of greetings when we met. I returned the gestures politely.

I whispered to my friend why was Javad Agha coming along? And he responded: "Javaat Agha recently retired in Iran and this is his first trip to the U.S." I showed more curiosity and asked him what he did in Iran?

Oscar shocked me by saying that he was the former deputy manager of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization! I burst into laughter and said, "but he doesn't appear to be a nuclear scientist." Oscar responded, "I know, but he is very religious and has many connections, so after the revolution they appointed him to that post."

Then I asked what was he doing before the Revolution? And Oscar hesitantly replied "Well, for years he worked in Koshtargah." So shocked, I said "So he was working at the slaughterhouse in South Tehran, as a butcher, and then promoted to deputy manager at the Atomic Energy Organization?"

Oscar nodded.

For a second I thought to myself, since Javad was an expert on slaughtering animals, wouldn't it have made more sense if they'd appointed him ambassador to New Zealand? But then, what do I know about what it takes to run a nuclear facility? So now I knew why Javad Agha was coming along, because he knew how to slaughter a lamb.

We drove about an hour. I was holding a map and watching the signs. Behind us was the family van, loaded with people from all walks of life.

The search for a lamb wasn't easy, after checking with a couple of farms whose names were given to Oscar by other lamb-eaters, we finally got to a rather large farm and parked near the gate and went in.

A man with a cowboy hat dressed in worn blue jeans approached us and yelled "howdee". We returned his greetings and told him that we wanted to by a sheep. He pointed at a distant horizon within the ranch.

While playing with a toothpick in the corner of his mouth, he repositioned his cowboy hat and while looking at his sleeping German shepherd, told us: "Well, are you going to catch him or should I?" We asked what was the difference? "Fifty bucks,"he said. "We'll catch him," Oscar said. So the cowboy agreed and said: "OK. Y'all catch him and it'll be a dollar a pound." We agreed and the chase started!

After a 30-minute chase around the huge ranch, the best I could explain the scene is four tired men, one exhausted woman, one old grandma almost comatose, and two kids holding a poor sheep by his head and big fat tail, a sleepy dog who cared less and a cowboy counting dollar bills.

The cowboy offered to slaughter the lamb for an additional $50, but Javad Agha's honor was almost shattered; it was beneath his dignity to let anyone else slaughter the lamb. So we thanked the rancher, Javad Agha picked up the lamb like a baby and carried him to the van.

On the way back, the lamb was standing all the way at the back end of the van looking outside thinking about his fate, while Oscar's kids kept calling me uncle and asking me if I saw how they grabbed the sheep by his extremity.

By the time we got home it was almost one o'clock in the afternoon, Javad Agha asked for a rope and tied it to a low-hanging branch outside the house. He sharpened a knife, forced the lamb to face the direction of Saudi Arabia and ordered him to drink some water from a bottle of Evian and then like a roman wrestler brought the poor lamb to the ground. Before you knew it, there was blood all over!

Locals started coming out of their houses with wide open eyes. They thought their Persian neighbors are sacrificing their firstborn. Some had their video recorders and at least one person kept a safe distance with a double-barrel shotgun.

No more than 15 minutes passed when a white van showed up. Sure enough it was LA's Channel 4 TV news crew. A reporter rushed towards us with a cameraman and before you knew it a huge fuzzy microphone was up our face to explain what was going on.

Oscar, acting like a socio-anthropologist, volunteered to explain the whole thing. He twisted his accent to sound more British -- and more authentic.

Javad Agha with his chapeau, was enjoying all the publicity. He kept smiling at the camera while the hangingn lamb was being skinned. As the cameraman became more interested, Javad Agha would point to different parts of the lamb's anatomy and yelling "Zis is donbalaan", "Zis is gholveh" and the TV reporter would nod his head "Yes, I see."

Oscar told the crowd that this was all for a good cause and how everyone would enjoy the barbecue. At the same time Oscar's father-in-law kept dipping his palms into the sheep's blood and smearing the front grill and the headlights of the Mercedes, drawing macabre traces of blood all over the front of the car.

The cameraman shifted the camera back and forth from Oscar's father-in-law to Javad Agha. It was a scene as gory as the one in The Godfather, when the man woke up in his bed next to the cut-off head of his beloved horse and all that blood! Some in the crowd yelled "savages", others used adjectives as "Al Qaida SOBs". Some just laughed, and a few stayed around. It was a typical "there goes the neighborhood" feeling of discomfort.

Javad Agha's trained hands were swift and precise. He skinned the lamb in less than 30 minutes, spread the skin on the ground and put the intestines, stomach, and the head along with two shanks inside the skin and wrapped them up and tied a knot. He then told the cameraman "Zis for you, Zis for you... Take home, take home" and the poor cameraman kept saying "No, thank you!" Javad Agha was just following tradition by offering sacrificial meat.

The charcoal was glowing red and the meat was ready. Javad Agha produced a delicious kebab within an hour. Oscar's wife set fresh bread, cheese and basil (fresh from their backyard) on the picnic table. Grandmother poured some yogurt into small dishes and garnished them with crushed dried mint.

Those neighbors who survived the slaughter gathered around the table. The cameraman and the reporter put down their equipment and joined in. Javad Agha opened a bottle of Smirnoff and had a shot. During the whole episode he never removed his chapeau -- an ultimate sign of endurance for a man of many talents! (Whenevr the Islamic Republic announces the launch of its first atomic missile, remember Javad Agha's contribution.)

Oscar was admiring his bloodied car from a distance. His sons stopped calling me uncle for few minutes. And his wife seemed very happy now that she had the Mercedes. The grandma was talking to herself. The dog was licking the blood and the cat was under the picnic table licking itself. It was a Sunday unlike any other. A bloody Sunday that ended happily. Nobody got arrested.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment to Farrokh A. Ashtiani

By: Farrokh A. Ashtiani



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