Veiled Romance, a romantic thriller featuring a strong female protagonist who risks all for love, unfolds against the turbulent backdrop of Tehran during the first months of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution, and is inspired by my personal experiences and observations being in Iran during that time period. Simon Ebrahimi was born and raised in Jewbareh, the Jewish ghetto of Esfahan, Iran. He studied management and finance in England before returning to Iran, where he was a partner with an international accounting firm. In 1979, he was taken hostage by his employees at the same time as the American Embassy compound was overtaken by the Islamic Republic. The author left Iran with his wife and two daughters after the revolution and settled in Los Angeles.
January 30, 1980
It is my second night in this place. My cell is as dark and cold as a crypt. Yesterday morning, they took me, blindfolded, directly from the Central Revolutionary Committee and threw me in here. I pulled off the filthy cloth and waited for my eyes to get used to the semidarkness. Eventually I saw dust motes dancing in the narrow band of light filtering into the cell from a barred window at the top of the wall. Directly opposite that solitary window was a heavy metal door.
My cell is no more than ten feet wide by ten feet long. It is infested with cockroaches and the occasional mouse. The air is cold and damp. Shoved up against the wall beneath the window is an old, disintegrating mattress with a threadbare blanket. My sharp sense of smell, which I had always thought of as a blessing, has become a curse, for everything here smells foul—my own body and clothing, my sorry excuse for a bed, the air, and more than anything else, my pasdar—the member of the revolutionary guard—who is my jailer. I can actually sense him approaching from his skunk stench. That is the name I have given in my mind, Skunk, although he has a name tag…Well, not exactly a name tag but a piece of fabric sewn to his jacket with “Zaki” handwritten on it. Skunk’s khaki camouflage revolutionary uniform is several sizes too large. He wears a canvas gun belt with a pistol in a flapped holster. He is short with a small head. Although he has a thick beard, only a few strings of whiskers curl above his lips. His eyes are tiny and yellow-brown. When he speaks, his high-pitched words whistle out from between the gaps of his mossy teeth.
I made Skunk’s acquaintance yesterday morning, after I spent an hour at the Central Revolutionary Committee while being interrogated by a mullah and a little, bearded man who acted as the stenographer at my hearing. When the hearing was over and my guilt—which was a foregone conclusion—was officially transcribed, I was blindfolded and transported here.
“What have you done, sister?” Skunk asked, sitting beside me as we made our journey. I fought back my nausea from riding blindfolded in the bouncing, swaying vehicle.
“Nothing,” I said as I felt his hand moving up my thigh. “I had a fight with this communist man who wanted to touch me.”
He swiftly pulled his hand away. “But you are an antirevolutionary?”
“No. I’m an observant Muslim woman.”
He spoke no more. Finally, we arrived wherever I am now, and he threw me in this cell and locked the door. He returned perhaps half an hour later with a tray on which was a piece of bread and a tin cup of water. He put it on the stained, grimy floor. “Your breakfast. Sit down and eat, Sister Zahra.”
“Zahra” was the name given to me at the Central Revolutionary Committee by my interrogator, who also warned me that I was to forget my own name, that if I dared to even say it to anyone, including my pasdar, I would be executed. Obeying Skunk’s instruction, I sat, gnawed on the stale hunk of bread, and listened as he laid out my circumstances.
“This place used to be one of the many hidden jails of SAVAK, the Shah’s CIA, may Allah erase his name from the face of the earth,” he began. “He had built hundreds—what am I saying?—thousands and thousands of these with the help of the Great Satan America and the filthy Jews’ regime, the occupiers of the land of our Palestinian brothers. But now that we have been blessed with the first government of Allah on the earth, we are putting all the counterrevolutionaries, the sinners and the enemies of Imam Khomeini, in these houses converted to prisons. Especially whores like you. And soon we will start helping our Palestinian brothers to kick the Jews out of Palestine and…”
I nodded to humor him as I sat shaking like a willow tree in the wind.
“Get undressed,” he abruptly ordered.
“You’re all jendeh, whores,” he muttered, walking toward me. He unbuckled his gun belt and carefully tossed it behind him into a corner of the cell. “Yes, you and your mother and her mother were all prostitutes. Your mother is the bride of a thousand grooms, and your father, a faggot who sleeps under donkeys.”
He began to fumble at his trousers. He seemed to be having trouble with his zipper. Despite my terror—or maybe because of it—I had the craziest impulse to burst out laughing, even though to do so would certainly mean serious physical injury or even death at the hands of this monster.
“What are you waiting for?” he yelled, charged toward me, and yanked off my hijab, my headscarf. He grabbed me by my hair and flung me onto the dirty floor, then straddled me and tried to rip off my shirt.
I screamed, clinging as hard as I could to my top. He put the palm of one hand on my mouth and pressed his other hand against my throat. “Shut up before I shut you up!” he snarled. With every word, he tightened his grip on my throat. “You can scream as much as you want, no one will hear you in this prison. Now take off your shirt, or I will kill you and leave your body here to rot!”
Unable to breathe, panicked, I cried out with my last exhalation, “Allah fayaghfar men al yasha va yoazeb man yasha, va Allah ala kole sheian ghadir.”
He lurched off me. “You know the verses of the Koran and you know them in Arabic?” he asked, sounding incredulous.
“And Allah forgives or punishes, for only He is the Almighty,” I muttered the translation. I took advantage of his confusion to sit up and cover my hair with my scarf.
“But…but…whores like you have no right to even utter sacred verses!” he growled. Nevertheless, he moved back all the way to the door of the cell. “The holy words of our Kalam-Allah from your mouth?” He shook his head in disapproval as he lit a cigarette and took a deep drag. “That’s a blasphemy. Where did they teach you this, in the Great Satan’s CIA?”
“No,” I replied. “I told you. I am an observant Muslim woman, and I pray—”
“Even though you have been to America, you know the Koran?”
“Yes.” I folded the moldy blanket from my mattress to use it as my prayer rug. “Come to think of it, I haven’t recited my morning prayer yet. I don’t know Kiblah, the direction of Mecca. Which way is it, please?”
Looking dumbfounded, Skunk pointed to the door. I laid the blanket in that direction and sat on it in a prayer pose. “Allah be with you, brother. May I ask you to bring me a prayer seal this afternoon?” And before he was able to answer, I began my namaz. “Ghol hova Allah ahad, Allah…” And as I murmured my prayer, the genesis of finding a way to escape this dungeon began to take shape in my mind. The first thing I needed to do was ascertain the whereabouts of my jail. But how?
Skunk hurriedly retrieved his gun belt. As he fumbled with his keys to unlock the cell door I gestured that he should stay until I was done. He froze, as I suspected he would, for even one as ignorant as he would know it was a major sin to interrupt any prayer.
“I need to go to the bathroom, Brother Zaki,” I said when I was done.
“Very well,” he grumbled as he opened the door. “Follow me.”
We left my cell for a long corridor dimly lit by three bulbs hanging from the ceiling. We passed another metal door like mine on my left and one on my right. Two more such doors were at the corridor’s end. One I supposed was the way out of this corridor of cells. The other turned out to be the toilet.
“Go in,” he said. I walked into the filthy place and he began to follow me in.
“Brother Zaki!” I said patiently. “‘Tell the believers to cover their private parts. That is purer for them. Verily, Allah is all-aware of what they do.’ That’s from An-Noor, chapter twenty-four, verse thirty.” I stared at him obstinately.
“Shut your filthy mouth!” he yelled at me. I heard other voices—those of two other women—coming from the cells along the corridor
“Allah Akbar…There’s another woman…Please be kind to her, Brother Zaki.”
“You shut up too,” Skunk cried, then turned to me and said, “All right. I will turn my back to you, but I am not going to let you shut the door.”
And that is what he did.