The public execution of two petty thieves sends a message to Tehran's artists and intellectuals. A dispatch from the gallows.
Image from Flickr via Hamed Saber
By Salar Abdoh
The hangings are scheduled to take place ten hours later, at dawn, with the morning call to prayer. It is to be a double hanging: two men, two cranes. No chairs being pulled out from under their feet like in films; this will be an efficient display, the pair of cranes working in tandem, killing two young men simultaneously. One of them, Alireza Mafiha, 23 years old, the other, Mohammad Ali Sarvari, 20.
I pull up my motorcycle at the Artists’ Park in central Tehran. The park sits behind the former American embassy and in fact people call it The House of Artists, Khane ye Honarmandan. Square-shaped and several city blocks long, the park is a kind of sanctuary. A place that houses a number of theaters, galleries and cafes at its center. On any given night you will find quiet young lovers strolling the carefully manicured garden paths that run parallel to the streets surrounding the park. Also, scattered about are delicately positioned fountain pools, sculptures, table-tennis courts and chess tables. The park is something of a classic Persian garden on a larger scale: a tribute to peace, tranquility and culture. The digital board outside of the main building continuously displays current and upcoming shows and lectures—an adaptation of Hamlet with Persian themes, a panel on Shakespeare Our Contemporary, an exhibit of Armenian artists, and several music performances in multiple auditoriums. People stand in clusters waiting for some evening show. Conversations are relaxed. Winters can be harsh here, but it doesn’t feel like such a cold night for late January in Tehran.
This is on the south end of the park. On the north end, a couple of hundred yards away, the hangings are to take place. By eight PM the police have set up the scaffolding that is to keep back the crowd. They have already bussed in a few soldiers and there is an official van. Old men play chess nearby, oblivious. Across the park there are apartment buildings. If the inhabitants care to, they can wake up early and watch the hangings from the best seats in the house.
A short distance down the road is a street I know well. Before the revolution, my father used to own a restaurant there on nearby Kheradmand Avenue. The neighborhood is mostly a mix of older middle class residential apartments and newer commercial buildings. This is the city’s heart. Walk a few minutes in any direction and you’ll be plunged into the current of endless traffic and its cacophony of sounds. But here, on the streets adjacent to the park, it is often inexplicably quiet. Peaceful. Which makes me think ahead, to the day after tomorrow when the cranes and the bodies and the scaffolding will be long gone and nothing but the ghost of the hangings will remain in this quiet neighborhood; I’m thinking of the fading memory of something that hasn’t yet taken place.
Here was a society, the footage seemed to suggest, that had lost all semblance of control. And a government whose very reason-for-being is control found itself having to act fast.
Public hangings are hardly a rarity in Iran. In times of instability or perceived instability they seem to multiply in numbers; in some instances, as when for example they take place in stadiums, they can even take on a circus quality. But such hangings are usually reserved for serious offenses like murder, child molestation or major drug dealing. Their purpose is to warn and intimidate. And while public opinion is divided about capital punishment, a lot of people seemed to agree that in this particular instance the degree of crime hardly matched the justice meted out. The young men about to be executed got away with a mere 20 dollars. Though, with the falling Iranian currency, it’s only probably 15 dollars by now. Next month it will be 10. And therein lies the issue: with international pressures and sanctions on Iran and its nuclear program, and with the economy in a tailspin, there has been a marked rise in crime, particularly cases of robbery in the open. Such broad daylight attacks smack of disorder. And disorder is precisely what an authoritarian state cannot stomach.
In the case of Sarvari and Mafiha, a set of circumstances came together to make them particularly unlucky. They, and two other assailants, happened to attack a young man at knife point in front of an office building. The sum taken was paltry, the victim was not really hurt and the muggers were quickly long gone from the scene. On an average day any number of these muggings take place in a mega city like Tehran. The police don’t, and cannot, afford to think twice about it. But in this case the building’s security camera had recorded the entire episode. The footage was shown on TV, went viral on the internet and suddenly became hot news. Here was a society, the footage seemed to suggest, that had lost all semblance of control. And a government whose very reason-for-being is control found itself having to act fast.
So they did. Between the day the mugging took place and the day Sarvari and Mafiha were finally hung, not two months went by. The camera recording allowed the police to quickly identify the attackers. They were caught and taken to court. Everyone was weighing in by this point, even members of parliament. An example had to be set. The two lesser attackers were to be whipped 74 times and given sentences of ten years each. But Sarvari and Mafiha, who were seen as the main culprits, were ordered to be hung. It was a stunning verdict. Theirs was a crime that in the Islamic Republic’s own penal code carries a sentence of anywhere between 3 months to a maximum of ten years. But execution? In court, the very young man whom Sarvari and Mafiha had mugged pleaded to the judge on his attackers’ behalf. He insisted that he was not satisfied at all to see them killed. But judgment was already passed.
It was as if someone up there was saying, “We can do this to you anywhere.”
Next came even stranger news. The hanging would take place by The House of Artists. Public hangings being exactly that, public, they can of course take place anywhere. And usually they are carried out at or near the vicinity of where the crime took place. In this case the mugging had occurred a short ways up the road, a stone’s throw away from my father’s old restaurant. Therefore, the hanging was still considered within the neighborhood. But to do it right here, on the northern perimeter of The House of Artists—one of the city’s premier cultural centers—seemed like decisive overkill. It appeared especially directed towards the segment of the population, artists and intellectuals, who are to a large degree against capital punishment. It was as if someone up there was saying, “We can do this to you anywhere. We can come into your own house and do it if we want to.”
By 4:30 AM when I return to the park there is a crowd of perhaps three or four hundred people. They are mostly very young and poor neighborhood kids from the Piruzi district in the southeast end of the city where the condemned come from. They haven’t come to gawk. They’ve come to be witnesses to their neighbors’ plight. One of them says that this is the second hanging he’s seen this year of someone from his neighborhood. It’s chilly by now and an hour later they still haven’t brought in the victims. The authorities are running late. The crowd is pressing and climbing on top of each other at the scaffolding. Equally young, mostly Azeri Turk soldiers noncommittally tell us to step back. The soldiers don’t want to be here. They are cold and tired; from their drained expressions and the periodic low murmur of Turkish amongst themselves you can imagine they think their officers, dressed in darker green uniforms, are completely absurd for forcing them into this situation. But the cranes have long arrived and so have the masked men who will put the ropes around the victims. The cranes are also masked, their license plates covered so that no one will get the idea into their heads to take revenge afterwards on the cranes and their operators. This waiting is annoying to the crowd. There is a point after which you want the deed to follow its inevitable course. George Orwell describes something of the same feeling in his famous essay, “A Hanging”—oh, kill him quickly, get it over, stop that abominable noise!
Orwell also writes in the same essay of a moment when, as the man is being led to the gallows, he steps slightly to avoid a puddle of water: Till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. A similar awareness seems to sweep through the crowd when the condemned have finally arrived and just before the masked hangmen slip the noose around their necks, one of them asks for a drink of water. Whispers flow through the throng: “Look! They’re giving him water.” And in a much forwarded photograph of the event around the world the following days, there is also the scene of the other victim resting his shaven head momentarily on the shoulder of the masked executioner who, in turn, wraps his arm around the young man as if they were brothers. It is the one momentous picture of the hanging that I only get to see after the fact, as probably at that very instant I was jostling next to two dozen other bodies for a better look. I almost feel robbed because of it; my act of witnessing appears to me incomplete. And seeing a still image of that specific moment later on makes it seem like something staged to me, a form of theater.
There is nothingness. Just two pairs of naked feet dangling high off the ground.
And of course theater this is, in its entirety. It is the judiciary branch’s way of putting on a spectacle as a lesson to be learned by others. And like all theater, there are varieties of reaction to what is happening on that stage. There are government owned TV news people strutting merrily up and down the crowd trying to get favorable soundbites out of people. There are cameras flashing and folks climbing up trees in the park to get better views. And there is, it seems, a never quite materializing promise of a stampede right past the soldiers to free Sarvari and Mafiha. Then some ten minutes into this drama when the ropes are finally tightened and the cranes begin their work, the audience at last jeers at the soldiers and shakes at the scaffolding. Many weep. In the distance you can hear the heart-wrenching wailing of women. Sisters? Mothers? Is it possible that their shrieks could put a sudden stop to this mad exhibition? The answer is no. Those cranes are simply too powerful. They are 21st century machines designed to lift much more than a single human being. And it seems that no sooner the condemned are lifted off the ground that they are both dead. There is no resistance. Not a hint of a struggle or screaming or fighting for breath of air. There is nothingness. Just two pairs of naked feet dangling high off the ground for the next fifteen minutes of display while the dispirited crowd slowly thins and soon disappears.
And now the sun has definitively appeared on the horizon, a little over an hour since the morning prayer was called at a quarter to six. The cranes have brought their quarry down and the masked men have shipped them off in black plastic. The young soldiers have been shipped off too. Only a few policemen remain. There is stirring of everyday life back here in the park. Older people are out for their brisk early morning walks. In the not-far-off distance I hear shouting and think to myself that perhaps the neighbors of the executed men are finally having a tussle with the authorities. I walk in that direction. And not fifty yards off run directly into a cardio workout class in the open. A man in loose jogging clothes is shouting out instructions next to his boombox. The class is a mix of mostly women and a few old men who occupy the front row. The sound from the boombox is bloodless gym music and it was the instructor’s directions that I had taken for a commotion. He does have a solid voice, however, that rises firmly over the music and keeps the students in rhythm—not at all like the voice of the man who had been reading the execution order of the condemned an hour earlier. That man’s voice had had something inflated and consciously false about it, almost burlesque, as if an order of execution had to be read with buffoon-like loudness and an exaggerated pitch, or the obscene claim would not possibly be taken seriously. And maybe it wasn’t.
Until, that is, the order was carried out.
January 2013, Tehran.
Born in Iran, Salar Abdoh is the author of the novels, The Poet Game and Opium. His essays and short stories have appeared in various publications, including the New York Times, BOMB, Callaloo, La Règle du Jeu, The Drawbridge, and the BBC. He is the recipient of the NYFA prize and the National Endowment for the Arts. He also teaches at The City College of New York.