There’s no light in this place. No light and no sound. All there is is touch and smell. The touch is of rough concrete surfaces. And the smell is of rot, excrement and death. That’s all I have. That and the very real fear that I will never see anything else again. I’d gone to the protest hoping to make a statement. I thought it was almost romantic; risking my life in the face of a totalitarian government. If I lived, I could tell my children and grandchildren how I stood up against tyranny. And if I died, I would live on in the legends of freedom. That was how it seemed to me. That was the imagery that brought me to the protest. And when I got there, I joined a mass of proud people, standing up for our rights and our freedoms. They were just like me. It was an incredible feeling, like the entire country had come together for something better.
But the feeling didn’t last long. The first sign something was wrong was the sound of motorcycle engines. There were just a few of them, revving up on the edges of the vast assembly. But then I heard them move. And, moments later, I heard screaming and panic and fear. And that emotion shot through the crowd with just as much certainty and dominance as the pride had only moments before. It spread like wildfire, sucking the bravery from the assembled masses.
But I did not let the fear overtake me. I had made my decision. I would hold my place. I saw one of the motorbikes. It was an old dirt bike and it had two riders: a driver in front and a shooter in the back. The shooter had a machine pistol. I saw him open fire. I saw the random pattern of death he left as the bike sped through the crowd. And then I realized where the bike was going. It was headed straight for me. I had a sign on a pole. I don’t know what inspired me, but I broke off the pole and I was left with a long piece of wood. The bike sped towards me, the shooter eyeing his targets. And I waited. I saw the driver shout something behind him and point towards me. I saw the shooter swing his arm in my direction.
And I began to move. I began to run towards the bike, trying to put the driver between myself and the shooter. The shooter tried to switch hands, to get a clean shot. He fired a few rounds, but he couldn’t hit me with his off-hand. In what seemed like an instant, the bike was only five feet away. I vaguely heard the beating of a helicopter’s rotors. And then I cast my wooden post towards the open spokes of the front wheel and I saw it catch in the wheels and I saw the whole bike tip forward, throwing both riders off. And I saw the crowd descend on them. And I saw the killers beaten to death by the people.
I went home that day, without even a scar. I had been untouched by the regime. Like many other men of my generation, I lived with my parents. I was thirty-five, but times were hard. They had been for decades. My father was a plumber. He’d always been small time, the kind of man who worked off the books. As he explained it, if he were too successful somebody in government would come and take his business from him. He couldn’t work on new construction or anything commercial. That work was reserved for the protected companies, those with government ties. All my father could do was handyman repairs for other poor neighbors. Most of his work was done for barter.
My mother was a housecleaner. She’d worked in the fancier neighborhoods and she worked for cash. She was excellent at talking to people. Her clients loved her. But she only worked as much as she needed to. Every new client brought risk. You could always anger the wrong people. And I, despite doing well in school and having had a chance at university, had ended up an off-the-books electrician. I could wire anything for anybody – so long as they paid cash and didn’t talk too much about the job I’d done. I knew my place, just as my parents knew theirs. I knew, as they had drilled into me, that success led to attention and attention was dangerous.
When the protests had started, the week before, my parents had begged me not to go. My father had always said politics was a fool’s game. You’d feel powerful for a moment and then the world would shift under you and you would be erased. It was inevitable. And it was purposeless. Governments might be toppled, but the corruption would always remain.
My father, the plumber, was a wise man. And so, I didn’t go to the protests. I stayed at home and heard the shouts echoing throughout the neighborhood. “The Dictator must Die!” ricocheted from rooftop to rooftop. I listened, but I did not go. There was no point. Even if the regime was toppled, other corrupt politicians would fill the void.
And then, after seven days, I realized that maybe a real revolution was afoot. But I couldn’t know, not from home. When I turned on the TV, the only indication that something was happening was captured by the coverage of the pro-government protestors. That coverage continued, day after day, reinforcing the existence of something else. I knew I had to see what was really happening. And if the protests were succeeding, I had to play some part in resisting the government. And so, I went to the protest, I stood up the regime; I stopped murderers on a bike. And I came home proud.
As we drank tea from glass cups, I told my parents what had happened. Just as I got to the point where I threw the sign, the front door burst open. Police flooded the apartment. My father tried to resist them. They shot him and left him for dead. As my mother fell, crying out in mourning by my father’s side, I was dragged away. It didn’t take me long to work out what had happened: I had heard a helicopter. A helicopter had filmed what I had done.
The rest was inevitable. And now, I’m in a stinking cell in the bottom of some dungeon mourning a father whose funeral I will never attend. And I’ve been here for a time I cannot begin to calculate. There is no escape now. The resolve I’d had at the protest has vanished. There is no legacy from disappearing into a cell, and then vanishing from the world. There is no romance in being shot in the head in an underground room. There is only death. Just as my father had warned, politics was a moment of pride followed by complete destruction. And the faces at the top wouldn’t even change places. Everything, all of my bravery and resolve, was for nothing. I sit in the cell, shaking in fear, amazed by my own bull-headed stupidity.
And then, with a stab of light, the door to my cell opens.
I cover my eyes against the sudden pain.
I hear a voice ask, “Bahram Ghorbani?”
I want to deny it is me, but the question is simply a formality.
“Yes,” I answer, with resignation.
The brightness of the light is beginning to fade now.
“Good,” says the voice. It seems almost warm, like the man is teasing me with something other than death.
And then I see his face.
“I am General Kazemi,” the man says.
And I know it is true. I know his face. I wonder what I have done to earn the honor of having him personally conduct my execution.
But General Kazemi is not done. He snaps his fingers and two guards move forward. One of them injects something into my arm.
Moments later, I pass out.
When I wake up, I’m in a luxurious room. The bed is softer than any I’ve ever felt before. The walls are made of intricately carved wood. Beautifully patterned carpeting covers the floor. A flat panel TV has been artfully embedded into one of the walls.
A nurse is standing next to the bed, carefully monitoring my vitals.
I imagine, for a moment, that I am in Heaven. Perhaps I was ultimately rewarded for my bravery. But the illusion is shattered when the nurse presses a button on the phone next to my bed.
“He’s up,” she says, in a cultivated voice that somehow cuts through the magic.
A minute later, General Kazemi strolls into the room.
The General looks me over, assessing me like a piece of fruit at the market.
“What’s your name?” he asks, almost dismissively.
“Bahram Ghorbani,” I answer, in a steady voice.
“Did you bring down a motorcycle at the protest yesterday?”
I think about lying. But there is no point. Instead I answer, “Yes.”
“You will do,” says the General. He then turns and walks from the room.
I watch him go, more confused than I’ve ever been in my life.
“Would you like me to turn on the TV?” asks the nurse.
I look at her, wondering why she would ask such a question. Why would I want the TV? All it would show was propaganda.
But the woman has a gleam in her eye, like she holds some secret.
“Yes,” I say.
And she happily strides over to the wall and turns on the TV.
General Kazemi is on the screen.
“My fellow people,” he pronounces, in a careful voice, “A young man was filmed today – fighting off murderers who were riding a motorcycle. Clips of his resistance have already spread throughout the country. Under the prior regime, such footage was illegal. But we will now share it widely. He should be a source of pride to our people.
“The young man was arrested by the Secret Police shortly after his moment of bravery. Unfortunately, his father was killed in the arrest operation. What followed was an in-depth review of his actual identity. We can now confirm, with 100% certainty, that the brave young man is the last remaining descendent of the Najjar Dynasty.”
I stare at the screen, stunned. The Najjar Dynasty? They had disappeared 80 years ago.
The General takes a sip of water and then continues.
“We in the military have heard the people. And so, we reached out to leaders of the opposition. And, together, we have recognized the unique opportunity for change that Crown Prince Najjar represents. For four generations, his family has hidden, fearful of the forces that swept them from power. Their fear should now be at an end. We, the commanders of the military and leaders of the opposition, have pledged our allegiance to a new unity government under Crown Prince Najjar.”
The General pauses, looking out over an imaginary room.
And then he concludes, “May we all be blessed with a brighter tomorrow.”
The nurse turns off the TV. And then she walks to my bed and leans close to my ear while pretending to fiddle with some piece of equipment. She whispers, in a barely audible voice, “Rescue us from their tyranny.”
And then she stands and walks from the room.
I look at the now blank TV and imagine my future. I can change things. I can make this country better. I am a son of the dispossessed. There is a world of promise that is open to me.
I can make the nurse’s dreams a reality. I can overcome the repression that crushed my parents.
The next day, I am dressed in a suit and led into a medium-sized room with a large conference table. All around it are men. They are men of stature. Men with confidence and education. I have no way of knowing if any are from the opposition; their faces were never publicized.
But these cultured men look at me just as they would have a few days earlier. I am just slum trash in a nice suit.
They are the men who know their place at the top of society.
The faces have changed, but the corruption remains the same.
I draw myself up to full height. I imagine for a moment that I might command them. I imagine that I might corral them or coerce them or confuse them. I stand proud, looking around the room. I imagine that I can resist them.
But their expressions do not change. They barely notice the shift in my attitude. They eye me like a piece of fruit in a market. And I wither under their gazes. I can do battle with thugs on a motorbike, but I cannot battle these men.
And I know then, deep within myself, that I am the son of a plumber and a housekeeper.
I am meant to be a figurehead for these men. I am meant to lend legitimacy to those who will despoil my people. I am a Sultan on the outside, but within I am only an off-the-books electrician.
I am a nobody.
Perhaps, for a moment, I could have resisted them.
But that time has already passed.
Then a thought crosses my mind: perhaps, just maybe, my family and my people can still be redeemed. I was raised in fear, but my children can be raised to rule. They can be raised to bring the change that is beyond my grasp.
Another smile, a deeper smile, crosses my lips then.
These men are but ministers, commanding the present.
But I am a Prince, and I will change the future.
In Parshat Shelach, the list of spies to be sent to the Land is provided. This list is odd for two reasons. First, the Matei (or tribe) of Yosef is mentioned. This is the only time this tribe is mentioned (normally, the child tribes of Ephraim and Menashe are referenced). Second, despite being from the tribe of Ephraim (a son of Yosef), Yohoshua is excluded from the Matei of Yosef.
The question for me is: why?
The story of Yosef reveals an answer. Yosef – despite his illustrious position as the father-guide to Pharoah – is an outsider. He is an Ivri in a world that looked down on Ivirim as less than Egyptians. For all his success, he does not truly belong.
The slaves who emerged from Egypt, with the exception of Yohoshua and Calev, are just like Yosef. When it comes time to enter the Land and become a great nation, they are not ready to make the leap. They are outsiders and slaves. They are, at best, nomads. They are not the equals of settled peoples. They see themselves as grasshoppers in the eyes of the Canaanites.
This conclusion, this lack of confidence in what G-d can provide them, condemns them to the desert.
But they do not simply disappear there. Instead, at the end of the Torah reading, the people are given a series of commandments. These commandments prepare the generation to see themselves in a different way.
The first of the commandments is a series of supplements to the standard offerings. The supplements are of flour, oil and wine. These supplements are chosen because only settled people produce flour, oil and wine. By including these offerings, the children are taught to think of themselves as on a par with the Canaanites.
But it does not stop there. Where the Canaanites simply receive the fruits of the Land and live off them, the people are reminded that these fruits serve a higher purpose. They are commanded to make an offering of challah with their bread. This offering reinforces that we are sustained for the sake of the Divine relationship.
The power of atonement is reinforced next. The people are reminded that they can kaper or seal their souls against sin. Mistakes need not undermine their souls.
And finally, the people are given the mitzvah of tzitzit. Nothing, not even food, is a more constant part of our lives than fabric. As a fashion executive explained once, from birth until death we are rarely more than a meter from fabric. The tzitzit, with their blue thread that connects us to a world without loss (there is no death in the sky), is a constant reminder of our role in bringing a better, lossless, reality to human existence.
And, throughout all these commandments, we are reminded to treat the ger like the native-born. We are reminded of this because it is critical to understand that it is not genetics or culture that give the Jewish People a right to the Land we inhabit. Our right to this Land is based only on our relationship with G-d.
All too often we confine ourselves to the role of Bahram Ghorbani. We limit ourselves because we imagine ourselves as slaves, nomads or simple tradesmen. But ours is the generation of the children. Ours is the generation that must recognize our place among the nations, our relationship with G-d and our mission as a people. Whether we are tradesmen or politicians, we must recognize our power to change the world.
In this light, this week’s question is more of a challenge: Ours are the generations of the children… so how do we plan to live up to the unmet dreams of those who came before us? We are princes empowered by the generations that have passed; how will we exercise our power and deliver on our responsibilities?
I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments…
Joseph Cox lives in Modiin, Israel with his wife and six children and is the author of City on the Heights, a thriller about transforming the Middle East (available on Kindle and via Book Depository).
A teenage refugee flees for her life
and finds hope in the City on the Heights.
Before long, the future of the Middle
East rests on her shoulders.
Check it out at: www.CityontheHeights.com