Escape from Baghdad!!! Part One
By Saul Silas Fathi
This is Part 2, the Concluding Part,
Click Here for Part 1
After about an hour of driving, the truck suddenly stopped, and the guide ordered us all to get out. The tailgate was lowered, and the men jumped out first to help the rest of us down. The infant’s father was helped down, so that he could assist his wife, who still clutched her dead child tight to her bosom. When we were all out of the truck, the guide motioned for the driver to leave us.
As the truck drove away, we stood in the total darkness in the middle of the desert. Some of the group just sat down on the sand, wondering aloud if we had just been brought out here to be abandoned. The infant’s mother sat on the ground with her legs folded under her. She put the baby in her lap and slowly rocked backward and forward, as if in prayer, murmuring unintelligibly.
The guide then spoke to us reassuringly. “You are safe now. Don’t worry. You will be the honored guests of our friends, the Bedouins, who will offer you food and drink and a place to sleep for tonight.”
In less than an hour, several men appeared silently out of the darkness. They were the Bedouin friends the guide had told us about. These men shook hands with some of the grownups in our company and told us in Arabic to follow them on foot. As the group moved out, the Bedouins conversed quietly in Farsi among themselves. We all were beginning to finally feel safe, but were still in shock about our ordeal and what had happened to the infant.
We walked about twenty minutes in complete silence, which seemed very unusual to our hosts, who were enjoying each other’s good company. We soon came to a cluster of tents amid some cows, lambs, and camels. Children were everywhere, running and playing. Yeftah and I felt comfortable because kids could play and make noise and just be kids. We were greeted by the women of the tribe, who all wore colorful, long dresses, and some wore black veils over their faces.
We were motioned to enter a huge tent and sit on the floor, which was covered with colorful mats, like something out of a tale from long ago. We did as our hosts requested, all of us, except the parents of the infant, who were standing outside of the tent, sobbing and talking to their baby.
The guide frowned in sadness as he looked at the young family. Then he left to seek out one of our hosts. The guide whispered in the Bedouin’s ear, probably telling him what had happened to the baby. The Bedouin then approached the parents, offering his condolences. He called to his teenage son and whispered something in his ear. The boy ran into another tent, brought a shovel and began to dig a hole in the ground, about a hundred yards away. He returned and told his father that the space was ready. His father approached the parents again and tried to convince them that they should bury their child there.
The mother cried out, “No! Please don’t make me leave my baby here in the desert. Please, I can’t!”
Her husband hugged her and begged her to listen. “It’s the only thing we can do. I love him, too. But, we have to go on. We have to save ourselves and all these people. I beg you.”
The three-year-old joined in. “No, please, Daddy, don’t let them do this. I want to keep my brother with us. Let’s take him with us to Israel.”
Adults from our group came out of the tent and began to beg the couple’s forgiveness, urging them to bury their child in this land that brought them closer to freedom. The mother continued to wail in mourning. But after a long time, she finally relented, and we all marched silently to the gravesite. The father jumped into the newly dug grave, and reached up for their infant son still wrapped in his blanket, taking him from his wife. He kissed the baby on the forehead and laid him flat in the grave, face up, and then climbed out. He clung to his grieving wife, with their three-year-old son between them, his small face buried in his mother’s dress. All of them were sobbing and so were others in our group, and even some Bedouin women were crying quietly.
One of the men asked of the group, “Does anyone know the kaddish?” This was the Jewish prayer for the dead.
A woman stepped to the edge of the grave and began to pray. When the words “el malleh ra-ha-meem” (God is full of mercy) were uttered, everyone joined in with her, crying. When the prayer ended, the Bedouin boy motioned for all of us to leave, and he began shoveling the sand back into the grave.
We walked solemnly back toward the tents. The rest of the Bedouins were all sitting around a fire pit where a sheep was roasting, skewered on a rotating spit. The meat smelled wonderful. One of the Bedouin women began to sing a lullaby, and her children joined in. We were all served chunks of lamb in pita bread, and drank water from a military jerry can. Then they served hot tea and fruits and urged every one of us to help ourselves. The grieving family huddled together, eating slowly, without saying a word.
For about two luxurious hours, we sat eating and listening to the singing and the quiet talk around the fire. The stars were very bright in the night sky, far away from city lights, and Yeftah and I marveled at them.
The guide, having thanked our hosts and giving him a hearty farewell hug, confided to a man from our group, “I must leave now. You’re in good hands. You all go to sleep in the tent, and tomorrow morning a truck will come to pick you up and take you to Ah-bah-dan. There you will board a train to Tehran.”
On hearing that, all of us were full of apprehension. Our hosts had been very gracious, but they had only promised to care for us for one night. We were far into the desert, without our own food and water. Would the Bedouins move camp in the morning and leave us alone out here? Would anyone really come for us in the morning? Who would lead us after the guide was gone? Nevertheless, no one dared to question him.
As the guide was leaving, I pulled my brother close to me and whispered in his ear, “O.K., give me the marble that I gave you. I have to give it to this man before he leaves so he can take it back to father.”
Yeftah put his hand inside his pocket and felt under three layers of clothing, but was surprised that no blue marble was there. “I can’t find it,” he said meekly.
“What do you mean you can’t find it?” I asked him, anger and shock welling in me. “You must find it. Otherwise, Father will think that only I made it here alive and that you are dead. He will think I did not take care of you.”
Yeftah searched all through his clothing, but couldn’t find his blue marble. “It must have fallen out in the boat. I was holding it in my hand when we made the crossing, when they were shooting at us. I’m sorry.”
The guide was leaving right then, and I didn’t have much time. I had to let Father know that we both were safe. Quickly, I made a decision. I took a pen from the inside pocket of my jacket and wrote “Yeftah” next to my name on my marble. I hoped the ink will hold.
Then I ran after the guide and grabbed his arm. He turned. I said very quietly to him, repeating my father’s words, “Take this marble back to my father, Silas Fathi, as a sign that my brother and I both survived. He will reward you handsomely when you bring this to him.”
The guide took the marble, examined it closely, and understood. He nodded and said, “I will take it to him within three or four days. I promise.” He gave me a small smile, then turned and slipped away into the night. Still, I wasn’t sure I could trust him.
Reluctantly, one by one, we filed into the big tent that our Bedouin hosts had prepared for us to sleep in. There were some knitted mats and straw mats on the floor, but no pillows. Families and relatives bunched together, folding our jackets under our heads for pillows. Some rested their heads on their small suitcases, and some actually slept on them; fearing they might be robbed in the night. It was hard to fall asleep in this atmosphere of uncertainty and mistrust. The grownups kept talking, advising everyone who could not fall asleep to do so. Finally, late into the night, we all managed to sleep a little.
In the early hours of the morning, we were awakened by a scream from one of thee women in our group. “No! No! Leave me alone!” she yelled.
One of the Bedouin men was standing over her with a drawn dagger in his hand. He was not trying to kill her, but was trying to remove the jacket and sweater from under her head. Some of the men of our group jumped to their feet and tried to subdue the Bedouin. He waved his dagger violently to the left and right of the men’s faces, threatening to slash them. Even though he was outnumbered four to one, he kept them at bay. Finally, one of the men offered a compromise, giving the Bedouin his own sweater. The Bedouin accepted it reluctantly and left the tent in anger.
Everyone was awake by then, all of us frightened and hungry. No breakfast, however, was offered by our hosts. It was as if we had somehow broken some social or moral code, but we didn’t know what we had done. We all gathered our belongings and left the tent, looking for the promised truck.
Around 6:30 AM, we spotted a truck on the horizon. We waved and called out to the driver. Within minutes, he stopped about fifty feet from us. The driver and another guide got out and motioned us to load into the truck.
Suddenly, three tall Bedouin men came running out of their tents, daggers in their hands, shouting, “We have given you food and shelter and got nothing back from you. Give us some clothing and jewelry.”
That was the unspoken taboo we had broken. We did not know that Bedouin hospitality was meted out in a reciprocal format. They gave to us; they expected a gift for their generosity. I suppose if we had given to them first, they would have felt obligated to give us an equal gift. Everyone else in the chain of people who had helped in our escape had been paid. We did not know that the Bedouins had not been paid by our guides. The Bedouins were not thieves, and we weren’t ungrateful guests. We had both not known what the customs and social rules were. That didn’t stop us from being frightened or some of us from feeling that we had been robbed.
Two Bedouins posted themselves by the truck and kept us from climbing into the back. They pointed to some of the men of our group and ordered them to take off their jackets. Our friends were trembling with fear, but took out the belongings from their pockets and handed their jackets over to the Bedouins. As each man did that, he was allowed to climb into the truck. During all of this, the driver went to one of the tents and spoke with our Bedouin host. We could hear their loud interchange.
When we were finally all on the truck, the guide counted heads, like our other guide had done. We were now seventeen. The infant’s mother looked out of the truck toward the hole in the ground where her son had been buried the day before. She began to cry again, quietly this time. Her husband put his arm around her and comforted her once more.
The driver finally emerged from the Bedouin tent. He appeared to be giving the host something, perhaps money. He walked to the truck, looked us all in the face, and without uttering a word, began to drive. We had no idea of what he had just done nor where he was taking us. We knew the city’s name but had no idea in which direction it was since no one knew the local geography. After this last altercation, we had no idea if the driver would take us where we were meant to go or dump us in the desert somewhere to get rid of his troubles.
It was several hours more before we arrived at a train station outside of an Iranian town named Ah-bah-dan. We climbed out of the truck, making sure we had left no personal belongings behind. The driver and the guide helped us form a line by having us all hold hands as they led us to the back of the train. The guide pulled several train tickets out of his pocket and handed them to the infant’s father, who appeared to be the leader among us. The driver and the guide shook our hands and assured us that someone would meet us at the end of the line at Tehran. The driver and the guide then left us at the station.
When it was time, we filed into the rear of the train, which was nearly empty. Only a few merchants with their live chickens, some in wooden crates and some strung up on leashes were on board. We were all smiling now. We were happy to have survived all of our ordeals. But, the adults kept admonishing us every time Yeftah and I talked as if our speaking aloud would somehow affect how we were treated. We held our belongings in our laps, trying not to make eye contact with the Iranian peasants. The infant’s father appeared to be taking charge of the group, which was reassuring to us because we all seemed to need a leader. We also were glad that he was finding a way to put his own grief in perspective and taking on this responsibility. Everyone spoke to him with a great deal of respect and sympathy.
We spent nearly ten hours on the train. All of us heard horror stories about similar trips by others who had preceded us. Those stories were now passed around our group. One was particularly heart wrenching. Some months earlier, during the winter, the same train had been stopped because of a massive snowstorm. Emergency crews could not reach the train in time. Many perished, freezing to death or dying of thirst and hunger. We were told to count our blessings so far, and also to remember the benevolent Shah, who was friendly to Israel and the Jews, in our prayers.
Yeftah and I thought of our parents. We missed them very much. Did father escape from his sentence? How would Mother and our sisters and little Abraham survive without Father? Did our Arab guide bring them the one marble? Did my father understand that we both were safe? Was the Arab able to convince him?
Upon arrival in Tehran, our group was greeted by several well-dressed men, some dark and some blond, with baskets of fruit beside them on the ground. They bent down and picked up a piece of fruit and offered it to us. “Have some,” they said. “They are washed.”
We were ushered into waiting cars and driven about forty-five minutes out of town to a gated camp. With fear in our hearts and memories of news reports of Auschwitz and Dachau, we all thought, This is a concentration camp.
But it was not. It was a refugee camp where young children from all over the world had been gathered for an organized trip to Israel. We were divided into several tents and wooden barracks, with beds and clean sheets. One of our new guides was a beautiful young girl with a khaki hat, who spoke fluent Arabic, Iranian, English, French, and, of course, Hebrew. She was a mad-ree-kha, an instructor. She told us that we were safe there and explained where the showers and the mess hall were. There was plenty of food and drink available, with three meals a day, a break in mid-morning and another in mid-afternoon. We were not, however, allowed to venture outside the camp. There were scheduled games, dances, and Hebrew lessons to fill our days until we made the voyage to Israel.
During the next three months, our numbers kept swelling. Every day, a new group of children arrived. They were mostly displaced children who had lost their families in the Holocaust. Each one could write a detailed book of the adventures he or she had experienced in their short lives. We played together and learned to understand one another, even though there were over thirty different languages spoken among us. We played outside with balls and jump ropes, and we learned to hold hands in a circle and dance the new Israeli national dance called the Horah. We also learned Hebrew songs and sang the Israeli national anthem, “The Hatikvah” (The Hope) every morning, standing at attention outside of the mess hall.
We were constantly assured that our parents would someday join us in Israel. Some of us wrote tearful letters to our parents, even though we knew there was no way we could mail them since many of our parents were under sentence like my Father. We gave them to the mad-ree-kha, and she kept them all.
Finally, the day of our relocation arrived. We were driven to the airport in several buses and put on an unmarked Constellation airplane. As the plane took off, all of the one hundred and fifty passengers clapped their hands and sang our favorite Hebrew songs. We all thought, are we finally 100% safe? What if we get shot down over Arab land? What if we run out of fuel? What if? What if? A thousand worrisome thoughts swept through our minds. But, our guides, especially the young blond girl with the hat, kept reassuring us that everything would be all right. They said that we were now flying on an Israeli airplane, headed to Israel, but we would not be flying over any Arab country. The flight time would only be four to five hours, depending on several factors. She didn’t explain what those were.
We touched down in Lod Airport (later renamed Ben Gurion Airport). We were still singing, laughing, and clapping our hands. We impatiently awaited the stewardess’ direction to disembark. When we finally stepped off the aircraft and our feet touched Israeli soil, we all kneeled down and kissed the ground.
We young Jewish children were home at last…
It had only taken 2,600 years.
The book may be ordered via www.saulsilasfathi.com
from the May 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine