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Middle East Abeja Dispatch

Islamic Law: A First Hand Experience
April 22, 2000

I've written dispatches on buses and trains, in hotels and mud huts, and all sorts of odd places, but this is the first dispatch I've ever written from the police station! Don't worry, we're not in trouble, we've had another crazy adventure.

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We should have known better than to leave the bus alone, with all our stuff, in a bombed out neighborhood of Khorramshahr, especially since there was a group of teenage boys, watching us take off our walkmans, grab our digital cameras, and pile out of the minibus. There we were, five foreigners with fancy digital cameras, climbing into the waiting fishing boat. Jazzy and Kavitha both checked to see if the door was locked, while I snapped pictures of the river, the bombed out buildings, the kids, and the boat. We felt safe, and our guides Hady and Louie and our driver Samat hadn't seemed worried. After all, Iran is one of the safest countries I've ever visited! Crime is almost non-existent.

We checked out the destruction left by the Iran-Iraq war by boat and by land. "We should get video of this!" I said, as we explored an old shell of an apartment building. So we headed back to the bus to get the camera.

Jazzy noticed it from far away. "Hey, it looks like that window is open!" Sure enough, a small window on the passenger side was shattered. We were robbed!

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Frantically, we took an inventory of the missing items, while Hady spoke with our boat captain and his young assistant, who had stayed on shore and must have seen what happened. He claimed that he had been beaten up, and didn't see anything. We trekkers thought that he wasn't telling the truth -- after all, he didn't look beaten up, and he didn't say anything when we got out of the boat. But what could we do?


Monica's purse, including her passport, her journal, and many other personal things.
The video camera!
Jasmine's discman
Jasmine's journal
Our walkman
Samat's camera
All of our tapes and Samat's tapes
Hady's cellular phone
The clock from the bus
Two rear-view mirrors

Let's face it, we're in a foreign country where we don't know the system or speak the language. If we'd been alone, we'd have just chalked it up to experience, and moved on. After the initial shock and horror, we admitted that it could have been a lot worse. We had gotten pretty slack about leaving our passports and money in the car. I never do that anywhere else, but Iran just feels so safe.

While Hady filed a report, we waited in the bus outside the police station. Then, an officer got in, and we drove around, hoping to recognize the kids we'd seen when we got out of the bus.

"THE PICTURE!" I suddenly remembered. "Hady, tell them I've got a picture of the kids!"

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We rushed back to the police station, where I plugged in my computer, and pulled up…Voila! Exhibit A. Ok, so it's not a great picture. Most of the guys are looking away from the camera, and it's not very sharp. If I'd known it was going to be used as police evidence, I would have taken close-ups!

All the policemen came in to look at the picture. They'd point at one or another of the kids, talk amongst themselves, ask me to zoom in on this one or that one, and then rush out of the room. Unfortunately, they didn't seem to know who any of them were.

A few minutes later, a motorcycle pulled up, and everyone in the room looked to the door. A boy, about 15-years old, was pushed into the room, shirtless, holding his bloody nose. He didn't look familiar, but I couldn't be positive. A police officer followed, holding the boy's ripped shirt, yelling, and pointing to the computer in my lap. I couldn't understand specifically what was being said, but I got the general idea.

With one hand holding his bloody nose, his used his other hand, which was trembling, to point to one kid and then another on my screen, and name names. When the cop would ask about one of the boys in the picture and the kid didn't know, the police officer would whack the kid upside the head.

My heart sank. I felt nauseous. What was going to happen to these kids? This is a country run by Islamic law. In some places that call themselves "Islamic" they will cut off the hand of a thief, but I was told they don't do that sort of thing here. Why did we report this crime?! Why do I have this photo? What horrible grief have I caused these kids, just for a few electronic trinkets?! The boy looked at me with a gaze of pure hatred. They took him out of the room, and I could hear him getting another beating in the hallway.

Back in the bus, I related to the rest of the group the frightening story of what had happened inside the police station, and they comforted me. Through the front window, we watched load after load of teenage boys being roughly taken out of police cars. Dozens of them! "They're bringing in every boy in town!" we realized with horror.

Jazzy was really upset about losing her journal, understandably. Everything else, at least, could be replaced. But the most troubling thing for the group was Monica's passport. You cannot legally enter or leave a country without a passport. Iran and America don't have diplomatic relations, so there is no US embassy here -- and therefore no way to replace her passport in this country! We can't just leave Monica behind!

Hady came out to the bus, and we explained to him the passport dilemma. "Don't worry!" he said, almost smiling. "We'll get it back. We've got the video camera and some tapes back already." Whoa! Brutal, yes, but obviously efficient.

The families of the boys were starting to gather out front. A woman was yelling something at the policeman guarding the gate. Our imaginations started to scare us. "Their kids were being beaten by the police on account of us!" Brian said.

"And these people have seen war, so they know how to use guns and are hardened to violence!" Kavitha pointed out.

"We're like sitting ducks in here!" our Los Angeles native, Jasmine, said. "Perfect targets for a drive-by shooting! If this happened in my neighborhood, we'd be in big trouble!"

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6:30 pm: The bus was hot, so I came in to wait in the air-conditioned office and write this dispatch -- a front row seat for all the action. One boy at a time was brought in, fingerprinted and written up. "This one had three tapes." "That one had the discman," etc, etc.

8:30 pm: They have all the boys in the photo but one, and most of the things are recovered, except Monica's passport and other personal stuff, a bunch of tapes, the walkman, and the battery for Hady's cell phone. The families outside were being pushed away by the police. I felt so sorry for them. The kids really didn't look like criminals. I'm sure that there were just one or two "ringleaders," and the others followed along to be "cool."

Even though it was after dark, it was still hot and dry out there. I filled up a water bottle, grabbed some plastic cups, and went out to a small group of mothers waiting on some steps nearby to offer them a drink. Within minutes, I had a crowd of adults around me, trying to communicate, telling me how sorry they were for what had happened. One man spoke a little English. "My son, little boy!" He held his hand to show me how small. "Big boy," he motioned, smashing the window. "My son not bad! I am sorry!"

The police came over, trying to "break it up," but I motioned to him that it was ok, and continued to let the families know that we weren't angry with them, and that we were very sorry about their sons. They, in turn, apologized over and over, and said that this wasn't normal for Khorramshahr.

Young men started walking up to me, handing me random, valueless things they had found tossed in the street, like a notebook, random pieces of paper, and Monica's toothbrush. One boy pushed through to the bus calling "Monica, Monica!" He handed her a crumpled scrap of paper that most people would have thought was trash. It was a note from Monica's boyfriend that she had been carrying around with her throughout her travels. Monica broke into tears. "Awww! He found you, even here!" Brian said. Despite her tough exterior, I realized that she had been really upset by losing the things from her purse.

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9:30 pm: The last boy was brought in, and Monica's passport was finally recovered... Hurray!! The boy admitted that he had thrown the walkman away in fear of the police, but it's not that important.

Knowing that we wanted to leave town, they called the judge to come in right away.

10 pm: The room was filled with trekkers and our guides, police, and eight scared looking young men. I was asked to show the photo again, as evidence.

Everyone stood up, and in walked a bearded man, about 30 years old, with two smiling young men behind him. We figured the bearded man was the judge, but who were the other guys? "The jury?" Kavitha whispered. "The peanut gallery," I whispered back as my expert analysis.

Your Turn!!!

Do you think that it was okay for the police to hit the teenagers in order to get answers from them about the stolen items? Does violence solve problems?

Share your thoughts
and see what others wrote!

The trial was conducted, with Louie interpreting for us. The judge proceeded to lecture the boys about how wrong it was, and what a bad impression it gave of Iran.

He turned to me. "Why did you take this picture?" he asked.

"Because I am a teacher," I explained, "and I wanted to show my students what kids look like in Iran."

"My father is a teacher too!" he replied, pleased to learn that we are all teachers.

We didn't press charges, but the boys were found guilty, of course, and will still be punished. "What will happen to them?" Jasmine asked, concerned.

"By law, I can give them 6 months to 3 years in jail, and 72 lashes with a whip. But, since you are not pressing charges, we will go easy on them," the young judge explained.

"Which means," we pressed further.

"They will probably pay a fine and get 10 lashes each," he told us.

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The "convicts" were hurried out of the room, and then the judge and "the peanut gallery" came to life. They had been sitting in the back corner, grinning the entire time. "American movies!" They said. "American Beauty. Jack Nicholson! Celine Dion! Hotel California, such a lovely place…"

"You've seen them?" I asked. "Isn't that illegal?"

"On satellite," the judge told me, as if to explain.

"Aren't satellite dishes illegal?" I asked again, grinning.

"Uh, a friend's satellite dish!" He told me. Yeah, right. "Some people are allowed to have dishes here," Louie tried to explain. We just laughed.

It turns out the peanut gallery were the judge's little brother and brother-in-law. I guess they had come for the entertainment of seeing us. Needless to say, we seemed to be the most excitement that this little town had seen in years!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Kavitha - Life is not a Picnic
Abeja - A War with No Winners: Visiting the Iran-Iraq Border
Kavitha - Welcomed into the Folds of a Kurdish Village
Monica - A Jewish Pilgrimage…to Iran!
Jasmine - Achaemenians: In the Beginning...
Team - Earth Day: a Celebration and a Reminder

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