July 27, 2010
Remembering Ebi: Why we fled Iran
“I will never forget when I first saw his body — they shot him with one bullet at point-blank range in his heart,” my father, George Melamed, shared with me a few weeks ago, reflecting on his friend — and brother-in-law’s brother — Ebrahim (Ebi) Berookhim, who was executed in an Iranian prison on July 31, 1980, at the age of 30. For the past 30 years, my father has rarely spoken of this young Jewish man’s killing and the circumstances that propelled our family’s abrupt flight from Iran. During these past three decades, he’s tried to forget how Ebi was unjustly accused of being an Israeli and American spy, then ruthlessly murdered by Iran’s radical Islamic regime.
Yet as Ebi’s 30th yahrzeit approached this month, my parents, our relatives and some local Iranian Jews who knew this successful young Jewish businessman finally opened up to me about this tragedy that completely transformed all of our lives.
With news of the Iranian government’s pursuit of nuclear weapons continually filling today’s airwaves, the story of Ebi’s killing serves as a stark reminder to us all of the continuing brutality and illogical nature of the ayatollahs’ regime in Iran. The Iranian government’s inhumane practice of random arrests and imprisonment of innocent individuals continues to this day: On July 31, 2009, the same date that Ebi died but 29 years later, three American hikers were randomly taken hostage in Iran for mistakenly crossing a border; they remain unfairly imprisoned. Last year, Roxana Saberi, an Iranian American journalist based in Tehran, was arrested on false charges of espionage — she was one of the lucky ones; after immense pressure from abroad, the Iranian authorities released her.
Ebi, my relative, wasn’t so lucky. And the pain of losing him continues to haunt our family three decades later. The person closest to Ebi during the final months of his life was his elder sister, Shaheen Makhani, who today is a businesswoman and grandmother living in Santa Monica. I met with her and her family earlier this month, and they wept silently as they told me their story, speaking publicly for the first time about Ebi and his tragic demise.
“He was four years younger than me. We were very close, and I loved him,” Shaheen told me. “He had just returned from America after getting his degree, and he had also completed his mandatory military service in the Iranian army. He had his whole future ahead of him.”
Shaheen said Ebi’s problems started with the beginning of Iran’s Islamic revolution, in early 1979, when the Berookhim family’s five-star Royal Gardens hotel in Tehran was confiscated by the newly formed Islamic regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Nearly all of his family had already fled Iran for the United States in the prior months, but Ebi remained behind. One day, armed thugs of the regime overran the hotel and quickly blindfolded him. They took him to the Khasr prison in Tehran on trumped-up charges of being an American and Israeli spy.
“We knew they had arrested and imprisoned Ebi in order to get at our family’s other assets, and therefore it was not easy to get him out of prison,” Shaheen said. “It was a nightmare because we didn’t know what they were going to do with Ebi.”
I recently discovered that while Ebi was in Khasr prison, he befriended other Jews who also were unjustly being held captive, including Behrooz Meimand, now a 64-year-old insurance salesman living in Los Angeles. Meimand told me recently that “until the last day we were in the Khasr prison, Ebi and I were together, and he often rested his head in my lap and wept — I felt as if he was like my younger brother, and I tried to comfort him during the difficult days.”
Ebi’s sister Shaheen said that two months after her brother was captured, she was finally able to get him released from prison, but only after paying what she said were ridiculously large bribes and other payments to the prison officials.
Each and every one of Ebi’s family members and friends whom I spoke with said they urged Ebi to escape from Iran after his release from prison, but he responded negatively to them all.
My father recalled one conversation he had with Ebi after a Shabbat dinner following Ebi’s release: “I told him to get the hell out of Iran because these people in the government had a case against him and wanted his family’s properties — but he responded, ‘No, no, no ... my family and I are innocent. We didn’t do anything wrong or illegal. Why should I leave?’ ”
This mistake of remaining in Iran proved fatal for Ebi. But he didn’t see what was coming. Shaheen said that, in the months after Ebi’s first arrest, he and his 82-year-old father, Eshagh Berookhim, voluntarily visited the infamous Evin prison, located just north of Tehran, because they believed promises the Iranian officials had made to them — that their hotel would be returned when they agreed to present their case at the prison. Then, one morning, in April 1980, during one of these voluntary visits, the Evin prison authorities arrested Ebi again and sent him to prison. This time, his elderly father was arrested with him.
Over the next nearly four months, Shaheen worked tirelessly to free them. Then, early one morning, she turned on the radio and was devastated to learn that her beloved brother had been executed at the prison earlier that same day.
Around the same time, my father heard the news from a co-worker, and he, too, was shocked. Without hesitation, my father and three other Jews risked their lives by going to the prison morgue to retrieve Ebi’s body because most of his family was no longer in Iran to give him a kosher burial. Ebi’s father was still being held.
“It was dangerous at the time to get his body because the authorities would ask what relationship you have with the infidel who was executed or demand to see your identification. And they could create all sorts of future problems for you,” my father told me. “But I nevertheless went with a few others, because Ebi was a close friend of mine and a family member whom we could not allow to be buried in a mass grave with the other executed political prisoners.”
The regime’s prison officials refused to release Ebi’s body until a substantial payment was made to “cover the costs for the bullet used in the execution,” he said.
My father and the other Jewish men paid and were eventually given Ebi’s bloody body. My father recalled: “Ebi’s body was still warm while he lay in the mortuary at the Jewish cemetery; it had been desecrated with markers, and the soles of his feet showed signs that he had been tortured with steel wiring.” He also said, “You could tell he was shot at point-blank range, because the opening was a half an inch in diameter on the front of his body near his heart, and the hole on his back side was two or three inches wide.”