Interview with Ruhollah Geula regarding Robert Imbrie
by Anthony Lee1997-09
Introduction: A couple of weeks ago, there were some postings [on an internet discussion list] on the Imbrie Affair in Iran (1924) when an American consul was killed by a mob that accused him of being a Babi (or Bahá'í). It happens that my father-in-law was a witness to the Imbrie attack in Tehran, and I thought that it might be useful to interview him about it. The preliminary results are posted below. [-A.L.]
When I mentioned the Imbrie affair to him on 7/30/97, he said that he was thirteen years old at the time of the attack and that he had been an eyewitness to it. But, unfortunately, too many relatives were around and I could not pursue the matter.
On 8/2/97, we were in Palm Springs in a condo with other relatives and, with a lot of interruptions, I was able to get more information. The interview was conducted with several other people present. Zafar Moghbel, the husband of my wife's cousin, acted as interpreter.
Since my father-in-law is quite old, his memory may be fuzzy about some things. Generally, he is in very good health, has not memory problems--either long-term or short term. But, naturally, he often gets dates wrong in the distant past. Anyway, on this occasion, he insisted that the Imbrie murder was not connected to the disturbances in Tehran concerning the "miracle" at the well when a Babi was supposed to have lost his sight. Now, if I recall correctly (and I may be wrong here), he had previously connected to two events. (I should interview him again to get the story straight.)
Anyway, here is the story:
When asked about the incident at the well, he said that this was known at the time as the "Miracle of Abu'l-Fadl"--that a Babi had drunk from a certain well and had gone blind, while a Muslim had drunk from the same well and had regained his sight. Because of this, there were demonstrations every day in Tehran. The religious processions were chanting:
Zi mu'jizih Abu'l-Fadl Kur shudih chasm-i Babi Bina shudih chasm-i MusulmanI asked him who Abu'l-Fadl was, and he said that he didn't know, but supposed that it was some Muslim Imam or holy man.
He was aware that the distrubances had a political background. He said that some Europeans had come to the country to negotiate an oil concession. Therefore, the ulema had roused the people to protest. He said that the demonstrations were taking place every day, with religious processions roaming through the city, beating their breasts and chanting. One day, he left school to go home and the street was full of people. He came across a band of demonstrators, breast beating and flaggelating themselves.
He indicated that religious demonstrations of this kind were common. He related a story that, on another occasion, at the school where he attended--the Alliance Israelite School (a Jewish school run by French missionary Jews)--the principal, M. Laredo, called all of the student body of 1,600 Jewish students together. He addressed the students and instructed them to go home and to tell their families not to leave their homes until instructed to do so through the synogoues. When they left the school, the street was full of soldiers who escorted them to their homes. Anti-Jewish riots had begun in the city and lasted for seven days. No Jews could leave their houses safely. Those who had food at home were lucky. Others had to sneak out to the market at great risk to their lives. During this pogrom, one Jew was killed and one blinded. The cause of all this was that the Ayatollah Bahbihani had been riding on the street outside of the school and had been ordered by the authorities to move out of the way so that the school children could pass. He was insulted and furious, and so he ordered an attack on the Jewish community. This took place after the Imbrie incident, around 1925 or so.
Another attack on the Jews was ordered by Ayatollah Falsafi in 1926-27. This was a campaign against Jews and Bahá'ís which was ordered at the time that some foreigners had arrived to negotiate a mineral concession. He said that the Muslim public was always eager to respond to these calls by the clergy for campaigns against minorities.
In another incident, Ayatollah Kashani had issued an order of jihad against all Jews. This was some time before the accession of Reza Shah to the throne. The order was that all Jews should be killed. The Jews wanted to approach the ayatollah to bribe him to rescind his order. One of them owned a diamond ring that was worth 45,000 tumans. Mr. Geula's cousin (along with some others) took the ring to the home of Ayatollah Kashani. He presented the ring, and he begged the cleric to accept the gift. He wanted to place the ring on the ayatollah's finger. But, the mulla refused to accept anything in his hand. He lifted his foot and instructed them to put the ring on his toe. That way he could claim that never received anything in his hand from them. The next day he preached a sermon in which he said that the Jews living in Iran, since they live under the house of Islam are in safety, but the Jews of Israel are to be destroyed.
Anyway, when he was the Abu'l-Fadl demonstrations, he was terrified and ran away and hid himself. The well that was at the center of the affair was a ganot that the people depended on for water. No Jew or Bahá'í was allowed to go near public watering places. People trekked through the city from the south to the north in processions, chanting their chant. The city became excited, but after a few days it passed. He was ten or eleven years old at this time. He was processions going through the streets of the Jewish quarter to join the main march. They started in Maydan-i Bug-i Firdaws and passed through the Jewish section of the city on their way to the main march.
Now, as to the Imbrie affair, which he claimed was quite separate from the above, he said that the city was quiet before the incident. He was thirteen years old, and working as an apprentice at a drug store. He had gone to the bazaar to buy fruit. He noticed that the people were aggitated. Imbrie had gotten out of his carriage to take a picture of a well--a Sagha Khanih, actually a shrine over a well. Such places were off-limits to all non-Muslims. This was a large and ornate structure which was near the bazaar. Suddenly, while Imbrie was taking the picture, the mob moved against him and beat him to death on the spot. When he came out of the fruit shop, he saw the body, which was left for dead. When the mob left, Mr. Geula fled. He said that the sight of the mob was a fearsome thing. He knew that anyone killed by the mob would have no recourse. Everyone feared the mob. In mob actions, fifty or one-hundred people would fall on a victim and kill him. No one could be legally charged for the murder. So, at his first chance he escaped. The charge was that Imbrie had poisoned the well, but there was no evidence of this. Mr. Geula was unaware that Imbrie had been accused of being a Babi.