The Beginnings of Ja’far-i-Magholi and Hasan Tofan

I, Hasan Tofan, along with Ja'far-i Magholi grew up in the Party's network. The day Mamosta Shawboyan called us and told us the good news that we had both been assigned to a clandestine cell involved in purges and killing, we were over the moon. If my memory serves me right, Magholi was a hundred times happier than me that day. When we were standing in front of Mamosta's walrus mustache and wild gaze, Magholi—a diminutive, thick-lipped, wide-nosed manstood still as a statue or a soldier receiving an important order from his commander. He had his dirty checkered headscarf wrapped around his neck. With his upright posture, he looked like an overgrown mouse abnormally stuck on two feet. He was ecstatic, as if he he’d been crowned king of Rome.

Ja'far-i Magholi used to say he was born to kill. He believed our acceptance into the assassination squad was a launch pad to senior positions. Back then he thought— and still does—that people who were not adept in the art of killing, purging the ranks, or overcoming barriers would stay at the bottom of the pyramid until they rotted to death. Talentless as we were, we had nothing in common with those limp-wristed intellectuals who joined the Party and soon became all-powerful; we had no assets other than our stupidity and our pistols, two invaluable assets which are seldom given their due value. I've always maintained that an idiot with a pistol can climb to the rank of President of the Republic in this country. I have often been proved right.

Magholi and I were both idiots but we knew how to capitalize on our foolishness. We had become friends after haggling over a lamb with an old local man, who had several beautiful daughters. We were both young. We were both there to look at the man's coquettish daughters. When we both found out that we’d gone there for the same reason, like two people sharing a secret, we became friends.

Our association dates back to when we were working for the assassination cells— a name I translated into Kurdish as "clandestine killing cells," while Ja'far-i Magholi, in his vulgar way and with his simple mind, called it "The Finishing-Off Sports Club." At the time we were novices of a well-known Party cadre, whose nom de guerre was Sabir Tarano. He was one of the leaders of the underground struggle and a methodical politician from the eighties, who had developed his own comprehensive school of thought. I ought to say that he was one of the fathers of the revolutionary violence practiced at the time, a time I regarded as a dark era but which my colleagues thought was full of life. Back then different schools of killing operated in the country, but no one rationalized it as neatly as he did.

Tarano was a weak, bespectacled man with a wrinkled face. He’d never killed an ant nor slaughtered a chicken in his life. Instead, he described himself as the theorist of the revolution. Although I couldn’t make out much of what he said then, I do remember him saying that this life, this world of ours in its entirety, was based on something called "silence." There were two approaches among the then-politicians. I called one of them the smear school since the essence of their political propaganda could be summed up as dishonoring their opponents. I called the second approach, which was more dangerous, albeit more respectful, "the silent killing method." Its followers obliterated their opponents very quietly and under mysterious circumstances, which left many unanswered questions, many loose ends, and many unexplained secrets. They created an atmosphere in which the murder turned into a mystery that made it impossible to reach a conclusion with absolute certainty.

I, who consider myself one of the creators of that era, spent the early years of my political education in the hands of Tarano, one of the prominent leaders of the politics of silence. Magholi and I worked for him, took part in the obliteration of some fascists and meted out the people's punishment to a large number of traitors and hirelings. We were behind the disappearance of some of Tarano's opponents in the Party, we killed many cadres of other political parties for him, and we did it all in complete silence.

Throughout his many years in the national struggle, Tarano had a tailor’s shop. He would bend over his sewing machine like an innocent soul, his poor eyesight attracting the sympathy and kindness of his guests, customers and passersby. He was so frail and feeble that no one would have imagined such a weak creature was behind all those intricate and bloody operations. He looked gaunt and ill. If you saw him, your heart would ache for him and you would marvel that he was such an unlucky creature. Because of his wretched demeanor, he escaped the eyes of the regime's spies and informers even during the most difficult of times.

I have to say that even then our teacher and guide, Sabir Tarano, was very impressed with Magholi. Ja'far-i Magholi had his own style of killing: he would get very close to the victims, would speak and even joke with them and then pull a gun on them and kill them. He always carried his pistol in his pocket. To this day, I've not seen anyone apart from him who carries his pistol in his pocket. He would find an excuse to get close to his prey and shoot them in the belly button from point-blank range. Just as the victim fell and opened his mouth to groan, he would fire another bullet into his mouth. Magholi's style was very different from mine. I took aim with my powerful, steady, unshakable arm and shot the victim in the chest from fifteen to twenty meters away. I don't remember ever having shot a victim anywhere else except in the chest and I never missed my target.

The art of killing is not about shooting at just any visible part of the prey—that's the hallmark of inept and cowardly assassins. Killing is about hitting the enemy in the chest: the chest and nowhere else.

Beside Magholi's and my styles, there were many others. Shibr, for instance, only aimed for the forehead. Those who were hit in the forehead in the late seventies and mid-nineties all died at the hands of Shibr Mustafa. Taqsim riddled his victims with bullets in a straight line running from head to toe. Bezhing, or the Sieve, would pepper his victims with no less than 50 bullets, reducing them to a sieve. Fara-i Tunchi fired from behind, usually hitting the victim in the nape of the neck and the shoulders.

Around fifty of us worked in this field. Our work was to erase each other, the Party's opponents and our nation's enemies. Each of us had our own path and we worked for a designated cadre with a specific aim. Magholi and I often carried out tasks together. He always wore a big pair of leather gloves. His menacing expression was in sharp contrast to his delicate, pleasant voice, which helped him get close to his victims and talk to them. When you heard his gentle, melodic voice, any doubts you had would be dispelled and you'd be reassured. Sometimes he became quiet, and when I looked at him, I couldn't believe such an enchanting voice could come from someone with such a swollen face, bulging eyes, and crooked lips.

We shot our victims alternately. I was the fastest of the assassins. As soon as my target appeared and I saw his or her chest, I would have everything done in the twinkling of an eye without wasting any time at all. If my memory serves me well, I don't remember having ever startled my prey or put them in any doubt. The greatest sin is to allow the victim to think about death. In that short breath, nothing is left—no politics, no hatred, no revenge. The only thing connecting you to the prey is death. For me, the most important thing is that the prey dies without having time to be scared, without having to go through the long interval between the certainty of death and death itself. Unlike me, Magholi made no distinction between hunting a partridge and hunting a human being. He believed that just as a partridge calls his or her friends to their deaths, a man should draw his victim into the ambush with a special song. And when both sides realize they are inside a storm controlled by the killer on the one side and the prey on the other, both, having accepted their fate, will see the game through to the end.

I was a member of the killing cell for as long as a year after the uprising. One day they sent us a long list of women we had to pick off one by one. I hadn't yet killed a woman. One evening they dispatched me to kill a gorgeous woman who was living with her very young husband in their shabby home. My several years of experience in the Party had taught me not to inquire too much about the victims. It's not that I wasn’t curious but experience had taught me that knowing the victims would cause a headache. Too much information about the victims would make your hands shake. It would make you become hesitant and not hit your target. Furthermore, neither knowledge nor the absence of knowledge would make any difference to the task. I knew that even if I didn't kill them, Magholi, Tunchi, or Fazil Qandil would. There were people among us who wanted to dig deep into the stories. They wanted to know the reasons for the killing, establish its justification and kill out of conviction. Most of those people lost their lives in dubious accidents on foggy nights. If one day you become a murderer, don't try to find out much about your victims. Extra information about the victim makes the job harder and the consequences more dangerous.

On the day I went to kill that gorgeous woman, my whole body was shaking as if I'd never killed anyone in my life. I can still see her: a tall and graceful beauty. When I stepped inside their house, she was hanging the washing on a nylon washing line. She was wearing a thin Kurdish dress. I could clearly see her black slip underneath. Throughout my life, I hadn’t been particularly preoccupied with women. Nevertheless, killing such a woman didn't sit well with me. I saw a small child sitting on a small staircase, holding an empty bowl and crying. As I took out my pistol and aimed at her, for a moment, a moment shorter than the flickering of an oil lamp or a heartbeat, I hesitated. For the first time in my life, I wanted to drop my pistol and not carry out a Party order. Perhaps I wouldn't have killed her but, unfortunately for me, at that very moment, her young husband came out of the room and saw me with the pistol. The man's frightened look, the strangled cry in his throat, the panic on his face, all of these made me reveal my helplessness and weakness as I pulled the trigger and hit the beautiful woman in the heart. The blood spattered a long way, and although I was some ten meters away from her, I was soaked. The woman fell while I, shell-shocked, stood frozen to the spot.

Until that day, not a drop of blood had landed on me. Magholi always smeared himself in blood. He soaked a handkerchief in the blood and kept it as a keepsake. But I had always kept enough distance between myself and the victim to avoid being spattered with blood. I usually left the scene quickly, fled like the wind and disappeared. I left so fast I was called Tofan, the storm. That day, however, as if I was under a spell, as if someone was holding my legs, I didn't move for some time. The sound of the bullets was deafeningly loud and the smell of gunpowder filled the yard. I saw her husband coming toward me, weeping. I saw him on the staircase screaming. Slowly I stepped toward the woman, who was drawing her last breath and soaked in her own blood. I saw her big green eyes, their empty, unquestioning gaze fixed on me. Drenched in blood, I left. Outside the gate, I saw Magholi, and I was screaming as he pulled me away.

That was my last day working for the Party. That same evening, I gave up everything and stopped playing the game. After my departure, it was Magholi, Tunchi, Dansaz, and Haji Kotar who did everything. In less than a year, they killed a large number of women across the country. That marked my first separation from Ja'far-i Magholi. I didn't see him for thirteen years, but when I saw him again, I felt that even though the world had changed a lot and time had come full circle, he hadn't changed one bit.

The translator thanks Melanie Moore for her assistance.

From Ghazalnus and the Gardens of Imagination, forthcoming from Garnet Publishing. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2014 by Kareem Abdulrahman. All rights reserved.