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Escape From Iran Magazine Article

Escape From Iran
June 4, 2011 by Yehoshua Ashkenazi, Modi'in News

As a boy, Albert Elay Shaltiel saw how the streets of Iran darkened and how Islam took over every aspect of people's lives. He heard music being played behind closed doors and he saw people being beaten with whips. He escaped through the deserts of Pakistan, but was caught. During his imprisonment he was tortured, but still found the fortitude to attempt escape for a second time. This time he went through enemy villages, unsympathetic police forces and bandits. His painful journey ended in New York. Today he lives in Modiin.


He stands up, bounces from one foot to the other, waves his hands, and shows how he was handcuffed; how they danced to Michael Jackson in secret. He sits down, takes a deep breath and speaks in Hebrew with a Persian/American accent. He flips to another slide in his computerized presentation and starts the whole dance all over again. He gets up, bounces from one foot to the other, waves his arms, jumps, kicks his feet in the air... he is ecstatic.

Albert Shaltiel, 42 years old, is married with one child. He relives his memories of his childhood in Iran and recounts them throughout the world; in Jewish communities, in colleges and universities throughout the United States, in churches and in schools. He combines his own personal experiences with those of the Persian Kingdom over a 3,500-year span. He speaks enthusiastically about Iranian culture, its beauty, its philosophy, science and archeology.

During his lectures he shows pictures that tell a story. He alternately laughs at and is furious with Khomeini, because he is the cause of the Islamic Revolution. He makes fun of Ahmadinejad by calling him the "New Hitler", and mocks him through a series of pictures and caricatures. He shows photos that teach about the culture and art that were once Iran, and, immediately following this, a slide show of the citizenry being beaten and hanged in public city squares.

He loves Iran to the depths of his being, but is angry at her for what is happening there today. Listening to him speak you hear the drama unfolding. It seems as though everything is a backdrop for what happened to him when he was a sixteen-year-old boy; his homeland forcing him to run away from her and escape death at every turn.


The Shaltiel family is originally from Isfahan, which was the former capital of the Iranian monarchy. The family migrated to Tehran, which ultimately became the capital city. Albert's father, like many Jews, earned his living in textiles and also invested in real estate. They were affluent and lived comfortably. Albert was born, the fourth of five children, in 1969 at the Doctor Sapir Hospital in Tehran. Above the entrance to the hospital is a sign that reads, "Love thy neighbor as thyself." About 90% of the children in the city were born in this hospital and it is still in operation today. In those days, the Shah, the king of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, ruled with a civil constitution and no religious oppression. Israel and Iran had an amicable and peaceful relationship. The Shah would travel to Israel for medical treatments and the Shaltiel family would go for visits, returning with holy books and pictures of Moshe Dayan and Eli Cohen, "Our Man in Damascus".

Albert and his siblings studied at two schools, Ganag Danash and Otzar HaTorah, affiliated with the Alliance France chain. They also attended the Khalutz youth movement, which was active for several years, and which even had Israeli flags and maps hanging in its facilities. The underlying ideology of Khalutz was the dream of making Aliyah.

But there was something else in the background. Something dark and eerie that began to permeate the air in Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini, in exile in Iraq and in France began to gain support. The national incitement against the United States and Israel began to spread to the streets of the cities, and revolution was in the air. Those who understood what was happening began to pack their belongings: rugs, expensive furniture, jewelry, stacks of dollars. With these items, they were able to begin new lives with economic security in Los Angeles and in Israel.

In 1978 when Albert Shaltiel was nine, the life he knew in Iran ceased to exist. Everything was black. The nights were filled with arrests, streets filled with tanks and screams of Allah Akbar ("Allah is great"), and with fear. The Jews were doubly hated: as Jews and as Israelis identified with the greatest enemy of all, the United States of America.

Blood in the Streets

"It was Friday night, the Sabbath eve," Albert reminisces, "when we were in the synagogue along with the congregation of 500-700 fellow worshipers. Suddenly, there was a loud noise of breaking glass. After a few minutes, a couple of the men returned with blood on their bodies. They had tried to protect the synagogue when the police arrived. I remember many burning tires, smoke and soot. You could smell the fear and feel the message of the Islamic revolution. It was like election eve, only ten times worse. On all the walls and buildings there were pictures and posters of the Ayatollah. For two years, 365 days a year and 24 hours a day, there was the constant chirping of propaganda; in the newspapers, on the radio, and on television. Revolutionary songs, pictures of the jihad, and the grand prize of all, the 72 virgins awaiting the martyrs in the Garden of Eden. This was the first time this imagery was used. It was the beginning of the era of 'Satanology' - America the Big Satan and Israel, the Little Satan. Everywhere, large crowds chanted, 'Death to the Shah,' and screamed, 'Down with America' and 'Down with Israel!' The revolution already found fertile ground, and one wintry day the beloved Shah left the country.

"Two years after the start of the revolution, a different enemy waged war. Saddam Hussein sent the Iraqi army to battle Iran. This began an indiscriminate war. Millions of young people, teens and children were sent to the front. At a certain point, the adult Jews were drafted into the army. I was a high school student in 1985, but found myself in army drills. The high school, which was affiliated with the Alliance Francaise network, had Jews and Muslims alike. Prayers like Shema Yisrael were discontinued and Jewish studies, which once were taught for 30 hours per week, dropped to one hourly class per week.

"The vice principal would go to the front line of the war and return with stories and lessons on operating weapons. When the teacher spoke about the Uzi machine gun, I raised my hand and said I knew where it was from. My fellow classmates yelled at me that they knew it came from 'my country' (Israel)."

Islamic law became a reality in the streets. Albert describes the course of events.

"When I was sixteen I had a motorcycle. My fellow cyclists were a group of twenty, guys and girls. It was forbidden to have mixed socializing. We would go into someone's house, blacken the windows and play Michael Jackson music and break dance. Even though the extremists tried to curtail all Western influence, somehow it still reached us. We would have paid dearly if we were caught. [Religious police] would catch people not obeying and whip them in the middle of the street. They would travel by motorcycle and encircle a park, and start hitting citizens whose attire or hairstyle they didn't approve of. They would violently force people into vehicles and they were usually never heard from again. There was a tremendous amount of fear and danger in the streets. But underneath all the fear and danger, the underground life was great."

Nowhere to Run

"I am going to escape Iran and join my brother - who left Iran before the revolution with the help of Chabad representatives - in New York. But how? To the north is Russia, which isn't an option. To the west is Iraq, which during the war isn't a possibility. Once there was a narrow pass through Turkey, but that too has been shut. The only options are to go through Afghanistan, which is controlled by the Soviets, and finally Pakistan. Since this is the default option, you would have no choice but to leave your Jewish kids at the mercy of greedy, dangerous smugglers.

"In 1987 I said goodbye to my family and took a flight to Zahidan, which was a village on the border of Pakistan, populated with Baluchi tribes. Almost half of the world's heroin - known as the worst drug - is produced and delivered in this area. From there, we had to continue to Kowita, near where Bin Laden was hidden and caught. From the relatively modern airport in Tehran I joined a friend, Kevan, and landed on a dirt runway in another world. Everywhere I go, I am asked where I am from and who I am. This was not new to me, because it happened in Tehran as well, but now I have nowhere to hide or escape to. Local people were coming to me offering drugs and weapons. You can find every kind of illegal merchandise there.

"'You may find yourself kidnapped in a second,' we were told by our guide. 'Watch out.' Somehow I managed to get through the interrogations in the airport and I took a taxi to an address I had received beforehand. But it wasn't exactly an address; I was to wait on a certain corner at 10 in the morning. If no one arrived, I was told to leave, so as not to attract attention, and return every hour on the hour exactly. No one told me there was another intersection with exactly the same street names in the same town. So instead, I stood on the wrong corner, with the same names, along with a representative of the smugglers helping me escape.  We left and returned.  Unfortunately, people started to notice us and started to bother us with offers of drugs, alcohol, and arms.

"Several hours later, a pickup truck pulled up next to us. In Zahidan, all the vehicles are pickups.  There is no other type of vehicle.  Several extremely muscular men got out, grabbed us, and threw us inside.  We knew these were not the people that we were supposed to meet.  We knew we had been arrested by the Islamic Iranian military forces."

Memories from Prison

"Because of my name, they immediately realized that I was Jewish and that I did not belong in Zahidan, a remote village on the edge of Iran.  They knew that this was the only escape route from Iran.  Actually, they really didn't want me at all, rather they kept asking me the name of the Jewish man who was my contact with the smugglers and who had brought me to Zahidan.  I didn't tell them anything since the man was a good friend's father.  Instead, I told them I was here to purchase containers of cigarettes and Adidas sneakers.

"They knew that I was lying and threw me into a cell of exposed concrete, with my hands and feet tied and a sack over my head. I was able to make out the dimensions of the cell using my head to feel along the walls. The only active sense was the sense of smell and all around you was urine. I was beaten nearly to death five to ten times every day. Several days later, when they removed the sack, and I saw where I was, it occurred to me that I would have been better off not seeing the space in which I was imprisoned. Over the next few days, I was severely tortured. I was exposed to a very strong light, like sunlight, 24 hours a day or I was tied into all sorts of impossible positions for hours at a time."

'Albert, Let's Go for a Ride...'

"After all this I still didn't reveal to them the identities of the men they wanted, so one night, they came for me and took me for a drive in a pickup truck with my hands and feet bound and my head covered with a sack. They threw me into the back seat. I could hear a gate opening and closing. I sensed that we were heading to the desert and the fear and anxiety increased even more.

"The truck stopped and again I hear a gate opening and closing and someone pulls me out. He asks me "if I want some water," but I refuse to answer. He tells me to sit down, then takes my head and puts it under water and holds me down. You have no idea how long you are going to be held underwater or if this is the end. He finally lifts my head out and I breathe heavily, and again he sticks my head under the water. He repeats this seven or eight more times. I think I might have fainted.

"The next thing I remember is sand, being cold and wet, and a very small room. The door slams and here I am in a new place being asked questions with my responses being written down. This was the moment that I broke. I didn't reveal any names, but I admitted that I was trying to cross the border in order to escape.
"Then they threw me into a different cell. I realize that I am no longer alone. There are twenty men there and they are all looking at me, a sixteen year old boy. They seem threatening, in their galibiyehs (robes) and long beards - they looked astonishingly similar to Bin Laden.

"I sit bent over with fear. I try not to draw attention to myself, which is nearly impossible since they keep hurling questions at me in an attempt to find out my name and background. They gave me food - a ball of rice and old dry piece of bread. I remember they gave me hot tea to drink. What a pleasure and what hospitality!

"I tell them my name and they immediately recognize that it is Jewish. To my surprise, they know the term 'Israel' and the custom of lighting Sabbath candles! When they realized that I was an Israeli, they treated me like a king! After a month of walking winding roads and being tortured, I slept for the first time for several hours straight.

"I woke up to a deafening sound - booming and screeching, and rounds of bullets being fired. Members of the imprisoned men's tribe have come to get them out. A truck crashes into a wall and knocks it down. Everyone jumps in and I get pulled in with them. 'Just do not look and keep your head down,' the Baluch man tells me, and the truck escapes the area.

"Now it is me and an unknown future once again. They kept me in their village hidden for a few days and later arranged a flight for me back to Tehran, but I knew my mission was not yet accomplished.
"Years later, when I learned about the ten missing tribes of Israel and how they supposedly live in the area I was in – the triangle between Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan - it made me believe that the men who saved me from prison are the descendants of those lost tribes of Israel."

A Second Escape Attempt

"Let's take a five-minute break," I ask Albert.

"I'm just warning up. The journey has just begun," he says. "The second time in Zahidan, I was so sharp and experienced. I was not scared and very careful. I didn't shave for the previous three or four months, and I looked more like one of them than a Jewish youngster. I took a taxi and asked him to take me to a movie theater named Setareh ("star"). I took this as a sign of good luck.

"The moment we got there, my contact man was waiting for me. I jumped into his car and he took me to a house far from the town. We were there until nightfall. A 4X4 jeep came for us.

"We flew the whole night until we were far into the desert. On the way, we added five more to our group, three of whom were Jews. The driver told us he was going to speed up to 180 kph (110 mph) and we should hold hands, because he wouldn't stop or go back even if someone fell out. We drove quickly towards the mountains.

"During the day we slept in hidden tunnels and underground, and at night we traveled. On the way, we passed many smugglers. We spent many long days on camels, and dark nights walking in the desert and climbing mountains, trying to avoid the police and bandits along the way. The pickup truck had large amounts of cash, weapons, and opium that the driver was smuggling from village to village and from hand to hand.

"The pickup goes over hills and crosses rivers. The nights are dark and cold. We run into people with guns who make everyone get out and won't let us pass until they receive approval. There are countless days of terror thinking that we won't survive, until finally we pass the border and arrive in the city of Kowita, the first stop in Pakistan and a very, very tense city, full of terror.

"We quickly went to the UN office, which was quite familiar with Jews from Iran showing up on their doorstep. They gave each of us a refugee card and hid us in a safe house in the city.

"Then we took another flight, this time to Karachi, to the Imperial Hotel. We got into a taxi, and soon we realized that we were headed to another crisis. The cab driver was already familiar with this type of 'merchandise' and he took us directly to the police station.

"Oy! Baksheesh. It cost us so much money to get out of the Karachi police – who are the real robbers. They cost us more than the whole trip.

"Finally, we found the Imperial Hotel in Karachi. There we found many friends we were looking forward to seeing.

"Some of the Jews in the group, which had increased in numbers, decided to make Aliyah to Israel and some chose to go to America. I wanted to be with my brother in New York. I had to spend an entire year in Vienna waiting for a visa to the US, but in the spring of 1989 I finally arrived in New York.

"In the meantime, I found out that the Iranian government had begun looking for me. One night my parents received a knock on the door and my father was asked where the boy was. My father told them that he hadn't seen me in over a year, that I had been selling drugs and ran away, but they arrested him on the spot. After a lengthy interrogation, he was released with an order to return to the police station a week later. During that week, he disappeared. He left shopping malls and land behind. He paid a lot of money to make Aliyah to Israel."

The Happy Ending

In 2000, Albert Shaltiel made Aliyah and six years ago he moved to Modiin.

"After an extended stay in New York and Los Angeles, I became more aware of Israel and since then I travel back and forth between here and America.

"I love Benjamin Netanyahu and his leadership style. I find him to be charismatic and I am drawn to his personality and to the books he has written. I knew he would return to the prime minister's office even though he lost in the elections back then. I believe that, just like Joseph knew how to help the nation recover from an economic crisis, so too does Netanyahu. He has saved the nation from economic ruin and has led her to the forefront of the international economic scene.

"I learned about my nation's history, and I have since started to learn Jewish philosophy and Kabbalah."

Shaltiel went on to establish the Lighthouse S.O.S. (School Of Spirituality; www.tolight.info). He is also the founder and director of the Ilai Fund (www.ilaifund.org), a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping children with disabilities in Israel and around the world. All income from his lectures on Iran and his personal story are donated to this worthy cause.