Updated: Nov 10, 2022
By Fred A. Reed
Our daughter recently celebrated a birthday. Discretion advises against specifying which one, lest too much be revealed about the author of these lines. But, by way of hint, our granddaughter Laila was there looking after her mom who’d suffered a nasty fall from her bike several days earlier.
To commemorate the occasion Laila prepared a birthday cake that, she wrote, “sucked the life out of me to make.” Thanks to WhatsApp™, we soon viewed the cake, a multilayered frosted creation graced by a limited number of candles. And, given our daughter’s preoccupation with eating only the healthiest food in the most parsimonious quantities, a single slice was finally eaten.
I’d been in touch with Laila, to suggest strongly she prepare a bombe glacée, a kind of ultimate stunner which, decades ago when we hosted large gatherings, I’d always wanted to prepare, to delight and astonish the guests.
It was unlikely that our granddaughter would actually follow my advice, but our discussion brought to mind an incident that actually featured—in the manner of a footnote to another text written several decades before—the American equivalent of a bombe glacée, and the sudden surge of memory that it touched off.
For all memory needs to burst forth is an appropriate detonator.
The place was Bayshore, a modest Long Island community best known as the ferry terminal to once-fashionable Fire Island. I’d gone there with my friend and colleague, filmmaker and essayist Jean-Daniel Lafond. Our mission: to shed some light on the family history of the man about whose life we were preparing a documentary film: David Belfield, aka Hassan Abdulrahman.*
Hassan, of whom more in good time, had long departed and would never return from his life-long exile in Iran, but one of his brothers still lived in the town, and had agreed to show us the family’s first house and talk about his brother’s life.
Our first stop in Bayshore was that dwelling: a decrepit two-storey building with white shingle siding. It lay empty, long bare, and a fine cloud of dust hung in the air. We’d arrived along with his brother and were standing in the center of what would have been the living room. The day was fine and sunny, the room flooded with the sunlight that shone through the open front door.
When suddenly the light dimmed; the room plunged into shadow as if a mini-solar eclipse had just occurred. We turned abruptly. There, standing in the front door frame was a man whose height and girth filled the entire space.
“Here’s Cory,” Hassan’s brother introduced the looming hulk.
He shook my hand, which vanished in his massive grasp. I am relatively tall, but have always been somewhere between slender and thin. Not only did Cory, whose last name I’ve forgotten, but never his presence, tower over me—he had the height of a basketball professional—but his bulk was that of an NFL linebacker, someone like William “The Refrigerator” Perry, who weighed more than 150 kilos and starred for the Chicago Bears in the late 1980s.
“I work as a security guard at the high school here,” he told us. But he also supplemented his income with gigs as a nightclub bouncer. “It’s funny how guys always want to pick a fight with me,” he said and, with a disdainful wave of his enormous hand as if brushing away a fly, demonstrated how he would dismiss them.
There was not a gram of maliciousness in Cory. Everything about him spoke dissuasion.
By then it was lunchtime, and we adjourned to a harbour-side restaurant called, I believe, the Chowder House. We ordered the place’s signature dish and some fried fish. The portions were American-size, huge, and we all left food on our plates. Cory ordered two full meals, and politely asked if he could finish off what remained on ours.
Sure, we said, and asked if he’d like anything else.
“Yes,” he said. “I’ll have the deep-fried ice cream.”
This consisted of a large sphere of hard-frozen vanilla IC coated in chocolate and a layer of chopped nuts. It was plopped into the deep fry fat direct from the freezer and when the nuts had browned, was served in a dish large enough to accommodate it. Cory bit through the crispy fried coating, the melted chocolate layer and then, supreme delight, the still-frozen ice cream. He was a good-natured man—why wouldn’t he be?—but that afternoon he seemed to be experiencing a state of bliss.
That was the bombe glacée I was hoping Laila would make for her mom’s birthday.
But—such is the function of memory—who was Hassan, the man whose story we had gone to Bayshore to tell? The path that had brought us there was long and tortuous. The arguments against even making a film about a man like him had been strong. He had, in 1979, assassinated in DC an Iranian diplomat, and was thus considered a terrorist in his country of birth, the United States. But the singularity of his story eclipsed those arguments.
There was a film to be made, decided M. Lafond. I could not have agreed more. The project would go ahead.
Such were the arguments that brought us to Bayshore, where the film’s protagonist, an adolescent whose birth name was David Belfield, had lived for several years with his family after migrating from North Carolina.
By now the reader will have intuited that Mr. Belfield is African-American, a factor essential to the course his life would follow. Bayshore was the place where as an adolescent he became acquainted with the Nation of Islam, the so-called “Black Muslims” who held a peculiar though understandable view of race relations in the United States: the same background from which emerged Malcolm X, the man who transcended those views and died for his temerity.
The Nation of Islam’s ideology may have been attractive to the young African American, but left no lasting mark. David Belfield migrated from Bayshore to Washington D.C., where he became involved with the genuine article, and, via many detours, became a practicing Muslim, adopting the name Hassan Abdulrahman, “the servant of the All-merciful.”
Along with some fellow converts, he eked out a near-subsistence existence, creating jewellery and doing odd jobs on the outer edge of legality. D.C. was also the place where he came under the influence of Iranian students intent on overthrowing Shah Reza Pahlavi, the despot to whom the Americans had subcontracted rule of that country several decades before.
He and his companions frequented the DC Islamic Center, which had been established years earlier by the Shah and had emphatically not been intended as a venue for revolutionaries intending to overthrow him, or poor American black converts to Islam. His newfound friends explained how their religion could be a revolutionary doctrine; how it could help bring down a tyrant. That such a thing was possible would soon be demonstrated.
Hassan enrolled as a foot soldier in their battle, and soon took up arms. In early 1979 the Shah departed, and Ayatollah Khomeini, the austere cleric who had emerged as the leader and personification of the revolutionary movement, returned on an Air France 747 to a delirious welcome by immense crowds. “The Shah is gone. The Imam has come,” proclaimed full-page newspaper headlines.
With his student friends, Hassan climbed to the crown of the Statue of Liberty where they unfurled a banner calling for the Shah to be returned to Iran there to be judged for his crimes. By purest coincidence, on the same day a group of students “following the Imam’s line” captured the US Embassy in Tehran and would hold most of its personnel hostage for 444 days, making the same demand.
Tensions were high. An American rescue attempt failed due, said Imam Khomeini, to divine intervention. Elements of the Iranian military loyal to the Shah plotted a coup, with—should we be surprised?—American connivance. Dressed as a postman, Hassan delivered a parcel to the home of an Iranian diplomat in the capital that had been tasked with coordinating the attack designed to kill the Imam. Concealed under the parcel was a revolver with which Hassan shot dead the diplomat, before fleeing via Montréal to Iran, where we met several years later.
I first encountered him in the newsroom of Kayhan International, one of Iran’s two English-language newspapers, where I’d become acquainted with some fellow journalists. One of them introduced me to a large, dark-skinned man with a distinct Black American accent. I didn’t believe the tall tale that he was from the country’s Persian Gulf region, where some people are of African descent. But it took several years before Hassan told me his story, and several more years for Jean-Daniel Lafond to decide to devote a documentary film to his life.
Iranian undertakings to Hassan, he continues to assert, were never respected. He lives an isolated life in a distant suburb of a Tehran satellite town where we finished filming in the fall of 2004.
Several years later Hassan wrote to inform me that Cory, that huge and innocent man whose memory led me to the idea of a bombe glacée, had died. Hassan and I last met in 2017, on my wife’s and my last visit to Iran.
Did I have moral scruples about befriending an admitted murderer? Hassan never saw himself in that light and I did only reluctantly. He was a combatant whose tasks it was to strike at the enemy. In Islam, to kill an innocent is to kill all humanity; were he to have done that, he would burn in hell, he once confided to me.
Hassan was embittered because Iran had not respected its promises. But as I often certified, he was well known and respected in Tehran, particularly among the “revolutionary generation” that captured the US Embassy and set off a second revolution, more powerful than the first.
But it was impossible to survive on the memory of a single, violent act. Having fought in Afghanistan and played the role of a Black American physician in Mohsen Makmalbaf’s film Kandahar, it was as though he had no project to sustain him. Without a passport he could not leave Iran.
Several decades after the murder of the Iranian diplomat Hassan opened a channel to the US justice system. He would, he wrote to a state prosecutor who was willing to talk to him, agree to stand trial and plead guilty. There was one condition: that he summon as witnesses Henry Kissinger and former US president James Carter. Not long thereafter, the state prosecutor died in mysterious circumstances.
Hassan Abdulrahman performed meritorious service for the Islamic Republic. But Iran would reward him as it saw fit. That reward has been a life sentence in an open cell.
Such is the story that floods into awareness whenever I think of Cory, and by what James Joyce called ‘a commodious vicus of recirculation’, of what would have been, but was not to be, our daughter’s birthday bombe glacée.
* Almerican Fufitive or the Truth about Hassan