They waited for the orders to charge, the more zealous men
whispering prayers and praises of the Imam
August 23, 2005
There was no particular reason for his going to
the avenue that morning. Reza had phoned and suggested a stroll but
there was no
urgency in his voice. A stroll was actually a chance away from
home and the constant talk about missed friends and relatives,
either overseas, as his brother in California, or dead in the war,
as his neighbor Mehrdad.
He, too, had been encouraged by the neighborhood mullah and the
school teacher to go to the front to serve the Islamic Republic,
but his parents had pleaded with the "Committee" to allow
him to reach his sixteenth birthday before offering his services
to the Imam.
The cripples and beggars on the avenue provided no escape from
the hopeless mood, though it was a chance to lose oneself in the
multitude, in the stream of faces and veils with downcast eyes
against the backdrop of the magnified Imam forever watchful, forever
Frequently the boys would pass teams of "morals inspectors" berating
fearful women who had dared to show too much makeup or too much
hair from beneath the veil or scarf. At these times the boys would
look away embarrassed and engage each other in irrelevant conversation
in order to drown out the nearby humiliation.
They were involved in such a diversion when two trucks rolled to
the opposite ends of the block. Armed Revolutionary Guards disembarked
and began scrutinizing the street. Two enforcers dressed in camouflage
jump suits and carrying assault rifles converged on the crowd and
began pulling out various young men by shoving and pulling them
toward the trucks. Other troopers approached these nervous individuals
and demanded identification. Several boys, including Reza and he,
were taken to the trucks and berated.
The leader, unshaven and with bloodshot eyes, grabbed Reza by the
collar and pulled his face close.
"Why are you not fighting the enemy?" He hissed through tea
and tobacco-stained teeth.
"Sir, we are not old enough..." Reza tearfully whispered.
"Shut up! There is no right age for fighting the enemies of Islam." He
yelled as he landed a backhand across Reza’s face.
"Begging your mercy sir..." Reza blurted.
"I said shut up! Cowards don't deserve to speak. Get in the truck,
now!" he ordered with a push and a kick.
On the silent ride to the camp the boys kept their heads down avoiding
the disgusted gaze of the armed guards and the curious crowds.
He did, however, manage to glance at Reza and noticed the wet patch
on his pants.
They had been in the training camp for less than three months before
being shipped to the front. Training had been light on combat skills
and heavy on slogans and verses. They had to partake of a bizarre
reality. A reality designed to replace a lack of the machinery
of death with zealous waves of "martyrs". No admission
of fear was allowed in the 'Army of God'. Only in their nightmares
did they dare to doubt.
His parents’ pleas to the Committee had met deaf ears. With
half a million casualties there was now a desperate need for new "martyrs".
"You must realize that those less fortunate than you have sent their
sole offspring to the service of the Imam," said the mullah
in a benevolent tone.
"God will protect him and if God wishes and
he is martyred he will be in heaven with the rest of the beloved
martyrs of the Islamic
He hung the plastic "Key to Heaven" issued to him around
his neck and carried the heavy rifle under his arm. Secreted in
his Koran was an old photograph of his parents and brother on a
Caspian coast holiday.
The rains had stopped barely month ago but the mud was already
baked into jigsaw patterns. The dry reeds whispered a warning with
every passing breeze. The artillery barrage had been relentless.
The Iraqis had known of the build up across the waterway.
They waited for the orders to charge, the more zealous men whispering
prayers and praises of the Imam. He remembered the last night with
his brother. He could still taste the shish kabob and hear the
laughter around the backgammon board in the lilac scented garden.
No memory, however, could replace the sick feeling in his stomach
"Reza, I wish we could be
"Be careful, they might hear you."
"I don't want to die now, not here."
"We'll be allright."
"I was hoping to join my brother in California."
"There is no going back now. There are Iraqis ahead and Hezbollah
to the rear."
"They wouldn’t really shoot us if we stayed back, would they?"
"Yes my friend, in spite of God it is a fine old tradition."
The order was whispered in waves along the levee. With hails of "Besmellah" they
scurried through the marshes into the predawn dark.
They had made a desperate rush toward the enemy bunkers on the
other side of the waterway. He and Reza had been separated almost
immediately. At first the surging force had provided a sense of
security, but as the wave dissolved into chaos and the pounding
artillery took its heavy bloody toll, it was every desperate man
and boy by himself and for himself.
Suddenly a shell exploded to his right. He was lifted up and thrown
into a thicket of reeds. The initial shock and the pain of the
impact muted his sensing the obvious severe injuries. A piece of
shrapnel had gouged a path through his abdomen. In the twilight
he saw a rivulet of red coursing its way away from him through
the mosaic of the sun baked mud.
As he lay on his back, he did not realize it at first but there
was a lull in the bombardment. In the distance, through the now
searing pain, he could hear an occasional muffled "boom",
but here amidst the reeds he felt a comforting quiet. His rifle
lay a few feet away and further, in a clearing, he could see a
flock of finches nervously scavenging the upturned mud in the early
The only other rifle he had ever had was an air rifle he had received
from his father for his ninth birthday. His first quest had been
to shoot a bird.
"Scatter a handful of rice at the end of the garden and wait for
the pigeons and finches to land," Seyyed Morteza, the old
gardener had said.
His aim was lacking and at the
sound of each discharge the birds would scatter into the air. On
one occasion, however, one bird
remained behind. Gasping, it lay motionless on the ground with
eyes half closed. He picked it up slowly and felt the soft downy
breast mired with a Scarlet patch, heave one last time. He could
not remember why he had wanted to kill a bird so much. He buried
the bird and never used the gun for killing again. Strangely, he
had not anticipated the guilt.
Here amongst the reeds he felt alone, thirsty and empty. There
was no reason for his being here that made any sense to him. Here,
far from the avenue, there was no Imam, no country, and no enemy.
It was just him alone with his rifle and the finches. As he closed
his eyes he felt his mother covering him with a quilt, as she used
to, after a nightmare. A field gun roared in the distance and the
finches scattered into the early dawn.