Between heaven and hell
Letter from Seville
December 3, 2004
The nightmares began after we were safely out of Baghdad. For
the first few nights after our return to the relative safety of
Tehran, we both found ourselves waking up at various points in
the middle of the night, trying to shake off images of car bombs
In one recurring dream, I was sitting behind the
wheel of a truck, sweating and reciting verses from the Koran as
I prepared to hit
a remote control. Mostly, though, I just woke up over and over
again with the feeling of being hunted and watched.
We had crossed
the hilly Iraqi border by land into Iran in early November. Iraq
has become so frightening that I actually felt relieved
to the see the Iranian Revolutionary Guards standing at the border.
I actually smiled as we were scrutinized by Iranian officers of
various security apparatuses at checkpoints. Believe it or not,
Iranian checkpoints are a pleasure after you've been in Iraq,
where men in uniform are sometimes working hand in hand with the
same violent groups who cut throats on television.
Airport gleamed in the heavenly sunset, and after a smooth hour-long
flight we found ourselves in the bustle of Tehran.
Again a sense of profound relief descended as we waded into the
horrendous traffic jams and smog of the Iranian capital toward
With its schizophrenic cultural intricacies, Iran's quirks
once puzzled and amused me. "Look at how short that
girl is wearing her skirt! Look at how much hair she's showing
beneath her scarf! Is that couple holding hands married? Is that
mullah really reading Beckett?"
Quickly, I began seeing these things
from the perspective of Iranians living there, and the place became
deeply depressing, one of many
developing countries slogging through economic, political and cultural
After Iraq, however, I see Iran with completely new
eyes, as a bulwark of stability and security if not progress; not
this part of the world.
We arrived home after fighting through Tehran's
traffic. Friends called to invite us to dinner. But I quickly
from sheer exhaustion, fighting through the horrible images that
kept waking me up.
The next day I went to the gym with my Dutch
friend. I kept reminding myself that it's okay to speak English
out loud in Iran,
that it's actually a point of pride instead of profoundly
dangerous to be seen here with an obvious Westerner.
departed Tehran for a super luxurious five-star hotel and spa
in Dubai, en route to a long-planned vacation. For the
umpteenth time I donned white fluffy sandals and bathrobes and
tried to coax my body and mind back to normalcy after weeks
of physical and mental abuse.
I've come to the realization that my
life veers between unimaginably terrifying war zones where I
work and the unimaginably luxurious
resorts where I recover from work, and that this kind of lifestyle
may augur an unhealthy view of humanity. We agreed that maybe
for our holidays we should go somewhere normal: Spain, where we
mingle with locals, munch on tapas and forget about Iraq.
stink of Iraq won't wash away that easily; it continues to taint
everything, even in jovial fun-loving Spain.
I couldn't help but think of the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939.
Back then, foreign leftists from America and
France came to the aid of the Spanish republicans against the German-backed
nationalists, just as foreign Jihadis from Syria and Saudi Arabia
come to the aid of Iraqi insurgents against the U.S.-backed interim
The war ripped Spain apart, and foreshadowed the
larger conflict between the Axis and Allied countries in World
Only 40 years
later, when all the major players had died naturally or been
snuffed out in torture chambers, did Spain begin to recover,
becoming a place that prefers to live for the moment rather than
linger on the past.
In Granada, we wander through La
Alhambra, the magnificent 13th century palace built by southern
Spain's Islamic rulers before
it was taken over by Christian warriors, who reconquered the
Iberian peninsula by 1492.
Originally the Christians came as liberators
and vowed to let the Muslims practice their faith and remain
in Spain. Eventually,
the Spanish monarchs revived the inquisition, destroyed all
the mosques and forced Muslims to convert, leave Spain or die.
Rondo, where Hemingway immortalized bull-fighting, we watched
along as the nation took a break from its non-stop partying to
watch its former president, Jose Maria Aznar sit before a parliamentary
commission and explain his actions in the wake of the Madrid
terrorist attacks of March 11, 2004.
The subway bombings caused
his party to lose the presidential elections and his country
to pull its troops out of Iraq. Perhaps
with its long history of civilizational and civil wars -- simply
decided it didn't have the stomach for more of the same.
now, amid the labyrinthine alleyways of Seville, listening to
Flamenco music and spending my grossly devalued dollars on
good food and new clothes, do I finally feel like I'm on a
holiday, that I'm far away from the streets of Baghdad and an
war that often seems to be devouring everything in its way.
Borzou Daragahi is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in major
newspapers, including The New York Times. He sends out occasional
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