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War

The city in me
How can I explain that Khorramshar and those I knew are still alive in my memories?

By Mammad Aidani
September 1, 2003
The Iranian

The older I get the more I feel the larger my memory tunnel is becoming. But, of course, there are some deep-rooted things in that tunnel which I wish not to remember. Sometimes I find myself screaming at them to go away. You see, I'm the kind of individual that has this great desire to stand up and speak. No, don't get me wrong, I have this desire not because I want to. That's not the case at all; it is the reflection I have on language that encourages this feeling in me, and I don't know what to do with it. As far as I remember I have never had any capacity to speak eloquently in a group or at home when I was kid. As a matter of fact in my home we only spoke occasionally. Now that I have this feeling in me to speak I have to admit that I'm too tired to ignite any fire in me at this stage of my life.

As you can imagine I'm not an orator, however, I wish to say something when I feel the urge to do so. Strangely enough, today, I mean this morning, I got up and had this huge pang of feeling on my chest telling me to go out and speak my heart out. I was so emotional that I am unable explain it to you, it does not matter how much I try.

As I was experiencing this pang of emotion this morning, I was very frightened. I went for a short walk, hoping it would go away, but it didn't so I tried to not to take any notice of it, but it insisted. So, later on I said to myself, 'You have to speak now'. I have never considered myself as someone who has the ability to actually say anything important. But the sudden pang I had this morning had a deep voice, telling me its intention so clearly. It told me, 'Look, who knows, you might die soon, so you better speak'. I know it sounds silly, but this simple pang and the voice have changed my whole life since this morning, as simple as that. I don't know what to do. The only thing I wish to do is retire into myself and do what I have been doing for years. Keep thinking to understand.

Yes exactly this. To strive and recover from the deep wounds that have inflicted me by the losses of so many things in my life, including my beloved city. I always had the will to just keep to myself as silently as I have always done since the war ended. To tell you the truth, for me, the end of the war was the beginning of my real nightmares. People do not realise that the real war, for those who have gone through it, begins when the guns stop shooting at each other.

Neither pessimistically nor optimistically I have to admit that, 'No, I can't anymore.' I have to start from somewhere otherwise the voice will come back to haunt me further. Perhaps I have to talk about the city. It may be a good start anyway. Simply because I think it is worth it. And for one particular reason, that is always there, in me and out of me, and I never say anything about it. It seems to be the surest way and a useful way to start. Who cares whether I will succeed in articulating what is there or not. I have already said that I have never been an eloquent individual, but in this crucial situation I have to respond to the voice -- the city is pressing me to say something.

I don't mean the city in me but the actual city I existed in so long ago. Well, I better put it this way -- the actual city that had existed around me. This city does not want to die in me, really it does not have any desire to die at all. It keeps reminding me of itself all the time. It is paradoxical that I, as well, do not want this city to die in me. For such a long time we have found this twin-like relationship as a necessary principle for our coexistence, and for my survival and dignity. We live in each other and have never been separated from each other since we said goodbye to one another. We also share the humiliations we have experienced since it was destroyed . We grieve for each other all the time.

*

Me and It, It and Me, have been glued to one another. It is perhaps because a larger proportion of our mutual stories are fixed in both of us. We sing each other's songs. We talk to each other through the language we have about who we knew and who we did not know. We share the deep music we played to each other since my childhood. As I said, I'm not an eloquent user of words but I have to confess that, when I was very little, I always wanted to write things about the city, its people and the things in it. Don't laugh, it's true. What am I talking about? I have to go back to what I was supposed to say. I have lost the thread of my thinking.

I started with my memory tunnel in the first sentence. I better go back to it and plainly explain what I had in mind by saying it. You see, as I vaguely indicated, after I experienced the strange pang on my chest when I woke up this morning, I felt the urge to speak about my city and the war. And the first thought that crossed my mind was why, to this day, do I not know how and why they rationalised their actions to invade and consequently destroy my little city? They killed and humiliated both It and Me.

How can I explain to anybody that my city, and those who I knew are still alive in my memories? And how do explain why I have been too paralysed to speak for so long? How much more have I lost since the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), especially in my private life, as a result of so many misunderstandings? How can I articulate the deep and disturbing feelings that invade me from time to time, that are out of my control, that have a terrible and debilitating affect on me, that I can't do anything about them? Except to seek refuge in my solitude and grieve for calm in order to not bother others, and then re-emerge and survive again?

However, after the pang, I also thought of the old woman who often comes to my thoughts. She usually comes to talk to me about our city. The last time I saw her she was crying and I could not stop her. My wounds were too fresh to let her go on like that. I feared that I myself will explode as well, and I was too exhausted, both mentally and physically, to witness her agony. I decided, without offending her, to change the subject and diverted our attention to talk about my other friends, especially those who were not killed in the war.

She was dismayed and gave me the impression that she could not hear what I was saying. Her old face was lifeless and full of painful scars. She was determined to let me know again, as if I didn't know, and said, 'It was on 22 September 1980 when the enemy's forces under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, and with the support of the Americans and English and the entire west invaded your city.' She emphatically repeated, 'Your city.' As she stopped at the end of her sentence I again felt the death of something in me. It might sound strange, but any time that I hear my city's tragic story, whether related to me personally or not, I feel something small dies in me.

After a few minutes of silence she continued and said, 'They always wanted to invade and take your city since you were a kid. Do you remember how you and the other boys played on the rough surfaces with your plastic balls while your city was barricaded by soldiers, preparing themselves for the war with Ahmad Takriti? I think it was in 1973.' I did not know what to say except that she was stretching my memory through time and space.

'So I have been experiencing the terror of war for so long,' I mumbled to myself. She was right. I replied that, 'Yes, I remember everything and even the year, 1973, when soldiers set up their tanks and dug their hideouts in case the Iraqis attacked.' She said, 'You see, we all live in our memories and events are just seeds to water us as trees, some with too many branches, and others with just a few.' I did not know what she meant by this but I liked the metaphorical and the poetic sound.

I was numbed by how vividly she could remember things in her old age. I nodded, hiding the deep sadness in my voice and said, 'Yes, of course I remember, I was just a kid.' She interjected and said, 'They were fixated on war and he was the worst of them all. I knew he was going to drag us into war sooner or later after that fake treaty he had signed in 1975 with the other guy, I don't even want to mention his name.' She looked at me and suddenly uttered that, 'Your so-called revolution was a golden chance for Saddam, the Americans and the West to help him fulfill his dream, that's why they gave him any kind of weapon he wished to have to destroy -- for the sake of oil.'

*

I went into my deep silence. I wanted and needed to speak and here I was, hearing her pouring her heart out. 'You see,' she moved towards me and started to cry again, 'they didn't care who they were, what their purpose was, or which side they were on. They killed 1.5 million from both sides and there are still thousands of war prisoners, and millions of mothers and fathers and relatives still grieving for the absence of their loved ones, all because of this mess. And the most tragic thing about all of this is that nothing has been done to rebuild your city since the 1988 UN-mandated cease fire.'

I did not know what to say. Memories of the city and her voice mixed together and made me weaker as I was watched her hopeless agitation in front of me. This was the woman who never spoke as I remembered her from my childhood. How come she suddenly talks when I'm overwhelmed? 'Your city is still there in ruin. Whilst millions are still living in refugee camps.'

And here we are. Another war. What for? I wanted to interject but she pushed in, 'Why have wars and conflicts, since recorded history, plagued our region?' Her sharp, quick and precise words were piercing my ears. In my sadness I prevented myself from disturbing her more. 'No. Please no more war, please.'

Yes, as far as I can remember I always wanted to write poetry. I recall that I had this desire to stand up and read my simple poems to my friends in order to make them feel happy, enriched, reflect or even laugh. I did not know that you could actually write poems that could make people laugh!

*

When I left my city it was my dream to go back and resume a normal life there. It was in 1979. I was still young, full of hope, and the warmth of life was still deeply ingrained into my being. I could not, in my remotest dreams, imagine that I could lose my city only a year later. I still sometimes wake up at night and run in the corridor, fearing that the invaders are still burning my city. To this day I don't believe that I have lost my city and have so many questions to raise that thinking about them leads me to the verge of madness. The pain of war is everywhere in my mind, and it makes my body so weak.

I see the buildings of my city in ruin and I don't believe it. Whilst I was looking at her I could hear the screams of people in her eyes. She was sitting there in front of me, stoic, saying nothing. If I didn't say a word she would sit and gaze at the ceiling all day. 'I will never go back to that city anymore,' she said abruptly. 'But you gave birth to children there,' I uttered. 'That's true, but who wants to rebuild a life in a city which is so close to the border and looks like a graveyard? The smell of war is everywhere when you are there. No, not me; I will never go back to that hell. Do you remember your city was leveled by the Iraqis before leaving it? It is the city that is full of ghosts. I cannot see it anymore.'

The scars of war were too deep and I see them in her face, I can see how they have been pierced into her life. I could see them and was unable to do anything about it except listen and acknowledge that she was talking about my city. 'Do you remember how you and the other kids used to swim in the Karun River?' Another question came out of her, but I stopped her and said, 'Yes, but I could not swim. I just put my feet in the river and drank its water.' She gave me a gentle smile and said, 'It's all the same. Not all could swim, but nevertheless you enjoyed the river.' I smiled back and felt surprised by her logic and left it there without saying anything.

She was gazing at the ceiling again. I felt that pang on my chest once more and realised how much me, and my city, are still cohabitating each other. However, I have to admit that the more I hear about its destruction and the humiliating look it has had since 1982, increasingly it is becoming more of an alien place to me. It is still very familiar, and at the same time so unfamiliar. As time passes by, memories become more vivid. I'm confused about the faces of my city and I don't know how to reconcile with this malady. I want the city's face the way I remember it. This is natural simply because I lived with that face since birth.

As time goes on, I hear my city's music only in my soliloquies, and this helps me recall the way it sang it to me. On the other hand, the other face has shaded the first one, and created in me this strange energy and desire to write a very long poem, but I cannot write it. Perhaps that's why I have lost my eloquence.

I think this is largely due to the current war in Iraq. No wonder this pang is increasingly bothering me now, more than ever. Sometimes I can see the sentences coming to me, wanting to express a big image with rich emotions but, as soon as I pick up the pen, they all turn into a cacophony of sounds. I hear this huge noise in my head and feel paralysed. My weak body cannot help me anymore, so again and again I'm forced to articulate what I feel inside me. Soon after this convulsion the writing that's stuck in my throat vanishes somewhere in me again, and in its place I see and hear the shapes and sounds of bombs, bodies amputated into pieces, and children screaming in my city. Exhausted, I collapse and soon an ocean of tears pours down from my eyes, and I go to sleep.

According to my mind, my city has never been destroyed. It resists to acknowledge that it has and I have not done anything about it. I simply let this thought be alive. It does not insult or beguile me. It is just a thought and it longs to live in me; I don't have any desire to evict it. Why should I?

I was in these thoughts when she interrupted me from where I was in my mind. 'Oh dear, you have always lived elsewhere, even when you were hungry you did not want to agree that you were.' I replied that if I admitted it, I would die from despair. That's why I wanted to become a poet and write a long poem. She laughed and said, 'You see, you have always been surviving by talking things through poetic spaces in order to survive.' I liked her comments and said to her, 'You see, there is nothing in the world which could surprise me about human beings.' It is inside this world that I have to live, and the city knows it so well. It was there that I began to learn the alphabet of living in the world.

*

I loved spring in the city. The river was the life-giving reason to be there. Nothing was there for me except the water, and the sun that turned my skin dark brown. I wanted to catch the wind. The wind that was blowing from all directions was my hope. I knew that behind the trees, just a mile away from where I used to stroll, was Iraq and the entrance to the Euphrates and that always created magic in my young mind. The inaccessibility of "over there" was the beginning of my desire to explore the unknown things.

These two rivers, when joining together, always took the water to distances beyond my imagination, and had always fascinated me. I used to have so many thoughts about this and as a result I was bugged by a minefield of images which further stimulated my helpless situation. However, they also forced me to fall in love with the creative language of imagining places where I was not allowed to go to. This gave me words to talk to myself in soliloquies. I was alone in my city, walking in the world around me and observing and experiencing it with words all in my head. And I knew what I was doing to ignore the terrible feeling of living in the dust of poverty rubbing against my face.

Hunger was pushing me to the edge and I had my river to talk to. It listened to me and I knew it. We both did not believe in anything, neither king nor any other ruler. We were in an eternal dialogue and without any doubt we trusted each other. The Karun River and I were best friends. There was no way we would betray each other. We gave life to each other. Our give and take relationship was absolutely equal. There was no big ego between us. We were and that was it. This was the rule in our book.

What I'm saying here may sound grotesque or naive to you, but I loved that naivety which stemmed from the simple life and environment in which I was conditioned to live. It provided me with the feeling that it was the only way left for me to go on and keep imagining. When I look back this makes me think that, in a mysterious way, this way of seeing the world and life was a great precursor to calm me down and it somehow restored peace in my turbulent life. I must admit that it worked well at keeping me out of trouble in that absolutely uncertain world. It taught me to be skeptical about any seductively designed great ideas, or the promises I heard. This also provided me with early nourishment to learn how to think and pay attention to the presence of things.

It is late and outside it is pouring. I look at the old and circular face of an old woman who is fixed in her silence as usual. I decide not to break this silence between us. I know that there are layers and layers of unsaid things between us. But honestly, I'm not in the mood to open up anything at the moment. But I smile in order to calm everything down, and turn to her and then tell her that, 'I have always loved our city on cold days.' She looks and says, 'I know. You always were in a better mood in that season.' Then the fragments of things began to invade me and I needed things to distract me and the rain seemed to be the best. I gave myself to it for the time being. And hope that there won't be more wars.

Immersing myself, my swinging mind going between my thinking and questioning all of a sudden this thought crosses my mind, 'When we learn abut the gift of no revenge and fill our hearts with the questions that will enrich us all?' I pause and allow myself to laugh at myself. Thinking of my losses I think that I prefer to have thoughts like this in my head rather than feelings of hate and revenge. It is really late. I have to go to bed. I turn the light off and give myself to the night as I'm thinking of my wounded Karun River and the intimate connection between us. I pray that there won't be be more wars.

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