Mashad’s collage of life
What I saw next in the next to last row of photographs had my stomach churn and a sob escape my mouth
July 30, 2007
In 2001, while on a business trip, I was invited to the home of a family in Mashad as their new family member. They were a devout Moslem family, who lived in an old traditional house in the older part of Mashad, near Imam Reza’s shrine. The house consisted of a very large living room, with two bedrooms and a kitchen to the side. There was another small living quarter off the backyard. The family of two daughters and three sons had all gathered to welcome us into their home, with the family’s patriarch sitting against pillows against a wall, turning his rosary in his hands, the women walking quickly and efficiently to move the plates and platters and cups and saucers of cookies, fruits, and tea. Other male members of the family were sitting on the floor near the father, and children played in a corner.
I sat down against a carpet pillow (mokhaddeh), listening to conversations going around the room about politics, relatives, and business, mindful of my skimpy hejab, unable to hold my borrowed black chador in place and how strange I must have looked to those receiving us in their home. After a while, as I grew tired and sore from sitting on the floor, I got up quietly and started walking around the room, looking at the family’s collection of framed needlepoint, statues, and crystal vases on ledges around the room. As I looked at each “art” piece, acting respectful and attentive, I came across a framed collage of photographs hung on a wall.
On top of the collage, there was a piece of paper on which someone had written “Happy Mother’s Day.” It was a collection of photographs of what seemed to be a sweet little baby boy, whom I guessed to be one of the family sons, though I couldn’t tell which of the men in the room he had turned out to be. The baby, turning into a toddler, becoming a one-year-old in front of a birthday cake, turning two with a tiny man’s suit on, appeared as a chubby four-year-old at the Caspian Sea. Row after row, the photographs continued to portray a handsome young boy in first grade, playing around with what seemed to be an assortment of older brothers and cousins, playing football in another photograph, and receiving some kind of commendation at a school activity. There were pictures of him at around twelve years old, attending his sister’s wedding. There was a photograph of him doing homework on the floor at around thirteen years of age.
I looked at every photograph which seemed to be chronicling the life of this child. Then there were several pictures of him being seen off somewhere in Iranian tradition, where he was passing under a Koran held up by his mother, and a sister was throwing the contents of a bowl of water on the pavement after him. I looked at the next picture with unease, where the boy at fourteen was in full military fatigues, posing for the camera. The next picture was blurry and yellowed, showing him in what appeared to be a military barrack with some other boys his own age, each sporting a thin and as yet undefined mustache. What I saw next in the next to last row of photographs had my stomach churn and a sob escape my mouth as I saw a group of people gathered around a small coffin, covered with an Iranian flag. The next picture had an Islamic clergyman (a mullah) appearing to be praying by the coffin, as all the others in the photograph seemed to be following him. As I watched the last three photographs of the shroud being lifted, and the graying face of the dead boy shown to his family for the last time, and the coffin being lowered into the grave, my knees buckled and I caught a glimpse of the picture of the boy’s grave covered in fresh dirt just as I fell first to my knees and then into unconsciousness.
His mother, the kind and resolute Maliheh Khanoom, told me his name was Reza. He had been a good boy, she said, “a very good boy.” When his three older brothers volunteered to go to the warfront of Iran-Iraq war, all he had talked about was his dream of joining them, she said. He was so adamant and decided, they had no choice but to eventually agree with his departure, their consent not required for his trip to the warfront. He died very shortly thereafter.
Like watching a surreal movie, defying belief, I kept looking into this woman’s face, trying to read her emotions, comparing them with those of my own as a mother of two young boys. I couldn’t read her. She was smiling and, ironically, trying to comfort me, by telling me that this was God’s will and wish. I put all reservations aside. I asked her whether she wasn’t sad at his loss. She said she was sad but that she had surrendered in the face of God’s will. I wouldn’t, I couldn’t, accept that answer. I asked her if she didn’t regret his lost young life. She told me that he was a martyr, and a martyr is a person who dies for his belief in God. I was crying, trying to make sense of the senseless, of what appeared so monumentally tragic, looking into her eyes. She said “you know it is a sin to cry or mourn a martyr.”
Later, I asked her how she had handled this loss. She said, “Well, I did go through a year’s depression after his passing. I wasn’t myself. I prayed a lot and at the end of the year, Haj Agha (her husband) took me to Mecca. That’s where I found my solace.” Pushing for answers to ebb the storm of questions and disbelief inside myself, I asked her what was happening in her mind during that year. She kept quiet for a while. Then she whispered just for me to hear: “I knew that he had died for a holy cause, so I accepted his death, but occasionally I would have these thoughts, these questions. I would wonder whether his death was instantaneous or did it take some time? Did he suffer? What was he thinking if it took a while? Was he thirsty? Was he scared?” As she said those words, two huge tears fell out of her soft kind eyes, sparkling in the bright daylight, telling me more than the words she had uttered, convincing me that there was a woman, a mother, and a bereft parent behind that resolute face and those nonchalant words. I said no more and neither did she. As the day went on and in fact for all the years since, I couldn’t shake the images I had seen in the collage.
Focusing on the alive and the big family moving about us, I asked her how her other three sons had fared during and after the war. She said her eldest son was fine after the war. He returned to his wife and child and went on to have another child, tending his prospering business. Her second son had become a recluse who refused to live with them and wouldn’t talk much, but who had also gotten himself a job and eventually a family by announcing to them one day that he had married a woman several years his senior with a child from a previous marriage to a war martyr, all without their knowledge or blessing. Her third son had been severely injured, with many pieces of shrapnel still remaining in his body, some near his spine, making him 70% disabled. He had married and had two children, and they all lived in the room off the backyard. She said he was unable to work. I glanced at him, a very handsome man, who appeared alright. His wife and children were unusually quiet and she appeared gaunt and bewildered. I asked the mother why he couldn’t work, and she didn’t seem to want to answer that question.
As she warmed up to me and became more trusting, she confided that from where she slept in her bed, she could see the balcony of the room off the backyard where her son and his family lived. She said “he waits for us to go to bed and turn off our lights. Then he comes out and sits on the balcony. He thinks I’m sleeping and won’t be able to see him sitting there, all night long, every night, just sitting there thinking, sometimes talking to himself, sometimes crying. But I can see him and I stay up with him in my bed every night, never saying a word about it.” She said “I think it’s a good idea for them to live with us, because I can keep an eye on them. Sometimes he gets short and rough with his wife, and I need to intervene to stop him.” As she said those words, there was such anguish in her face I could tell there was no limit to her suffering for her son.
Later, I asked her son whether he would consider coming to Tehran to visit with us. He said “As a rule, I only go as far as my mode of transportation would take me and my family. My mode of transportation is a Vespa motorscooter. It won’t take us much farther than Mashad.” Separately, I asked his wife how long it had been since her family had taken a trip, and looking at me with those haunted eyes, she said “Never.”
I returned from that trip a changed person. In what had initially appeared as a weekend visit with chance relatives in Mashad, I had seen and felt so much. The most important experience of the trip was to have taken a look, albeit accidental and short, into how this family, representative of hundreds of thousands of families in Iran, continued to try and cope with the far-reaching effects of a long war. This family had given the most valuable sacrifice any family could have given a cause -- the lives of their children.
Whether in a small coffin buried for years, or decaying in a room off the backyard slowly killing several other people along with himself, or suffering pains never spoken, each of them had given up that which humans cherish and value most on a daily basis -- life itself. I think the real honor in wars is not in starting them, fueling them, continuing them, or winning them, and how many or how few martyrs are made during those wars, but how a nation copes with the loss of life and hope, the void, and the emotional destruction that wars inevitably leave behind. Comment
P.S. In my utmost respect for the millions of young men killed, maimed, disabled, and disappeared during the Iran-Iraq war, this piece deliberately lacks any political opinions about the merits of wars, and particularly this war, or references to any historical facts regarding Iran-Iraq war. Whether they volunteered to serve for Iran, God, or Islam, or if they were drafted and dragged off to the warfront against their will, nothing and no one can change the fact that they are dead and have stopped to live, love, learn, and flourish. My sadness for that loss wrote this piece.