Sketches of a war, still
It is not only an affair of geopolitics, but also a matter of personal history, sometimes even a theological puzzle which brings into question God’s will and man’s ways
January 6, 2007
When Forugh married my uncle, nearly forty years ago, he had a thick black “leftist revolutionary” mustache, his eyes twinkled with the mischief of some secret knowledge, his thick wavy black hair was irrepressible, he wore his shirt open at the neck to show the vulnerable brown skin under his throat, and he didn’t carry the permanent dark seal of prayer on his tall broad brow. She was fair-skinned, fair-haired, and green-eyed. She had high cheekbones, long lashes and winged eyebrows. She was the most beautiful person we knew in our childhood. The old black and white photo from the early 60s shows them on their honeymoon, at the tomb of Hafez in Shiraz: Forugh looks shy and luminous with her hair falling on her shoulders and her short miniskirt giving a peep of the top of her stocking; my uncle appears handsome and proud in a white shirt open at the neck. When we were young, we always thought he should have been proud, standing next to Forugh. She was so beautiful, he so handsome, that we always wanted to know the fairytale story of how they met -- though now, twenty-something years after our childhood I realize that their meeting was less of a fairytale and more of a small-town romance. The Forugh in the photo seemed to us tangible in her beauty, fully fleshed and fully realized, not an ephemeral artifact of old-fashioned photography, because in the flesh, she was as beautiful as the air-brushed photos and because of the shy smile that we came to know as we grew up, which was the same smile as the one she wore that sunny day at Hafez’s tomb, before any of us were born.
At 60, her skin lucent and fair though lined finely, she is beautiful still and her mannerisms are still gentle, though shy no more. The beautiful bride of the family has grown into something of a soft-spoken matriarch. In the complex hierarchy of strong women in our family (and for some reason, our family seems to brim over with an abundance of strong-minded, even stubborn, women), she seems to have shed her “outsider” status and the dubious distinction of being married rather than born “into” the family and she is now the confidant of various aunts, and knows a whole swathe of complicated and implicating stories about other family members which only a central figure can know. She also has taken to wearing a headscarf indoors and in private, one of the last holdouts in my mother’s family in the post-revolutionary rush to wear the hair-covering again.
My uncle has also changed. He has a silvery head of hair and a grave but obscured cynicism. He holds court still like the old days, but in the respectful silence of his audiences, there is a bit of skepticism as well. The mischief in his eyes is dulled now, and his mustache doesn’t look like the dashing mustache of a rebel, but that of an old man, graying in places, still thick and lush, chewed in the corners, as if with worry. I remember we were so proud of his history of resistance, of how as a nationalist, he had been politically active during the Revolution, of how later he faced the pressures of the post-Revolution bureaucracy in his small town, and how as the principal of the largest boys’ school he suffered again and again for his intransigence against the narrow-minded opportunists who came to hold the reigns of power in the small town and on the local board of education. He is now older, his skin leathery and deeply lined, and his forehead smudged by the blur of the prayer seal that only appears when you have spent much time bowed in front of God in a southerly direction, with your brow to the ground. Which also comes as a surprise to me.
But the new scarf-wearing Forugh has not arisen in the wake of the infinite prayers of my uncle. These days, they don’t seem much like the lovers at Hafez’s grave on a sunny day all those years ago. They are older, more somber, more circumspect of one another, even more distant, like old couples whose silence in public is laden with echoes of their private arguments. They seem to live separate lives, affectionate and distant, occupying separate breathing spaces. Forugh seems to have grown up in her old age, the waif becoming the matriarch, and in the process acquiring a headscarf and the habit of reading the Qor’an in her private time. My cousin Mohammad, Forugh’s son, is probably responsible for Forugh’s new -- and still doubt-ridden -- piety as he probably is responsible for the way Forugh has simultaneously become more outspoken and more opaque.
Mohammad was the smartest of our cousins, and one of the most affectionate ones. When we would arrive at their house after a day of traveling at Norwooz time, he would bound out to meet us and land big juicy kisses on our cheeks. Now, a heart surgeon in Isfahan, he still is both intelligent and affectionate and a solicitous and generous host. He has not asked me to veil my hair in his presence -- despite the fact that his beliefs are very much incongruous with this particular sort of tolerance: He is a vociferously anti-reform conservative Islamist radical (how meaningless all these labels sound, but then, so does “right-wing” -- since I suspect Mohammad believes in redistribution of wealth and material egalitarianism, which in some places would place his politics on the “left”). I suspect he has genuine sympathy for Ansar-e-Hizbullah -- the feared vigilantes who roam the streets, physically attack women they deem immodest, and break up any political or social events they consider immoral. Mohammad approves of their crude and sanctimonious violence. The loathing with which he speaks of President Mohammad Khatami and his reformist policies during my visit with him is an indication of how much he resents the Reform’s attempts at diluting the draconian laws of the Islamic Republic which so indiscriminately invade the private lives of the citizens and thoroughly disregard pluralism in the public arena. But Mohammad is also very intelligent and philosophical and loves to argue politics with those he would perhaps deem political enemies.
One night, upon my return to Iran after a 14 year absence, we stand under the golden blue twilight of Isfahan in Imam Square, the dome of Sheikh Lotfollah mosque changing shades as the sun sets, and we argue about God and about religion and about the state. At some point, he says that apostates deserve their fate under Iran’s Islamic laws (that fate is death). A bit annoyed with the abstractions of his bombastic rhetoric, I turn to him and say, “but Mohammad, I don’t believe in God. Should I be put to death?” I see the dilemma on his face, as we stand there, in the dead center of one of this ravishing public square, people moving at a slow pace around us, the sky a deep indigo, darkness falling. He thinks a while and I silently watch him. He responds, “Even the most pious people doubt sometimes.” I let it drop at that. He can only reconcile my lack of faith with his affection for me if he casts the absence of god in me as something other than what it really is.
He is aware of the ferocity and violence of his opinions. He tells me that his vehemence was forged in the war. He tells me, “How can you see so much death and not believe it all to have a meaning? How can so many people sacrifice, if what they are offering themselves for is meaningless?” The tautology of his argument is something of a steel cage encircling him. If the Islamic Republic weren’t sacrosanct, then all those millions of people wouldn’t have gone to the front and gotten themselves killed or maimed, and their very act of sacrifice then sanctifies the state. Blood -- when shed in such vast quantities -- has that sort of effect on logic.
But there is another story to be told. A family rumor of sorts. The rumor has it that immediately after the Revolution, Mohammad had had unsavory political activities that would have ruined the entire rest of his life, were he to spend his life under the rule of the Islamic Republic. And when he was rejected over and over again from the university (not because he didn’t pass the awesomely difficult nation-wide university entrance exams, but because his character was not deemed politically “reliable” in the severe background checks called gozinesh), the rumor has it, Mohammad decided to go to “the Front,” the killing fields of the Iran-Iraq war, and wipe the slate clean. Blood has also that sort of effect on one’s Information Ministry files.
And somewhere, on the planes of Khuzestan, amid the bombs, the mortar, the tanks, the air-raids, the chemical weapons, the mine-fields, and the wave after wave of men, wave after wave of boys being shredded to pieces, Mohammad’s faith in the righteousness of the regime was forged. When Forugh had written Mohammad and had sworn him on her own life to be cautious with his life, Mohammad had written back, “Mother, my mother is like my eyes, but Khomeini is like my heart. One can live without one’s eyes, but one cannot live without one’s heart.”
When Forugh talks about that letter, her voice is full of astonishment, and a sort of sublimated ache. I cannot imagine what she must have felt when she read the letter for the first time. She has always been very understated in expressing her emotions, and she does not cry, she does not lament, she does not recite the motherly repertoire of complaints and grievances that are often deployed to elicit a reaction from a wayward child. Forugh gives no contrived responses, but somewhere between the twilight loneliness of her long marriage and the struggle to understand the transformation of her son, she has taken up the headscarf and daily recitations of the Qor’an, and in contemplating the incomprehensibility of so many defeats, she has lost the girlish shyness of our memories.
Mohammad’s rejection of her (and along with her, the whole of his tangible world) in favor of the strange theological love for Khomeini has confused Forugh. It demands that she change the way she views the world, but it also has placed other, more banal, burdens upon her. She has had to screen her daughter and her younger son from Mohammad’s increasingly pious edicts and mediate their increasingly acrimonious arguments about how their lives are to be lived, their choice of husbands and partners, and of course the way they dress and speak. There are other changes in Mohammad we don’t discuss in the family. Though Mohammad is still warm and affectionate and loving, in rare moments, a strange and terrifying fury breaks through his sunny bearded smile. And that fury -- I have witnessed it only once -- can paralyze with its ferociousness, with its seeming spontaneity, with the way it thrashes its way in crimson waves across Mohammad’s gold-colored eyes and his cheekbones, the way it heaves in his voice, thrusting out words as if they are jagged shards of glass. It is the fury I have seen other pious veterans of the war suppress in their mournful, lamenting hours of endless prayer, the same fury they restrain fiercely behind their teeth, behind their eyelids when they imagine that their accumulated store of sacrifice and suffering is being squandered. It is the fury that must be bred into these young men who march on to war naively and return with that secret knowledge of murder and vulnerability to death. It must be how senseless soldierly deaths are given meaning.
On my visit, I don’t see Forugh and Mohammad interact. I see them separately, hundreds of miles apart. But the kinetic fingerprint of war is on their foreheads, their own crackling umbilical cord, their own smudged seal of prayer. Mohammad prayed -- and still prays -- in fields of blood and has forsaken ordinary loves so that he may keep his sanity; Forugh’s bowing down to the intractability of the consequences of war are subtler, for she has found solace also in the God Mohammad loves. In holding that God in common, in loving him as Mohammad loves him, Forugh still seeks desperately to keep Mohammad close to her breast, as she did when he was born, a sunny robust child, thirty-something years ago. Forugh still prays to motherhood.
TWO: Of Streets and Soapboxes
In the public consciousness of Iran, the war with Iraq has myriad facades. It is not only an affair of geopolitics, but also a matter of personal history, sometimes even a theological puzzle which brings into question God’s will and man’s ways. It is about public performances and about sacred spaces. It is about the bitter ambivalence of a stalemate -- which is how the war ultimately ended after eight years -- and the macabre and pathetic celebration of human sacrifice. But the war is also a series of legitimating myths, the foundation of political ideologies, and once the cacophony of political arguments are left behind, the war is about private nightmares and quiet memories.
The war began in September 1980 when in the wake of several provocative political incidences, Iraq invaded Iran and laid the southwestern city of Khorramshahr under siege and eventually occupied it, and simultaneously captured hundreds of miles of Iranian territory further to the north. In those early years, on the radio and television of the nascent Islamic Republic we heard about “victories” that were really defeats, “glorious martyrs” that were really young boys wrenched limb from limb on minefields, and about the “evil” forces of Iraq, who were also scared young men in their trenches. We saw, on television and in city alleyways, bodies wrapped in burial shrouds, and the walls of the cities were papered with grainy death announcements of very young men who had volunteered to go to the front.
In the first two years of the war, the war moved from one bloody battle to the next, and military operations on both sides came to be named after ancient Islamic wars that were supposed to lend them the legitimacy of a just history. If Iraq re-fought the Battle of Qadessiyeh (the 7th century war in which the Arab forces of Islam defeated the Persian empire of the Sassanians), Iran’s volunteer and regular military waged the holy battle of Karbala (the 7th century battlefield where Imam Hussein, the grandson of prophet Mohammad and 72 of his relatives and companions were slaughtered at the hands of an Umayyad caliph).
After the second year of the war, when the lines of skirmish settled upon the original pre-war border, the war became the battle of trenches, and of attrition. I remember the horrific images and stories of human de-mining waves: everyday we heard and read about the Basij militia volunteers aged nine to fifty, who wore green, black or white headbands upon their brow bearing various religious mantra, and who walked upon the mine fields ahead of tanks and armored vehicles, and who diffused the mine fields with their bodies.
In the fifth year of the war, cities and their civilian inhabitants became the target of bombings by enemy planes. Any city within reach of bombers in Iran or Iraq could be a target. In those cities, the windows were “blacked out” with dark paint or thick fabrics, bombing sirens were installed in all neighborhoods, and the inhabitants acquired the habit of listening for short-wave news of a pending attack, for siren wails, and ultimately for explosions.
In the eighth year of the war, after six gory years of stalemate, a ceasefire was brokered by the United Nations, was accepted reluctantly by Iran, the borders were reestablished along the same pre-war lines, and the political enmity of the Iranian and Iraqi regime returned to its usual low-intensity verbal hostility. Both regimes had meanwhile begun hosting, funding, and manipulating one another’s domestic nemeses as pawns in the eternal geopolitical chess game.
I departed for the United States in the fifth year of the war, and I returned eleven years after the end of it. And here I was, in Tehran, in Shiraz, in Mashhad, in Khuzestan, realizing that the war -- now an “historic” event, the persistent ghost of the past -- still heaves beneath the surface of the cities and under the skins and lives of its inhabitant.
In the ordinariness of every day life, the war appears in the Rambo-esque B-movies showing in the popular cinemas, with big, shorn, muscle-bound Iranian supermen killing puny effeminate Iraqi soldiers, with scenes of explosion and firefights. These B-movies are devoured by young men who were perhaps too young to fight, and who now sit in the dark cinemas, crack sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and watch the courage of mythical warriors. The war is in the quotas at the universities and civil service jobs, where the “living martyrs” (those who lost a limb in the war or were irreparably injured) and the children of the “dead martyrs” get preferential treatment. It is in the proliferating veterans’ hospitals, and in strange bureaucratic mazes of veterans’ and martyrs’ foundations, agencies, and ministries. It has become an element of the everyday vocabulary of those who live in Iran. Names of the war casualties are on the street signs and city squares, on building awnings, and on the murals on the walls. You pass by them everyday if you are living in Iran, and they are such a part of the background that the mural colors bleed into oblivion and the street names are abbreviated to unrecognizable epithets or forgotten in favor of the numbered alternative. The narrow street in which one uncle lives was once 21st street; it later became Martyr Ramin Haqgooyan Street, and now is again called 21st street. Martyr Mustapha Chamran Boulevard is now simply Chamran, sounding as de-personalized and purely geographical as those other place names whose origins are forgotten: Tajreesh, Darband, Shemiran. But for me who have yet to become habituated to the imprint of the war on the mundane, its presence everywhere is shockingly raw. As I find my way again in Iran by walking endlessly in all the different neighborhoods, the murals are the minutely detailed tableaus of mourning and a ghoulish celebration. At the center of these murals often rises the heroic body of the Martyr, in his war fatigues, heavy black boots, trim beard, and a headband inscribed with Qor’anic verses, and surrounding him are the sacred sayings of prophets and apostles, Imams and Leaders. The sentimental rendering of obvious symbols -- tulips and tanks and doves and gilded books -- decorate the background of most of these murals. The hero at the center is often looked upon benevolently from an upper corner by a portrait of Khomeini or of the current Leader, Khamene’i. But what I see in those murals, aside from loss and grief for dead young men is a sort of persistent desire to make the killing fields holy grounds. For me, in neighborhood after neighborhood, street after street, those alleys whose names commemorate a lost neighborhood boy, echo the sounds of boys playing football, boys growing up, boys dying.
But I am also aware that the war is not just commemorated in this crude way on building walls and street signs; it is also transformed into the potent mantra of the ideologues. In the fierce struggle between reform and counter-reform in the regime, everyone wants to claim their inheritance of the dead. Those who have served in the war sometimes explicitly, but frequently obliquely, hint at their own infallibility, at a right to hold the reins of power acquired in the trenches. The war is invoked as an amulet against charges of treason to the ideals of the revolution. Reformists who have served at the “Front” challenge their enemies to question their loyalty, when that loyalty was so obviously tested by their willingness to be martyred.
The war presents itself in the rhetoric of the volunteer Basij militia, who spends the war credit earned by young Basij men of a previous generation killed in the war. The contemporary Basij men often act as thugs, noisily disrupting reformist gatherings, cruelly attacking under-veiled women on the streets, asserting their terrifying and terrorizing presence constantly on behalf of those factions of the elite that see any critical political movement as an invasion of their power turf and an attack on their socioeconomic and political control over the state resources. Some secular segments of the society take the association of the hooligans with the veterans at face value and display towards the war veterans the same sense of revulsion and anger that the American veterans of the Vietnam War must have faced in the latter stages of that war.
The various martyrs’ foundations and organisations which financially help war widows and in return mobilize and utilize the support of this constituency are among the most manipulative groups deploying the bitter losses of war to their own ends. The mothers of martyrs are brought out to protest or support factional positions. If in dusty humid trenches on the southwestern planes, and in the bullet-poxed, mortared, and shelled cities of Khuzestan, the war was senselessly prolonged, the very profligacy of those deaths is appropriated by the men in power as the proof of the basic soundness of the regime. The argument goes that if so many people died in the war, their death affirms the legitimacy of Islamic Republic -- and by extension, the men who rule it. The perpetual invocation of the war transforms it into an abstraction, a legitimating myth of origin for the Islamic Republic, and obscures the fleshy, wounded, tangible corporeality of it.
It is this abstraction that is challenged in The Glass Agency, a controversial and popular film directed by Ibrahim Hatamikia, which bitterly questions the treatment of war veterans, their mutilated physical bodies having been relegated to forgetfulness by a myth-making machine that abstracts and disembodies their sacrifices and turns them into ideological weapons in the business of governance. In the film, a veteran in dire need of a surgery to fix a war injury faces endless bureaucracy, humiliation, uncaring medical care-givers, and a general amnesia about his suffering and the suffering of other veterans. The film is controversial because it speaks of the feelings and sympathies of various segments of the society: on the one hand secular critics of the Islamic Republic charge the regime with far too much affirmative action on behalf of the veterans, while the war veterans themselves see their own past appropriated manipulatively by those in power. These men fought a long bloodied dirty war with their bodies, their hands, and their guns. As their past is appropriated by others, their seared memories become a sort of burnt offering, a sacrament to the revolution, proofs for a theological argument. And in the current-day passion plays that come to amalgamate their history with that of Imam Hussein, behind the battered and abandoned bodies of the men, the women are relegated to ghostly presences in the background, a sort of Greek chorus whose presence hints at the immensity of suffering, but whose sorrows are never explicitly recounted.
“Have you seen the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan?” Kamran asked me seriously. I was disconcerted and embarrassed by having to respond in the negative. Kamran lived in Iran, and I had just come to Iran from the US, and yet, I hadn’t seen the recently released film and he had. I assumed that the copy he had seen was a grainy video footage shot inside a dark cinema in the US with a handheld camera by some enterprising entrepreneur who has then sent the tape here to Iran for distribution even before the film had come out on video in the US. And I was certain that the footage Kamran had watched was interrupted by the shadows of the audience occasionally passing over the image. I imagined Kamran sitting in the small living room, watching the video on the big wood-paneled television. I imagined him gazing upon the opening scenes of carnage, of blood on the seashore, of slaughtered soldiers. I imagined the opening scene as a gray landscape with bits of body parts strewn about.
Kamran whispered to me conspiratorially, “It was about me.”
I assumed he must be telling me that Steven Spielberg had somehow rendered the reality he knew on film. Kamran repeated quietly, “It was about me.” His sister, the best friend of my adolescent years, stood silently behind him, her face troubled. “He got inside my head. He filmed what goes on in my head over and over again every day,” Kamran said.
It was only when he added, “he asks me how to make these scenes more real,” -- “he” being Spielberg -- that I realized Kamran was not just praising Spielberg’s ability to represent a reality so tangible and full-fleshed in Kamran’s head. Kamran spoke with Spielberg, and I later learned, with Imam Hussein as well. He didn’t find it ironic that his interlocutors were the most famous Hollywood director of our time and the martyred saint whose Shi’a hagiography has him slaughtered at the order of an apostate king in the parched desert of Karbala some 1400 years ago. Kamran’s sister, Kimia, stood behind him silently in that semi-dark room in the small house in the suburbs of Mashhad and she looked uneasy, but did not interrupt Kamran. After Kamran’s comments, the first evidence of him not being quite “right”, we all lingered in silence, Kamran seemingly the only one not perturbed by the conversation.
On the plane to Mashhad, Kimia had warned me that Kamran now lived in a different world. His family didn’t often discuss this alternative world, nor did they talk to friends about Kamran’s constant traversing of realities beyond our imagination. I had the sort of privilege wanderers have of being taken into people’s houses and into their confidence. Kimia told me that Kamran lived a life of endless wars upon several planes of time and space and spoke lucidly about it. This was the same beautiful and brilliant Kamran who had long ago lent me books from his vast and rich library, who had explained Karl Marx to me, who had come back from Berlin to go to the war in those early years when I was young and the Islamist regime had yet to use the bloody war to consolidate its hold over the fractious post-Revolutionary politics of Iran.
In the Revolution of 1978/79, a fragile alliance between Islamist, nationalist, and leftist forces had overthrown the Pahlavi monarchy, and shortly afterwards, when it became clear that the Islamists had gained full control over the military barracks, the courts, and the telecommunication infrastructure, the purges began. The Islamists in power began to rid themselves of the nuisance dissent of the nationalists and the leftists and began the careful, harrowing Islamicization of the schools, universities, city streets, workplaces, and private spheres. The more the nationalists and leftists protested -- in the streets, or on the pages of the newspapers -- the more their media outlets were shut down and their demonstrations were quashed. Many of our parents, friends, and family members were arrested, interrogated, exiled. Many more lost their jobs and their livelihoods. But others found their new lives under the Islamic regime quite reasonable. We found that the large family units were sometimes fractured along the political fault lines. Paranoia and mistrust, those twin tools of repression which we thought we had managed to cast off with the overthrow of the monarchy, returned insidiously. And all the while, we girls were growing up.
It was a delirious world back then, our macabre and yet ordinary world of revolutions and wars and daily upheavals, of purges and arrests and executions, of blood on the streets, and blood on the barricades, of forced school prayers and clandestine all-girl parties. We were sprouting breasts and learning about philosophy. We discovered the thrilling nascence of womanhood and the heady dangers of politics. As we began menstruation and entered the murky world of adolescence, our parents began fearing that we would be caught by the Komiteh -- the self-elected cabal of righteous vice police -- in compromising positions on the street, talking to strange boys. The time I remember is a time painted in squalls of blood, and yet I also remember it as a desperately romantic time. We had lived with the premonition of doom. We had lived on the edge of a slowly corroding world. We had been so young back then, Kimia and I.
We used to read books voraciously, and in the pages of Master and Margarita or Faust or Gone with the Wind, or Slow Flows the Don we found realities and wars and loves beyond our battered and wounded time. We were so full of yearning then. Amidst the days of delirious change and the news of war, we constructed grand and inevitably tragic romances from innocent flirtation and furtive glances by young boys. We had endless crushes on the brothers of our friends, the beautiful, melancholy Homayoons and Babaks and Kianoushes. And Kamran had been one of these brothers. These young men were ready to go to the jebheh (the warfront) or had just returned, and they could not go to the universities because all institutions of learning were closed while being “cleansed” of un-Islamic influences. In their melancholy youth, these young men fit our silly notions of “romantic” by reading French poetry and arguing metaphysics; they often loomed in the background when we visited our friends, and we knew that something illicit and secret was happening when we glanced at them sidelong, giggled nervously as they spoke to us, or pretended a sort of reckless confidence when our bellies heaved with the exhilaration of the forbidden.
But back then, Kimia had been so much more mature than the rest of us: she didn’t flirt aimlessly with these romantic men. She had a serious “boyfriend”, someone whose name came up all the time, someone she loved and wanted to marry. Kimia and I were next-door neighbors and we shared endless conversations across our adjacent balconies. We were intimate with one another’s secret lives and loves. We argued poetry, and we quietly argued politics. We even argued the validity of Marshal McLuhan's global village ideas. We talked about Hollywood and Michael Jackson. We wrote to pen-pals in Europe and the United States who became our eyes and ears when our country was closed down. We listened to the Voice of America, not for the news but for the latest pop songs dedicated to strangers in Iran. We threw all-girl parties under the eagle-like supervision of our mothers who were worried about the Komiteh, and we pretended to be boys in these parties. We held hands without these odd gender-crossings troubling us. We loved one another with the intense passion of adolescent love, without the knowledge of prescribed and proscribed gender or generational roles.
When I returned for my long process of re-acquaintance with Iran and with my friends, on the plane bound for Mashhad, Kimia quietly told me about the ways in which our lives had diverged. Kimia had married the man she loved back then, and he had turned out to be not the husband she fancied. I -- with my sense of foreboding and my premonitions of doom, with my silly and terrible love poetry, and my dreams of revolutions led by beautiful wide-shouldered women with machine guns -- had gone on to the US. I had chosen to cut contact with my Iranian friends, had assimilated. And the Iran to which I had returned was and was not as I remembered it from the days of terror. The Islamist regime in late 1990s was rupturing from within, allowing for the emergence of factions that demanded democratization of the government within the bounds of the Islamic constitution. When I had left in 1985, there were no dissenting voices left in the media; upon my return, I found the newsstands burgeoning with essays in dissent, with suggestions of reform, with cogent and cutting critiques of the regime. Instead of the stultifying silence of paranoia, I found a cacophony of voices debating the manner and extent of change.
But in the midst of the hope and the conflict, I also found unbearable sorrow. I, who had lived with the war as if it had been a distant and irrelevant event in my life when I lived in Iran, found it present everywhere. The first shocking confirmation that the war was still present was Kamran. Beautiful and brilliant Kamran, -- who used to read Nietzsche in the original German, who had upbraided me once for the vacuous emptiness of my childish love poetry -- was now speaking to God, and to Imam Hussein, and to Steven Spielberg.
I was back in Mashhad for the first time in 15 years, and Kimia stood in the corner of the room, and she didn’t challenge Kamran’s claim to the authorship of the film as Kamran played with her little son. Kamran was comfortable and warm with his nephew and Kimia’s son obviously adored him. Kamran spoke to him as if he were a little adult, clearly and cogently, but also with silly affection, and it melted Kimia to see her son clambering all over Kamran and speaking to him in a torrent of words. In the background, the television was telling us about the assassination of some local police chief. It was 1999, and even then, in the age of Reform, there were still moments of foreboding and uncertainty. The claims of renewal on the streets, the political arguments in the taxis, the joyous banter and debate of the journalists and would-be politicians and critics in the plentiful newspapers were still punctuated with these oblique glances into darkness: madness, assassinations.
Kamran still fought his shadowy endless war that began in Karbala and ended on the screens of American Cineplexes and Iranian television/video monitors. In early 1980s, Kamran had come back from Berlin to revolutionary Iran. He had demonstrated on the streets as the leftist student that he was, and then, when he had expected the long-dreamed revolution of his to come to fruition, the purges had begun. He had managed to escape persecution, but when the war began, he was drafted into the regular army despite the fact that so many of his friends and comrades were killed by the very same regime that he was supposed to protect with his life. He was immediately sent to the jebheh. He had found himself in the bloodiest arena of the war: the battle to liberate occupied Khorramshahr. And in that battle, he had been critically injured, and the images of carnage had crept in behind his eyes to lay dormant for some ten years, reasserting themselves as a visionary lunacy.
The memories came to haunt Kamran every day. In his daily wars, he was drafted after coming back from Europe into a war that was not his war. In his head, his regiment crossed a mine-field everyday; everyday, after they had collected the dead and injured casualties, a mortar was fired into their trench; everyday, Kamran wiped the blood from his eyes, his belly ripped open by a shrapnel, to find he was the only person alive in his trench, that all his friends were dead. Kamran’s days were colored red still, 15 years later, and while Kimia and I had washed our hands from the revolutionary fervor of those days and moved on -- she to her troubled marriage and beautiful house, I to my American life -- Kamran parted oceans of blood everyday with the wand of his imagination. Kamran’s aimless wanderings in his private labyrinth of war and confusion verged on the eternal. He stayed at home all day and wrote his endless surreal war screenplays in an illegible script and held abstract theological conversations with American directors making war films. He grafted images from Karbala to scenes from World War II films in his screenplays. He wrote of European war heroes speaking of the martyrdom of Hussein. God was always present in his screenplays as the final referee of the wrestling matches between two sides, neither of which were necessarily good or evil.
Kamran was now nearly 40 years old and he had never held a proper job in his life. He lived in this small house in Mashhad, drove his mother to work everyday, ran errands and wrote and wrote and wrote. His father, the retired colonel shuffled along limping and leaning on his cane every day to his small room at the end of the small garden, surrounded by shelves heavy with books and papers, and wrote his epic poems, and translated endless sacred texts from Arabic into rhyming, metric poetry. Kamran’s mother had to work still, even though she was well past the age of retirement, because she could not afford to live on the meager pension of a retired teacher, and she had to support her son and her husband. She was still beautiful, with her precisely-drawn face. Her skin had only become more transparent with age, and she looked dignified with her crown of silver hair that she had had even back then when Kimia and I were young. She was unconventional in not suppressing the evidence of her age under the veil of black dye. But she did look tired, her eyes did not twinkle as they had done, and her laughter that used to come from deep within her belly, was a tired sort of laugh now. The war had deprived her of her retirement.
Kimia worried about her. They were alike in so many ways, and Kimia, in her house in Tehran, missed her mother. Though by marrying Ali -- who didn’t turn out to be the prince of her romantic dreams -- she had escaped the perpetual autumn of this little yard, and the dusty sorrow of all the lonely lives within this house, Kimia worried that she had abandoned her mother to her back-breaking work. She worried about Kamran and what may happen to him after their mother died. Kamran didn’t know how to behave in social situations. He began his theological conversations about war as the transcendental essence of being in the middle of an airport lounge, in a green-grocer’s line. Kamran spoke loudly sometimes about the war, forgetting that the concreteness of bloody experience only embarrasses those who cannot confront it. Kamran’s world was wrought by the repetitive cycles of death and destruction at the jebheh, even if he played with children so effortlessly and negotiated the car through the city traffic with the grace of a long-time driver.
His mother’s world was far less dramatic. If she had dreams, they were troubled dreams full of foreboding about what may happen to her son. The world she moved through was not so fatefully determined by the memories of war; it was a world of dull routines that did not echo the war in any sort of explicit way. Kamran and Kimia’s mother went to her job every morning, and came home every afternoon, and cooked dinner and washed the dishes and kept the small house tidy. The way the war invaded her routine was through the horror of the routine’s permanence. She feared that she would not have time to rest, to sleep late, to take care of her bad back, to read the books she wanted to read, because every day she looked at Kamran who was fighting his endless wars and holding endless theological debates about God’s munificence in granting death and destruction, and remembered that if she were to dropped dead tomorrow, Kamran’s life -- not to mention the quiet colonel’s life -- would become thoroughly uncertain. As a veteran of war, and one that had been nearly disemboweled at the front, Kamran received only a modest pension for his physical injuries and none for his inability to leave the labyrinth of his hallucinations. I don’t know whether that was because such casualties of the war are deemed unworthy of compensation or because his family had chosen not to claim madness lurking in their midst. After all, insanity is still a taboo in Iran, and the insane are hidden away in primitive under-equipped madhouses with vast rooms and chains to restrain the mentally ill. Even those who suffer from mild forms of mental illness and who are otherwise functional are considered to be a source of shame, somehow polluting the bloodlines of families. Perhaps for this reason, the state does not have necessary provisions for care of those who had suffered so thoroughly and who were still lacerated daily by the abrasion of these memories.
Meanwhile, Kimia’s son laughed joyously and climbed all over Kamran and in that small room illuminated by the flickering television news of assassinations, Kamran’s mother rubbed the exhaustion out of her own feet, and Kimia stood in the corner behind Kamran, quietly watching her son play with her uncle who became God’s fool upon seeing the carnage brought upon by men.
FOUR: Mr. Bonakdar’s World
Iran’s landscapes are seared by war. Each city has an adjunct city of the dead -- a vast cemetery of war martyrs whose graves are distinguished from the graves of the commonplace deceased by burial in separate plots, and by being adorned with commemorative embellishments. Whereas ordinary graves are marked by a horizontal slab of marble and sometimes a vertical marker of stone, at the head of the graves of the nearly one million martyrs of the war stands a hejleh, a strange and macabre visual metaphor for a “wedding chamber” for a young man married to death. The hejlehs are glass boxes containing photographs of the young men, and sometimes flowers -- wilted and dried -- and often Qor’anic prayers. They explicitly suggest that the ultimate bride of a pious man is martyrdom. Instead of a joyous and maybe shy wedding night in a real hejleh, the young men of these cemeteries attend the wedding feast of God and paradise. Looking at the sea of hejlehs is a sobering exercise in realizing what the statistics of martyrdom really mean. “Ten”, “one hundred”, “one thousand”, “one million” are all abstractions rendered real by the sheer volume of marble, glass, and grief in the war cemeteries. There are often black-clad women washing the graves, mourning the dead within them, rocking over them, telling their dead of the everyday gossip: did you know Maryam is now married? Where are you, aziz of my heart? Where are you to see your little sister grow up? And your father’s knee still hurts him… If only you were here, all of our pains would go away…
In those dusty graveyards, they have fountains of water tinted with red dye, and black-clad mothers in the thousands, and on the borders of the graveyards, picnicking families spread their weekend feast. The cities of the dead have been appropriated by the cities of the living at the margins.
But the living cities of the Southwest bear the marks of war in a savagely immediate manner. Traveling between Ahvaz and Khorramshahr, my taxi-driver tells me that the Iraqis came “this close” and he sweeps his arm out in the general direction of huts in the planes. Among the scarred and debilitated palm trees, I notice what looks like a series of mud-brick walls and I realize with a nauseating start that they are not huts at all, they are trenches built with life-and-death urgency by desperate Iranian troops who could not allow Ahvaz, the provincial capital of oil rich Khuzestan, to be captured by the Iraqis much like the devastated Khorramshahr had been.
Foreign visitors are not very welcome in what the driver, Mr. Bonakdar, calls “still a war zone”. There are checkpoints on the road where young soldiers verify the identity and nationality of the people in the cars driving closer to the Iraqi border. In the strange moonscape beyond the checkpoints there is something frightening and pure and untouchable that not even my cynicism can tarnish, something that perhaps the presence of a foreigner would or could belittle. I have heard of veterans coming back to the battlefield and shedding their shoes in respect to the vast temple of blood and death that this area has become.
On the road from Ahvaz to Khorramshahr, after the first 30 miles, there is nothing to obscure the view from horizon to horizon. There is a sort of endless silence and the eternal railway running parallel to the road, reassuringly constant in its distance. Mr. Bonakdar tells me that the Iraqis had disassembled the railway and stood the rails on their end to thwart the landing of Iranian parachute corps.
This vast desert used to bear plants and fruits and be adorned with glorious proud palm groves. But there is nothing now. There's scorched thirsty brown earth, there's the rusted brown railroad, and there are the man-made hills -- more than 15 years old, eroding slowly in Khuzestani rains that are reported to be sudden, short and torrential. And these hills are the slowly vanishing war trenches. On this land so strangely devoid of trees, I occasionally see a rectangle of land protected by barbed wire with a rusted military signs warning against trespass, seemingly devoid of anything important, until I am told that these tracts of land still contain live mines and missiles. Still, closer to Ahvaz, I see small boys shepherding goats and cows, and I see an old man in traditional Arab dress pissing on the train tracks, and I learn that just last month, two young brothers, both born after the end of the war, while playing in a seemingly harmless field in Khorramshahr had been torn to bits by a hidden and previously unexploded missile.
The silence, the barrenness of the land is mournful. Seeing how a fertile land has been so thoroughly flayed of its green skin is a quite humbling testament to all else that was lost in this pointless war, after which borders remained exactly where they had been and the only achievement was the proliferation of hundreds of thousands of fresh graves on both sides, upon which every Friday, mothers and fathers and wives and children pour water and grieve. Some of the dead soldiers had been buried here on this very land, their flesh and blood seeping into this silence, into this heavy sorrowing womb. And even today, there are still prisoners of war being exchanged every so often, even if both sides have vehemently disavowed existence of any more prisoners. Before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, there were even talks of railways connecting the two previously warring countries, of pilgrims being allowed free access to the shrines on both sides of the borders, of airline routes being revived. Today, in the geopolitical games being played, Iran is both foe and friend to Iraqis, and behind the sterile strategic language of so many pundits, lurk the dead, the injured, the buried, and the prisoners of war.
As we drive on, I sometimes see rusted Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles strewn about or purposefully set upon cement platforms with signs too far from the road to be legible. In frequent intervals, there are billboards bearing quotes from the Prophet and the Imams and from Ayatollah Khomeini. These are not the usual warlike rancorous slogans; they are somber and sad like the land upon which they sit. They don’t beat the drums of war; they speak of mourning mothers and of loss of so many young men. They tell of the redemption wrought through such death.
The closer I come to Khorramshahr, the rusted leftovers of carnage increase in number; and suddenly we are in a city that was laid to utter waste when captured by Iraq. We heard that all of Khorramshahr’s inhabitants -- any who hadn't become refugees elsewhere -- were massacred. The city for which several bloody wars were fought, Khorramshahr -- the “verdant city” -- was baptized Khooninshahr, the “metropolis of blood”. Here in this city which suffered so legibly from willful destruction, it is difficult to think of death and injuries as “casualties” or, even worse, as “collateral damage.”
The war is still viscerally visible, both in Khorramshahr which was nearly razed to the ground when captured by the Iraqis, and in Abadan, which never fell but bore heavy damage nevertheless. Khorramshahr has been built anew. There are streets still with the cadaver of a house among newly constructed houses and there are headless palm trees, pathetic in their loneliness scattered among the uncleared rubble. Or is this “rubble” a stack of brick and cement intended for construction? The city bears the mark of incompletion, and it is difficult to tell whether it is being disassembled or reconstructed.
The corrugated metal walls surrounding the National Iranian Oil Company's refinery in Abadan are all a puzzle-work of holes with burnt edges. Skeletons of wrecked warships list slightly to their side, rusting slowly in the mud of Shatt-al-Arab river which separates Iran and Iraq. Numerous watch-towers along the river are occupied by sun-burnt men making tea in blackened kettles on their solitary perch and there are hospitals that look more like highly-classified military bases: several perimeters of barbed and razor wire and high guard-towers with military-men holding threatening sub-machine guns around their every corner. These hospitals are rumored to bed military victims of Iraqi chemical attacks. For unknown reasons, though the Iranian government speaks righteously of these victims in the abstract, it has steadfastly refused to allow anyone outside trusted circles access to these veterans, and this rumor perhaps explains the highly paranoid guarding of the hospitals.
Mr. Bonakdar tells me about having lived in Ahvaz during the war. He tells me how his wife was pregnant during those early days of massive shelling and bomber raids. He tells me that each time the house shook with an explosion nearby, each time his frightened wife put her hand upon her belly, in its heavy volume she could feel the shuddering of her child. He tells me that his child is now mute and has attacks of epilepsy whenever fireworks explode outside or a car backfires. He tells me, resigned, that in facing the world silently, his son defies the cacophony of the bombs, but his little body takes him back to those days of fetal horror when in the womb, he could feel his mother’s fear and hear the sounds of destruction.
I don’t question Mr. Bonakdar about the veracity of his causal inferences. I believe him thoroughly, entirely, without doubt. We have, in our quiet drive through the devastation of Khuzestan, forged a strange bond, the weary and wary bond of those who have seen the dreadful silence of a world after death.
Mr. Bonakdar drops me off at my cousin Sudabeh’s place and though I had been exhilarated all day by the strange voyeurism of someone who after a diet of fake Hollywood violence looks upon the horror of the real thing, I am happy to have arrived in the calm corner of her space. I am happy to be able to leave Mr. Bonakdar’s sorrow behind me in the taxi, and the sad ruins of those cities and fields of blood out there beyond the checkpoints. I cannot contemplate having endured horrors such as this everyday for so long, for so long. My dual nationality and my home across the world gift me with a shameful sense of freedom, of breathing spaces, of being able to walk away. I am privileged and the shame of having this privilege is at this moment overwhelmed by the escape it affords me.
Sudabeh is the daughter of my maternal aunt. She is two years older than me, and these days, in Ahvaz, she mothers three children on a full-time basis. I am seeing her again for the first time in 15 years and she looks nearly the same as she always did, carrying her body proudly on the same tall frame, but with her long limbs rounded with postnatal flesh and her face softened by something close to resignation. She is warm in her greetings and generous in entertaining me, but there is a reserve there too, a sense of withholding, a desire to keep something internal close and hidden, within the domestic space of her life, shielded from my scrutiny.
I encounter this reaction all the time, particularly among those relatives who live in the provinces. There is a suspicion towards my intents, a suppressed curiosity about my motives, and perhaps a prejudgment that I may have changed so irrevocably and so sweepingly from the Iranian Laleh they knew so long ago as to render all intimacy unfeasible. There is certainly evidence for their conjecture: I am also more reserved; the emotions that move me, move under the surface of my skin; and I do not articulate what astonishes me, my sense of amazement or disgust at what may have changed in all these years; nor do I comment upon what may have stayed the same. This complicated transaction of thoughts and emotions is of course entirely hidden by courteous tenderness and affection, under the gauzy distortion of ta’arof, this art of conversation which hides as much as it reveals through its dizzying patterns of responses and counter-responses, courtesies and considerations that delay getting to the heart of the matter and hold the unwelcome questioner-cum-newly-(re)discovered relative at bay. But with Sudabeh, there is something more to her interiority than the initial reserve, the vast oceans of ta’arof, there is more than simple suspicion of two alien species circling one another, assessing one another’s vulnerabilities and strengths. Sudabeh has changed in unexpected ways.
When we were growing up, Sudabeh had been the vivacious center of our girlish boisterousness. When several of us female cousins saw one another during the summer and Nowrooz holidays, she was the one who would dress up the best, tell the funniest jokes, dream up the wildest schemes. We would ride our bicycles around her neighborhood and imagine ourselves racecar-drivers; we entertained each other with the outrageous fictions we made up about the people we saw -- neighbors’ daughters, handsome young men -- and Sudabeh was the one with whom we all wanted to be intimate: she was tall and beautiful and spoke in a lilting Shirazi rhythm and strode around with long strides and a sense of worldliness. She was adept at ridiculing excesses of piety that she saw around her. She easily shared her secrets with us. We three girl-cousins jealously guarded our clique and excluded our younger siblings from our ever-important secret discussions, conspiracies, plans, and plots. We all, and not just us cousins but her neighborhood girls and her school friends too, wanted Sudabeh’s attention, we all wanted her to tell us her secrets, and when she was generous in sharing secrets we would tell her all we could to impress her. Everyone nowadays tells me that in those days, I was the “serious” one (I remember being shy, but perhaps I was only inept at social interactions), and Mahsheed, our other cousin, was the jokester, but Sudabeh was the center of our cousinly universe.
I left Iran surreptitiously and on my own in 1985 and since in those days, our world was pungent with the scent of fear and paranoia, I didn’t get to say goodbye to my friends or even cousins. When I left, I was nearly 17 and Sudabeh must have been approaching 19. I remember the last time I saw her then, we talked about the girl across the street getting married, and Sudabeh had no opinions about marriage. She seemed to me strangely content, fully self-contained, almost fatalistic. The universities were opening up again around that time, and I don’t remember her being terribly anxious about studying for the konkoor, the dreaded university entrance exam. I remember that after moving to the US, upon a re-reading of One Hundred Years of Solitude, I found myself awash in a sense of recognition when I happened upon that same strange contentment and completion in Remedios the Beautiful, though I am sure Sudabeh was not as beautiful as Remedios, nor was she destined to be one of God’s fools like her.
In the years immediately following my leave-taking, I vaguely heard about the War of the Cities, when the bombings of civilian targets had become so rampant that people would send their children to even smaller towns and villages that had lesser chances of being bombarded. I dimly remember Sudabeh’s younger sister being sent to Fasa, a small town near Shiraz, to finish her high school without the daily fear of the school being blown to smithereens by an Iraqi bomb. I heard about Shiraz and Fasa’s new and ever-growing slum suburbs of internally displaced refugees.
What is strange is that I don’t remember reading or hearing about what Sudabeh did in those years. But so much of my memories of those years are buried -- so much is forgotten, because I chose in those early years of arrival in the US to assimilate fully and that assimilation required that I forsake Iran, shut my ears to stories of Iran, cease responding to letters from Iran, desiring to forget Iran. I don’t remember how I reacted to the end of the war, nor the Iran-contra affair which had wound down by then; I don’t remember television news about the War of the Cities on the American TV, though I know they were covered, but my memories of Iran in those years are vague and blurred. The only memory whose sharp outlines puncture this haze is the image of a vivid warm June day in 1989 when lying next to a pool in Texas, I turned over a local newspaper to see the image of Khomeini on the cover page. He had died the day before. And what I remember still is my sense of relief and awe, and a strange disbelief, as if Khomeini had never been destined to die. But that means that by then the war had ended, because Khomeini had called the ceasefire a challis of poison he had to take. This is how we all had come to date events: before and after Khomeini’s death.
When in 1992, I saw my parents for the first time in five years, they told me the story of Sudabeh’s marriage. I had know from letters and phone calls I had received in those years that she had married her cousin Hamid by then. With my parents’ deep suspicion towards the Islamic Republic and its wars and their dislike of ostentatious piety, they told the story of the union as a sort of giving-away ceremony where Sudabeh was gifted to her devout cousin. Later, in Iran, before I saw Sudabeh herself, my aunt, her mother, embellished the bare bones of the tale I had heard with romantic details. At the intersection of all the stories -- the doubt-ridden one I had heard from my parents and the tale of romance my aunt told -- lay the war. I hadn’t known that the story of Sudabeh’s marriage was inseparable from the story of the war. Sudabeh was Hamid’s willing trophy for having survived a ghastly injury to his leg in the war. I found out that in all those years, when I was preparing to leave, and later, when Iran was becoming an absence of memory in me, Sudabeh had been matched with another cousin of hers in the US, and her parents had tried so hard to send her to the US as his bride, but she had been unable to secure a visa, even though she made several trips to Dubai to visit the American embassy. Meanwhile, her other cousin Hamid had volunteered to fight in the war, and had gone to the jebheh and had been shot with shrapnel and was brought back to a hospital bed in Shiraz, with one leg torn to bits and in need of all sorts of surgery.
Sudabeh’s mother tells the story as a romance: Sudabeh walked into the hospital room to visit her heroic cousin, Hamid, and there he was, in traction, tall and handsome and in agony -- the stuff of every girl’s sentimental dreams -- and as soon as he saw her, he fell in love with her and he wanted her. He hadn’t seen her in years, and there she was, our irresistible cousin, beautiful and careless, content in her own skin, complete even without an American visa, and he had wanted her so badly, so badly, so badly that he had pushed every button, pressured every woman in his family to mediate, threatened, cajoled, pleaded… But as my aunt tells the tale, Sudabeh had also fallen in love with Hamid, she had loved his bravery, his manly courage, his trustworthy piety, his fidelity to a cause, and so, despite being promised to her other cousin, despite all the fantasies of marrying an American groom and getting an American education upon moving to the US, she chose to marry Hamid. The rest is all fairy-tales. Or maybe not, as the cousin in America made hundreds of tearful phone calls to Sudabeh, also threatening, cajoling, pleading. Nevertheless, my irresistible cousin married her handsome injured war hero and moved to Ahvaz with him and set up a cozy home and bore him a son and two daughters. Like most fairy-tales.
We all know that if he hadn’t been such a war hero, they wouldn’t have given him Sudabeh. But that is what they had done. Sudabeh has been given to Hamid and to the war and the injured leg that would still hurt some fourteen years later when I visited.
When I see Sudabeh for the first time in so many years, we weep together from the shock of seeing each other after so long and finding that we still recognize one another. We recognize one another’s faces and even voices, but there is Sudabeh, in a serenity that is almost ethereal, the mistress of her own domain, living in comfort in an ordinary house filled with toys and the laughter of her children. And she is reserved in a way I don’t remember, she doesn’t laugh deeply, and she seems to be contemplative all the time. She doesn’t reveal much about her life and doesn’t want to know much about my life either. The only time she comments on how I live is when she tells me I should get married, but she sounds neither convinced nor very convincing. Marriage is something a woman of a certain age does. Marriage is the only choice she seems to have had: either to a cousin in the US, promised to her so long ago, or to another heroic cousin, pious and strict in his religiosity, demanding in his love. She hasn’t finished her university education and she doesn’t seem to care. We don’t have many intimate conversations, but we sit in silence much of the time, comfortably. The world around her becomes quiet and serene and strangely still when she moves through it.
Sudabeh spends her day doing the things a housewife does. She goes to the market, through streets that are hung throughout with pictures of very young men who died in the war: men with beards, men with vague shadows of a very new mustache on their upper lips, men whose pictures are washed by the rain, faded by the sun, and who seem to occupy every light post, every telephone pole, on every street. Ahvaz doesn’t look physically touched by the war as Khorramshahr or Abadan do, but the palpable presence of war can be felt in the obvious military presence of heavy armored vehicles all around. The city is so close to the border that when the Iraqi-based opposition guerrilla group, Mojahedin-e-Khalq want to have their presence felt, they bomb various military installations in Ahvaz. While I am in Ahvaz, one such explosion happens. We hear the sound of the blast, but we hear nothing about the story behind it. Throughout the chaos of explosion and sirens outside and my subsequent futile search in the newspapers for its cause, Sudabeh is serene and unconcerned. Sudabeh inhabits a world which features sound of explosions as an ordinary attribute. Sudabeh’s vocabulary does not contain the war. When Hamid’s old wound occasionally hurts him, he, however, speaks about the war. Sudabeh remains impassive. Her life was irrevocably changed by the fact that Hamid’s wound made him a hero who could not be refused his wishes, even if he wished to possess Sudabeh’s life. But Sudabeh does not speak of that moment when the war wound made the force of Hamid’s desires irresistible. The gregariousness of our childhood is replaced by a mute dignity of sorts which does not allow examination of bygone motives, past decisions, and alternative lives that could have been lived. The war has rendered Sudabeh’s life not her own.
Hamid is certain about his faith and asks me to cover my hair in his presence. Everyday when Hamid comes home, he prays in the other room. He prays for a long time, he reads various books of prayer after the ordinary prayers are done, and sometimes he weeps out aloud. He speaks about the horrors of the war in phrases that sound articulate and eloquent but also recited, repeated and familiar. Hamid is certain about his choices, he is certain about the war, he is certain that his wound gives him the authority to speak about Iran’s politics. He dreams about the war, and weeps the torment of those dreams in his long and voluble prayers. Hamid is a good father: he doesn’t intimidate his children; they love him and he plays with them enthusiastically. He is not silly with them, but he has a good laugh and endless patience. He seems to follow the script of good (Islamic) husbanding closely, precisely, thoroughly. He declares his love to Sudabeh frequently and openly. He announces to me that he loves her cooking, and her integrity, her veqar, the dignity in her bearing. He speaks of how much he loves her, and he follows her walking around the kitchen with his eyes. He is kind and affectionate with her. She is his wife, and he is proud of her, even if in the doctors’ club where he takes us for lunch, he admonishes her to pull her headscarf forward and cover a wisp of hair that has managed to escape. She is the perfect archetype. Sudabeh, my cousin, looks content and complete. And quiet.
When we parted more than a decade ago, and we began living in different time zones, when I ceased to answer letters and she ceased to write them, I lost the privilege of knowing what Sudabeh thinks. She does not tell me about the war, even though the war made her Hamid’s bride, and brought her to this hot city where the shadows of the war martyrs are long, and mysterious explosions down the street are not explained by the newspapers. I lost the privilege of witnessing the transformation of that gregarious girl of long ago into the perfect archetype of a war wife. I assume that Sudabeh silently bears the burden of perfection demanded by Hamid, but in the vocabulary we share, burdens cannot be verbalized. Now, I sit in Sudabeh’s living room, watching her move through the silence of her space, with her quiet dignity and reserve, and I wonder about another bride, a hypothetical one, married to a cousin in the US, and I wonder if that bride would move through the green hills of Virginia with such ethereal conviction had there not been a war, bloody and endless, on the planes of Khuzestan.
SIX: My War
In those months I spent in Iran, aside from the arguments in the taxicabs and the open expression of dissent on the streets and in bookshops, what astonished me the most was the way the war was present still, persistently. But it wasn’t only the war of the cemeteries and street murals, of the B-movies in movie-theaters that sell sunflower seeds and cigarettes and are full of young rowdy men, and literary angst among the writers and A-list filmmakers and visual artists that penetrated my consciousness and interrogated my presumptions. What affected me deeply was the war written upon the bodies of my friends and family members; it was the way it had changed their lives, altered their paths inexorably, the way it had marked the men and women I had known and loved that seared me, astonished me, saddened me. This war was a revelation. It was no longer the abstract play of geopolitics I had studied in my university international relations courses, nor about territorial waters and the reserves of oil below the earth. It wasn’t even about the logic of martyrdom or the uses and abuses of death and sacrifice in politics. This war had altered the lives of people so anonymous that their individual existence doesn’t often penetrate the public consciousness, unless they have chosen to make themselves part of a larger collective, say of “martyrs’ mothers” or of “war veterans.” But the collectivization of their suffering mutes the wide spectrum of colors and shades in their stories, and bestows a false unity on their experiences. The war veterans are not all thugs, nor are they all saintly heroes of sacrifice. They are, some of them, fanatics, others are God’s fools. And their mothers and wives and sisters and the mothers of martyrs are not all brave supporters of the regime their sons had to defend, and their pain is not only articulated in phrases of grief. Their suffering comes on many levels: in their abandonment and rejection, in loss of control over their own lives, in their being shorn of rest or respite, in their constant confrontation with tempests of rage and fury conceived in unimaginable killing fields.
Though the war whose ruins and remnants I saw had been rewritten in the public sphere to fit the theological mold of Karbala -- with its central figure of the thirsty martyr, dead before the fulfillment of his most basic desires, and with his coterie of wailing widowed women and sick children -- the war that I saw in the homes of my friends and family members was of a different ilk. It didn’t echo with the haunted wails of loss, nor with the grumblings of complaints. There was a sort of silence there, sometimes resignation, but always an absence of a daily vocabulary to accommodate the barren landscape of a post-war world, perhaps a resistance to relive the stories over and over again. I am certain that the very insistence of the regime to use the war so recklessly in its rhetoric has also produced its own resistance in the shape of the silence I saw.
I found that the ambiguity of my position as both an insider and outsider itself elicited a sort of ambivalent reaction, sometimes giving me a sort of privilege to listen, a sort of validations as a confidante. I found that it was my wanderer status, my condition of not belonging, that allowed Kimia to speak to me of the lunacy that reduces all wars of all times to an insane moment in which a company of men are wiped off the face of the earth in Khuzestan in early 1980s. At other times, my having not shared the war in its most devastating moments, in not having known the bombings of the cities, or the deaths of the neighbors’ and relatives’ sons, had irrevocably placed me outside the boundaries of those who could be trusted with the stories and personal histories of war. With Sudabeh, my abandonment of the pastoral fields of our childhood had definitively truncated our mutual vocabulary. With her, I had now become an outsider, observing her life as if from behind a glass wall. And I had come to realize the effect of the war on her through her silence, her eerie acquiescence to living as an archetype, and her gifting of herself to a war hero. And I was invited in to Forugh and Mohammad’s lives, because I had belonged to the bloody era that had so iron-fistedly determined the contours of their relationship, and I knew and I had experienced the early years of the revolution along with my relatives. I was made privy to the story of how bonds of human affinity and motherhood are fractured by the force of Khomeini’s political charisma, because I had a sort of foreigner’s neutrality in the silent struggle that went on in their relationship between faith and human love, between Mohammad’s profound need to abandon all things worldly for the love of God and his prophets and Imams, and Forugh’s desperate desire to understand her son’s rejection of her motherly affections.
I had only known these few people and their stories, but it seemed to me that there was a vast reserve of people’s memories of the war, of the losses suffered throughout its devastation, and of the suffering that had remained in its aftermath which did not necessarily complement or support the official histories so insistently promoted by the government of Iran in its murals, street demonstrations, ideological transmutations, and political rhetoric. Though “the War” as an abstract interaction between the forces of “good” and “evil” was deployed all the time on all media, the way the ordinary people had endured it -- and continued to endure it -- seemed to only be hinted at in an occasional film, an occasional book, and even then, it was the subject of controversy and contention. There never was a single story of war, and uniform political and social positions never developed in its aftermath, even if the experience of war had been uniformly bloody and senseless. There were those who reconciled themselves with the trauma of war through their political fervor and those who did so through their silence. Sometimes, perhaps as a form of implicit dissent, a denigration of the war itself was transformed into the denigration of those war veterans who by choice or force, had exposed themselves to death and killing and maiming. The forces of abstraction and opposition obscured the very tangible and real lives of the men who had fought the war, and these same forces rarely, if ever, addressed the concerns and suffering of the women who also bore its burdens, unless these women were transformed into archetypes of grieving and courageous mothers. But except for the most publicly political uses of war, the individual stories seemed buried in reluctant ribcages, perhaps because too reflexive a contemplation would have caused such lunacy as Kamran’s, or fury as Mohammad’s, or prayerful lamenting of Hamid’s.
When Mr. Bonakdar drove me to Abadan, I had stood for a long time under the sunny sky in front of the Abadan courthouse on the shore of Shatt-al-Arab, contemplating the watery border with Iraq. The sidewalk was bustling with legal assistants with their type-writers and folding chairs, and they sat clacking away on the type-writers, filling out forms for illiterate plaintiffs, and beautiful and worn teakwood fishing dhows were slowly swaying on the water, and the air was warm and fragrant with the scent of spring and flowing water and an undertone of petroleum. But only half a mile to the south along the muddy bank of the river, the massive rusted hulk of a warship listed to its left, still there, ten years after the end of the war. It had become part of the Abadan landscape along with the bullet-corroded buildings and warning signs about mined tracts of land. The daily business of Abadan went on unabated, and though the warship had been left behind by the government as yet another symbol of the mastery of the Islamic Republic -- like all the other rusted machinery of war strewn around the fields and cities of Khuzestan -- it had become part of the background noise and color of everyday living. Despite its gigantic shadow creeping along the riverbank, among the crowds swirling on the shore, I seemed to feel its presence most acutely, for I had not been habituated to its outline scarring the green and brown skin and flesh of Shatt-al-Arab.
I had also not been habituated to the enmeshing of the weft of war and woof of the daily lives of my friends and family members. I hadn’t seen the slow revolution of senseless blobs of color into patterns, but stepped into the full landscape of the post-war world as it had emerged after some 10 years, perhaps awaiting further embellishments or transformations. The war’s sheer impact, its power, its rewriting of so many lives, recasting of so many characters, transforming of so many landscapes had awed me. But what humbled me was the silent resilience of those ghostly multitudes of men and women who had come through its dark and putrid swamp, not unscathed, but proving by their very survival, the wounded grace of an unnamed humanity. Comment
* All names have been changed.
First written in December 2001.