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The martyr and his creator
Part 9: Returning to Iran: 1986-87
>>> Images

Sima Nahan
May 1, 2006

Payam-e Shahid (Message of the Martyr) is an everyday tribunal for the rhetoric and politics of the Islamic Republic. A clever propaganda device, it reiterates stock sentiments and injunctions in a new context each time. When it actually is the words of individual men, it also provides a first and last chance for a great number of faceless sons of poverty to claim existence and, however prefabricated and short-lived, a voice. It is a tribunal for Man-as-Martyr-of-the-Islamic-Republic.

Payam-e Shahid appears in different forms and in greater or lesser degrees of authenticity. Sometimes it is used as an anonymous signature validating a spray-painted slogan: "Sister, your black hejab is more devastating for the enemy than my red blood" -- Payam-e Shahid. At other times it may appear in an eclectic anthology of poetry, described as a scribbled sentence found in the pocket of a man killed in confrontation with the forces of the Shah on the streets: "If I die, leave my eyes open so it will be known that I did not die in blind faith" (Jozveh-ye She'r, II, p.10).

Most comprehensively and least anonymously, it appears regularly in weekly and monthly propaganda magazines published by various organs of the Sepah-e Pasdaran or Basij organizations. These are passages excerpted from farewell letters and "wills." In the magazine format, Payam-e Shahid appears as brief messages accompanied by photographs of martyrs (sometimes as children, sometimes as corpses), the date and place of their martyrdom, and code-names of the offensives in which they were martyred. (The biographical information does not reveal their dates of birth.) These messages are for the most part statements of loyalty to Islam, Imam, and the war:

“With the passing of each martyr, our responsibility becomes greater. We must mobilize our forces and proceed to the fronts.”

“Follow the Imam and do not refrain from joining our brothers at the fronts, lest our revolution be endangered.”

“Our revolution is the precursor of global Islamic Path. It must be exported to every corner of the world.”

Longer messages are combinations of testimonial, apology, and simple personal letters. They are often addressed to a family member and speak of passion and longing that surpass earthly love. One in part addresses a mother:

“I know that the sorrow of losing a child is great. If I ask you to forget me, mother, I would be demanding an impossible thing from you. But life is short and sooner or later we all must go. So much the better if death comes as martyrdom in the Path of God.”

Another message salutes Mahdi and Imam Khomeini "from the bottom of a heart bereft with a burning love":

“Brothers and sisters, know that I have found my Path and I will follow it to the end. I have gone to fight the enemies of Islam, for Jahad is war and war is the illuminator of human essence. Jahad is the gateway to Heaven through which the martyr passes. I know that I do not deserve the honor of martyrdom, but if I am granted this honor, know that it has been my dearest wish. I am ready to be resurrected a hundred times and killed a hundred times in the Path of God.”


“I prefer to speak my heart tonight. Maybe the purpose of writing these letters is to gain momentary respite from the heaviness of a certain burden. But, alas, the love in my heart is inexpressible. My son, I was destined to look after you only for a short while. Now that God has called me to Him and will be receiving me soon, I ask for your blessing. You, too, must make an offering, your father, to God:

He who dreamed of the garden,

Offers the seeds of martyrdom

To earth -- heavy earth -- so there may be hope for new blossoming,

For the season is a sterile season.”

But who is the martyr?

In a piece titled "Unaddressed Letter" (in E'tesam, # 52), a high-school teacher writes the profile of a martyred student. It opens with: "The felling of martyrs is their rising, their bloodied sleep their awakening. They are trees that will never know autumn for they shed their leaves in the spring of their lives. They have chosen the season of their bloom for their departure, but their true life begins with their death," etc. He proceeds to recount his reservations in writing a biography of his student:

“I fear that such a biography will only contain the vocabulary of pain, suffering, and poverty. What other words are there to be found in the glossary of life experiences in southern Tehran...? But these divans are also filled with long qasidas on faith and devotion. Let us call our martyr Reza, his father Pain, and his mother Deprivation.”

"Reza" is in eighth grade when he volunteers for the Basij. "A life so short hardly warrants a 'beginning' and an 'end'":

“I taught him to pray. One evening after his prayer I saw that he would not rise from prostration. His thin shoulders were trembling and when he finally rose, his large eyes were brimming with tears. This time it was he who taught me about prayer.”

Reza is killed and the author addresses him in a letter that, sadly, can never be sent:

“Keeping my promise to you, I went to see your mother. She had just returned from the funeral and was smiling through her tears. 'I kissed him,' she said to me, 'I kissed his cold cheeks.'”

In spite of the ideologically noncommittal words of the mother the author approaches her:

“I spoke only briefly with her. It did not seem necessary to speak much, for she seemed to know it all. We cried together. I wanted to say to her: Let us eliminate the word 'death' from our language. In the vocabulary of martyrdom there is no such word.”

Deprivation as virtue is not a notion limited to Islam. To exemplify the Shi'ite variation, however, here is a hadith from Koleini from Abi Basir:

“A blind man goes to Imam Baqer [the sixth Imam] and asks whether the Imam can perform miracles such as the Koran attributes to Jesus. The Imam touches the blind man on the eyes and his sight is restored to him. ‘Now, would you prefer to remain a seeing man,’ the Imam asks, ‘and be judged on the Day of Judgement like the rest of men or would you rather be blind and go to heaven without judgement?’ The man chooses to revert to blindness.”

By this logic, the deprived, the meek, the innocent, and, most naturally, the very young, precisely because they shall not be judged as harshly as less virtuous others, can be sent off to die much more readily. By another logic, it is not their deprivation, their meekness, or even their youth that deems these men innocent. Their innocence is in their motivation for going to war: not to kill in hatred, but to die in love.

But where do the yearnings and dreams of adolescence end and the unrequitable love of God begin? Oblivious to this lack of distinction, the magazines spell out for us that Love provides the force towards martyrdom while Purification of the Self is the preparation. Articles are regularly run on virtues of purification and means of achieving it. "Islamic Ethics: The Self-Making of Man" (Omid-e Enqelab, # 134) is the title of one such article. It advocates Reason ('aql) as a controlling power over "internal forces" that lead men to selfish and ultimately criminal acts.

'Aql prevents men from seeking momentary gratification and guides them towards decisions of long-term benefit -- i.e. gains in the hereafter. Another article preaches "Patience and Perseverance" (Pasdar-e Islam, # 56): "Patience in the face of difficulty and unfortunate accident is the first order of purification. Patience in delivery of obligation and duty is the second order. But patience in refraining from sin is the highest order of purity."

Often these articles prove forbidding for an outsider on account of the method of their arguments as much as their ideological content. In "Guidance in the Koran: The Necessary Relationship between Man and Religion" (Pasdar-e Islam, # 56), for example, the argument runs something to the effect of the following: "For every being a state of perfection exists which is distinct to it, and for every such state there is a singular path leading to it." “Law” ensures that the individual does not stray from the correct path: "Law is nothing other than pragmatic wisdom,” while "ideology is wisdom in practice." Every ideology has its corresponding Weltanschaaung (jahan-bini) from which follows a "practical and religious wisdom that familiarizes man with God and the Day of Judgement." It concludes: "There is only one religion and one school that guarantees the theoretical and practical perfection of man."

Reading the article carefully I was left with the impression that law, religion, ideology, Weltanschaaung, wisdom, etc., are all in some linear and circular fashion connected to each other and to "Islam," and the whole of the muddy logic originates from one source and that is, one might say, man's Will to Perfection:

“Question: Is it correct that the desire for perfection [meyl be takamol] exists in all beings?

“Ayatollah Motahhari: This is a philosophical principle. Such a desire is an a-priori condition of man.” (E'tesam, #52)

Thus in the "Vocabulary of Martyrdom" we are given "love," "quest for purification," and "desire for perfection" to substitute for "pain, suffering, and poverty" which, according to the teacher who celebrated the martyrdom of his student, constitutes the vocabulary of the slums of Tehran. But the stock phrases that are endlessly repeated in a sampling of Payam-e Shahid seem to strengthen the suspicion that the vocabulary of man-as-martyr is infinitely more limited than the vocabulary of the slums of southern Tehran, rich with humanity as that is.

Furthermore, purification of the self is a problematic issue. It is by definition a never-ending process, a circle out of which Practical Man must break leaving Religious Man behind. In an article titled "With What Motivation Must We Go to the Fronts?" (Pasdar-e Islam, # 56), the conflict is resolved for the reader. We read that it is imperative for "brothers" to know and purify their motivations before they enlist. (Which, among other things, is perhaps an involuntary confirmation of the appeal of cash compensations for the families of martyrs.) The article lays out guidelines for proper soul searching. The conclusion of the piece, however, is most sobering:

“1. Those brothers among us who are on their way to the fronts must be of the conviction that their action is for the sake of God alone, and they must purify their hearts from any other intention and motivation.

“2. If the brothers did not succeed in purifying their hearts to the desired degree, they must not use this excuse to neglect their duties of defending Islam and our Islamic country.”

In other words, not even the quest for purification -- the Will to Perfection -- must interfere with the march towards death. Or as a Persian proverb says: ze har taraf ke shavad koshte naf'e Islam ast -- death from either camp (friend or enemy, "pure" or otherwise) is to the benefit of Islam.

Finally, an editorial in E'tesam # 52, expounding "tajdid-e 'ahd- e tarikhi" (the re-commitment to, the re-engagement with, history), locates the martyr in time and space:

“The appearance of these selfless youth in our times is indeed a wondrous miracle beyond comprehension of reason. A calculating mind might say that these youth merely swim against the current, and superficial eye may confirm this. But history unfolds at the hands of those who free themselves from the trends, habits, and expectations of the times. It is they who accept the mission of rescuing mankind from the grip of its attachments and its subjugating devotions, of material necessities, dictates of society and nature, and other constraints. If all men should abandon themselves to the flow of the dominant current, how shall the evolution of our history be realized...? These youth are qualitatively different from those ignorant and slothful others, mostly inhabiting our cities, who remain forever disconnected from the great stage where history is realized.”

The time is present par excellence: the very moment of realization of history (tahaqqoq-e tarikh). And the place is the battlefronts at hand: the "plains of sorrow," the fields of tulip where the Blood of God is let >>> Images

So it appears that this time around, for the realization of history, God is being murdered in Iran >>> Part 10
[Part (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9) (10) (11) (12) (13) (14) (15) (16) (17)]

Sima Nahan is a writer based in California. She graduated from Reza Shah Kabir high school in Tehran.

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