For all those who have said, “Oh, please! It's all about national interests.”
In this, the land which requires ablution to step upon, you find a war – which ten years after it has been declared finished – still breathes its fiery breath upon the scorched earth.
To go from Ahvaz to Khorramshahr and Abadan on the watery border with Iraq, you hire a driver. You want to take this trip alone, and between the children's school and her husband and brother's prior commitment at the university, your cousin's family is unable to accompany you anyway.
The driver is reticent and only loosens up when you tell him – upon seeing his pack of cigarettes – that he can smoke to his heart's desire. He tells you, not too long after you have left Ahvaz, that the Iraqis came “this close” and he sweeps his arm out in the general direction of huts in the planes, among scarred and debilitated palm trees and you notice what looks like mud brick walls and you 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.
The road between Ahvaz and Khorramshahr is excellent in condition, though the driver explains that much repair had to be done on it after the war to reduce the evidence of shells, bullets and tanks on the road, and the road, going through a few official military checkpoints is quite eerily deserted. At these checkpoints, the young and beautiful soldiers (in Khuzestan, everyone seems to enjoy a sort of violent extraordinary beauty) bend into the car, glance at you curiously, and your hearty and non-accented “Salaam alaikom, khasteh nabasheed” (“Hello, may you not be tired”) identifies you as Iranian and puts their minds to rest.
Foreigners are not very welcome in what the driver, Mr. Bonakdar, calls “still a war zone.” You used to imagine the reluctance to allow foreigners has to do with sensitivity to spying, but what you find in the strange moonscape beyond the checkpoint convinces you that there is something frightening and pure and untouchable beyond there that not even your cynicism can tarnish, something which the presence of a foreigner would or could belittle. You have heard of veterans coming back to the battlefield and shedding their shoes in respect to this vast temple of blood and death that this area has become.
On the road 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 railways running parallel to the road, reassuringly constant in its distance. Mr. Bonakdar tells you that the Iraqis had disassembled the railways and stood the rails on their end to thwart the landing of Iranian parachutists.
This vast desert, you know, used to bear plants and fruits, feed nomadic Arab tribes and be adorned with glorious proud palm groves. But there is nothing now. There's scorched thirsty brown earth (only a few dozen miles to the north the land is so green and lush that you had joked that it reminded you of English pastures), 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 you are told that these hills are also trenches, and that during the war the Iraqis were based on the right side of the road and on the left, the Iranians.
The land is uneven and you can see deep furrows the width of tank tracks running along erratic and vaguely defined patterns on the planes. On this land so strangely devoid of trees, you occasionally see a rectangle of land protected by barbed wire with a rusted military signs warning against trespass, seemingly devoid of anything important, until you are told that these tracts of land still contain mines and unexploded bombs.
Still, closer to Ahvaz, you had seen small boys shepherding goats and cows, and you had seen an old man in traditional Arab dress pissing on the train tracks, having crossed the bare skin of the land, and you had learned that just last month, two young brothers, both born after the end of the war, were playing in a harmless field in Khorramshahr and had been torn to bits by a hidden and previously unexploded bomb.
The silence, the barrenness of the land makes you ache. You have a particular fondness for palm groves and finding what had been a fertile land so stripped of its green skin is a quite humbling testament to all else that was lost in this absolutely pointless war, after which borders remained exactly where they had been and the only difference was the hundreds of thousands of fresh graves on both sides, upon which every Friday, mothers and fathers and wives and children were to pour water and grieve. And some had died and never made it to cemeteries; they had been buried here on this very land , their flesh and blood seeping into this silence, into this heavy sorrowful womb.
On occasion, you 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 boards bearing quotes from the Prophet and the Imams and from Ayatollah Khomeini. These are not the usual warlike rancorous slogans; they are heavy and sad and sorrowful like the land upon which they sit.
The closer you come to Khorramshahr, these rusted leftovers of carnage increase in number and suddenly you are in a city that was laid to utter waste when captured by Iraq; whose original 19th century name, Mohammareh (the Red City) suddenly became a reality in bloody irony after its inhabitants – any who hadn't become refugees elsewhere – were massacred and for which several bloody battles were fought.
Here in this city which suffered so tangibly from willful destruction, it is difficult to think of death and injuries as “casualties” or even worse as “collateral damage.” The war is still so intensely present that you can't even begin to imagine how traumatic it must have been to have U.S. missiles intended for Iraq falling into the center of the city in the middle of the quiet peaceful night as they did in Abadan and Khorramshahr during recent U.S. bombings of Iraq. These cities are only apart by 10-20 kilometers but are in completely different conditions.
Khorramshahr was pretty much razed to the ground when captured by the Iraqis, whereas Abadan never fell, but bore heavy damage nevertheless and the character of the cities bear witness to this difference. That Abadan is also site to what was once the largest oil refinery in the world – restored again to its pungent grimy glory – also favors this city. Khorramshahr has been built anew. There are streets still with the cadaver of a house among newly built houses and there are headless palm trees, pathetic in their loneliness scattered among the uncleared rubble. Or is this “rubble” piles of brick and cement intended for construction?
The city bears the mark of incompletion, and you don't know whether it's because everything has been disassembled or because it is being reconstructed. The city looks and feels poor, but is alive, stubbornly so. There are children playing football in the streets, there are peddlers selling their ware, shops selling spare parts, kababis selling their ubiquitous food. Life seems to go on relentlessly bolstered by a willed forgetfulness, a need for survival disturbed only by nightmares or visits to the cemetery.
In Khorramshahr, every city square is green with verdure, enormous amounts of replanting – particularly of palm and eucalyptus trees- is going on and poppies and marigolds have an unexpected poignant charm growing from the rusted skeleton of Iraqi tanks around some of the squares. Because so much of the city had to be built from ground up, the contrast to Abadan is more startling.
Abadan was never under Iraqi occupation, but sitting so close to the border (one can see the Iraqi land across the wide muddy and calm Arvand River or Shatt-al-Arab), it was the target of relentless bullets, mortars and missiles. The marked contrast between newly built buildings and restored buildings are mapped by the mystical cartography of missile shards and bullets upon the walls of older buildings and the gleaming smoothness of the facade of new buildings. The corrugated metal walls surrounding the National Iranian Oil Company's refinery are all a puzzle-work of holes with burnt edges, forceful reminder of wars that never end.
But here also, life goes on; there are skeletons of warships in Arvand River rusting in the mud, not too far from a harbor of fishing, trading, and smuggling boats, some of the latter are in the beautiful ancient form of old jamazehs and lenjes, rich in their wooden color and curved lines, with old Arab men of leathery skin, white stubble and Kafieh working on or below deck.
In front of this very harbor is the courts building and under the sun, old letter-writers and legal aides are sitting on folding chairs in front of antiquated type-writers, preparing the public's legal documents between deep drags on perpetual cigarettes. All the new buildings in the city seem to be gleaming white, including the new glorious Armenian church, a concession to the blazing sun perhaps, but also an unconscious testament to newness, to having remained defiant, injured but stubbornly alive.
The city is financially better off than the poverty-ridden Khorramshahr, and it teems with stylish Abadani women who are prized and envied and reviled for their warmth and beauty and open celebration of their sexuality, something spoken of in code, but apparent from their every move and gesture.
The city is recovering, but like Khorramshahr, the war is right around the corner, whether because of numerous watch-towers along or the river or because of all the hospitals which are 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, only rumored, to bed military victims of Iraqi chemical attacks, but for whatever reason, 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 thus perhaps the highly paranoid guarding of the hospitals.
On the way back to Ahvaz via another road further away from the Iraqi border, you are struck again by the extent of the destruction around Khorramshahr and the blessing of Abadan for having relatively escaped the wrath of wars and warriors. The palm groves survive lustrously, though with startling holes gaping in their midst, marking the bullseye of a mortar or missile. Whereas the road to Khorramshahr runs parallel to the railway, the road from Abadan has the oil and gas pipelines as its constant companion, the black blood surging through unabated, indifferent to its own quality as the instigator of wars, as the very instrument of death, destruction and corruption.