I recently published a book, Goodbye Iran which is the true story of two young men, Hossein and Hamid, and a young woman, Afsaneh, who in 1983 decide to escape from the repressive and institutionalized land of their birth in search of a better life. The book follows them on their real-life journey, full of difficult decisions, intense joys, and bitter disappointments as they set sail to say goodbye to Iran forever. I would like to invite you to visit the book’s website, Goodbye-Iran.com or on Facebook.com/GoodbyeIran.
Chapter one: The Truth
Jamshidieh, like many other military bases in Tehran, was a training ground where new draftees lived round the clock during the workweek, receiving passes to go home only on weekends. In Iran, the work week began on Saturday. The weekend consisted of just Thursday evening and Friday. Draftees left the training bases on Thursday afternoon to go home and spend time with their families. They were, without fail, to report to the base promptly, early Saturday morning.
Hamid lived with his parents in Narmak, a suburb of Tehran. Obedient and punctual, Hamid reported to the base each Saturday morning and attended all the courses and training sessions required of him. However, beneath his apparent conscientiousness, he could think of nothing other than finding a way to escape from the military.
The military machinery of Iran at the time would not allow anyone to leave. Those attempting to escape were tried in military courts and received various uncompromising punishments, inclusive of execution. Leaving the military and abandoning your duties was not only illegal, but also a crime against the Islamic laws of the country, a new set of rules that were enacted after the fall of Shah. The country needed every soldier they could get, and simply would not tolerate any attempt at escape.
New soldiers received only the briefest of formal training, limited to just several weeks of learning how to handle weapons such as machine guns, how to set bombs, and how to neutralize explosives. Training also involved strenuous physical and endurance exercises. Men were taught to be machines, stripped of whom they were to their families and friends—personality and emotions replaced by a weaponized human. The war zone was on the Iran-Iraq border, and all soldiers, including Hamid, eventually went there.
One Saturday, Hamid woke at four in the morning to his alarm clock. Another restless night had passed, another fleeting weekend with his family over, and it was time for him to get ready to go back to his military base.
The thought painfully tugged at his insides. Reluctantly, he got himself up and sat on the edge of his bed for a while, thinking about the past, his family, his friends, and even daring to consider what may lie ahead for him in the next few months.
I am not ready to go to war. I am not made to kill anyone. I am not willing to die. Hamid repeated the mantra in his head over and over.
He knew thoughts of this nature would not help his situation, but he could not stop himself from thinking such things. Nevertheless, after a few minutes, he released a heavy sigh and forced his legs to transport him to the full-length mirror attached to his closet door. For a long while, he just stared at the man who stood before him. Who was he now? Who is Hamid? A soldier? No. No, of course not. The Iranian war machine was doing its best to mold him into a cold and detached warrior, but it could not take away the fact that he was peaceful, compassionate, and empathetic. He was not an animal whose sole purpose was to survive as the strongest member of the pack, no matter what the cost. He could not justify killing another innocent human being. Yet Hamid had no choice. He opened the closet door, took out his military outfit, and dressed himself in the uniform that signified something he just did not believe in.
Almost robotically, Hamid walked to the bathroom, washed his face, brushed his teeth, and shaved. He dried his hands and face, took a deep breath, and went downstairs to join his parents for breakfast. He had until he reached the kitchen to compose himself, to appear strong and fearless in front of his parents.
Mom and dad were already up. They had prepared breakfast for their brave young soldier. Hamid’s older brother, Mahmood, joined them too. The family greeted each other and sat on the floor, the traditional way of enjoying mealtime in Iran. Hamid, however, was not hungry.
Nasrin, Hamid’s mother, chose to quietly read the Quran, as she did every morning, praying in her heart for her son’s well-being and for the war to end. Her thought was simple—the end of the war meant her son would live.
Mom, I love you. Thank you for all you have done for me, repeated Hamid in his heart before succumbing to another uninvited thought: I cannot leave you Mom. I am not ready to die Mom.
Hamid tried very hard to resist such thoughts, the worst ones, the idea of how his mother would suffer and how hard she would cry for him if he were to die at war, but they refused to go away, rising from his subconscious with growing intensity until he caved in and acknowledged them. He shook his head in a vain effort to eliminate the troubling thoughts once more. Instead, he assumed a false smile of courage and told his mother how much he loved to share the mealtime with her. With his eyes, Hamid was following her every move, as she arose to get him tea, as she gently walked to and from the kitchen, as she bowed her head praying and reading from the Quran. He glanced at the clock; time was flying by.As Hamid was leaving, at the door Nasrin held his face with both hands, kissed him on his cheeks, hugged him, said her farewells and prayers, and wished him a wonderful week. She would never know how hard it was for Hamid to get through those moments without releasing the hot tears that threatened to cascade down his cheeks.
“Before you know, Hamid, it will be Thursday again, and you will be home,” said his mother. “Would you like me to invite Hossein and your aunt Parvin for dinner?”
Hamid nodded his head in agreement. The lump in his throat was still wedged firmly in place and prevented him from speaking. He tried to force himself to cheer up—the dinner plans would give him something positive to focus on over the coming week. Mahmood and then Haj Agha, their father, took their turns to hug and kiss him, and all of them waved as he walked away from the comfort and familiarity of his home. The streets were still quiet, and the sky broodingly dark.
“Goodbye, Hamid. We will see you soon, my love,” said his father.
Haj Agha was an honorary title that Hamid’s dad had acquired several years ago after his religious pilgrimages to Mecca. Despite what he said, however, deep down Hamid’s father was very upset. He had always wanted his son to study at the university, but those dreams evaporated the instant he discovered Hamid had not passed Konkoor, Iran’s national university-entrance examination. He had tried very hard not to reveal his bitter disappointment in front of his son, but whether he had succeeded, he was unsure. The three watched Hamid walking away from home, and when he was out of sight, they closed the door and went back inside the house.
In the quiet of early-morning Tehran, Hamid ambled lethargically to the bus station. His bus arrived soon after he did. The driver waived the fare for him, one of the few advantages that came with wearing a military uniform, and welcomed him warmly onto the bus.
“We are proud of you, son,” said the driver. “The country is proud of you. Without you, we could not fight against that bastard, Saddam Hussein.” The driver pulled his window down and started spitting out of the window with great anger, as if he were actually spitting on Saddam Hussein’s face. “The bastard, Saddam Hussein!” Hamid was transfixed. The bus driver was almost beside himself with fury. After several more expletives, the driver calmed himself and said, “Take a seat, my son.”
Hamid walked back to take a seat as far away from the driver as he could. He was in no mood to have a conversation with him. The early-morning bus was almost empty, and Hamid wrapped himself in isolation and gazed out the window.
Eventually, the bus moved away from the station and set off along its scheduled route. As it chugged dutifully down the road, Hamid silently immersed himself in his thoughts.
Is there any way that I can get out of this whole mess? thought Hamid. I am not made for this. I was not born to be a soldier. I hate war. I cannot bear arms. I do not want to go and fight. Even if I am not killed, I do not want to kill anyone.
More, and more troubling, thoughts came unbidden from his subconscious, gushing and surging to the surface of his mind. What for? What does it all mean? Why should I kill another human being, an Iraqi soldier, who is probably someone like me, someone who did not choose to go to war? I am sure that he also, like me, has a family, a loving mother, a father, and a brother. He may even be married with kids. How can I kill him and have his death on my conscience? Why are our countries even at war? Why cannot we make peace? How long will this go on? What do I do now? How can I get out of this?
They were thoughts he had many times on the long bus rides between his home and the military base, but this morning they felt different, this torrent of familiar thoughts, spilling out with a sense of urgency that he could not ignore. Typically, he used the ride back to the base as a time to brainstorm, and as the weeks rolled by, he began increasingly to think about, and consider a way out or an escape from the military. This unspooling of his imagination started as whimsical notions, and over time developed into plausible ideas, and this morning rapidly evolved into a convincing plan.
Maybe I can act as if I am sick, thought Hamid. I could pretend to be deaf, or blind in one eye. Can they figure that out? Can they detect that I am lying? Maybe I should act as if one of my legs is paralyzed? Is this legal? What if they discover that I am lying? What are the penalties? Maybe I should ask Hossein. He is a doctor! Yes, that is a good idea. I am sure he will tell me what to do. He is smart.
Hamid embraced this plan, and finally felt as if he may have found a way out, and to an extent, this was already true, for the idea brought him some peace. Deep in his heart he was relieved, at least temporarily.
Mom said that Hossein will be coming over next weekend, Hamid said to himself. I will ask him. I can trust him. I am sure that he will give me some answers and perhaps some inventive ideas.
The bus stopped across from the main entrance to Hamid’s military base.
“Jamshidieh Military Base – Death to Saddam Hussein,” announced the bus driver in an authoritative voice that tore through Hamid’s reverie and snapped him back to reality. Hamid got up, walked down the aisle, and exited through the rear door of the bus, purposefully avoiding the face of the driver. Almost involuntarily, he crossed the street, paused at the gate to show his ID card, and entered the base. He was in autopilot mode. The air was fresh, and the street noise was vanishing behind him as he approached his dormitory to meet with other soldiers.
Days were long at the base. He was there with hundreds of other new soldiers who, mostly like Hamid, did not pass the Konkoor and so had to do their mandatory two years of military service. He looked at his young comrades and knew that in eight weeks they would all be at the front, with rifles in their hands and high expectations of being able to fight Iraqis. He also was acutely aware of the statistics that hung faintly but constantly in the air that enveloped him and his fellow draftees, like a smell that would not go away: within a year, 80 to 90 percent of them would be either dead or severely disabled by war injuries. Hamid blinked. Why was his mind torturing him? He did not want to think about death, and he did not want to think that most of these kids would not return to their homes and families. No, he could not prevent himself from contemplating who among them would survive and who would die. His eyes trailed from one face to the next, and fleetingly past a small mirror hanging on the back wall. His heart sank.
The official training day at the base ended at five in the afternoon, when soldiers were free to go to their dormitory or simply hang out on the premises until dinnertime.
At night, long after the sun had set; groups of soldiers would gather around someone’s bed and engage in friendly chitchat. This was a time for them to get to know each other, learn where each of them was from, what their parents did, or even what plans they had for their lives. It was a time to make new friends, and during one such occasion Hamid found that he had a friend in Ali, another draftee who was also eighteen. Ali was a recent graduate of a high school in a wealthy neighborhood of Tehran. The two young men had clicked instantly, quickly becoming very good friends, but each had his own unique set of beliefs.
Ali had decided to go to war and fight for his country; even if he not been forced to the frontlines, this would have been his choice. He hated Saddam Hussein almost as much as he hated the idea of Iraqis invading his country. Ali was not afraid of war. He did not think about dying at all. He was determined to fight the enemy.
“Hamid, are you afraid of dying?” asked Ali.
“Do you want to hear the truth, or a formal answer we all give to the sergeant?” asked Hamid.
“Of course the truth, Hamid,” said Ali.
“I am very scared,” replied Hamid gravely. “I know that you are brave, and determined to go to war. You are fearless, but I am not. I just cannot do it. Why should I go and kill another human being? What for?”
And so began another of the nightly conversations that would continue among the newly drafted soldiers until those hushed post-dusk discussions were no longer an option, and their tired bodies eventually fell asleep.
Subscribe to The Iranian newsletter
Sign up for our daily newsletter to get the top news stories delivered to your inbox.