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Between heaven and hell
Letter from Seville

December 3, 2004

The nightmares began after we were safely out of Baghdad. For the first few nights after our return to the relative safety of Tehran, we both found ourselves waking up at various points in the middle of the night, trying to shake off images of car bombs and kidnappings.

In one recurring dream, I was sitting behind the wheel of a truck, sweating and reciting verses from the Koran as I prepared to hit a remote control. Mostly, though, I just woke up over and over again with the feeling of being hunted and watched.

We had crossed the hilly Iraqi border by land into Iran in early November. Iraq has become so frightening that I actually felt relieved to the see the Iranian Revolutionary Guards standing at the border. I actually smiled as we were scrutinized by Iranian officers of various security apparatuses at checkpoints. Believe it or not, Iranian checkpoints are a pleasure after you've been in Iraq, where men in uniform are sometimes working hand in hand with the same violent groups who cut throats on television.

The Kermanshah Airport gleamed in the heavenly sunset, and after a smooth hour-long flight we found ourselves in the bustle of Tehran. Again a sense of profound relief descended as we waded into the horrendous traffic jams and smog of the Iranian capital toward home.

With its schizophrenic cultural intricacies, Iran's quirks once puzzled and amused me. "Look at how short that girl is wearing her skirt! Look at how much hair she's showing beneath her scarf! Is that couple holding hands married? Is that mullah really reading Beckett?"

Quickly, I began seeing these things from the perspective of Iranians living there, and the place became deeply depressing, one of many developing countries slogging through economic, political and cultural stagnation.

After Iraq, however, I see Iran with completely new eyes, as a bulwark of stability and security if not progress; not bad for this part of the world.

We arrived home after fighting through Tehran's traffic. Friends called to invite us to dinner. But I quickly passed out from sheer exhaustion, fighting through the horrible images that kept waking me up.

The next day I went to the gym with my Dutch friend. I kept reminding myself that it's okay to speak English out loud in Iran, that it's actually a point of pride instead of profoundly dangerous to be seen here with an obvious Westerner.

We quickly departed Tehran for a super luxurious five-star hotel and spa in Dubai, en route to a long-planned vacation. For the umpteenth time I donned white fluffy sandals and bathrobes and tried to coax my body and mind back to normalcy after weeks of physical and mental abuse.

I've come to the realization that my life veers between unimaginably terrifying war zones where I work and the unimaginably luxurious resorts where I recover from work, and that this kind of lifestyle may augur an unhealthy view of humanity. We agreed that maybe for our holidays we should go somewhere normal: Spain, where we can mingle with locals, munch on tapas and forget about Iraq.

But the stink of Iraq won't wash away that easily; it continues to taint everything, even in jovial fun-loving Spain.

In Barcelona, I couldn't help but think of the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939. Back then, foreign leftists from America and France came to the aid of the Spanish republicans against the German-backed nationalists, just as foreign Jihadis from Syria and Saudi Arabia come to the aid of Iraqi insurgents against the U.S.-backed interim government. 

The war ripped Spain apart, and foreshadowed the larger conflict between the Axis and Allied countries in World War II.

Only 40 years later, when all the major players had died naturally or been snuffed out in torture chambers, did Spain begin to recover, becoming a place that prefers to live for the moment rather than linger on the past.

In Granada, we wander through La Alhambra, the magnificent 13th century palace built by southern Spain's Islamic rulers before it was taken over by Christian warriors, who reconquered the Iberian peninsula by 1492.

Originally the Christians came as liberators and vowed to let the Muslims practice their faith and remain in Spain. Eventually, however, the Spanish monarchs revived the inquisition, destroyed all the mosques and forced Muslims to convert, leave Spain or die.

In Rondo, where Hemingway immortalized bull-fighting, we watched along as the nation took a break from its non-stop partying to watch its former president, Jose Maria Aznar sit before a parliamentary commission and explain his actions in the wake of the Madrid terrorist attacks of March 11, 2004.

The subway bombings caused his party to lose the presidential elections and his country to pull its troops out of Iraq. Perhaps Spain -- with its long history of civilizational and civil wars -- simply decided it didn't have the stomach for more of the same.

Only now, amid the labyrinthine alleyways of Seville, listening to Flamenco music and spending my grossly devalued dollars on good food and new clothes, do I finally feel like I'm on a holiday, that I'm far away from the streets of Baghdad and an ever-expanding war that often seems to be devouring everything in its way.

Borzou Daragahi is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in major newspapers, including
The New York Times. He sends out occasional letters like this one to friends and family. You can subscribe by sending a blank email to

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