June 18, 1999
For all those who have said, "Oh, please! It's all about national
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
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
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