Tulips and poppies
Part 5: Returning to Iran: 1986-87
March 30, 2006
Behesht-e Zahra (Paradise of Zahra) is the name of a huge cemetery outside of Tehran, on the highway to Qom. Conceived and partially constructed before the revolution, it is being rapidly filled, while not yet quite finished, as if testifying to the fulfillment of a grotesque prophecy. Entering the grounds very early on a summer morning, having left home at dawn in order to avoid the mad traffic of downtown Tehran and the scorching sun of midday in the desert, we are relieved by a gentle breeze drifting our way from a generous stream of fresh water running through the main boulevard.
A row of fountains spout into the hot air enormous volumes of precious water that is piped, untapped, across vast arid plains that produce not much more than basketfuls of scrawny eggplants sold by barefoot children on the side of the road. The cemetery is divided into lots. There are designated areas for common folk dead of common causes, for martyrs of the revolution (those killed on the streets in 1978-79), martyrs of war, and even executed political prisoners.
Visiting the cemetery is considered virtuous in Iran. It is customary for large family groups to spend whole days at the gravesite of a departed relative. Women are left alone to wail, or to pull their veils over their faces and cry in silence. Men, laying a hand lightly on a tombstone, may recite a fateheh, or drift off quietly talking among themselves, while children run around and play. Trees and shrubbery are therefore essential for people to take refuge in their shade˜to eat their lunch, or to take naps.
The area of Behesht-e Zahra containing the common dead is developing into an oasis. With greater or lesser degrees of gardening attention these lots are planted with greenery and flowers. In some parts, luscious flower–ing plants bloom in defiance of the unrelenting sun, while in others overgrown weeds and nondescript wild plants cover neglected tombs. Throughout, however, water faucets are plentifully provided and visitors fetch water to wash off the dust from their relatives' gravestones. The dead and the living alike partake of the cool water that is almost miraculous in its ubiquity in the heart of the desert.
At the epicenter of the area designated to the martyrs is the by now famous Fountain of Blood. This is a multi-layered cement con–struction with a single fountain in the center of the uppermost level which is the smallest in diameter. The fountain oozes a red liquid that falls in thin ripples from each level to the one beneath it. The liquid is thin and not quite as deeply red as blood, and the structure is most disturbing when the fountain is turned off: the cement platforms bring to mind the permanently stained floor of a slaughterhouse. It is difficult to assess the impact of the site by the look in the eyes of the passersby. Faces show nothing.
The fountain of blood is a symbol without an agreed-upon referent. It is erected as a tribute to the legacy and legitimacy of martyrdom, but it represents, more readily, the human cost of the legacy of the Islamic Republic. Mourners and visitors stay clear of it for the most part, now that its unsightly novelty has worn off. Children avoid it in favor of the water faucets installed on the periphery of the fountain area, hovering over the gushing water and washing their hands and faces tens of times over.
To drive the point home, however, the Islamic Republic brings the fountain of blood to families individually. I have heard that a miniature replica of the fountain is sent to stand by the door of the house of a recent martyr˜but they seem to quickly disappear from there. Traditional hejlehs, on the other hand, are everywhere in sight throughout the cities. Lit by gas-burning lamps, these are chandelier-like structures symbolizing the wedding chamber ("hejleh") of a departed unmarried youth. Standing in street corners and deco–rated with glass and crystal tulip-shaped candleholders, they display a flower-strewn framed photograph of the dead young man. At night, the light trapped in the cuts of crystal gives off a melan–choly glow around which the friends of the deceased gather in their black shirts. The hejleh stands for forty days and nights.
At Behesht-e Zahra hejlehs are brought to mind by the glass encasements that are raised on metal stakes on the graves of many martyrs. These are the families' private contributions to the otherwise offi–cially laid-out landscape of the Martyrs' Lot. They may contain childhood photographs, a poem or two, letters or other memorabilia, a copy of the Koran, and plastic flowers. The permanence of these simplified forms of hejleh call for artificial flowers, since the contents of these sealed-off glass shrines are not easily acces–sible.
While hejlehs are posthumous celebrations of male virginity, tulips are symbols of martyrdom. A red tulip is the flower par excellence that springs from the earth where innocent blood is shed. The Islamic Republic adopted this symbol early on and displays it per–vasively. It is printed on stamps and posters commemorating the revolution. In crude sculptures it stands in front of government buildings and in town squares. It is donated in one form or another to families of martyrs, and, of course, it "springs up" in any cemetery.
Entering a small town in Gilan, travelers are greeted by a floating banner that declares: "The tree of Islam grows on blood." The town square is encircled by a metal fence in the shape of enjoining long-stemmed tulips on which are posted photo–graphs of the young men of the town whose blood was offered to the tree of Islam. In the Qat'e-ye Shohada (Martyrs' Lot) of the local cemetery, overgrown with the semi-tropical greenery of Gilan, the huge, brightly painted red tulip memorials erected on individual graves give off a hollow metallic ring when awe-stricken and dazed children bump into them.
Deeply ingrained in Persian poetic consciousness, the most conven–tional representation of this symbol is literary. The laleh is as likely to appear in canonical texts as in folklore, and most recently it has come to permeate the lyric utterances of revolutionary fervor. The title of a multiply printed but short lived collection of poetry which appeared soon after the revolution, "Tulips of Shahrivar" is an allusion to the massacre of "Black Friday"˜Friday the 17th of Shahrivar, 1357; Sept. 8, 1978˜when the troops opened fire into the demonstrating crowd at Jaleh Square. "Tulips rising from the blood of the country's youth" is a favorite cliché phrase of the Islamic Republic. And as in a monthly publication of the Revolution–ary Guards Corps, "Payam-e Enqelab" (# 193), in a poem titled "Behesht-e Zahra," the metaphor is frequently developed:
"For the blooming of a single tulip,
The flower of joy withered in the gardener's heart.
The bed of tulips springing in this plain of sorrow
Must be called the stream of the Blood of God."
But in the burial ground of the political prisoners at Behesht-e Zahra, neither water nor flower is permitted. This lot lies on the outskirts of the cemetery. Driving on the wide, paved road surrounding the area˜while taking care not to slow down conspicuously˜visitors can observe shattered tombstones, broken glass, and upturned earth. Bodies are buried here anonymously, and should the family of an executed prison–er find out the location of a grave and place a stone over it, it is promptly crushed by the authorities.
Some families of executed prisoners designate an approximate location by a secret landmark, while others who dare to visit the lot grieve over any and all of the undistinguished graves. Very infrequently a particularly brave family might leaves flowers behind, introducing a temporary speck of color in the wasteland landscape.
Recently executed prisoners, however, may be buried in the areas allotted to the non-political dead. These graves, no longer anon–ymous, are dispersed throughout the new lots in order to minimize the possibility of a politically motivated congregation. By matching the inscribed burial date on the grave of a friend's executed husband we could pick out a few other such carefully tucked away graves in the lot. Prisoners are executed in planned-in-advance batches. But even without knowledge of a particular burial date it is possible for an acute observer to pick out these graves: the stones are plain, bearing no words of lamentation or poetry, and the dates of birth fall within the last two or three decades.
A friend whose husband was executed a couple of years ago told me that she felt lucky to have a place to visit. She takes the bus to the cemetery after work every Thursday evening, bringing flowers and pouring fresh water over the sun-baked stone of her husband's grave. She also goes to make sure that the stone on which in defiance of the authorities she has had a red poppy engraved remains intact. Keeping an eye out for visitors of other execution graves, she often spends her evening in their com–pany, camouflaged in the heavy traffic of weekend common visitors >>> Images
Khayyam is not a poet typically quoted on tombstones. In his dahri world view death is too material, too final, and utterly devoid of tribute to the individuality of any human to be of consolation to most people at the time of the death of a loved one. But leaving the cemetery I was surprised to chance upon a single Khayyam line on a neglected stone somewhere on the margins of the lot dedicated to the martyrs of the revolution:
Beware not to reveal this secret:
A withered tulip will not bloom again.
>>> Part 6
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Sima Nahan is a writer based in California. She graduated from Reza Shah Kabir high school in Tehran.