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Tulips from the blood of martyrs
Excerpt from "A Path to Isfahan: Iran with My Two Sons"


Diane Tober
January 27, 2006

Written on martyrdom in Iran, but more generally about the senselessness of war. I'm an anthropologist and specialist on Iran, and lived there in 2002 with my two sons. I am currently writing a book, A Path to Isfahan: Iran with My Two Sons, from which this chapter is an excerpt.

Love, like the tulip, has one brand at heart,
And on its bosom wears a single rose;
And so my solitary rose I pin
Upon your turban, and cry havoc loud
Against your drunken slumber, hoping yet
Tulips may blossom from your earth anew
Breathing the fragrance of the breeze of Spring.
--Mohammad Ighbal

It was the Week of the Sacred Defense, when the entire nation is in a state of mourning over the nine-year war with Iraq.  The week presents a paradox: on the one hand the celebration of resistance against Iraqi invasion and the glorification of the military; on the other hand, remembrance over those lost in the war. Though estimates vary, between 300,000 to over a million lives were lost, most of them were young men, or unwitting victims sitting, sleeping, eating, or trying to escape their homes as bombs fell. Thirteen years after the Iran-Iraq war, the summer of 2002 was coming to a close.

I took a long hike up to the top of Isfahan's mountain, Koo-ye Soffeh, to visit a monument of unmarked graves. At the top there were about twelve coffins arranged in a circle, like a clock without hands. In the middle of the circle stood a tall pole. Whipping in the wind at the top was the flag of Iran, with the name of Allah written in the center in the stylized form of a red tulip. Below it were several green flags that had been tattered by the wind and faded by the sun. The sun was setting behind the mountain and the last few rays left a faint shadow across one of the graves, resembling a sundial. "What does time mean to the dead, or to those who are left behind?" I wondered. 

On ordinary evening strolls up the mountain it is common to find people there, particularly older women, praying and having a small, somber picnic, next to a coffin draped in green cloth. In the Qur'an it says green is the color of life, fertility, and renewal of the earth (18:31). Paradise is said to be filled with green and its inhabitants wear green garments of fine silk (Ibid.).

Tonight there were more women, sharing -- or competing for? -- an empty space alongside the concrete coffins. These unidentified remains could belong to anyone's son, brother, father, or husband. I wondered about the silent conversations these women must be having with the symbolic loved one lying next to them and the real loved one, whose face she can no longer see or touch, who time had left behind.

One woman of about thirty-five, partially concealed by the blackness of her chador, got up to leave. Her chador billowed by the wind like a violent, whipping sail. At first it seemed the wind would rip off her covering and carry it away. As she tightly gripped the cloth beneath her chin, the wind seemed to have a change of heart, and wrapped the fabric tightly around her form, revealing the outline of her hips and legs. With her other hand, she was gripping a small bouquet of yellow tulips, which she left behind on one of the graves. Yellow tulips -- a flower symbolizing hopeless love, with no possibility of union.

They reminded me of the tulips I had planted back home, in cheery innocence, and how they seemed to keep popping up every spring.

I asked her for whom she left the flowers.

"My husband died in the war," she said.

"I'm so sorry," I replied. "How long were you married?"

"I never married. I never had the chance."


Tulips have always been my favorite flower. As a little girl I would sit with my crayons and a piece of paper and draw a garden of tulips, yellow, pink and red. Behind the garden I drew a simple house, with green grass and a large green tree in the background. I also always drew a bright, yellow sun shining down from above. The tulip was a simple, happy flower.

I liked tulips so much that when I was an adult I planted some bulbs in my garden, outside my rundown rented house with the chipped, faded, yellow paint, and waited eagerly for them to emerge from the ground, transformed into sprouts and then flowers. I've never removed the bulbs and frozen them like you're supposed to do when growing them in warm climates; yet somehow, they kept reappearing every spring. Seeing the tulips in my garden made my home look a little more like the home of my childhood daydreams. Yet when their vibrant flowers faded like the paint, and their dagger-like green leaves turned a dried, wrinkled brown, and succumbed to the soil, I looked back with a sad nostalgia to the flowers they once were. I consoled myself by looking forward to the following spring.

Tulips originated in what was once Persia, where they still grow wild. Their name comes from Turkish and Persian words for turban, tulepan and dulband, after the turban-like shape of the flower. Tulips fill the pages of Persian poetry, literature, and folklore. In today's Iran, this simple flower is pregnant with complex meanings, and a lengthy literary history.

There is an old epic story in Iran based on a love triangle between the Sassanid ruler, King Khosrow II (590-628 a.d.), his wife Shirin, a Christian Queen of Armenia, and Farhad, a master builder. The story takes place when Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion of the Persian Empire, before Islam takes hold. This tale existed in oral form, in various renditions throughout the region. In 1175, Nezami Ganjavi (1141-1209 a.d.), a poet from the area that is now Azerbaijan, put his version of the tale of Khosrow and Shirin to paper.

In the legend Farhad falls intensely in love with Shirin. Shirin, feeling neglected by her husband for some time, begins to return Farhad's affection. Khosrow hears of this and becomes outraged that the young man would dare try to seduce his wife. Khosrow wants to rid himself of the rival for his wife's affection, and decides to commission Farhad to perform an impossible task: to carve a deep crevice in the nearby mountain in order to bring water to the village (in some versions of the story it is milk). Khosrow vows to offer Farhad Shirin's hand in marriage if he accomplishes the task. Farhad sets off with nothing but a pick axe.

For years, Farhad chips away at the mountain, and with every stroke he calls out the name of his Beloved, Shirin. When Khosrow finds out that Farhad has miraculously completed the task (fortified by the depth of his love for Shirin) he is furious. Rather than keeping his promise and allowing Farhad and Shirin to marry, he sends word to Farhad that Shirin is dead. In frenzied desperation Farhad throws his axe up to the sky, intending to commit the ultimate sacrifice for love. The axe falls down, gashing him in the head, killing him. From each drop of his blood that spills on the ground grows a red tulip.

The tulip appears in another story, when Shi'a and Sunni Islam were violently divided -- the Battle of Kerbala. Imam Hossein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, took his family and troops to Basra, Iraq, having been invited to take his rightful position as Caliph. Little did he know, he was falling in to a trap. The current caliph, Yazid, had no intention of giving up his position, neither voluntarily nor by force. He commissioned his men to kill Hossein's supporters in Basra and lay in wait for Hossein and his troops on their way back, through Kerbala, after finding the city devastated. Though Hossein heard of the news, and knew of the fate that lay ahead for himself and his troops, he proceeded anyway. Hossein's caravan was severely outnumbered. After days of drawn out battle, his men fell, their blood and limbs scattered across the ground. During the final battle at Kerbala, one of Yazid's men slashed Hossein's head from his body to be delivered to Yazid. Hossien's blood spilled in the desert, leaving behind a field of red tulips.

They now say red tulips grow from the ground from the blood of martyrs. Some even say that a red tulip will grow from a martyr's grave -- like the tulips in the Kerbala desert from the blood of Hossein -- a sign of his selfless love for God and his country.


The Week of the Sacred Defense corresponded with Imam Ali's birthday, nephew and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad. While this week was a cause for both celebration and mourning, Ali's birthday was an occasion for celebration. The mood in the streets was almost schizophrenic, fluctuating between somber remembrance and light-hearted picnicking. On occasions such as this, admitting we're American, offered a mixed bag of reactions: some express that "America is very, very good"; others, simply reply that they like American people but have problems with the American government. School was about to start the following week, so I took my boys, Hunter and Tucker, out for sight-seeing around Isfahan. I knew almost every Isfahani family would be spending the days and nights out in the parks picnicking during the holiday and the last week of summer vacation.

We approached the park down a path along the river, the Zayendeh Roud. We walked from Pol-e Khajoo to Si-o-Seh Pol, two famous ancient bridges built during the reign of Shah Abbas (1571-1629), when Isfahan was the capital of Safavid Persia. Across the river, soldiers were constructing tents, cleaning tanks, and readying war paraphernalia for exhibits, nemayeshgah. The boys asked:

"Mommy, what are they doing? What are the tanks for?"

I couldn't answer their questions, so I asked a woman sitting with her family under a tree along our path why there were tanks across the street.

"Please, befarmayiid, sit down and have some tea," she said, patting the space on the blanket next to her. We accepted her invitation to sit down on their blanket and share tea with them, alongside the river's shore.

The woman, Amineh, was in her mid-30s, and kept her chador tight around her face and low on her forehead, in the style of a very devout Muslim woman. Her husband, Hossein, named after the same Hossein that was martyred in the Battle of Kerbala, was probably in his late 40s. He wore a bristly, short beard, and had the calloused marks on the tops of his feet and on his forehead -- the marks of someone who prays a lot. The forehead mark comes from pressing one's forehead to the mohr, the prayer stone, while bowing. Only Shi'as use a mohr while praying. Sunnis consider it to be a form of idolatry. The feet calluses are from the friction of the carpet on the tops of the feet, also occurring from the process of bowing in prayer. They had two daughters, slightly older than my sons. The boys immediately noticed the burner that the teapot was sitting on top of, and began to search the grounds for things to burn.

Amineh poured me some tea and offered me some sugar cubes to suck on as I drank it.  "Merci," thank you, I said.

"Where are you from?" Hossein asked. "Az Englestan? Are you from England?"

I knew that this was a very religiously conservative family, and I was not sure of the response I would get if I said I was American, but I told them anyway.

"You are American?" Amineh asked. "Yes," I replied.

They both looked at each other, as if they were not quite sure what to say. Finally, breaking a moment of awkward silence, Hossein slapped his knee, laughed and said:

"Hah! American! Welcome to Iran. You know, we have problems with the American government but we like American people. We don't like the British, though; you never know what they're thinking. But in Iran we think American people are honest and upfront. Although, I think you are the first American I've met," he admitted.

"Thank you," I replied, thankful for his polite response.

"Excuse me, but why are there soldiers and tanks across the river?" I asked.

"This is the beginning of a week celebrating the "Sacred Defense" of our country against Iraqi invasion," Hossein answered. "What is that?" I asked.

"During the Iraq-imposed war against Iran, Iraqi forces invaded several Iranian border towns, and had occupied them for quite some time. The city of Khorramshar was taken because of it's location near the water and its wealth. It is a very important border city because of its resources. This week commemorates the success of Iran's forces in expelling the Iraqis from Iran's territories during the war. This entire week the military will have demonstrations, commemorating the event. There will be games for children, and fireworks set off over the river. It is also to remember the martyrs and their families that made sacrifices for the sake of our country. Do you have anything like this in America?"

"I think it sounds kind of like two holidays we have," I replied, "Veterans Day, a day honoring soldiers who have fought in war, and Memorial Day, a day remembering those who have died in battle."

"The city of Isfahan lost so many people in that war. Everyone I know has lost someone at either the front or here in the city from the Iraqi bombs that fell on us," he continued. "We have 5 shahid, 5 martyrs, in just my family: two of my brothers, my uncle, and two cousins. You know, the United States and Europe gave Iraq supplies to defeat Iran, but they weren't able to," he added.

"Yes, I've heard they provided both sides with weapons," I said. "I'm sorry for your family's losses."

"Thank you. But it's not just my family. Almost every Isfahani family is like that. Have you been to the martyrs' cemetery?"

"Not yet," I replied. "I'm supposed to go there with a friend tonight. Her brother is buried there. It's hard to imagine... "

"Baleh, yes, it's devastating," he interrupted. "It is something that will take a very long time for our country to recover from. It's been 14 years already, and sometimes it seems like yesterday."

Amineh interrupted: "I lost a brother also, and several cousins. One of my cousins was the only son in his family, and his mother begged him not to go. Of course, he felt it was his duty to go, and he died a week later, shot by an Iraqi bullet at the front. He was only 15. His mother, my aunt, had such pain in her heart that she died of a heart attack a month later."

Hossein glanced over to his left, and noticed how Hunter and Tucker were keeping themselves entertained by burning leaves, pieces of paper, and anything else they could find, in the burner. I was about to tell them to stop because it was dangerous, when Hossein laughed and handed them a paper plate to burn. His daughters were laughing too, commenting on how little boys, no matter where they're from, are sheitoun, naughty.

Hunter, overhearing the word "sheitoun," gave his standard reply:

"Baleh, man sheitoun-e bozorg hastam va ou sheitoun-e koochek-eh." In other words, "Yes I am the Great Satan and he (Tucker) is the little Satan." Tucker nodded in agreement, proud of his title.

Hunter, I'm sure, did not understand the political implications of his statement, using Iranian terms that usually refer to the United States and Great Britain. But he did know that whenever he said this any Iranian would laugh in hysterics, just as they did this time.

Hossein reached over and patted both boys on the head, ruffling up their hair. Although Hunter and Tucker always complained that they got tired of everyone putting their hands in their hair, this time they didn't seem to mind. Hossein handed them a few more leaves to burn.

"Tell me," Hossein asked me, "what is the freedom like in the United States compared to Iran?"

"That's really hard to say," I replied. "I haven't lived here my entire life, so I don't have anything more to go on than first impressions. But it seems like although there are some restrictions, I am surprised by the amount of freedom I've been able to have here. I am also surprised by how people express their political opinions so openly. I thought there would be more caution. Of course, it is important to respect your customs."

"Do you like the hejab?" Amineh asked.

"Aadat mikardam," I replied, "I've gotten used to it. It's really not that difficult for me, though it does get a little hot at times."

"So, the women in your country, they don't wear hejab?" She asked.

"Not unless they're Muslim, and it is probably difficult for Muslim women in some parts of the United States to wear it freely, as it would be difficult -- if not impossible -- for me not to wear it here."

"What do you think about freedom in Iran?" I asked

Hossein answered: "I think we need more of it. I'm a very religious man, and I still support the Revolution, but I don't think that should stop us from having a free press and free elections. People are entitled to express their opinions. We also need to have more scientific progress in Iran. Why should our country, which for centuries was at the height of scientific and intellectual progress, and with so many resources and smart young people, now be aghab-raft, falling backwards?"

"I don't know," I replied. "I get asked that question a lot."

By now, the boys had burnt just about everything they could get their hands on. Hossein turned off the burner, and told the kids "don't get into too much trouble. You need to help your mother. Be good boys."

It was time for us to go, as I could sense Hossein was getting tired and was probably ready to take a late-afternoon nap in the park. I had Hunter and Tucker gather up their things, and we said "goodbye."

"Thank you very much for the tea and the conversation," I said.

"Thank you," they both said, "now we can say we've had a conversation with an American."

It was getting late, and Hunter and Tucker were getting hungry. We walked down the path headed toward Si-o-seh Pol. Along the way we noticed entire families of men and women napping on their picnic blankets while children ran around, played soccer, or played at the nearby play-ground.

Spotting the bridge, Tucker asked "Mommy, can we go to the chai-khaneh (tea house) and get some aash-e reshteh (thick noodle soup)?

"Yeah," Hunter added, "they have the best aash there."

We walked down the stairs, crossed a large gutter filled with the river's flowing water, and stooped under an archway into the dank, darkened room, toward the cashier. Old brass lanterns, artifacts, and nets were hanging from the ceilings and walls, giving one the feeling of stepping into some ancient past. People were lined up ordering pots of tea, bowls of aash, and ghalioun, a Persian water pipe with flavored tobacco. Others were sitting at tables out on the patio, resting slightly above the river. Single men, leaning back casually in their chairs smoking their ghalioun, had their own patio; women and families had another. It was almost sunset, and the mountainous horizon was turning a soft glowing pink, reflecting off the water. The evening breezes flowed like the water, providing a welcomed coolness. This was my favorite time of day to be out, enjoying the last days of summer with my boys.


During the entire "Week of the Sacred Defense," there were constant programs and parades on television displaying Iran's military might and reminders of the nine-year war with Iraq.

I was watching television at my friend Nargess's house, while Hunter and Tucker played computer games with her sons in the bedroom. Images of rolling tanks, marching soldiers, men playing with explosives, and passing images of Iran's martyred youth lying on the ground bathed in their own blood, flashed before me. There were also many displays of mourning and men crying. Special television programs served to remind us that the tragedies of war persist long past the cease fire: mourning has almost become part of national identity.

Nargess's husband, Mahmoud, rang the doorbell as he always did, before entering his home, in case there are any uncovered women in the house who wish to cover up before he enters. At Nargess's house, I rarely covered my hair, unless there were other family members present that were part of her or Mahmoud's extended family. Mahmoud sat down in front of the television, shaking his head at the story of a returned Iranian P.O.W. Like most men his age, Mahmoud had served in the military during the Iran-Iraq war, and considered himself lucky to be alive.

This prisoner of war was also alive, barely. He was recently returned to Iran as part of a prisoner exchange agreement between Tehran and Baghdad. The program began with an interview of the man's wife and daughter, in which they were each crying about how happy they were when they found out he was still alive, and how horrified they were when he was returned, worse off than dead. The man, gray, wasted, and skeletal, was lying on a mat on the floor. He had no eyes, no tongue, and his limbs had been beaten so badly his bones were crushed, rendering them useless. His lungs had been poisoned during Saddam's attack on the Kurds at Halabja, by the same chemical weapons that Saddam had reportedly been provided by companies in the United States, Germany, Russia and other countries (Blum 2002). There had been extensive damage to his nervous system, causing him to shake. His daughter was trying to feed him, without success. The story ended with an interview with the man's daughter, after his death a year later. He had clung to life for years in an Iraqi prison, only to die just a short while after being returned home.

Woven into these programs were anti-American propaganda "commercials." These "commercials" were not advertising a product; rather, they were advertising -- or promoting -- a way of thinking. One of the most vivid images started off with a representation of the Statue of Liberty draped in the American flag. Images of war, and Muslim men, women and children dying from bombs and battle flash through her eyes. The statue's face then gradually turns into a skull, symbolizing death and destruction of the Muslim world at the hands of the United States and Israel.

"These things used to work after the revolution, but Iranians don't think this way anymore," he dismissed. "We like American people. You shouldn't watch those things."

I think he wanted to spare me -- or himself -- from feeling uncomfortable. The images were graphic and horrific, and served to forge linkages between all Iran's enemies. I imagine if the Iranian government had coined the term "axis of evil," their triad would include Iraq, Israel, and the United States. While I had always seen negative images of Iran and the Middle East on American television, I was now seeing the reverse. These images had an interesting and unsettling power.

Mahmoud stood up to turn the TV off. We had plans to leave soon for the martyr's cemetery, to visit the grave of Nargess's younger brother.


Ayaam bahar ast o gol o laaleh o nasrin
Az khak barayand to dar khak cheraii
Chon abr-e bahaaraan beravam zar begarim
Bar khaak-e to chandaankeh to az khaak beraii

Spring is here! Oh rose, and tulip and daffodil
Have risen from dust. Why are you in the dust still?
Like full clouds of Spring,
my eyes shall scatter tears upon your tomb of dust
Until you, from your earthen prison, your head shall thrust.
--Hafez (my translation)

For those whose remains have been returned and identified, there is the shahid cemetery, Golzar-e Shohada, or "Flower Garden of the Martyrs." Of the approximate 300,000 or more Iranians dead in the war, Nargess told me Isfahan province lost over 200,000 people.  The numbers aren't certain; still, it is difficult to comprehend what that loss looks like or feels like to those who have lived it. What would a field of hundreds of thousands of tulips look like?

The street outside the cemetery is lined with photo after photo of shohadah: young men, old men, mullahs, and boys, who lost their lives in the 9-year war. Even the roads are named after prominent martyrs. Every city has its own cemetery specifically for the shohadah, with each city numbering in the thousands of people who died in war. This night, my children and I were to visit the cemetery with Nargess and her family. Her younger brother had been killed in battle, and is buried here.

As we entered the gates to Golzar-e Shohada a middle aged man handed Nargess, Mohammad, their two sons, Mansour and Majid, and Hunter, Tucker and I small cups of thick noodle soup, or aash.  A few steps later, an older woman passed out cups of sweet saffron rice pudding, sholeh zard.

"Nargess," I asked, "why did those people hand out food to us?"

"That happens a lot at cemeteries, especially at cemeteries for the shohada," she answered. "Sometimes it's a way of honoring their dead. But sometimes it's because they made a nasr, a special request of God that has been answered, and in return they agree to pass out food to people."

"Is that anything like a sofreh?" I asked.

"Sort of. Sometimes when someone does a nasr and it comes true they might have a sofreh instead of passing out food here. They can be connected, but not always." Nargess and I wandered through the cemetery. Her husband was following after the four boys, who ran off ahead of us. She led me to her brother's grave, and stopped to tell me the story of how he died:

"My little brother, he was so handsome -- don't you think? -- and we were very close."

I looked at the picture of the young man whose body was buried beneath the slab on the ground. He had large, dark brown eyes, like almonds, and an angular face, covered by the slightest stubble of a beard. He was very handsome.

"He was only 18 when he went to defend our country," Nargess continued. "Do you want to know what happened? One of his friends who was in his unit told me that he was captured by several Iraqi soldiers, who told him to surrender. He was ordered to put his hands up, and when he did they shot him dead. Can you believe that? He surrendered and they shot him! I dream about him all the time. Sometimes it is as if he still talks to me. I can hear his voice in my dreams... "

So many photographs of faces above the graves. Some of the younger ones were even too young to have celebrated their first facial hair; their faces appeared as soft as a tulip's petal. Nargess and I looked over at our respective four sons. Her oldest was 11, and in several years he would be serving his required two year military stint. It was hard to imagine the other three, between the ages of 6 and 9, ever being big enough to carry a gun. We looked at each other for a second and, without speaking, we could easily read each other's thoughts:

"God, please keep our children safe and make it so they never have to know war."

We continued on to another section of the cemetery where the men, women, and children who died during the war -- usually because of bombs falling on their homes -- are laid to rest. Nargess affectionately took my arm and led me through the rows, telling me the stories behind the graves of the people she knew:

"You see these people here? This was my cousin. His father begged and begged him not to go to the war, certain his only son would be killed there. Of course his son didn't listen, and went anyway out of duty to his country. After a couple of months, his father traveled to the front -- to the battlefield -- to bring his son home. Reluctantly, his son came back. Three months later, a bomb fell on his home and his son was killed...

"He left the front and was killed in his home?" I asked.

"Yes," she nodded, "it must have been his time."

"Here is where my aunt is buried. I don't know what happened to her picture, it used to be right here, but she was very beautiful. Another bomb fell on her home and killed her instantly. Her daughter, who was eight years old, was struck, but still alive, calling out for her mother all the way to the hospital. She died in the hospital several hours later. She's buried right here, next to her mother."

"Nargess?" I asked.

"Yes, Diane."

"I walked up to the top of Koo-ye Soffeh the other day, to the unmarked graves, and a young woman who said she had never been married also said Œmy husband died in the war.' What did that mean?"

"Baleh, yes," she answered, "there are too many women in their thirties and even forties who were never able to find a husband.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because so many young men their age died, there aren't enough men to go around. When they say ŒMy husband died in the war,' it means that the man that they were supposed to marry -- the one that God had chosen for them -- died before they could ever meet. So many women are hopeless that they will ever find a mate."

Standing here, in the flower garden of the martyrs, I thought about the young woman with the yellow tulips, and about death and hopeless love.

I still like tulips. But I see them differently now.


The sons of Adam are limbs of each other
Having been created of one essence
When the calamity of time affects one limb
The other limbs cannot remain at rest.

If thou has no sympathy for the troubles of others
Thou are unworthy to be called by the name of man.
--Sa'adi (Golestan, "Flower Garden")

Copy right Diane Tober, PH.D., Medical Anthropologist, University of California, San Francisco.

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