When the Iran-Iraq war broke out in September 1980, I was in Shiraz visiting my father's relatives -- and picking corn mornings til afternoons in a farm managed by the newly-formed Jahad Sazandegi (Development Jihad) [See: "Shiraz"].
I had returned to Iran a couple of months earlier to be a part of the revolution after four years of high school, mostly in the U.S. In a matter of weeks I started praying (even though I had grown up in a secular Iranian-American family) and grown a beard (well, tried to: All my facial hair seemed to grow under my chin and I had almost no moustache). And I had gotten rid of my taghooti name and was proudly calling myself Mohammad [see: "Call me"].
So it was only natural that as soon as I heard the news on the radio that the Iraqis had crossed the border into Khorramshahr, I was ready to do anything I could to protect my homeland and the Islamic Revolution. My distant cousin and childhood friend Afsaneh and I literally ran to the blood bank on the main boulevard in Shiraz and donated blood for the already high number of civilian and military victims.
Shortly thereafter I was in Tehran, living with my aunts and uncle in my late grandfather's house. Every morning around 4, I would walk 15-20 minutes down the empty Shahriati Blvd (Jadeh Shemiran) in darkness to the local mosque where "military training" classes had been organized for volunteers.
Our trainer was an officer of the Shah's army who wanted to pass on his knowledge of warfare in this time of national crisis. You could tell just by his moustache that he was no fan of the new religious rulers, but was there purely for nationalistic reasons. Saving Iran from invaders was a number one priority.
The training did not go beyond simple physical exercises. I was among 20 or 30 volunteers and all we did was jumping jacks for an hour or so and learn how to turn right and left in military formation. There were no weapons involved and yet we felt we were doing something important, that some day we might actually go into combat against the invaders.
I'm not sure how long these early morning exercises lasted. A few weeks? I don't remember why I stopped going. I always had this great desire to be a part of the revolutionary forces but at the same time I felt I was not accepted as one of "them". Perhaps I was trying too hard to change who I was but was never really trusted by the revolutionary masses.
At the time my aunt Laleh Bakhtiar had translated and published several books by Ali Shariati in English. She would give me the books for free so I could sell them on the sidewalk alongside other unemployed idealists in front of Tehran University. I thought I had a pretty good product since no one had seen Shariati books in English. Lots of people stopped and browsed them out of curiosity but not many actually bought them. My best-seller was in fact a thesis in Persian on temporary marriage in Islam written by a Japanese woman.
A few months later in March 1981, Aunt Laleh lined up a job for me. A real job. The Iranian state news agency, Pars (later named Islamic Republic News Agency, IRNA) needed translators. Auntie and I went to the head office on the corner of Yousefabad and Vali Asr and met Mr. Arbabi. He was one of the managers who had survived the post-Shah purges and was running the English section. My only asset was knowing English and even though I had no experience in news or translation, I was hired on the spot. There was a war going on and the state news agency was the only source for all the international news services. They needed people like me.
I met my first wife Narges (Zahra) Pirani there. I was 19 and she -- one of the typists in our section -- was 20. We got married less than 5 months after my arrival at the news agency.
I must add that one of the reasons I joined the agency was that I had discovered I could not leave Iran. Why would I want to leave my beloved Islamic Republic in a time of war? I had gotten in touch with my high school sweetheart in the U.S. through letters and phone calls. I wanted to go back and be with her. I was willing to throw away all my zeal for the revolution and concern for the occupied motherland for love. [see: "Wild at heart"]
The long-distance love affair soon fizzled, but I was still determined to leave the country. I went down to the foreign ministry with my American passport to get an exit visa. As I stood in line, I pretended I didn't know any Persian, thinking perhaps that would have bettered my chances. A couple of guys in front of me actually joked in Persian that they had never seen a bearded American before ("Amrikaie e rishoo ta hala nadideh boodeem!").
When my turn came, I went inside the office and showed the man my American passport. He looked at me and said, very matter-of-factly, that as far as the Iranian government was concerned I was Iranian and could not leave the country before completing 2 years of military service like every other male citizen.
Even when I joined the news agency a month later, one of the first things I did was write a letter to my bosses requesting to become a correspondent in Washington DC. I don't think anyone bothered to respond. I mean, it was so silly of me to expect to be sent abroad with no experience.
So that was that. I was stuck in Iran. My attention turned to the revolution again and the thought of leaving the country went away.
In early spring, 1982, all males in my age group were ordered to report for military service. By that time I was prepared to go without hesitation. I was newly married and had a job that few could (or were willing to) carry out with such dedication. It was not easy to find people with good English skills who were willing to work for the state news agency. Still, I had to AND wanted to leave and fight the Iraqis.
My first choice was to do my military service with the Revolutionary Guards. But I was not Muslim enough for them. I was rejected after one simple question: How is vozoo (abulation) performed? I did it every day before prayers so I should have known, right? Well, I was so nervous I made a mistake. I said I pour water on my left arm and then the right. Actually, it's the other way around (remember: everything in Islam is right and then left. Even when you enter a bathroom, you must put the right foot forward before the left.)
So I joined the regular army instead. I went to the former Eshratabad barracks with thousands of others and was given papers to show up for military duty within days. I informed my boss and colleagues at the news agency, got a khaki uniform and boots from a store in a row of specialized tailors near Maydan Hassanabad (if I'm not mistaken), got a "nomreh 2" crew cut at our corner barber shop in Dardasht Ave in east Tehran and kissed my already pregnant wife goodbye.
For the first three months every soldier was put through military training. I was posted at the "Sefr Yek" (Zero One) barracks in Afsarieh in southeast Tehran. My fellow platoon members were all high school dropouts from Azarbaijan Province. I had been placed with them because my American high school diploma had been evaluated by the education ministry as an equivalent of 11th grade in the Iranian system. So we were all formally labeled "Sarbaz Sefr" (Zero Soldier).
Our platoon leader was a gray-haired, moustached, non-comissioned officer. On the first day he called me to his office and asked all sorts of questions about my life and family. My grandiose name had caught his attention and he couldn't figure out what I was doing there. To him, I should have been far away at some college abroad or hiding from the war under the protection of rich relatives. I told him honestly that I was happy to be there to serve my country.
Soon I was given the most important position in the platoon: the "Anbardar" in charge of military supplies and rations. It was nothing that special. I still had to go through all the drills and carry out all the grueling duties like my fellow soldiers, with whom I became close friends. These Azari guys were so kind and bighearted. They never caused me any trouble, despite the fact that we came from very different backgrounds. In the late afternoons, after the military drills, we would gather around one of bunk beds and they would recite Persian and Turkish/Azari poetry from the heart. Their favorite, of course, was Shahriar.
I don't remember too much of the actual military training. It was a time of war and everything, but I don't think we actually fired a gun more than 2 or 3 times in the entire 3 months we were there. I do remember one day being taken by bus to "Maydan e Mashgh" (Firing Range) in the eastern outskirts of Tehran. We were handed Shah-era German-made G-3 automatic rifles to shoot at stationary targets. The damn gun weighed a ton and the blast from each pull of the trigger scared the hell out of me. I should have known right then that I am no man of war, but as in many other situations in my life, I was totally oblivious to reality. I hadn't the slightest doubt I was going to go to war.
On Thursday afternoons all local soldiers were given a day pass to be with their family. It was nice to go home and be with my wife and in-laws. A couple of times my wife begged me to talk to the managers at the news agency, where she still worked. She didn't want me to go to the war front and thought perhaps I could get a position away from danger. I would scold her and tell her to never mention it again to me or anyone else. I was a soldier and had a duty to serve -- end of story.
Finally the three months of training was over. One day we were all ordered to line up in front of our platoon building. One by one the name of each soldier and his destination was read out loud. Everyone was sent to a barrack near the war zone in Khuzestan or Kurdistan. Everyone but me. My name was the last to be called and I remember distinctly how bewildered I was. I was assigned to join the army transport division in Shiraz. Shiraz?! What the hell?
I took the bus to Shiraz and went to the commanding general's office at the barracks. I'll never forget his sarcastic expression. All he said was that I had been ordered to report to the news agency in Tehran. So I didn't even spend a day in the stupid barracks hundreds of miles away from the battlefield, let alone fight the invading army.
I went back to Tehran and discovered my wife and boss at the news agency had conspired behind my back to get me transfered. They had convinced Kamal Kharrazi, then head of the news agency and the War Information Headquarters, that my skills were vital and I should be based there for the rest of my military service. [see my military ID cards for the first year and a half and last six months of service]
A couple of times I did threaten to leave the agency and join the war as a volunteer, especially when fighting flared up. But my boss Hossein Nasiri would smile and say something like "Aziz toro cheh beh jang?" (Hey kid! You're no fighter!), which would annoy the hell out of me. But he was right. I did go near the war fronts on a few occasions as a translator for visiting foreign reporters. Sounds of machine guns, rocket propelled grenades, mortars, rockets and artillery fire, not to mention the sight of charred bodies of iraqi soldiers, made me realize what a goddamn coward I was.
I'm certainly happy to be alive. But it kills me to think about the hundreds of thousands who were not so lucky -- especially my Azari friends.
|Recently by Jahanshah Javid||Comments||Date|
|Hooman Samani: The Kissinger|
|Aug 31, 2012|
|Eric Bakhtiari: San Francisco 49er|
|Aug 26, 2012|
|You can help|
|Aug 23, 2012|
|نسرین ستوده: زندانی روز||Dec 04|
|Saeed Malekpour: Prisoner of the day||Lawyer says death sentence suspended||Dec 03|
|Majid Tavakoli: Prisoner of the day||Iterview with mother||Dec 02|
|احسان نراقی: جامعه شناس و نویسنده ۱۳۰۵-۱۳۹۱||Dec 02|
|Nasrin Sotoudeh: Prisoner of the day||46 days on hunger strike||Dec 01|
|Nasrin Sotoudeh: Graffiti||In Barcelona||Nov 30|
|گوهر عشقی: مادر ستار بهشتی||Nov 30|
|Abdollah Momeni: Prisoner of the day||Activist denied leave and family visits for 1.5 years||Nov 30|
|محمد کلالی: یکی از حمله کنندگان به سفارت ایران در برلین||Nov 29|
|Habibollah Golparipour: Prisoner of the day||Kurdish Activist on Death Row||Nov 28|