It was the second day of winter 1986. The sun had already set and the snow-spotted Alborz Mountains to the north of Tehran were still visible behind a haze of smoke hovering the city. Two night earlier I had toasted the birth of the Iranian god of Mehr (Mithra: god of the Sun) in a cave in the Alborz with some fruits and nuts along the longest night of the year in an inn in the City of Mashhad; and now I was at Khazaneh Bus Terminal in south of Tehran taken a seat by the window of a bus full of uniformed men like myself bound for Khuzestan in southwest of Iran wondering whether that would be my last trip from that terminal or it was just the beginning of a series of such trips that I had to take to the war fields in the south and west to fight an endless war regarded holy by many, unholy by many.
In the Alborz I always sought the strength, the hope, and the vision that we needed to face a dreadful history filled with grave events: wars, invasions, resistance, uprisings, and revolutions. Perhaps, no country on the face of the Earth has faced as many invasions as Iran has. Perhaps, no other nation has been so frequently and pervasively destroyed and reconstructed like Iran. Perhaps, no nation has witnessed so many uprisings and revolutions against its rulers and invaders as Iranian nation has. As long as history remembers we have been frequently mown and re-grown from the same roots. Perhaps, the secret of our dogged defiance of odds and subsequent survival was hidden in the very Alborz that I was leaving behind. Have Iranians learned from the Alborz the great lesson of resisting and surviving all destructive elements of history? Is that the reason that Alborz always loom in our consciousness and unconsciousness?
Every time I had traveled along the Alborz I was amazed at their awe-inspiring majesty. I could never take my eyes off them until I had traveled miles and miles away. Nothing else could draw my attention like the Damavand Peak in which I would entirely lose myself before I lost its full view in many turns and twists of the Haraz Valley. In the meantime I almost did not think about anything else beside Damavand’s silver and white cap as I was murmuring the poems our poets had written in adoration of this “White-headed Mother” of ours. You thought I was petrified in the revered temple of Damavand while my lips whispered the holiest prayers dedicated to it. The peak, though white and aged, always gave me the strength that I needed to continue my way among the events that were raining upon us from every side. Especially in those days that I was roaming the no-man’s-land of skepticism I desperately needed the same strength and hope to continue the road that I had traveled thus far. I was leaving for the war fronts and my mind in its entirety was filled with fear and anxiety. What could be a better console to me than the Damavand that always put my within at ease with its mighty tranquility? So many times that day I had tried to take a glimpse of the peak and every time I had failed. Was there no hope left for me? I tended to think all hopes had eclipsed for me as the Damavand was hidden from my view.
I was not prepared for this trip. As our military training concluded in Shiraz we had been handed some cash and one-week-leave for a trip to Mashhad in northeast of Khorassan to join the army we had been assigned to; expecting I would be kept in the army garrison for a few months before being dispatched to the war fronts. With my surprise, upon arriving the garrison we were told the army was in the southern fronts and we were to immediately introduce ourselves to its headquarters there. Where in the south the army was stationed was not exposed to us. Then, a letter of introduction had been handed to us that we took to the train station and received free tickets for our trip. Before sunset we had started a twelve-hour-trip along the southern flank of Alborz to Tehran while I carried a small military bag that contained a few pieces of laundry, a towel, a toothbrush, a tub of toothpaste, and a pair of pants and a blouse, barely enough to keep me warm and clean. We were told Khuzestan was warm and we did not need warm cloths. Accordingly, a military overcoat was enough to keep us warm until we reached there.
Once in Tehran, we tried to use our letters for free train tickets for Khuzestan; but we were told Iraqi planes had bombed an important railway bridge somewhere in the Zagross Mountains in Lorestan and so we had to take the bus. That was the reason we had gone to Khazaneh Bus Terminal early in the morning and now it was late in the afternoon. We had spent all that time in the circular building walking, talking, and munching on sandwiches.
At two o'clock in the afternoon I had carefully listened to Khomeini's speech that was being broadcasted on the terminal speakers. He had a meeting with his statesmen; I dearly wished he had decided to bring the war to an end. After all, he was the only person in the country who could use the power of a religious decree and his vast popularity to bring peace; and until that day he had used those powers for the continuation of the war only.
“May he agree with peace; the people turn to jubilations; and we return home for festivities,” I had wished in my heart with skepticism.
To my dismay, and unlike previous meetings, Khomeini said nothing about the war. Three hours later all thirteen of us jostled our way to the bus among the crowds of Bassijis (5) who were also going to the south to make the Army of Mohammad. Titled after Mohammad: Prophet of Islam, the army gave a connotation of holiness to the war and the Bassijis mission.
With green bands on which one could read "Ya Sar Allah: Help Oh Blood of God", around their heads, the Bassijis sincerely believed in the holiness of their fight and they were already renowned for their dauntless fighting and dying. Whatever their convictions, they were among the poorest and the most brave people who were willing to sacrifice their own lives for reaching their religious goals. Those days, multitudes of poor young men were ready to take part in the war and to become Bassijis. In reality, Bassijis were the main forces that had kept the war machine running in the previous few years. This time, also, it had been well publicized they were going to lead the longest war to a victorious end.
For a long time the propaganda machine was working days and nights to convince Iranians that five hundred armies of Bassiji forces were going to attack Iraq soon. With military standards that many units equaled a force of ten million warriors. Soon they found out such a number was so unrealistic that no one would believe it. Therefore, they replaced the word “armies” with the word “battalions” while kept the number “five hundred” intact. This claim was more reasonable; nevertheless it was too great a force to mobilize. Regardless of propaganda, a huge number of forces were mobilized for the promised attack.
I was neither a volunteered Bassiji to believe in the holiness of the war; nor was I an enthusiastic teenager seeking excitement of adventures. In the second half of my twenties, I was a conscript lieutenant spending my compulsory military service in the Iranian military. By law every healthy male who reached his nineteenth birthday had to serve in uniform for two years. Without a military service conclusion card he was deprived of many social privileges and benefits ranging from having a job and travel documents to driver’s license and living free from police harassment. Because of my university education and two periods of interruption in its process, I was late for military service for seven years.
The first interruption occurred in autumn 1978 when I was a freshman. It was the beginning of the revolution and interruption lasted five months only. Students closed universities all across the country to protest the Shah’s governments. They participated in mass demonstrations in huge numbers; and as a result the Shah left the country and monarchy collapsed and political freedoms were gained. Like almost all students, I enthusiastically participated in anti-Shah demonstrations and went back after the victory filled with energy, enthusiasm, and optimism that the revolution would solve many of the problems our nation had inherited from incompetent, corrupt, and puppet governments of the previous decades and centuries.
In the spring of 1980 the Cultural Revolution brought about the second interruption. Universities were shut down and remained closed for three full years. To my astonishment, another dictatorship was consolidated; freedoms were robbed; and theocracy was perpetuated in the country. This interruption had devastating impacts on me: I was disillusioned with Khomeini’s government, its real intentions, and policies; and therefore, I grew pessimistic, crest-fallen, and isolated.
In the fall that followed the Cultural Revolution I taught in a high school in City of Bojnord for a few months. A large number of students in my situations were doing the same. Soon I discovered that our energy as hourly-paid teachers was being used against freedom-seeking teachers: they were being purged and their teaching jobs were being assigned to us. I felt guilty. The teaching job that I highly esteemed turned loathsome. I never wanted to become a tool in the hands of those who were seeking re-establishment of dictatorship in my homeland. We had paid the dear price of life for freedom and we should not have lost it easily. Especially when I found out some of the purged teachers were imprisoned and even executed, I decided never return to that teaching job. Few times I was asked to go back to class. Even my family argued if I did not take the job it would be assigned to another person. They thought teaching was an opportunity to keep me busy and pay me well while it was adding to my work experience. I always reasoned that I was too mentally exhausted to be able to teach.
In the ensuing two years I worked on a small piece of farmland that my father gave me in my birthplace of Darkash, Bojnord. Now that I was not going to teach my father intended to engage me in something useful. I had no clue if he had had any sense of the sensitivity of the situations and the perils around young people of my age. He never mentioned anything about that either. Despite his lacking formal education and the resentment I normally felt towards his rough approach to matters, sometimes I could not help admiring his deep understanding of everyday life. After all, he had witnessed many events many years before I was born. This was the reason I think he must have been aware of the delicate circumstances of the day and wanted to keep me busy.
My land was slightly sloped, covered with rocks and bush and thorns; and I spent months on collecting its rocks; digging out the bush; and digging irrigation waterways across it. In late winter of the first year I planted some poplar and walnut seedlings in it and despite the reproach of some of my kin who believed I was wasting my time and life on less than one hectare of land that I never knew would be of any use to me I doggedly kept working. By the spring as my seedlings showed signs of life and growth, I had a small garden: yield of my own work and sweat that gave me pleasure and satisfaction.
At the same time I spent my summers helping some family members with harvesting their grain or constructing their houses and barns that required a substantial amount of muscle work. They paid for my labor many times less than what a teacher made; and so like most students I was living a rather poor life while waiting for the re-opening of universities. In those days that many things had already lost or were in the process of losing their meanings and values, nothing tasted as sweet and meaningful as education for me. Somehow the whole purpose of my life had become education and nothing else. At the same time my most important goal was to keep myself aloof the war and the policies behind it. Regardless of what I did and how poorly I lived, from my own point of view thus far I had achieved my goal. How many students were able to successfully cope with the problems of the Cultural Revolution? No one knows. It is clear that many either fell victim to the war cries, or political activities against the war, or they were used against the achievements of the revolution. Many poor students were left with almost no option except serving the purpose of the war.
Long quiet winter nights of Darkash provided me with ample opportunities to read many books while in bed in the light of a kerosene lantern. Most of my studies were about Islam. Until then Islam had a great appeal to me; sometimes I prayed and sometimes I fasted as Islam advocates; and its scholars arouse my admiration; but what I had witnessed in the previous few years had raised many doubts and questions for me. Therefore, I kept reading more and more about Islam. I dare say I read majority of Mortaza Motaharee’s books while I was in Darkash. Motaharee was a prominent cleric with extensive knowledge of philosophy, logic, history, and Islam to such a level that he was teaching philosophy at university level; and therefore he was an authority in the field of Islamic studies. His easy-to-understand style was a great source of learning even about the philosophies he argued against. In my opinion he was a philosopher, a logician, and a great thinker.
I have to say that the more I studied Islam, the more I became alienated from it. I stopped praying; even somehow I abhorred it. Of course, I had no problem with other peoples’ convictions and praying and regarded them matters of their personal belief and console to their soul; but when it turned to me, prayer became the most painful practice I could ever undertake. Years later I learned from the Quar’an that many pagans at the time of the Prophet had similar feelings towards prayer. Likewise, they had no problem with embracing the Islamic faith and paying Islamic dues; but they wanted the Prophet to exempt them from five times praying a day. And to this request the Prophet had responded: “prayer is the pillar of the faith”. For me this pillar and the faith it supported had totally crumbled. In brief, before I returned to university I was a skeptic materialist with some tendencies toward socialism.
In the fall 1983 universities re-opened; though the new atmosphere was absolutely different from the one I had left behind three years earlier. Free political debates and activities were all things of the long lost past. They had been replaced by a pervasive pressure and intimidation. The happy energetic hopeful faces of young students had been replaced by mostly sad, bearded, veiled, terrorized, disgruntled, and exhausted figures whose main intention had shifted to concluding their education and going after their personal life. Many students had been expelled and given up to the Revolutionary Guards for previous political activities; and many more were being called every day to be either expelled or to be made to write repentance about their past or to be forced to promise in writing that they would never engage in politics in the future.
On the anniversary of the Cultural Revolution many pictures of those who somehow had acted against the aggression of the Cultural Revolution were posted in the lobbies to spread more fear. Many familiar faces were among them: some I could see in veil or with beard while many had vanished. Through pictures those who had remained unknown were being recognized and punished. Old classmates silently passed one another pretending they did not know old friends while a negative resistance could be smelled in many aspects of academic life.
Circumstances grew worse in February 1984 when new students arrived. Many fanatic Moslems came in with close ties to the government, its Martyr Foundation, the Guards (6), the Bassij, and other revolutionary establishments. They cemented the atmosphere of repression by spying on the campus and in dormitories. Even before their arrival the repression had taken its toll of the students. I knew some who had been imprisoned, killed in the war, tortured, deprived of study, disappeared, expatriated, and executed. Familiar faces were numerous, though I either did not know many names or I had forgotten them. Half a dozen of my former friends were among them. In brief, those who had brought the Shah’s government down and had bestowed freedom to our social life and truly believed in freedom and tolerated others’ freedom were all labeled counter-revolutionaries and West-toxicated, while all narrow-minded who for any reason were tied to the ruling government were all revolutionaries and reformers with the best intentions.
Although I had sympathy with the victims of repression, regarded them heroes of resistance, and chose most of my friends from them, I had lost my faith and trust in political organizations and their activities. Jubilant days of campaign against the Shah had long passed for me. In the post-revolutionary atmosphere the air was murky; directions were mixed; claims plenty. My desire for getting involved in politics was not strong enough to stir me to action any more.
In February 1986 I was graduated with Bachelors’ degree in history. Despite the relatively broad knowledge of international relations and a realistic understanding of history that I had gained in seven years, I saw the whole fruit of my education to be only a handful of disorganized random information that were of no use in real life. How a skeptic: an atheist without a goal, lonely with just a handful of friends, could find any use, meaning, and purpose in the bulks of information he had piled up? Contrary to my personal materialistic beliefs, my sacred principle had strongly survived the ravage of time. I was trying to keep myself aloof government and its dictatorial policies.
In concordance with this principle I had not taken the newly introduced compulsory Arabic courses and, when possible, I evaded other compulsory Islamic courses too. Instead, I had focused my attention on Pre-Islamic history of Iran. Despite government insistence on Islamic studies, I wrote almost none of my papers about Islam and took no part in its many religious and political prayers and ceremonies. When I dared, I was outspokenly critical of its policies. Most important of all, I had not volunteered for its war. Now ten months after graduation all doors were closed on me. I was going to fight in the very war that I had avoided for six years.
Holy or unholy, patriotic or unpatriotic, volunteered, conscripted, or professional, the Khazaneh Bus Terminal and the mighty Alborz had been the silent observers of millions of warriors like the Bassijis and me traveling to the war zone. Hundreds of thousands of them had fallen, tens of thousands had been captured, many were missing, and many thousands had been wounded. The lucky had returned home safe. Probably, all of them were anxious and fear-stricken at their departure like myself; or all of them had faced mishaps with no anxiety like the Bassijis. If all had not been brave, a good portion of them had been. Whatever the convictions, the way that I was in its beginning had already been paved by millions with different destinies. What my destiny would be? Was I going to be wounded, captured, or killed? I had no clear idea. I had taken it for granted it would be one of the above. Was there any other way? Was there any way to safety? I tended to believe there was none.
Kahvarzameenee, my fellow conscript lieutenant, was sitting quietly in the seat beside me. From the beginning of our trip in Mashhad he was with us; though, I did not know him before. He had told us that he used to attend the same School of Commerce that a very famous pop star, who was always circled by a multitude of girls mainly coming from rich families, used to attend. Before the fall of the Shah the pop star had graduated and had moved to the United States rich and without being conscripted while Khavarzameenee who was coming from a middle class family was going to the war field in my group. His hair was gray; his eyes were grayish blue. Had his hair turned gray due to universities closure or due to imprisonment? I did not ask despite an inquisitive impulse, though he had many times more gray hair than a man in the second half of his twenties. Once with a knotted brow he had stammered:
"Bo-bo-bo-boy; we have ju-ju-ju-just passed five months of military training. We still have nineteen months ahead of ourselves. It is not a matter of one day or one week. It is a matter of nineteen months in the front lines in the middle of fire. Certainly many of us will lose our lives. The only uncertainty is the exact number and the names of the most unlucky."
How did he know we would spend nineteen months in the battlefields? In the past few months we had gone through preparations for the worst. In the process we had shed our students’ skins and had grown soldiers’ skins. I still recalled the first day when we lined up in a garrison in central Tehran and Revolutionary Guards started selecting their quota. They were the repressive arms of the new government that most of us abhorred. Unlike previous years that they used to take those university graduates who were highly committed to Islam and volunteered to serve in their ranks; that year for the first time they were taking everyone indiscriminately. We did not want to serve in their ranks and have a hand in the crimes they committed against our own people. So, as they were busy selecting their quota we escaped them and automatically were sent to the military training center.
Later I found out those whom the Guards conscripted had almost no combat role. Mainly, they had been kept far from the war fronts in their scientific research centers, war propaganda headquarters, and the like. Perhaps, this was a ploy to attract more university graduates. Perhaps, they did not trust them in the front lines during their offence preparations. Whatever the reason, we had chosen the military and I was not envious of the non-combat role of my former classmates. Had we not gone to the military, other people would have been sent there. There was no shortage of the unlucky.
The greatest achievement of the Shah’s long rule was its strong military that basically owed its strength to its Western supporters and arm-suppliers. They lent their support to his government to suppress political, mostly socialist, movements that could jeopardize their interests in Iran. Military commanders were the most trusted people in the whole system; and military solutions to political issues were always the best and not necessarily the last solutions. The last Shah’s father, Reza Shah Pahlavi, had ascended the Peacock Throne of the Iranian kings by the British backing and through the might of the armed forces that did not resist the World War II Allies invasion of the neutral country of Iran. Mohammad Reza himself assumed an absolute dictatorial power thanks to the Brito-American support and the 1953 coup that was staged by his officers
By the time I entered the Barrack 01 in eastern Tehran more than eight years had passed the collapse of the monarchy. Even Mohammad Reza had passed away years ago; but the ghost of the old system was still roaming the barracks. The whole system; except the Islamic Republic sign of the flag, Islamic Republic anthem, occasional appearance of a clergyman in the barrack, compulsory noon prayers, banned exchanging obscenity among the staff, and the short beards that some staff had grown, had the taste of Pahlavi era.
It was sometime in July 1986 that we started to be trained by the staff that previously belonged to the Army of Eternal Guards of the Shah. Almost all commanders came from the same unit. Same faces were serving the new government with the frameworks they had learned under their previous Commander in Chief. The Eternal Guards had committed atrocities during the revolution and were highly unpopular afterwards. When the war started to rage and military gained great achievements in defending the homeland and abstained from involvement in domestic affairs; the same army became darling of the ruling government and people. This was one reason that we wanted to serve in its ranks than the Guards’. Military training they provided was the proof why they had become so dear. In a very short time they turned us to strong, tough, militarily knowledgeable, and disciplined soldiers.
My thesis was crystallized in that garrison. The revolution had not have enough opportunity to profoundly change the armed forces it had inherited. Of approximately two-dozen combat gears with which we were trained only a rifle and a machine gun and their cartridges were produced in Iran. Even that rifle and its factory had been originally bought from Germany. The rest of our gears had been bought from the United States, the Soviet Union, and Czechoslovakia.
There, I learned about brutality of war: mutilated and charred bodies, severed heads, ambushes, horrors of fighting, shells, chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons and methods of their dispersion, bayonets, camouflage, bombs, shrapnel, corpses all over the battlefield, stench of decaying bodies, barrage; and sleeping in bags, in bunkers, or beneath the clear sky. Frightening stories were in the core of all conversations. Teachers were giving gruesome graphic details of their war experience. Many were saying we had to eat and drink among fallen comrades and the stench of decaying bodies. Many were talking about personnel without hand and feet around the combatants who were unable to help them. Some were talking about the wounded comrades that had to be put to death lest the enemy saved them to extract combat information. Nevertheless, all drills, marching, and terrible stories were no match to the forceful noon prayers.
Every morning in front of the three-colored flag of the nation we had to line up and say “amen” to the prayer that was asking Allah to preserve the dictator for our nation and all Moslems. Morning ceremonies would last for a short time and would be followed by marching and combat classes to be followed by a compulsory prayer. At noon we had to wash face and hands from elbows to the tip of fingers, put on sandals, line up in front of the barracks, walk to a big mosque inside the garrison, and pray to Allah. Religious minorities were exempted from prayer, as it was not their obligation to pray everyday. Some followers of Sunni branch of Islam tried to get away from prayer arguing they were religious minorities in Shia-dominated Iran. This trick, of course, did not work. They had to follow us to the mosque and perform the prayer following a Shia prayer-leader; or pray on their own. The prayer would end with another prayer for the health of the “Imam of Ommat”, “Leader of the Moslem Peoples” who was nobody but Khomeini.
Despite intimidations and the presence of the military police in the mosque and the fact that we could be put on the black list of non-prayer-givers, some of us never obeyed the order exactly as we used to do in the morning ceremony. Here, we sat in the last rows behind the prayer-givers. I never moved my lips to utter a word of prayer for the head of the state. Nonetheless, compared to the multitude of prayer-givers, we looked like a handful of people silently showing their opposition. How many of those who prayed pretended to pray? Without a military order how many people would attend the mosque and the prayer? No doubt, majority of people would pray with or without the presence of the Islamic Republic, though in a contained environment no one could find an answer for the question of participation. One fact could not be denied: the basis of the clergies’ influence and government had been long laid upon prayer and they had no intention to give that basis up even if it required application of force.
At the end of training in Tehran we were given a short leave and upon returning we were divided in different groups based upon the courses we had taken at school. My group that contained majority of the graduates of our battalion was sent to Shiraz for infantry training. This period of training started with fall that was influenza season in Shiraz. Many of my colleagues contracted the sickness that continued for several weeks and left them a bitter memory of the beautiful city. The whole training continued for about three months. As the name applied, here we were being trained on leading groups, platoons, and companies of combatants, different tactics in offence and defense, and most importantly large weapons and their applications in combat and advance or retreat under fire.
On the first Saturday after our arrival to the training center our weaponry class began in an open field and lasted several hours. From that day on several days a week we either gathered in the same field or went into classrooms for weapons instructions. Sometimes, we received instructions about military tactics that basically meant reading books and pamphlets and going to the field for practice. Sometimes we were trained on Islam’s attitude about war and comparing it with the prevailing materialistic attitudes of the infidels about the same matter.
A thick book with many verses from the Qur’an and traditions of the Prophet and Shia Imams was the only text that sounded fluent Persian. The book and the course were to teach us what was expected from an Islamic warrior. Our religion instructor was a bearded man without turban and with a strong Shirazi accent. According to him, Prophet Mohammad and Moslems at his time were great warriors and fought for the cause of Allah whole-heartedly. Also, he said that according to religion lying was permissible in the war and to the enemy and to our own wives. The reason for the former was understandable, however he was adding “if you say no to what your wives ask you, they will ruin your entire life; so you can make promises and break them”. Somehow, he implied that lying to women was a stratagem to avoid submission to their will and power. Most importantly, he was saying that in the Islamic Republic of Iran there was no room for military intervention in political affairs; however it was a good act at the time of the Shah because it was not an Islamic government and it was working for the sake of “Estekbar: the Arrogance” and for the repression of the dispossessed. The Islamic Republic was dedicated to Moslems, justice, and the cause of the dispossessed; and there was no reason for the army to get involved in its politics.
Earlier in Tehran we had been instructed that any involvement in socialist activities was punishable by death. That was a secular law the Reza Shah government had passed half a century earlier at the time that under the Western leadership a series of military dictators had been put in power all around the young Soviet Union to contain the spread of Communism. Under the Islamic Republic every repressive law, no matter its origin or the rational behind it, was being used for the consolidation of a dictatorial system. Some victims of this policy were with me in Shiraz. For instance, I befriended a cadet who looked rather quiet and nervous. One day he told me that he had spent some time in jail for political sympathy. Symptoms suggested he must have been a supporter of the Mojahedin Khalgh Organization (7). Despite all these measures and their origins, a great majority of us were dedicated to our Iranian cultural values and national identity as the generation after the 1953 coup had delved deeper and deeper in our own values in spite of the blind Westernization policies of the Shah. Any time we went to the field, under the very eyes of the commanders and those whom we knew were connected to government policies and were getting paid for their connections and services, we used to sing our national anthem that had been written and song scores of years before:
“O Iran; O Land of Every Jewel”.
There was no way that some one could deduce there was sympathy towards monarchy among us. Most of us were either leftist or Moslems in their beliefs; however, the Moslems had kept distant from government and its imposed Islamic policies. What we were ready to pay a high price for was our Iran. These were the same feelings that the ruling government used to take advantage of when it faced deep crises. The very anthem that we had grown up with and had been banned in radio and television for a long time was being used any time an appropriate need arose, as the Reza Shah’s law was used as it was deemed appropriate. Were not secular rulers of the world using religious sentiments to justify their secular policies? Was that not true that my generation’s resistance against repressive policies had made it a target for both dictatorial regimes in Iran? I was inclined to think it was so. Were they able to crush this resistance? The war, in my belief, was a means towards that end.
Compared to our weapons in Tehran, there were great differences in the quantity and the quality of the weapons we were being trained on in Shiraz. This time the arms were more sophisticated, strategically more important, and more expensive than those in Tehran. All of them, with no exception, were foreign made. Some belonged to the past: to the arsenal of the Allies in World War II. As I remember 12.7 machine guns, TOW anti-armor missiles, Dragon anti-armor missiles, anti-vehicle and anti-personnel mines, the entire communication systems, gas masks, and M-tanks and armored personnel carriers were made in the United States. There were many Russian multiple rocket-launchers, anti-armor weapons, personnel carriers, and grenade-launchers. Our mortars and their shells, as well as, some anti-armor guns and their shells were made in Israel. Some anti-armor guns came from North Korea. Some of our tanks were British and some were Chinese. There were many un-armored vehicles bought from East Germany, the Soviet Union, and the United States.
In brief, these were what I saw in an infantry unit without a highly advanced technology. In the case of the artillery, air force, air defense system, and navy the same scenario must have been repeated. My understanding of the Shah's relations with the West, the United States in particular, and the Soviet Union expanded dramatically. Fruit of this relationship was a big military entirely dependent on foreign arms-supplies. Such a military was not viable in the face of an invasion or arms embargo. It was not helping Iranian domestic products and industries at all. How an army could help domestic products while even the uniforms that its soldiers wore and the food they consumed were other nations’ products: in our case the uniform came from North Korea and meat came from New Zealand; wheat and rice and peas and beans came from American and Asian nations? Indeed, the system provided a great market for other nations’ products. The Pahlavi’s greatest achievement was a gigantic lion that could have bitten if others permitted so; otherwise it would have lost all its teeth after the first few biting.
As time advanced I learned even the pamphlets that we read were not written by Iranian instructors. Most of their information did not make sense. The whole text was not fluent as one expected from a Persian writer. Expressions were not common in Persian. We often had to read them over and over to understand them. When I saw some expressions translated word for word into Persian, I was left with no doubt that they were all hasty unprofessional translations of English sources that had come with the imported weapons. I still recall the sentence: “For reaching these ends…” that the translator had translated to “for reaching these Paayaanhaa” meaning the finishing points.
In Persian the word “Payan: end” does not have a plural form and the whole expression was utterly absurd. A fluent translation of the above expression would have been something similar to “for reaching these goals…” that made a perfect sense for a Persian speaking person. There were many other words that I showed to few other cadets who knew English. Perhaps, many people had noticed similar problems before me and had kept quiet about them.
Such an army not only could not fight for too long; but also it was inviting the ambitious rulers with an air of adventure to conquer the legendry Persian Empire. There is no doubt that Saddam Hossein and all his backers and strategy-analysts had counted on the same factor of dependency to foreign suppliers when they promised they would achieve a swift victory over Iran. Eventually, this army was not a point of strength for politicians in their dealing with international affairs. Because of its dependence, it was their weakest point that curtailed their independent maneuvering without budging to suppliers’ never-ending demands. As a matter of fact, this problem showed face during my training in Shiraz.
Since the beginning of the war there had been rumors and reports about military cooperation between Iranian government, Israel, and the United States. Until fall 1986 I did not know any Iranian or American or Israeli side of the deals to admit the existence of hideous arms deals. American laws prohibited any deal that benefited or helped Iranian government that was labelled a hostile government. This law had been passed at the time of the presidency of Jimmy Carter at the beginning of the American Embassy crisis along other anti-Iranian measures such as freezing Iranian assets in the United States. Carter had lost the presidency to Ronald Reagan from the Republican Party and the law was still in place.
At the same time, Iranian side of the deals always claimed Iraq had invaded Iran at the order and instructions of the United States of America and International Zionism. There was so much anti-American and anti-Israeli propaganda in the air that in official gatherings and Friday-Prayers all over the country people always chanted “Death to America, Death to Israel, Death to Saddam”. Despite the continuation of the war and the fact that Iranian army was basically armed with the weapons produced in the U.S. and Israel, majority of Iranians believed weapons were coming from black market only as many instances of that had been revealed. At the same time in both countries of Israel and America the general public believed their governments were enemies of Iran and there was no arms trade between the foes. Only the most skeptics and the most knowledgeable could ever imagine that the so-called irreconcilable enemies could have shared the common benefits of hideous direct arms deals. Even the instance of an Argentine military transport plane, carrying American weapons to Iran through Israel and its being shot down over the Soviet territories, had not drawn much attention. Iran-Contra scandal was too clear to be easily neglected by the Iranian and the world public opinions though.
On an early November night we heard on radio that Beirut-based Al-Shiraa magazine had exposed a former U.S. National Security advisor, Robert McFarlane, had conducted arms sales to Iran. The news came as a shock to many in Iran and out of the country. On the television evening news in the barracks we heard of Seyyed Mahdi Hashemi's arrest by the Ministry of Intelligence and Khomeini's endorsement of his detention. The newscaster said Hashemi was charged with collaborating with the annulled SAVAK, having a hand in Shams Ghanat Abadi's murder (8), keeping illicit weapons and ammunitions at home, having top-secret government documents, and misinterpretation of the Qur'an.
Mahdi Hashemi was brother of Ayatollah Hosseinali Montazeri’s sun-in-law and one of his compatriots from City of Najaf-abad in the central Province of Esfahan and among the closest people to him. Montazeri was one of Khomeini’s prominent disciples and second most powerful politico-religious leader next to him. His prominence was to that level that he was to succeed Khomeini as the Leader of the Revolution. Official tittles of “Hope of the Islamic Nations and the Imam: Omid-e Ommat-o Emam”, or “Highly-esteemed Jurisprudent: Fagheeh-e Alighadr” were always stated after his name in the media. Also, Hashemi was the head of the World Liberation Movements that had been established after the revolution to assist other nations’ revolutionary organizations in their struggle for freedom. All in all, Hashemi was such a significant figure whose arrest required the backing and endorsement of Khomeini himself who could order anyone in any position arrested.
Two days after the radio reports of direct arms-sales with Ronald Reagan’s gifts of cake, pistol, and the Holy Bible for Khomeini, Rafsanjani appeared in a televised news conference acknowledging the existence of the deals and insisting that Iranian government would procure weapons and munitions from any possible source to keep fighting Iraq. The relation between Hashemi’s arrest and Rafsanjani’s statement was not clarified until days later, however most Iranians were aware that Rafsanjani always played a pivotal role in hundreds of billions of dollars of arms deals between Iran and different arms-suppliers of the world. Due to the profits he had reaped in these deals, Rafsanjani had become one of the wealthiest men in the country. Also because of the same relations with the arms-producers, Western media always portrayed him as a moderate man with a great vision. Understandably, the days after direct arms-sales coincided with considerable amount of Iranian air-force activities over Iraq.
A few nights later Mahdi Hashemi was shown on television confessing to all offences attributed to him; and at the end of his confessions he wept for his life and asked Khomeini's personal forgiveness and pardon (9). Obviously, Hashemi had been put under so much pressure that he had no choice except confessing to everything he had been told to including weeping before a public medium. Publicity of the scene, though, was significant. First, it was an assurance to the foreign side of the arms-deals that Iranian government would severely punish those who were opposed to their illegal trade. Second, to show the domestic opponents of the arms-deals that they could lose gravely in their attempts to try to bring the deals to a halt. And, finally, it indicated that Khomeini himself was the ultimate director of every deal that took place between Iran and arms-suppliers.
Like many other figures who had gone through the process of pressure and torture, Hashemi’s plea for forgiveness was not accepted and he was executed a short while later. Through killing and defaming, Khomeini was paving the way for his absolute dictatorship; otherwise for a person in Hashemi’s position possession of all those documents, weapons, and ammunitions were nothing out of the ordinary. Even killing Shams-e Ghanat Abadi at times could be regarded a revolutionary act and a credit for Hashemi as killing of some figures related to the Shah’s regime had been deemed a revolutionary act. It seemed that according to the mood of the day an act could be interpreted a vice or a virtue.
A similar fate, though less severe, awaited Ayatollah Montazeri: Hashemi’s patron. In 1988 Montazeri criticized Khomeini on the matter of killing more than few thousand political prisoners within a few weeks. In a letter Montazeri announced that he had no desire to succeed Khomeini as the Leader of the Revolution. Thus, he was purged from the ruling clergymen, labeled as a “simpleton cleric”, and suffered house arrest, abuse, and harassment.
The link between arms sales, Iranian air force activities, and Rafsanjani’s interview came to light shortly after Hashemi’s execution. It became public that while American arms were directly shipped to Iran, Hashemi had leaked the news to Al-Shiraa magazine; and by publicizing the matter he had created a scandal for both Iranian and American sides of the deals.
Iran-gate was an awakening shock to the Iranians who were still optimistic about Khomeini and his government. These people always regarded him the most honest political and religious man who had emerged in the Iranian political scene after centuries of corrupt politicians’ rule. People still remembered during hostage crisis in the American Embassy, Khomeini publicly banned all his officials from meeting two American delegates who were on their way, in Turkey, to Iran to negotiate the crisis. Most Iranians still recalled that Khomeini publicized Robert Kennedy’s: famous American Congressman from Democratic Party, secret letter to him asking the release of the hostages to show that he was not hiding anything from people. For masses of people imbued with the spirit of religion, Khomeini was an uncompromising clean character whom Allah had sent to save the poor from the oppressive slavery of “the Arrogance: the Toghyan”. He was the person who had been labelled “the Hope of the Dispossessed of the World: Omeed-e Mostazafan-e Jahan” and the “Iconoclast of the Century: Botshekan-e Gharn” who had shattered the icon of the Shah.
Now, many learned that Khomeini's "Death to America" and his labeling the United States “the Great Satan” were for domestic public consumption and indeed he knowingly or unknowingly was playing in the hands of the American policy of curtailing revolutions by means of one another. The profits of the direct arms sales to Iran were diverted to Contra movement of Nicaragua to fight against the Sundinista National Liberation Front revolution that had ousted the Anastasio Somoza government a few months after the Iranian Revolution had ousted the Shah’s regime. As a matter of fact, the Nicaraguans’ revolution was highly popular among young Iranians.
As a person familiar with history, I was not surprised by the American illicit arms sales to the Iranian government. Hidden relations had always existed among hostile nations. Many foes had turned to friends as circumstances dictated and history was riddled with stories of treasons, law-breakings, back-stabbings and so on. In this specific case everything was normal for me. First, I was aware of the huge quantities of weapons that the West, particularly the United States, and the Soviet Union were selling to the whole world and specifically to the governments of the Persian Gulf region. In the post-revolutionary free atmosphere we could easily obtain these information through opposition media and even free debates among political leaders and intellectuals that were broadcasted on television and radio. Second, in the past few months of military trainings I had seen how Iranian military totally depended on foreign weapons especially those of the United States’. Third, Khomeini’s behavior and political maneuvers were more or less known to university students and his recent change of tactic was not contrary to what he had done previously. If one had reviewed what he had promised about American hostages: that he would try them for spying against Iran and then relaxing his position and finally setting them free, one could have easily concluded that he could relax his position again to conclude a deal with the United States. As Khomeini had been trapped in a weak position he had conceded to what the situations dictated. Finally, Khomeini’s endorsement of Hashemi’s execution did not come as a surprise to me either. Besides the fact that he had ordered the massacre of over ten thousand young political prisoners, he had already ordered execution of people like Sadegh Ghotb-Zadeh who had paved his way to power. Therefore, the bell was playing the same toll.
Khomeini’s harsh treatment of the people who had helped him to gain power was what many had put their faith in. They were arguing when it came to law enforcement and national interests, Khomeini was blind to the position of the person and his relation with influential government organizations or personalities. Through these killings, though, I could see a daring and bloody attempt to concentrate all sources of power in one hand. The best means for covering that intention was continuation of the war. This could explain why Hashemi and other sources of power and influence were no more tolerated and their execution in the uproar of the war did not arouse popular objection.
Hashemi’s leaking of information was another aspect of power struggle among the ruling elite. It did not seem that Hashemi had leaked the information out of the pure good intention of serving the nation and helping the cause of peace. He, in fact, intended to bring a fatal blow to the rival faction of Rafsanjani and Khomeini and pave the way for his own ascending the ladder of power. Hashemi’s execution and Khomeini’s own disgrace were clear indications that Khomeini would keep fighting the war for its full promised term of twenty years as his followers were constantly chanting “War, War Till Victory”, or “War, War Until There Is No Tumult In the World”: a bloody and frightening policy.
While dollars were lavished on weapons we were suffering from malnutrition in the training center. Increasing inflation and deepening economic crisis was affecting our food. We did not receive enough rice: Iranian's main food after bread. Meat was meager and we rarely received fresh or canned fruits. The situation was so bad that we protested to the commander on his visit to our eating salon. Our protest fell on deaf ears. The commander responded to our protest:
"As soldiers, you have to get used to harsh circumstances. You are aware of the Western economic blockade against us. Once you are in the fronts, you will receive lots of excellent food; so much that you won’t be able to eat it all."
The same commander in a Thursday morning ceremony made a long speech in which he hinted at the dire economic situations of the day:
"We have already spent all our assets in this war. Now we are the people who are spending their last Rials: Iranian currency, to gain victory. As cadets you ought to try your best to accumulate as much military knowledge as possible. May you bring this “Imposed War” (10) to a victorious end."
Whatever the sufferings of the troops and the price of the weapons, the latest American weapons were of little effect to encounter the endemic war of cities. As we were in Shiraz the war of cities resumed more ferocious than before. For the first time Iraqi planes were successfully bombing Iranian towns and cities and were easily flying back to their bases. Every day we heard the Iraqi Baathist-Zionist (11) regime bombarded this town or that city killing a number of civilians and destroying economic resources. Air-raid sirens and running to shelters had become a normal part of every day life.
The French government had leased out many highly advanced bomber planes with long flight range to Iraq. They could fly all the way to the middle of Iran and hit their targets. For the first time they had bombed Iranian oil facilities in the Khark Island years ago. The French Exosset missiles had already displayed their effectiveness in the Folk-land War between Argentina and Britain in early 1980’s in sinking a British destroyer. Petrol-Dollars were too alluring to resist. The same missiles had been sold to Iraq to be used against Iranian ships. By the same missiles Iraqis sank an American war ship killing some servicemen and claiming the ship had been mistaken for an Iranian vessel. In any case, the Iranian air defense had lost the position of power it held at the beginning of the war. A psychological warfare was needed to domestically offset the aerial bombardment. Someone or something was to be blamed. What scapegoat served a better target than the opposition?
Rumors started to circulate that Iraqi pilots could not hit their targets because they lacked the needed skill:
"But now deserted Iranian pilots who know exact location of targets and are highly skilled fly Iraqi planes. They are the ones who bomb us. The traitors’ hands are at work."
Another rumor followed. It stated Iranian anti-Khomeini political organizations were spying on strategic targets for the enemy. Since they were Iranians, spoke the language, and were aware of everything and every place, they gave plenty of accurate information to the enemy.
Like most part of the country, bombardment continued in Shiraz. For the first time Iraqi planes were reaching the city that was immune from bombing until then. Previously, people jokingly were saying Saddam Hossein’s mother-in-law came from Shiraz and so he did not intend to bomb that city. This I had heard when I was a student in the city. In the new circumstances neither Shiraz’ far distance from Iraq nor people’s joking could prevent Iraqi bombs. One sunny afternoon we heard the air-raid siren and ran to the nearby forest in the training center. On getting out of the woods we saw a column of smoke rising higher and higher from a burning refinery on Shiraz-Esfahan Road. Another instance of bombardment occurred on a melancholic evening of a day that I was standing on the balcony of the barracks looking southward in the direction of the airport.
The sun was setting; the sky was blue and clear; the city was quiet; and the mountains to the south of the airport were clearly visible. I was thinking about one of the good days of early stages of the revolution. On a Friday with a small group of enthusiastic students we had climbed those mountains. We had roamed them all day long and had come down exhausted and hungry. As I was visualizing how we had descended the mountains, a red fire ball and a mushroom-shaped smoke jumped into the air in the airport. A moment later I saw a fighter jet abandoning the city airspace in very high altitudes. I followed the fighter until it disappeared in the golden sunshine over western mountains. Then, I called out the cadets to come out and see the burning airport. The air-raid siren was broadcasted and the whole city became active. Many drove to the airport to help the victims. Two military planes and a passenger airliner had been hit. The media reported about thirty people had lost their lives.
In the midst of the war of cities I discovered how Hassan, one of my former schoolmates, had been wounded. I had known him since universities reopened in 1983. Those days I was a student who had spent five years as a university student while Hassan was a freshman emerging from dust of the war with a lost hand. We had spent a couple of years of good friendship until I was graduated while he was still at school. This friendship was renewed when I was sent to Shiraz to complete my infantry training.
That Thursday afternoon I visited Department of History in the Faculty of Arts that had been transferred to the top of Eram Hill to the north of the city; met a few professors; took part in one of the classes reviving memories of my student days. Still there were many girls and boys whom I knew and had a short conversation with. At the sight of my short hair, my girl ex-classmates who dared to defy the Islamic code of conduct and furtively exchange a few words with me would express concerns about where I was going from there and what fate was awaiting me. With my normal nonchalance I was responding I was ready to face everything and anything.
“If you hear of my coming back horizontally (12),” I would go on, “Put your son’s name after me.”
At this we would laugh and they would wish I returned “vertically” walking safe and sound.
Among all students Hassan and Ebbee whose real name was Abolfazl were the most dear to me. I could freely talk to them and with no concern exchange my worst friendly words with them. Almost one year had passed since I had left Shiraz. They were still roommates in one of the dormitories on top of the Hill. The complex was standing high; looking westward; and so Iraqi planes could easily target it from a far distance. Out of that concern I wanted to spend my weekend nights among my friends. Who knew if we were not going to be targeted in the garrison? A military facility was more important than an academic institution any way.
That day Hassan and Ebbee told me Kareemee, an extremely religious student who was coming from a village and had lost his father to the war, had been killed at the war fronts leaving four young children and his wife behind. So, Department of History was in mourning. I was told Kareemee had willed “those who do not believe in Imam Khomeini” to be barred from his procession, burial, and other religious ceremonies.
“And we acted accordingly,” Hassan and Ebbee had said, “We did not participate in his ceremonies.”
“And bought another accusation for yourselves,” I interjected, “A smart move, eh!”
“This is what we can do,” they answered humorously boasting about their capabilities and we laughed.
Those kinds of wills and wishes were widely publicized and even broadcasted on the government-run radio and television. People like Kareemee were exactly the kind of people who were introduced to the public as prototype of the best human beings the faithful were expected to follow. Accordingly, every one in the society had to try his best to become like them: to be so devoted to the cause that lost their life for the sake of the Islamic Republic.
In reality, Kareemee was among those Iranians who owed his everything to the revolution and its religious leaders. He was extremely religious and with his whole heart was tied to his faith and consequently to the Islamic Republic. This aspect of his personality had so much filled his mentality that he rarely responded to our greetings and almost never had shaken hands with us. He was coming from the grassroots of the poorest villagers of the country who were never seen and heard under the Shah; and as a result, the invincible castle of his religion was protecting his life and identity: both spiritually and temporally. Without that castle he was vulnerable to every kind of elements that were somehow hostile to his existence. These elements were numerous as the Shah’s Westernization policy was ardently pursued without considering its consequences. Thus extremism begot extremism.
These said, now Kareemee was a university student who after the reopening of universities had entered higher education in the quota of Martyrs Families without much academic qualification. After his father’s death, Kareemee was receiving a substantial amount of financial help from government; while people in his financial situation and without ties to the government were deprived of such generosities. Eventually, higher education was a complete failure for him: either he was not capable of pursuing it; or he did not take it as seriously as he took his religious requirements, and thus the door for fighting in the war fronts was always open to him. Eventually, he chose the open door.
For the mentioned reasons the government and hardliners were closely connected to one another. Besides the fact that their relations were cemented by their common belief, they were benefiting from keeping any kind of otherwise thinkers, especially secularists, away from power. They were always wary about students like Hassan, Ebbee, and me. We were untouchables; and we were never welcomed in their circles. Thus, as the government had facilitated and financed the extremists’ admission to universities; in return, regardless of their academic progress, they spied on other students and professors, checked their personal and academic backgrounds and relations and behavior, and executed government’s hidden agenda of spreading control and fear in order to crush independent thoughts and personalities that did not comply with official policies.
People like Kareemee never constituted majority of the Iranians, however they constituted a portion large enough to exert an immense pressure on the majority of un-organized mainly liberal and secular masses who basically went after their own life and according to the circumstances could turn to zealot followers of their religious traditions. In extreme circumstances like war and revolution these masses were always vulnerable to following the directions the extremist hardcore showed them.
Before nightfall, all three of us gathered at Hassan and Ebbee’s dorm. Friday was weekend and I was out of the garrison.
"In these last days in Shiraz,” Ebbee said, “Lets have a sin feast; a drinking feast to fare you well.”
Drinking alcohol was punishable by flogging. No one, except religious minorities like Christians, was exempted from the punishment if caught drunk. Purchasing alcoholic drinks from religious minorities was a bold move as well. It could put both parties in harm’s way. The seller would be punished for doing an illegal trade and corrupting the ethics of young Moslems and the buyer for committing a sinful act.
I was curious about the drink and where they had obtained it. Ebbee responded that he had worked hard and had obtained a bottle of medical alcohol from a friend who worked in a pharmacy. He had saved it for this special farewell occasion. So, he wanted to use the highly purified alcohol as liquor for our party. None of us was more concerned about the dangers of drinking such an alcohol than facing the legal consequences of being caught drunk.
"Don't forget it is of satanic deeds to drink!"
Ebbee hinted at a verse in the Qur'an while taking the bottle out of the cabinet.
"The person brave enough to drink has to be prepared to receive fifty lashes,” Ebbee went on, “Those who eat melon have to be prepared for the shivering."
He went on as he brought the Persian adage hinting at the action and the consequential punishment and we laughed.
"Don't worry," he went on, "I have the solution too. I've bought garlic to eat afterwards. It overshadows the scent. It will probably save our skin. Or… Brother, grow a thicker hide! Actually, we are thick-skinned already. Had you put dogs in these circumstances, you would have them dead by now. We have endured it very well."
He went on and brought three glasses.
We had everything needed for our simple sin feast, especially a Persian classic music tape. We put the tape on the player and Shajarian started:
An allegiance, I see in no one, where have gone allies?
Where have gone lovers? And what has become, of friendly ties?
Ever-life’s-fountain, has become murky; where can be found Khezr?
Rose shoots have turned red, spring breeze, how come doesn’t rise?
Nobody concedes, the friendship rights, for any friend
Rules of friendship, and gratefulness, everyone denies.
Mine of nobleness, yielded no ruby, in many good years
Sunshine’s endeavor, rain and wind’s efforts, do not see my eyes
This town used to be, city of kindness, and land of friends
When kindness ended; and what has happened, to town of allies?
Ball of achievements, and the miracles’, sitting in the field,
No one goes to field; not any rider, towards ball flies
Hundred thousands, roses blossomed; no bird sang a song
Where are nightingales? Season of roses, don’t they recognize?
Venus’s playing, not a joyful tone, has her Lute burnt out?
Where are drunkards? For snatching cups, why no one tries?
Hafiz had written the sonnet more than six hundred years ago and in my days it had plenty of admirers. Somehow people could see a repetition of history in this sonnet. What Hafiz had described, in their view, was happening in their own days. At the time of Hafiz similar social and individual restrictions had been imposed upon people of Shiraz once the city had fallen to religious extremists. Also, at that time many forms of hypocrisy and deceitful behavior, under the guise of Islam, had become common practice. By the same token, one could easily imagine there were many ways and forms of resisting the repressive and deceitful ruling elites. Was history being repeated? I could not believe so. For me history could never be repeated, however in abstraction similar circumstances were abundant. In my own days rigorous religious regulations had drawn people like us close enough to hideously snatch the cups similar to those of the time of Hafiz, however we had trod our way to Shiraz from different directions and places of Iran.
Ebbee was coming from north-central Iran. He had entered University of Shiraz in fall 1979, one year after me. As I understood that day, he had spent two years in jail because of sympathy with a political organization the “Arman-e Mostazafeen: the Aspiration of the Dispossessed” a leftist Moslem Organization that believed Islam was a socialist religion. Before 1980 universities closure I had seen their periodical in the campus and knew a few students, one of them a friend, who sold them.
At the conclusion of his jail term Ebbee had been barred from resumption of his education for one more year. After many attempts and through the influence of influential sources he had been allowed to return to school. At that time he was allowed to take courses on a bail that restricted him from political activities or any other activities the government disliked. As a result, he was trying his best not to show any social or political sensitivity.
Ebbee told us he was the jail-mate of a young man who was mentally unfit; but thanks to the revolution, dislike of dictatorship had deeply penetrated his mind. He had been accused of dispersing anti-government leaflets in his neighborhood. Those who were in charge of the prison and the Revolutionary Courts had realized the young boy was not that bright to be dangerous for the government and decided to release him; however they did not want to let him go without putting him to the last trial. So, they asked him if he were released and in front of the prison someone gave him a bundle of leaflets to distribute in his neighborhood what he would do.
“Repression has tied everyone’s hands and mouths,” the young man answered clearly, “There is no freedom. It is impossible to distribute leaflets these days.”
This response was contrary to what the authorities liked to hear. They wanted people to believe freedom existed in the society and government had leashed the counter-revolutionaries who had staged an armed struggle against the legitimate government and freedoms.
“So they laughed at the bravery and honesty of the young man,” Ebbee went on, “They called him “free from brain” and released him after nearly one year of imprisonment for some leaflets.”
Hassan was the heart of all calamities that had stemmed from the revolution or had ensued it. Most of his life had been spent in the City of Arak in south west of Tehran, though he was originally coming from Khomein: Khomeini’s hometown. For the same reason, when we were angry with government and Khomeini we would address Hassan and would jokingly swear at him and at his “damned hometown that has begotten the Leader”. He would take our insults with laughter and would return some bad words of his own:
“Now you know what those who come from Khomein can do to you? Be careful with me too. We can …”
Like Ebbee, Hassan had entered university in the fall of 1979. From a 1978-79 anti-Shah demonstrations he had a broken nose. Later he had lost his right hand from the wrist down to the war and carried a long bullet scar on the back of his chest cage. Several small scars marked his trunk. He had spent a while in jail for some political activities and before the war he, too, had been expelled from university. What kind of activity to be exact; I never wanted to know lest under a possible interrogation I had to disclose my knowledge of that. All of these indicated that Hassan was one of the most brave and freedom-loving men I had ever known. There was no sign in his activities and sacrifices to tell me that he had done anything for his personal gain or under the urge of adventurism.
He had returned to school under the “Disabled-Warriors’ and Martyrs Families Quota”: the same quota under which Kareemee had arrived. He shaved every morning like a dutiful soldier to show that he had nothing in common with Kareemee and the like who grew long beards and left their shirts un-togged. His lost hand, sufferings, and wounds had not changed the attitudes of the students in the pro-government Islamic Association of the university. He was still looked upon as a person with suspicious loyalties; and he never tried to change his attitudes about the Islamic Association either: he never pretended to be friendly with them and never tried to show he was a good Moslem. Sometimes, he expressed his extreme anti-Arabic sentiments. In his belief, all Iranian social problems stemmed from the seventh-century Arab invasion of the country and the subsequent spread of Islam. Sometimes, he mentioned massacres of the residents of Iranian cities of Estakhr and Ramhormoz that he had read in Fars-nameh Ibn-Balkhi after Iran had fallen to Moslems. In the extreme end he was saying he still could hear the screaming “women and children of Estakhr being massacred, violated, and taken to captivity”.
Hassan’s extreme ideas about Arabs were shared among many Iranians; however in my belief, the plight that had descended upon his personal life with the revolution and the ensuing war had greatly contributed to his extreme nationalism and anti-Arabism. He regarded Islam equal to Arab and Islamic conquests equal to Arabic conquests. He believed Arabs had deceitfully hidden themselves behind the Islamic slogans of fraternity and equality while in reality they were pursuing their low worldly desires. From a history student a broader and deeper view about our social and governmental system was expected than what I used to hear from him. Nonetheless, as time was passing he was delving deeper in his convictions. Now in that weekend of staying in Shiraz I was to be exposed to what Hassan had gone through at the war fronts. Perhaps, without a bloody and bitter experience like that of Hassan’s, I was still an untried man.
Our first glasses of alcohol mixed with pop we drank and I grew warm: warm enough to give me the prowess to ask Hassan how he had received the big scar on his back and what had happened to his hand. Those questions were haunting me since I could trust he was not a government agent. I was always concerned that I could bring back bitter memories to him or, at least, I could have hurt his feelings had I asked him those questions.
"Once we attacked the Iraqis in Chazzabeh Strait,” Hassan responded with a sigh, “The attack was fierce and bloody, however it led to fiasco and we had to withdraw under Iraqis inching fire and advance. Upon completion of the withdrawal we noticed we had left behind a few trucks full of ammunitions that could fall to Iraqis’ hands that they could have used them against us. To avoid this, I volunteered to command a group of soldiers to sneak near the trucks and explode them with my R.P.G.7. Rocket-launcher.
This I did while others were protecting me against small arms fire. In the meantime I lost two colleagues and ordered the other members of the group to withdraw. Assured that I had completed the job, I turned toward our own troops and began to follow my colleagues; but all of a sudden I felt something burning in my chest. That was my last consciousness of my whereabouts.
Several days later I opened my eyes in a hospital in Mashhad with a bitter pain in my chest and back. My fellow soldiers had rescued me while a bullet had narrowly missed my heart. The Bassijis who were coming from my own hometown and knew me had targeted me. Retreating was not acceptable to them any way. Such a large size wound can be made by an Iranian G3 rifle bullet. Iraqi Kalashinkov rifles make smaller wounds. That is why Iraqis call the G3 rifles cobra snakes or hand-held cannons.
At the end of hospitalization, unexpectedly I was taken to the court martial accused of giving a retreat order, disobeying my commander, attempting against his life, and spying for the enemy. I forgot my pain and suffering. These accusations were the most painful wounds in my whole life. Most of my commander’s report about my faults was baseless. I had not spied. The withdrawal order was after the completion of the mission. He was a vestige of the royalist officers and used to send soldiers into minefields, killing or maiming them to get even with those who had toppled his boss. I had objected to this policy; I had told him if it were the right way of doing things, he should have joined the soldiers he sent on those missions. This was my fault.
I have an uncle who is a commander in the air force. He influenced the court and I was released. You see, when corruption is in our own favor we like it."
He laughed, drank another glass, and resumed.
"What happened to my hand is a different story. After receiving the big wound I was granted exemption from active military duties. For returning to university I needed the exemption card; and for that I had to return to my own unit that was still stationed in Khuzestan. So, dressed in civilian clothes and sports shoes I went back to the front line to get my documents signed.
As I reached the front line Iraqis commenced a heavy attack on our positions. Many soldiers were killed in the first few minutes. I went to an artillery observation post to take shelter. Upon my arrival the artillery observer was killed. I put him in a corner and thought reporting the enemy position to our artillery would be the best work I could do. This was what I started to do, not knowing that the radio signals could betray my location.
I had exchanged a few messages that a heavy machine gun opened fire on my position causing the radio to fall down so I couldn't report any more. I held my right hand to put the radio in its proper place and instantly felt a horrible pain right in my hand. Blood started to gush. A 14.5mm bullet had hit my palm. The hand was gone. Only bits of dangling flesh and bones were left attached to my forearm. Tearing up my shirt, I tied my hand above the wrist as tightly as I could and prevented further bleeding and saved my life.
The Iraqi invasion was repelled and I was taken to a hospital in Ahvaz among the dead and wounded soldiers. Dressed in civilian clothes, I was labelled an infiltrated counter-revolutionary agent in the war field spying for the enemy. This was the accusation the army used to label many with. No doctor dared to operate me. Giving medical assistance to a counter-revolutionary element had grave consequences (13). I was feeling deadly; but I had to fight for my life. After long haggling and showing them the big scar on my back, a doctor felt sorry for me and personally took the responsibility of surgery and cut my right hand off the wrist.
When I came to I clearly introduced myself; and what I was doing in the front line of combat; and why I had received the injury. My story was truthful and they let me go. Sometime later I received my exemption card."
Hassan's personal stories were more startling than the stories I had heard in training centers. He had directly touched the war and was giving more details of his military life to prepare me for the worst that Shajarian sang the last couplets of Hafiz’ sonnet:
Divine mysteries, are no one’s to know, Hafiz be silent.
Whom are you asking, the wheel of events, in what way flies?
At this all three of us were in tears. Hafiz was with us again talking to the inner of our inners. Despite the fact that none of us had religious convictions, Hafiz was speaking a language so clear to so many souls who had no belief in conventional religions either; but they still had a heart to understand the general flow of everything toward a beloved so close so far. He was the Hafiz who boasted he recited the Qur’an in fourteen different traditions according to fourteen different followers of the Prophet. This was the very reason he proudly had chosen the title of Hafiz: the memorizer, for himself. Is not the whole secret of his sonnets appeal the Qur’anic music that runs in his words? The truth must be told; even long hard-hearted pagans could not resist the music of the message of the Qur’an as Prophet recited its verses to them.
The Venus’ music did not sound joyful for us, as it was not joyful for Hafiz. Shajarian was singing deep, but not happily, exactly like our sin party that despite its joyfulness was not happy at all. Perhaps, so many had concluded their sincere friendship with a sonnet from Hafiz in a way similar to the way we were putting an unwilling end to our friendship. I was fully aware that so many wedding festivities, marriages, birthday parties, and other merry occasions were consummated by reading a sonnet from Hafiz.
As Hafiz had observed, none of us knew the wheel of events in what way was turning. At least, in the previous years of revolutionary activities it had been spinning in blood and grief: in revolution, war, suppression, compulsory emigration, jailing, and executions. Which way it was going to take from then on? Was it going to turn deeper in blood and repression? Was it going to take a turn towards peace and freedom? We had no idea. One thing was certain for all three of us. It was the somber reality that we knew without putting it in words. Such a small gathering would not be repeated for us as history would not be repeated.
Hassan was not letting me go without giving his last advice.
“Never volunteer for any mission in the army”, he went on with tearful eyes, “Do not be like the riders Hafiz wishes to fly to the field of competition. They use you and then they trample you like there is no tomorrow.”
We lit our cigarettes and started to smoke. Hassan took a deep breath; a red tinge was on his chick; his eyes were shimmering with tear. He was not the same person whom for the first time I had seen years ago at the Adabeeyat Campus sharing a wall with Hafiz’ mausoleum. Those days he was a happy man who always joked and laughed. I was almost certain he was under mounting pressure. Patriotism in the way he believed was an offense and prosecutable. More students with convictions similar to his had graduated. The remaining friendly free atmosphere was turning thinner and he could be more highlighted in the eyes of the Islamic Association. He had been cornered and depressed.
“Look at my hand and chest,” he went on, “And learn your lesson. Never forget this war is not for the homeland. We are students of history. If we are easily deceived, what is to be expected from others?”
That day our sin feast and my last week of training as a conscript infantry cadet came to an end. Despite my indifference toward training and the military itself, I received rank of second lieutenant. In my belief, the military needed so many commanders that it did not care how we had passed the final exams. Every single one of us was given the rank of second lieutenant and every single of us was ordered to attach a full star on each shoulder and to be prepared to be addressed “Janab Sarvan: Sir Captain”. It was the most odd feeling I had in years, but there was no way out of it either. It was an order: a military order, requiring compliance.
The colorful title and the beautiful star meant something totally different for me. As an infantry lieutenant I was to face the harshest part of military life at the front for the rest of my military service. It was common in the army to title the infantry soldiers “brides of the battlefield”. The grooms for these beautiful young brides they would say were “red hot bullets”. This fact had occupied my whole mind, not the star and the title and the things attached to them.
Before affixing the stars we had been told we would serve only one year at the war fronts; and after we would be sent back to garrisons to serve the rest of our military service in a more peaceful environment. But, I was wise enough to never believe in what they were telling us. As it is a norm in big corporations I knew once caught in the blind and deaf claws of the corrupt military and its chain of command, chances of freedom would be almost zero. Only influence and wealth could manipulate these systems to individuals’ favor. I was neither a man of influence and wealth, nor I was interested to be one of them. Therefore, my destination and destiny were known. The unknown was the details of the way that the wheel of events would turn.
Since the start of our trip from Tehran we had followed numerous turns and twists of the Zagross in the blue light of the bus in order not to draw enemy planes attention. Half sleep half awake, we had peacefully come a long way from north central Iran to the south west of the country. It was not too long ago that we had descended onto a relatively smooth and straight road. It seemed we were driving on a flat land. Plateau of Iran was behind us. The Plain of Khuzestan that extended all the way to the Euphrates in the middle of Iraq and beyond was before us in the lurch of night that were pierced by sporadic lights. As we traveled farther, the number of the lights increased. Andimeshk was the first town in northwest of Khuzestan sitting closest to the Zagross foot. Within minutes we had entered the town.
All along the road to Andimeshk we had seen signs reading the distance to Karballa that was a holy city in Iraq on the banks of Euphrates. Some Shia saints had fought and had fallen there some fifteen centuries ago providing the right example of life and death for their Shia followers. A vast majority of Iranians were Shai Moslems and war propaganda machine was reiterating the Islamic Army of Iran had to pass through Karballa before it pressed its holy mission of retaking Jerusalem from occupiers. In this way the Shia belief of holiness of Karballa was tied to the holiness of Jerusalem to provide more fervor for the war cries. Even there were signs to indicate the distance between some spots to Jerusalem. All these signs carried a massage for those who believed they were fighting for the sake of faith while they brought a smile to me: amalgamation of ideas was skillfully done, but it was a treacherous tactic. I was interested in the cold reality of the war; how I could keep myself warm in that cold bus; what to do with the pain I felt between my shoulder blades, and where I was destined to reach.
According to our most recent knowledge the army was stationed somewhere around there. Andimeshk was the closest spot to the army in a straight line and therefore the bus stopped by a gutter and we disembarked and drank some black and bitter tea served on pavements by men in Arabic attires. What their real identity was? I tended to believe they were military personnel in civilian cloths keeping an eye on the situations and suspicious movements.
After the tea and stretching out without seeing any sign, exchanging any word, or hearing anyone calling for a specific destination, all thirteen of us got aboard a mini-bus that was parked by the gutter. You say everyone knew by intuition where to go and what vehicle to take. There were four strangers on board heading to the war field. Two of them were soldiers in ranks; the other two were clad in overcoats without shoulder straps to show their rank. One wore a black beard.
"From top to bottom of the army, especially its commander, is a pile of s….”, the bearded man said aloud.
I burst into laughter and asked his rank. With amazement I heard he was a staff lieutenant. With his beard that government advocated and the Guards wore, I suspected him of wanting to find our opinions about the war, or he must have been maddened by shellshock and his prowess stemmed from insanity. In either case I reminded myself to keep my mouth shut and just laugh at the funny words he uttered and try to ease my anxiety.
With terrible stories of war in the back of my mind we started to move on a paved road first southward and then westward. I expected disasters to befall us at any moment. After all, the stories implied long range shells, bullets, roaring of gallant warriors, and enemy ambushes were stretched everywhere from cities of Khuzestan to the far and wide plains and rough mountains of the south and west. With my amazement, nothing was happening until we reached Karkheh Bridge where we stopped. Still there was a long way to morning.
The name of Karkheh River and the bridge that connected its western and eastern banks I had heard many years before being dispatched to the war fields. Even my cousin Ali who had been sent to the war zone of Abadan in the early days of the war had mentioned the names of Karkheh and Bahmansheer, though they were a far distance apart. On his leave, once Ali had told me Iraqis had easily advanced to the vicinity of those rivers occupying many towns and villages and laying siege to Abadan. Ali was among the first soldiers who had been sent from Khorassan while the Iraqis had tried to enter the almost defenseless city. They had put bridges on Bahmansheer while Ali’s regiment had just arrived the city with helicopters over the Persian Gulf. So, Ali’s regiment had let a large number of Iraqis enter the city before they targeted all the bridges and trapped many of those who had crossed the river and had lost their lives in the ensuing fierce combat. Thus they had saved the city. Not too long later Ali was among the soldiers who had broken the siege of Abadan.
As we were traveling we were told the war zone would start immediately after the Karkheh River. No civilian except known Arab Iranians who lived beyond the river was allowed to pass to the west of the bridge. Two military checkpoints guarded the two ends of the bridge where everyone’s belongings and body were checked before they were allowed to put foot on it. At the eastern checkpoint we got off. The process did not last long. We were let in and soon I fell into a state of half sleep. It was in this delirious state that imaginary explosions after explosions and ambushing after ambushing were taking place by minutes and seconds. For me they were bound to happen; stories said so; and I was filled with every kind of them. As they were not happening I thought the enemy was letting us go deeper into their trap as Ali had said they had let the enemy to go deeper into Abadan.
“Once fully surrounded,” I would think, “they will unleash their deadly attack. In this way maximum casualties can be inflicted and no one will survive. This is the smartest move!”
As imaginary schemes and events were relentlessly raging and we were being stopped and awakened as every sentry barked an order; in the middle of nowhere we reached the army safe and sound. The swearing lieutenant ushered us to a big chilly underground hall that was the mosque of the army. He told us to stay there until sunrise while I desperately needed a place to urinate. I knew nowhere to go; dread of being shot was following me. Finally taking the risk, I got out of the mosque, found an embankment, went behind it, and started.
A frighteningly imperious voice shouted. A chill of fear mixed with cold and sleeplessness ran up my spine and I abruptly stopped: numb. What was I to do? What was I supposed to say? I asked myself without finding an answer.
"I even don't know the password," I thought while preparing a sentence to introduce myself, "He will shoot me in this wilderness!"
A loud voice replied from somewhere nearby; a few words were exchanged; some orders were barked in the chill of the night; and I was partially relieved. Hesitantly, I finished the unfinished job and cautiously sneaked back to the mosque. A bearded sergeant who might have been an agent of the Politico-Ideology Organization (14) supervising the mosque welcomed us to the headquarters of the Victorious Seventy-Seven Infantry Army of Khorassan. So, this was just the headquarters of the army many kilometers behind the front lines. Where was the front line then? Why it was so quiet here? I asked myself cautious not to ask any of the questions from any of the staff lest to be mocked for my naiveté.
"Gentlemen!” said the bearded sergeant, “Take your belongings and go to the headquarters Inn for breakfast. The inn-keeper soldier will serve you."
Taking our small bags and dressed in our overcoats, we drowsily ambled out of the mosque. The sky had grown grey bright; a light fog was hanging in the air; some heights could be seen around the headquarters; several anti-aircraft machine guns with long barrels were on the highest spots; sentries with guns slung from shoulders were going somewhere unknown. No building was around to be called an inn. I was curious what kind of a building contained the inn.
We were directed to an underground tunnel that had been partially raised by cement blocks from all four sides. There were more than eight rooms facing one another in the tunnel. Each room was dedicated to a certain task such as barber’s shop, bedroom, breakfast room, and the like. Here life seemed to be lived underground. The places the sentries went must have been somewhere underground as well. The first two rooms on the right had been assigned to visitors. They were called the Inn. We entered the first room that seemed to be the main reception room >>>Part 3
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