An excerpt from Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran (2000).
The distinctive characteristic of a martyr is that he charges the atmosphere
with courage and zeal. He revives the spirit of valor and fortitude ... among
the people who have lost it. That is why Islam is always in need of martyrs.
--Undated Iranian handbook in English, The Martyr
When Imam Hosein decided to leave for Kufa, some prudent members of his family
tried to dissuade him. Their argument was that his action was not logical. They
were right in their own way. ... But Imam Hosein had a higher logic. His logic
was that of a martyr, which is beyond the comprehension of ordinary people.
--Undated Iranian handbook in English, The Martyr
HAMID RAHIMIAN lives for the dead.
As the director of the martyrs' section of the biggest necropolis in Iran, he
is driven by one goal: to keep alive the memory of his fallen comrades until he
can join them. They were the lucky ones, he said. They had died on the
battlefield during Iran's war with Iraq and had gone to paradise.
Hamid had only been wounded. And survival means that the twenty-nine-year-old
veteran is condemned, psychologically, to the living hell of waiting for his
own death. He would have committed suicide had the Koran not forbidden it. "I
dream of martyrdom," he told me over tea and biscuits in his small, airless,
run-down office. "I am waiting for it to happen. To prepare myself, I have
eliminated all personal relationships. I have no attachment to my wife or son,
only to God."
Much of Hamid's life has revolved around suffering. He was only nine when the
revolution triumphed. And four years later, when he was in seventh grade, he
forged his birth certificate, ran away from home, and headed for the war front
as a member of the baseej ("mobilized"), the volunteer corps drawn
primarily from devout, poor families and dedicated to serving in God's war.
As Hamid's story unfolded, his body seized up as he stuttered and choked out
the words. His pale face twisted in pain. "I was in a truck with twenty-one
others," he said with difficulty. "We were on the road between Khorramshahr and
Ahwaz. The Iraqis surrounded us with tanks. One tank hit us hard. Five of my
comrades were martyred immediately. Cut into pieces. The rest of us were badly
Hamid's lungs were seared and permanently scarred. His heart was damaged. Both
arms and legs were badly broken. The cruel irony is that the attack came on
September 9, 1988, after Iran and Iraq had signed a cease-fire ending their
eight-year war. "These are my last days," Hamid told me more than a decade
later. "The doctors don't have hope anymore. I know that I will die soon. That
is when I'll begin my new life."
Every day for five years he has come to his office in the House of Martyrs in
the center of Behesht-e Zahra, Tehran's vast cemetery, to fall under death's
spell. The job pays the equivalent of $45 a month. Still, Hamid feels
privileged. "I came here to work because my friends are buried here," he said.
"They told me that if they died I must follow their path. The Koran says,
'Those who die for God are martyrs, and the martyrs never die. They live
Hamid is a Shiite, and he fervently believes in the Shiite version of history,
its lore and its rituals. Ayatollah Khomeini had told the Hamids of Iran that
martyrdom was a perfect death, and they believed him. If they couldn't die, at
least they could keep that spirit alive.
So every year, in speeches, passion plays, and processions of penance, the
Shiites of Iran celebrate the ten days in which Hosein, the grandson of the
Prophet Mohammad, defended his family and followers at the battle of Karbala.
Every year for centuries on the anniversary of Hosein's death, men and boys
like Hamid have flagellated themselves with chains and beat themselves over the
head. Those at the front of the procession dress themselves in white burial
shrouds and chant the story of the slaughter. In 1640, a Turkish traveler to
Iran described the ceremony: "Hundreds of Hosein's devotees beat and wounded
their heads, faces, and bodies with swords and knives. For the love of Imam
Hosein they make their blood flow. The green grassy field becomes bloodied and
looks like a field of poppies."
Under the Islamic Republic, however, the practice has come to resemble an
officially condoned carnival as much as an act of religious mortification. The
ceremonies are organized through neighborhood congregations called hey-ats
and for nights beforehand participants practice their walk, their rhythm,
and their chain-beating. They learn a trick to halt the movement of the chains
and soften the blows. They take their practicing seriously, and since it is all
in the name of religion, their wives can hardly complain. In fact, in recent
years women and girls have tagged along to march and watch the spectacle -- and
For Shiites, the battle of Karbala is the equivalent of the passion and
crucifixion of Jesus, the self-flagellation reminiscent of the medieval
practice of self-mutilation, carrying of the Cross, and physical deprivation
that survives in parts of the Christian world today. In recent years during
Moharram, the month of mourning, Iran's authorities tried to ban the most
excessive ritual in which worshippers shave their heads and carve them open
with swords. As Ayatollah Khamenei said in denouncing the ritual in 1999, it
"gives the impression that Shiite Muslims are superstitious and irrational."
Even so, the cult of martyrdom has deep roots in Iran's Shiite culture, and
Khomeini was a master at manipulating the homegrown strain of martyrdom and its
lust for sacrifice. During a sermon in Qom for Moharram in 1963 Khomeini
likened the oppression of the Iranian people under the Shah's monarchy to
Hosein's martyrdom. When Khomeini was arrested shortly afterward, men and women
alike wrapped themselves in white funeral shrouds as symbols of their readiness
to die for him.
Once the struggle for power was joined, the spilling of blood came to be
embraced, not avoided. As Iran's revolution was unfolding during the Moharram
ceremony in 1978, demonstrators caught in a battle with the Shah's troops
smeared their hands with the blood of the victims and raised their palms toward
heaven. In the months before the revolution Khomeini said, "Our movement is but
a fragile plant. It needs the blood of martyrs to help it grow into a towering
tree." The Black Friday Massacre in Tehran on September 8, 1978, in which
hundreds of demonstrators were killed by the Shah's troops, was a key event in
precipitating the downfall of the Shah. Khomeini called that day the "victory
of blood over the sword."
When Khomeini returned to Iran in 1979 he had his priorities right, Hamid told
me. The first thing Khomeini did was to fly by helicopter to this very cemetery
to mourn the victims of Black Friday. He was hoisted onto a platform, where he
raised a fist before tens of thousands of his followers. "For those of you who
have given up so much for God, God must soon give you the prize," he told
But now, more than two decades later, Hamid was still waiting for the prize.
Hamid seemed to know every road, every monument, every grave in Behesht-e
Zahra, even though it extended for miles over a vast plain off the busy highway
leading out of Tehran to Qom. The cemetery had been built in the 1950s and had
expanded over the years to become Tehran's principal burial ground. As one of
the few public spaces in Tehran safe from attack by the security forces before
the revolution, it became, in addition, a meeting place for opponents of the
Today, a sculpture of a great white hand holding a red tulip, the flower of
martyrdom, beckons visitors at the entrance of the complex. Inside, men and
women gather to lay wreaths, pour rosewater, and recite verses of the Koran as
they caress the tombstones of their dead husbands in an effort to make contact
with their spirits. The cemetery is well organized for visitors, with a
playground, park benches, public toilets, a convenience store, a computer
center for locating graves, a kebab restaurant and a planned Metro station.
A walk through Behesht-e Zahra is a walk through the Islamic Republic's
political history. One section houses the bodies of the National Front leaders,
Islamic liberal intellectuals who opposed the Shah and joined forces with
Khomeini. A second section is reserved for the victims of the Shah's secret
police and military during the revolution. A third is assigned to officials
killed in the terrorist bombing of the headquarters of the revolution's Islamic
Republic Party in 1981. The section where Hamid works houses acres of graves
for the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war.
From 1980 through 1988, when the country was at war with Iraq, the wide,
tree-lined roads at Behesht-e Zahra seemed perpetually clogged with mourners.
Professional flagellators-for-hire wandered about in those days, prepared with
wooden-handled bunches of chains to whip across their backs and shoulders in
frenzied rituals of mourning. Military musicians playing saxophones, clarinets,
trumpets, and drums sometimes accompanied the caskets of particularly important
martyrs. Visiting the cemetery became a form of recreation, with extended
families picnicking on the graves amid the evergreens and junipers and along
the canals as they watched the spectacles. Mullahs told stories about martyrdom
-- for pay -- in singsong voices that made people cry.
On the day I met Hamid, the martyrs' section was nearly deserted. But that
didn't diminish his enthusiasm. He led me through rows and rows of graves of
small slabs of gray stone set into concrete. Marking each grave is a framed
glass case containing both religious icons and intensely intimate mementos:
Koranic texts, green banners bearing religious inscriptions, worry beads, and
prayer stones, next to plastic childhood toys and figurines from wedding cakes.
Some of the cases include bits of tattered and bloody clothing worn by the
victims at the time of their deaths. But there is something else, startling to
an American: photographs of the dead that stare back.
The war martyrs look so hopeful. And so young. The colored polyester flags that
fly from the metal cases -- for the Islamic Republic, for Islam, for mourning,
for martyrdom, for the army, for the ready-to-die volunteers -- add a macabre
festive look. Hamid showed me the grave in plot twenty-six that he said
sometimes gives off the smell of perfumed flowers, even though no flowers grow
there. And the grave in plot twenty-seven where the spirit of Fatemeh,
Mohammad's daughter, comes and cries out in the middle of the night.
("Behesht-e Zahra" means "Paradise of Zahra," one of the names given to
Fatemeh.) And the grave in plot twenty-four where a mother of a martyr named
Ali Derakhshani built a tiny house of green metal for herself years ago,
enabling her to live above her son's grave. An empty grave nearby awaits the
Hamid showed me another grave in plot twenty-four where Hosein Fahmideh, a
thirteen-year-old suicide bomber, is buried. In 1981, the story goes, Fahmideh
strapped a bomb to his belly, crawled under an Iraqi tank, and blew himself up.
Khomeini later called the boy "our leader," adding, "The value of his little
heart is greater than could be described by hundreds of tongues and hundreds of
pens. ... He drank the sweet elixir of martyrdom." In 1986, Iran celebrated his
martyrdom by issuing a commemorative stamp. The occasion was the annual
Universal Day of the Child.
Hamid showed me the high, wide-tiered fountain built for the martyred war dead.
The fountain had once cascaded crimson-colored water dyed to look like blood.
As more war dead came home, the cemetery grew bigger, so big that satellite
fountains of martyrs' blood had to be built. The martyrs are "irrigating the
revolutionary seed," officials liked to say. But after the war, the fountains
were turned off. On the day of my visit, the main one was dry. When I asked
Hamid why, he shrugged and said, "There are many things that have lost their
color after twenty years. One of them is the color of the fountain. Some
traitorous officials claim that the red color is a reminder of the blood shed
during the war and since there is no war the fountain should not run red
anymore. If it were up to me, I would build fountains in every single square in
the country and fill them with red water to remind people of the sacrifices of
the martyrs." ...
BY FAR THE BEST WAY to keep the memories fresh, Hamid told me, is to watch war
films in the cemetery's theater hall. On the day of my visit, we were the only
people in the audience. The theater was stuffy, the films grainy and grisly. He
chose one of his favorites. It was about the return of the remains of Iranian
soldiers years after the war. In one scene, a widow is given the bones of her
husband. She picks them up one by one and kisses them, smiling, as if in a
trance. She caresses the skull and speaks to it. "Your baby child is a man
now!" she cries.
In another film a group of teenage soldiers prepare for a battle. They strap on
their weapons and fire artillery against the enemy. They run up hills and fire
handheld weapons and machine guns from behind sandbags. Then they begin to die.
In one scene, two soldiers drag the body of a wounded comrade who has lost both
his legs. The camera focuses on the bloody stumps. In another, the camera zooms
in on the body of a decapitated soldier propped up on sandbags. In a third, a
body has been cut in two. In a fourth, a sixteen-year-old soldier with both
legs sliced off screams in agony, "Allah! Allah! Allah! Allah! I die for you,
Hosein! I give up my life for you!"
As we watched, Hamid wept so deeply that I wanted to reach out to console him.
But I knew my touch would be rebuffed. "These are the scenes I have seen!" he
moaned. "I can never come back to life. I feel martyrdom with my two hands!"
The only time Hamid smiled in the hours we spent together was when he showed me
a three-minute black and white film of his unit preparing for their fateful
operation the day their truck was hit. One shot showed a much younger Hamid
looking shyly at the camera as he boarded a bus headed to the front.
"We gave up the best days of our lives," Hamid said. "We gave up our education.
Some of us died. Some of us were wounded. Now the ideals we fought for have
been buried. The new generation doesn't want us anymore. This country is
becoming so materialistic. It is losing its martyrdom mentality. Even worse,
there is a plot to eliminate the fighting generation."
Hamid cursed the authorities in Tehran for building cultural centers and
high-rise apartment complexes instead of better graves for the martyrs and more
museums in their honor.
He cursed society for forgetting the sacrifices of his generation, telling the
story of how he once fell ill on the street, but was turned away from a
hospital because he didn't have the money to pay.
He cursed the privileged sons of high-ranking officials who drove fancy cars
and carried mobile phones and even socialized openly with young women.
He cursed commercial filmmakers for presenting sanitized versions of the war.
"They show soldiers clean, their hair full of gel," he said. "It's humiliating.
It makes a joke of what we endured."
He cursed the United States for the "crimes" it committed over decades -- in
Vietnam, in Iran, in Nicaragua.
Nicaragua? I hadn't thought about Nicaragua in a long time. "What were
America's crimes in Nicaragua?" I asked Hamid.
"I don't remember," he said. "But I know they were bad."
He also blamed the United States for Iraq's war with Iran. In that, at least, I
found a refrain that was common among Iranians of all political leanings and
all degrees of religious fervor: the United States and its Western partners
wanted Saddam Hussein to go to war against Iran to keep their country weak and
force its experiment with revolution to fail. Iranians found proof of that in
the world's reaction to Saddam's invasion in 1980. The United States merely
cautioned that it "could not condone" Iraq's seizure of Iran's province of
Khuzestan. It took the United Nations Security Council more than a week to pass
a resolution that urged the combatants "to refrain immediately from any further
use of force." The resolution did not call for a cease-fire or for a withdrawal
of Iraq's troops to its borders. And it did not threaten any military action
against Iraq as it would ten years later after Iraq invaded Kuwait.
Though there is no evidence that the United States played a part in Iraq's
invasion, the American tilt toward Iraq after Iran went on the offensive in
1982 and the coordination of a global arms embargo of Iran convinced Iranians
that the United States had taken sides. Toward the end of the war, the United
States shared intelligence with Iraq on Iranian troop strength, which the
Iraqis used in their offensives. And as part of its protection of oil tankers
in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. Navy sank Iran's ships, destroyed oil platforms,
and captured and killed Iranian crew members. Hamid saw America's continued
military presence in the Gulf as evidence of a strategy to dominate Iran.
Hamid's final curses were reserved for President Khatami, who, he felt, had
abandoned the generation of the war. Khatami had not even come to visit the
martyrs' graves to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the revolution.
Khatami, in fact, was no believer in permanent sacrifice. He had even stopped
groups from chanting "Death to America" during a speech he gave to tens of
thousands of students at the University of Tehran in May 1998, on the first
anniversary of his election as President. "In any gathering in which I am
present," he said, "I would prefer there to be talk of life and not death."
[Ayatollah] Khamenei was Hamid's hero, a "war-disabled" himself, Hamid said,
because of the injuries suffered in a 1981 assassination attempt. "The leader
came here and prayed in the martyrs' section for an hour," Hamid said. "He
thanked us. He told us to stay on the path of the martyrs. I kissed his
"Is the country going on the wrong path, then?" I asked.
"One hundred percent," Hamid replied. Then he stopped himself. "This
conversation may get too political." Hamid did not want me to see his
reflection in the mirror too clearly. I knew that I had pushed far enough, and
Hamid acknowledged that he was fighting on a more mundane battlefield now, to
keep his job as the cemetery hired new employees with different ideas. "The new
ones are bureaucrats who just come to the office and sign papers," he
complained. "They haven't seen their friends die in a sea of their own
The grisly footage in the hot auditorium had made me sick to my stomach. I
asked to be shown to the ladies' room. Hamid proudly showed me a sign that
read, "This way to the American and Israeli embassies." That's what the toilets
at the martyrs' museum are called.
"So show me to my embassy," I said.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"The American embassy."
"You're American?" he asked in disbelief. "I didn't know. They said you were
French. I'm so, so sorry."
With much fanfare, Hamid ordered a subordinate to take down the sign. Hamid
tore it up in little bits as he led me down the stairs.
When I came back up to say goodbye, we talked about the war front again. I told
him that I had covered the war as a reporter and had also seen the carnage,
from both sides of the border, including the aftermath of a battle in which the
Iraqis had used chemical weapons against the Iranians.
"What a tragedy that you could not have found martyrdom at the battlefield," he
"But I don't want to die," I protested. "My kids need me. And your son needs
"I try not to love him too much, so that he will not miss me when I die," Hamid
said of his two-year-old son, Mohammad.
"Well then, love him until you die," I said.
It was then that Hamid let down his guard. Proud like any father, he said, "Oh,
sometimes I take him to the playground. He's a great kid. Maybe you can come to
our house and meet him one day."
"Inshallah," I said, "God willing," knowing it would never happen.
Hamid then surprised me again. The man who hated and cursed America wanted to
visit. "Maybe I can take some time off and learn English," he said. "Can you
help me get a passport and a visa?"
I suddenly found myself connecting with Hamid. I had gotten him to admit he was
proud of his son. Now he was talking about visiting the United States. "Would
you come?" I asked incredulously.
"Yes," he replied.
"Would you really come?"
The significance of his confession finally sunk in.
"Uh, no, no," he said. "There's too much corruption there."
But perhaps Hamid wasn't quite ready to die.
IRAN CAME OUT of the war sobered, convinced of the futility of armed force as a
means of settling its international conflicts. When an American-led coalition
went to war against Iraq in 1991, Iran stayed out.
Keeping alive the spirit of martyrdom in the minds of the Iranian people became
harder. "The major casualty of the war," wrote the Iranian-born historian and
author Shahram Chubin in 1989, "has been the credibility of the Islamic
Republic among its own rank and file. It will no longer be able to effectively
call upon its populace for crusades and sacrifices, but will have to act more
like a normal state." Some critics of the system even called for the abolition
of the baseej volunteer corps. Within the next decade, Iran's economy
was in such crisis that the government began to sell exemptions to the two
years of compulsory military service. A complex sliding scale was created: a
Ph.D. paid three times what a high school dropout did. Mehdi Mahdavi-Kia, a
star on the national soccer team, was exempted from the draft as a reward for
scoring a spectacular second-half goal in Iran's World Cup soccer victory over
the United States in 1998.
To preserve what is left of the war mentality, pockets of resistance within the
leadership, hard-core believers, continue to train a new generation of would-be
martyrs. Every summer, hundreds of teenage boys and girls from all over the
country are brought to the Bahonar Camping Center, a sprawling, beautifully
landscaped estate in the mountains high above Tehran, for an all-expenses-paid
week of prayers, revolutionary songs, and inspiration. Most of them are the
sons and daughters of men who died in the war with Iraq.
On a recent visit, I attended a rally in a vast auditorium decorated with
photos of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei. The boys sat in front, the red
kerchiefs of the baseej around their necks. A young woman sitting next
to me in the back showed me her spiral notebook. On the front, where an
American teenager might tape a picture of a rock star, she had taped a photo of
A short, bearded middle-aged man in glasses whipped up the group's emotions.
Holding up a photograph of an unnamed martyr, he shouted, "I saw the bullets
hitting his face and his body and I wanted to throw myself into the war." He
told the story of a young woman who scooped up soil from the battlefront. "The
soil was bloody, bloody, bloody," he sobbed. "She put it into a flower bed to
help the flowers grow." He told the stories with the same long laments used by
the mullahs in the mosques to encourage the faithful to weep on special days of
mourning, and each reminiscence drove him and his audience to weeping. One
teenage girl uttered a piercing cry. She fainted and was carried from the hall.
Even the boys were sobbing now.
Sometime after the visit, I asked Khatami's chef de cabinet, Mohammad-Ali
Abtahi, about the baseej camp and what purpose it serves. "These are the
same types of people who beat their chests at the mourning rituals," he said.
"But we can't expect our youth to beat their chests and mourn every day. Even
if they insist on doing this we shouldn't all follow it because it leads to
extremism. Joy and happiness is a part of youth too."
"But these are government-funded camps," I replied. "Why not shut them down?"
He answered with a shrug. Clearly this is a part of the Islamic Republic that
the President does not control. The camp represents a side of Iran that seems
to have been made permanently sad and twisted, one that remains stuck in the
grisly psychology of a cult of martyrdom.
Yet it is hard for me to believe this war fever can be sustained. That's
because there are so many other pieces in the mosaic that is Iranian society,
illustrating that flexibility and improvisation can bring renewal even after so
dark a period of horror. ...
Excerpted from Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran. Copyright
© 2000 by Elaine Sciolino. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.
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