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On Fire

by CORRESPONDENT in Ilam, Iran

07 Mar 2010 21:109 Comments
6bfa7a58c8.jpgSuicides plague a town grappling with modernization.

May 2009

Ilam, a city near Kermanshah in western Iran, is surrounded by oak-covered mountains. It has very narrow streets and just a couple of main thoroughfares. But it is far from idyllic here.

Ilam is close to the Iraqi border. Rather than escape to surrounding provinces, many pitched tents in the mountains during the long war with Iraq in the 1980s. Being so close left its mark. More than half of its residents still suffer from the psychological effects of the conflict.

Ilam is also undergoing major changes. It is moving away from a deeply traditional society to a more modern one. Large families are on the decline. Many families now live in apartments, a symbol of small nuclear families. As Ilam struggles with growing pains, it has been stricken by another malady: Suicide. And it is particularly prevalent among the women.

A stroll through town

There aren't any high or even medium-rise buildings. Most structures here are made out of cement and are no more than a couple of stories high. There is no park here dotted with benches where the old can sit and chat. Ilam even lacks green patches amid all the cement. In the afternoons, senior citizens sit in the middle of the main city square.

Indeed, it's as if the officials charged with the care of this city feel absolutely no responsibility. Ilam doesn't have a single amusement, sport or entertainment facility. There is a tiny cinema, usually closed, to serve its 200,000 residents. The only way in and out of Ilam is the Ilam Road.

Ilam is isolated, not only geographically but also socially and culturally. But it's not as if the people of Ilam are homogenous. They hail from many ethnic groups and tribes, including Shuhan, Malek-Shahi, Mish-Khas, Deh-Balayi, Aali-Beygi, Khazal, Kalhor and Kavyor-Deh. Each group has its own unique tongue and dialect. Lors and Kurds dominate; the Ilamis accent is a mixture of Kurdish and Lori -- locals call it "Lak."

Because of Ilam's proximity to the Iraqi border, the culture and language are also influenced by Arab and Iraqi culture. An example is the "Arabic chador," which is the preferred form of hejab for some women.

In the early 1970s, when Ilam was split up from Kermanshah and it became an independent province, many new construction projects were implemented here. With all the new buildings and construction jobs, Ilam's population grew exponentially in two decades, from around 30,000 to the more than 200,000 it is now. However, most people held on to their nomadic culture. But that culture is increasingly at odds with the times, and with the generation coming of age in it.

Many can't cope.

Suicide by Fire

Fereshteh, a 32-year-old Ilami woman, tried to commit suicide by setting herself on fire. She lies in the burn unit of Ilam's Taleghani Hospital. Her body and face are completely covered with burns.

Fereshteh's father is a construction worker and poor. He waits outside his daughter's room. He stands up. He sits down. He lights a cigarette. At first he doesn't want to talk to me, and is even against my visiting his daughter.

Little by little, he opens up.

He doesn't cry, but he speaks slowly and in a hushed enough tone that he's not overheard. "I don't know what happened," he says. "I sent her to Tehran to get an education. After she graduated from the university, she came back to Ilam. She couldn't find work for a year, but later found a job temping at a school. The job didn't last. After she was laid off, she became very sad and quiet and stayed at home all the time."

He continues, "Yesterday I asked her why she did this to herself. She said she always wanted to go to the university and return home with a job to earn an income to help me financially. I have eight children, six girls and two boys. Fereshteh is the oldest. I guess she felt she was a burden."

Khatereh, a nurse who wears a mask on her face, says the hospital receives victims of self-immolation everyday. "It is much more common among women, but the number of men who try to commit suicide this way is also on the rise," she says. "We don't have room for most self-immolation victims. We can only hospitalize those who have been fully burned and are in critical or terminal condition."

She rearranges her mask and continues, "I can't take this anymore. If I stay in this hospital much longer, I will suffer from clinical depression myself."


According to statistics released by the World Health Organization, approximately one million people take their own lives every year worldwide. That's approximately one suicide every 40 seconds.

In Iran, officials are reluctant about releasing figures on the subject. But according to unofficial statistics compiled by experts and researchers, more than 3,000 suicides take place every year in Iran.

On the global scale, the most likely age for suicide is 55. In Iran, the median age is between 15 and 35. In Iran, the suicide rate among women is far higher than men. For every 100 women who commit suicide in this country, fewer than 10 men do.

Many of these women are victims of domestic abuse. After China and India (each with a population of more than one billion), Iran has the highest number of female suicides. The provinces with the highest number of suicides by women are Qom, Ilam, Kurdistan and Kermanshah.

Many of the women resort to burning themselves (self-immolation) or swallowing agricultural poison. According to experts, self-immolation is the fastest rising method of suicide. One reason cited for that is the flame is commonaly available. Other experts believe it is because it is a form of protest; in fact, the loudest form. Compared to poison or hanging, which are rather "quiet," self-immolation is a kind of "scream."

Official statistics from Ilam province suggest that more than 2,000 people committed suicide there from 2003 to 2007. Most of the victims resorted to poison or self-immolation. However, other methods, such as stabbing, cutting one's own throat and swallowing a box of sewing nails were also recorded.

Parvin Bakhtiyar-Nejad, author of "Burned Women," a book about the self-immolation phenomenon in Iran, attributes the suicides to a greater degree of social awareness. "Women are more cognizant of their rights now," she says. "Their inability to change the status quo or their own miserable plight, plays a crucial role. Women feel they are at a dead end in life. They lose all hope and resort to such drastic measures."

Bakhtiyar-Nejad says the phenomenon is more pronounced in Ilam because of its proximity to Iraq and the war, but also because Ilamis were nomads who lived in tents until just a generation ago. But today, a short time later, many in the younger generation are literate. They are conscious of the rights they possess, and "they know the degree to which they are being discriminated against," says Bakhtiyar-Nejad. "But since there isn't much they can do to alter their fate either, self-immolation becomes an option."

Heyraan Najafpour, a native of Ilam, is a sociologist. She has used her own money to set up an NGO in her hometown, a clinic and counseling center for those contemplating suicide. She said 95 percent of those who come to her clinic are women. "Ilam is so traditional that female drivers are still ridiculed and subject to sarcastic remarks," says Najafpour.

"Economic conditions in Ilam may have improved a little bit in the last few years, but social and cultural backwardness hasn't moved forward one iota. For instance, as soon as a young girl dresses less traditionally in these parts, she is branded as corrupt and debauched. Such accusations can easily lead to suicide here."

In Ilam people know one another as do their families.

According to locals, suicides and self-immolation have become an accepted and even expected occurrence. Najafpour confirms this in her narrative: "It is extremely sad to say, but suicide is now viewed as natural and normal and is not treated any differently in Ilam than when a person dies of old age, an accident or natural causes. In a sick way, it has even become fashionable--a cultural fad."


As I leave the small Heyraan clinic, an ad on the wall announcing the funeral of a young man draws my attention. Reza K., son of Hossein. He looks no older than 30 in the photo. I am preoccupied with the information on the poster when a man crosses the street and comes over to me.

"He blasted himself away with a gun three days ago," he says. "Mohammad, Reza's nephew, hanged himself last year in Chegha Sabz."

I grab a taxi to get some distance from this place. But the taxi driver wants to talk.

"Visiting, Miss?"

"Yes, I am."

He lights a cigarette.

"Can you please put that out?," I ask.

"You're a visitor all right," he says. "I can barely hold it together anymore. My nerves are fried. Just a few weeks ago, I picked the poor boy up in my taxi and took him back home. And now..."

The driver is referring to Pourya, a 13-year-old boy burnt beyond recognition. Apparently the boy had been abused by his stepmother, tried to run away, was forced to return home and after being beaten again, set himself on fire. His father, who tried to intervene, was also partially burned. The father and son lie side by side in Ilam's Taleghani Hospital.

"Pouya got in my cab and told me to go directly to Kermanshah without picking up any passengers," the driver says. "He wanted to get away from his stepmother. But I got in touch with his father and talked him out of it with great difficulty. I drove him back home. I wish I hadn't done that. This may have never happened."


Yar-Mohammad Ghasemi, a sociology professor at Ilam University, and a native, believes his hometown is in a state of painful transformation and attributes the malady first and foremost to this. "Ilam modernized too quickly," he says.

"On the surface, the Ilam of today is 180 degrees more modern than the backward Ilam of a generation ago," he says. "Cars, television sets, satellite dishes, mobile phones, modern homes and apartments and the other technological instruments of the modern world didn't exist in Ilam 30 years ago. But the problem was that the people of this area essentially remained nomads culturally and socially with only a facade of modernity and without the requisite urban culture."

A society founded on community, nomadic values and respect for elders, says the academic, came up against the values of a modern society founded on individualism. "Of course, there are other factors, such as the psychological effects of the war, but in my view, the seminal and determining cause for the record number of suicides is the clash between modernism and traditionalism."

Ghasemi believes the clash between young and old creates not only an identity crisis, it also leads to depression, addiction, alcoholism, crime, social vandalism, murder, suicide and self-immolation.

What can be done?

"I believe it is too late to stop it," Ghasemi says. "It is like a cancer that has metastasized in the body. Ilam will just have to suffer through this excruciating and agonizing phase.

"Of course, I believe the government's policies and actions also help to exacerbate the suicide craze here. By replacing old nomadic dwellings with modern apartments, the officials in charge will not be able to enhance and modernize the culture of the people here. The government's technocratic outlook is not a solution to the social and cultural problems of Ilam."

This story was originally published by Tehran Bureau on May 10, 2009.

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau

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kambiz said...

Refined and detailed and stylish. Well Done.
April 14, 2009 9:54 PM

tehranbureau / May 1, 2009 5:18 PM

What a tragedy. My heart goes to the people of Ilam especially women. Why women have always to suffer more in this world? All Iran's oil money goes to support terrorists rather than help to bring education and work to people in Iran. What a sham to this shameless government!

azadibarayema / July 21, 2009 12:12 AM

just one hope, be sure that times will changes !

patrick desdouits / March 7, 2010 10:48 PM

This heartbreaking story is another testament to the regime's utter bi orzegi. Towns in Iran should not be wastelands without any type of facilities to make life interesting and worthwhile for its residents.

samira / March 8, 2010 12:15 AM

maybe it is time for universities in Iran to be more realistic and not just teaching an utopia kind of life. we can blame everything on governments and regimes and so on, but the truth is much deeper. I was grown up in Tehran and went to university and used to think that life can be perfect and peaceful and fun, I was full of lie and unreality.I was spoiled by my family, schools and society and it hit me when I left Iran .. the truth about life, it is not just the regime ... it's the way our people think and raise the generations ... life is tough and we get laid off and get disappointed every day, but we have to keep going .. why? because suicide is the easiest way to deal with our problems. I have no doubt that life is hard and unbearable in most part of Iran, but enough with blaming others.the problem is within us ... I hate Ahmadinejad regime same as all of us, but sometimes I hate myself even more, because I knew better and I didn't try to make changes ... I just left!

Arezoo / March 8, 2010 2:30 AM

Arezoo, obviously you've no memories of the relatively vast shanty parts of Tehran, 1970.

You also appear to be unaware of present conditions in Compton, East Oakland, Richmond and Hunters Point, right here in California, USA.

It's too easy to sit back from afar, focus on, and diss Iran's faults. Believe me, one can do that from practically anywhere.

My advice is to right yourself. And stop the hate.

Pirouz / March 8, 2010 11:26 AM

Human tinder...

All is needed is one spark and these people will flood the cities and vent their wrath on the regime.

Social dislocation is human TNT...everyone from Mao, to Lenin to Mullahs know this and fear it deeply.

One spark...

Shah / March 8, 2010 9:13 PM


Whats the relevance of your reply to Arezoo's comment?????


Agha Irani / March 9, 2010 12:29 PM

Ilam is in an oil producing region. Neither the Shah, nor the IRI could and can afford independent people with allegiance to their tribes be around. They can become a strong opposition force against the rape of their land's resources, or at least a one way exploitation. Thus, a depopulation program has been set in motion nearly 100 years ago and continues.

First, note that Ilam has enough oil and gas to make inhabitants as rich as Alaskans, they can even see American from their back porch now.

Consdier Armenia. The west is slowly emptying that country of its population to pave the way for oil and gas pipelines without any opposition. Armenia has no oil or gas, but it is on the way of oil form the Caspian. Ilam has both, and thus must be subjugated in a similar manner.

At least Armenians can choose to sell out and leave, and if choose so, they even get settlement visas to the US or somewhere in the EU. People of Ilam don't have that opportunity because they have been too peaceful and not politically aware.

Their story goes back to early 20th century and the push to control them by the central governments since. The racist propaganda program of Reza Shah against the Lors could not have had a positive effect. Today, the regime of IRI is following the same path but more methodically. Same pogrom, a different program.

All of this is to make energy accessible and cheap. We all use energy beyond our real needs. People in energy-rich regions have to pay the price. The IRI is just one link in the chain to your and my gas tanks here in the US. The people of Ilam are at the short end of it. Want to help? Didn't think so. Our apathy is so depressing.

nassim sabba / April 13, 2010 12:29 AM