PART II: If you want the ultimate pleasure step on a landmine

(Autumn 1980–Summer 1988)

Autumn 1980

A dog runs to fetch his bone. Suddenly, he freezes. The screen goes blank, and then across it appear a few words in the largest possible typeface accompanied by the threatening voice of the narrator. ‘Dear citizens, the sound that you are about to hear is the Red Alarm, meaning that we are being attacked by air. You should turn off the lights and begin moving towards your shelters NOW!’ Then the alarm began, deafening and continuous, and our hearts leapt into our mouths. Mum clutched little Golnar, grabbed the torch and began to run towards the stairs. Dad leapt up to turn off the lights while Madar pulled me by the hand towards the cellar, whispering prayers in Arabic. The blasts began before I could reach the stairs; the sound made my knees tremble and slowed my reflexes. It was the anti-aircraft missiles shooting in the air at random to keep away the Iraqi planes. Dad joined us, took my other hand and shouted angrily, ‘Be a man, Arash! Your sister needs you downstairs!’

I tried, I tried very hard to overcome the invincible fear within me, I tried hard to be the man Dad expected me to be but I couldn’t. I felt like throwing up. I didn’t want to die under tons of rubble: I was only 10. I was not supposed to be running for my life: I was supposed to wait and see if the dog finally got his bone.

Once we were in the cellar, the fear was replaced by a sense of expectation. We were in the dark; I couldn’t see but I could hear. I heard Dad struggling to light the candles we had been stocking in the cellar since the air raids began. I could hear Madar whispering in Arabic: ‘Allah is the protecting guardian of those who believe. He bringeth them out of darkness into light . . .’ I could hear Golnar sobbing and Mum trying to catch her breath. Through the thick walls of the cellar I could also hear the muffled sound of the blasts. Above all, I could hear the pounding of my heart.

Dad managed to light the candles and turn on his radio. We listened to military marches while we waited for the threat to pass. The war was not ‘cool’, not like those films which hailed it as an opportunity for the valiant to prove themselves and which always ended with the death of the bad guys. I wasn’t feeling valiant at all. My knees wouldn’t stop trembling.

Dad decided to distract us with a game, a traditional one. The first person recites a verse from a Persian poet and the second has to recite another that begins with the last letter of the previous one.

Dad: ‘I wish there was a place for me to unload / Or a final ending to this longest road’ (Khayyam).

Mum: ‘Dead is whoever does not live by love / Bury him by my command even if he breathes’ (Hafiz)

I: ‘Seek no kindness of those full of hate / People of the mosque with the church debate’ (Hafiz).

This took my mind off the crisis but it didn’t help four-year-old Golnar; she didn’t know any poetry and found it hard to stop crying.

Finally, after what seemed an age, the narrator’s voice interrupted the military marches on the radio. ‘Dear citizens, we are happy to announce that the threat has passed and the sound you are about to hear is the White Alarm. You can now leave your shelters and return to your habitations.’ We heaved a sigh of relief. We would live another night.

The Iranian Army was considerably weakened and most of its experienced commanders had been executed. Hence, Saddam Hussein considered this an opportune moment to attack Iran and seize control of the Persian Gulf. Casting aside the 1975 agreement between Iran and Iraq that had ended the war between them and resolved their border disputes, he declared war. Announcing that the Iraqi army would reach Tehran in three days, he launched a full-scale attack. Iran, caught by surprise, couldn’t react quickly enough and several cities in the southwest were captured, most notably Khorramshahr, one of the most strategic sites in the war.

Khomeini retaliated by appointing Bani-Sadr as his Commander-in-Chief and declaring that there was no shortage of manpower in Iran. The people were asked to join the Basij and fight against the invaders: ‘A country that has 20 million young people has 20 million soldiers.’ This was the beginning of the institutionalization of the Basij, an army of volunteer militiamen formed a year ago.

Hundreds of thousands enrolled; after two weeks of training, they were sent to the front to stop the Iraqi advance. Although the newly formed Basij and the Revolutionary Guards had very little training, they surprised Saddam Hussein with their courage. Thousands of them died in the first weeks, fighting heavily armed Iraqis with their bare hands, among them a 13-year-old boy who tied several grenades to his body and ran under a tank as it rolled into the city. The tank exploded and blocked the way for other tanks for a while. It was then that Khomeini called upon the nation to follow the young martyr’s example. ‘Our leader is this 13-year-old child who, with his little heart that is worth more than hundreds of tongues and pens, threw himself with his grenades under the tank of the enemy and destroyed it, and drank from the chalice of martyrdom.’

Suddenly, disputes over the structure of the government faded away as the war took over the nation. Saddam didn’t expect such a firm resistance and the war that was expected to last only three days turned into eight bitter years of incessant fighting and destroyed the resources of both countries.