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

In the summer of 1981, after our final exams, our school announced that all the fifth graders due to begin junior high the following year had to go to summer school. The classes began about 15 days after the death of Ahmadreza but by now I had become so familiar with death that it no longer held its old mysteries or terrors. We had all lost members of our families, either during the Revolution, in the purges afterwards or in the war. We had grown desensitized; the word ‘death’ no longer disturbed us, neither did the news of the delivery of yet another dead body to the neighbourhood. We were the children of the Revolution, preparing ourselves to defend it when the time came.

Contrary to my parents’ idea, summer school was not about preparing for junior high at all. In accordance with a quote by Prophet Muhammad, parents and teachers were encouraged to teach their children archery and swimming in preparation for the jihad, the holy war. The regime had decided to interpret ‘archery’ as ‘military training’.

We had to be in school every morning at 8. The day began with Quran classes: we were taught how to read the verses correctly, how to translate them and understand their true meaning. Those who were thought to have good voices were forced to take extra classes in recitation, and in the music that accompanied the verses during the readings. I never had a good voice; so I was spared.

After the Quran classes we had Islamic training, where we learnt about the Sharia, its law and practice. We were taught how to fast, how to pray and how to enter the lavatories with our left feet first.

Then we had political classes: the teachers taught us, 11-year-old children, that America was the Great Satan, Israel the embodiment of evil on earth and Saddam Hussein the envoy of the Devil sent to destroy Islam. We were told that the executed had been ‘corrupters on earth’; they had waged war against God and execution was the minimum punishment they deserved. We were also taught to spy on our parents, friends and family and encouraged to inform our teachers if we noticed our older siblings indulging in any suspicious activities. We were also told about the advantages of martyrdom, the highest honour for a Muslim, and that we had to pay the utmost respect to our compatriots being martyred in the war against Iraq. We were encouraged to nurture an exclusive desire: to join them as soon as possible. Our teacher convinced us that if we were fortunate enough to be killed on the battlefield while fighting for Islam, then our spirits would be received on the spot by houris, beautiful women who resided in Paradise and whose job was to provide every conceivable sexual pleasure for those who were privileged enough to enter Heaven.

According to our teacher, the exquisite houris would embrace us and, even while we were still soaring to Heaven, begin to make love to us. This language was not specific to our teacher but was common propaganda. Now that all potential competition had been wiped out, the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij had entered the war, body and soul. But because of the sanctions against Iran that deprived them of modern artillery against the Iraqi troops armed to the teeth with the latest in military hardware, a completely new strategy was devised: soldiers became the living shields that guarded the country, forming barriers of flesh against the barrage of the enemy.

More than a million people, between 13 and 60 years of age, but mainly in the 16–25 group, volunteered to go to the front to fight the ‘heretic Saddamists’,: the Iraqi army, as it had been labelled by our government. Most of them received only two weeks’ military training before they were dispatched to the front with Russian AK-47s, wearing Basij uniforms and sporting headbands that bore the slogan ‘O Hussein’. Like Imam Hussein, they were ready for martyrdom. The commanders used them as human shields against the advanced Iraqi artillery. When Iraq’s ground forces attacked, they would be confronted by thousands of soldiers who weren’t afraid to die. The Iraqis would open fire, the young Iranians would fall to the ground and thousands more would step up to take their place. The more the Iraqis killed, the more volunteers joined the Basij. The new strategy did indeed work a lot better than Bani-Sadr’s plans for conventional warfare. The Iraqi army was paralyzed.

Unexpected attacks across the border took Saddam by surprise. How could it happen? The Iraqis ensured that the land taken from Iran was made impregnable: they planted thousands of landmines along a new and deadly border that stretched for 1,458 km between Iran and Iraq. There was no way of clearing those mines. We didn’t have sophisticated minesweeping equipment, true but we had soldiers. A lot of them.

The night before that attack, the volunteers gathered for communal prayers. After their prayers, they listened to stories about Imam Hussein and his followers and their courage. Though they knew they would die, they fought against evil until their very last breath.

Operations were to begin early in the morning. The first task was to clear a path through the minefield for the tanks and the troops. It was then that the commander would appear before the troops and give a sermon on the joys of martyrdom, the pleasures of being accepted into God’s presence. Then he would ask for volunteers to run through the minefield, thus triggering off the mines and clearing the way for the tanks.

Surprisingly, there was no shortage of volunteers. Soldiers fought to be chosen as one of the martyrs-to-be. So much so that the commander was almost spoilt for choice. The shouts of joy from the Chosen Ones echoed through the battlefield. Those who were left out would cry and implore to be sent instead.

The Chosen Ones said goodbye to their compatriots, asked for their sins to be forgiven, handed over their last will and testament to a trusted friend and then waited for the order to go forward, their eyes glowing and their faces shining with joy. The ‘testaments’ all followed the same pattern. First, praises to Allah and the Hidden Imam and Khomeini for giving them the privilege of martyrdom. Then, a request to friends and families to be loyal to the ideals of the Revolution and Imam Khomeini. And, finally, mention of more mundane matters, such as debts that needed to be cleared.

The commander reassured them of their instant reception by the houris, and then gave the order to proceed. Almost all the volunteers would be killed. At the very least, they would lose a leg. But the vital path would be opened up in the fastest and most effective minesweeping operation ever seen.

The story of the houris was supported by another legend. Much in the manner of the odd UFO spotted in the sky, rumours of an extraordinary sight began to spread among the troops. A man, in a white mask and cape, and riding on a white horse, appeared before the soldiers and led the Iranian Basij to victory against the Iraqi infidels. All the soldiers were convinced that it was the Hidden Imam himself, although no two persons could come up with the same description. Even Imam Khomeini implied in his speeches that these sightings were authentic. ‘Our army is fighting the American Saddam under the Hidden Imam’s support. Our nation will conquer the world of heresy by the grace of the Hidden Imam’s flag . . .’

When Al-Mahdi, the Hidden Imam, himself was fighting for us, wouldn’t it be sacrilege for us to not join him? But it didn’t last long. The sightings of the mysterious white horseman grew less frequent and the story of the houris faded away. There was no need for them any more: enough blood had been shed to incite every man to fight for his country.

And the faces of the cities had changed. At the entrance to each alley you would find a hijlah, literally a ‘wedding bed’ but, in fact, a memorial stand with the photograph of a young soldier who had just been killed at the front. Set up near their homes by their families, these had to remain for 40 days after the death of the loved one, especially if she or he had died young. The local authorities were kept busy too, changing the names of the streets and alleys to honour the war martyrs: Shahid (martyr) Salehi, Shahid Fakouri, Shahid Hassani, Shahid this, Shahid that and Shahid the other . . .

If you walk in Tehran today, it will be difficult to find a road, a street, even a tiny alley, that doesn’t bear a martyr’s name. Sometimes disputes broke out among the inhabitants of that street or alley over the choice of martyr for its name: which family would have the honour of seeing their son’s name up on the wall? People no longer cared about Paradise; it was dignity, revenge and the feeling that they were responsible for the safety of their families that pulled them like magnets to the front.

Ironically, most of those who took over the Revolutionary Guard after the war, and the majority of those who claim to be members of the Basij today, have never been to war. Those who did so were killed, maimed or lost their health or their minds. They bore not the slightest resemblance to the Basij who shot Neda and the others, nor to those who tortured and raped the detainees. Had it not been for the courage and sacrifice of the real warriors, none of us would have lived to see this day.

We were all being prepared for martyrdom that summer and most of us couldn’t wait till we had the chance to meet our houris, even though we were still a few years away from puberty and wouldn’t have known what to do with the beautiful women had we met them.

In the afternoons at our summer school, it was either military training or swimming lessons. Military training entailed how to use, dismantle, clean and mount assault rifles; target practice; learning to be part of a unit; war strategy; and hand-to-hand combat.

The swimming lessons were not as aggressive.