The Martyrdom of Hossein Kharrazi

Christopher de Bellaigue

Hossein Kharrazi’s bicycle was leaning against the wall of his parents’ house in Isfahan. Mrs Kharrazi told me to come in, rearranging her chador so it wouldn’t slide off her head. I took off my shoes and she showed me into a living-room that looked onto a courtyard with a persimmon tree in the middle. There was a big mural on one of the walls, a copy of a photograph I’d seen before. It showed Hossein in combat fatigues, talking into two microphones that had been taped together. He was telling his men why the war against Iraq was a sacred war, and that if they were killed they would go to paradise.

I was drawn to the fragility of Hossein’s features, to his delicate nose and lips. His hair was receding prematurely, but you could imagine him laughing like a boy. Although he had been right-handed, he was holding the microphones in his left hand; this meant the photograph had been taken after 1984, when he lost his right arm. Hossein had borne his disability with neither pride nor shame. It was as integral to him as his faith, and his will to fight.

‘Sit down! Sit down!’ His father, a pale old man without a hair on his head, came into the room, smiling. I smiled back, partly because Mr Kharrazi was wearing pink striped pyjamas. We sat down on a lurid red carpet. I remarked that, apart from the mural, the room contained no sign of Hossein. ‘After he was martyred,’ Mr Kharrazi said, ‘everyone wanted photos of him. Soon, we’d given most of them away. That’s why we had this one painted on the wall. No one can cart that off, can they?’

Shortly after the 1979 Revolution, Hossein Kharrazi and about fifty other Isfahanis volunteered to help put down a separatist rebellion in Iranian Kurdistan. In Tehran, I had come across a man who had fought under Hossein in Kurdistan and then during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, when Hossein commanded Isfahan’s volunteer forces. Talking about him, the man had described qualities – piety, courage, modesty and selflessness – that seemed to correspond to an archaic Persian ideal of manhood, passed down by the epics. At the same time, he’d spoken protectively, as if Hossein were still vulnerable 16 years after his death.

During the hour or so I spent with them, the Kharrazis gave me a subtly different impression. The Hossein they spoke of needed no protection: he had longed for martyrdom in the service of God and the Revolution. Mr Kharrazi repeated much of what I had learned from official hagiographies: that Saddam had offered a reward to anyone who could capture Hossein; that Hossein had taken leave to go to Mecca, for fear of dying without having made the pilgrimage; that Hossein had been posthumously honoured by the top brass of the regime.

Unlike the old soldier I had met in Tehran, Mr and Mrs Kharrazi had stopped mourning Hossein. ‘We’re satisfied if God is satisfied,’ Mr Kharrazi said. He meant me to infer that God had honoured Hossein by drawing him to his side, and that humans had no business questioning his will.

Since Hossein’s death, his parents had received senior ayatollahs and cabinet ministers in their house. They had, I guessed, enjoyed some of the privileges that are granted to the parents of important martyrs, such as discounted trips to Mecca and a place among the bigwigs during the annual commemorations. Mrs Kharrazi sniffed when I asked her whether she mixed with the mothers of other martyrs; she evidently considered herself a cut above them. It made sense to me that the Kharrazis had enlarged Hossein’s public image, and put it on their wall. It was the public Hossein, not the private one, who had made them what they were.

While Mrs Kharrazi was preparing tea, her husband showed me a photograph of Hossein’s lolling head, covered in dust. A trickle of blood was coming out of the side of his mouth. Mr Kharrazi smiled at his beautiful martyrdom, and looked up, expecting me to smile too.

I learned from Mrs Kharrazi that there had been an argument. In 1985, Hossein had decided to get married, but his mother hadn’t approved of the girl: it took four months for her to lift her veto. Hossein was killed two weeks before his son, Mehdi, was born. As often happens in such cases, his widow immediately contracted a second marriage, to Hossein’s younger brother.

Shortly before I left, I turned off my tape-recorder, and repeated something I had heard vaguely expressed in Tehran. ‘Isn’t it true that there was a dispute between Hossein and some important officials, shortly before he died?’

The Kharrazis glanced at each other. Mr Kharrazi said: ‘There was no such dispute.’ She said: ‘Of course, there may have been little problems, but only little ones.’ Her husband nodded, and said, ‘Nothing big, though,’ and his smile grew chilly.

On 22 September 1980, after months of skirmishing, propaganda and Iraq’s occupation of some border areas, Saddam’s well-equipped Army invaded Iran. Saddam wanted to destroy the Islamic Revolution; he feared it would spread, and destroy him. He wanted to suck Iran’s Arab-dominated province of Khuzistan, rich in oil, into his sphere of influence. Finally, he wanted a military victory that would give him leadership of the Arab world – a vacant position, now that Egypt had made peace with Israel. He was materially and morally supported by most Arab countries – Syria and Libya were notable exceptions. Most Western countries, fearing Khomeini’s Iran, were not displeased.

Only unwarranted caution and military incompetence stopped Saddam from seizing even more than the four thousand square miles of Iran that he had taken by mid-October. In many places, the regular Army was incapable of resisting. During the Revolution, the Army had lost many senior officers and 140,000 men to desertions and purges. Thanks to sanctions provoked by the continuing US Embassy hostage crisis, and the new republic’s brittle relations with most countries, the Army’s access to Western-made parts and arms had been severely curtailed. (The Soviet Union imposed an arms embargo on both belligerents.) Logistically, Iran was caught unawares; it took one division six weeks to get from a base in eastern Iran to the theatre in the west.

A few days after he heard about the invasion, Hossein Kharrazi commandeered two buses and took his men to Ahwaz. They were not members of the regular Army, but had joined a volunteer corps called the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which Khomeini had set up to harness the young ideologues who had brought him to power. It immediately entered into rivalry with the regular forces, whom Khomeini suspected – rightly, in the case of some officers – of favouring a restoration of the monarchy.

Hossein had become leader of his group of Isfahanis in an informal election. At 23, he was older than the others; bright as well as fervent, he was able to articulate their ideals. History had restarted with the Revolution and Khomeini’s return from exile, just as it had restarted with the Prophet’s migration from Mecca to Medina in 622, and the setting up of the first Islamic administration. It was the duty of good Muslims, Hossein argued, to protect the Revolution from Iraq and its Western paymasters. If they were killed – as long as they had not actively sought death, but rather the glory of Islam – they would go to heaven. (The Koran and the sayings of the Prophet made that clear.) If they stayed alive, and won, they would create a clean, pious society.

Hossein’s troops were young and poor. Many were illiterate. The Shah’s rule had disoriented them; the elite had been devoted to money, while much of the rest of society continued to profess its old attachment to spiritual rewards. These boys had been deprived of both. Now, wealth was being measured in ways that favoured them. You were rich if you enjoyed the favour of God and Khomeini, if you were going off to Khuzistan for a grand adventure, a love affair with the Revolution. You were worth a million if your mother shed tears of dread and pride on your shoulder: ‘God speed your return!’ A few of the boys – the more thoughtful ones – conceived of heaven abstractly. It was a state of grace, God’s mingling with the soul. Most of them, however, thought of paradise as a mild spring day, and heavenly facilities as things that could be smelt, touched or tasted.

When Hossein and his men reached Ahwaz, they presented themselves at the IRGC’s regional headquarters. Before the Revolution, it had been a golf club patronised by Americans working at a nearby atomic complex. Now, the clubhouse had been renamed the Barracks of Those Awaiting Martyrdom. Men who might once have been caddies or flunkeys issued orders and prayed on the floor of the bar. The music system played sacred laments. Ahwaz was also the regional headquarters of the Mobilisation of the Oppressed, the Basij. Khomeini had set up the Basij in the first days of the war. It was to be an irregular volunteer force, commanded by the IRGC. Khomeini said he wanted twenty million basijis. Since they had few guns, their weapon would be faith. There was joy, and chaos. Basijis roamed around the town. Some were 70-year-old holy warriors, a bit confused, doing their bit. There was an IRGC unit for women. The volunteers were taught how to fight while wearing a chador. The basijis were encouraged to wear the piebald Palestinian scarf, the kaffiyeh, lest they forget that, while Saddam was a considerable danger, he was still only a tentacle of the fiendish Zionist threat. A Revolutionary Guard got about $200 a month, and whatever ammunition could be spared. A basiji got much less. If there wasn’t a gun for him, he was expected to steal one from the enemy.

The IRGC gave Hossein and his men four hours’ training, assigned them some basijis, and sent them south. A few miles north of the port city of Khorramshahr, which was in Iraqi hands, they met some enemy tanks. Some of the men had never seen a tank before and were dismayed when their bullets bounced off them. One of them had a grenade launcher, which he had not been trained to use; by trial and error, he disabled one of the oncoming tanks. The Iraqis withdrew, and Hossein’s men realised that the enemy, though well armed, had no stomach for the fight. Hossein gave the order to dig in, but neither he nor his men knew how; there had been no call for trenches in Kurdistan. The hole they dug – ‘a grave’, in the words of one of his men – obeyed none of the basic precautions that have governed trench building since World War One.

Iraq’s advance ended, the rains set in and Khomeini made it clear that he would not – contrary to Saddam’s expectations – sue for peace. The IRGC’s hand was strengthened by the failure of the regular Army’s winter offensives; the volunteer forces got more resources and prestige as a result. (This trend accelerated after President Abol-Hasan Bani-Sadr, who had championed the regular Army, was ousted, and fled abroad.)

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