No one was guarding the gates to the grounds of the Imamzadeh Ali Akbar Cheezari in Tehran, where the son of the Imam Zayn al-Abedin is interred, the first time I visited, in 2000. The mausoleum now stands in a cemetery where hundreds of martyrs of the war with Iraq are buried.
The war institutionalised martyrdom. For the Iranians who volunteered to fight, the Iran-Iraq war, like the battle at Karbala (where Imam Hussein was martyred in 680 CE in what is now Iraq), was a battle of the righteous against the infidels. The idea of martyrdom came to represent the union of citizen and nation, lover and beloved, servant of God and God. Martyrdom became state policy. Towards the end of the war, street names were changed to commemorate a new martyr so often that even the post office lost track.
Walking quickly past the graves towards the mausoleum, feeling as if I was intruding on the chadored women who were sitting near their dead sons, husbands, cousins, brothers and friends, I headed straight to the stairs that led up to the martyrdom museum. In the stairwell there were pictures of soldiers going off to war; in some of them, young mothers tied headbands on their sons’ foreheads, just as other mothers tie shoelaces on the first day of school. Could the pretty young mothers kissing their sons goodbye in the pictures be the same women as the old and weary figures sitting in the graveyard?
An exhibition of revolutionary photographs in black and white – the taking of the US Embassy, the marches outside Tehran University, dead Savak agents in the morgue – led up to the museum, which looked like any other marble-floored, white-walled government office. Only the octagonal opening through which the tomb of the saint below could be viewed suggested that this had once been the balconied area where, in a traditional mausoleum, female mourners sit to observe the ceremony below without being seen.
I was the only person there, but I waited by a desk near the entrance in case I was meant to buy a ticket. Posters of soldiers were for sale, along with accoutrements for prayer: beads, a prayer rug and a box with a kaffiyeh, a mohr or prayer stone, and a book of remembrance for the martyrs. Although the graveyard was full of mourners, the museum remained empty. Despite the state’s attempt to find a way to memorialise the dead en masse, the people were still choosing to mourn members of their own families.
I began to move slowly through the exhibits. The echo of hammering by workers mending the roof kept time with my footsteps. As I walked, I was haunted by the sense that one of the young men had slipped from his place pinned to the wall and was following me round the museum. Did he want me here, or was I intruding on a private war that I would never understand? Who gathered these objects? Who curates the dead?