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?
Later, I was told that the Cheezar museum had been put together to educate the younger generation about the war. On display were everyday items belonging to martyrs who were the same age as the young people expected to visit the museum (although few did). Each set of prayer beads belonged to someone: each is labelled with a name, a date and the place where they were found. The labels are the same stickers used to mark prices in grocery stores.
Most cases were dedicated to a specific martyr, containing his belt, bullets he may have fired, or were fired at him, maybe even the shrapnel or bullet that killed him, his government-issue toothbrush, his ID, a school report, a brush and comb. A red and yellow striped shirt, good as new, next to a picture of a young man wearing it; a shot of a college wrestling team, another of a wrestling match; a watch, unworn, given to him in death by a family member (like a young groom on his wedding night); snapshots taken by him or his friends; letters home and sent to him at the front; his prayer rug. A picture of his fourth-grade classmates sitting in the playground squinting into the bright sun and smiling widely for the photographer. How many of the boys in the picture died in the war? Which one did the photo belong to? And finally, in almost every case, the boy’s last will and testament, his declaration to the state and to his family and friends of his desire to die a martyr.
Most of the martyrs’ graves in the cemetery, like the cases in the museum, were decorated in keeping with the traditional Iranian wedding or new year sufreh (‘spread’), a Zoroastrian tradition which celebrates the transition to a new cycle of life. For these boys it marked the moment of death: or in the rhetoric of martyr culture, the moment of moving to a new life. Mourners would be asked to give not condolences but congratulations. A celebration of death becomes a celebration of life. One case was adorned with the mirror and candles that are placed on both new year and wedding sufrehs. Were they the dead man’s actual wedding candles, set out here by his widow, or are they symbolic of his wedding with God? So many questions, and no one to ask.
I heard the muffled sound of whispers and the scuff of shoes. Two young men appeared, one carrying a briefcase. Both had little tufts of hair on their upper lips. Either could have slipped out of one of the ID pictures in the cases. We whispered hello and I waited until they had made their way round to where I was standing. They took their time, bending slightly over the cases, reading every name, every testament.
‘Is this your first time here?’ I asked the boy with the briefcase.
‘No, I come here a lot, my house is nearby,’ he answered. His friend politely shuffled away. ‘The last few visits I’ve really begun to understand the meaning of this place.’
‘How so?’ I asked.
‘This past nowruz, I went on a field trip to the former war front where they have set up various exhibitions that help you understand what happened. They have documentary films of the actual war, exercises, battles – you really get it. When you see that up close you understand this place a bit better.’
‘And this is your first time here since the trip to the front?’
‘How do you feel, here now?’
‘Well, it shouldn’t be this way, but unfortunately many of our leaders went out of their way to make propaganda, which becomes meaningless, so young people really don’t understand what went on at the front. If they had let the martyrs’ own words come out, maybe showed the martyrs’ memoirs, you’d see the truth. If they had gone about it the right way, instead of the parks being full of young people, this place would be packed. The propaganda turned most young people off.’
Less than a decade after the war ended, a majority of those who fought in it on ideological grounds were disillusioned. After the war the government had made many promises to the families of martyrs but it had failed to keep them: failed to take care of them financially, to educate the sons and daughters left behind, to feed the war widows and mothers who lost their sons. A group of talented young basij – volunteers who signed up with the intention of being martyred – had survived the war, and had then got good jobs in missions abroad, in local government, in universities, as photographers, filmmakers, and magazine and newspaper editors. Because of their war credentials, they had the authority to speak for change. Their rise to prominence coincided with the coming of age of the children of the revolution; in 1997, these young people helped elect a reform cleric, Mohamed Khatami.
In 2000 the Tehran City Theatre began to stage plays that did not deal solely with Islamic and revolutionary ideals; cafés were raided less often by the Islamic police; the mayor of Tehran (who was later imprisoned on corruption charges) allocated land for new parks and encouraged the use of public space; Iranians became tourists in their own country; more students received visas to study abroad. Meanwhile, the diaspora began to return, bringing with them CDs, DVDs and ideas from Paris, Los Angeles and London. The films of Ibrahim Hatamikia, Kamal Tabrizi (whose Lizard was a huge success abroad), Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi dramatised the plight of war veterans. Despite the difficulty secular citizens had in accepting the ideological framework surrounding the war, many of those who were reaching military age could now see that their compatriots had died defending Iran and securing their future. Many young people still blame the government for the death and destruction, but they have stopped blaming the veterans and the martyrs.
It was in this atmosphere that a new president emerged who had two important credentials: he was not a cleric, but a basij. Ahmadinejad used his appeal as a war veteran to give himself the same kind of authority as the reformists. A commoner with a PhD, he marked a movement in politics towards a postwar era, revolutionary in and of itself, but with new, non-clerical heroes. He ran on a populist platform, promising to take care of the poor, and to repay the families of the war martyrs for their sacrifices. He used the memory of the war as a bridge to young people at a time when the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (many refugees fled to Iran with horror stories) were making young Iranians look beyond their own government’s failures in the Iran-Iraq war.
When I step through the gates of the Cheezar cemetery some five years after my first visit, I am with my husband. Cheezar is a quiet place still: donkeys continue to carry crates of cola and the baker still uses a clay oven. The air is full of the dry scent of dirt, donkey manure and fresh bread. The people are among the more traditionally religious in Tehran. It is mid-morning on a very hot summer day: most people are finishing their errands, which might explain why the cemetery is so empty compared to last time. Did I come at midday then? In the early evening? The only person around is a woman in a black chador, perched on the low wall behind the graves, who doesn’t seem to be looking at any one grave in particular.
I walk past her, grave by grave, examining each encasement – looking for what? A gardener spots me, puts his hose down and walks over. ‘You should be wearing a chador, miss, this is a holy place.’
‘I’m sorry. I came to see the museum. When I visited the museum a few years ago it was not required.’
‘The museum has been closed down, this is a holy resting place, so unless there is someone in particular you are looking for, or you want to pay respects inside, there’s nothing to see here.’
‘Actually,’ my husband interrupts, ‘I had a classmate, Cheezari, he was from this area. I went abroad and never heard of him again. Are there any Cheezaris here?’
‘The place is full of Cheezaris. What was his first name?’
The gardener finds a chador for me to borrow. Together the old man and my husband scan some forty graves of boys with the same last name as his classmate.
My husband kneels in front of the grave. ‘He looks exactly like he did the last year we were in school together. He probably took off for the front right then.’
I pull the borrowed chador around me more tightly. The boy stares without a smile from beyond his black and white picture. This photograph is among the most austere in the cemetery.
‘You never told me you knew someone who volunteered,’ I say.
‘I hadn’t thought about it until we got here. He really wanted to go to the front. He was excited to be a basij, we were 16 and he planned to volunteer at the end of the school year. I wonder, had he survived, if he would have felt like so many of the vets you interviewed who thanked God they were not martyred?’
My husband looks at me for an answer. Do I tell him what my older Iranian aunts would have said, that it is written on the forehead, it’s fated? Or what the boy’s mother would likely have said, that he died in the most honourable way and that he is in paradise sitting at the Imam’s feet? Or what so many others I know would have said: what a waste?
‘He knew it would end this way,’ I say. ‘This was his goal.’ And I think about how often goals change when you are young.