I spent the first eight years of my life in a war zone. Eight years of deafening noise: the staccato scream of anti-aircrafts, the whiz of military jets, the rattle of Kalashnikovs, the successive booming of landing mortars. Eight years of blinding lights: the dark orange cloud of fire after explosion rolling over and onto itself, the thin red thread of bullets shooting out of gun barrels, burning cigarettes shining in the streets like lighthouses in nights of total blackout.
In September 1980, several days short of my first birthday, the Iran-Iraq war began. At the time my parents lived in Ahvaz, Iran, seventy miles east of the frontline. Ahvaz is an expansive, flat urban area home to more than one million people and known for the Karun River, fertile palms, and flames that leap out of burning oil wells. A few months into the war it became clear that Saddam was seeking to annex the state of Khuzestan and nothing less, and that all the Western superpowers supported him. The people of Ahvaz began to leave. Neighbors and friends crammed their most precious belongings into cars and hit the road, transforming overnight from well-off southern oil families to internal refugees.
My parents stayed. My dad had a sensitive position at the oil company. My mom was a nurse. The gravity of their tasks, combined with their desire to fight for home and the disappointing reception of refugees elsewhere in the country, compelled them to remain there through the war. The war went on, uninterrupted, for eight years. It claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and scorched vast swaths of land on both sides of the border.
I am thirty-eight now. The war that made me who I am ended thirty years ago. I don’t talk about it much, if at all, though the tentacles of my mind frequently slip into the bag of memories I’ve been hauling around. Like many people with PTSD, I am a minimizer. I recall my life at six years old and think, Sure, it’s horrific that you saw that man looking at the hole a piece of shrapnel burned through his stomach before he fell to the ground. Yes, it’s traumatizing to wait with five hundred other kids in a small concrete bunker without ventilation for hours for Iraqi jets to get the bombing done. It is indeed depressing to think of your seven-year-old self stalking around rubble to collect shrapnel pieces and bullet jackets to expand his collection with the intention of arousing the envy of other kids in the neighborhood. But, I tell myself, look at the Iraqis and the Afghanis. They have lived this way for generations. Extend your eight years of war outward so that they fill a lifetime, multiply the amount of horror several times over, and you wouldn’t even approach the experience of the average Iraqi. The average Iraqi would laugh at your “war memories.”
I moved to the US in the early days of 2016, several months before the election, on an Iranian passport. Yet more evidence that I am terrible with timing. More than a year of fear and stress later, I managed to secure a visa that has allowed me to stay and work here for a few years, but because of the travel ban it would be extremely risky for me to leave the US and my family can’t come to visit me. A life like this one takes its toll. A lump of fear lodged itself in my body. I have been carrying it every day through the Brooklyn subway, among the ruthless towers of Manhattan, by the basketball courts in Harlem.
That fear has changed my mind. Since I am a human being like any other, as soon as I’m denied something I desire nothing more than that very thing. Which is to say that thanks to Donald Trump I think about my life in Iran more than at any time since 2011, when I left the country.
To my own surprise, thinking of Iran, I rarely recall my life in Tehran, the city where I spent all my adult life and wrote my books. Instead, I recall Ahvaz, my childhood, the war. I think of beheaded palms and an oil-strewn river. I remember the odor of dead river fish and gunpowder and sewage. And after thirty years of silence, in April 2018, I began to record my memories.
The only things war offers are survival and death. It cannot have a happy ending. For survivors, it does not have any ending. War entrenches itself in the deepest parts of survivors’ brains and poisons the rest of their lives. It is a mental cancer that affects every cell in the body. I have lived a life afflicted with this malady. Keeping quiet will not make it go away. I don’t believe in talking through it, either. That kind of exposure renders one vulnerable to vacuous sympathy and disbelief.
Between silence and speech lies the act of writing. This is where I seek my remedy.
I must be five. Or a bit older. But certainly not younger, because I was allowed to sit in the passenger seat. I had my new jeans on, which my mother had just bought for my birthday. My father was driving the car on a wide street in Ahvaz. I don’t know where we were coming from. I know that we were headed home.
Somewhere on the way, the car shuddered. It was as if a giant hand had come from the sky and slapped the car hard and receded. I was confused. Dad was not.
He shouted and slammed the brake. I had never heard him shout. I was shocked, as if one of my toys had talked to me. Dad opened the door and dragged me over the brake stick to his seat, pulled me out of the car, threw me on the grass, and threw himself over me.
Something howled in the sky. The shadow of a plane passed like a bullet. An explosion behind us. An explosion in front of us. The second explosion was close. The earth shook hard. The vibration entered my body and rattled along my every nerve. Dust and trash rose. Hot metal shards flew. I heard the muffled sound of things falling on my dad’s back. He kept silent.
Through a hole under Dad’s armpit I saw the cloud. It rose and rolled onto itself, orange in the middle and gray at the edges. Dad pressed himself down on me and shouted. His bones jabbed everywhere. I opened my mouth to protest but soil got on my tongue.
People screamed and rushed around. Dad rose and dragged me back into the car. The car screeched off. We passed through heated rubble encircled by a mourning crowd. We didn’t exchange a word all the way to the house.
Among the thoughts that coursed through my mind, one stood out: My new jeans had gotten dirty and Mom would kill me. It was Dad’s fault but Mom would blame me anyway, which made me hate my dad.
Two boys, same height and same size and same face, who wore the same clothes and went everywhere together. Thirty-two years later I remember their faces like I saw them yesterday. Maybe because they were the first identical twins I ever met. Or because their faces were memorable: Like it did to the rest of us, the brutal Khuzestan sun burned their skin as soon as they grew old enough to play soccer on the street. Unlike the rest of us, they had green eyes that shone like emerald pieces beneath their long foreheads and shaved heads.
Then one day they didn’t show up. And they didn’t show up the day after that. On the third day of their absence, the teacher didn’t teach. She came to the class with wet eyes and informed us that two days before the twins had been killed in an air strike.
Which was not such a big deal. It had happened to all of us before: one day you were playing soccer in the yard with a kid, the next day he was dead. One day you were fighting in the water fountain line with a kid, the next day he was dead. When you are that young you don’t call it tragedy. It is simply reality.
On the fourth day, two identical bouquets of flowers were placed on their chairs. Two chamomiles and two daisies and one gladiolus in each bouquet. I remember that because I watched the flowers as much as I’d watched the brothers.
The next day, the petals yellowed at the edges and the tips of the stems turned brown. The day after the stigmas dried. I wanted to do something, to pick up the flowers and put them in water, but I couldn’t. The bouquets were too sacrosanct to be touched. The brothers must have died in a blink. The flowers were withering slowly. They were there to teach me there is no easy death.
We were required to keep our hair short at school. It was mandated by wartime hygiene rules, intensified by the military climate of the city, which wanted to turn every space into a fortress. Every morning the principal would walk up and down the lines in the yard and slide his hand over the heads of students whose hair looked a bit long. If the hair stuck up above his fingers he would send the kid home.
My hair used to grow fast, and needed to be cut frequently. On the last Thursday of every month my dad dropped me off at Hajj Ali’s barbershop near the Mahziar shrine and picked me up an hour later.
Once, we missed one of those Thursdays. I checked my hair at night. It protruded past my fingers. On Friday I cried the whole morning, angry with my parents for slacking on their duty. They promised to come with me to school on Saturday and talk to the principal, but didn’t manage to convince me. I insisted so much my dad gave in. We got into the car and roamed the streets of Ahvaz looking for a barbershop that would be open on a Friday afternoon.
We found one somewhere downtown. A young man, barely twenty years old, was watching soccer on TV. Dad explained the situation. The man told him to come back in half an hour. I took the seat. He strapped the cape around my neck and turned on the machine.
“Where do you go to school?” he asked.
“Arvand,” I said. “Where did you go to school?”
He named a place.
“High school too?”
“I didn’t go to high school. I went to the front.”
“Wow. So cool.”
“Why do you think it’s cool?”
“I don’t know. You went there and fought the Iraqis.”
“You like soldiers?”
“I love them.”
The machine paused on my head. He stared at me in the mirror.
“I’m going to tell your something you should never forget. Okay?”
“Everyone who comes back alive from the war is a motherfucker. Including myself.”
I fidgeted in my seat.
“You know what ‘motherfucker’ means?”
“It’s a very bad word.”
“It’s the worst thing you can say to anyone. But the fact is that if you are not a motherfucker in this war you’ll be killed. If you survive it’s because someone else died instead. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I lied.
He turned on the machine again and kept talking.
“Once I had to go on a reconnaissance mission. I had to swim across the river into Iraq and check out a couple of positions and swim back. There was a 99 percent chance of getting killed. I knew it and my superior officer knew it and his commanders knew it and no one cared. At the time I shared the bunker with a guy from a Susangerd village. I pretended to be sick and asked him to fill in for me. He said sure. He knew nothing about anything and totally trusted everyone. He never thought the Army would send him on a mission where he’d probably be killed. He was a good guy. He swam across the river that night and they killed him. Do you get the point?”
“I’m alive here shaving your head because I am a motherfucker. So is everyone who goes to this war and comes back alive.”
It must have been early in the school year, because I didn’t know his name when the alarm went off. We shared a desk in the classroom, a narrow, long wooden one designed for two students. I sat by the aisle and he by the window. There were speakers installed all over the school, and every time the Iraqi jets showed up the alarm would sound so loudly it was as if it was coming from inside my head.
By that point, we had done it a hundred times: you get down under the desk, squat, put your head between your knees, hold your palms over your ears, and wait. We often had to stay in that awkward posture for ten to fifteen minutes. Then the white alarm would go off and the students would climb back up, telling jokes and groaning.
On that day, shortly after the red alarm broke, we heard the planes. Then a roar traveled through the class and the waves of an explosion rattled our bodies. Some screamed. Some cried. I was too shocked to react. So was the new classmate. Another roar. Another explosion. The walls and roof shook and taped-up windowpanes fell.
“I have to get out,” said the new classmate.
“Have you lost your mind?” I must have said.
“I have to get out,” he said, and pushed me. I pushed him back.
Another wave. A weaker one. The plane was on its way out.
We both sat there waiting for the white alarm when I noticed the water. A narrow stream ran down the tiles and accumulated around my shoes. The smell of urine. I followed the stream and found drops leaking from his pants, then two wet eyes staring at me in the dark.
My first reaction wasn’t pity. I despised this wimp with such a passion I could have broken his neck right there.
The white alarm went off. Students came up, quiet and scared, not in the mood for joking. I was the one who broke the silence.
“He peed himself! He peed himself!” I shouted, pointing at the boy. I didn’t look at him but I could feel the weight of his gaze. A few giggles here and there. Laughter spread and set the class abuzz. The teacher came to our desk and scolded me and guided the boy out.
I never saw him again. Or I saw him but never recognized him.
On July 20, 1987, Iran and Iraq signed Resolution 598 and the war ended. I watched it on TV with my family and felt happy because they were happy, but I didn’t quite get it. The “end of the war” didn’t make much sense to me. Did they mean we would no longer hear red alarms? That the tape would come off the windowpanes? That we would go to school and come back home without any risk? That sounded boring to me. I was unsure of whether I wanted that new life.
In a way, growing up in war makes you into that little boy from Emma Donoghue’s Room. The world outside, in which there are no military jets from hostile countries breaking the sound barrier overhead, only exists on TV screens. I had known it as the reality of people who didn’t speak my language. When the TV was off I went to bed, wondering what the world would be like in the morning.
When I opened my eyes again, the sun was already in the sky.
Living so close to the frontline means you never get a full night’s sleep. Something always interrupts. Every single night for eight years I woke up at least a couple of times before morning. In addition to the noise, the electricity was often cut, and most of the year the nights were either too cold or too hot. The weather never let you sleep.
The first night of peace I slept through to the morning. No rattle of guns, no red alarms, no extreme heat or cold. My eyes closed on one end of a night and opened on the other.
I got out of bed and looked out the window. I remember the unusual glow of everything in the yard. The reflection of morning sunbeams on the swing chain. The daisies and daffodils swaying in the grass. The serenity of the eucalyptus tree in the street. I found peace strange and amusing.
On a warm winter day after the peace, during the First Gulf War in 1991, I was sitting by the window in my classroom, looking at the clear blue sky, counting down the minutes until I could leave. I was eleven years old.
The sky got dim as I was watching it. The clear blue turned metallic. I spotted some dark clouds rushing toward the city. The teacher kept on scrawling on the blackboard and talking, until it became impossible to ignore the weather. First it looked like a storm, but the darkness continued to thicken, and then the sky became that of a starless night in the middle of the day. The teacher dropped the chalk and left the classroom. We followed him. Other students and teachers also left their classes and gathered outside, under the shed.
“It’s the end of the world,” a boy behind me whispered. I believed him, and ran through my vices and virtues to try to determine where I would wind up if the world were to end that day. I decided that growing up in war was punishment enough for any sin I had committed.
It rained. Heavy raindrops struck up a rhythm on the shed above our heads. Soon it became a nonstop barrage. Thick streaks of rain slid off the shed into the yard, filling the air with a strange odor.
The principal’s shrieking froze us in place. “Stay under the shed,” he yelled into the microphone. “This is not rain. It’s oil.”
The sudden collective silence was so heavy I could hear the heartbeat of the boy who had announced the end of the world.
The oil rain came down in strands, each drop attached to the tail end of the one ahead. It set up thousands of translucent parallel curtains. It covered the world around us.
It came down on Ahvaz in February 1991, at the height of the Gulf War, several hours after Iraqi jets had bombed enormous oil lakes in Kuwait. The explosion kicked up black clouds. They soared and filled up the sky. A strong wind carried them northward over the Persian Gulf. All the way through the clouds released oil, blackening the Gulf water and all the small towns in the south.
The clouds rained over our city for fifteen minutes, then traveled further north.
When I left school that day, the city was unrecognizable. The asphalt shimmered with black oil. At every other crossroad cars had run into each other. People were out in their yards, on the sidewalk, in the street, dumbstruck and horrified, babbling frantically or staring upward in silence. Trees were like charred soldiers dead on their feet. Dead or dying stray cats lay all over the place next to dried-up frogs and upside-down cockroaches, the carcasses of pigeons and sparrows knocked out of the sky.
What has prompted me to write?
I live in America, where everyone is worried about war. In 2016, a sizable portion of the US population decided to hand over power to a man enthralled by the size of the nuclear bomb button on his desk. His predecessors weren’t particularly peaceful, but a reckless Twitter addict with a wounded ego poses a different sort of threat to the world. My own renewed fear of war is further compounded by encounters with American friends. They are against the idea of war, but they have very little sense of what a war actually is, how a body in an invaded territory might receive one. War, for many well-meaning people I know, is an abstract tragedy. It’s enough to bring those of us who have experienced it firsthand to the page.
Also, Ahvaz is fucking dying. The place of my birth today looks like the deserted city in Blade Runner 2049, where Ryan Gosling goes to meet Harrison Ford. Ahvaz never got back on its feet after the war. The incompetence of successive governments, combined with the disastrous effects of global warming and years of severe drought, have made it virtually unlivable. Karun, the wide river that meandered through Ahvaz for thousands of years, the river on which oil tankers floated as recently as fifty years ago, has become a rivulet. Imagine the East River drying up in New York City, and New Yorkers climbing down Williamsburg pier and crossing a parched stretch of land to the Lower East Side. That is how the demise of Karun disfigures Ahvaz. Blue sky is a thing of the past. Almost all the wetlands and lagoons that surround the city have dried up. Every wind kicks up large palls of dust, which remain and coat everything.
As my hometown is disfigured beyond recognition, my past is increasingly unmoored. I write to make a contribution, however small and pathetic, toward saving the place.
It’s no coincidence that I’ve chosen to break my silence at a time when people everywhere are doing the same. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, I read a piece in The New Yorker about women who struggled to come forward and tell their stories. They didn’t want to be regarded as victims. They were ashamed of what had happened to them. They feared retaliation by powerful male perpetrators. As I read, I ticked off boxes in my head: Don’t I refuse to talk about war because I loathe self-victimization? Am I not embarrassed by my childhood, worried that if people were to know about it they would think I am irredeemably disturbed? Am I not afraid of the perpetrators of war? The similarities were too many to dismiss, and the conclusion became inescapable: I have also been violated. My childhood was violated. The childhoods of all children who grew up in war zones, anytime, anywhere, have been violated. The #MeToo moment is my moment, too. The perpetrators of sexual harassment, the powerful men, are cut from the same cloth as the powerful men who launch wars or perpetuate them.
A space has opened up for us to relate our stories without fear of being shamed or stigmatized, and we should seize upon it before it slips away in the online frenzy of a distracted world.