Many of them weep easily. Others don’t cry at all. A few remain silent, as if in a trance, but later they’ll suddenly burst—like an overripe pomegranate, as my mother would say.
As a journalist witnessing the grief of others, it’s an awkward moment: a moment when I am ashamed of my job but also feel an acute thrill.
Every time I talk to a grieving subject, I wonder if I should stick to the poker face of my profession, or if it’s okay to just let go. My therapist told me that when she first started her practice, it was hard for her to not tear up in front of her patients. But later on, she learned to control her emotions. She realized it was probably not wise to cry along with a client who is already devastated.
My mother wanted me to become a doctor or, at least, an airline hostess. My brother always thought I had a shot at making it as a novelist. That was something I wanted, too. But reality always trumps fantasy, and so I have become a writer who only writes “real” stories: journalism, biography.
My therapist once told me that I write biographies because I am afraid of death. This made me think of my father, who would often say, “Death is justice; it is the truth. To God we belong, and to God we will return.” He faced this divine justice with pious resignation. He’d married and had children late in life, and I never remembered him not being old. And yet it was his death I always feared most.
In one of the first memories I have of him, I am three years old. I stand at the threshold of a room furnished with a twin bed. On the bed lies my father, who sits up every few minutes to spit blood into a container. I am rooted to my spot, mesmerized, unable to get closer, and unwilling to leave. It is a scene of utter pain. My father was fifty-four years old and suffering from severe gum disease; the dentist had removed all his teeth, but the bleeding would not stop. He was desperately weak.
I was afraid for him, afraid that he would die. But he did not.
When death did first enter my life, it did not come for my father. I was in seventh grade and had a classmate named Masumeh who I often chased for the honor of top grades in our class. Somehow she always seemed more complete than the rest of us, unspoiled. She had perfect eyebrows that seemed painted on, and big almond-shaped eyes that made her look elegantly sad. She was the older child in her family and had beautiful young parents. Then her mother died suddenly. I don’t recall the cause nor if I ever got around to asking Masumeh how she felt when this tragedy came knocking on her family’s door. She eventually returned to school and went back to being a perfect student. And she kept smiling. How? How is it that people can go on? I asked myself. I was still asking that question when I started taking my first tentative steps toward writing the biographies of dead men and warriors.
At twenty-five, I got my first crack at the job: an assignment to interview Gada, the wife of Mostafa Chamran, one of the legendary commanders of the Iran-Iraq war. The year was 2000. Mostafa had died in battle nineteen years earlier, when a piece of shrapnel caught him in the neck at the Susangerd front. When we spoke, Gada confessed that she had slept at her husband’s gravesite for forty nights.
The night before leaving for the front, Gada told me, her husband said he doubted he would return. “That night as we lay next to each other, I asked him, ‘Do you mean to say when you leave tomorrow I’ll never see you again?’ His answer was an emphatic ‘No!’ I was frustrated and pressed on: ‘So you mean that a person can simply choose to die?’ He answered, ‘No. But I’ve asked God for martyrdom, and I know for a fact he’ll answer my prayer.’ I told him, ‘I wish you’d suddenly age and become old, so that neither a Kalashnikov nor war can take you away from me again.’ Then I kissed him and closed my eyes. I was thinking even then that I need to practice watching him with my eyes closed.”
The next morning, as Mostafa took his leave, he caressed Gada’s hair and whispered softly, “You’re a good woman.” And that was when she lost it: as Mostafa put on his combat boots, Gada rushed into the bedroom to pick up a Colt automatic. She thought the only way to confront death was to meet it with its own weapon; she would shoot her husband in the foot so he could not go back to war.
Gada ran back out of the bedroom, gun in hand. But Mostafa was already gone.
Commander Chamran died, but wars kept happening, leaving more death and grief and pain in their wake. More good people died, people who had been everything to those around them. And still, I wanted to know: How did these brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers manage in the aftermath? When I interviewed them, I always anticipated their description of getting the bad news. I’d ask them to slow down and explain in detail how they felt when they learned of their irreversible loss.
I wanted them to tell me they’d fought to keep death at bay, had tried to hold on for dear life to the one who was irrevocably gone. This too was war, in its way—a refusal to get used to a beloved’s death, a battle to keep their memory alive. It was why Gada was prepared to shoot her own husband in the foot, nothing less than an attempt to take a shot at mortality. I believed what she did was a just and human act, seizing a chance to bully death away.
There is a popular prayer that goes something like this: “Lord, lend me the ability to accept that which I cannot change.” The first time I came across this prayer, I felt it was too soothing. While it carried a certain weight, I could not accept its basis—in the same way that I refused to accept my father’s reaction to the death of loved ones, when he’d raise his head to the heavens and repeat, “Death is the truth!” I never told him that, unlike him, I found death to be the greatest injustice of all, and acceptance of a beloved’s death the ultimate betrayal. And I never told him how much I dreaded his absence in our world. I knew my words would have stung him, that he would think of them as sacrilege. His life revolved around the idea of surrender, while mine was a constant series of struggles to overcome and persist.
All of this is probably why, after writing about Commander Chamran, I dedicated the next several years of my life to the biography of a man who always refused to take no for an answer, especially in his refusal to accept death. That man was the Iranian photojournalist Kaveh Golestan.
Golestan began photographing in Northern Ireland in 1972, covering the Irish Republican Army’s struggles against the British. In 1979 his photographs of the Iranian Revolution won him the prestigious Robert Capa award. During the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war, Golestan constantly traveled back and forth between Tehran and the frontlines. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, he was one of the first photographers to get himself to Iraqi Kurdistan to cover the new war. There, that same year, he stepped on a landmine and was killed instantly.
When I began to write about Golestan’s life, three years had passed since his death. In my research, I came across a rare interview he’d given about a collection of his photographs of war, the Iranian revolution, mentally handicapped orphans, and prostitutes in the old red-light district of Tehran. “You can turn your eyes away from these pictures,” he said. “You can cover your face like a killer. But you won’t be able to hide the truth.”
His words were harsh, but he was right: at first, I couldn’t look at those pictures. His work was full of close-ups of tattered corpses. And in all of his photographs, even those of prostitutes and abandoned children, there is a sense of acute rage at an unjust world. For Golestan, there was no taking things as they come. He was like a hunter, tracking death. Instead of turning away from it, he stared into its maw—as in his most famous photograph of the Iran-Iraq war, which shows the exact moment when a bullet catches a teenage solider.
“During the Iran-Iraq war, we’d go wherever there was major body count,” he’d told an interviewer some years earlier. “We took pictures, then collected the scattered corpses and carried them back to the rear. Sometimes I felt that I’d turned into a vulture. Through the entire war, I had this bandana that I always wore. I’ve washed this piece of cloth countless times. I’ve soaked it in rose water even. But no, it still reeks of death.”
By the time I was writing about Golestan I was thirty-one years old and knew I’d been born to tell these kinds of stories. But no matter how much I wrote about the ends of other people’s lives, I still dreaded the day when death would come for my father. What would I do? He was eighty-six, and a year earlier he’d broken both hips. The surgery was hard but he endured. And so when I spoke to people who had faced the death of someone they loved, I did so with my father’s mortality always in the back of my mind.
One of those people was Kaveh Golestan’s sister, Lily. “I was in London and had just come out of the cinema,” she told me of the day she learned of her brother’s death. “I went into a store to buy some soap and toothpaste when my mobile went off. It was Kaveh’s son, my nephew, calling. He asked where I was, and then told me to get to their place quickly.
“‘Is there something wrong?’ I asked. ‘Please just come now,’ he insisted. I thought of the worst-case scenario and asked if my mother was dead. ‘No,’ he said. ‘My father.’
“The few things I’d picked up from the store fell out of my hands and I sank to the floor. But after a while I collected myself and paid for my things and jumped into a cab, the whole way thinking: it’s possible that it’s all a big mistake.”
As Lily spoke about that day, I felt my own pulse racing. It was as if I was there with her on that taxi ride to Golestan’s house in London, both of us knowing, of course, that there had been no mistake. Lily got to her brother’s house and found that it was true; he was dead. Yet she didn’t cry. And she didn’t cry later when she told her mother and father. But as we neared the end of our conversation, her voice cracked. “It was hard,” she sighed. “It’s hard even now.”
In the beginning, Lily’s mother had also refused to cry. “But then…when all the condolences were done and people left us alone, my mother and I were watching a show on TV about some of the terrible genocides of the past few decades,” she told me. “First they showed Zimbabwe in the 1980s and then Bosnia in the mid 90s. It was a segment about how eight thousand people were massacred in the town of Srebrenica in just a couple of days. Suddenly my mother turned to me and said, ‘Lily, you’re one of the strongest people I know. You can do anything if you put your mind to it.’ She kept going on like that, and I wasn’t sure what she was trying to say to me.
“I finally cut in, ‘What’s on your mind, Mom? Are you all right?’”
“She paused, taking another long glance at that TV screen: ‘Lily, is there truly nothing you can do?’ My mother’s voice did not betray helplessness, but there was no hope in it either. I was quiet for a while. I didn’t want my own voice to be shaking when I answered her question.
“‘There’s nothing I can do about your son’s death,’ I told her. ‘There’s nothing anyone can do.’
“My mother turned silent. It was the only time I ever saw her falter—when she was basically asking me if I could perform a miracle and bring her son, my brother, back.”
After my interview with Lily, I went home and found my father reading the Koran in the light of dusk. He did this every day at the same time. I stood and watched him. He was too preoccupied with the holy book to notice me.
At thirty-five years old, I stood in another room with a twin bed in the middle. On the bed was my father, with dozens of tubes and wires attached to him. His eyes were closed, as they had been for four months. Every day I came to the hospital to watch him. Sometimes I stood there for what seemed like hours. Sometimes I held his long-fingered hands and squeezed them. There were days when he squeezed back weakly. “Talk to him. He can hear you,” the nurse said. But I could only watch. Now and then a tear emerged from behind his closed eyes. Is he in pain? I wondered. Waiting.
On the final Wednesday of the year before the Persian New Year, all of Tehran turned into a blaze of fireworks. My father didn’t have a nurse that night, and none of my siblings could stay at the hospital. Around 9 p.m., just as I got home from work, my brother called to ask if I could stay with our father. Of course I could.
From his hospital window, I could see tens of thousands of firecrackers ascending into the air, some exploding in front of startled pedestrians’ feet. My father’s eyes were closed. His bed was positioned exactly in the middle of the room, and the room itself was large, white, and clean. Ugly.
I picked up a medical folder containing my father’s daily vital signs for the past three months. Blood-sugar level, fat, urea, infection, heart rate, breathing, and alertness—this last indicated by a number close to nonexistence. I read the report from start to finish: first standing up, then sprawled out on the white ceramic floor, absorbing the cruel, senseless numbers in their crooked columns. Every ten minutes or so, I’d get up to check on my father and gaze at his face, hold my hand in front of his nose to make sure he was breathing.
At 5 a.m. the call for morning prayer began. His eyes were open now, though empty. Standing behind my father, I brought my lips to his ears. I knew parts of the Koran by heart; he’d taught them to me himself. I whispered the Surah of Al-Asr: “By time / Indeed man is in loss / Except those who have faith and do righteous deeds, and enjoin one another to follow the truth, and enjoin one another to patience.” I could not tell if his eyes remained open, but his breathing was calm.
Three days later, it was the Persian New Year and the first day of spring. I was away from Tehran. My brother called. He was crying.
“There’s nothing I can do, Habibe. There’s nothing anyone can do.” My therapist looked away as she said the words, as if mortified by her own powerlessness. It had been two months since my father died. Each night, I dreamed of him with tubes hanging from his body, begging me to release him from his suffering. My therapist suggested I start taking meds.
After I left her office, I walked for a long time—until, without really meaning to, I found myself back at the hospital. I climbed the stairs, as if in a trance, and soon was standing in front of the ICU unit on the fourth floor. The nurses were startled, murmuring to each other. But I didn’t care. I walked to the end of the hallway until I stood in front of room 401, the last room on the right. The sign on the door said, “Visitors forbidden.” I pushed through: a twin bed in the middle of a sick room. Empty.
That night I dreamt of my father sitting in an armchair in an otherwise empty room. His hands rested on his knees. He was finally free of those tubes and wires. I had on some kind of transparent backpack, blood dripping from it to the floor. I couldn’t go near my father, nor could I leave him.
It’s been four years since my father’s death, and I have written plenty—though not another biography. But I often visit Kaveh Golestan’s wife, Hengameh. We smoke cigarettes and laugh a lot—even though she has never stopped wearing black in the twelve years that her husband has been dead. Sometimes in the middle of our conversation Hengameh will tell me that she’s sure she saw Kaveh that day, at the vegetable market or on the bus. I’ll nod as if to say, “Yes, I’m sure it was him.”
Every once in a while, I still visit Gada, Mostafa Chamran’s widow. She never returned to her native Lebanon because, she says, Mostafa prefers it this way. She continues to talk about him in the present tense. Maybe that’s because her Persian is still not perfectly fluent. Or maybe it’s because she wants to think Mostafa is not dead. Maybe, though, it’s precisely because she knows that he is.