In the year 2000, I was invited to a conference in Shiraz. The organizers arranged for a car with a driver to take me back and forth during the conference since I had many people to see in various places in the region. It is my custom, even in New York City, to engage a driver in conversation. My trip to Shiraz was no different. I wanted to find out whether my driver had participated in the "Imposed War" between Iran and Iraq. He was very hesitant in answering my question. Finally, he said, "Yes." I said, "Thanks be to God, you are well and seem to have survived with no major injuries." He rebutted, "Unfortunately." I was confused. I asked him to explain his comment. He paused again and then finally opened up and told his story.
It appeared that he and his brother, Rasul, both enlisted in the Basij Volunteer Corps when they were in their late teens. However, they did not serve in the same unit. After a year, Rasul had a few days leave and went to Shiraz to visit his parents. He bought tickets for himself and his mother to fly to Mashhad for a pilgrimage to the tomb of Imam Reza. Upon arrival in Mashhad, they hastened to the Haram, and once there, Rasul asked his mother to petition the imam to grant her son the glory of martyrdom (shahadat). His mother was shocked and distressed and refused to make such a prayer. The two left the shrine and went to their inn, and during the whole evening Rasul tried to convince his mother to pray for his desire to become a martyr. The next morning, they returned to the shrine, and under Rasul's relentless pleading, his mother gave in. However, she could not bring herself to pray outright for the death of her son, so she instead prayed for the fulfillment of Rasul's wishes. In late afternoon, they returned to Shiraz; Rasul stayed with his parents for a few more days and then returned to his unit at the front. Within five weeks, his prayers were answered, and he was killed in action and became Shahid, or "martyr."
My driver finished his story by saying, "And I remain." I could hear the regret in his voice that he had not died on the battlefield like his brother. For the remainder of the trip, he did not say another word. Neither did I.
Had Roxanne Varzi heard this story, she would have included it in her book Warring Souls and analyzed it from the Karbala paradigm and Sufi mystical point of view, as well as from many other perspectives. Yes, she wears many hats in her research, or should I say many hijabs. She is fascinated with the mechanism of martyrdom. The chapter on the subject is a tour de force. She writes, "I tell the story of the many young martyrs who died and then were seen later in the murals covering the city walls" (7).
During the eight-year-long bloody war against Iraq (1980–88), hundreds of thousands of young men died and were immortalized in murals. At that time, Iran could be likened to an artist's atelier, as walls everywhere provide endless surface space for murals, posters, and graffiti. The traditional Iranian dwelling is surrounded by adobe or brick walls, and very often the surface of these walls are whitewashed. During the war, this space was used to the utmost to depict what Rumi calls "the bleeding martyrs." Rumi says:
Don't wash the blood upon the martyr's face It suits a martyr better that he bleeds, and that's worth more than countless pious deeds.1
Since the conclusion of the war, a rapid demographic surge and an accelerated migration from villages to towns have changed the urban design of Iranian cities. Now cities grow vertically at the expense of the traditional horizontal dwelling, but the taller buildings provide new surfaces for expression. Since building orientation in Iran is usually toward the south, a several-story-high space is usually found at the east-west axis at the end of a row of buildings. These...