Recently Iranians were reminded of the anniversary of two traumatizing events in our recent history. One was the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988. The other was the massacre of political prisoners by the Islamic Republic which happened shortly after the war. And these anniversaries are meaningful to every Iranian in a personal way. This is what they mean to me.
I was in my mother’s womb when the Iran-Iraq War ended. I have lived the war, but not the way my parents or my older friends have lived it. I have lived with wounds I never saw inflicted, I have lived with a nightmare traumatizing me from beyond my existence. I was born into the ruins of a city I never lived in.
To me, the Iran-Iraq War was an absent omnipresence. To me it lives within the images of people killed in the war, with their faces familiar and foreign to me at the same time. To me it lives in the names of almost every street, named after someone from there who perished in the war. I have seen it in the unused bunker in the middle of the playground of my school. To me it lives in the endless propaganda, the endless glorification of “martyrdom” and “jihad”. To me it lives in the photos of the slain, to me it lives in the wounded, in the children of the dead.
I have seen war. I have not seen the war. Both are true. I have not seen the war and to me the sound of sirens and bombs, and I have not experienced the terror of waiting to receive news about a loved one, and I have not buried anyone to the war myself. But I have experienced it in my own way. I have not seen the nationalistic and religious fervor that drove people into battlefronts, overjoyed with a zeal to kill and to be martyred, but I have seen the disillusionment, I have walked the seemingly endless graves.
When I was nothing but an infant, the massacre of political prisoners happened. Like the war, I never witnessed it. But I have lived with that too. I have lived with the misery of the families, and I have lived with the guilt of the reformists who used to be powerful and repressive when these massacres happened, and how to every reformist these massacres are like a dark secret from the past. The reformists of today cheered the massacres as they happened. And now they all must carry the burden of guilt.
I wonder if that is what it means to be an Iranian of my generation. To have your destiny shaped by revolutions and wars and massacres you have not seen for yourself. They are the most intimate details of your identity, and yet they are alien and foreign. You fathers and mothers and older brothers and sisters have seen them, yet their cruelty is so primitive and people who narrate them sound so far away that they are like ancient gods terrorizing you in their slumber.
And if anyone wants to understand us, and by us I mean people like me, the secular democrat youths who typically back the reformists, they must begin here: we were born into a war we never saw, and that has made us who we are.
Image credit: Yazd (Iran): Cemetery for the Iranian Martyrs, via Wikimedia, Public Domain