Excerpt from Chapter 2, Scent of Heaven

From Father to Son

The sign at the cemetery entrance read: “The Land of Heaven.” Some marble graves appeared never to have been washed of the ubiquitous desert dust. Others seemed to receive constant care, like the dark slab for Seyyed Ali Akbar Fatemehzadeh, who the inscription said “attained the holy rank of martyrdom” at age seventeen.

Beside it I found a lone young man, lost in homage as he prayed and poured water over the grave. The stone was etched with a well-known chant from the war:

When the sound of Imam Ali is heard by our ear,

The order comes from the soul of God [Khomeini],

“Go to the place of lovers [of God].”

For the love of Him, we go to Karbala.

“He was a great man, the nation owes him . . . because if martyrs were not there, we would not have Iran,” Ali Akbar Khoshnazar told me. This young man had been named after that very martyr, a friend of his father who died in a rocket barrage. The teen came often to pray over the grave. “When I come here, my soul relaxes,” the eighteen-year-old electronics graduate said. “My father says he was a spiritual person. When he starts talking about him, he bursts out crying.”

In fact, the martyr had played a key role in the life of the father, the veteran Gholamreza Khoshnazar. I convinced the son to introduce me that night to his father, a slight man who lived an ascetic life. I was discovering seamless continuity in generational change.

Gholamreza owned a print shop that smelled powerfully of ink and paper. The scale of machinery was large and suggested serious profits. But the “office” in an upstairs loft could not have been more frugal: One telephone on the stone floor, its winding black umbilical cord stuck unceremoniously into the wall. A small table in a corner. No chairs. Few cushions for sitting. Piles of papers. An overworked cluster of thin glass teacups on a tray, with a plastic dish of sugar lumps.

“It’s hard to describe—unless you were there,” the father told me of the war. “No matter how many times I tell you this is cold,” he said, pressing a finger to the floor, beyond the edge of the carpet, “you won’t understand until you touch it.”

Early in the war, the father was sixteen and sleeping on the roof to keep cool when he saw a twelve-year-old with a machine gun standing guard in his street. “I felt something within, and I thought to myself: ‘Why should I be resting here, and the younger one guarding me?’ ” The next day Gholamreza signed up for the volunteer Basij force at the mosque. His military and spiritual training began immediately.

“When we were at the war front, we would wake in the middle of the night, do our ablutions, and pray,” Gholamreza told me of the purity he found there. “It was a very holy spirit in those days.”

The father had a close boyhood friend, called Ali Akbar, who had turned Gholamreza on to political books. During the war they fought and studied in turns, and then were together in one offensive battle. Ali Akbar’s unit left thirty minutes before Gholamreza’s. “He was hit with a rocket and half his face was gone—that was a severe shock to me, because we really liked each other,” remembered Gholamreza, his fist-length beard exhibiting a plug of gray. “Then I promised God: if I was given a son, I would name him Ali Akbar.”

And that son was the one who led me to this father, sitting here on the floor, hair thinning, pulling a faded red photo album from a red plastic bag, its cover blotchy with mold. It was worn and damaged by water from when he threw it into the river during a fit of trauma a couple of years earlier. The book—and Gholamreza’s own sanity, he admitted—were saved by son Ali Akbar. He turned the pages slowly as he spoke, deliberately finding the memories that fit the images. “Some of my friends here have become martyrs,” said Gholamreza, pointing out the deceased. There he is, riding a tank in Susangard. There he is in a T-shirt, speaking on a military radio, the man next to him soon to be dead. Or the boys leaning against a dirt berm, preparing to fire a shoulder-held RPG . . .

Gholamreza paused reverently over a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini wearing a black skullcap, a picture given to his family during the war. His admiration was undiminished for the man whose eternally stern countenance has loomed over the visual space of all Iranian Believers. And from that very man the gift of a coin, stuck to the page with yellowing tape, which depicted the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. It was presented to Gholamreza by a commander, who said it had come directly “from the Imam.”

The coin was a cherished link to the divine. The veteran finally turned the page on this metal memory, as deferentially as any Christian would handle a real piece of the cross.

“Our generation, we wouldn’t allow ourselves to be hospitalized or confined to the house; we would go back to the war as soon as we could walk,” the soft-spoken Gholamreza told me. It was a high price, willingly paid. To make the point, he pulled up his shirt in an unexpected act of shared intimacy, revealing the mosaic of scar tissue that itched underneath. Multiple wounds from his askew eye to his belly to his hands and knees left him at one point “five percent from death.”

As a follower of Khomeini, it was his “duty to be a martyr”—and Gholamreza sought to join their hallowed ranks. He failed and instead became a “living martyr”—a title coined for those viciously injured, who gave their bodies but survived.

“I was not so knowledgeable about martyrdom, and didn’t know what a delicious fruit it is,” the man lamented. “It slipped from my grasp.”