Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Martyr's Mural--Iran.

The Martyrs’ Mural

After breakfast, this day’s ‘programme’ was a visit to the Bogh’é-yé Shâh-é Cherâgh (the Tomb of the King of the Lamp), and later to the oldest mosque in Iran. A short drive brought us to the entrance to the Bogh’é-yé Shâh-é Cherâgh.  Despite the glorious blue-tiles entrance into the mosque complex, there are a few barricades before you enter but the exterior walls on the right-hand side are deteriorating concrete walls. The first thing I noticed as we approached the main entrance or iwan was a mural, up high on the right-hand side on the concrete wall. It was a hand-painted quadtych (four panel mural), with each panel portraying an important event in the Shia religion.

This panel illustrates the great schism in Islam between Sunnis and Shias, a classic theme in Shiite art. It connects a solemn modern-day Ayatollah Khomeini, who had been dead for a decade, to the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), Imam Hussein who refused to recognize the Umayyad Caliph Yazid I. This ultimately led to the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD and Hussein’s subsequent martyrdom. Khomeini is shown in profile, standing with bowed head and hands outstretched in prayer. He faces a white, wind-blown tent where women in chadors are grieving at Hussein’s rider less white horse stained with blood. Perhaps Khomeini is still lamenting the way in which the “imposed war” with Iraq ended when he said:
               "Happy are those who have departed through martyrdom.
Happy are those who have lost their lives in this convoy
of light. Unhappy am I that I still survive and have drunk
the poisoned chalice..."

The second panel shows a stoic mother in black chador fastening around the head of her grimly determined son, a red bandanna that has Koranic verse written on it—he is a Basiji. [4] Her son is seeking martyrdom against the Iraqi aggressors in the “imposed war”. In this panel, they appear to be half-emerged from the earth in a landscape that is a wasteland. The Basiji could be grown men or even teen-age boys who volunteered to walk through landmines, to clear a path and spurring on waves of Iranian troops.

As a result, two generations of Iranian women cannot find husbands. Our Frozan was an example. According to one source, there were six women to every man during the early 1990s immediately after the Iraq-Iran War which ended in 1988 without a victory on either side. Be that as it may, Iran has one of the youngest male populations under the age of thirty in the entire Middle East region.

The third panel depicts four lightly-armed Basiji heading off to a fierce battle in the distance with the Iraqis. Nearby on the ground and next to an empty water bottle and a discarded helmet is the blood of a martyr seeping into the ground. There are palm trees in each scene but they are bereft of their tops no doubt symbolizing the futility of the “imposed war”.

The fourth panel shows a mosque floating on a sea of blood punctuated with stark silhouettes of dead palm trees. I interpreted it as the promised home in heaven for those who sacrificed their lives for the war.

All of the quadtych’s panels represent the “imposed war” with Iraq. This mural was a dedication to the martyrs: those who fought with bare-hands with fanatical strength against well-armed, well-trained Iraqi troops. It was difficult for us to comprehend how so many civilian volunteers, armed only with religious zeal, could walk into certain death. Mothers, daughter and children—all left behind.

This was a heavy beginning to the day, and throughout our trip, we came across many such posters, wall murals, and even shrines depicting in graphic detail the blood of the Basiji martyrs. For instance, when we were entering Isfahan airport, we came across a glass shrine dedicated to the Basiji, and we wondered if those Iranians flying had forgotten the sacrifice that many had made during the war. One display case showed the prosthetic leg of one famous martyr along with fragments of his army fatigues, bits of shrapnel and land mines. The idea in Iran of martyrdom, a central tenet of Shi’a religion, and its impact on society had astounded us western teachers as we had never seen anything like this before. (

The most famous martyr of the war was a thirteen-year-old boy, Mohammed Hossein Fahmideh, who was the first suicide bomber in the Iran-Iraq War. He volunteered to fight with the Iranian soldiers in the Battle of Khorramshahr on August 30, 1980. The Iranian troops were suffering a heavy defeat as Iraqi tanks rained bombs down on them. Fahmideh watched as fellow Iranians were cut down and in desperation, grabbed a grenade from a fallen comrade, and threw himself under an advancing Iraqi tank. The grenade damaged the tank and the tank brigade thought they were in an area that was heavily mined, so they quickly pulled back from this advance. It was a minor victory for the Iranians but it cost Fahmideh his life.

News spread quickly of his valour in the face of unbeatable odds and he became a national hero. Imam Khomeini often referred to Mohammed Fatmideh in his speeches to rally the nation against the Iraqis during the war. A translation of Khomeini’s tribute to the boy can be found on a marker in Teheran‘s Martyr Cemetery:
I am not the leader. The leader is that boy of thirteen who,
with his little heart which was worth more than a hundred
pens [his faith that is, was more valuable than any amount of
writing], threw himself with a bomb under the tank and destroyed
the tank, and drank the martyr’s glass and died.”

²            ³            ²

While I was photographing this compelling mural, a helicopter overhead was dropping what at first I thought were yellow flower petals. But they were leaflets and people were scurrying around grabbing them. I picked one up too, but of course it was in Farsi. We thought it was a strange way for a government to communicate with its citizens, especially on a national holiday. I wanted to get it translated. However, at this point, Reza and Frozan showed up and herded us into the confines of the Bogh’é-yé Shâh-é Cherâgh—finally!

              ²            ³            ²
This is an excerpt from my upcoming book on a 1999 trip to Iran with George Evashuk and Brian Rose called Iran--Full of the Empty.
You can also read my other stories on the Way Beyond Borders site <>

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