This review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced here because it is a moving example of how the refusal to cross a line during the Iran-Iraq war had a hugely positive effect for two people.
|Zahed Haftlang and Najah Aboud, authors of I Who Did Not Die.|
“When I crashed back to earth, I had no more faith in anything. I didn’t believe in God, in humanity, or in war. There was no time for such devotions, as blood seeped from my forehead and chest, and all around me men were being executed as they begged for their lives. There was only one truth left: I was going to rot in a mass grave with hundreds of other forgotten soldiers…. I opened my eyes and saw a child soldier pointing a rifle at my temple. He was so small that he had to roll up the sleeves and pant legs of his uniform. The boy had been brainwashed to hate me. I spoke as softly as I could. ‘Please,’ I said ‘I’m… just like you.”It is rare that I would cite such a long passage from a book as an epigraph, especially when it is on the back of the dust jacket. But this description from I Who Did Not Die: A Sweeping Story of Loss, Redemption, and Fate by the Iraqi, Najah Aboud, and the Iranian, Zahed Haftlang, with the assistance of journalist Meredith May (Regan Arts, 2017), is possibly the seminal moment in this astonishing alternating-narrative memoir about the horror of the Iraq-Iran war and its aftermath. Iraqi forces had seized the Iranian city of Khorramshahr and committed ghastly atrocities, killing all the men and raping the women. In 1982, Iran retook the city and came close to annihilating the Iraqis. Najah was almost one of them as he crawls into a bunker to die, but Zahed’s intervention dramatically altered the lives of both men.
- Najah Aboud, I Who Did Not Die
In what follows the words quoted above, Najah slowly removes the Koran from his breast pocket; Zahed grabs it and pages through it and finds a photo of a beautiful woman and a baby. It is not the Koran that makes the difference and saves his life: it is the photo that for Zahed defines Najah’s humanity. Instead of following orders to execute all Iraqis, including the severely wounded Najah, Zahed feeds him water, injects a pain killer and bandages him up, admonishing him to be very quiet while he looks for a way to hook up an IV drip, before assuring, at considerable risk to himself, that Najah is transported to a medical tent and a doctor who will attend to him. He follows that up with a hospital visit where, despite their inability to communicate in each other’s language, their body language and emotions more than compensate. Najah will not forget the “angel” who saved his life even though, as Zahed departs, neither expects to see each other again
This episode is a powerful expression of the better angels of our nature, a bolt of light in the ghastly Iran-Iraq war. Had they encountered each other under similar circumstances a year later, after Zahed suffered the tragedy of losing the two most important people in his life and was bent on revenge, Nahjah’s fate would likely have been very different. As it was, however, Zahed was thirteen when he joined Iran’s Basij paramilitary, running away from a home where his father repeatedly beat him. When he and the other child soldiers were used as human minesweepers to clear the fields for the armed Revolutionary Guards, he balked and saved himself by training as a medic. The fact that he hadn't killed before – there is sufficient evidence that the first kill is the most difficult and combatants initially resist it – and didn't want to kill because of the guilt that he was afraid would forever haunt him also helped Zahed to make his decision to spare Najah’s life.