Monday, 17 April 2017

An Act of Mercy Finds its Karma Years Later in I Who Did Not Die

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.” 
- Najah Aboud, I Who Did Not Die
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.

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. 


Najah was twenty-eight, running a successful falafel restaurant in Iraq, when he was conscripted for military service in 1980, shortly after Saddam Hussein sent troops sweeping across the border - a disastrous attempt to overthrow Tehran's new government, led by Ayatollah Khomeini. The two young men found themselves fighting for eight years in the longest conventional war of the twentieth century, one that pitted two unsavoury regimes, Iraq’s secular pan-Arabism against a zealous Islamist theocracy, that left nearly one million dead, devastated communities and caused immeasurable suffering. Hussein ruthlessly eliminated generals who had disappointed him and deployed chemical warfare against his own civilians in Halabja, killing thousands This war crime is incorporated into the memoir when Zahed is ordered into the stricken area to assist in the burial of people “frozen in time,” a “calculated evil” that “stopped [him] cold.” Khomeini enthusiastically sent 80,000 Iranian children to their deaths, with promises of paradise for the martyred. Not mentioned in the memoir is that he commissioned a toy company to manufacture gold-colored plastic keys for them to wear around their necks, serving as a reminder that their martyrdom would unlock the gates of paradise. 

Both Najah and Zahed were victims of these brutal dictators. In addition to suffering serious wounds and losing loved ones, they endured the most brutal conditions as prisoners of war. Najah spent seventeen years as a POW. Worst was a dungeon jail in the country’s northeast, where he was deprived of light, heat and clean water. Those who survived subsisted on a starvation diet and were targeted for beatings and torture. Transferred to slightly better prisons, he learned Farsi and for a time acquired a small radio, which enabled him to learn that the war was over and that Saddam had launched another disastrous war on Kuwait. In 1999, long after being wounded and saved by Zahed, he was repatriated to Iraq where everything about him was unrecognizable except his voice. As a POW, Najah was regarded with suspicion by Saddam loyalists, a “national disgrace at best, a spy at worst.” Fortunately, through a series of circumstances reminiscent of a thriller, he was able to join his two brothers and father in Vancouver and claim refugee status. Though he worked at a number of jobs, the trauma of the previous two decades engulfed him, prompting his brother to recommend counselling. 

Zahed spent over two years as a POW subjected to cruelty and sadism. The torture he endured broke thirty-six bones in his body; eventually he returned to Tehran a shattered, volatile and angry man. What initially saved him was his meeting a woman who informed him that if he harbored any thoughts of spending his life with her he had to clean up his act, abandon his thuggish ways as a violent debt enforcer and secure honest labour. He eventually became a merchant sailor but he could not restrain his anger, smashing a portrait of Khomeini and nearly killing the religious officer. Knowing that he would be sent to prison and tortured again, he jumped ship in North Vancouver. Lonely, despondent, eating from dumpsters, sleeping in Stanley Park until he moved into a community housing facility for refugees, he became deeply depressed. He attempted suicide but was saved at the last moment and informed that he must undertake counselling. 

From my account, what happens next may come as no surprise, but the story is so extraordinary that it needs to be told. During a chance encounter at the Vancouver Association for the Survivors of Torture in 2001, Zahed and Najah remembered their connection on the battlefield two decades earlier. I will not detail the conversation that enables each to recognize the other, but their exhilaration -- they end up screaming with joy -- is genuinely moving. But the memoir ends abruptly, with only a brief coda that provides a thumbnail sketch of their next ten years. This is the most disappointing part of the book. We read that their reunion enabled Najah to repay his debt to Zahed but their relationship needs to be fleshed out more fully for us to understand how Najah became an “angel” to Zahed. 

Moments of humanity at this level in the heat of war are rare but not unique. A similar story occurred in 1943 when a wounded American bomber was spared by a German fighter pilot when he and the American pilot had a mid-air moment of understanding and the German refused to destroy the damaged American plane. Like the Iraqi and Iranian combatants, it didn’t seem likely that they’d ever see one another again. But they did after the American, years later, tracked down the identity of his saviour, who was then living in Canada, and they became closer than brothers. We need to uncover more such stories and celebrate them so that we can retain our faith in humanity.

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