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How to write death: resignifying martyrdom in two novels of the Iran-Iraq War.

This article treats the topic of martyrdom in Iraqi and Iranian novels written about the Iran-Iraq War. During the war, the governments of both countries sponsored the production of literatures that espoused their wartime ideology, unquestionably promoting martyrdom for the wartime cause. However, in the postwar period, some writers have challenged the ideologies of the war and sacrosanctity of martyrdom. This article compares literary representations of battlefront death and the concept of martyrdom employed by Ahmad Dihqan and Janan Jasim Hillawi, postulating that war can be a useful framework through which to bring together modern Iranian and Iraqi literatures.


In the eight years of the Iran-Iraq War, martyrdom became one of the most prominent themes in the official state discourses of both sides. Starting from the first days of the war, the terms "martyrdom" and "martyr" became ubiquitous in both Iran and Iraq. (1) It was a concept that stretched from the war front back to the home front as families on both sides received the bodies of their sons, husbands, and fathers en masse. Regardless of the circumstances of death, both sides referred to their wartime dead as "martyrs." In doing so, each state attributed specific religious and nationalist meanings to their deaths. During the years of combat, it was impossible to speak of the war without using these terms. In the postwar era, the governments and the citizens of both sides have continued their use. (2) As a concept linked to the official discourses of the Iranian and Iraqi states, martyrdom continues to have strong ideological currency in both countries' public discourse and collective memory of the war.

This article treats the depiction of martyrdom in works of fiction written about the Iran-Iraq War. Martyrdom has been a recurring theme of overwhelming importance in both Arabic and Persian literary works dealing with the war. Scholars of both Iranian and Iraqi literatures have pointed this out in numerous critical works that have appeared since the time of the war. (3) Hasan Mir 'Abidini, whose monumental survey of modern Persian fiction in Iran, Sad sal dastan nivisi-yi Iran (One Hundred Years of Persian Fiction), contains two chapters that treat fiction from the Iran-Iraq War, calls martyrdom "the most important theme in [Iranian] war stories" (901). (4) He defines martyrdom in the earliest war literature to appear in Iran as the "highpoint of the life of the protagonist" (901). Citing an article by Iranian author and critic, Bilqis Sulaymani, he goes on to explain that in the majority of war fiction from the 1980s, the narrator of the story is "transformed" by witnessing the martyrdom of others, and is then heroically set on "a path towards becoming a martyr" himself (qtd. in 'Abidini 901). Similarly, Fatima Mohsen points out that the function of the massive body of wartime literature written about the conflict in Iraq "was to glorify martyrdom, making life inferior to death" (16). Muhsin Jasim al-Musawi has also pointed to the Ba'thist regime's "enormous propaganda effort, to make martyrdom acceptable" during the war with Iran, and Saddam Hussein's efforts to secularize any specifically Shi'i conception of martyrdom (84).

This, of course, is not surprising given the emphasis that the Iranian and Iraqi governments placed on martyrdom from the start of the conflict and the level of control that each centralized government exerted over the production of culture. During the war, both governments actively promoted literary works that unquestionably reflected the official discourse of the war in each state. (5) As such, a body of wartime literature emerged that was fundamentally enchanted with battlefront death. In novels and short stories published during the war, martyrdom was repeatedly portrayed as an inherently meaningful action for a war that was promoted on nationalist and religious grounds. To die as a martyr was an achievement, an honorable act, enviable by those unable to make a similar sacrifice.

In this article, I examine two examples of war literature reflecting the official discourses of the war: a short story by the late Iraqi writer 'Abd al-Sattar Nasir (1947-2013) and a novel by Iranian writer Qasim-'Ali Farasat (b. 1960). During the war, both men would gain reputations as prolific writers of state-sponsored war literature and staunch defenders of statements made by the leaders of their countries. I demonstrate how martyrdom in their works is portrayed as a positive and essentially productive act, typical of the literature of the period. However, in contrast to this type of literature, I postulate that during the postwar period some writers have attempted to resignify martyrdom and the notion of meaningful death. Using the action that each state deemed sacrosanct, these writers alter the predictable depictions of the battlefront that had become normalized in war literature written during the 1980s. In novels written by Iraqi writer Janan Jasim Hillawi and Iranian novelist Ahmad Dihqan, I identify an aesthetic approach to martyrdom that strips away all value from the act of martyrdom and reduces it to its most fundamental, corporeal meaning: death. Since the end of the war, some writers, such as Hillawi and Dihqan, who were pioneers in taking this particular approach to writing the battlefront, have seized the opportunity to challenge the ideology of martyrdom that each government promoted during the war. Thus, in some literary narratives written during the postwar period, martyrdom emerges as a flashpoint--a literary site of struggle where writers challenge the ideology of the war and the notion that death on the battlefield should inherently be celebrated as an act of productive sacrifice.

Wartime Discourses of Martyrdom

Martyrdom was an essential component of the wartime discourse of each regime, although scholarly writing on the war has tended to emphasize the importance of the concept in Iran, connecting it to the wartime ideology of the Islamic Republic, while largely ignoring the immense importance the Iraqi state assigned to martyrdom both during and after the conflict. (6) In actuality, the war's proponents in each country emphasized martyrdom as a way to both maintain support for the war effort among combatants and civilians as well as to instantly commemorate those who fell in battle. Each state extolled the idea of martyrdom and exalted the status of the martyr. On the most basic level, this included giving various benefits to the families of those killed in the war. In both Iran and Iraq, this included financial support and access to an elevated category of citizenship for the families of martyrs (Khoury 166-67; Harris 79). This has continued in the postwar era in Iran, with the massive expansion of the Martyrs' Foundation (Bunyad-i shahid), prompting historian Ervand Abrahamian to go so far as to call the contemporary Islamic Republic a "martyrs' welfare state" (Iranian Mojahedin 70). However, because of the First Gulf War (1990-1991) and the 2003 invasion and consequent collapse of the Ba'thist regime, the definition of "martyr" in Iraq has never been as stable as in neighboring Iran. By way of example, one could look at the Iraqi state's most drastic attempt to claim victims of the Iran-Iraq War as martyrs. During the war with Iran, Saddam Hussein's government posthumously inducted all non-Ba'thist war dead into the Ba'th party, claiming them as Iraqi Ba'thist martyrs, only to revoke their membership following the 1991 uprising if their families took part in the rebellion (Khoury 166-69). While the notion of martyrdom in Iraq was primarily defined by the Ba'th party until 2003, it has since been redefined with the establishment of the Iraqi Martyrs' Foundation in 2006, and debates over who is considered a martyr in modern Iraq continue today. (7)

During the war, the political leaders on both sides of the conflict continually referenced martyrdom, praising those who gave their lives on the warfront. For Khomeini, martyrdom was ever-present in his speeches during the 1979 Revolution and throughout the war. Always celebrated, the

martyrs in Khomeini's speeches were "alive" because "death is life" (6:272). If war were imposed upon the Iranian people, Khomeini told foreign journalists in 1982, the Iranian people would consider martyrdom "a great victory" and "accept martyrdom with their hearts and souls" (13:114). Not to be outdone, Saddam Hussein also made frequent reference to martyrdom throughout the conflict, calling the war's martyrs "glorious" and martyrdom "the highest symbol of kindness and nobility" (qtd. in al-Samarra'i 116). The two governments also used strikingly similar methods to commemorate their war martyrs. In Iraq, the most conspicuous examples were the Martyr's Monument (Nusb al-shahid) and the dedication, beginning in 1982, of December 1 as Martyr's Day (Yawm al-shahid), a day that Saddam Hussein called "a blessed day ... not just for the Iraqi people, but the Arab Nation, from the Ocean to the Gulf' (qtd. in al-Samarra'i 103-04). Although the annual day of commemoration continued until 2003, the tone changed considerably after the 1991 Gulf War, transforming from triumph and militancy to victimhood (Khouiy 233-35). Likewise, the Iranian government has used various methods to remind the country of its war martyrs. This has included renaming highways and streets after those who died in the war and creating massive murals across the country depicting high-profile military commanders as well as locals who were martyred at the front (see Karimi). Furthermore, Holy Defense Week (Haftih-yi difa'-i muqaddas), September 22-29, has become Iran's most important annual remembrance of the war with public events and television and radio shows devoted to commemorating the legacy of the war for the entire week. (8)

Even today, the thousands who died in the Iran-Iraq War continue to be claimed as "martyrs" by both governments. Their martyrdom, however, is framed entirely within the ideological terms of the regimes that drove their country to wage war for nearly a decade, while suppressing any form of dissent to the war effort. According to each side's official narrative, their eternal fates were sealed by a religious narrative of salvation and a religio-nationalist narrative of productive self-sacrifice. For both sides, the loss of life during the war was a wholly positive and valorous act that led to the survival of each nation. (9)

Official War Narratives

On the Iranian side, self-sacrifice and meaningful death were portrayed as primarily religious, secondarily nationalistic, endeavors. From early on, leading political figures associated martyrdom with physical and spiritual desire in their speeches and public statements (Varzi 19; 30-40). Soon after the start of the war in September 1980, the newly created Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (Vizarati farhang va irshad-i Islami) began printing pamphlets and books in Persian, Arabic, and English about the Islamic Revolution, the sayings of Ayatollah Khomeini, and the war with Iraq. The readiness of Iranian soldiers to die in combat was a major theme of much of this material. (10) Many observers have noted that much of the language in these publications originated and was reinforced directly by statements made by Khomeini and other prominent governmental figures throughout the conflict. Chelkowski and Dabashi, for example, point out Khomeini's conviction for "the necessity of sacrifice and martyrdom in the course of the revolution" (277), of which the war was a natural extension. According to Khomeini, they note, martyrdom should not have been seen as a disappointment or even a surprise. Rather, it was seen as "a sense of loss ... should martyrdom not occur" (277). These were the statements that formed the backbone of the official narrative of the war. The most extreme example was the phenomenon during the war's first years known as shahadat-talabi (yearning for martyrdom). This became an increasingly common theme in public speeches by political leaders and in the media, especially newspapers, with reports of Iranians hoping to be martyred in the same manner as Husayn ibn 'Ali, the third Shi'i Imam, i.e., by decapitation (Gieling 56-57). This phenomenon, most common from 1980-1982 before Iranian forces successfully ousted the Iraqi military from the country, has been labeled "martyropathy," a "logic" that inverts the natural struggle to avoid death and sustain life (Khosrokhavar and Macey 60).

Far less studied is the Iraqi regime's employment of martyrdom as a trope during the war. Despite the Ba'th Party's attempts to present Iraq as the face of secular Arab resistance to the exportation of Shi'i Iran's Islamic Revolution, the regime drew opportunistically from its preIslamic past as well as its important place in Islamic history to mold Iraqi wartime identity to its needs. (11) This resulted in a pastiche of images and statements that framed Iraqi goals of the war in terms of Arab unity, the Battle of Qadisiyya, or the principles of the Shi'i Imam and fourth Muslim Caliph 'Ali ibn Abi Talib (see Baram). In this context, the regime stressed the importance of martyrdom while carefully avoiding the points of reference utilized by the Islamic Republic. The story of Husayn's martyrdom at Karbala, the most important story of martyrdom within Shi'ism, had already been co-opted by the Iranian government during the war, to say nothing of its use by Khomeini and other Shi'i Islamists in the lead up to the 1979 Revolution. (12) Rather than attempt to counter-co-opt the story for his own purposes, Saddam Hussein instead referenced a wholly different martyrology. (13) Here, Khoury writes, "the mother of all martyrs was Khansa', who lost four sons in the ... battle of Qadisiyya against the Persian Empire" (224). Like the Islamic Republic, the Iraqi state monopolized the commemoration of the victims of the conflict in order to "depersonalize and routinize death" (Khoury 220). During the Iran-Iraq War, martyrdom became the new "normal" for both sides.

It did not take long before these discourses on martyrdom appeared in literary writings published in both countries. Establishment literary critics in Iran and Iraq dutifully deployed official state ideals in their work about war literature, and martyrdom quickly found its way into literary criticism and cultural essays. By 1982 in the Islamic Republic, for example, the journal Faslnamih-yi hunar (Arts Quarterly) had established itself as the government's primary cultural mouthpiece. An article entitled "Martyrdom, the Highest of Arts," adopted from Fakhr al-Din Hijazi's speech at the First Congress of Poetry, Literature, and Art held in Tehran in June 1981, contains a typically-worded discussion of martyrdom:

[T]he greatest literary work is martyrdom, meaning that the martyr writes his literature with his own blood, artistically presenting it to society. His literature is so large and magnificent that it exceeds the pen, words, and poetry. The martyr, with his blood and with his martyrdom, creates the greatest piece of literature. (Hijazi 365-66) (14)

Writers would respond to Hijazi's comments and go on to commemorate these sacrifices through ubiquitous depictions of martyrdom at the front. The war years in Iran witnessed the publication of hundreds of memoirs, poems, and fictional works that exalted martyrdom with writers such as Muhsin Sulaymani, Riza Rahguzar, Ibrahim Hasan-Baygi, Sayyid Mihdi Shuja'i and Qasim-'Ali Farasat penning some of the first works of war fiction that prominently featured martyrdom ('Abidini 896-905).

In the tight grip of the Ba'thist government, the Iraqi cultural establishment's commitment to portraying the regime's discourse of the martyr was just as strong, with some of the most prominent voices in the literary scene leading the chorus in praise of Saddam's Qadisiyya (see 'Abbud; Khidr). In 1986, Afaq 'Arabiyya (Arab Horizons), the country's most widely circulated cultural magazine, published an edited volume entitled Qadisiyyat Saddam wa-l-khiyar al-qawmi (Saddam's Qadisiyya and the National Choice) as part of its special book series "On Culture and War." The volume featured an article entitled "Hawl mafhum al-istishhad" (On the Concept of Martyrdom), by 'Abd al-Jabbar Mahmud al-Samarra'i, who summarizes not only the contemporary meaning of martyrdom in the war with Iran, but also its significance to the Ba'th Party. In addition, he emphasizes what martyrdom means in the contexts of war and revolution throughout the history of Islam. Not surprisingly, the essence of martyrdom in all three contexts is the same.

This 25-page article clearly shows how the Ba'thist delimitation of martyrdom during the war contrasted with that of the Iranian enemy. As the article claims, to be a martyr means to die in a manner that resonates with the history of Islam and is sanctified by the faith. Incidentally, this history already contained the "original Islamic Revolution," which took place during the Islamic conquests, thus nullifying the recent revolution in Iran and its claims of being Islamic. Moreover, the author argues that martyrdom is already embedded in Iraqi culture. By sacrificing himself, the martyr
   departs this earth bodily, but not with his soul. He
   remains not just an example, but a school from which our
   glorious students learn the meaning of sacrifice in
   defense of the truth and honor. The ancient Iraqis started
   a culture of martyrdom before the arrival of the Arabs and
   Islam. Their concept of martyrdom was rooted in a love
   for the homeland, dignity and honor. (108)

Furthermore, the author argues that the Ba'thist Socialist Movement is what truly distinguishes the contemporary context and the willingness of Iraqis to die for its cause. It is, in the author's words, "the only revolutionary movement that has presented caravans of martyrs on the path towards the Arab nation's revival." Indeed, the Ba'thist Revolution was "the second great Arab Revolution," one that also carried with it "an emphasis on sacrifice." Therefore, Ba'thist ideology has a "direct connection to the concept of martyrdom in Islam." Samarra'i then cites the following verse from the Qur'an: "Do not consider those who have died on the pathway of God dead but alive, sustained by their Lord" (3:169; qtd in al-Samarra'i 110).

The Allure of Martyrdom in Wartime Literature

The wartime governments of Iran and Iraq coded death entirely in a language of martyrdom, a language that resonated paradigmatically with both countries' Islamic traditions and myths. Indeed, the stories of the martyrdom of the third Shi'i Imam, Husayn, at Karbala and the martyrdom of Khansa"s sons in the battle of Qadisiyya both highlight the redemptive qualities of death. Death at war meant martyrdom for the sake of the nation and Islam. To become a martyr was not a loss, but a step towards the realization of a higher cause.

The war front in turn reified this, reimagining battle stories from early Islamic history in the present moment. During the war, those who chose to write about the conflict, especially the warfront, made martyrdom one of their most salient preoccupations. Thus, in both Iran and Iraq, wartime literary productions were mostly set on the battlefront, replete with images of heroes, martyrs, and dead enemies. (15) Just as the stories from the Islamic conquests took place largely on the battlefront, so did contemporary narratives of the Iran-Iraq War. For the most part, in the postwar period this has remained the same, particularly with the heavy production of Iranian war literature primarily published by Surih-yi mihr publishing house in Iran. (16) Death on the battlefront, always framed as martyrdom in this type of story, is a fundamentally productive act. Similar to what scholar Sarah Cole, in the context of English literature and the First World War calls "enchantment," the vast majority of wartime fiction in Iraq and Iran portrayed violent death with an unmistakable allure (39-45). To die as a martyr implied a transformation from being an ordinary soldier into something higher. (17) The following examples illustrate what this mode of writing looked like in two emblematic pieces of fiction from Iran and Iraq.

During the war, one of the most prolific writers of war literature in Iraq was 'Abd al-Sattar Nasir. He originally gained a name for himself in 1974, five years before Saddam Hussein assumed the official title of President, with his short story entitled "Sayyiduna al-khalifa" (Our Lord, the Caliph), an allegorical tale challenging the totalitarian rule of an imaginary dictator. Its publication landed him in prison for over a year, during which time he was held in solitary confinement and tortured. After his release, his tone changed drastically and he became one of the most celebrated writers of war literature during the 1980s. (18)

Published in 1981, Nasir's collection of short stories al-Shahid 1777 (Martyr 1777) is one of the earliest works of adab al-harb (war literature) and specifically adab Qadisiyyat Saddam (the literature of Saddam's Qadisiyya) in Iraq. Consisting of twenty-two short stories, the slim collection was the first of his many works of war literature, and was characteristic of the themes and style predominating Iraqi wartime fiction. The collection's eponymous short story is particularly telling. "Martyr 1777" is the tale of Tawfiq Zahir, the 1,777th martyr for the Iraqi cause who, incidentally, is not Iraqi. He is a Moroccan who traveled from the other end of the Arab World in order to fight for Saddam Hussein's Second Qadisiyya against the Persians: a pan-Arab, Islamic battle against the Persian Magi. Exhibiting a superlative personality and unrivaled bravery, the hero came to the front, innocent, chaste, and pure: "[H]e wanted only freedom for the entire Arab nation, from the ocean to the gulf and from the clouds that travel westward to the ones that settle in the east" (32).

The story reads like a eulogy to the fallen pan-Arab fighter, although we learn almost nothing about the character or background of Zahir. This, however, is not important as the story primarily serves two didactic principles that were essential components of the Iraqi narrative of the war. Firstly, the battle with the Persians was one for the freedom of the entire Arab world. Secondly, Zahir is martyred, which makes him a hero. Naturally, his performance in battle was flawless and in perfect harmony with his Iraqi compatriots. The third-person narrator tells us that the hero met his end on December 7, 1980, uttering to his comrade Hasan "I have learned from you how to laugh in the face of death; this is the most beautiful of lessons" (35). The story ends with the narrator lamenting the fact that the martyr will never know how the other soldiers spoke of his bravery and his sweet smile, or that he himself will never read this story.

Above all, "Martyr 1777" is a lesson in self-sacrifice, even though martyrdom in the story has almost nothing in common with the actual characteristics of losing one's life on the battlefront. There are no details of Zahir's death; the story's tone and narrative make it clear that his status as a martyr is to be celebrated rather than mourned. Martyrdom here may as well have been a euphemism for graduating from a school, traveling far away, or, in the case of the Moroccan fighter, going home. There is nothing shocking about Zahir's death. His loss of life is depicted as wholly ordinary.

Once the cultural side of the Iranian war machine was operational, fictional works very similar in tone began to appear with the battlefront as the primary setting. One of the earliest and most prominent works from the period, Nakhl-ha-yi bi sar (Headless Palms) by Qasim-'Ali Farasat, epitomizes the depiction of martyrdom in Iranian fiction during the war years. In many ways, it parallels Iraqi literary depictions of heroism and martyrdom during the war and sets the tone for later wartime literature in Iran.

Appearing in 1982, Nakhl-ha-yi bi sar was one of the first war novels to receive serious attention by literary critics in Iran. It continues to be referenced in popular articles and academic studies written about the war's literature, especially by regime-affiliated critics who often recognize it as one of the first literary works within the genre of the adabiyat-i jang-i muqaddas or the literature of holy defense ('Abidini 903-04). Set in the cities and villages scattered along Iran's border with Iraq, the events of the novel center on the Iraqi invasion and occupation of the province of Khuzistan and the city of Khorramshahr in September 1980, ending with its liberation by Iranian forces in May 1982.

Nakhl-ha-yi bi sar revolves around Nasir, a young man from Khuzistan who joins the resistance and heads to the war front to fight for the liberation of Khorramshahr. It is a story of the making of a hero, as Nasir learns to overcome his fear of death through constant reminders of the story of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn. The dialogue and narration of Nakhl-ha-yi bi sar are heavily laden with references to the 1979 Revolution (categorically defined as "Islamic"), the "Imam" (Ayatollah Khomeini), Karbala and the martyrdom of the third Shi'i Imam, Husayn. Whenever possible, Nasir's dialogues with his comrades embed the role of religion into the war. (19) In an emblematic battle scene that takes place outside of Khorramshahr, Nasir's platoon is fatigued from fighting, with some of the soldiers fearing death. Their commander, Jahan-Ara (20) rallies the soldiers as follows:
   "We can't forget the Imam's words! We have to remember
   what promises we've made to the martyrs. If we think that
   this is Khorramshahr and that's Iraq, that we're face-toface
   with all those weapons, we'll be defeated. We should
   imagine that this isn't Khorramshahr. This is Karbala!"

   Jahan-Ara's words brought tears to the boys' eyes and
   bullets from their guns. Round after round of bullets. (98)

Martyrdom soon emerges as the novel's most important theme. In the final chapters of Nakhl-ha-yi bi sar, Nasir, badly injured and suffering from what appears to be combat stress, is asked by his platoon to leave the front and join his parents who have fled to Tehran. Devastated, he reluctantly joins his family, staying with them for three months, during which he is hospitalized and warned not to return to the front. Despite this, he begs for permission to rejoin his comrades on the battlefield. His doctor and parents finally concede and Nasir joyously goes back to Khorramshahr. Following his departure, Nasir's mother waits by the phone for days until it finally rings and Salih, one of Nasir's friends from Ahvaz, tells her that Khorramshahr has been liberated. She is elated and on the verge of tears, telling him: "If Nasir has been martyred, then I won't be sad." His response, which ends the novel, is: "Well ... Nasir has been martyred!" (215).

Like "Martyr 1777," Nakhl-ha-yi bi sar presents martyrdom as a productive act that only benefits the wartime cause. The details of Nasir's death are unknown, but his loss of life is connected directly to the liberation of an Iranian city. Nasir's mother, a woman who has been displaced and already lost two other children to the war, does not mourn the loss of her third son, but rather feels thankful for it. Nasir sacrifices himself for the defense of the country, the Islamic Revolution, and in the way of Imam Husayn.

Postwar Rewritings of Martyrdom

The above depictions of martyrdom are typical of wartime fiction. As the two works demonstrate, literary reflections of the war, like public commemorations, are extraordinarily similar, despite the differences in nationalist and religious discourses that valorized martyrdom in Iran and Iraq. Most of the novels and short stories published during the 1980s take place on the battlefront, a place where heroism and the act of killing flourish side-by-side. Strict governmental censorship framed the production of Iranian and Iraqi war literatures during these years, generating two bodies of derivative literature drowned in seas of nationalistic expectations (see Karimi-Hakkak). In this context, writers on both sides present heroism, killing the enemy, and martyrdom as the norm. Readers come to expect stories of protagonists who would never question the war and who are bound to be martyred.

With the end of the war in 1988, the priorities of the governments' cultural wings changed. Both sides decreased their funding for war-related cultural productions, allowing the literary spheres of both countries to become far more polyphonic. (21) In Iraq, sanctions, multiple wars, and the fall of the Ba'thist regime complicated life while creating a space for freer expression about the war. In Iran, despite the continuance of the Islamic Republic, the discourse on the war has opened up considerably since the end of hostilities. Iraqi and Iranian war literatures have become sites of competing narratives, with mass participation from writers unaffiliated with the current or previous governments and, especially in the Iraqi case, often living in the ever-expanding diaspora. In the years since the end of the conflict, writers have used depictions of death on the battlefront to write alternative war narratives that question the ideologies that fueled the conflict. This challenge has come in a variety of forms, but has often involved defamiliarizing martyrdom and portraying the corporeality of battlefront death, as in the case of the two novels that I examine in the following pages. These novels, each published between ten and fifteen years after the war's end, soberly desacralize martyrdom, jarringly portraying death, and implicitly criticizing the ideologies that propelled the war. The primary technique employed by Ahmad Dihqan and Janan Jasim Hillawi, the novels' authors, narrows in on violent death, giving voice to the details silenced by typical portrayals of martyrdom. Despite being set largely on the battlefront, these two narratives refuse to attribute any productive quality to death in war.

Ahmad Dihqan (b. 1966) gained critical attention in the Iranian literary scene with the publication of his first novel, Safar bih gara-yi divist va haftad darajih (Journey to Heading 270 Degrees). With an initial print run of 5,000 copies in 2005, it received the award for Best Sacred Defense Novel the same year. It is now in its 18th printing. Dihqan's complicated depiction of the war front in novels and short stories has earned him the respect of diverse readers and critics in Iran, despite its publication with Surih-yi Mihr, the official publishing house of Iranian government-sponsored Artistic Center of the Islamic Development Organization. In 2006, the novel was translated into English.

Journey to Heading 270 Degrees starts with eighteen-year-old Nasir's arrival home after years at the front and his quick return to participate in the Karbala V campaign--an attempt by the Iranian army in January 1987 to capture the Iraqi port-city of Basra. Although his parents oppose his return to the front where they know his chances of being killed are quite high, Nasir is excited to leave, but for reasons that have nothing to do with the war itself. What draws Nasir back to the front is his desire to regain the camaraderie lost since returning home.

Comedy and optimism mark Nasir's buoyant reunion with his platoon and his fellow soldiers. Once together again, the young soldiers hardly act as if they were at war. Their scenes together consist almost entirely of jokes, roughhousing, and brazen remarks. In the days leading up to the battle, the dialogue features none of the ideological parlance that dominates most state-sponsored war literature. No one speaks of war, the "holy defense" of the nation, or martyrdom. Instead, the soldiers play soccer, drink tea, reminisce, and play jokes on each other. Instead of repeatedly invoking God, they curse constantly, in juxtaposition to the Iranian state radio, which, like a stem father reprimanding his children for jovial behavior when they should be serious, broadcasts martial music and slogans supporting the cause of the war. During these moments, the soldiers' rambunctious energy only becomes more apparent.

Not long after arriving at the front, Nasir and his platoon are sent into battle. The tone changes drastically as the embanked soldiers come under heavy fire. The incredibly ugly and violent reality of the battlefront is unfiltered. With his platoon arriving at the first position, Nasir is on the verge of vomiting from the stench and sight of enemy corpses being repeatedly run over by Iranian bulldozers as they attempt to mold the geography to their advantage. Gripped by fear, he describes a dead body: "Trucks have repeatedly run over it, picking up pieces of the corpse in their threads, leaving only a flattened piece of flesh" (135). (22)

The novel's fast-paced development brings to the fore the details of multiple horrendous deaths. One by one, the platoon thins out as soldiers are badly injured or die. Here, Dihqan truly differentiates his narrative of the war from those of other writers who espouse the official narrative of martyrdom. His is one of gory violence, stripped of any mention of the glory or heroism that distinguishes the martyr. As Nasir's dear friend, 'Ali, is smashed by a tank and killed, Nasir reaches him just moments afterwards:
   I stand over what is left of his body. He stares up at me
   with a look of horror and disbelief. I sit. The thread has
   crushed his midsection. His main artery is still spurting
   blood and his left eye is moving. He has been cut in half,
   exactly in two pieces. I take his head and upper part of his
   body in my arms; the lower half is mashed into the tank
   tracks. His crushed limbs smell like blood, and steam
   rises from them like snakes into the air. (125)

Nasir knows that 'Ali will die there. The novel explicitly shows the sense of futility that a soldier in this situation feels looking at his best friend, mutilated and nearly dead. At the same time, the narrative maintains a distance from ideology by avoiding the discourse of martyrdom. 'Ali's death is the first of nearly the whole platoon. The other victims' deaths are violent and gruesome as well. The soldiers instinctually fight and retreat, their own survival being their only cause. The scenes are graphic and the soldiers fragile and dispensable; bullets and shrapnel rip through their bodies; they are lit on fire, blown up, and tom apart. After being hit with shrapnel in the mouth, Nasir describes the scene around him: "I find myself lying with my head on the ground and the smell of kabob in my nose.... I sniff the air ... but as I rise slowly I am gripped by a terrible fear. Human flesh is roasting; someone who was once alive is now a headless piece of meat" (166).

Dihqan's narrative is in sharp contrast with the ideological depictions of martyrdom that dominate Iranian wartime fiction. Nasir narrates the battlefront experiences with an eye towards the physicality of death, something that likely stems from Dihqan's own experience. Martyrdom is not the issue here; death is. When read in the context of war narratives that espouse the official discourse, the term "martyr" is defamiliarized, ripped out of its banal context of salvation and meaningful death, and resignified to refer to the gory scenes repeated throughout the novel. Dihqan's style and frankness are unique for the setting of the novel and its time of publication; no one before him had written the warfront with such grisly detail. Read in comparison with Nakhl-ha-yi bi sar, the novel portrays a wholly different war. The novel devalorizes the battlefront experience and undermines the sacred status official discourse ascribes to martyrdom.

The battlefront narrative of Journey to Heading 270 Degrees finds a strong parallel in the Iraqi novel Layl al-bilad (Night of the Countries). Written by novelist and poet, Janan Jasim Hillawi (b. 1956), residing in Sweden since 1992, the novel was published in 2002 by Beirut-based publisher Dar al-Adab. Layl al-bilad follows the story of 'Abd-Allah, a young man whose background the reader learns very little about. The novel opens with the protagonist's return to his family in his hometown of Basra in 1981, during the first year of the war with Iran. Almost immediately afterward, he is conscripted into the Iraqi army and sent to a training camp where he is imprisoned for not being a member of the Ba'th party. After enduring appalling living conditions in a military prison, including verbal and physical abuse, and witnessing torture and the death of another prisoner, he and a fellow prisoner attempt to escape. They fail, are apprehended, and consequently transported to the front lines of the war where the benefits of the prison's relative safety seem like a distant luxury. 'Abd-Allah then participates in multiple battles with Iranian forces. Described in horrifying detail, these battle scenes leave a lasting impression and, perhaps unsurprisingly, parallel other postwar stories written by Iraqi and Iranian writers who spent time at the battlefront. After suffering multiple wounds on the battlefield and spending time in a military hospital, he is sent to the front in Kurdistan. There, he and a fellow soldier are ambushed and taken hostage by Kurdish revolutionaries aligned with Iraqi communists who are fighting against Saddam Hussein's army. He eventually gains their trust and fights alongside them against the Iraqi forces. Again, he is injured, this time badly burned. The novel concludes with 'Abd-Allah's return to Basra, now a decimated city after years of Iranian shelling and crushed by the Iraqi government following the failed 1991 uprising. Basra, the city whose "rebellion detonated the Iraqi uprising" (Abd al-Jabbar 10) was severely punished by the Ba'th for being the largest city whose population participated in the revolt en masse (see Human Rights Watch).

From the onset, Hillawi's novel sets itself up in opposition to both the war and Ba'thist ideology, immediately marking itself as a work of unofficial and oppositional writing. This is perhaps best illustrated by the scenes that take place in the army base where 'Abd-Allah is conscripted and trained, as well as the prison where he is incarcerated for being politically "independent." In his first run-in with an army political guidance officer, the mood of the army is laid bare. The officer interrogates him:

"You're not a member of the party?"

"No sir."



"I don't like to get involved in politics, sir."


"The party is not politics, the party is the nation."

"True, sir. But I will remain independent."

'Independent.' That was a political word. "A big word for a disorderly soldier--a prisoner, a weak-hearted coward. 'Independent' from the party, the government, the state, the army? Who are you, other than a maggot, filth, a rag, a laughingstock? 'Independent,' you son of a bitch. Who are you to become independent? An officer? Leader? President of the country? From what have you become independent? How? You filthy, rotten bastard." (81-82)

Intensely critical depictions of the Ba'thist regime, like this one, have become increasingly common since 2003, especially among Iraqi writers in the diaspora. In Layl al-bilad, the party is depicted as an oppressive apparatus. From conscription to incarceration to warfare, Ba'thist apparatchiks, whose propensity to commit acts of violence against internal or external enemies only increases with their level of authority, pull the novel's protagonist through varying levels of pain. The prison scenes exemplify this, making it clear to the reader that Hillawi's ideological position is staunchly anti-Ba'thist. The battle scenes, however, combine his position with descriptions of death that completely condemn the war and chip away at the mythic status of the martyr. Among the multiple battle scenes, not once is the word "martyr" used to describe those who are killed. Instead, there are repeated references to severed limbs and tom corpses and the "smell of blood and gunpowder." In one of the most graphic scenes of the novel, 'Abd-Allah lifts his head out of a trench in the morning after a battle to find himself surrounded by a Dantean nightmare:
   What frightened him was the scene of corpses that he hadn't
   noticed during the night.... They were piled atop each
   other, limbless. The pressure from the rockets and shrapnel
   had ripped them apart and then melded them together.
   They now appeared as one body with multiple heads and
   arms pointing in every direction, bound together by blood,
   dirt and mud, tom camouflage, hole-ridden helmets, and
   half buried broken guns. Iranian insignia adorned the
   heads of the dead, tom shreds now stained with red blood,
   written upon them "Oh Martyr of Karbala." (166)

The battle scenes are the novel's chief engagement with death. In many ways, these scenes parallel those of Dihqan's Journey, where the author avoids any attempt at vindicating death and instead highlights the brutality of the battlefront. Descriptions of heroism are gone altogether, and the narrative centers on the graphic and difficult depictions of wanton death and senseless destruction. Like Dihqan's Journey, Hillawi's Layl al-bilad describes the same appalling experience of burned flesh on the battlefield: "'Abd-Allah sniffed the smell of grilled meat along with the stink of gunpowder. He confirmed it when he saw burning bodies" (212).

In complete defiance of the discourse on martyrdom and heroism marking the wartime literature of Iraq, later battle scenes describe the hysterical fear that soldiers felt while attacking each other in hand-to-hand combat. Gone is the cleanliness and potential distance that bullets provide in killing a fellow human being. Instead, the Iraqi soldiers fight the Iranians with "bayonets, knives, shovels, rocks and teeth," while the injured "groan, gasp and scream" (214). Whatever logic the war supposedly had disappears here: "With an incomprehensible human charge, the Iranians were quickly dying, mixing into the darkness in front of the ferocious Iraqi soldiers, desperately afraid of falling captive" (214).


With their graphic depictions of death on the battlefield, Journey to Heading 270 Degrees and Layl al-bilad engage with a setting of war previously dominated by the official war literatures of Iran and Iraq. However, their portrayals abstain from the celebratory tone that most wartime literature employs in depicting the act of martyrdom. Instead, these novels portray the same scenes in order to create a profoundly bold anti-war discourse, stripping away from the act of martyrdom "all form of symbolic valorization" (Cole 53).

In this way, both Dihqan and Hillawi participate in the production of an anti-war discourse that fundamentally refuses to see the concept of martyrdom as productive. Readers familiar with the genre of war literature in the Iraqi or Iranian contexts expect praise for the act of martyrdom. Instead, Dihqan and Hillawi question, devalorize, and strip martyrdom down to its physical meaning: pain, violence, and death. Both use the brutality of the war front to represent violence in its rawest form, wiping away the film of familiarity that had settled over martyrdom and the martyr in the official literatures of the war. Their styles of writing about the violence of the battlefront is one of disenchantment with martyrdom, death, and indeed, the war itself.

With the overall dearth of studies that attempt to bring into conversation modern Arabic and Persian literatures, the legacies of the Iran-Iraq War represent an area that invites the development of new comparative approaches to these two literatures. In a more general sense, however, cultures of martyrdom that have arisen alongside violent revolutions and modern warfare have greatly affected literary and other cultural productions across the Arab and Persianate worlds in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Investigating the ways that writers, filmmakers, and artists have dealt with mass cultures of martyrdom and violent pasts may very well be a way to create new possibilities for the comparative study of modern cultures and societies from North Africa and the Middle East to Central and South Asia.


(1) Arabic and Persian use the same term for "martyrdom" with variations in pronunciation: al-shahada in Arabic and shahadat in Persian. This is also the case for the term "martyr," which is shahid in both languages.

(2) This situation has been more complicated in Iraq since 2003 after the fall of the Ba'thist regime in Iraq. For more on this topic, see Khoury.

(3) Various critics have noted the saliency of martyrdom in literature from the Iran-Iraq War, typically in reference to government-sponsored literature written during wartime and, to the best of my knowledge, always from the perspective of one literature. For more on Iraqi war literature, see 'Abbud, Milich et al., Khidr, and Mohsen, "Cultural Authoritarianism." On Iranian war literature, see 'Abidini, Hanif, Rahguzar, and Talaltof.

(4) All translations, unless otherwise noted, are my own.

(5) See also Mohsen, "Debating Iraqi Culture" and Saghafi.

(6) Since the 1980s, this topic has been studied exhaustively in the Iranian con text by scholars working in a number of languages. See, for instance, Abrahamian, Khomeinism and Tortured Confessions', Aghaie; Chelkowski; Chelkowsi and Dabashi; Dabashi; Gieling; Khosrokhavar; Khosrokhavar and Macey; and Vara. It is no challenge to locate pieces of academic or (especially) journalistic writing overburdened with stereotypical depictions of a uniquely "Islamic culture of death" that promotes martyrdom. Far fewer secondary studies of martyrdom in the Iraqi context of the war with Iran exist; amongst these, Khoury deals most thoroughly with the topic.

(7) For more on who the Iraqi state currently considers a martyr, see the web site of the Iraqi Martyrs' Foundation (Mu'assasat).

(8) This corresponds to the date when Iraqi forces crossed into Iranian territory in 1980.

(9) This is not to say that significant portions of the Iranian and Iraqi population are not entirely fed up with governmental discourse of martyrdom. This is particularly time in Iran, where many observers have noted the ennui felt by younger generations towards constant governmental reminders of the war. See, for example, Farhi; Khosravi.

(10) See, for example, The Imam and the Ommat (Khomeini), one of the first publications issued by the Ministry of Islamic Guidance in multiple languages in an effort to explain to the world the Iranian government's position in its war against Iraq and the imperialistic endeavors of its supporters (the Gulf States, the United States, and the Soviet Union among others). This type of publication became increasingly common throughout the course of the war, most famously with a series of large photo books with text in Persian, Arabic, and English entitled The Imposed War: Defence vs. Aggression. Five volumes were released during the war and another four in the two decades following its end

(11) In Iraqi propaganda, Iranians were often also referred to as "Magi" or "Zoroastrians," "Khomeinists," or pejoratively as "Persians" ('ajam) ('Abbud 127).

(12) A number of observers have referred to this as the "Karbala paradigm," a term first popularized by anthropologist Michael Fischer in Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution. 'Ali Shari'ati, Ruhallah Khomeini, Husayn-'Ali Muntaziri, and other ideological, Islamist architects of the revolution frequently used the story of Husayn's martyrdom in the years preceding the revolution, as did prominent Iraqi clerics such as Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim and Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr.

(13) Khoury deals with the topic at length, tracing the development of what she terms a "cult of martyrdom" in Iraq during the war.

(14) Unlike many of the early celebrity-like cultural spokespeople for the Islamic Republic, Hijazi did not get his start with the war and the newly established government's thirst for fresh voices to speak, write, and create cultural productions about the Revolution and war. He was involved with Islamically oriented political organizations before the Revolution and became a member of the first parliament to form after 1979. He later fell out of favor with Khomeini and spent the latter years of his life politically quiet.

(15) The best examples of this type of story in Iraqi fiction are the voluminous short story collections Qadisiyyat Saddam: Qissas taht lahib al-nar (Saddam's Qadisiyya: Stories under Fire), which anthologized the most noteworthy war stories according to leading critics at the time. No such large-scale anthologies of war literature exist in Persian, but comparable examples abound in short story collections published in Iran after 1985, particularly by writers who self-identified as 'Islamic' ('Abidini 896-905; Talattof 108-34; and Baygi 8).

(16) Surih-yi mihr is the official publishing house of Iranian government-sponsored Artistic Center of the Islamic Development Organization (Hawzihyi Hunari). Established in 1982, the Artistic Center is the most prolific distributor of literature concerning the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, spanning all genres and forms.

(17) Despite differences in time and place, there are a number of parallels between the Iran-Iraq War and the First World War. The dead in each war were largely soldiers fighting on the front. It was the first war to feature the widespread use of gas and trenches since the First World War. Like the populations of the belligerent countries in WWI, it was also the first time that the people of Iran and Iraq were mobilized on such a massive scale. Significantly, there are also important similarities between the two wars on the cultural level, with both Iran and Iraq sponsoring the creation of official "war cultures" that were analogous in many ways to British efforts during WWI (see Deer).

(18) 'Abd al-Sattar Nasir became one of the most prolific writers of the genre of war literature in praise of Saddam's Qadisiyya (Qadsiyyat Saddam), publishing dozens of short stories, children's stories, and works of literary criticism during the war years. In 1999, he left Iraq and fled to Canada, where he died in August 2013. Unlike the vast majority of writers who became affiliated with the official cultural establishment in Iraq during the war, Nasir issued a mea culpa and openly attacked Saddam Hussein in his later writings. See his articles compiled in Maqha al-Shahbandar (Shahbandar's Coffeehouse).

(19) This is similar to the multitude of commissioned war memoirs written about the Iranian war front experience. In the same way, the battle scenes in Nakhl-ha-yi bi sar provide opportunities to put on display the faith and determination of the Iranian soldiers in contrast to the atheistic and immoral Iraqi forces. For more on this topic see Talattof 114-16.

(20) Muhammad Jahan-Ara was the real commander of the Khorramshahr branch of the Revolutionary Guards (Sipah-i pasdaran) at the time of the Iraqi invasion. Although he was killed in battle, he was memorialized soon afterward when the city was liberated. Now commonly referred to as Shahid Jahan-Ara, he is elegized with the well-known religious song (surud) from Bushehr "Mamad nabudi bibini" ("Muhammad, You Were Not Here to See") popularized by singer Ghulam Kuvaytipur after Iranian forces retook Khorramshahr. Jahan-Ara's role in the novel is limited to a few words and scenes.

(21) This is not to equate postwar social, cultural, or economic conditions of Iran and Iraq, which have differed in obvious ways. Regardless of these circumstances, the level of urgency with which each government promoted the production of war literature would never be as high as it was during the war itself.

(22) All quotations from Dihqan's novel refer to the pagination of Sprachman's English translation.

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Title Annotation:'Journey to Heading 270 Degrees' and 'Night of the Countries'
Author:Moosavi, Amir
Publication:Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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