This year, 2020, marks the 40th anniversary of the start of the Iran-Iraq War. Dr. Orkideh Behrouzan speaks with co-editor Azadeh Tajpour about her childhood in Iran during the war and how these experiences are represented in her creative and scholarly work. In particular, this interview centers two of her creative pieces: the short story “The War We Lived” and the poem “Leica.” Both pieces, which you may read in full below, bring to light the impact of war and militarism on one’s experience of gender and youth.

Listen to the full interview here, or explore the interview by each question below.

The War We Lived

by Orkideh Behrouzan

November 18

You said you wouldn’t want to go home, that there was none left to go to, that the Iraq of your childhood no longer was, that it would be easier to think it dead. You said this as we both stared at the red hair busker singing “Hotel California” in the middle of the square; you asked for a coffee and an ashtray; you were told that smoking was banned outside the café. You grinned and said you’d “forgotten that we were all saints here, in the land of the free.” You put down your cigarette and looked away; we continued our conversation: my visa status, your immigration file, borders we struggled to cross, losses we endured as a result, of families, homes, prides. We then did what we always ended up doing: reminiscing, talking about growing up during the war; you reminding me that for me, the war, the Iran-Iraq war, had ended, but for you, there were more with no end in sight. (I didn’t tell you then that wars never end; that I call it the war because I refuse to imagine us as enemies; the war is our shared ironic tragedy.)

It has been six long years since that sunny autumn afternoon. What ritual we made of it, two friends reminiscing over growing up on the opposite sides of a torturous line, you in Baghdad, I in Tehran. And six years on, I am holding onto every word in your letter. How delightful, and yet sad it was to receive your letter from Baghdad. I am relieved that your much-anticipated, much-contested, return to your Ithaca remains relatively safe; but I have hardly stopped thinking about your losses, before this war and after, the scenes you must have braved.

I read the story of your headless neighbor over and over again. How strikingly familiar it was. Years ago, one of my patients, Abdi, told me almost the same story, every morning, in compulsive repetitions:

Ramin was my cousin, my brother, my comrade. We fought shoulder by shoulder. He was always there, right by my side. He had cried the night before; he was convinced that he was still alive because he did not deserve martyrdom . . . Allah Akbar! Look what they did to us . . . He was longing for shahādat (martyrdom). His faith was unlike anyone else’s. We were together in the Karbala 5 offensive; we were crawling and advancing. He turned and looked at me, and then he jumped up and took off, shouting “Yā Zahrā!” Just like that, he ran off into the field. I saw his smile for a second, and then I saw him running. Then—he was running, I swear to the Prophet—he was running when his head was cut off from his neck and fell meters away; but he was still running, without his head on his shoulders, he was running, his head-less body was running, running, running . . .

They taught us to call it PTSD; as if it were only an illness in Abdi’s head. But you and I know that his ailment was the fate of a people. Every morning, he would break into a desperate cry precisely at this point of the story, arms wrapped around his belly he’d squat, shrinking and kneeling down: “I was standing there, staring. He was still running, running, running . ..”

We all were, I keep thinking. We are a people who have been running for decades, in a persistent effort to exist, without a head on our shoulders… Your letter made me wonder what might have become of Abdi. I wonder if he has freed himself from those sounds and sights, from that ward, from walking in his sky-blue uniform in the orchard behind the hospital’s cherry trees, sedated, lonely, tired.

Remember Jonathan from my class? He was asking me about my childhood just as your letter arrived. “How was it growing up in Iran?” he asked, gently, cautiously, lovingly even. Yes, that question.

We were talking about Easter, and he told me about painting eggs and visiting his aunt in Liverpool, where he had fallen in love at the age of seven, with the twelve-year-old daughter of his aunt’s neighbor. “I fell in love around that age too,” I said impulsively. I had, with a shy boy in our neighborhood. I had just learnt to write my first long sentence “Baba tofang darad (Daddy has a gun in his hand); [not long before us, first graders had read instead “Baba anaar darad” (Daddy has a pomegranate in his hand)]. I saw their house—or whatever was left of it—a few days after it was hit by Iraqi bombs. “Is Reza dead mummy?” I had asked my mom as we walked passed the rubble. “No my dear, they were not home that night.” They were, and I knew it. That was when I fell in love with Reza.

For weeks I tried to remember the color of his eyes, the lock of curly hair falling over his forehead as he ran, his ankle sneakers, his adult-like frown. I was hanging onto the smallest of details to keep him alive. And now tell me, how could I possibly tell Jonathan about Reza? I could have explained you see, but what was the point? To understand, he’d have to have imagined wearing Cinderella’s puffy dress while running down the stairs into the basement as the sirens went off; he’d have to have done his homework singing “Billie Jean” to the background noise of the radio playing martial anthems; he’d have to have known what it was to imagine, to go places, to fall in love when no one was looking. He’d have to know what it is to live in two different worlds; to switch from Catcher in the Rye to the story of Little Ali waiting for his father to return from the battle-fronts. He’d have to be able to imagine the smell of barout (gunpowder) and the scream of sirens and the rhythm of the Iranian “happy birthday” song merge, as I turned seven.

That was the age when we had to chant “Death to Saddam” every morning in school as we marched to class with sleepy eyes, perhaps a couple of years after you were shouting “Death to Persians.” We giggled and fidgeted, queuing dutifully in our dark uniforms: dark navy blue manteaux buttoned in the front with trousers of the same color, no fancy shoes—no room for sparkle, jolly pinks, prints, no. And a scarf, black in my time; my fringes peeking out of my headscarf. I was tiny, quiet, and very, very shy.

It was in those uniforms that we scorned nations that we knew nothing about. And then over time, the guilt, the curse, and the absurdity of such enmity quietly moved to the peripheries of life, became invisible and grew unnoticed. In the sanctuary of home and family though, things were normal, whatever normal can mean. And then, came the experience of betrayal, as years went by and my body started to change. On my silent way to womanhood and youth, it was finally possible to overhear the truth, floating in the air, on the street, in the dust and rubble that remained after the war. The truth was, the war was a big fat lie. That was the first slap of reality in my face. And since that moment, nothing has been able to take that angst away. Our deception pains me. What is crime after all, if not vigorous efforts to plant hatred and prejudice in the heads of seven-year-old school girls?

And we were the lucky ones, we Tehrani kids. We got to have imaginary friends and play hide and seek away from the battlefields. We got to play, to dance, to fill the gap between missile attacks with cartoons and birthday parties. But beyond the physicality of each war lies the burden of expedited childhoods. I remember the ruins, the juxtaposition of weddings and funerals, the horror of frantically running to basements as sirens pierced our ears, the encounter with children my own age who suddenly had no home, and the paralyzing inability to understand why.

Each week, a new student would show up in class, displaced from a border city. Our teachers would tell us to be kind to the jang-zadeh (refugee of war) kid. I learnt to listen to the stories of the new girl in class and find my pillow soaked in tears in the middle of the night, wishing that I could have cried, just once, like that, at the prayer hour in school (I had tried so hard to learn to hold my breath and try not to blink so that I could bring tears to my eyes like our teachers did at noon prayer hours.) I also learnt to be the new girl once myself, when we moved to the north for a few months during one of the intense missile attacks. Schools were shut down in Tehran. I started school in the middle of the year in a small village in the North. My new classmates were miles away from the calamity of the war, yet too close perhaps to the reality of love, and men, who would soon marry and rescue them from the ordeal of high school. I learnt that at times, exile could be more welcoming than home. It was in that village where the Tehrani girl realized that there were people in this world who woke up to the smell of fresh bread and the voice of roosters—instead of sirens.

We grew up too fast; and that was our first loss. We are the embodiment of memories unspeakable and of dreams dispersed. We were children of Karbala; death was whispering in our ears, long before we could feel the breath of a lover.

Amān amānSomewhere between the dream of return and the wisdom of moving on, there is a hint of reality that you and I cannot avoid: we grew up to go in circles; we are stuck in time. A British-Iraqi doctor blows a bomb in Glasgow, of all places; and I immediately think about the next security checks that you and I should go through in airports. My dark hair represents the menace of an evil axis that was invented out of deception. In the land of the free, we are stuck in the impulse of refreshing news pages a hundred times a day. Any moment, some terrible headline might point to us.

You will soon cross borders on a British passport, if all goes well. But Baghdad will never leave you, even though what has remained of your childhood is soaked in blood. You speak world languages; but still, you are an Iraqi man, and nothing makes you, or me, immune to the accusation of threatening the blue-eyed customs officer who couldn’t care less about who you really are.

Habibi, this world in no safer than our old basement was at the time of the war. Tell me, do you too have bittersweet memories of nights with the entire family sleeping under taped windows in basements? Tell me. Did you tape the window panes too?

Even though it may never end, this war too, shall pass. Be safe.

With love,

Orkideh Behrouzan performing “Leica”


by Orkideh Behrouzan

You blew the dust off the old Leica

Gently, you cracked open the
mahogany case, snap, your blue eyes mindful
of the click-sound that lingered in the air as
you took out the camera holding it as if it were
a fragile little bird

And then you blew

splashed dust
fears, worries, doubts

Last picture taken
in 1984, just before
missiles attacked Tehran and
I turned seven in a basement shelter where
a camera was the last thing harried grownups
would care to pack

You blew the dust off the lens

Flying dust, unimportant
silly even -you must have thought-not
seeing the sharpness of images it sketched in
my mind, nor hearing the sound of
martial anthems and birthday songs blending as
I blew seven candles on a birthday cake
The frenzy of lies and secrets and fears and
pictures we took dancing, snapshots of
life going on in hushed tones behind
shut curtains

Translating them an impossible betrayal
-immoral even

I put the empty case back in the suitcase that bears
the weight of years bygone
the smell of jasmine and cardamom and
dusty Octobers and grandma’s
prayer-beads and the voice of wandering
violinists in the quiet of

August nights by my bedroom window when
music was no longer banned and
I was the girl who wrote poems and made love to
the splendor of calligraphied words marching right
to left

The warmth of
pictures untaken, a home
all boxed in a mahogany case I hid all these years
in a suitcase

Until now

You blew the dust off the old Leica

Look ahead! Your blue eyes brighten as I peak
through the lens inviting
stories of a thousand and one journeys

Framed in rays of sun I can
see with one eye shut the thin
laughter line along your eyelid
almost invisible, there
for a fraction of a second

What inspired “The War We Lived,” and why in the form of a letter?

What does it mean for a war never to end, but perhaps to someday pass?

Can you talk more about your choice to center the friendship of an Iraqi and Iranian person in the story?

“[Iranians] are a people who have been running for decades, in a persistent effort to exist, without a head on our shoulders.”

What broader significance might girlhood and womanhood have to your story?

Could you elaborate on your experience on how everyday aspects of growing up contine for young people despite war?
“The truth was, the war was a big fat lie.”
Can you talk about the gendered aspects of war, both in your experience of the Iran-Iraq war, in this story, and in general?

“Prozak Diaries: Psychiatry and Generational Memory in Iran”

What does it mean for you to be between the dream of return and the wisdom of moving on?

What inspired you to write “Leica”?

How would you compare “Leica” with “The War We Lived”?

Are there similarities between your process as a scholar and your process as a creative writer?
What would you say to people who are reading your pieces now in light of the prospects of more war and ongoing militarism?

“The War We Lived” was originally published in Consequences Magazine, Spring 2015

Orkideh Behrouzan is a physician, medical anthropologist, anthropologist of science and technology, and a bilingual author and poet in Persian and English. She is the author of Prozak Diaries: Psychiatry and Generational Memory in Iran (2016, Stanford University Press) and the founder of the Beyond Trauma Initiative, an interdisciplinary initiative for a critical approach to mental health and wellbeing in the Middle East. She currently teaches at the Department of Anthropology at SOAS, University of London. For more about her research and creative writing, please click here.

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