I met a young Iranian-Dutch storyteller a few weeks ago who told me a story from the Iran-Iraq war. “The children who fought in the war were told that a death in battle meant that they would go straight to Paradise. They were told that the body of a martyr would smell like rosewater so even when some recovered bodies that had been decomposing out on the battlefield they would swear that all they smelled was rosewater. That’s how much they believed what they were told.”
I can hear the groans already. Many Iranians who were in the regular military will dispute this story… but the storyteller was not talking about the regular military, he was talking about the child volunteers who cleared minefields while they listened to rousing religious music sung by Ahangaran, which my friends in Iran tell me is very hard to get a hold of in Iran now, but which you can hear on YouTube.
“Sometimes when morale was low,” he continued, “a glowing man would appear on the horizon. The young soldiers would point and say: 'It’s the messiah!'” The Mehdi, the last Imam appearing after centuries in hiding. “There is a story I heard that the Iraqis captured several of these glowing men. They were all painted with phosphorous.”
If anyone is reading this from the discussion list I belong to, you know that I queried about the veracity of this story. After all, storytellers are not the most reliable sources, just the most interesting. I could not get any confirmation and eventually thought that it was simply hyperbole.
A few days after I had given up either proving or disproving the story a broad-faced friend from Iran was visiting us with his wife and son. We were eating dinner together: roasted potatoes with chicken, rosemary, and garlic prepared by my excellent chef who, thank god, I am married to. (You should taste his gormeh sabzi or zereshk pollo… To die for…). I knew that Amir had been in the military. “Did you ever hear of men dressing as the last imam?” I asked him offhandedly.
“Have I heard of it? I saw it with my own two eyes." He pointed at his eyes for emphasis. "Tori, it was not to be believed. We were on a hill overlooking a battle being fought by the Basij. We were not in the battle ourselves,” he explained. “There was just a sliver of a moon. A cloud passed over the moon, and I turned my head and saw a glowing man in the distance. ‘What the hell was that?’ I asked. This guy was painted with phosphor and riding a white horse. I asked my commander about it. He told me, ‘They send men dressed in phosphor to ride with the Basijis all the time.’ Really. It was unbelievable.”
I told him that many Iranians I had had contact with denied that something like that could have ever happened. He told me that he saw this in 1983 (1362, for Iranians) at the Meymak Front, during one of the biggest battles and worst defeats for Iran: Valfajr-3.