When the war was over, we got depressed. People walked aimlessly around Ahvaz, their looks glazed, their gaits rude. They had many questions. What happened to the anti-aircrafts piercing the sky at dawn and the missiles’ luminous traces scarring the dusk? What happened to the news anchor with the velvet voice telling us every morning how much longer we likely had to live? What happened to the firefighters racing over to bombed buildings and pulling out charred bodies and severed limbs from under the debris? What happened to the nights of eating subsidized rice while roofs and walls shook, debating whether Russian MiGs broke the sound barrier?
The city council arranged celebrations and festivals to liven up the city, but no one attended them. We needed a fresh reason to fight for survival. The pernicious hand of peace had snatched military jets out of the sky and anti-aircrafts off the ground. Now idleness plagued Ahvaz. Drug abuse was at all-time high and organized crime grew epidemic. Burglary and rape became staples of everyday news. The cracks along ethnic lines spread fast. Politicians went corrupt and people stopped voting.
When a young monarchist shot up a meeting of Arab separatists to commence the purification of the Aryan land, the authorities panicked. The city council held an urgent meeting to address the crisis, and there they came up with the idea of the war museum. For the whole year it took them to build the museum, no one was allowed anywhere near the construction. It was ten miles outside the city, in the heart of the wasteland that stretched from Ahvaz to Abadan. All along its single road, thousands of soldiers formed a human wall around the site, protecting it from journalists and other intruders. Even airlines were rerouted so that no one could take pictures from the sky. In small cohorts we gathered and speculated on what we would see, what we wanted to see, what wartime feelings we missed most.
Then one balmy afternoon the council announced that the mayor would inaugurate the museum the next morning. It was a late notice to attract only the most dedicated first visitors. From all around the city, we jumped into our old Paykans and Renaults and drove to the site.
Soon a few hundred of us had formed a line. Most were unemployed young men who could afford coming over as soon as the news was out. There were also middle aged men and women with their young children, and older folk with their grandchildren. The line included luminaries of our community: Dr. Javaheri and family, Mr. Shahamat the owner of the largest jewelry store in the city, the famous journalist Hassan Safavi. Most of them had come in their best clothes: men in immaculate suits and colorful ties, women in night dresses and high heels, young girls in floral skirts and colorful stockings, little boys in waistcoats and blazers.
When the number of people in the line reached one thousand, the guards blocked the road and sent others back home. People sat around on the ground and talked. Among the well-dressed men, a few were army colonels and lieutenants. They attracted the youth and told them war stories far into the night. One old man, with a thin body and a fat face bookended by a thick white mat of hair and a jowl that served his face as a pillow, turned out to be a top commander in the notorious and costly Karbala Four operation. When it came to the decisions he made, the conversation grew heated, but no one showed disrespect.
After midnight we set up bonfires and huddled. Some had brought sleeping bags and blankets and slipped into them. The rest slept on the soil by the fires.
The next morning we woke under the shadow of a large gate. It had been installed during the night. The gate seemed too big to bring and set up without waking us up, but they had done it. It was tall and narrow, an old rusted metal frame that barely held up two broken corrugated pieces.
The gate revolved on the hinge that shrieked as it opened halfway. A man from the other side marched through the gate, his arms out, a grin stretching across his face, like he was stepping on a theatre stage.
It took us a few seconds to recognize the mayor. We had only seen his face in newspapers and on TV, but had no recollection of his body. His face was impeccably round, and his fully bald head reflected all the light in the world. He was shorter and fatter than we remembered. A vast smile spread on his face and pushed his chubby cheeks so high that his eyes squeezed into two oblique lines. He wore a neatly ironed red suit and black bowtie. His clean white shirt wrapped his belly that was hanging over his belt. He looked like a circus ringmaster.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the war museum!” his cheerful husky voice coursed through the air. No speakers or amplifiers were around, but his voice was clear and loud. “You are about to have a remarkable experience, and I don’t want to spoil it. This museum is not about the past. It is not a memorial to martyrs. It belongs to martyrs. They are right here behind this gate, and they will permeate your soul during the visit. You will live the life of a martyr. You will feel the feelings of war, shake the shakes of war, scream the screams of war. Now, please queue up in front of the gate.”
People crawled out of their sleeping bags and lined up. No fence was around the gate and it blocked no path. We could bypass it but no one did. The crowd walked through the gate one by one and entered the museum. The gate screeched shut.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ the mayor spoke up again. We could see deep wrinkles on his face. “As you can see, there is a short fence at the end of the path. That is the threshold of a minefield.”
A slight murmur rose from the crowd. Some flinched, but most of us smiled and rubbed our hands together. We hadn’t heard the word ‘minefield’ since the end of the war, and just the sound of it curled our mouths into a smile. We walked across a bare field to a rusted metal fence that came up to our waists. The mayor produced a key from his pocket, unlocked a small door embedded in the fence, and dragged it open.
“There is a safe path,” said the mayor, “marked by two lines in the soil, beginning right after this gate. As the first part of your visit, please walk down the path to the end of mine field, and be mindful of all the young men who threw themselves on mines during the war to carve out paths like this for us to live in safety and thrive. Come on in please.” He stepped aside, the smile stretching further across his face. We approached the fence.
“SIR,” shouted the mayor abruptly, “COME BACK! COME BACK!”
The crowd spun around and saw a young man sprinting back to the gate. “THIS IS THE LAST WARNING SIR! COME BACK TO THE FENCE!” the man slowed down, looked back, gave the middle finger to the mayor, and kept on running. The mayor shook his head hard, layers of fat wiggling on his face. “Those young men were killed for the integrity of this country!” he bellowed out and glared at us.
An avalanche of bullets wounded the air. No gunman was in our sight, but we all knew the sound. The man was hit. He screamed in agony and wobbled on his feet. Another fusillade of bullets struck the man. He fell.
We remained quiet awhile. Then a few clapped hands. Others followed. The clapping swelled so fast and so hard palms ached. Some screamed with excitement. The kids hopped up and down. Blood rushed and activated the parts of our brains that had gone dormant since the war. There was no doubt that the man deserved what he got.
We stepped onto the minefield. Faint chalked lines demarcated a path four bodies wide.
A young man loudly told a long-forgotten bad joke about a soldier who stepped on a mine and lost consciousness, then opened his eyes and felt surrounded by paradise virgins, squeezed the breast of the one standing over his head and received a slap from the nurse. The joke sparked a guffaw from the crowd. Some doubled down with laughter.
About half way along the path a scream filled the sky. A little girl was off the path and in the minefield, frolicking around. The scream came from her mother, standing on the edge of the path, imploring the child to stand where she was. The girl jumped up and down, laughing and enjoying the space she was denied on the path. All of a sudden she realized that hundreds of pairs of eyes were watching her and froze in place. She pouted her lips and her eyes glittered with tears. She opened her arms and ran back to the path. The mother screamed at the top of her lungs but an explosion drowned out her voice.
Smoke and dust rose and obscured the scene. The wind cleared it fast and the body emerged. The girl’s party dress was half-burnt, her left leg and right arm blown off. Her torso twitched as the last remnants of life departed and her eyes went from shocked to empty in a blink.
The mother kept screaming and kicking around on the side. Two men had grabbed her to hold her from running into the field. She wrested her arms out with extraordinary power and ran over to her daughter. Another explosion. Another pall of smoke and dust. Another rush of wind cleared the scene, fast enough that we saw her leg arching in the air and landing a few feet from the path. Her pants were burnt open, and the whiteness of her thigh lay in stark contrast with encircling dust and blood.
“This is pretty good,” said one old gentleman, his eyes fixed on the severed leg. “I was a commander in the war and saw many soldiers stepping over mines. This is exactly how limbs get blown off.” He nudged a young man next to him. “I’m so glad I made it here today.”
Other incidents occurred along the way. Professor Mamdani and his wife had an argument about where the line lay. Their voices rose and other issues came in. The woman lost her temper and pushed the old man. He lost his balance and fell. Only half of his body was off the line, but that was enough. His head landed right on a mine. Pieces of skull and brain splattered on our clothes, and shrapnel pieces from the mine wounded a few people. We flicked bone and brain off our clothes and moved on. As a war-steeled cohort, we knew better than dwelling on small losses. Reliving the war came at a cost, and we were willing to pay it.
On the other side of the minefield, the mayor was waiting for us. The smile now seemed carved onto his face. His hands were crossed on his chest and his short legs were wide open, as if deliberately demonstrating a caricature of authority. When everyone was out of the minefield he beckoned us to follow him, and lumbered along to another short fence. He opened it and signaled us to enter.
This part was dedicated to bodies. They were spread across a vast area, all in various stages of demise. Some lay in a pool of drying blood, some were recently shot and still bleeding. Among the living, some were quiet, others screaming and imploring for help.
Visitors scattered around. No one touched anything. People stood by the screaming bodies, talking energetically through the noise of the afflicted. They were debating how and when the dying man was shot, how many bullets might have been in his body, how many organs and how much tissue was damaged. Some groups were conducting comparative studies: They moved back and forth between bodies, discussing each state of dying in the context of other ones.
A large group had gathered around Dr. Sepassi, a well-respected neurosurgeon. He was standing between two bleeding soldiers, one screaming and the other one silent. The doctor was explaining in layperson terms what was happening in their minds as death crawled over them. He predicted that the quiet man would die in two minutes and the loud one in three and a half minutes. We watched the bodies with utmost interest. We passionately clapped hands when they died, even though his predictions were both wrong.
Past the recently shot was a quieter rank of victims. There people on the ground were dead or too close to it to make noise. Everybody was shot multiple times. The air was engulfed by a nimbus of relief. The living had already given up, accepted their fate, and now their pale faces were smothered in a pre-death tranquility. One could distinguish the dead from the dying by the concentration of flies around them. A few of the men were whispering. We bent down to figure out the words, but the men died as soon as our ears was close enough to hear them.
Further along, bodies decayed. White and blue corpses blanketed the ground in a variety of situations: eyes wide and closed, faces serene and contorted, limbs mangled and unharmed. Some had writhing worms.