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.

Toward the back of the area the corpses became exotic. One was struck by a massive bullet in the stomach. The bullet had ripped through the innards and the burnt tips of his severed bowels stuck out. Next to him lay a beheaded corpse, the head put neatly upon the chest, the eyes open, looking aslant to the left, where another young man was flattened in the torso and untouched on head and legs, the trace of tank chain writ large over the flat torso.

After the initial excitement in the minefield, one appreciated the peace here. It was clearly inspired by the necessity of ceasefire to keep the enthusiasm alive.

Mr. Shahamat, holding his wife’s hand, sauntered from corpse to corpse. The woman glittered with jewelry. Dr. Javaheri, taking his cue from Dr. Sepassi, had deployed his expertise and attracted an audience. His big handsome sons, clad in identical gray suits and black ties, were standing at his sides like bodyguards. The doctor was giving a talk about the latest scholarship on the decomposing process to a rapt audience. Further down, a university math professor and his nerdy daughter were calculating the rate at which the worms were nibbling away at corpses. The level of civility in public discourse was striking.

Beyond the corpses, the mayor was waiting. He was standing far from the exit. He looked like a garish red scarecrow pointlessly erected in a barren land. When the last man was out of the corpse section, the mayor marched ahead and we all followed him to a mound with what looked like a cave from a distance, but as we got closer, I saw was a mouth to a tunnel.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. His voice was tired and huskier than before, which gave it a soothing tone. “The section you are about to visit is the one of which we are the most proud. Previously, you got a taste of the facts of war, a sample of its risks and dangers. Here we take you inside the mind fighting on the frontline. Please step into the tunnel.”

Whether due to obesity or to create suspense, the mayor was walking excruciatingly slowly. The crowd had fallen into absolute silence, save for the rustle of pants and dresses.

Every one of us that stepped out of the tunnel skipped a heartbeat. The tunnel ended right at the edge of a ravine, a deep wide fissure carved at the heart of the wasteland and stretched on both sides for miles. A deep vast scar on the face of the earth in which blew the cold wind of death.

As the last person left of the tunnel, someone closed a metal door off behind us. Before us, a rickety wooden suspension bridge connected our side of the ravine to the other side.

The mayor delicately opened the small wooden gate at the mouth of the bridge, moved aside, and signaled the first person to cross.

We embarked on the bridge one by one. It creaked and trembled under our feet and swung in the breeze to give us full view of the abyss beneath. The ravine was dug like a wedge, wide at the top with two steep sides that met at the bottom on a line hardly wider than an average city street. It felt like walking across the opened mouth of a crocodile.

We were halfway across the bridge when the mayor spoke again. His voice was not as clear as before. He was blabbering about martyrdom and god. The wind, intensifying as we approached the middle of the bridge, plucked his words out of the air and took them away. Around me groans and grumbles broke out now and then, but it was quiet overall. People, drenched in sweat and red with fear, took every step with ultimate care, held tightly to the frayed rope and kept their heads down. Through the cracks we could see the dance of light on the bottom of the slopes, its reflection on soil and rock. No beam of light ricocheted off the dark line at the bottom, where the jaws of the crocodile met.

When the first line of visitors neared the end of the bridge, the shake happened. First a sound, like the roar of a truck engine, came from behind. Then the bridge heaved up and swung fast to the right. The ravine seemed to jump at us. The bridge reached its furthest point on the right and paused, giving us a chance to look vertically down to the bottom of the ravine.

Some of us were lucky to have held the rope tight at the moment the bridge swung. Most were not. Droves of people had slipped off the bridge, shrieking and dropping into the ravine like a flock of dead birds. They were mostly children. The rope was too high for them and they had to hold their parents’ hands. Mr. Javaheri’s young boy and Mr. Safavi’s teenage daughter, tumbled and grabbed for their mothers’ hands in the sky. Meticulously dressed men looked like falling gray rectangles. Women’s dresses spread in the air like wings of painted bats.

The bridge swung to the left, gathering velocity along the way. More people lost balance and fell. A woman slipped and her chignon of multi-colored hair flung open like a magnificent peacock tail. The bridge swung back, but this time we were prepared. After a few shorter swings, the bridge became stable again. The survivors were screaming, their noise interspersed by the crackling of bones and skulls shattering at the bottom, amplifying and surging back up to our ears. When the last body hit the bottom, silence descended on the ravine.

On the other side, we spread on the ground to rest. Some were crying and mourning, but overall the climate was positive. The experience turned out to be more authentic than anything we expected, and that gave us joy.

“Congratulations, ladies and gentleman!” The voice of the mayor came from the left. He had opened up his coat buttons, divulging the true enormity of his belly. He was standing at a distance, but his voice was as clear and loud as before the bridge. “Congratulations on your heroic journey so far. Now, if you stand with your back to the ravine, to the northeast, you will see a hillock. Please walk there and climb. That will be your last stop.”

Every one of us who reached the top of the hill was so stunned by the heat that our senses failed to grasp what was below. The first thing we saw was fire, avaricious and large, illuminating the barren soil. Then our eyes adjusted, and we saw the vehicles.

Hundreds of tanks and ambulances and trucks and jeeps and carriers were set aflame across the desert. The flames varied from small flickers to massive bonfires shooting up into the sky. It was scorching and suffocating, but like any other all-consuming fire, it exercised an irresistible pull. Men took off their coats and loosened their ties, women kicked off their heels and opened their collars, and we all rolled down the hill.

We hardly noticed the food before reaching the first burning tank. Among ranks of vehicles long tables were set up, all covered with hundreds of skinned, cleaned, fresh chickens on ornate silver trays, surrounded by knives and batches of skewers and bottles of arak. The crowd came to the tables and stopped and gazed at the food and then the vehicles. The tenderness of the naked meat had incited a primordial desire, a long dormant drive to tear carcasses apart, but they were still hesitant, as if waiting for an invitation to the tables.

Someone screamed. As if it was the bugle of war, the crowd charged at the food. Respectable men and women of our community picked up knives, yelled and howled like Vikings, and hacked into the carcasses. They picked the limbs apart, pushed their fingers into the meat and bone and rent it asunder, and impaled the pieces on skewers. They opened bottles of arak one by one. People took large swigs like it was water and passed them on to the next person.

When the pieces were properly impaled, the men, all of them already drunk, went around, each holding skewers in one hand and a bottle in another, in search of the right fire. They climbed tanks to access flames spewing from their hatches and roasted their chicken. The smell of alcohol mixed with the stench of grilled fat in the air. Someone had found a stack of blankets in an armored carrier and distributed them. The men climbed down the vehicles one by one, staggered along to their families and friends. The metal graveyard had turned into a park. People were talking. Almost all had lost someone during the visit, and the need for commiseration had brought us close.

* * *

I was gnawing at the grilled chicken and laughing drunkenly with others when a man caught my attention. He was surveying the vehicles and toting two large black bags that weighed him down. Along the way he sneaked glances into vehicles. I followed him. He was skinny and tall, with light brown hair and trimmed beard.

The man ended his survey of the vehicles by making an abrupt turn into a narrow space between two tanks. He strode down to an ambulance hidden from the visitors. He pulled a small package out of his bag and placed it on the back wheel of the ambulance. When he was done he turned and sprinted off to a truck nearby, put his other bag under the truck, and moved out of sight.

Another man with bags was there, a shorter and younger version of the one before. He threw his two bags into the open window of a truck and dashed around to the tank behind it.

I climbed on top of a burned-out tank that had a good view on the area and spotted twenty bag-carrying men. All of them were doing the same thing: dashing from vehicle to vehicle, making short pauses to place a package, and running off. They walked past laughing people tearing at chicken wings and drinking arak from the bottle, children climbing up and down burnt trucks. People were too drunk to pay attention.

I climbed down the tank and approached the ambulance. The small box was still there on the back wheel. I pulled it out. A heavy hard object wrapped in an impenetrable plastic. I shook it and listened. Nothing rattled inside. But it was ticking.

Blood froze in my veins. I dropped the box and ran off, turning between the vehicles, hitting against burnt hot metal and falling to the ground and rising in pain, all the way shouting “Bomb! Bomb! Bomb!” The visitors, drunk and settled on blankets, didn’t bother to lift their heads. The ones that did cursed under their breaths. A few complained loudly that I was ruining their hard-earned break.

I ran through a dense picnic spot, stepping over chicken skewers, kicking away arak bottles, knocking children out of the way. I was only a dozen feet from the last burning vehicles when the bomb went off.

When you live through a war you know what an explosion does to a body. Experiencing it is a whole other thing. It first came as taste. A bitter thick whiff assaulted my nostrils and clogged my throat. It tasted like blood and gunpowder. A strong pull on my left leg followed. It was as if I took off from a bear trap without knowing that my leg was stuck. Then a stabbing pain in the brain, two burning lines that came through the ears and met at the center of my forehead, like someone had pushed two hot spikes into my ears. Then something knocked my legs from under my body and tossed me in the air. I felt my organs spilling out of my skin. I hit the ground hard and opened my eyes, anticipating to see my flesh around me.

I can’t tell how long it took me to overcome the shock. My body found itself bit by bit. When I was whole again, I rose.

Of all the vehicles and people, only piles of shreds were left: small bits of bone, mangled limbs, hole-strewn torsos. Even the tanks were torn to pieces.

First it seemed that I was the only survivor, but others emerged. Through the receding smoke, about a dozen survivors rose from the debris. Clothes were torn and burnt. Their skin blackened and reddened. They reeled around in shock.

As the smoke cleared, I saw the mayor at the edge of the area. He talked through his smile.

“My dear fellow-citizens. You took this incredible journey and made it to this point. Many of you were honored with martyrdom along the way. They are now ascending into the embrace of god. For those of you who survived, the war is over. You can go back to your families and live the rest of your life in peace.”

The mayor clumsily waved farewell, turned around and shuffled off into the desert.

The survivors looked at each other, their looks fraught with fear. A young man bent down and rose with a half-burnt chicken bone, put it in his mouth and crunched away at it. The woman near me picked up another bone from the ground. She stared into my eyes, made a long lascivious lick on the charred bone, and smiled. I smiled back and looked around at other survivors. They smiled one by one.

I pointed to the mayor, who had become a moving red rectangle on the horizon. Then we staggered out of the ruin into the desert and attacked him.

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