[The views expressed in this blog post are the author’s own.]
“Mum you really should get a break from Tehran and come to Madrid. It would be so relaxing for you.” Iraqi bombs had been raining down on Tehran for a number of months and it was taking its toll on Mum’s nerves.
In September 1980 Iraq carried out an unprovoked attack on Iran, starting a war that would last seven years. American support for Saddam Hussein during this war included several billion dollars of economic aid, the sale of technology and weaponry, military intelligence and training. Saddam Hussein’s plan, it seems, was for Iraq to replace Iran as the dominant country in the region. It was no secret that the US government supported Iraq as it was discussed openly and reported on in the news.
In supporting Iraq, the US was merely stirring a simmering pot and turning up the heat. What they did not want was an Iranian victory. But as Henry Kissinger famously said, summarising the American view: “it’s a pity they both can’t lose”.
However, what the US and Saddam Hussein had not counted on was not only the unifying effect this invasion would have, but also the dogged determination of the Iranian people in the fight against a traditional enemy. Although a lot of Iranian soldiers had thrown down their rifles in disgust during the revolution, they happily picked them back up to rally to the threat posed by Iraq. Many of us used to wonder how long the Islamic revolution would last but in this case, the Iraqis provided the revolutionary theocracy with the perfect excuse to stay in power. People were happy to contribute to this cause, and in addition to the army, local militia also marched off to confront the invading Iraqis.
Eventually the war came to roost in Tehran, with Iraqi planes dropping bombs nightly. Sirens would go off at about seven in the evening and, like clockwork, the explosions would commence. We had six dogs at the time: two enormous sheep dogs from the mountains of the north, traditionally used to protect flocks of sheep and goats from wolves. We also had an adopted stray dog, two fox terriers and a love child from a liaison between one of the fox terriers and a (different) stray dog. The blast of the bombs invariably sent five of the dogs racing around in a panic looking for a place to hide, tails between their legs, panting and salivating with fear. The huge sheep dogs could not fit under the furniture and took to cowering in the coats cupboard or in Mum’s closet. Only one of the dogs, the love child, barked hysterically or howled as the bombs were falling.
“Shut those dogs up or we will shoot them” our crippled helper Ismail was told one day, as he sat on the step outside the house. Ismail looked up into the hairy features of the revolutionary guard and replied, without blinking “But these are watch dogs, they are warning us of the arrival of the bombs”. It must have been a convincing argument, there were no more suggestions of firing squads at dawn. I think Esmail was doing a bit of business on the side, selling these very same guards the odd bottle of Armenian vodka, for days when they were shivering and cowering themselves.
Mum eventually got onto a flight to Madrid, arriving on 6 May. I was there visiting my fiancé, a British diplomat working at the British Embassy in Madrid. He had an apartment on the third floor of a very elegant building, with a view and location to die for – looking out over the 18th-century Neo-Classical buildings of the Prado Museum and located two blocks away from the beautiful Retiro Park.
In an attempt to make up for a life of rationed food and bombs, Mum got very special treatment. This visit was to be the antidote to Tehran, atoning for all the hardships she had had to put up with. “Take good care of my girl, spoil her a bit” were Daddy’s instructions. Plans included relaxation, elegant surroundings, gourmet dinning, shopping for what we could afford and window shopping for what we could not.
On the following morning we walked across the Retiro park, a gorgeous green oasis in the very heart of Madrid, and onto Calle de Velasquez. I had a nice place for breakfast in mind, stylish but not too snooty. It was to be mother-daughter chats over cream filled pastries and lovely strong coffee – it does not get much better than that. By the second cup of coffee I started to sense a little bit of pressure, thinly disguised, about the merits of getting married and starting a family, a good steady man etc etc. I put a stop to that by asking Mum about her own steady life. “Exactly, I want something different for you, not like our crazy situation.”
Our situation might have been a bit out of the ordinary, but it was home. Through thick and thin, Mum and Daddy had given me a place to call home, as long as I did not require an inordinate amount of comfort, so long as I did not mind a less than dependent source of hot water, mud brick walls, or no walls at all, the constant busy disruption of life, a scrambling, rigorous, lively and invasive life. In the end that is what they had offered me, and for that I had had to learn to accept their style of living. It was totally spontaneous, hard won in the extreme, at times humorous, and at times so very tragic, infuriating and exhilarating. But always filling the senses to overflowing.
Did I want to give this up for a more normal life, as Mum called it… The irony of this was not lost on me, she hated these normal lives. She had, for as long as I could remember, complained about having to attend anything “normal”: cocktail parties were the human equivalent of dogs sniffing bums, spending time with society ladies on the odd trip to the residences of the wealthy nobility on the Caspian coast was “tedious and boring beyond belief”. As a child brought up on a farm, and not having had to personally experience such dreary and dull occasions, I missed out on the genuine implications of what my mother was trying to tell me. The fullest irony of this would not become clear to me for another decade but it would eventually present itself, haunting me repeatedly later on. Hindsight is always twenty twenty.
“Lets get you some clothes, we need to give your wardrobe a major facelift”. And off we went, arm in arm, along Calle Don Ramón de la Cruz towards Calle de Serrano to see the most flamboyant and elegant boutiques in Madrid.
In mid sentence, talking about the mundane and the wonderful, styles and ruffles and colours…… an explosion tore through our words, through our thoughts and our surroundings, ripping our innocent fancying out of our mouths, shredding our words and the shop displays, pulverising boutique windows and sucking the very oxygen out of our lungs. Around us department store windows shattered, fluffy toys and clothes came flying out of the devastated shopfronts and colourful displays were spewed into the air from the flower stall on the corner. Mum grabbed my arm to pull me down to the ground where we landed in a heap.
“Just like Tehran” said Mum wryly, as we lay on the pavement amongst sherds of glass, bits of teddy bears and shredded flowers and greenery.
May 7, 1981: 3 members of the Spanish military are killed after a bomb was placed on top of their vehicle in Madrid- read the news item in the newspaper. The car had been flattened by the pressure of the explosion. The bomb itself had been placed on the roof of the car as it waited at a traffic light, deposited by a man on a motorcycle, who sped off in time to avoid the same fate as the passengers in the car.
By the following day it was verified that the culprits were the Basque separatist group ETA. The group appeared to have had a stronger sense of history or a more dubious sense of humour than anyone realised. Eight years previously, ETA had killed the then Spanish prime minister, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, only a few blocks away. On that occasion, the separatists had tunnelled under the street to place a massive bomb beneath the asphalt. The prime minister’s vehicle would have to pass over the exact spot when he left mass at the San Francisco de Borja church. The explosion sent the car hurtling over the very church in which he had been attending mass. It landed on the second floor terrace of a building on the other side of the church. In less than a decade and within two city blocks, ETA had successfully bombed cars from above and below, in both cases making sensational headlines.
Within two days, the streets affected by the bomb had been cleared of glass and police cordons. When she eventually left Madrid, Mum had new clothes, a new haircut and had eaten properly for the first time in months. I sent back Manchego cheese, Serrano ham and salami wrapped in three layers of silver foil, a gift for my father. Adding to the already overweight suitcases were items that, if available, would be worth their weight in gold in post revolutionary Tehran: coffee, mustard, marmalade, and about fifteen books from the English bookshop.
Fate had not finished with us though, it had further excitements and incendiary plans for the Firouz family. Back in Tehran, in the weeks before my Mum’s return, the Iraqi bombs continued to cause widespread damage to the cities. But it was the Scud missiles which actually struck terror into the peoples’ hearts. They came with no warning, falling noiselessly, day and night.
A ballistic missile, a Scud, has a high-arcing trajectory. It leaves the earth’s atmosphere during the powered phase of its flight – it then goes into free-flight before the re-entry stage when it plummets back to earth. However, once the motors shut off it effectively coasts to its target meaning that it has notoriously poor accuracy and a completely silent approach.
In Tehran, there was no master plan for the missiles’ ravages and gradually, large voids appeared randomly between buildings in the city. Bulldozers were sent out instantly to clear up all debris, to keep up public morale. Ambulances tried to beat the bulldozers to the devastated areas, both eager to do their jobs, whether it was saving the wounded or saving the pride of the nation. Iran could not be seen to be bettered by the Iraqis. People fled the city and if they did not own villas on the Caspian Sea or in any of the outlying hill towns, they resorted to camping in the countryside.
My father was happy in the knowledge that all of his girls were out of Tehran and, comparatively speaking, safe. He had actually been enjoying the chaos and total anarchy of post revolutionary Tehran. At this point he had nothing to lose: much to his relief, his construction company had been confiscated, and those who had taken it would have been seriously disappointed to discover that the Firouz Construction Company was owned by the banks. Daddy was truly basking in complete liberation from pressure and worry, a freedom that he had not felt in a long time.
But what happened next was bordering on surreal and freaky: violent banging on the door of the house in downtown Tehran in the dark early hours of the morning, nothing unusual there. My father and the ordinarily vigilant dogs had been sound asleep, also quite normal. But when he opened the door, wearing the minimum, Daddy found three revolutionary guards staring at him, looking extremely worried. “Are you alright, brother?” “Yes, I was asleep”
“Asleep! A Scud missile has landed on your house!”
“Not on my house, nothing has happened here. I have guard dogs, they would have noticed anything unusual” Daddy insisted, always keen to emphasise the absolute necessity of having dogs, to absolve them of their unmerited status – “The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘Whoever keeps a dog, his good deeds will decrease every day by one qeeraat [a unit of measurement], unless it is a dog for farming or herding.’”* Surely, warning against Iraqi bombs would be a modern day substitute for herding…..
The guards were invited in to see for themselves. The bedrooms in the house were at semi basement level, keeping them cool in the summer. The living room and dining room were on the first floor, overlooking the garden. The guards walked up the stairs and, to my father’s shock, horror and embarrassment, there, on the floor of the dining room, were the remains of an enormous smoking but unexploded Scud missile.
“Thank god it didn’t land on my walnut dining table, you know I made that myself 30 years ago” were my father’s first words.
The guards threw a blanket over the bomb and rushed out of the house, sparing Daddy the usual jibes and patronising talk about the uncleanliness of the dogs. He was treated instead, to a barrage of comments about his age, suggesting that he was becoming hard of hearing. For the very first time, instead of referring to him as brother – common after the revolution, a sort of Islamic version of comrade – he was referred to as father, which carried with it just a tiny bit of respect. He could only climb one rank higher, to Reesh Sefid, white beard, which really does imply wisdom and deferential treatment. In the end it is all relative.
Ultimately, when does all of this madness becomes normal, where we stop feeling we are dicing with death, that we are in the hands of fate. Is it possible not to become jaded when the horrors of war are an everyday occurrence, something unremarkable. “How can you stand it, is it not terrifying?” people ask. Well yes, it is, but then what is common for one person is not standard for others. Does it make it easier to cope with? Yes and no, as my Mum used to say, when she was being enigmatic. Is it a sense of self preservation, a way of dealing with all manner of unpalatable things in life. Possibly. In this case, adaptation can go one of two ways: you either get used to the abnormality or you find a distraction. Karl Marx may have needed to clarify. In those days Iranians had a choice between two opiates of the masses, either fundamentalist religion or the poppy, the mosque or a more earthy flower based remedy.
My father’s approach was more “It’s no good wallowing around in this hell hole for too long, makes you morbid”. My parents packed their belongings and the dogs and moved to a tiny village on the east side of the Caspian Sea, 10 hours drive and an enormous mountain range between them and Tehran. Here they put down new roots. “The change’ll do us good” said my wise Reesh Sefid father.
Saddam Hussein’s war began on 22 September 1980 and continued until the UN intervened and stopped it on 20 August 1988.
Estimates of total casualties range from 1,000,000 to twice that number. The number killed on both sides was officially thought to be 500,000, with Iran suffering the greatest losses. Almost a third of Iranian fatalities were aged 15-19 at their death. About 3 percent of fatalities were aged 14 and younger.