Zahed Haftlang (left) and Najah Aboud. Photograph: Marsha Lederman, The Globe and Mail, Canada.

By Peyman Pejman

Iranian-born Zahed Haftlang and Iraqi-born Najah Aboud were unlikely soldiers in the respective armies of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Saddam Hussein. During the Iran-Iraq war, these armies left their two countries in a state of complete devastation, and caused the death of untold numbers of their nations’ youth.

In many ways, Haftlang and Aboud were like-minded young men, and anathema to what the leaders of their respective countries stood for: they cared little for religion or politics, didn’t support their governments, lied, stole, drank alcohol, and openly courted members of the opposite sex.

Perhaps because of those very personality traits, they now have one of the most amazing –and inspiring – stories to tell. Thrown into the battlefields of the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war, Haftlang and Aboud first met when, at close range, one aimed his gun at the other.

Years later, they would meet again, this time as refugees in Vancouver, Canada.

Theirs is the story of a deep friendship between two soldiers who defied military orders so that they could abide by their conscience and put courage and humanity before hatred and dogma.

Their story is told in I, Who Did Not Die, a 280-page book published by Regan Arts. The book was ghost-written by the California-based journalism professor and former San Francisco Chronicle journalist Meredith May. She spoke to Kayhan London about her involvement, and the two men’s extaordinary stories.

What is your connection to the book?

I was writing a different book; my agent had sent the manuscript to the publisher, Regan Arts. Coincidentally, they were looking for a ghost writer to write the story of Najah and Zahed. I had posted on my web site that I had worked at the San Francisco Chronicle and written a series during the first Gulf War about an Iraqi boy who was injured and flown to the Oakland Children’s Hospital. That [series] got some attention and actually won a Pulitzer for photography. So Regan Arts liked my writing. They thought I knew a little bit about the culture, and maybe would want to write this book. Last March, they counter-offered this book.

What kind of exposure had the characters received before your book? You mention in that there was already a documentary about them.

They had had a lot of press coverage. They had been in the Globe and Mail newspaper [in Canada]. They had been in magazines, and a filmmaker in Toronto who had done a 15-minute documentary about them that was picked up by the New York Times.

What happened after Regan Arts approached you?

I met them in Vancouver, where they were staying. I stayed there for a month and lined up a Farsi translator for Zahed and an Arabic translator for Najah. We stayed with each man for about two weeks straight, and interviewed them from five to nine hours a day.

By then, they had been in Canada for a long time and presumably could speak English well. Was it your choice or theirs to speak to you in their own language?

I insisted on it. It was really important for me that they speak in their own language, because it’s hard enough to recall childhood memories, much less dramatic memories, to have to recall them in another language. It would not have worked at all otherwise.

Zahed’s English is better than Najah’s. Zahed said, “I don’t really need an interpreter.” But it’s not really a matter of their command of English. I wanted the book to be as close to what they remembered as possible, as good as possible. I didn’t want them to go through any extra mental work. When you are retelling childhood memories, you remember them in the language they happened.

Has their story been vetted? Have the events been authenticated?

Not in the sense that there was an outside person [checking them]. But Najah and Zahed each had copies of [the manuscript], so they could make sure that what they meant was represented accurately.

I did check with the people who worked at the [refugee] center where they met [in Canada] to make sure it actually happened. I had Zahed take me around the place, to the lobby where they met, and point out the places that were big moments in the story. That’s also a form of verification for me: where they stayed as a refugee, or their encampment at the Stanley Park [in Vancouver], etc. That’s the best you can do when someone is telling you a story. At some point, you have to trust that they are telling you the truth.

What do they want readers to take away from the book, and what do you want readers to take away?

I think the men want to be heard. They want people to know what it was like to live through that war at that point in history. They want people to understand the pointlessness of the war for them. They want people to understand how war [happens to] individual people, young boys especially, and they have no choice.

For me, these men are so brave, and I want them to be recognized for it. They both suffered unimaginably, and they are both heroes to me. I wanted to roll the clap for them. I just wanted them to be recognized for their bravery, and for choosing humanity over hate. That must have been hard: to risk their lives to be good people. I think we need to hear stories like that as often as we can, especially right now, when the world seems to be more aggressive and prejudiced.

Haftlang is a lot more narrative in describing the ugly side of the Iranian army, from kicking and torturing Iraqi prisoners of war to stealing the gold teeth of dead Iraqi soldiers. Aboud does not recount any such behavior by the Iraqi army during the war. Was this contradiction intentional?

The only thing I can say is that Najah was in battle for only two years, so most of his stories were of his captivity [when he was prisoner of war]. It’s probably a matter of what type of storytellers they are: what they recall, and what they told me.

Najah’s story is mostly about him trying to keep the peace and manage in prison. He did that by being helpful and interpreting, although he was abused as well. Zahed is a more of a feisty person in general. He picks fights. More of his memories are about being in scuffles and fights with people. That’s how he moves through the world. So I guess it’s not an intentional thing on Zahed’s part to make people look one way or another. It’s just that this is what Zahed experienced because of his personality.

Najah’s experience was probably not as confrontational as Zahed’s. If they were music, I would say Zahed would be pop rock, whereas Najah is more jazz. He is more smooth.

It was Zahed who initiated the act of kindness, when they met on the battlefield. So what happened that changed him from this nice, life-saving guy into the person you just described?

When his fiancée was killed on their wedding day. He was angry. Nothing mattered anymore, and he wanted to become a sniper. That’s how he described to me his personality changing drastically. But also, as a child, he was feisty, stealing money from his dad, making poisonous tea. So he’d always been an independent thinker, and a bit rebellious.

When he became seriously aggressive was with the loss of his wife. He’s had to re-learn all of that as a grown man, and he is still working on it today.

Victory for mankind: Zahed Haftlang (left) and Najah Aboud in Vancouver, Canada. Photograph: Meredith May

How have they managed to unwind? Are they going through therapy?

I don’t know of any therapy that they are going through – or maybe they just didn’t want to share it with me. What I do know is that Najah has a very loving family, has strong support from [a] brother and sisters in Canada, and [has] pleasure being with his nephews. That’s where he goes for comfort. His sister Fatima is an amazing cook and he eats at her house a lot and he gets strength there. His father as well emigrated and passed away a few years ago, but he was in Canada and that was very helpful for Najah to have his family back together.

For Zahed, it was recreating his family there. He gets a lot of pleasure seeing his children grow. His wife just became a Canadian citizen. His son was born in Canada, and his daughter became a citizen, so now they all are citizens. He is very proud of his daughter; she is studying medicine. He wanted to become a doctor, so he is seeing her go through that path.

Najah went to Canada because of his family. Why did Zahed go to Canada?

It wasn’t really a thought-out decision. He was on a merchant ship in the English Bay [Vancouver, Canada], and got into a fight with the captain on the ship. The officers told him that as soon as the ship returned to Iran, he would be put in prison for insubordination. He didn’t want to deal with that, so he jumped overboard, and was pulled out of the water later.