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WAR STORIES: A Letter to the Saad Family

By Habib Ahmadzadeh, Tehran

The first finder or finders of this letter are kindly requested to deliver its contents in any way possible to the family of "Saad Abd al-Jabbar," a member of the 23rd Battalion of the Special Republican Guard Forces of Iraq; the letter is from the forces under control of the Third Army of Basra.

Esteemed Family of Soldier Saad:


I don't know whether writing and sending this letter is the right thing or proper under the circumstances, but whatever the case it seemed necessary in my view to write the letter and entrust it to your son, and in this unorthodox way have it reach you.  The subject of the letter is the mysterious manner in which I became acquainted with your son.  Eleven years have passed, and this enigmatic acquaintance has to be explained somehow to you; I feel compelled, then, in order to eliminate any doubt or misunderstanding on your part as regards the lamentable incident, to write you an exact and detailed account of how we met and the circumstances surrounding our meeting.

Right now your son Saad is beside me and no doubt is waiting for me to finish the letter so he can be the bearer of the facts to you.

This is the last time we will see each other, and certainly it will be our last goodbye!  I know that it would be best to be brief and get to the point.

The incident began around ten years ago: the morning of 28 September 1981 to be exact.  That was the first time I saw your son.  During the morning of that day I was returning from the banks of the Karun River to our back lines.  Major operations had taken place in the sector the night before.  The operations were intended to break the siege of our city.  By morning we had fought our way to the area around the river. 

This was the first time during the one-year siege of the city that our forces were able to recapture the sector.  Delighted to take part in these pivotal operations and wanting to make a record of my participation, I had brought with me an expensive camera, but the intensity of the fighting did not allow me to use it.

Until this moment everything that could have happened took place as they did in other operations; with the leaden skies of pre-dawn, fresh forces took the place of the tired fighters and everyone but me took advantage of the cover of night to return.  I had the urge to tour the newly liberated areas to see what befell the region.  Having gone around the minefield, I came upon the road made with packed sand that the Iraqis had constructed to join up with the asphalt road.  I followed the sand road until it came to the intersection of the two roads.  I was now face to face with a causeway that I had hoped to reach for a year so I could use it to go on leave.

The road still hadn't been cleared of mines, booby traps, and barbed wire; nevertheless it was a freeway to me.

As I walked along the road, I remember clearly that the sun was rising.  I let out several loud cries and, without paying attention to the surroundings, started to prance around, happily waving my weapon up and down.  I was overjoyed.  At that time I was sixteen, about two years younger than your son was at the time.

This marked the beginning of the actual incident.  I didn't know what had hit me, but for a moment I turned and was suddenly stunned, and, automatically assuming a defensive position, I dived quickly to the ground.  I must admit was terrified; the whole time I was on the asphalt road, an Iraqi soldier was sitting watching me from behind, and I had absolutely no idea.

In an incredibly short time I scrambled behind the shoulder of the road and released the safety on the weapon.  All the while I was wondering why he hadn't taken aim at me from behind.  This was the context for the consolation thought that he was totally alone having been abandoned in the newly liberated territory and now wanted to surrender.

The sum of these thoughts gave me the nerve to try to get behind him.  After hesitating briefly, I ran to the other side of the hill and was about to shout "Hands up!" in Persian.  Now that you have the letter, of course, everything to an extent will be obvious.

That's right: I came face to face with your son's corpse, which had been put on the ground in a kneeling position; his neck and both wrists had been tied from behind to the crossroad sign with the kind of telephone wire they use in the desert.  Blood had pooled under his feet.

It was at this point the weapon went limp in my hands; as I got closer I noticed that he or they had tied your son up so that the wounds on his neck and wrists made a horrible sight.  After the shock of seeing him like that wore off, I began to hear the sounds of exploding shells and mortar rounds that were coming every moment toward our sector.

I looked at his innocent face; his eyes were wide open and startled.  I don't know why it occurred to me to take a picture of your son's face, but I took it.  Maybe it was just because I wanted to use the camera.  As I was putting the camera back in my pack, the sound of explosions became more distinct and so did the barking of the stray dogs behind the Baathist lines; these dogs generally would whine every night before the operations.  This reminded me what would happen to your son's corpse if it remained out there.

I looked into your son's open eyes, and, to escape the urgings of my conscience, I said to him, "I know, but I swear to God if I had a shovel I would definitely bury you."   Just like any other person who uses a big excuse to avoid doing something.

Then I got going trying to escape the explosions, which were increasing by the minute.  Would you believe it, but I hadn't gone a hundred meters when I saw a large shovel buried up to the handle sticking out of a pile of dirt next to a bunker!  I stood still for a moment deeply undecided, but, having made an irrevocable promise to your son, I had no choice.  Despite all the unpleasantness, I managed to pull the shovel out and went back to him.  Showing him the shovel, I said, "Here's the shovel," and I began to dig in front of him.  I dug so close to him that after a bit a stream of blood appeared in the hole.  I would keep one eye on your son and one eye on the stream of blood, as I dug and moved the shovel around lest it leave bloodstains on the heels of my boots.  I also would talk to your son, but to keep this letter short I can't set down everything we spoke in it; besides the subjects are without doubt not worthy of your attention.

Briefly then: when the job was nearly over, it occurred to me to wonder, given my short life as gravedigger, whether I had oriented the hole properly, that is according to the direction of prayer or not.  But suddenly there was this immense explosion and the next thing I knew I was in the grave along with your son Saad on top of me.  I must admit that I was so scared that it beggars description.  Here I was in a sector with nobody from our side in it, in a grave face to face with the corpse.   I used all my might to push aside your son and climb out of the grave.  I realized that the situation came about as a result of an explosion that occurred behind your son.  When I looked closer I noticed that there was a stream of fresh blood flowing down his overcoat, and this made me realize he had taken several pieces of shrapnel in the head; he was positioned precisely between me and the explosion or, said in a better way, between me and death.

It was at this point that my interest in your son increased several times over.  I quickly finished digging the grave and was about to put Saad in it, when I figured that I shouldn't allow his face to touch the ground; so I took his long coat off and covered his head with it.  As I was doing this, I noticed four spent cartridges inserted into his teeth, but there was no time to waste.  Having wrapped his head in the coat, I found his ID card and a letter in his pocket.  There was nothing else in the pocket.  I untied his hands and began to shovel dirt on him.  But as I shoveled it occurred to me that this alien being, who was far from his family, would be buried in a grave over which no one would recite the Qor'an; but there was nothing I could do but shovel earth on him.

Anyway, having marked the grave with that same signpost, I got away as fast as I could.  Later on, during my first leave away from the front, I had his picture developed and put it in my photo album.  From time to time, when leafing through the album, I would think of him as the corpse that saved my life, and despite the fact that I knew his name was Saad from the ID card, I still thought of him as an Iraqi soldier.

Years passed and the whole incident became only a memory in my mind until there was a minor incident.  I became acquainted with some fellow countrymen whose job it was to exchange the bodies of Iraqi soldiers for those of our own dead.  They exchanged the bodies on the border between the two countries.  I brought up the subject of Saad with them, and today was the day we had arranged for me to show them his grave.

When we were at the sight, I realized that one shouldn't rely too much on the signpost to find the grave, but the place where the two roads crossed would be of some help.  After two excavations, we managed to dig your son up; possibly in the same condition that you will observe him in when this letter reaches you.  But the real reason why I am writing you this letter, in fact, has nothing to do with these matters, but relates to the secret discovery that we made when we were digging him up.

When the fellows who were digging him up unwrapped the overcoat around his head, they looked at one another knowingly and said, "Another deserter!"

"What's the problem?" I asked.

Their experience in finding bodies told them, when the overcoat came off, that Saad was a deserter because the Iraqis would first execute deserters, then clamp their jaws shut with four bullets in their teeth to serve as a warning to others.  After I explained the way in which Saad had been kneeling on the ground to them, they said that before execution, he had definitely been shot in the knees.  An examination of his knees confirmed the truth, which his clothing and flesh had kept hidden from me for eleven years.  I know that these facts are brutal and upsetting, especially since they concern your child.  But my emotional and psychological state is no less than yours.  During the last eleven years, time and time again I have traveled that road out of the city, and even when passing the crossroads it never crossed my mind to say a prayer for your son, for which I hope God will forgive me.

Because I never had thought I would be writing this letter, I used the back of the forms describing the particulars of the body.  If I had been prepared, I would have included another letter and the picture that I had taken of your son's body.  Perhaps what one of the disinterment fellows said is right: that it is better to let the truth remain buried under the ground; that way I would not be the cause of so much pain and discomfort to you.  There is also the added risk that the letter might fall into the wrong hands, which would prevent you even from taking possession of your son's body.  But as you will see I have used this unorthodox method of sending you the letter and thereby decreased to an extent the chances of detection.

I have written my address at the bottom of the letter so that you can contact me in any way you see fit, and I can send you the picture of Saad and his last letter.  I don't know how you feel about my hiding the letter in the broken bone of your son's leg.  But this method of concealment perhaps might cause the original owners not notice it, and the letter and Saad will be buried together, preventing the truth from reaching you, his respected family.

Am I still grappling with myself about why I am writing this?  It's only in these last lines that I will be able to express why.  Ten years ago the thought of writing such a letter would never have crossed my mind; but now that I have a child of my own, I can see that it is the absolute right of every family to know how their child spent his last minutes on earth.

The time for saying my last goodbyes to your son Saad have come.  I know that in the future whenever I leave the city and pass the crossroads, as I stare at his empty grave my heart again will feel that anguish, the familiar pain of an eleven-year acquaintance, which has but a few hours to go.

The fellows are complaining again about how long this letter is taking.  I entrust you and Saad to that same God who caused me to take a different path that day, who allowed me to see Saad and find a shovel, and now to uncover an eleven-year-old secret.  And, maybe, that same God will allow this letter to reach you.

Chess with the Doomsday Machine

Habib Ahmadzadeh (Author)
Paul Sprachman (Translator)

268 pages
Publisher: Mazda Publishers (November 30, 2007)
Language: English
ISBN: 1568592159

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Description (Source: Mazda Publishers)

Chess with the Doomsday Machine (Shatranj ba Mashin-e Qiamat) is a novel by Habib Ahmadzadeh (b. 1964) about the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). It is set in Ahmadzadeh's native Abadan, a city located on an island near the Persian Gulf. Because of its importance to the Iranian petroleum industry, Abadan was the target of heavy bombardments during the early stages of the conflict. Using an advanced radar system developed in Europe, Iraqi forces were able to hone in on Iranian artillery emplacements almost as soon as they fired. It is the task of the narrator, a young Basiji (volunteer paramilitary) spotter, to locate the radar so it can be destroyed. The novel paints a striking tableau of a city under siege, not only inhabited-as one would expect-by a variety of soldiers, but also by two Armenian priests, a retired oil refinery engineer, and a prostitute and her young daughter. Chess with the Doomsday Machine avoids the kind formulaic patriotism and hagiography found in much of "Holy Defense" (defa'-e moqaddas: an official Iranian term for the conflict) fiction in two ways. First, it indulges a type of black humor used in such war satires as Joseph Heller's Catch 22 and, second-and more profoundly-it examines how wartime conditions throw the ephemeral nature of human existence into high relief. As the novel progresses, the narrator's journey evolves from a simple search-and-destroy mission into a quest for meaning among the surreal sights of the besieged city: an improvised "shark aquarium"; a ravaged farmer's market; rows of bombed-out homes; an ice cream freezer that doubles as a morgue; and an incomplete seven-story building that miraculously survives the Iraqi shelling to become the stage for the novel's chief theme.

About the Author

Habib Ahmadzadeh is a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, whose military career began when he served as a teenage Basiji and ended after he attained the rank of Captain in the regular army. He has studied theatre arts and is an accomplished scenarist. Ahmadzadeh is also the author of a prize-winning collection of short stories called The War Involved City Stories (Dastan-ha-ye Shahr-e Jangi), one of which became the basis for the film "Night Bus" (Autobus-e Shabaneh; directed in 2007 by the well-known film and television artist Kiumars Poorahmad). Ahmadzadeh also provided the research for Conversation with the Shadow (Goft-o Goo ba Sayeh (directed in 2006 by Khosrow Sinai), a study of one of Iran's greatest writers Sadeq Hedayat (d. 1951). Part biography, part literary criticism, the film is an original contribution to the voluminous literature on Hedayat's most important work of fiction The Blind Owl (Buf-e Kur).

... Payvand News - 05/15/09 ... --

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