It is a cliché of exoticism to state that such a call brought chills of excitement up and down the spine – but there is no other way of describing those electric chills when they came. I hadn’t been in Qum for long. My new husband, a convert to Islam from Brighton, and I were staying with a cleric and his wife and young daughter. When she and I heard the calls, we ran to the roof, she carrying their daughter. And we joined in. She told me that American troops had made an attempt to free the US Embassy hostages, but all of their helicopters came down in a desert storm. Comparison was made to the story in the Quran about the time Mecca was about to be attacked, and birds threw stones at the army – they were mounted on elephants, but died from the attack of stones.
The air was electric, with people on rooves all over the city ululating and crying out, ‘Allahu Akbar!’ The nation had been living in fear of attack from the US – it hadn’t been long since students had taken the US Embassy staff hostage, and the whole country along with them. No one knew what the US would do. There was an urban legend that someone had asked Ayatullah Khomeini what would happen if the US invaded and took over. His calm response was that they would just become Muslim.
But this moment – how to describe this moment? There was a sense that the Hand of God had rescued the nation from an attack that would have had terrible consequences. There was relief from fear, and nonetheless even more fear that this was a sign of more attacks to come. There was a sense of triumph, of an affirmation of the rightness of the recent revolution. There was a sense of gratitude. There was a sense of awe…
And there was a sense of grief.
As he was a religious cleric, the couple we were staying with had both suffered from the attention of the Shah’s police. But as we watched news coverage of the wreckage, and witnessed the burnt bodies of the troops – she wept. Her reaction was one of grief for the lives lost, for their mothers, their wives, their children, their families. She was weeping in sympathy for the suffering they had gone through. I was floored. This was not the reaction of triumphalism, of a battle won that they didn’t even realise had been fought until it was over. This was genuine weeping at the loss of another human being.
A few years later, back in the UK, I went to a press conference given by an anti-nuclear campaigner at Liberal Party headquarters. He had been working for the US nuclear weapons industry during the time of the above event. You have to remember, this was before Iran was a nuclear power (it must be noted the foundations of their nuclear industry were laid by the US during the time of the Shah.) Once again, I was floored. He stated that he believed it was the Hand of God when those helicopters came down in the sandstorm in Iran. It was his opinion that if they had succeeded, tensions with the USSR (still in existence at that point) would have climaxed into nuclear war. And that those circumstances had come very close at that point. The USSR was still a presence in Afghanistan, so his concerns were realistic.
As I have watched events of the last few weeks unfold much of what I witnessed while living in Iran, and followed from the sidelines through friends and colleagues ever since, have come to the fore. Now, as it was then, there are so few who have any real comprehension of the complexities at stake – and much commentary is made from a place of ignorance. One thing that can be said, there are too few voices for peace, too few which value human life, too few able to behold the suffering of others with sympathy, decency and mercy.
In 1989, not long after the fatwa over The Satanic Verses, the threats to Salman Rushdi, and book burnings and demonstrations all over the world, as well as the UK – Ayatullah Khomeini died. A nation was in mourning, much as we have witnessed recently over the killing of Qasim Suleimani. Then, as now, there was commentary galore. But one memory sticks out above all of the rest. My youngest daughter was only recently born, and I was sitting nursing her while listening to the radio on a Sunday morning. It was the service coming from St Paul’s Cathedral. The priest leading the service prayed for the nation of Iran as it mourned the death of its spiritual leader. He stated it so simply, and so sincerely, I never forgot it. For all of the ‘bad blood’ there could have been between nations, the humanity of another was acknowledged, valued, and honoured.
Whatever one’s opinion of him, Qasim Suleimani was in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi state. His leadership was key in eradicating ISIS. Some of the wild claim that have been made about him are clearly misinformed. That is not to say he was innocent of the deaths of civilians in some areas. That is not for me to say, but rather for due process in the rule of law. If the US had an issue with him, and with Iranian attacks on their troops, they should have worked with the Iraqi government in confronting those attacks – not take unilateral action without the permission or knowledge of their hosts. This killing did exactly what was intended, committed an act that would force the Iranian government to respond with further hostility. It was intended to bring about war.
All nations suffer in war – whether taking part in the hostilities or not. There are no winners. There is no triumph. Nations are changed forever by the violence they commit – whether justified or not. We all lose something of our humanity.
The picture is of the tomb of the saint Ma’sumeh, sister of the 8th Imam Raza. The tomb is in the main mosque of the city of Qum in Iran. It was taken by the author during a visit in 2017.