July 13, 2015

A Picnic with the Dead. Behest-e Zara

Going to any war cemetery can be a depressing experience. There are always huge numbers of graves of young men who never got to experience life much beyond their childhood. The Behest-e Zara war cemetery on Tehran's southernmost city limits is no exception.

It is almost impossible to wander around this cemetery without tears welling up as you see the countless rows of graves of young Iranians killed in the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. Small containers with glass windows are placed above the graves with photographs and items belonging to the dead. Some contain just the military dog tag identifiers of the dead, others show faded photographs of happy children playing in water fountains, or even have their favourite toy from childhood. All the lives were suddenly cut short.

What was different about Behest-e Zara cemetery was the fact it was bustling with people, and felt so, well, alive. Most war cemeteries I have visited are somber, deserted places with only the occasional sad elderly relative or comrade for company in the vast empty space. That is not the Iranian way, particularly if you are visiting at the weekend (Thursday and Friday) when the families of the dead keep their memories alive by having picnics around the graves.

I was walking around with moist eyes when I was pulled into one such picnic. Refreshingly hot Iranian tea was served along with several courses of food. The family had lost two sons in the war, and every weekend they would lay out blankets over the graves, and sit and talk about the sons and brothers they had lost. This was a celebration of the time they had shared with them, focusing only on the positives now, and there was much joy and happiness, which the whole family was eager to share with a visitor.

Reluctantly saying my goodbyes I soon met another man sitting beside his brothers grave. Sharing another cup of tea I sat with him as he told me how his brother had been killed early on in the war by shelling from the Iraqi occupied territory. He even had a (somewhat gruesome) photograph of his body on his phone. Every weekend he would come and talk to his brother, tell him what had happened to him and his friends this week, and remind him he would never be forgotten. He had no hatred of anyone for the war except for one man, the man who started it, Saddam Hussein.

In almost every row I visited there was one or more picnics on the graves, and I could have eaten enough food to last me several days if I had not had to reluctantly refuse the generosity of those celebrating the lives of their lost relatives. As I left the cemetery I passed the graves of many unknown soldiers. Even these young men had not been forgotten, as a single rose and a candle had been placed carefully on each grave.

Far Flung Tips

* Visit the cemetery on the Iranian weekend if you get the chance.

* Travel on the Metro to Haram-e Motahar. Walk in the opposite direction to the Imam Khomeni Shrine, towards the large Iranian flag, and past the civilian cemetery (also very busy at the weekend).

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