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Blood and body-painting at Iran’s 2001 fair to celebrate “sacred defence”

01sep26 musala scuds

Terrorism is a word that is constant trouble — a bit like “Islamism”, it seems to mean something different to everyone. Turkey, for instance, is still tied up in knots trying to work out where it should draw the line between pro-Kurdish violence and political opposition. But the West shoots the word from the hip as well, as I discovered when I wrote this story from Tehran for the Wall Street Journal a fortnight after the 9/11 attacks on America. I struggled for hours to keep the language on target — the Iran-Iraq war was the main subject of this exhibition, after all — but was then blindsided in the headline. Twelve years on, however, Iranians are still struggling to move on from their revolutionary state’s ideology of martyrdom and “sacred defence”.

27 Sept 2001

The Fruits of Terrorism

Are the Stock in Trade

At a Tehran Exhibition

Islamic Holy War Is a Theme

Of the Long-Planned Event;

Martyrs and Suicide Bombers


By Hugh Pope

TEHRAN, Iran — At first glance, the sprawling exhibition here looks like a trade show — with booths, color brochures and free keychains.

"Outpost of the Martyr Seirhani"

“Outpost of the Martyr Seirhani”

But the theme of the First Universal Exhibition of Sacred Culture and Defense is Islamic revolution and holy war. The event glorifies groups condemned by the U.S. and Israel as terrorists.

There is Hezbollah of Lebanon, where Islamists first deployed the suicide car bomb in the early 1980s as part of a successful campaign to drive the U.S., Israeli and French armies out of their country. The group brought along a five-man choir, which sings martial songs to the accompaniment of an electronic keyboard.

“The songs are about Jerusalem and the intifada [Palestinian uprising], about the Islamic resistance in Lebanon, about the leader of the Islamic community, Imam Khomeini,” says a militant in his 20s. He would identify himself only as a songwriter.

Also on hand is the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq, at a booth displaying photos of the Iraqi gassing of 5,000 ethnic Kurds in 1988. The Palestinians’ booths are lined with gory pictures of young men who blew themselves up or were killed by Israelis, as recently as a few weeks ago.

“Look at this boy, this beautiful boy,” says Abu Mohammed Mustafa, representative in Tehran of the Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas, pointing to the photograph of a smiling young man. In the next picture, the same man burns to death in a car struck by an Israeli missile. “Look, he’s a martyr now,” says Mr. Mustafa.

The long-planned event, which opened Sept. 21 and runs through Oct. 2, commemorates the 21st anniversary of the country’s brutal war with Iraq. There is no sign of Osama bin Laden, America’s No. 1 suspect in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The Iranian government has long been at odds with Mr. bin Laden and his protectors in Afghanistan’s Taliban regime.

While the scene seems to glorify military strikes and terrorist attacks on civilians, Majid Javanmard, a diplomat at the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s stand at the show, has a different perspective.

“People have different views of terrorism. We condemn it, whether it is in New York, in [the Palestinian refugee camps of] Sabra and Shatila, or Afghanistan. You’ve got to look at the context of each case,” he says.

His booth features a fine pair of Persian carpets. Right opposite is a mock street wall with a sign reading “Martyr Road.” Visitors can look through holes in it to see a battlefield where a green military radio lies abandoned in the ruins of a house that glistens with blood and gore.

Dummy soldiers recreate Iran-Iraq warfront scene in central Tehran, Sept 2001 (Photo: HP)

Dummy soldiers recreate Iran-Iraq warfront scene in central Tehran, Sept 2001 (Photo: HP)

The exhibition was organized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the military power base of the hard-line stalwarts of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Such militants still control the country’s main institutions despite several elections since 1997 that have been overwhelmingly won by a moderate, reformist faction personified by President Mohammed Khatami.

Some mothers in long black chador cloaks bring their children, and drop them off at a camouflage-netted tent for some recreational painting.

Their supervisor, 22-year-old art student Shabnam Yahyazadeh, asks them to create a child’s-eye view of what they had learned from the exhibition. Most of the work drying around the tent is of tanks, battles in palm groves and soldiers dying bloody deaths.

“This is the air force,” says Amir Mohammed, five years old, pointing to a rendering of a warplane. Then, pointing to red streaks over most of the page, he adds: “These ones are dead. They’re gone.”

Body painting, Iranian revolutionary style

Body painting, Iranian revolutionary style

“I’ve been ordered to make them paint these things. But this is just the surface. It’s politics,” says Ms. Yahyazadeh. “The real Islam has no killing. If some people have flipped it upside down for their own benefit, I don’t agree, the majority doesn’t agree.”

For Iranian hard-liners, the convention offers another opportunity to use the war against Iraq to justify their domination of the country. A section entitled “The Memory of Heroic Deeds” features reconstructed scenes from recruiting offices and troop send-offs, loudspeakers playing stories in song about “Our Jihad” and the martial music once broadcast during offensives. There are walk-through dioramas of the reedbeds in the Iraqi border marshes. Also 3-D re-creations of the dikes and bunkers of the front lines, scattered with battered Toyota landcruisers, antiaircraft guns, barbed wire, and depictions of Iran’s 200,000 war dead.

“Those were the good days,” says Abdulreza Baqizadeh, pausing by an artillery piece with his wife shrouded in black. “What I remember was the spiritual atmosphere of those days, the togetherness. We’ve lost so much since then, the value system is changing, the way money is so important, the way women no longer dress properly.”

Mr. Baqizadeh, who was a medic and now works in an automobile paintshop, says he had longed to become a martyr. “I didn’t deserve it, apparently,” he says. “People think of war as bloody, and it was very ugly. But if a casualty was brought to us, we saw his spirit. It was beautiful to see people ready to give their lives for God.” Mr. Baqizadeh was 17 years old when he enlisted.

Nariman Abdi hands out keychains, Web-site addresses and Korans at a “Sacred Defense” booth sponsored by his employer, Bank Melli Iran. He was just 13 when he rushed to the front at the outbreak of the war. Asked if he shouldn’t have been at school, he just smiled and said the war front was the “school of love . . . a lost paradise.”

Around the next corner, an Iranian elementary-school group stands in mesmerized horror before a video monitor showing scenes from a wartime medical tent. A man displays the contents of a sack of amputated body parts: a foot, an arm, lumps of flesh. When some flinch and look away as doctors hack at an open wound that fills the screen, their teacher orders them to keep watching. “We want to inculcate the new generation with the spirit of sacrifice we had then, in an unequal situation,” explains Reza Khorasani, the prayer leader of a Tehran mosque, remembering his own trips to the front with food and morale-raising sermons during the war.

Scud and future scud-shaped minaret

Scud and future scud-shaped minaret

After a hall of more poster-sized, bloody images — the mutilated stump of a leg, the blistered face of one of the 60,000 Iranians poisoned by Iraqi gas — the circuit of the exhibition tour emerges onto a vista that symbolizes militant Islam. The great prayer courtyard of the unfinished gray concrete and brick cathedral of the revolution, where the affair is located, is filled with enough military hardware for an armaments fair.

One of the blue-shirted militants there waves the movement’s yellow flag, which bears the symbol of the Revolutionary Guards, made up of the Arabic word for “No” turning into a hand clenching a rifle and the Koranic motto: “Oppose them until the last of your strength.”

At the Hezbollah stand, the movement’s satellite-TV station broadcasts a speech by the group’s black-turbaned leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, baring his teeth and shaking his fist in militaristic diatribe. Behind it, a poster of Sheik Nasrallah declares that “the success of the [Lebanese] resistance shows that the liberation of Jerusalem is certain.”

Beside that, among pictures of shell-blasted babies and twisted corpses from Israeli attacks on Lebanon, an elaborate piece of Arabic calligraphy spells out “Death to America, Death to Israel.”

Across the convention-style walkway, where visitors wander over a Star of David being stamped on by an oversize, blood-red footprint, stands the toll of Hezbollah martyrs over 25 years: 1,281 dead, registered in six-foot high numerals dripping with red-paint blood.

“Blood is sacred for us. We didn’t have guns, so we gave our lives. It’s what liberated our country,” says Fadi Habbawi, 22, a young Lebanese student of Persian language and literature who is taking his turn to man the Hezbollah stand. “My goal is not to become a martyr. But if I did become one, then I would go straight to paradise.”


27 September 2001

About Hugh Pope

Writer of books on Turkey, the Middle East and Central Asia. Currently Director of Communications & Outreach for International Crisis Group.


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