A mural shows the image of 12-year-old Hussein Fahmideh, who is said to have crawled under an Iraqi tank and blown himself up.
A mural shows the image of 12-year-old Hussein Fahmideh, who is said to have crawled under an Iraqi tank and blown himself up. Tom Bullock/NPR
It's hard for a newcomer to visit Tehran without noticing the imagery of martyrdom and death.
It's especially striking because, as a foreign visitor, the city feels so safe.
Having reported from about 20 different cities in Iran's immediate neighbors — Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan — I can say that very few compare to Tehran. The streets are clean and bright, even if the air is choked by smog from the monumental daily traffic jams. The people are invariably courteous and pleased to meet Americans. The streets are vibrant and alive.
Look up from those streets, however, and you see official propaganda that dwells on darker times.
Near Tehran University, a giant mural is painted on a wall, showing the image of a 12-year-old boy, Hussein Fahmideh. It is said that during the Iran-Iraq War, the boy strapped explosives on himself, crawled under an Iraqi tank and blew himself up.
On the mural, the child is watched over by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, who proclaimed that the martyred child was the revolution's true leader. Murals with similar themes cover walls all over the city.
Walk into the office of Kayhan, a leading conservative newspaper, and you see photos of former newspaper employees killed in the same war.
Decades after that war, recovery crews still search for remains, and when any are found they are placed in coffins and brought back to Tehran to great fanfare on religious holidays.
Such rituals fit powerfully with Iran's majority Shia Muslim faith, which began with a story of martyrdom and defeat. Every Shia knows the story of Hussein, the grandson of Mohammad, who was outnumbered and killed in battle. Every year countless Shia parade, sing, wail, cry and even scourge themselves to mourn his death.
Expressions of modern-day combativeness can be heard at Friday prayers at Tehran University, where last Friday worshipers chanted "Death to America!"
Iranians are quick to argue that they are a peaceful people (or, as a Tehran electronics store clerk put it when I was chatting with him, "We are not terrorists!"). They say Iran's militancy was forced on the country.
The Iran-Iraq War was started when Iraq invaded in 1980 (which is why the curator of Iran's Martyrs' Museum insists on calling that long and bloody conflict "the Heroic Defense.") It was the United States that staged a violent coup in Iran many years ago, they say; it is the United States and Israel that rumble about attacking Iran even today.
The imagery of death and martyrdom is hardly limited to Iran. Americans have their violent movies and their proud military traditions. Heroism and sacrifice are part of our national story, too.
What's different in America is that the individual citizen can often choose to check in or check out of such things. You can turn off the television. In Tehran, the billboards, murals, speeches, chants and images of martyrdom hit you in the face.
Government agencies and large businesses have special offices dedicated to the Basijis, a militia force intended to defend Iran's Revolution. Sometimes crowds of Basijis give the official state propaganda an edge of genuine menace — breaking windows at a foreign embassy or gathering ominously at the front door of a human rights activist.
Such events prompted one diplomat here to say: "This regime is addicted to violence."
Even the most uplifting scenes here may carry reminders of mortality. The other night we dropped by a zurkhane, which is a traditional Persian exercise center. Men descend to a pit covered by a wrestling mat, and there they spin about, swing heavy chains, and wave around massive wooden bats and other instruments. They are practicing the ancient skills of war; a man strong enough to swing a heavy bat could probably also slash an enemy with a sword.
On the day we came, boys aged 5 to 11 were attending a class. They practiced running about and twirling. Two of them wrestled as a drummer sang songs from the Shahnameh, an epic Iranian poem of kings and battles and war. The singer, only 11 years old, was immensely talented, and the scene was so energizing that our Iranian interpreter walked out into the night reciting famous verses from the poem. Even if you did not speak Farsi, you could hear the music in the words.
Yet there was one faint edge of sadness when I studied the room.
Looking down on the little boys was a bust of Hussein Fahmideh, the 12-year-old who threw himself under an enemy tank before the boys were born.