Updated: Apr 22, 2020
Ruth Valentines reads an extract from her Rubaiyat for the Martyrs of Two Wars:
Tired of the arguments, the African Fishing-boats sunk in the Mediterranean, Refugees shot at borders, I left home And strolled through fragrant cities with Khayyam. Pavilions frescoed with love-scenes, to please Some ruler and his consort; redbud trees; Wind-catchers, water-courses, Sufi songs, Santour and frame-drum, urgent melodies; Tiled domes, and alcoves formed like stalactites Of shimmering mirrors; wood-framed lattice-lights Scattering gold and crimson on a floor; Fountains under the cypress-trees; warm nights; And all along the streets, on banners hung From lamp-posts, like an epic, once begun Never to end, the faces of the boys Dark-eyed and solemn, rippled in the sun. This loved his father, helped him in the store, Learned carpet styles and textures; wanted more Than life, to work and let his father rest. Offended, life betrayed him to the war. This one a student, gifted engineer A project in his mind, to bring back clear Mountain-snow water to his desert town; Now desert dust, his gift and his career. That boy too young, who lied about his age, Wanting revenge, indignant with the rage Of centuries of empire, battle, power, Thirteen forever in war’s rusting cage. In every town, on boulevards, along Avenues sweet with lemon-trees, among Bazaars and mud-brick alleyways, the dead Stared down, bewildered, lonely, grieving, young. I came home to my city, read the news: Double-page article, a photo, views Of cousins, politicians: he was killed For walking the wrong street. A child, confused. On flyovers and high streets, Lewisham, Walthamstow, Stockwell, Tottenham, Harlesden, from Invisible banners, the reproachful eyes Of boys murdered by other boys gaze down. He would have been a doctor: no-one thought It likely for a boy from his estate, Except the science teacher, and his mum Fingering through the text-book he’d just bought. This one a baseball-player, loose-limbed, tall, A good friend, joker, party-goer. All The young girls watched him move. The quiet one He’d loved since childhood saw him flinch and fall. This one a rapper; this a loving son; This sweet and slow, an innocent; every one A cherished baby once, another lost Chance of a better future, world undone. And then their killers: boys, at the same time Or later, killed in turn, or jailed. The rhyme Two families’ grieving makes. The vicious law Of wars, local or national. Mothers climb Monuments, platforms, town hall steps, to show The faces of the dead, once smiling, now Downcast forever, futureless. The past Draws in like night around them. Can’t let go.
The complete text of Ruth Valentine's Rubaiyat for the Martyrs of Two Wars is available here
Those who die of the virus are designated martyrs.
Four years ago today, 9 April 2016, I was in Isfahan. A photo keeps appearing on my laptop: it shows the great central square (Shah Square or Imam Square, depending on your politics) from the steps of the Ali Qapu Palace. Half a dozen young women in black chadors, maybe art or architecture students, are sketching the façade in front of them. The water in the long pool is blue, the sun is shining. Other tourists, French and Danish as well as Iranian, are waiting by the dazzling blue-tiled entrance of the Shaikh Lutfallah mosque. When we sit in the square to rest between sights, a woman asks if her daughter can practise English with us.
Today, I imagine, the square is empty.
The outbreak began in Qom, another city full of visitors, in this case pilgrims. The shrines in Qom have since been disinfected, but are still open. Kissing the shrines, like kissing statues of saints in Christian countries, is common practice, and some believe the shrines have healing powers. Mosques across Iran are open, and thousands attend them. On the first day of Newroz, the lunar new year, eight and a half million people travelled across the country, to celebrate as usual with family. The government had discouraged travel, but not banned it.
Politicians the world over act in similar ways. When satellite images showed mass graves at Qom, the government claimed there had been only twelve deaths across the country. The deputy health minister, sent out to deny a cover-up, was already coughing; the next day he tested positive for Covid-19. By 19 March, his ministry said that the virus was killing one person every ten minutes.
Still, Iran has coped better than some countries. Better, according to the Economist, at testing and tracing that the UK or US. Though you may feel that’s not such a high standard.
As elsewhere, individuals respond with more compassion. ‘We’re a compassionate people,’ says Kamin Mohammadi, who wrote the piece on martyrdom for my book. NGOs and individuals go into the poorest communities to distribute food. Forty years after the overthrow of the Shah, the gap between rich and poor has grown even greater.
We were lucky to visit when we did, not only before the virus, but while the nuclear arms deal was still holding. In return for halting its nuclear programme, Iran was promised a lifting of the international sanctions that have had so much impact on the lives of Iranians. In May 2018 President Trump withdrew from the deal; in March this year, in the midst of the pandemic, his Secretary of State announced further sanctions.
Here is the mayor of Tehran, Pirouz Hanachi, writing in the Guardian on 4 April:
"Doubtless there are things that we could do differently, like every country in the world. But we are operating against the backdrop of the most extreme sanctions regime in history. The US embargo not only prohibits American companies and individuals from conducting lawful trade with Iranian counterparts, but given that the sanctions are extra-territorial, all other countries and companies are also bullied into refraining from doing legitimate business with Iranians, even the selling of medicines.
"As a result, the ability of my colleagues and I to provide the health, logistical and other essential infrastructure necessary to combat the disease has been drastically reduced. We experience this loss every day, and it can be counted in people that would not have died."
At the end of March France, Germany and Britain found a way to circumvent the sanctions and send medical supplies. It’s not clear how much; nor indeed why this couldn’t have been done before.
Being declared a martyr gets you more than passage to heaven. It gets your family special privileges: compensation for their loss, preferential treatment in employment and services. Estimates for the numbers of new martyrs by the end of May go from two hundred thousand to three and a half million.
I wrote Rubaiyat for the Martyrs of Two Wars after seeing the countless images of young men killed in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980–88; and after reading yet another account of a young man killed by other young men on the streets of London. I don’t know whether ‘social distancing’ here at home has led to a drop in knife crime; I hope so. Will the faces of martyrs of forty years ago be replaced by those of the martyrs of this war? Viruses have no intent, evil or otherwise; but politicians do, and we suffer from them.
Many thanks to Kamin Mohammadi for facts and insights.
Ruth Valentine's 'Rubaiyat for the Martyrs of Two Wars' is available here