Commemorative Pollution in Post-War Iran

Submitted by Amir Khadem on Wed, 02/13/2019 - 11:03

In 2015, Stephen Greenblatt travelled to Iran for a conference on Shakespeare as keynote speaker. He found the very idea of travelling to Iran quite tempting and on his return, wrote an essay for The New York Review of Books ruminating over the trip. His hosts arranged at cross-country trip for him, which he’d gladly accepted. He travelled not only to Tehran, but also to cities such as Kashan, Esfahan, and Shiraz. An astute observer, Greenblatt makes politically shrewd but also seemingly naïve comments about what he saw in the streets of Iran’s several metropolitan areas. “Billboards advertising computers, detergent, yogurt, and the like,” he notes, “alternated with inspirational images of the Ayatollah Khomeini, political slogans, satirical depictions of Uncle Sam and of Israel, and many, many photographs of ‘martyrs’ from the Iran–Iraq war.” He observes the ubiquity of martyr imagery in the cityscape:

There were martyrs along the avenues, in traffic circles, on the sides of buildings, on the walls around the buildings, on overpasses and pedestrian bridges, everywhere. On the light poles, the martyrs’ images were generally in twos, and the pairings, which may have been accidental, were sometimes striking: a teenager next to a hardened veteran, a raw recruit next to a beribboned high-ranking officer, a bearded fighter next to a sweet-faced young woman.

photo of martyr flags along Iranian highway
Photo by Amir Khadem, 2017

What Greenblatt sees, the presence of war commemoration as an imposing force in the urban environment, is only half of the picture. Had he been able to read Persian, he would have also noticed that most streets, highways, parks, back alleys, bridges, parking lots, and other urban structures are named after martyrs. The question of remembering the war and those fallen in it has long transformed not just the public discourse of the postwar period, but literally, has left its mark on the public space.

What matters more is the way this inundation of official remembrance practices has effectively obstructed any alternative remembering of the war. In postwar Iran, the practice of commemoration is almost entirely appropriated by the state. By establishing official organizations for documentation of war’s oral memories, or oral history projects, organizing film festivals and art exhibitions, and funding publication houses exclusively focused on war-related literature, the Iranian government effectively chokes alternative paths of the war’s remembrance. Greenblatt’s observation is, therefore, a testimony to a certain type of “commemorative pollution.” 

A curious side-effect of this corruption of public memory is that many counter-narratives of war become as erroneous as, if not more than, the official narratives they purport to dismantle. When independent verification of historical accounts becomes increasingly difficult, the commemorative practices that tend to resist the state-sponsored histories are themselves highly susceptible to counter-factual statements.

Among the most interesting of these anti-establishment narratives is the widespread story of “keys to heaven,” which is also relevant to the question of underage conscription in Iran. According to this narrative, the Iranian state systematically sought to recruit child soldiers, and took recourse to incredibly ludicrous, and yet chillingly vicious propaganda tactics, one of which was to distribute golden plastic keys in schools and telling the students such keys are symbolic relics to open the doors of heaven for whoever wishes to join the war front. This was supposedly a tactic in brainwashing teenage boys to conscript. It is quite difficult to trace a genealogy of this narrative, but there are plenty of examples in oppositional personal narratives by Iranian expatriates, most of whom were never themselves in the war, but claim to have heard the story of boys getting fooled by plastic keys to heaven. One instance is in Marjane Satrapi’s highly celebrated graphic memoir, Persepolis.

image from graphic novel Persepolis of golden key
Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (2003)

While beside these testimonial accounts, there is no evidence to corroborate the plastic keys to heaven narrative, there is at least one conjecture to what might have been the possible ground beneath this claim. In modern Shi’ Islam, there is a famous and widely circulated book of prayers, collected in the 18th century and remains in print to date, called Mafatih al-Janan. In almost every Shi’ite Muslim religious household, right beside the Quran a copy of this prayer book can be found. The book’s title simply translates to Keys to Heaven. It is highly probable that many young volunteer troops carried or were given a free copy of this book. This might be the reason behind the fallacious, and even ridiculous, story of golden keys. We should note that no definitive answer to the key-to-heaven narrative’s question has yet been offered by any historian of modern Iran, which is the whole point of what I call commemorative pollution. The postwar Iranian public memory is a densely populated arena of problematic official histories and equally troubling counter-histories.