The Hero and Heroin (Part 1)

Photo/Kamin Mohammadi

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pageTracker._trackPageview();A war veteran loses the drug battle.

Tehran Bureau | dispatches

It is Friday and Abadan’s graveyard is busy. The second day of the weekend, this is when many Iranians head to the cemetery to pay their respects to their dead. Families come en masse, bearing flasks of rosewater and boxes of sweetmeats to hand around to other mourners. The graves are raised stone platforms topped by a gravestone or often, a picture of the deceased set in a glass case. Beyond, the recent rain has turned the marshland into fields of mud, palm trees swaying in the breeze.

I am here with my cousin Esmael and his wife and we are bearing trays of homemade halva, honey biscuits, rosewater and fruit. In the martyr’s section of the cemetery there are special prayers taking place, the flags placed above each grave flapping in the wind that wafts round the scent of the rosewater used to wash down the graves. We are here for the rituals marking 40 days after my cousin Ebby’s funeral, hence the special collection of funereal sweets we are carrying.

We walk past the martyr’s section to another part of the cemetery because, although Ebby was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, he died not martyred on the battlefield, but 16 years later in an abandoned slum in Abadan, a homeless heroin addict with AIDS and Hepatitis.

Already gathered around his grave are his two sisters and estranged wife. His sisters – my cousins – leap sobbing into my arms and his wife, a moon-faced woman in a voluminous black chador, her face washed clean by tears, mutters quiet words of grief and gratitude for my presence. After years of feeling alone in their struggle with Ebby and his addiction, they are touched that I have made it from England. Neither Ebby’s sisters, his wife nor his brother Esmael had seen or had contact with Ebby for years before his death. Finally they could lay aside their anger and grieve. Not just for his death, but also for his life.

I take my place by their side, crouching in the mud by the grave (washed of the dust of Abadan earlier that day by Esmael), which is set like a table at a party: white gladioli make up the centrepiece surrounded by dishes of dates, halva, fruit, sweets dripping with honey and biscuits. I eat some obligatory halva, and pass on the sweets to the others who come to pay their respects. There is some shaking of heads and mutters of a wasted life, but no-one talks about Ebby’s ignominious death, the drug addiction that soared out of control after he came home from the frontline of the war.

The last time I saw Ebby was seven years ago, when he still shared a home with his wife and two children. I had returned to Abadan, the town of my birth, for my first visit in nearly 20 years, and in the multitude of family celebrations that followed, my grandmother insisted on Ebby’s presence. Reluctantly, my uncles tracked him down and one night, Ebby, Mina and their two children joined the party. Mostly I remember that Ebby, another cousin and I, all around the same age and childhood playmates, sat cross-legged on the floor late into the night, while Ebby chain smoked, his foot twitching uncontrollably against the floor, as he tried to talk of everything but the war, the war that filled the gap between each sentence, the silence after each breath.

No-one mentioned his drug addiction, but it was obvious. Soon afterwards I heard that Mina and the kids had left him to move back in with her parents, that Ebby had lost the house and there was no news of him. Until last summer when a cousin who had a job near Abadan, found him begging on the streets, riddled with disease, his hair dreadlocked to his waist. The same cousin occasionally visited him and bought him food until, paralysed and unable to score the drug that was so necessary to his body, he died of withdrawing from it. He was 38.

Ebby was the second child of my eldest uncle. Although my parents moved away from our native Abadan soon after my birth, the rest of my family mostly remained and I recall many holidays and celebrations all gathered together in my grandmother’s house, us children all firm friends. Ebby was a lovely, scruffy boy with his nose always running, more gentle and loving than the other, rougher who were always getting into scrapes. In the years after we left Iran, Ebby grew up to be an equally affectionate adolescent, according to everyone I spoke to. ‘Despite everything,’ I heard over and over again, ‘Ebby was the nicest man.’

I was haunted by memories of the snotty-nosed kid and his ignominious death. I decided to return to Iran to see if I could find out what had happened to change so dramatically my cousin’s destiny.

* * *

‘Abadan: don’t call it Abadan; call it Paris’. So ran a local song 30 years ago when Abadan was in its heyday. The centre of Iran’s boomingoil industry, this small town in the province of Khuzestan sitting on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab waterway was then home to Iran’s largest and most important refinery. From its small airport one could step on a plane for London, New York and, indeed, Paris. Now, it supports only a few internal flights a week.

The Iran-Iraq war destroyed much of Iran, but the areas on the border with Iraq suffered the worst and still Khuzestan is struggling to come to terms with its devastation. Situated in the South-West of Iran, sharing a border with Iraq and dipping its toes into the Persian Gulf to the south, this is an area of immensely humid heat and salty soil, and, aside from a few pre-Islamic ruins at Choqa Zanbil and Susa, it does not have much else to recommend it. But this dusty earth harbours the source of Iran’s wealth – and much of its troubles – oil. It was here that, at the beginning of the last century, a British government-backed Australian named William Knox D’Arcy found the first well and so, in 1908, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company was born.

Abadan lies on an island of the same name along the eastern bank of the Shatt al-Arab, some 30 miles from the Persian Gulf. The island is bounded on the west by the Shatt and on the east by the Bahmanshir – an outlet of the Karun River. Legend has it that Abadan was founded by a holy man, ‘Abbad’, in the 8th century, and it was a prosperous coastal town in the Abbasid period, known for its salt and woven mats. Silt deposits extending the delta of the Shatt Al-‘Arab caused the coast of the Persian Gulf to gradually recede from Abadan so by the time the town was visited by the Arab geographer Ibn Battutah in the 14th century, it was described as little more than a large village in a flat, salty plain.

Iran and the Ottomans tussled over Abadan but Iran definitively acquired it in 1847. In 1909, when the Anglo- Persian Oil Company established its refinery at Abadan, it was still just a village. The refinery began operating in 1913, and by 1938 it was the largest in the world. By 1956 Abadan had become a city of more than 220,000 souls, with a booming economy almost entirely based on petroleum refining and shipping and a sophisticated population of foreigners and Iranians. The refinery complex was served by pipelines running from oil fields to the north, and eventually, all the way to the capital Tehran and to Shiraz. By the late 1970s Abadan’s population was hovering just under the half million mark.

My family had been in Abadan since the 1930s when Reza Shah had consolidated his power by stripping the local khans of their land and absorbing them into local government. My great-grandfather, from a family of khans ruling the southern Gulf province of Busheir, had gladly escaped the play of politics for a top job in the local government of Khuzestan, based in Abadan. Soon after, he had given his precious only daughter, my grandmother, to a local merchant in marriage and they proceeded, over the next 24 years, to produce 12 children, the eldest of which was my uncle and Ebby’s father.

Within this vast family, us kids grew up close. Even after moving away, we would visit for prolonged stays several times a year and I remember long lunches at my uncle’s house, falling in the dust as we kids chased each other outside, Ebby helping to pick me up and divert me from my bleeding knees as he led me inside to be attended to by his formidable mother. My uncle was a gentle person with springy hair and soft eyes, keen on tinkering with his car and always ready with a laugh and a hug.

After we left Iran, I never saw my uncle again. He had died before I made it back. Like all my other uncles and everyone else employed by the oil company, he was not allowed to leave his post during the war and he stayed in Abadan throughout the bloody eight years. A few years after end of the war, he died of cancer, followed swiftly a few months later by his wife.

When I last saw Ebby, he had grown from the snotty-nosed kid to a man in his 30s with an uncanny resemblance to my beloved uncle. He told me that he fought along the border for the last 18 months of the war. ‘I can’t even describe the things I’ve seen,’ he muttered when I tried to ask him about his experiences. Eight years after the war, he was still suffering from nightmares. ‘There were the Iraqis, large men you know, much bigger than us, and they had the latest arms, brand-new kalashes, shiny tanks… You felt – here’s a war where there are bigger powers against us. And us, just disorganised and poor.’

Ebby insisted that the effects of the war went on, unrecorded. He and his family lived in a small town an hour away from Abadan, but he wanted then to move. ‘Saddam used chemical weapons you know,’ he pointed out. ‘In the last few years two members of our family have died of cancer.’ He was referring to his father and another uncle of ours. Ebby worried about the water, the soil, the health of his children. His brow was constantly furrowed. I was not surprised that he was one of Iran’s growing army of heroin addicts.

Click here for Part 2.

An abridged version of this article first appeared in the Financial Times magazine.

Kamin Mohammadi’s first book, a family memoir and modern history of Iran, is slated for publication in the spring of 2010.

One Response to “The Hero and Heroin (Part 1)”

  1. detox center Says:

    The war veteran’s story is sad to hear, especially a hero who has fallen victim to drugs. But his life won’t go in vain because it will serve as an awakening that drugs are able to ruin family relationships, and won’t do no good to a person.

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