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Fortune Told in Blood

[ Middle Eastern Studies ]

Fortune Told in Blood

By Davud Ghaffarzadegan

A prominent Iranian author writes about the Iran-Iraq War—from the Iraqi point of view.

2008

$16.00$10.72

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Paperback

5.5 x 8.5 | 89 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-71839-5

Amidst the Iran-Iraq War, two Iraqi soldiers find themselves stationed on an isolated mountain peak with orders to observe the enemy's troop movements. As they watch the brutal destruction brought about by the intelligence they have gathered, their loyalty to their country and each other is tested.

As in all wars, both Iraq and Iran demonized each other as the war raged during the 1980s. In Fortune Told in Blood, written during the mid-1990s as Iran was recovering, Davud Ghaffarzadegan labors to undo the damage caused by this process. The author, an Iranian, writes from the Iraqi perspective, thus humanizing the enemy and challenging his reader to do so as well.

A deft and economical storyteller, Davud Ghaffarzadegan has received considerable critical and popular acclaim in Iran, though his work has never before been translated into English. M. R. Ghanoonparvar's exquisite translation remedies this oversight and expands the body of literature on the Iran-Iraq War available to the West.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Fortune Told in Blood
  • An Interview with Davud Ghaffarzadegan

In 1996, when Fal-e Khun [Fortune Told in Blood] was originally published in Persian, the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, the longest war in the twentieth century, had been over for almost seven years; Saddam Hussein of Iraq, who started the war, was still in power; and both countries were trying to cope with the loss of human life and the destruction caused by the war. The Iran-Iraq War began in the wake of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and following a long history of border disputes between the two countries. When Iraqi forces invaded Iran on September 22, 1980, they did so without a formal declaration of war or any warning; but after the initial shock, Iran was able to consolidate its military forces, which were in a state of relative disarray as a result of the revolution and change of regime, and prevent the enemy from making major advancements. For almost eight years, both sides claimed supremacy in various battles and each side predicted its imminent victory in the war, but as the weeks, months, and years went by, neither side could see any gains, and losses amounted to over a million casualties and tremendous destruction. By August 20, 1988, when the two countries agreed to a ceasefire, Iraq had been criticized for its use of chemical weapons against Iranian military troops and civilians, as well as Iraqi Kurds, and Iran for its use of "boy soldiers," among other things.

The diplomatic conflict over the Iraq-Iran border, which occasionally led to military action, has a history several centuries long. In the mid-sixteenth century, when the Ottoman Empire conquered the territory that comprises modern Iraq, as its neighbor to the east, Iran was considered the empire's rival. After World War I when Iraq was made a separate state, serious disagreement developed between Iran and Iraq regarding the border between them, in particular concerning the river known as the Shatt al-Arab by Arabs and the Arvandrud by Iranians, which divides the southern parts of the two countries and is Iraq's only access to the open ocean, through the Persian Gulf. Despite various agreements regarding the border in 1937 and 1975, relations between the two nations remained problematic for numerous reasons, including the fact that although Iraq is predominantly Arab and Iran is predominantly Persian, on both sides of the border there were divided political loyalties: the Kurdish population in the north, the Arab minority in the Iranian province of Khuzestan, and the largely Shi‛ite population of Iraq, which shares the same faith with the majority of Iranians.

When the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79, under the leadership of the Shiʽite cleric Ayatollah Khomeini, overthrew Mohammad Reza Shah and the Pahlavi dynasty, relations between the two countries continued to deteriorate. The Iraqi government, under the control of Saddam Hussein, feared the political rhetoric espoused by the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran, which seemed to advocate a similar religious revolution and government for Iraq. And the weakened state of the Iranian army, the result of purges, along with the international crises that Iran faced, including the severance of relations with the United States due to the hostages taken from the American embassy, further tempted Saddam Hussein and his government to invade, thus beginning a prolonged war between the two neighbors.

The war inevitably forced both countries to draft conscripts to supply their troops, which suffered high numbers of casualties. While the Iranian side relied mainly on its larger population and revolutionary zeal, Iraq was in a more dire situation in regard to recruits due to its smaller population, despite receiving military and diplomatic help from other states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, among others. Iraqis, though perhaps motivated by certain nationalistic sentiments, were increasingly skeptical about the promised outcome.

As the war went on, soldiers on both sides gradually and increasingly became aware of the senselessness of the conflict. Regarding the Iranian side, this sense of futility is reflected in the works of many filmmakers and fiction writers. Fortune Told in Blood is an attempt by Davud Ghaffarzadegan to project the same sense of futility onto the Iraqi side.

As in all wars, each side began the conflict convinced that it was right and that God was on its side. Each side believed itself to be fighting for Islam and Muslims and regarded its adversary as inhumane infidels. As a result, much of what was produced in Iran in the form of poems, stories, and of course films during the war directly or indirectly served as war propaganda, dealing with themes such as self-sacrifice and martyrdom, and while depicting Iranians as embodiments of these virtues, they presented a dehumanized picture of the enemy. During the war, a significant number of war films with such themes were shown nightly on television.

But there were also antiwar films, such as Bashu, Gharibeh-ye Kuchek [Bashu, the Little Stranger], by the renowned film director Bahram Beyza'i (though its distribution was not allowed until the early 1990s). Another film which dealt with the effects of the war on the soldiers who fought it was Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Arusi-ye Khuban [The Marriage of the Blessed] (1988).

Antiwar fiction was also produced during the war. Examples include Qazi Rabihavi's Vaqti Dud-e Jang dar Asman Dideh Shod [When the Smoke of War Was Seen in the Sky] (1981), Nasim Khaksar's Man Solhra Dust Daram [I Love Peace] (1981), Qodsi Qazinur's Vietnam Gavahi Ast [Vietnam Is Proof] (1980), Ahmad Mahmud's Zamin-e Sukhteh [Burned Land] (1981), and Esma'il Fasih's Zemestan-e 62 [Winter of 83] (1987), which expressed the sense of frustration, helplessness, and desperation felt by Iranians suffering the death and destruction caused by the far-reaching effects of modern warfare on their cities and villages. Fortune Told in Blood, however, goes one step further. It humanizes the Iraqi enemy. This aspect of Ghaffarzadegan's work can be regarded as a positive development, especially in the context of the animosity that was ignited by the anti-Iranian rhetoric of Saddam Hussein and his regime, which started the war and named it "the second Qadesiyyeh" (a reference to the seventh-century Battle of Qadesiyyeh when the Islamic Arab army invaded the Persian Empire). In the spring of 1995, when Davud Ghaffarzadegan completed the writing of Fortune Told in Blood, perhaps enough time had passed for the extremely hostile emotions to subside to some degree and for both nations, or at least many people in both countries, to begin to view certain human attributes in their adversary, in a sense to humanize the enemy.

Fortune Told in Blood is an internal novel for the most part, but it is also a story of the interaction between two individuals from different classes: an ordinary conscript from a lower- working-class Iraqi family and an educated officer, also a draftee. But they also have much in common. They look to the future with both hope and uncertainty, and in the course of their close association on the top of a mountain where they have been assigned as lookouts for enemy troop movement, they begin to know each other, as well as themselves. They learn about loyalty to their country and government, but also, more importantly, about loyalty to each other as human beings. They have been cast into an extraordinary situation in which their courage is tested, but they also face, and are tested in terms of, what they come to realize is the meaning of life, with regard to their own individual but also collective human existence. Fortune Told in Blood is a story of death and destruction, but as the characters confront death, we also find a confrontation with life and an understanding of its value. In many ways, it is also a story about dreams and aspirations, albeit unfulfilled.

The humanization of the enemy can of course be seen in Ghaffarzadegan's choice of characters and the story he tells. But it is also addressed by the character of the young soldier who, from a distance and through binoculars, can empathize and even identify with people he is supposed to regard as enemies.

Davud Ghaffarzadegan was born in 1959. In other words, during the Iran-Iraq War he was young enough to have been conscripted or to have volunteered, neither of which occurred. He was born in the city of Ardabil, in East Azerbaijan province. His first language is Azeri Turkish, but he writes in Persian. He is a teacher by profession, and has published over twenty-five novels and collections of short stories, many of which have received literary and artistic prizes. Among his short story collections are Ma Seh Nafar Hastim [We Are Three Persons], Raz-e Qatl-e Aqa-ye Mir [The Secret of the Murder of Mr. Mir], and Dokhtaran-e Delriz [The Delriz Girls], and his novels include Sayehha va Shab-e Deraz [Shadows and Long Night]. Ghaffarzadegan is also known as a writer of books for children and young adults, including two collections of short stories, Hezarpa [Centipede] and Mu Ferferi [Curly Haired], and three novels, Parvaz-e Dornaha [The Flight of the Cranes], Sangandazan-e Qar-e Kabud [The Blue Cave Stone Throwers], and Avaz-e Nimeh Shab [Midnight Song].

Ghaffarzadegan has a special facility with the Persian language. Very economical with words, he can vividly depict a scene with a few strokes of the pen and the inner workings of a character's psyche with a short phrase. Although he has described himself, as have critics, as a writer who is interested in the art of storytelling rather than trying to convey a particular message, in recent years he has gained the respect of critics and readers as a significant literary figure concerned with social issues, and while his reputation as an established writer began with his writing for children and young adults, he also says that when he writes he does not think about a particular age group as his readers. What he is interested in is the art of fiction.

In terms of genre, Fortune Told in Blood can best be classified as a novella. Although it seems that in the English-speaking world, perhaps because of its seemingly awkward length, the novella as a subgenre has not been as popular as the short story and the novel, some of the most important literary artists in modern Persian literature have chosen this form for their work. For instance, Sadeq Hedayat's Buf-e Kur (published in the late 1930s and translated into English as The Blind Owl), which is perhaps the most widely translated, read, and discussed work of Iranian fiction, is a novella. Similarly, other important writers such as Mohammad Ali Jamalzadeh, Bozorg Alavi, Jalal Al-e Ahmad, Hushang Golshiri, and more recently Shahrnush Parsipur and Mohammad Reza Bayrami, to mention a few, have utilized this form. Golshiri's most popular masterpiece, Shazdeh Ehtejab [Prince Ehtejab], and Parsipur's Zanan bedun-e Mardan [Women without Men] are both novellas that also appear in English translation.

The reasons for the popularity of the novella in Iran perhaps include the type of readers that authors envision. Reading is still not a habit and a hobby for the majority of Iranians, despite the increasing literacy rate in recent decades. It appears that while many Western writers write for the general public, Iranian writers for all intents and purposes cannot yet hope for such a wide audience. Moreover, nonliterary factors such as the shortage and high price of paper since the Islamic Revolution have also contributed to the inclination of Iranian publishers and writers to favor this subgenre.

Ghaffarzadegan's novella was published in a climate in Iran where many veterans of the war were gradually beginning to look back and reassess the conflict and their own role and place in society. With the experiences of thousands of young people, many of whom were trying to cope with their disabilities, their time as prisoners of war, and other consequences of the war, a new discourse began among the veterans that divided them into two camps, which has continued to the present. One camp consists of those who still adhere to the political and ideological rhetoric of wartime, i.e., referring to the conflict as the "sacred defense" and the "imposed war," and consider it a sacrilege to question the reasons for it. The other group is comprised of those who are trying to look back at the war and their experiences with a more sober outlook. To the first group, the members of the second are regarded as traitors to the idea that the Iran-Iraq War was the "war between good and evil," the Islamic Republic and Saddam's regime. One critic from the first camp, for example, even reprimanded the translator of Ahmad Dehqan's Journey to Heading 270 Degrees for translating what he considered a heretical novel, which appeared in the same year as Fortune Told in Blood. This was the social climate in which Davud Ghaffarzadegan's novella was published. Given that Ghaffarzadegan is not a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, to some extent his book was disregarded by the first group of critics, while praised by readers in the second camp, and it went through a second printing in less than a year.

To better familiarize the reader with the writer of Fortune Told in Blood and the scope of his work, a translation of a journal interview appears at the conclusion of this volume.

The translation is based on Davud Ghaffarzadegan's Fal-e Khun, 2nd printing, Mo'asseseh-ye Entesharat-e Qadyani, 1376 [1997]. The transliteration of Persian names and terms is based on Persian pronunciation.

He was looking back, his legs trembling, thinking that death here would be awful: dizziness, dry mouth, and the cold sweat that runs down your spine.

How could the Lieutenant jump around on the rocks so happy and vibrant? Every few steps that he took, he would stop and jokingly shout, "Come on, come on . . . !" with a shrill, happy, childish voice and pink lips out of which puffed his breath in the cold.

The Lieutenant's voice made him nervous. He did not know why. Perhaps because he himself was afraid of heights and could see that the Lieutenant was not afraid at all. Perhaps after all this time he had become accustomed to seeing the skull under the skin on the heads of everyone and seeing that all this vitality, enthusiasm, and life would not last more than a few days, and that it would turn into cold, rotting flesh collecting all sorts of bugs and maggots.

All he could think about was death—it had become a habit for him—and if he were not so self-conscious in the presence of the Lieutenant, he would drop to the ground all the junk that they had loaded on him and stuff his fingers into his ears not to have to hear the overpowering echo of the laughter of death from the bottom of the valley.

The higher he went, the more difficult it was to negotiate the climb. He slipped on the snow, took a fleeting look behind him, and trembled to the core in fear. Now he was farther away from the Lieutenant, who was standing in the middle of the snow, his arms akimbo, looking around.

He took several quick steps and pulled himself up a slippery frozen rock. He should not look back. The Lieutenant bent over, picked up a fistful of snow, and threw it at him. The snowball hit him right on his shoulder strap. He laughed in response to the Lieutenant's playfulness. He did not know what his reaction should be. He had never been on close terms with a superior or engaged in the horseplay common among soldiers.

It was the first time that he had met the Lieutenant and had gone on an assignment with him. He might have seen him before many times, but nothing special had happened to make him remember his face.

These were his instructions: Accompany the Lieutenant up the mountain for observation duty.

Prepared, as usual, he had gotten himself together promptly, gone to the Lieutenant, and clicked his heels. The driver had floored the gas pedal. When they reached the side road, the Lieutenant lit a cigarette. In the closed, smoky atmosphere inside the jeep and from behind the muddy plastic window, the plain, dark and gray, was disappearing behind them. How far they had traveled, he could not remember. Before them and behind them mortar rounds had plowed the ground. The jeep bounced up and down in the ditches and sped forward. He held firmly to the cold bar under the canvas roof to keep from being tossed around. The area was new to him, and he had never been so close to a mountain.

He thought: If someone gets shot and falls down to the ground in this snow and ice, what will his face look like? Will the corpse swell up like in the marshlands or not? And the rats . . .

Perhaps he was thinking about these things now, but in the jeep he had thought about other things. He realized that he had no memory of the road and did not remember what the driver looked like. Did he have a round face, or was his face long, like the Lieutenant's? He only remembered a lock of hair on his forehead, and a neck that was so black and thick that it looked like a log. Or perhaps he had seen that curly lock of hair and the thick neck somewhere else, and now that he was standing on the slippery rock and shivering like a dog, he was making up these things. But whatever it was or whomever it belonged to wasn't important. The Lieutenant had delicate facial features and a thin neck, and he was wondering why a person so thin and scrawny should now be in the middle of the fighting . . . He remembered now; it was the driver's neck that was so thick and had a bluish tint. When the driver had turned around toward him with a cigarette between his lips, he had seen his yellow teeth and his roving, lustful eyes. He had abandoned them in the middle of the hills, and without a word had rapidly turned the steering wheel and left them, like the wind.

The Lieutenant, standing with his hands on his hips, had watched the jeep leave as he made a whistling sound. Then he had looked around and gazed at him with a childish smile.

The air down below was clean and mild, without the heaviness and harshness of the air up in the mountains. There was neither a chill, nor a wind sweeping the snow from the base of the rocks and blowing it on your face. Everywhere was calm, sparkling clean and silent. In the place where they were standing among the hills, nature was pristine, like the first days of Creation, or so he had thought: At the beginning of Creation, everywhere must have been quiet, silent, and clean. With a thick vapor moving in the air and . . . But he realized that that was not the case. All his imaginings were bits of ideas that he had borrowed from one person or another, and he had never himself had the time to be alone, in solitude. Some sort of permanent, gnawing anxiety existed in him; had he worked like a dog and struggled so much just to come up a mountain with this guy and have his knees get so weak that he could hardly move?

Down below, he had had the opportunity for a few minutes to look around and observe everything carefully. He had put the equipment down on the ground and waited to see what the Lieutenant had to say. The Lieutenant was looking at the plants and trees and the small stream passing nearby. He seemed to be preoccupied with the sound of it. Standing with his hands on his hips, he listened intently, his eyes wandering slowly here and there.

He stood motionless, watching the Lieutenant out of the corner of his eye, but the Lieutenant did not seem to be thinking about getting on the way very soon. He walked a few steps away from the Lieutenant and went and stood by the stream. He looked around and did not see anything interesting, except the awesome presence of the mountain. He thought: You have to be crazy to get excited at seeing a few blades of grass in this situation.

He jumped to the other side of the stream and went among the bushes. He came back and saw the Lieutenant still standing, his hands at his hips, in a daze. He shrugged his shoulders. When he started to walk, the dry leaves crunched under his feet. He squatted next to a bush. He was amazed to see the diversity of color in the leaves. It was as if he had come from another planet and this was the first time he had seen a leaf or seen that grass is green and rocks have color and mass. It seemed as though in these two or three years since he had put on the soldier's uniform he had not thought of anything but death. He said to himself: If death is like the falling of a leaf from a tree, then that is also some sort of experience. In a way, it is coming from the earth and going back to the earth. Then why be so afraid of it?

No, it was not the fear of death. It was the fear of the pathetic kind of dying. Becoming cannon fodder. He could not quite find the words for it. Dropping dead like an animal, perhaps. Yes, that was it. The humiliation of a death that is imposed on you.

He could not help it. These were the things that he thought about all the time. From the first day that they had brought him to the region . . . In the marshlands he was mostly afraid of the rats that devoured the corpses. And the nightmares: He saw that in the middle of a cane field, water was slowly moving his swollen corpse, and large gray rats with sharp teeth and small pink paws were sitting on his chest, wet and stinking, chewing his flesh. First they would chew his nose, his ear lobes, and his cheeks, and then his lips and the base of his throat, and from there, they would dig a hole to the inside, which was rotting.

Every time he passed through a cane field on a boat, he saw corpses in that condition. And from night until dawn, he was soaked in a cold sweat inside the sleeping bag that he would zip up past his neck. He would not dare bring his head out. Frequently, he had felt the rapid movements of the rats on the canvas cloth of the sleeping bag, and muffled his screams.

When he stood up next to the dry leaves, he said to himself: What would rats be doing here in this snow and cold?

He felt light, and joyfully ran in the leaves. He stood on the top of a large rock, and beneath the awesome presence of the mountains he thought about his dreams. Why were his nightmares so often about falling into bottomless chasms? Were his dreams not meant to warn him? Then why one moment—only for one moment—when he was getting out of the jeep had he felt that he had seen this place before? Whatever it was, it was familiar. That was what terrified him so much. These hills, this mountain peak covered with snow, and this Lieutenant with his foolish behavior seemed strangely familiar to him.

He thought the end could come anywhere. That fateful moment. And now that he had been freed from the nightmare of man-eating rats, perhaps something far more difficult and more ferocious was awaiting him.

When the sound of the jeep had faded away, he had felt as though he had been abandoned somewhere remote and isolated, like a leper. He hadn't known what to do. The presence of the Lieutenant was nothing to be counted on. Whether he was there or not was all the same. Here there was neither the sound of shots and rifles nor shouting and orders. Nothing of the miseries of war had spread to this pristine place—they were supposed to open a new front. There was silence, just silence. Only that narrow murmur flowing by the trees under a thin layer of melting ice, from which wisps of steam arose. And the song of an unfamiliar bird chirping in the distance.

Behind the hills, illusive and mysterious, was silence in the midst of a thin fog, and on this side—where he and the Lieutenant were standing—it was so clear that it seemed like an enchanting, incredible dream. Perhaps he had had this dream many times, standing among a few hills, the air shimmering like a mirror because it was so bright and clear. There was neither tormenting heat nor biting cold. A few clumps of white cloud floating on the horizon and a bird flying toward the sun, a song flowing from its small beak. And he, in harmony with nature, standing under a generous shower of light. Like a man with no past or future. Floating in the present. Immersed in the sunlight. When had he had this dream?

In the marshlands, he was inundated with death and destruction. The air was stifling, the maddening heat stagnant. Everything seemed futile and in vain. The boat split the water, slithering calmly through the cane field. The guys were sitting on both sides of the boat quietly, in a state of readiness. The waterway was narrow and full of twists and turns. At any moment, they could be caught in an ambush, their chests suddenly showered with bullets.

He was sitting at the bottom of the boat with his finger on the trigger, watchful of everything around him. An insatiable thirst tormented him. When they turned around the bend of the first waterway, they saw the swollen black bodies of their comrades, partially devoured by rats and fish. Thin, waving lines of veins floated on the water, and the undersides of the bodies that had been eaten away were nauseatingly white. A boat with a hole had capsized near the corpses, half sunk in the water and stuck in the mud.

They drove further, and cautiously approached the corpses. They had to retrieve them as soon as possible from the water and go back.

This was the first time that he had touched a soaking wet, slimy corpse. Up to that moment, he had been stifled by the heat, but suddenly a deep chill shook his bones, and an odor filled his nose that he had never smelled before, a smell that darkened the mind and filled the mouth with bitter bile. When they moved the first corpse, several large rats swam away into the bamboo. From then on he had the nightmare of the rats, rats that devoured human flesh, getting fatter every day. Fat, healthy rats, soaking wet gray rats with constantly moving narrow snouts . . .

The sound of the Lieutenant's whistling brought him back. How long had he been standing there? He picked up his weapon and jumped off the rock onto the snow. Why should he think about corpses halfway up this mountain? The Lieutenant was looking at him, smiling. He stomped on the snow and ran. The Lieutenant laughed louder and extended his arms toward him, as if encouraging a toddler to take a step or two.

He felt his ears burning with embarrassment. But he saw that the Lieutenant was not close enough to see his red face. He gestured to the Lieutenant to go on, and crept forward quietly. He bent over, shifting his weight forward. He was so afraid of falling. His fear was excessive and unnatural, because the Lieutenant, who seemed to have been brought up pampered, was pulling himself up the mountain easily and nimbly, and when he stopped to take a breath, he would again start to whistle.

The sound of an artillery gun far away resonated loudly, but was muffled by the mountain. They had only reached the halfway point. The closer they got to the peak, the deeper the snow, and there were fewer places to secure their hands and feet as they climbed. Leaning on the rifle, he pulled himself up slowly and cautiously. His body was hot, and the blood seemed as if it would gush out of his veins. He wished they would reach the bunker as soon as possible and rest. He felt that up there would be safe and inaccessible. His only misgiving involved the Lieutenant. He did not yet know what kind of man he was. Up to this point, he had found him to be simple and harmless. He could not believe that an officer could be so easygoing and mellow. He thought that the pleasantness of nature had overwhelmed the Lieutenant, and that when on duty, he would be no different from others of the same rank. But what was the difference? He had gotten used to getting along with any sort of person. And there was no other way. He only wanted to reach the bunker more quickly. He had read somewhere that they had found a Vietnamese or some other soldier in the jungles who was still hiding years after the war. He had stayed in the jungle and lived there. They had his picture in the newspapers. A thin man with narrow eyes, staring at the camera in amazement. Why should they drag such a human being out of his nest? Was it only fear? No, it was not just fear. There must have been other things, too . . .

There are other things, too. How can you say it? If only there was someone to write for him. He had no one. But that lock of hair on the forehead. Where had he seen it?

No, he did not want to die. That lock of hair surely belonged to someone with an enticing, desirable, and reproachful look. Where was she waiting for him? He should not let the rats disfigure his face. How would he know that they were not here as well? They were everywhere. Under the fire of artillery guns and mortars. The appetite for human flesh had driven fear from their hearts. They hung around everywhere, sniffing, with their narrow snouts and needle-sharp teeth. His body still felt tired from the road when he saw them. He had not had a chance to turn around to see where he was.

An order had arrived: Go to the front immediately!

He knew that they were not joking. He even knew this behind the lines. They were not joking with anyone. It was war. Death squads with light machine guns were hanging around everywhere—khaki-uniformed rats behind the bunkers—and the generals and the colonels with their fists full of commendations and medals and their pockets full of execution orders all said the same thing: Go and die!

Everyone's fate in dying was different. Everyone had their own kind of death. He had seen this many times. The soldier who always put his feet outside the bunker—he remembered how the shrapnel had hit him right in the chest. He did not even have a chance to say, "Ouch." Even if wounded and crippled, he wanted to stay alive. It rarely happened that shrapnel hit you right in your heart, when you were lying down. But the soldier had not known that death was waiting to ambush him. A death that was his alone. No one else's. Several others were also there, and they were not even lying down. And that little piece of hot lead was not their fate. It belonged to someone else. That delusional, unfortunate, negligent . . .

Like in his childhood when he thought that everyone had a star in the sky. And everyone's star only belonged to them. And when a star traveled in the sky and burned out—just like tracer bullets—someone's life would come to an end. He wanted to know what his fate was. When he looked at the corpses, he tried to guess how the fellow must have fallen. He imagined how he must have suffered the throes of death, and the trembling at the last moment, and the arms that get twisted. The lifelong dreams that suddenly come to an end. There's not a thing you can do about it. It is a visitor that knocks at everyone's door.

If he were lucky, the bullet would hit his heart or forehead. Or a flying or burning piece of shrapnel would lop his head off in an instant. And he would run no more than a few steps. Before the still open, surprised eyes of the fallen head. And the gushes of blood from the throat. Only a few steps. The splattering of blood in a strange land. And the head would be silenced. The eyelids would drop. The face, if it was not mutilated, would begin to turn yellow, and the horror of death would petrify it, and the earth would fill the silenced mouth from between the half-open lips, and the body would fall to the ground a short distance from the severed head. The trembling of the legs and the grinding of the heels in the ground, once or twice. The pulsating of the still warm flesh of the muscles, the vibrating of fingers, and then silence . . .

These were good deaths; they were lovely; he had assessed all aspects of them.

Lovely death. That's right! But perhaps not desirable. A long, blissful life. The leisure time of old age. Offspring, children. How good it would be to leave the world satisfied. Like they show in the movies. By the way, why had he not written his will yet? He kept postponing it. Maybe when he got up there he would have the time; but no, he was afraid. He had no intention of dying. Why should he write his will? For whom? Perhaps for that lock of hair on the forehead. Better for her to be waiting—if it was not all a dream and imagining.

Movies and stories are nice. Especially stories: Once upon a time, there was a kind old man who had no possessions in this world except for a daughter as beautiful as the sun. The ruler of that country regarded everything good as belonging to him. As fate would have it, one day . . . He wished that he could remember the whole story. He knew that it had a happy ending. Like the endings of all stories, lovely and appealing. The young get their wish and the old shut their eyes from the world with peace of mind. Why should one be raised with such trifles?

What if these things did not exist? For sure life would be an empty, horrifying abyss, and there would be nothing but affliction, nothing but disgrace and death. And herds of people constantly led to slaughter. Yes, stories are indeed nice. And this pristine nature spread before him now, does it resemble anything but a story? These mountains and this white, cold, bright snow lying on the ground, what else are they? If only war were not dragged to such places and they would allow this mountain, in its ancient mind, to continue to stand proudly and watchfully.

Only their footprints were evident in the snow. The track of his boots and the Lieutenant's, who was walking ahead of him. He thought that the Lieutenant's boot size was probably seven or eight. What delicate feet!

He started walking faster. His knees were less shaky now, and he could climb the ridge of the mountain more easily. As if the mountain had accepted him on its back. He was advancing on bits of rocks, and with every step he was getting closer to the Lieutenant. There was still no sign of the observation bunker. Surely they had concealed it well and the snow was helping to make it even less conspicuous. Better that way.

A thought crossed his mind: Since the mountain overlooks the area so well, why should the enemy forces not be here? Their scouts might also be here. They might be hiding behind a rock and waiting for an opportunity.

He stopped and took a look around. He squeezed his weapon in his fist. He did not see anything suspicious and did not hear a sound, except the quiet whispering of the wind shaking the dried bushes.

The Lieutenant had also stopped and was looking at him. His face had turned serious; he seemed to be worried. He went behind a rock and took a look around through his binoculars. He stood up and laughed, then turned his back to him and resumed climbing.

Why was he showing his fear so much? He felt disgusted with himself. He had never been able to conceal his fear from others. He was always like an open book. He was like that even when he was a child. His mother would quickly catch him doing something wrong and go after him with a broomstick. He would run around the courtyard and finally take refuge on the roof. His mother would not follow him up there. She would threaten him from where she was standing downstairs, and then she would go about her own business. Relieved, he would lie down on his back and gaze at the sky. He liked to see the birds fly. And he would make up stories for himself with the shapes of the clouds. It would already be nighttime when he would come back from his daydreaming, and then it was the turn of the stars appearing in the sky: That big one belongs to Mother. This one that is twinkling is Father's star. It was twinkling to say that Father had gone on a trip.

A journey of no return. He was eleven when he figured this out. His mother had deceived him all those years. A journey just like the trip that he was on now. But what mother would tell her child where his father had gone? He had not thought about this at all.

How did the others swallow their fear? Their true faces would only be revealed at the moment of death. The same people who up to a few minutes ago were chatting were now struggling. Terrified, they were looking for a shelter to save their lives. They would ask the rocks to give them shelter. Out of fear, they were digging the ground as if they were digging for a treasure. They were asking the soil for protection to no avail, and like prey caught in the claws of a predator, they were being torn to pieces in a strange land. Their heartrending cries split the dome of heaven, and there was no one to come to their rescue. The area would be calm again, they would bury the ones that had been killed, and those whose lives had been spared would again start chatting and joking, without a care.

He had heard that those who are most afraid of death are only those who have a strong imagination, because the horror of death seems so enormous to them.

Davud Ghaffarzadegan, a teacher and writer, lives in Iran and has published over twenty-five novels and short story collections.

M. R. Ghanoonparvar is Professor of Persian and Comparative Literature at University of Texas at Austin. He has published widely on Persian literature and culture. His recent books include In a Persian Mirror (1993), Translating the Garden (2001), Reading Chubak (2005), and Persian Cuisine (2006). He is also the translator of numerous novels, short story collections, and plays.