On a street in my Cambridge neighborhood is an early model mini-van that belongs to some septuagenarian hippies. On it was a bumper sticker that has since peeled off that in essence read, “War is the worst of all possible options.” It had been on the car since the lead-up to the second Iraq invasion in 2003.
That same idea emerged in the Tehran taxi that is the revenue stream for Mahmoud, the quiet man with a seemingly constant five-o’clock shadow. He was the driver for producer Matthew Bell and me during our seven days there.
By the end of our week, I had not found much time to chat with Mahmoud. He’d add his thoughts on various matters after Mojgan our government-appointed minder/fixer/translator had expressed herself, and would translate to Mahmoud what we’d been discussing.
Mahmoud and I did manage to have a short cursory exchange — me in English, he in Farsi — about a Turkish singer he introduced me to on his CD player, Ahmad Kaya. Mahmoud was kind, bringing Matthew and me jars of shallot and mango pickle that we had both fallen in love with.
With Matthew’s height, though, we allowed him shotgun, so he had that front-seat connection, despite the linguistic deadlock in both directions. For the most part, I’d be in the back seat conversing with Mojgan in her good English. From time to time, I’d make eye contact with Mahmoud in the rear view mirror, and we’d smile at each other.
He was always at the ready whenever we emerged from a building after an interview. He and Mojgan had a well-rehearsed routine where she’d have already called him to let him know our appointment was over and we’d be on the street shortly, and there he was.
Several times we insisted he join the three of us for lunch, and it seemed he was touched to be included since quite often visiting journalists don’t treat the driver as part of the “working team.” I feel that, on the contrary, it’s precisely the need to have a Johnny-on-the-spot that makes a good driver a critical part of a foreign reporting assignment. We had one unscheduled visit at a reformist rally at a mosque. And afterwards, having stayed a bit longer than necessary talking to people, and the crowd around us and our interviewee in the street growing uncomfortably large, it was a relief to have Mahmoud’s eyes on us, ready to lead us to his car at the ready half a block away.
On our last day in Tehran, as we lurched slowly forward in thick Saturday afternoon traffic, an eleventh-hour effort at shopping for what would be a sizeable quantity of the fabled nuts and dried fruit on offer at Tavazo on Valiasr Street, Mahmoud started to talk. At first he spoke out loud to no one in particular. And then Mojgan began translating to me what he said, my eyes moving between hers and Mahmoud’s in the rear-view.
In the late 1980s, near the end of the bloody Iran-Iraq, Mahmoud was 17 and volunteered for the army. The war with Iraq had been an immediate national challenge faced by the ayatollah and the Islamic revolutionaries following the formation of their triumphant new republic in 1979. Finally military age, Mahmoud was motivated by patriotism, energized by the belief that the overthrow of the shah was right, and the revolution had to be defended.
“Iranian soldiers are the bravest in the world,” he declared. “They walked across landmines to clear the way for others. I saw a soldier who was about to do that, take off his boots and give them to another soldier. ‘I won’t need them after I blow myself up,’ he said. It was the most beautiful thing I ever saw.”
Mahmoud’s first deployment after he volunteered was to the front. He was in Halabja, Kurdistan, when Saddam Hussein bombed with nerve gas in 1988. Mahmoud could have died, and though he saw plenty of people who did, he somehow survived. Today, the experience still affects him. I noticed at lunches that his hands often had an almost violent tremor. That is a legacy of the gas. So are constant headaches.
“I saw horrendous scenes of humans suffering, animals dying, people frozen as their nervous systems collapsed. I saw a man whose daughter was frothing at the mouth and the father could do nothing for her. All he could do was watch, and she died. And then the same happened to him, and he died. It was the worst day of my life. Today I still have nightmares. It was so bad, I forgot my own problems.” He grins in the rear-view, not a happy smile, but a smile to show two large black voids. Mojgan says, “His missing teeth are a result of the gas.”
And more problems were to come as Mahmoud departed the hell of Halabja on foot with another injured soldier on his back. Saddam Hussein then unleashed mustard gas, he said, which found him and his charge, who died. Mahmoud again managed to protect himself from the gas. Today though, Mahmoud sometimes breaks out in a rash on his belly.
The light turned green and Mahmoud moved his Tehran-taxi-yellow Peugeot 405 forward through the intersection and into the back of the stalled line of traffic. Inside it had become silent. Mojgan, who’s known Mahmoud for many years, turned to me and said that when he was young, she remembered his headaches were so intense, she’d find him sometimes banging his head against the wall.
“We’re getting close,” she said to Mahmoud, anticipating the nut shop a block up on the right. Mahmoud’s thoughts were still on Halabja, and I heard his voice again. “He said,” explained Mojgan, “war is the worst of all options.” And suddenly the distance between Tehran and Cambridge felt very compressed.