By Meredith May ’91
If men were music, Zahed would be punk rock and Najah would be jazz.
Zahed is impulsive, feisty, a bit of a trickster. He has always followed his own opinion, even as a kid growing up in Iran. He speaks loud and fast in Farsi, his native language, and he drives like a maniac—as if he’s still driving an ambulance on the battlefield.
Najah is more laid-back. Entrepreneurial and dashingly handsome, he was the social focal point in the falafel restaurant he operated before being called to fight with the Iraqi army. I imagine it like the Cheers of Baghdad: everyone came to talk and be with him, he charmed the ladies. His skill as a raconteur served him well there, and helped him survive nearly two decades as a prisoner of war.
Their two storylines first intersect on a battlefield in the Middle East, where Zahed Haftlang, an Iranian child soldier, risked his life to save Najah Aboud, an enemy fighter during the Iran—Iraq War in the 1980s. Their lives connected again 20 years later when, both struggling with trauma and depression, they met by unfathomable chance at a Canadian help center for torture survivors. I joined the plot when I undertook to tell their astonishing story. I spent a month in Vancouver, where they both now live, interviewing each man. Speaking through an interpreter—Zahed speaks Farsi and Najah speaks Arabic—we would talk for hours each day. And I studied both men outside of the interviews to understand how they moved through the world. I met Najah’s siblings and heard their version of how they helped him escape to Canada. I hung out at Najah’s flea market stall to see his entrepreneurialism in action. Zahed showed me the park where he slept when he was homeless and where he stole food and bicycles. He took me to the room where he attempted suicide. We visited the lobby where he and Najah met again. Zahed says his depression vaporized at the moment of reunion. They now call one another “brother.” They have shared histories and blended families, and see or call each other weekly.
The resulting book, I, Who Did Not Die, is told from the points of view of both Zahed and Najah, in alternating chapters. It’s a moving story of war, captivity, mercy, and miracle.
But it’s also more than that. As an assistant adjunct professor of journalism at Mills, I tell my students that stories always have two layers. There’s the surface layer, literally what the story is about: I, Who Did Not Die is the true story about how one young man’s astonishing act of kindness ends up saving his own life two decades later.
But underneath the facts of every story is its emotional sub-layer, what the story is really about. The story of these men, forced to be enemies through the vagaries of politics and geography yet brought together and healed by their friendship, is about the power of humanity to conquer hate.
The Iran-Iraq War took place from 1980 to 1988 and was one of the most brutal conflicts of the 20th century, with more than 700,000 killed, 2 million wounded or mutilated, and 1,800 villages along the Iran-Iraq border destroyed. It was marked by large-scale trench combat and bayonet charges, extensive use of chemical weapons, fighter jets, and ballistic missiles. Of the dead, 80,000 were Iranian child soldiers like Zahed, who were used as human minesweepers and forced to march unarmed through minefields to detonate explosives and clear a path for the professional armies that followed behind. And in the end, there was no clear winner. No borders changed and no reparations were made. Along with the price paid in human lives, the financial cost of war plunged both countries into multimillion-dollar debt.
When he was just 13, Zahed was forced to walk the minefields twice. Snipers shot him several times. Bombs and gunfire whizzed by him for seven years. He was sadistically tortured for more than two years as a prisoner of war. Najah’s tank was bombed while he was driving it. He crawled from the wreckage to an underground bunker, and would have died there had not Zahed, by then trained as a field medic, secretly nursed him with bandages, an IV, and morphine. Najah recovered but was quickly captured, and spent the next 17 years as a prisoner of war.
Like many POW’s ensnared in this conflict, he was held captive long after the war ended, a political bargaining chip in the war of words between Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini. He survived that interminable imprisonment by telling stories. He had memorized all the Bruce Lee films, and people would gather in the prison yard to hear his reinterpretations. He’d take weeks to tell a movie, embellishing and changing scenes. Later, he made up new movies in his head and told those.
Najah is an exceptional raconteur, so he was good at telling his own tale. Zahed, too, is an amazing storyteller. Their narratives are so dramatic, so cinematic. It was absolutely gripping to listen to them.
My biggest fear in writing this was that it wouldn’t be believable, that it wouldn’t sound like it was coming out of Najah and Zahed’s mouths. As a journalist with the San Francisco Chronicle, I had written a series about a war-wounded Iraqi boy during the second Gulf War and so had some familiarity with the world they came from, but in daily life I’m a middle-aged white lady from San Francisco. Could I authentically present the experience of an Arabic or Persian man in the middle of a war in a Muslim country? I was very concerned that I would make a huge faux pas with a cultural reference, or mess up my geography or Middle Eastern history. I really wanted to do my homework, so I studied a dozen books on the war. I found psychological studies on Iraqi POWs and the operator’s manual for the Russian T-62 tank that Najah drove. I reviewed military reports and all the New York Times coverage about the Battle of Khorramshahr, where Najah and Zahed first met.
Zahed told of stealing money from his father and skipping school to watch a three-hour Indian movie called Sholay, so I watched that film to understand why it was so important to him. And I tracked down a scientific report, “Scorpionism in Masjed Soleyman,” Zahed’s hometown, to verify the childhood story he tells about trying to make a poisonous tea from scorpion tails. (I have to give a shout-out here to former Mills Reference Librarian Michael Beller for helping me find all this.)
I was weird to be around while writing this book. Telling their story was like method acting, on paper. I could hear their distinct voices in my mind as I worked. As Zahed, I was a little staticky and frenzied; high on caffeine. As Najah, I might play some Miles Davis and become a little more fluid. My wife could always tell which man I was writing about, just by my behavior.
The rewards of this work have been incredible. I will never forget sitting on the couch at Zahed’s house while his 11-year-old son Niayesh read from the book out loud. Zahed, who struggles to read English, watched his own child discover his father – in real time.
After the book was published in late March of this year, Najah called to tell me that I was his hero. I countered that he was the hero because he lived the story. We argued back and forth a bit, and then he said:
“If there is no book, and then I die, then nobody knows I am a hero.”
To hear such pride and happiness in the voice of a man who has suffered so much is a breathtaking gift.
That both men not only survived, but also endured and restarted as refugees in Canada is miraculous. The chances that they would reunite again are beyond infinitesimal. But they did, and now I just have to believe that there is some unseen force watching over us. Learning their story has given me an incredible sense of calm that something out there has my back. We humans have a lot of words for what we don’t understand – we call this God, or Allah, or the Universe, or Karma, or Luck, or Magic. But we are all saying the same thing: there’s an invisible network linking us together.
What other explanation can there be?
An excerpt from I, Who Did Not Die: A Sweeping Story of Loss, Redemption, and Fate by Zahed Haftlang and Najah Aboud, written with Pulitzer Prize–nominated writer Meredith May (©Regan Arts, March 2017). Here the Iraqi Najah is speaking.
I didn’t need an alarm clock to wake me up at four in the morning; the army trained me to sleep with one eye open, at the ready. At least I could thank the military for that. Oh, and the relentless jogging in formation and hiking into the mountains of Kurdistan had turned my body into something I could count on. Otherwise, eight tedious years patrolling the Iraqi border for opium smugglers was a duty that was finally, joyfully receding into my past.
I was a free man now, at 26. And my kingdom was Shula, one of the crummiest neighborhoods of Baghdad, where in 1979 cars were still brought to a standstill by muddy potholes in the rainy season and family wealth was determined by which households could afford shoes. But in the predawn before you could really see it, Shula was almost beautiful.
Guided by moonlight, I walked down the middle of the dirt road, my arms wrapped around a 50-pound bowl of uncooked falafel paste my sister Samera had prepared the night before. By now, I knew the way to her husband’s restaurant by sound and smell. I followed the incense wafting from the homes toward the low murmurings of the men bowing inside the mosque for the predawn prayer, then took a left at the scent of fish-shaped samoon loaves baking, then a right at the sound of the trickling wastewater in the open trenches lining the street. The shushing of the date palm fronds in the breeze told me I was near the bus stop, which meant only a few more steps to reach my castle.
The metal retracting door clacked as I pushed it up, and with a flick of a switch the outdoor floodlight lit up the deserted street like a theater stage. That sudden explosion of light was the best part of my daily routine, like an invisible emcee promoting a show to an audience that had yet to arrive: “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Najah Aboud and his Bruce Lee Restaurant!” There was no name on the awning, but customers had started calling it that after I redecorated the walls with Bruce Lee movie posters.
Men and schoolboys alike were taken with the martial arts hero, and the posters of him twirling nunchucks and flexing his abs were good for business. Long after they finished their falafel sandwiches, people stayed late into the night drinking rivers of tea and rehashing the plots of Fist of Fury or Enter the Dragon. Having seen all of Bruce Lee’s movies, I was only too happy to join in.
That wasn’t the only change I made since my brother-in-law handed me the keys and offered me half the profits if I would save this albatross on a dead-end street. All this place needed was a few fresh ideas—and breakfast.
I set the falafel down in the kitchen and turned on the propane burners to heat water for tea. I slid a tape in the cassette player and the speakers crackled with the lulling sound of a man’s voice reciting the Koran. This cheap tape was my fishing lure, drawing the hungry faithful out of the mosques after their early morning prayer. It also worked on people waiting at the bus stop, soldiers on their way to duty, and the insomniacs. It didn’t take long before even the classier people from the side of town with paved streets began crossing the park to pick up a few sandwiches before they caught their shuttle bus to jobs at the airport and government offices downtown.
“Hey, Basrawi, need some help?”
I looked over my shoulder and saw one of my regulars—a neighborhood boy who sometimes helped me prepare breakfast in exchange for a meal. Nobody knew my real name; I was just “the guy from Basra.”
“You’d be a great help, son, if you pulled the tables outside,” I said. “The village woman should be here any minute.”
The baker came in next, asking me how many loaves of samoon I’d need that day. I’d doubled the bread order since I took over a couple months before, but I was starting to run out again before closing time.
“Give me a thousand.” He cocked an eyebrow and put his hands on his hips. “I can give you all I’ve got now, but I’ll have to bake more.”
“How about if I pay you in advance, for your trouble?” I offered.
Like clockwork, the old woman appeared at 4:15, carrying a huge bowl of clotted water buffalo cream. My young helper stacked a pyramid of flaky kahi pastry next to her geymar cream and then fetched a jar of honey and the teapot. My breakfast menu followed one simple rule: give the people what they want. And everybody loves geymar and kahi, the comfort food they grew up eating. The boy barely had time to get the teacups on the table before hands began grabbing breakfast.
I hustled back to the kitchen to brew more tea and, while it was heating, I brought a falafel sandwich to the village woman to thank her for the geymar. She always tried to refuse, but I never let her. She had a beautiful daughter, after all.
After the breakfast rush, I turned on the radio news, just in time for the retirees who were waking up and wanting to find out the latest reports about the Iranian Revolution. There were a lot of hot words flying between Iraq and Iran these days, now that Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini were each in charge of their own country. Like all the rulers who came before them, they were arguing about their shared border or, more precisely, over control of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, where the Tigris and the Euphrates came together and flowed as one down to the Persian Gulf. Whoever controlled that joint flow controlled the ships that carried Middle East oil to the rest of the world. And oil was power, and power was money. Now the two lifetime enemies were stirring up ancient ethnic and religious rivalries to try to intimidate the other into giving up claims to that precious waterway.
The war of words consumed my customers, but I tried my best to ignore it. I’d done my time in the military and was trying to enjoy life as an apolitical civilian. When the talk got too political, I took refuge in the kitchen. The Baathists had spies everywhere, and you never knew who was listening. Saddam made this perfectly clear just days after he became president. He called a televised meeting of several hundred of the most senior government people in Iraq, then announced he’d uncovered a plot against his regime. He ordered an informant to take the podium, and the man read aloud the names of the conspirators who were sitting in the audience. One by one, the accused were led, shaking and sweating, out of the room by the secret police, while Saddam chuckled. I don’t know if those men are alive or dead, and I don’t want to know. But everyone saw the video, and the implication of it was loud enough to silence a culture that used to revel in political debate. Fear was the cement that held people together now. I’d even heard stories of children turning in their own parents for treason.
I was pulling a sack of chickpea flour out of the storage closet when my older sister Samera arrived for her shift.
“Your produce girl is here,” she said.
I dropped the sack right where I stood and brushed the dust from my shirt.
“Do I look OK?” I whispered.
She rolled her eyes and went back to chopping cucumbers. I grabbed a falafel sandwich from the counter and smoothed my hair. This time the produce girl had a box of eggplants, and I could tell she chose them carefully. Not one was bruised or wrinkled.
“These were the rejects; my father was just going to throw them away,” she said, pushing the box toward me. “Take them.”