‘May tulips grow from your blood’: Of martyrdom and identity in Iran

Martyrdom, a religious motif deeply rooted in Shiite Islam, has played a central role in the process of cultural identity establishment ever since the foundation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. A majority of streets in every Iranian town are named after martyrs. During primary school, pupils are taught about the heroism of martyrdom. Their education includes visiting sites and collective mourning for martyrs’ sacrifices.

The sites of the First Gulf War, officially termed the “Holy Defense,” have been turned into memorial theme parks. It is part of the Iranian collective memory that once children crawled there in mine fields. Now, people visit these parks on sponsored trips to pay tribute to martyrdom.

Four decades after the foundation of the Islamic Republic, Iran is engaged alongside Shiite allies in conflicts around the Persian Gulf and the Levant. Fatalities produced by these conflicts form a new generation of martyrs. Symbolized by red tulips, new martyrs sustain a state narrative of hailing sacrifice to justify hardships for the population. One that claims the Shiite theme of an everlasting battle between “the just against the corrupt” and promises martyrs an eternal place in paradise. Thus, constant conflict, martial aesthetics and martyrdom build the core of a state identity narrative in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

A burnt-out Iraqi jeep, a relic of the Iran-Iraq War is covered by early spring vegetation. (Photo by Kaveh Rostamkhani)
Former prisoners of the Gulf War wearing yellow prison overalls during pray for their dead comrades at Tehran’s central cemetery (Behesht-e Zahra) (Photo by Kaveh Rostamkhani)
A sheep is sacrificed in honour of Alireza Akbari as his corpse is carried through the Fallah neighborhood of Tehran on Thursday April 18th, 2019 in celebration and mourning of his martyrdom. Alireza Akbari died in Syria four years earlier serving the Fatemioun brigade, a military unit connected to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards in which Afghan citizens serve. Many of its members are refugees residing in Iran. (Photo by Kaveh Rostamkhani)
Mourners try to reach the coffin carrying the corpse of Majid Ghorbankhani, who died three years earlier in Khan Tuman during the Syrian conflict, to earn blessings. (Photo by Kaveh Rostamkhani)
A speaker broadcasting anthems, laments and march music is decorated with a red tulip, symbol of martyrdom in Iran at the Shalamcheh Memorial. (Photo by Kaveh Rostamkhani)
6th graders of Refah girls’ elementary school in Tehran sing anthems from the Iran-Iraq War in choir on Saturday, February 2nd, 2019 as a part of an event commemorating the arrival of Ayatollah Khomeini to this school upon his return from French exile exactly 40 years earlier. (Photo by Kaveh Rostamkhani)
Stacks of T-shirts printed with portraits of prominent martyrs from different generations lay out for sale around ones depicting the Supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in a market at the Martyrs’ Memorial. Martyr related merchandise in “Che Guevara style” is an important industry addressing a pious clientele across the Shiite Middle East. (Photo by Kaveh Rostamkhani)
A volunteer of the memorial, called “servant of the martyrs” advertises for the children animation the programme as caravans called “Pilgrims of Light” visit former sites and memorials of the Iran-Iraq War (1980 – 1988) to pay tribute to Iranian martyrs of the conflict. (Photo by Kaveh Rostamkhani)
An unknown martyrs’ memorial is under construction. (Photo by Kaveh Rostamkhani)
Hojjat Choobin adjusted his scarf with a poster of Major General Ghassem Soleimani hanging on the wall. Mr Choobin is a “Servant of the Martyrs” and has been a victim of mines and other explosives as he has been searching for remains of the bodies of fighters who died during the war. (Photo by Kaveh Rostamkhani)
Decoration of pillars at the Shalamcheh memorial mosque depict sand bags which were used to protect trenches.
(Photo by Kaveh Rostamkhani)
Female relatives of Alireza Akbari of the Fatemioun brigade mourn prior to the release of his corpse in the Fallah neighborhood of Tehran Alireza Akbari died in Syria four years earlier serving the Fatemioun brigade which is a military unit connected to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards in which Afghan citizens serve. (Photo by Kaveh Rostamkhani)
Huge crowds take part in the public funeral procession of the of IRGC Major General Qassim Suleimani. Following the US-led assassination of the Al-Quds brigade commander through a drone strike in Iraq. (Photo by Kaveh Rostamkhani)
A woman sat in the graveyard of unkown martyrs, in Tehran’s central cemetery (Behesht-e Zahra). (Photo by Kaveh Rostamkhani)
A giant digital billboard in Haft-e Tir square in central Tehran ran a picture of assassinated Revolutionary Guards Major General Qassim Suleimani as the evening traffic unfolded. (Photo by Kaveh Rostamkhani)

Photographer’s Note

Documentary Photography is a powerful tool to scrutinize The human condition. After years of studying and working as a photojournalist in Europe, I have turned my main focus on my native geography. I think we – media professionals – need to tell more nuanced stories beyond the dramatised and sensationalist dichotomous clichés of the Middle East that have been present in Western Media. They might not be as easy to publish, but they are more important in order to further the understanding of the world.

In my photography I try not to judge my subjects but rather to dig deep, learn and understand what drives them and narrate that through visuals. I might have a strong personal opinion on certain issues, but as a professional I hold it back and let the audience make their own opinion through my narration.

In January this year, following the US-led drone assassination of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Major General Qasem Soleimani, the Middle East was at the brink of another war. How quickly posters depicting the new prominent martyr were distributed and installed throughout the whole country has been very telling about the significance of martyrdom for the state.

Working on the subject since early 2019, I had to travel far to the former battlefields of the Iran-Iraq War. Every spring, thousands of pilgrims go there on partly sponsored spiritual and commemorative trips. The reading is that the earth consecrated with the blood of those children, brethren, sisters, mothers and fathers who lost their lives in the war is holy.

Despite personally not sharing the same sorrow, it has been quite touching to witness women clad in black chadors kneeling and praying at the border of the country where they most likely lost a relative. Such tender moments give life to the idea of the memory of landscape – a visual concept that I decided to substantially integrate in this project. The essay “May Tulips Grow from Your Blood” addresses an omnipresent theme in today’s Iran. Deeply intertwined with the narrative of power and Shia Islam, understanding this cult helps the comprehension of the Iranian politics since the 1979 revolution.

Kaveh Rostamkhani (b. 1989) started his career in photojournalism with an internship at AFP in Berlin. He has studied communication design in Hannover, Germany and Documentary Photography in Newport, Wales. Kaveh has worked with AFP, Der Spiegel, Harper’s Magazine, IRIN News, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, NRC Handelsblad, Politiken, Stern, Süddeutsche Zeitung and Die Tageszeitung among others and has been a contract photographer with the Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat since 2013. You can see more of his work at www.kaveh-rk.net