A Year Since Soleimani
Coronavirus aside, Iran has been on pins and needles since the general’s assassination in January 2020
At this time last year, we were on a road trip to the south of Iran. We had just driven away from the ancient city of kings, Persepolis, stayed a few nights in Shiraz, city of poets, and were on our way to the port of Bandar Abbas. January 2nd was the last day I have fully enjoyed in Iran, as the next morning, everything drastically changed.
During breakfast, I wondered why my husband was so quiet and looking at his phone so often. Later, I asked him what happened, and we put on a show for our kid while we went to whisper in the bathroom. “The U.S. assassinated Soleimani.” I was shocked and soon terrified. War was undoubtedly on the way, I was sure of it.
The first time I heard about Soleimani was in summer 2019, when the U.S. sent a surveillance drone to Iran’s southern border, and Iran shot it out of the sky, angering the U.S. government and surprising many. I freaked out, naturally, but I was told, don’t worry, we’ve got Soleimani. I learned that this man was considered by many the gatekeeper of Iran, the one keeping war at bay for decades, and a genius strategist, particularly after his successes during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980’s and against ISIS/ISIL in Iraq more recently. (There are many who don’t like him, but that’s their story to write. I’m just writing what I have heard and experienced.)
With that knowledge, since then I haven’t relaxed for a moment. The remainder of our trip south was spent mostly glued to our phones, checking the news at all times of the day and night, waiting for a likely response from Iran, and hoping it wouldn’t escalate into a full-blown war. The following day, Trump tweeted about 52 Iranian targets he was considering bombing — many of which were ancient cultural sites that we had just visited. I wondered, were we some of the last to see those? Is the Iran I saw during this trip about to be erased? And what of the people we have met along the way? What of them?
We went so far as the island of Qeshm, which incidentally is not far from where the infamous drone was shot down previously. I started telling people I was from Canada, as pictures, posters, signs, billboards, banners, and more bearing the image of Soleimani were put up in both public and private spaces. To date, nobody has ever given me any grief for being an American here in Iran, but as tensions were high, and as numerous people publicly mourned, I felt it best to refrain from adding salt to their wounds.
The New York Times put out a request for people in Iran to submit their feelings about Soleimani and his killing. I submitted information based off what my Iranian friends and family had been saying, as well as everything I had seen in numerous cities in the south and Tehran. They got back to me to get permission to publish the information, but in the end, no stories were published. It was around that time that Instagram also started to shut down accounts posting about Soleimani and also censoring hashtags related to Soleimani as they “may not meet Instagram’s community guidelines”.
We returned to Tehran. My friend told me her mother was sick from constant weeping. Her family lost so much during the Iran-Iraq War. Losing Soleimani was to their family like losing their beloved hero. Reactions to the assassination and national mourning seemed similar to those of Americans when JFK was killed, and then some.
The national funeral proceedings were massive. Videos showed packed streets across the country filled with black-clad mourners. People of all backgrounds were out, even non-religious, non-conservative folks. Tragedy struck and mourners were killed by inadequate equipment and from trampling. Grief was added to grief.
A now-famous image (see above) of Soleimani being embraced by Imam Hossein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, and an incredibly important person for Shia Muslims and Iranian ones in particular, was published on the Supreme Leader Khamenei’s Instagram page. The image seemed to draw parallels between Soleimani’s and Imam Hossein’s stories — killed in cold blood, in Iraq, and brave advocates for the weak and powerless. This is no insignificant parallel, as every year, the holy month of Arba’een/Chehellom and specifically the days of Ashura and Tasua are days of mourning for Shia Muslims in Iran and beyond, where Hossein and his family are remembered and wept for. Juxtaposing their images suggests near-sainthood and likely eternal mourning.
Iran then retaliated with ballistic missiles on two U.S. military bases in Iraq, and Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was shot down from the sky, killing all on board. Grief upon grief upon grief.
Less than a month later, coronavirus arrived, devastating the country to this day. In the meantime, sanctions have continued to be levelled, threats have continued to be made, and nothing has changed, essentially.
A year later, we are back where we started all over again. Another prestigious Iranian, top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was recently assassinated on Iranian soil, threats of war continue on a daily basis, sanctions remain crippling, the exchange rate has skyrocketed dangerously, and the weight of more than 40 years of loss and struggle continues to add up, day after day, month after month, year after year.
After being here among Iranian people the majority of the last few years, I have finally seen enough and felt enough to have a tiny taste of what their lives are like on a daily basis. The trauma is constant, the worry never-ending. The entire world is suffering under coronavirus, but not everyone has to worry about a virus and bombs at the same time. The recent election showed that this worry is not about to let up for some time, either.
I still see Soleimani’s image in local shops. Usually said shops are rather small, owned by older men, men who were either in the war, or whose sons had been in the war. Family men with family businesses. The assassination deeply hurt their hearts, as to them, Soleimani was their family’s protector and advocate, someone who gave them hope. They will never forget.