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The Faces of the Doomed

All over Tehran - from billboards, vast hoardings and windowless facades - the eyes of the nation's war dead look onto the world of the living. At first I had thought these giant paintings, some of them thirty feet high, to be present-day military leaders.  But by degrees they became more articulate and I began to realise they were nothing of the sort. They were impossible to miss, though no-one had pointed them out to me; to the local inhabitants they had perhaps acquired, like the clamour of the streets they overlooked, the invisibility of the familiar.

The portraits depict faces from among the hundreds of thousands of Iranian soldiers who died in the decade-long war with Iraq. They are heroic, as they are intended to be: giant in scale, ubiquitous, and powerful, as statements with political dimension are apt to be. But no medals glint on their chests; there are no jaws clenched in martial fervour. Aggression is the last emotion to cross their brows and the youngest are, on the contrary, almost meek, their features suggesting an untempered idealism more fitting to a gallery of poets than of soldiers.

They are family members, whose ordinariness evokes their untimely departure from home. In the faces of the older men, there is an avuncular quality, and their gentle smiles suggest the inner resolve borne of great suffering. Such faces do not speak in the conventional language of heroism; the very concept of their portrayal reaches for a different place in the scale of the pathetic. The note is struck by their eyes, which look onto a distant world with a gaze that expresses the singular knowledge of men who have already glimpsed their fate: they are doomed, and know they are doomed.

Sometimes these portraits lie against a sun-coloured, eight-pointed star, bearing in an upper corner the insignia of a military unit. More often it is the imagery in the surrounding field which tells the victim's story. There is little technical merit to these background elements; but their coarseness, executed at times with almost child-like strokes, renders them more articulate. Above the faces of a four-man aircrew, the bulky silhouette of a bomber, its wings streaked by moonlight, tells of an ill-fated night-time mission. In another, behind a pair of youthful faces, stretches a field of blood-red tulips, and from the nearest, a shimmering drop hangs from a rim of petals: dew or a tear? Another man's reckoning is told, beneath the martyr's otherworldly gaze, by a pair of dog tags draped over a landmine. Elsewhere, an amphibious assault unfolds amid plumes of watery detonations, or a ragged line of men return at dusk from an operation along a muddy embankment lined with palm trees. Behind them, rid now of the enemy, lies a ruined village, from whose charred and fractured walls a plume of black smoke ascends into the sky.

Often the symbolism borders on the evangelical: a troop of infantrymen cross an open field on patrol, and through gaps in the clouds above them, the sun's rays stream over them in broadening shafts of golden benediction. Everywhere the message is driven home with calligraphic sayings of the Imam: 'The greatest sin is to forget the heroism of the martyrs'; 'the smiles of the martyrs shine like stars from Paradise'; 'The martyred are like the suras of the Holy Quran'.  This alliance of religion and slaughter strikes a sinister note, until one remembers that the walls of every other English church are draped with regimental flags, and chiselled with countless elegies to our own glorious dead. But stripped of their political connotation, the iconography of these visual memorials, against which our own seem mute, betrays a predisposition to both nuance and suggestion; an acute sensitivity to suffering, a susceptibility to tragedy. They allude, also, to a different geography of time. The dead are not merely dead: they have been resurrected into the present, where they subvert the usual continuum by carrying with them the knowledge of their impending extinction. Their gaze is purgatorial: it is a strange and haunting manipulation.