Sunday, May 28, 2017

I, Who Did Not Die by Zahed Haftling and Najah Aboud with Meredith May

This is the true story of two men: Zahed, a child soldier in the Iranian army and Najah, a conscript in the Iraqi army.  The men first meet when Najah is injured in attack by the Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war.  Zahed, a medic, is ordered to recover any Iranians injured or killed in the operation and to shoot any live Iraqis.  He comes across Najah and points his gun at him.  Unable to communicate in Farsi, Najah tries to plead for his life in Arabic.  The only word Zahed understands is "Muslim".  Najah is trying to convey that he is a fellow Muslim and to have mercy.  He then shows Zahed his Koran in which he has placed a photo of his fiancée and their son.  Zahed is moved by the picture and puts down his gun.  His mercy does not stop there - he risks his own life in an effort to save Najah's.  Eventually he has no choice but to turn Najah over to the authorities where he becomes a prisoner of war - for 17 years.  Toward the end of the war, Zahed is also captured by the Iraqis and becomes a prisoner for just over 2 years.  Both men are ultimately released as part of prisoner exchanges long after the war ends.  Struggling to survive in their own countries, they each take separate paths and end up refugee claimants in Vancouver.  Somewhat miraculously they meet in the waiting room of a mental health institute for victims of torture.  Zahed himself is a patient as in a state of despair he has tried to kill himself; Najah is there with his father who is struggling with adjusting to a new life.  Here Najah is able to finally repay Zahed by helping him find his footing in Canada.

The book alternates chapters from the perspective of each of the men.  It starts before the war and tells of the abusive family that Zahed tries to escape by joining the army and the relatively successful middle class life Najah lives running a falafel restaurant.  We then hear of their experiences as soldiers, their finding and losing love and their ill treatment as prisoners.  It really paints a picture of a pointless war with significant suffering on both sides.  And it shows how even in these horrific circumstances some level of humanity survives.

While it was sometimes hard to read the details of torture suffered by both men, this was ultimately a really fascinating read.  And has an ending that is stranger than fiction.

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