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March 18, 2020 6:11 am

Coronavirus Brings Back Memories of Living Through War

avatar by Marjan Greenblatt


An Iraqi medical staff member checks a passenger’s temperature, amid the new coronavirus outbreak, upon her arrival to Shalamcha Border Crossing between Iraq and Iran, February 20, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani.

The new realities of life in the times of coronavirus, social distancing, restless children at home, and empty shelves at grocery stores, are conjuring up memories of war for some of us who have lived through one.

I was an eight-year-old child when the Iran-Iraq War started. I don’t remember how it began, but I remember what it felt like. Food was rationed and supermarkets were empty. The government  issued vouchers for food and sanitary supplies according to the size of each family. Quantity was scarce and quality was poor.

Eventually, alternatives became available in the black market, naturally at exorbitant prices that most ordinary families couldn’t afford. My mother kept busy for extensive periods of time, cooking things and putting them in jars to make them last longer. Nothing was wasted. Every piece of perishing fruit would become jam. My father would pickle every unwanted piece of vegetable. He even learned to make wine, essential to our Jewish rituals, which like all other alcoholic beverages became illegal after the revolution but permitted to Jews and Christians. Preserving wasn’t just a new hobby for my parents — it was also a survival skill.

Beyond the empty grocery shelves and jars of pickles, our real state of mind probably was best represented by the travel bag that sat by the door. It was an ordinary looking leather bag, but it held our most precious things: a few cans of food, a handful of family pictures, passports, and some cash. And it sat there, every day, just in case we needed to run away on a moment’s notice.

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And running away was what we did. A lot. We just couldn’t go very far. The borders were shut because of the war — so to escape the uncertainty of our condition and the nightly horror of the bombings, we took frequent trips to “Shomal,” a resort area located on the Caspian Sea in an area north of Tehran.

Shomal, which consisted of multiple townships, was essentially a summer destination. At one time, it had been a place for lavish vacations and tan bodies in bikinis. After the revolution, it still maintained its magical beauty and the warm hospitality of the locals. However, the authorities had converted it into an Islamic zone with gender-segregated beaches and other draconian restrictions.

But during the fall and winters of war time, it was more like a zombie land.

Scattered groups of disoriented travelers wandered aimlessly around the beautiful resorts. They lamented the happier days of the past, and shared dreams of a future in foreign lands. No one knew if their homes would stand upon their return from their temporary respite.

While these sojourns were nourishing, kids like me who had skipped school felt guilty about it. We fell behind at school and lacked technology like cell phones, iPads, and e-mails, so we could only “guesstimate” what we had to study on our own. We often returned to class feeling guilty about the privilege of escaping the horrors that our peers had endured in the prior nights.

Between the revolution, the war, and ultimately our exile from Iran, we lost countless days of school. When we were younger and turmoil-related school closures were announced in the nightly news, I remember how the kids were exhilarated, while the adults seemed to feel morose. We didn’t understand their pain. How could they be sad when we were so happy to be free from classes and homework?

Now we find ourselves in the war with COVID-19, and suddenly I’m the adult in the room, chopping and freezing vegetables, coming up with a toilet paper ration plan for my children, and gripped by extreme sadness over the closure of our schools, even if it’s a decision that I support wholeheartedly. But unlike my parents 40 years ago, I don’t have a travel bag sitting by the door. As we face a global pandemic, there’s a new universal travel ban in place and there is nowhere to escape to.

In fact, I don’t have a travel bag because I now live in the kind of far-away, safe haven that I dreamed of during those dark nights of war with Iraq. The question is — how will we cope? The very nature of this epidemic means we can’t run away. There is no refuge but inside our most private spaces. So can we focus on our loved ones and rediscover our shared humanity? I hope we can find the answer before it’s too late.

Born and raised in Iran, Marjan Keypour Greenblatt is a human rights advocate and founder of the Alliance for of All Minorities (

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