Sometimes, the Middle East can seem a hopeless place, from the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian struggle to the civil war in Syria that has killed or displaced hundreds of thousands and led to the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. A number of the conflicts in the Middle East are religious in nature, and seem to reinforce the idea of a "clash of civilizations" between the West and Islam.

But this story offers a breathtaking bolt of light that cuts through post-9/11 gloom and violent stereotypes about Muslims.

It begins on a battlefield during the Iran-Iraq war and ends 20 years later in a waiting room in Vancouver.

There had been ongoing border disputes in the late 1970s between Shia Iran and Sunni-led Iraq, and the Iranian Revolution of 1979 made Iraq nervous that unrest would spread inside its borders.

So in September 1980, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein launched a land and air invasion, triggering a bloody war that would last eight years and claim nearly 1 million casualties.

The Iraqi: Najah Aboud

In 1982, Iraqi forces had taken the Iranian city of Khorramshahr, where they committed atrocities.

Iran plotted to recapture the city in an all-out, take-no-prisoners assault to annihilate the Iraqi invaders.

Najah Aboud

Najah Aboud

Najah Aboud was nearly one of them.

Aboud was a reluctant conscript from Basra with a tank unit. As he told CBC Radio's Ideas, he felt no animosity towards the enemy.

"I didn't know much about Iran. I knew it was a neighbouring country. And that they were people next door to us. We enjoyed their music. They enjoyed ours. They were just like us."

But shortly after the battle to retake Khorramshahr started, Aboud was severely wounded in his head, chest and back. He crawled off to a bunker, where he saw corpses from both sides and prepared himself to die.

The Iranian: Zahed Haftlang

Zahed Haftlang was a teenage runaway from an abusive home in Tehran. He joined the militia and was assigned as a medic. He, too, felt no animosity towards the enemy.

Zahed Haftlang

Zahed Haftlang

"All I knew about Iraq was what I studied in school. I only knew that Iraq was next door to Iran. I never thought that I'd be involved in a war with Iraq."

After the Iranians recaptured Khorramshahr in May 1982, Haftlang was ordered to go into the bunkers and treat wounded countrymen. It was then that he heard something in the dark: Someone moaning.

He shone his flashlight around until he spotted Najah Aboud.

Both men were suspicious of each other. Haftlang thought Aboud might be booby-trapped. Aboud thought Haftlang might kill him.

Then Aboud managed to reach into his breast pocket and pull out a photograph of his wife and son. It was at that very moment that Haftlang decided to save Aboud's life, even though it meant risking his own. (Their full story is told on the Ideas site.)

The rescue

While trying to get Aboud to a field hospital, Haftlang fought off two Iranian soldiers who wanted to kill Aboud. One of them actually smashed Aboud's teeth in with the butt of his rifle.

The doctor at the field hospital refused to treat Aboud, because members of his own family had been raped and killed by marauding Iraqis.

Haftlang was despondent. He prayed, wondering what more God could ask of him. Just as he was about to give up, the doctor changed his mind, and operated on Aboud.

Haftlang visited Aboud in the field hospital. But neither man could speak the other's language, so they hugged, wept and then had to say goodbye. Aboud was taken to a prisoner of war camp, where he'd remain in unspeakable conditions for the next 17 years.


Iraqi president Saddam Hussein launched a land and air invasion of Iran in September 1980, triggering a bloody war that would last eight years. (Saade/AP)

After his release, he returned to Basra. Unable to find his wife and son, Aboud eventually joined family in Vancouver.

Fate treated Haftlang's courageous kindness with cruelty. His fiancée was killed in an Iraqi bombardment. Then, just one hour before a truce was called, he was captured by Iraqi soldiers and became a prisoner of war himself for two years.

Haftlang eventually returned to Tehran a broken, angry, volatile man. His family thought he'd died, so they'd prepared a grave for him. He felt as though he was dead on the inside, and became a professional thug - if you were a landlord with unwanted tenants, Haftlang was the kind of man who, for a price, would get them to leave by pulling out some of their teeth.

Eventually, he became a merchant sailor; as he told Ideas, being on the angry seas matched his own unsettled spirits. He found the religious officer on board oppressive, and at one point, Haftlang smashed a portrait of Ayatollah Khomeni and then beat the religious officer up, nearly killing him.

Realizing that he'd face imprisonment and torture again returning to Tehran, Haftlang decided to jump ship -- which happened to be docked in north Vancouver.

The Reunion

After he reached shore, near Stanley Park, Haftlang had no money, no contacts, no way to communicate.

He simply watched the ship sail from port.

"I was feeling very sad. When the ship was getting farther and farther away, I just kept gazing at it and saying, 'Goodbye Iran, goodbye Mother, goodbye Motherland.' I said goodbye to everything."

Haftlang soon found himself ready to say goodbye to life itself. In July 2000, he was placed in a halfway house, and was subject to crying fits and despondency. He decided to hang himself.

He found an electrical cord and swung it over a ceiling beam. He tied his hands and feet together. And just as he kicked the table out from under him, some housemates came in and rescued him.

They convinced him to get help at a trauma survivor centre in downtown Vancouver. With some reluctance, Haftlang decided to go.

Zahed Haftlang and Najah Aboud

Iraqi Najah Aboud (left) and Iranian Zahed Haftlang were reunited by chance at a trauma survivor centre in downtown Vancouver, decades after their initial meeting on a Middle East battlefield.

While reading magazines in the waiting room, he noticed the door open as another man entered the room. The two men started talking tentatively to each other. Haftlang noticed that the other man spoke some Persian.

The questions started spiraling: "How'd you learn Persian?"

"I was a prisoner of war."

"So was I."



"I remember taking an Iraqi to a field hospital. His teeth were broken." Then Haftlang noticed that the other man's teeth were broken.

"It was at that moment that I started to feel that something was starting to happen," he says. "He'd mentioned that he'd been captured in Khorramshahr. In a bunker. And I asked him, 'Which bunker, where?' And then I said to him, 'Did you keep a photograph of your family in your pocket?' and he said, 'Yes, how did you know that?' And I said, 'I'm the guy! I'm the soldier who was with you, caring for you!'"

The two men erupted into hugs, kisses and tears. Their shouts of joy made the staff run out of their offices – they thought they were fighting.

Then when the staff learned the real story, they too, started crying and embracing the men.

Their spectacular reunion, 20 years after Khorramshahr and on the other side of the world, was the mirror image of what happened back in the bunker.

There, Aboud saved Haftlang's life. In the waiting room in Vancouver, the embrace with Aboud made Haftlang's suicidal impulses evaporate.

"Najah is like my family … he really is my angel, because he gave me life. After he got a new chance at life, he gave me a new chance at life. He is the dearest and most precious thing in the entire world to me."

Listen to the documentary Enemies and Angels and hear the full story of Zahed and Najah at CBC Radio's Ideas site.