Da (Mother) 2

The Memoirs of Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni

Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni
Translated from the Persian with an Introduction by Paul Sprachman


Da (Mother)

The Memoirs of Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni

Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni

Translated from the Persian with an Introduction by Paul Sprachman

Persian Version (2008)

Sooreh Mehr Publishing House

English Version (2014)

Mazda Publishers



II. Reading Da in Iran

The Da-occasioned divide between Tahmineh Milani and Zahra Hoseyni, however brief, typifies a larger and more lasting fissure in Iranian society today. At the time of this writing more than a quarter century has passed since the end of the War. Many members of the under thirty generation have no direct memory of it, nor are they eager to hear or read about it. Moreover, some young people view the public commemoration of the War and state-sponsored fiction and nonfiction works on it as regime propaganda. These they dismiss as a means of inculcating and reinvigorating such basic revolutionary values as allegiance to the supreme leader, self-sacrifice, modesty, belief in the miraculous nature of the holy Imams, etc. Research in Sacred Defense [i.e., Iran-Iraq War] Studies indicates a large number of young people doubt the official version of why it was fought. One narrative espoused by the post-War generation has it that Iraq attacked Iran in response to the latter country’s efforts to export its revolution and not—as officials maintain—because the War was “imposed” (tahmili) on Iran by the superpowers and their surrogates.[1] In this narrative, Iranian soldiers become the aggressors and the Iraqis the victims of their aggression, which goes against doctrine in Sacred Defense writing. But the positive reaction to the book and the popularity of the animated version suggest that not everyone has been as skeptical of the appeal of the Zahra Hoseyni–A’zam Hoseyni collaboration as some members of the post-War generation and that there is something about Da that—state-generated sales not withstanding—makes it a best seller.

Many Iranian writers have tried to explain why Da has proven to be such a hit. Dr. Ali Reza Kamari[2] argues that the multidisciplinary field of cultural studies is better suited to explain the book’s popularity than exclusively aesthetic or sociological approaches.[3] The broader view allows Kamari to identify two types of discourse (gofteman) in the book: manifest and latent. On the surface the book seems to uphold the official view of the war; namely, that it was an entirely male enterprise, a holy struggle fought by Persian boys and men in the defense of the Islamic Revolution and Shii values. At the same time, however, in Da are the less evident discourses of ethnicity (qowmiat) and gender (jensiat), which seem to complicate the official narrative. Kamari believes Da to be exceptional among War memoirs because details only a woman would notice come to the fore in the book, while the concerns of fighting men recede in the background. As an example he cites how Zahra Hoseyni often notices what the female victims of the Iraqi assault were wearing when they died. Kamari thinks Da, with its latent discourses, became popular because it came at a time of national reassessment, when Iranians were seeking alternatives to the official views of the Iran-Iraq War.

An analogous explanation of Da’s popularity came in an article published in spring 2013. It studies Da’s latent feminist discourse features by applying the methods of Critical Discourse Analysis developed by Norman Fairclough.[4] One of the findings of the authors, Mohammad Reza Javadi-Yaganeh and Seyyed Mohammad Ali Sohofi, is that by having a woman narrate what men ordinarily do, Da represents a new type of text in war literature. In their opinion, Da is among the few texts that challenge conventional thinking on the conflict in general and the clichés about women in war specifically. It is this iconoclastic approach that explains Da’s exceptional popularity. The authors see Zahra Hoseyni fundamentally as a seventeen-year-old “struggling to free herself from the clutches of women’s roles.” The most salient features of the book are the many ways Zahra Hoseyni acts as a man. For example, after her father’s death, she assumes the role of head of the family, and other women comment on her masculine demeanor; she usurps the ordinarily male job of gravedigger and buries her father and brother with her own hands for which—as said above—she becomes widely known; and she goes to the front and engages in the archetypal male endeavor—soldiering. She also speaks publicly about the treachery of former Iranian President Banisadr and is denounced by men for jeopardizing revolutionary solidarity with her unfeminine outspokenness.

As noted above, Da not only looks backward almost three decades to the start of the War, it also evokes the most consequential event in Shii history: the seventh century slaughter of innocents at Karbala. In popular accounts of the battle, one woman stands out more than any other figure both as a victim of the tragedy and a resister of the tyranny and aggression that caused it: Zeynab, the daughter of the first Imam Ali and sister to the martyred third Imam Hoseyn. As the interviewer of Kamari points out, reader response polling indicates that many identify Zahra Hoseyni with Zeynab. Certain biographical details abet the identification. Both women had to endure the killing of a father and their beloved brother at the hands of a hated enemy. In her grief Zahra Hoseyni occasionally seems to be patterned on Zeynab—or, at least, on the Zeynab portrayed in elegies (nowheh, marsiyeh) Shiis recite during Moharram, the month of mourning. An Urdu poem by Mir Babar Ali Anis (1802–74) has Zeynab ask, “Would that you could bury me too, beside my brother.”[5] Zahra Hoseyni similarly mourns her brother Ali and, at times, even envies him his martyrdom. The incident—mentioned above— of Zahra Hoseyni removing her chador and using it as a shroud will also strike a chord with those steeped in Shii devotional literature. It is reported that after her capture Zeynab was subjected to the indignity of having her veil removed. As she looks down at her brother’s headless body, the poet Anis has her say:

How will I lift up your corpse?

My head lacks any veil, which I might spread out for you.[6]

Zahra Hoseyni also has a blood tie with Zeynab. As a seyyedeh, she traces her ancestry back to the Prophet Mohammad, Zeynab’s grandfather. In Da we often see how members of the Hoseyni family, despite their relatively low status in Iranian society as Iraqi Kurdish refugees, are privileged among their neighbors and others because they are seyyeds. The tie that binds seyyeds over the ages, however, is more than one of blood. Seyyeds, as a whole, form a collective of uncommon pain and suffering. Late in Da Zahra Hoseyni recalls how her grandfather explains what it means to be descended from the Prophet Mohammad. He tells her seyyeds come into the world to suffer, which is what distinguishes them among all other believers. Suffering tests their faith and their “strength” (as the present work renders the Persian sabr) in the face of unbearable hardship and injustice. Such suffering also can be redemptive; the greater the torment seyyeds endure in this world, the greater their reward in the next. As the scholar of Shii beliefs Mahmoud Ayoub points out, the suffering of seyyeds on earth can turn into immeasurable bliss in the afterlife.[7] The extreme difference between the terrestrial existence of seyyeds and what they will see in heaven is illustrated in the saga of Fatemeh (also Fatimah, 605 or 615–633, the daughter of the Prophet, wife of the murdered first Imam Ali, and mother of the arch-martyr, Imam Hoseyn). Shii eschatology tells us:

Fatimah’s humiliation will be amply rewarded. The poverty and privation, which she endured in life, will be matched with unimaginable glory. All creatures, men, angels, and jinn, will be dazzled by her radiant light as she stands before God to pass judgment on her persecutors and grant intercession to those who love ahl al-bayt [the Prophet’s family]. The mistress of the House of Sorrows will be the mistress of the Day of Judgment.[8]

The function of the uncommon grief and suffering seyyeds must endure is very clear from this; they make the most abject creature on earth one of the most powerful beings in heaven.

Not all opinion on Da in Iran has been as positive about the book as the cultural studies and Da-as-dirge readings outlined above. An unattributed critical analysis of the book was published on the site Iranpardis in October 2010.[9] The review responds to the misreading of Da as a novel by employing the very criteria used for judging fiction. It finds the book wanting on several counts. The anonymous critic objects to Zahra Hoseyni’s frequent reminiscences because they interrupt the flow of the narrative. The review also considers other novelistic elements, including Da’s character development (of both well-known figures and those rescued from obscurity by the memoir), dialogue (paltry), diction (uneven), theme (well realized), and naturalistic depictions of war (strongest Sacred Defense feature). The review’s harshest criticism is reserved for the narrator. It points out that during the first third of the book Zahra Hoseyni is a marginal figure, a young child in Basra and a schoolgirl coming of age in Iran. With the outbreak of war, however, she suddenly achieves Zelig-like proportions, often appearing at the center of major events in the first three weeks of the Iraqi invasion. According to the reviewer, the largest section of the memoir is an occasional exercise in egotism that exaggerates the narrator’s actual contributions.

One example of Da’s self-centered narration comes in Chapter 10, in which Zahra Hoseyni recalls coming upon the corpses of two acquaintances in the hospital morgue. She sees Shahnaz Hajjishah, a girl from her school whom she got to know after the outbreak of the War, and Shahnaz Mohammadi. With the help of an older woman, Zahra tries to lift the corpse of Hajjishah onto a stretcher, but the woman drops the feet, leaving Zahra holding an arm separated from the body by the fall. Da devotes many heartfelt words to the traumatic effect this has on the narrator. She finds the thought of being responsible for the post-mortem dismemberment of a friend particularly horrifying. Before the publication of Da, its publisher had also produced works containing oral histories that mention the martyrdom of Shahnaz Hajjishah. One of these, In the Alleys of Khorramshahr, compiles a number of reminiscences of the War’s first weeks.[10] In the book (p. 138), Shahnaz Hajjishah’s sister Shahla recalls hearing the news of her death, but even though Shahla is speaking of the death and burial of an older sibling, she does so succinctly and does not place her own thoughts and emotions at the center of the narrative. The same can be said of Bahjat Salehpur’s memory of seeing the corpses of the “two Shahnazes,” who had been among her closest friends:

The scenes were horrifying. I had never even imagined much less actually seen such things. They had laid out the bodies of the martyrs on the ground so they faced Mecca. I couldn’t make out who they were, but felt I had to do something. We put three of the bodies and six or so of the wounded in the back of the truck on a load of apples meant for the troops and sent them on to the hospital. Although I would never have dared look at a corpse in the past, my best friends were now dying in my arms: Shahnaz Hajjishah, who passed away the moment the doctor asked her name, and Shahnaz Mohammadi, who lived on fifteen minutes longer.[11]

Another criticism of Da also takes the book to task for its excessive foregrounding of the narrator’s emotions and feelings. Gholamreza Azari Khakestari, a scholar of oral history, has studied a number of Iran-Iraq War memoirs published by Howzeh-ye Honari. He finds that although these works are important first steps along the path to understanding what happened during the War, they are too concerned with the narrators’ psychological states to be considered reliable primary sources. In his review of Da, Azari Khakestari uses the book to illustrate the failings of memoirs as oral history.[12] The narrative style of the book, he writes, is often so unlike a historical document, so similar to popular literature, in fact, that it overshadows the events of the War the work describes. This, in turn, causes the reader to doubt its truthfulness. In this view, what has captivated many consumers of Da, i.e. its thriller-like readability, disqualifies it from being history. Another failing of the book Azari Khakestari often mentions is that long periods of time pass between when events described in the book take place and the time of their telling. In the beginning of Da, we read a five- or six-year-old child’s memories of her life in Basra. Zahra Hoseyni was at an age when she could not fully comprehend the facts of her family life—the imprisonment of her father, her uncle’s position as the head of a school in Basra, emigration to Iran, etc. The written record of those facts is the product of an adult mind and therefore influenced by what she had heard at family gatherings after the events had taken place. The same criticism applies to what Zahra Hoseyni remembers of the first weeks of the war in Khorramshahr. According to Azari Khakestari, the passage of time may have to some degree degraded or distorted those memories. If, rather than being dictated by one person and turned into Persian prose by another almost two decades after the events it describes, Da had been based on a diary (ruz-nevesht), readers would be in a better position to judge its reliability as oral history.

Azari Khakestari’s critique also contrasts Da with the oral histories of other women active in the Iran-Iraq War. He specifically cites Maryam Amjadi’s The Boots of Maryam as a kind of anti-Da.[13] The comparison is apt; Maryam Amjadi and Zahra Hoseyni (as Da readily attests) share many things. Both were seventeen when the Iraqis invaded; both nursed the wounded; both took up arms and fought shoulder to shoulder with men; and both lost their fathers in the War. Azari Khakestari contrasts how the two narrators remember the same events and finds simplicity of expression in Amjadi’s book that makes it seem an account of exactly what she said. On the other hand, Zahra Hoseyni’s reminiscences with their “endless descriptive passages” (towsifat-e bi-hadd) seem novelistic to readers.


[1] The speculation was voiced at a seminar on the animated Da with Arts Center officials hosted by the Pazhuheshgah-e ‘Olum va Ma’aref-e Defa’-e Moqaddas (The Research Center for Sacred Defense Science and Learning) at http://dsrc.ir/Contents/ContentsFrame.aspx?ID=6808&PF=true.

[2] Ali Reza Kamari is a scholar of Sacred Defense literature. One of his works is a collection of writings of Fahimeh Baba’iyanpur (Tehran: Howzeh-ye Honari, 1990), a woman active in the resistance to the Iraqi invasion of Khorramshahr.

[3] Kamari’s views appear in an interview with Zahir Tavakkoli republished in Farhang Shenasi at http://www.farhangshenasi.ir/persian/node/771.

[4]Revayat-e zananeh az jang: tahlil-e enteqadi-ye ketab-e khaterat-e Da,” Mohammad Reza Javadi- Yaganeh, Seyyed Mohammad Ali Sohofi; Naqd-e Adabi 6: 21(Spring 2013): 85–110.

[5] David Pinault, “Zaynab bint ‘Ali and the Place of the Women of the Household of the First Imams in Shi’ite Devotional Literature,” in Women in the Medieval Islamic World: Power, Patronage, and Piety, ed. Gavin R.G. Hambly (NY: St. Martin’s, 1998, p. 84).

[6] Pinault, p. 86.

[7] Mahmoud Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering in Islam: A Study of the Devotional Aspects of ‘Ashura in Twelver Shiism (The Hague, Paris; NY: Mouton, 1978, p. 24).

[8] Ayoub, p. 213.

[9] See http://www.iranpardis.com/showthread.php?t=62373.

[10] Dar Kucheh`ha-ye Khorramshahr, ed. Maryam Shanaki (Tehran: Howzeh-ye Honari, 1991).

[11] Dar Kucheh`ha-ye Khorramshahr, p. 170.

[12]Negahi beh ketab-e Da” (“A Look at Da as Oral History”) at http://ohwm.ir/show.php?id=740.

[13] Maryam Amjadi and Fariba Taleshpur, Putin`ha-ye Maryam (Tehran: Sureh-ye Mehr, 2002).

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