Da (Mother) 7

The Memoirs of Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni

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

2022-08-02


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

***

Three: In Iran Before the War

We got to Iranian customs at evening prayer time. Uncle Hoseyni came to look after us. It took a little time to go through customs and immigration. Father was waiting outside the customs area. It had been months since we last saw him. At first we shied away from him, but soon we went toward him. He hugged and kissed each of us, as tears rolled down his cheeks. Then we went to Uncle Hoseyni’s house. On the way father exchanged the small Iraqi coins grandfather had given us for Iranian coins, saying, “These are not worth anything here.”

Uncle had arranged a gathering to welcome us to his home, which was completely different from the houses in Basra. Instead of a dirt yard, the courtyard was covered in tiles. Most of the guests spoke Persian, and, knowing only Arabic and Kurdish, we couldn’t understand what they were saying. Persian seemed very strange to my ears.

That night I remember having a water fight in the yard. Uncle’s wife came, saying something in Persian and stopping our game. The only word of hers I understood was khees (“wet”), which in Arabic is “to stink.” What kind of water was this—I asked myself—that makes your hands smell bad?

When it was time for dinner, uncle’s wife spread a cloth on the roof because it was hot, and there wasn’t enough room in the house. It was weird going up a tiled stairway to reach the roof, because in Basra we only had wooden ladders.

That night I realized that after he was expelled from Iraq, father had had to walk all the way to Khorramshahr. As a result his feet were cut and calloused. For several days uncle kept his feet in marsh water to let the salt disinfect them. It was a long time before he could walk properly. Later he told me the real reason for what happened to his feet: Iraqi security agents had beaten him.

The rooms uncle lived in were rented, and he was the sole support of his family, which included his mother-in-law them. For this reason, father immediately tried to find a separate place for us. Eventually he found a room on an alley called Shahabad (later renamed Taleqani).

Father also tried to find work for a time, although imprisonment and torture had left him in a bad way mentally and physically. Mother was very attentive to his needs and saw to it we did not annoy him by making a racket or getting into mischief. When he returned from work, he would immediately go and lie down, and I would massage his arms and legs, doing everything I could to ease the fatigue of the day. Father would bless me under his breath and call on God to repay the kindness.

Father’s spiritual crisis soon passed, but there was something else troubling him. Often he would go out in the morning to look for work but would return with nothing to show for it. Because of his political activities, he couldn’t be hired in government offices. The need to feed his children and pay the rent took a heavy toll on him. Some even suspected father of loafing. When this became clear to me, my heart went out to him. I wanted to tell people they had it all wrong, but there was nothing I could do but call on God for help. When he couldn’t find work that matched his capabilities, father had no choice but to rent a handcart and become a porter in the market. He also did a little plumbing, construction, and welding on the side.

After some months father gathered Ali and Mohsen and went to Elam to see relatives and get an identity card. As fate would have it, while he was there, the military base in Elam was blown up, killing the commander. SAVAK arrested father as a possible suspect in the bombing. We had no idea this had happened. Some time passed and still we had no word of them, which was worrying. On the one hand, when we got in touch with our relatives in Elam, they told us that father and the children had left. On the other, they hadn’t returned to Khorramshahr. Having no news was irksome; we didn’t know what to do. Without grandfather and Mimi to help us, life became very difficult. The time of the evening prayer was especially hard on us. When the call came, I would pull mother’s cloak over us, and we would sob, wondering what our relatives in Iraq were doing. Mother would sit in a corner and cry so much the neighbors came around to console us. Sometimes they would yell at her, “You’re the mother of these children. What do you think you are doing? Instead of calming these innocents, you just sit in the corner and weep along with them?” Then they tried to comfort us. But it was no good; wailing became our nightly routine. Uncle Hoseyni would drop by, behaving very much like a grandfather. We adored him, and whenever one of us took an oath in his name, there was no doubting the truth of what the person said. Uncle was well off. While in Iraq, he worked as a translator for the Consulate and assistant principal of the school for Iranian residents of Basra. In Khorramshahr he was employed at a vegetable oil firm. He never visited us without gifts, and sometimes helped—so to speak—mother with the household expenses.

At that time Khorramshahr exported a great deal of dates. The storehouse managers would bring freshly plucked dates to people’s homes for cleaning and collect them the next day; then they would wash the dates in the factories, where they stuffed them with walnuts, coated them with sesame seeds, or sweetened them with date syrup. They exported them to Arab countries and Europe. Mother would get crates of dates and put them on a tray so we could help her with them. To keep our minds on the work, she would recite poetry to us. We would open the dates and remove the stones; then we would toss them into the crate. We’d get one tuman (ten rials) for each thirty-kilo box; later this was raised to thirteen rials.

This was our job during the summer and winter months. In winter the dates became rigid, making them hard to cut with a knife. To make the job easier, mother would put the tray over a brazier; this would soften the dates and warm the room. This was how we earned a living while father was in prison in Elam. We had a neighbor by the name of Abdol Hoseyn Harbi, a very good man who looked after us. He was very respectful of Seyyeds. His wife would bring us fruit and other things from time to time, but mother wouldn’t accept them, saying with characteristic pride, “We don’t need anything.”

Mother was a very private person. Never one to empty her heart to others, she preferred to bear the weight of life on her own shoulders without complaining. Often when she dusted the framed pictures we had, I saw her crying. I always tried in one way or another to share these private moments with her, but I was powerless.

After three or four months, father returned with the boys. They were very pale and skinny. Ali was eight at the time, and Mohsen was seven. The filthy conditions in prison gave Mohsen a case of diarrhea, which because of the lack of medical attention worsened, becoming bleeding bowels. Despite father’s repeated pleas, the prison officials refused to bring in a doctor, saying, “There’s nothing wrong with him, and even if he dies, we’re better off—one less terrorist pup.” They tried to get father to confess to bombing the military base, but he would ask them, “If I had wanted to blow it up, would I have brought these kids along?” The interrogators wouldn’t listen, and it took quite a while before even they had to admit that he had nothing to do with the bombing.

After his release, father rented a two-room apartment with its own entrance on Shahabad. The room made of baked brick was where we entertained guests, and the room made of adobe we used as a kitchen and sitting room. The house lacked running water but had electricity. The main entrance to the house led to a small courtyard, from a kind of foyer that opened onto a larger yard, where our rooms were. In the small courtyard was a stairway to the roof, where we slept during the hot summer months. Father always warned us to be careful on the roof because there was no railing. The nearly three years we lived in that house gave us a chance to get used to life in Khorramshahr, and we hoped that grandfather and the rest of our family would join us there.

In the spring of 1969, when I was six years old, Uncle Nad Ali came to stay with us from Basra. The Iranians required that he immediately do his military service; but whenever he had leave, he came to stay with us to make it easier on Uncle Hoseyni’s wife. When he saw the sorry state of our finances, he chose to stay with uncle, not wanting to be a burden. Two years later, before the Baath regime expelled all Iranians living in Iraq, grandfather and other relatives came.[1] This was the luckiest day of my life, I felt, because now we were all together.

Grandfather rented a home near ours, and the rounds of visits began again. Every day after school Ali, Mohsen, and I would make a beeline for grandfather’s place. The old man would give us money, as he had in the old days. One time we came but didn’t find him there; nevertheless, we ate lunch. Mimi, who knew about the allowances, gave us our money and said, “You should go home; your mother’s waiting for you.” She sent Aunt Salima out to help us cross the road; then Salima went home.

We stood in a corner watching her leave, and then we continued on our way, making a detour at the greens market. We knew that grandfather went to the mosque for the noon prayer, after which he would go to the Chasbi Bridge[2] and sit and talk with his friends. We went there and saw grandfather, who hugged and kissed us and introduced us to his friends. He also gave us our usual allowances, but we didn’t tell him that we had already gotten money from Mimi. We went merrily back home. When Mimi later found out what had happened, there was a row.

In 1971 our landlord, who lived in Shadegan, told father to vacate the house. Father quickly got busy finding another house, and, while he and mother were doing this, they left the younger children at home in my care. They locked us in the compound to keep us from going into the alley by ourselves.

 

To be continued …

 

 


[1] At the time the president of Iraq was Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr, but in reality Saddam Hussein, his deputy, was in charge. Saddam declared that the Arvand River (or, as it known in Arabic, the Shatt al-Arab) belonged to Iraq, and he used this dispute with Iran as a pretext for expelling all Iranians living in the country.

[2] Now known as “Allah Circle.” The water channel is dry today, and there is no trace of the old bridge because of new roads. The water branched off from the Karun River east of the city.



 
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