Da (Mother) 24

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




“What that’s supposed to mean?” she asked.

I didn’t answer. I opened my watchband, but then, thinking I would need my watch, put it on again. I said to her, “Mom, I’m going to spend the night at Jannatabad. Don’t worry about me.”

“Why? Your father’ll be worried?”

I said, “Why should he be? I won’t be alone; everybody’s there. Besides, father saw what’s going on there with his own eyes.”

“You know best,” she said. “But you’ll have to answer to him.”

“Okay,” I said and left the house. We got into Parvizpur’s van and headed for the city social services office. When we pulled up in front of it, Parvizpur said, “You come also.” I entered the building with him. He told one of the men to fill our order for bolts of shroud fabric. Then he said, “Wait here until I get back.” After ten or fifteen minutes the same man returned carrying the fabric we needed. He put it in a gunnysack and handed it to me. A moment later Parvizpur came back. He lifted the sack and put it in the back of the van, which was already loaded with several big rolls of cotton, a couple of large registries, and a sack labeled “camphor.” I realized that during the time he was away, he had gathered all those supplies. We got in the van and went to Jannatabad.

By 4:00 p.m., everybody was so zonked we didn’t have the strength to stand; the workload was so heavy there wasn’t time for lunch. I felt weak working on an empty stomach, and my hands shook; but it was absolutely impossible for me to think of food at that point. I would get dizzy and everything would go black when I bent down to pick up a corpse. In any case I had no appetite, and even if I had there wasn’t any proper food. The body washers scrounged up some biscuits from the rusty armoire and offer them to me, but I refused to eat.

When they insisted, I would pick one up and bring it to my lips, but before I could get it in my mouth, the stench of blood and camphor assaulting my nose made me gag. Then scenes of bodies not only crushed by the force of the explosions but also twisted and mangled, and the sight of people with their eyes gouged out and their throats torn open would appear before my eyes. This was enough to make me fed up with life, robbing me of any desire for food. A few times during the day the old men body washers would come by asking for tea. Maryam would take off her black gloves, the ones that turned my stomach, to fill the kettle and put it on the stove. She poured the boiling water into a teapot, added some tea, and gave it to the men, who were sitting outside the building having a smoke. She also poured some tea for herself into an old jam jar. Although I was dying for a cup, I didn’t have the strength to get some. But Maryam insisted I have some tea as a pep-me-up. I tried to refuse, saying that I couldn’t drink on an empty stomach. Two days of war had passed and, instead of decreasing, the number of bodies and the frequency of the explosions had increased. This was especially true at Jannatabad, which was near a military base, where there had been heavy shelling. Sitting there with the others, I thought: We cannot go on like this. We’re dead on our feet. We have to have replacements, otherwise how are these old men and women going to cope with the growing volume of bodies?

On another front I was curious to know how things were going at the Congregational Mosque. I had heard reports that the mosque was the distribution point for the weapons given to recruits sent to front. But more important than that was to get some idea of how long the war was going to last. Echoing in my mind was what Zeynab had told me about the dogs, their nightly attacks, and her not being able to sleep a wink, having to throw stones at the beasts. I turned to the others and said that I was going to the mosque.

“What for?” asked Zeynab.

“We’ve got to tell them what’s going on here so they can figure something out for us. There’s no telling when this thing is going to be over, and we still have no word about replacements. You see what it’s like here, don’t you? Look at yourself. You’re all worn out. We’ve got to tell them to send in fresh people before one of us dies from exhaustion and we have to bury her.”

She said, “Who’s going to help with all of this going on? Who’s going to listen to you? Nobody’s in charge there; who’re you going to tell? This is something a man should do, go there and demand new people.”

“So how long do we have to wait for the men to act?” I said, “What’s wrong with us? We have tongues, don’t we? We’ll go and say what we have to. Eventually we’ll find someone who’ll look into what’s happening here. The longer it goes on like this, the worse it’ll be.”

Zeynab didn’t say anything. I left the building and, as I was leaving the cemetery, I saw several of father’s coworkers. They had knocked off for the day and were about to go. I walked over to them and asked about father. They didn’t know anything.

As I was about to leave, one of them said, “I saw the Seyyed this morning. He was with several soldiers from the 106th heading toward the police station. I asked him, ‘Seyyed, is everything okay? Where are you off to?’ He told me he was going to the front. ‘What about your work?’ I asked. He said that his work today was to fight the enemy. ‘Haven’t you heard,’ I asked, ‘the city declared that anyone who isn’t at work will be expelled?’ But the Seyyed said, ‘The hell with work! With the enemy here, driving us from our homes, the city is going to expel me? My duty is to fight.’”

I was glad to hear father finally had gotten involved in the defense. It bothered me that no one from our family to that point had become a defender. I was sure that had Ali been here, he would have been at the front by now. I secretly wished they would allow me to go.

As I left the cemetery, I noticed a large number of soldiers stretched out, lying by the wall. They seemed thin and worn out. A Chieftain tank was parked a few meters away. Given the circumstances, it made me mad to see these soldiers, some of whom were smoking, just lounging on the ground with nothing to do. I walked over to them and said belligerently, “You should be ashamed of yourselves lolling about here while the enemy is in the city slaughtering people! Don’t you see that they want to take the city?”

One of them said, “Fine, but what can we do? There’s nobody in command.”

Even more put out I barked, “What do mean: What can we do? You’re already dead; we should bury you alive! Get up and do something! There may be no one in command, but you still have your pride. At least get on your feet and help us bury the dead.”

“Okay, but what do you expect us to do without orders?”

“Why do you have to wait for someone to give you orders?” I said. “Let your conscience do that!”

What I said had some impact; a few of the soldiers rose to their feet and went to the cemetery. Others grumbled, “What are we supposed to do when nobody’s in charge?”

As I made my way to the mosque I saw other soldiers in the streets milling about. The city looked totally different; it was now a war zone. Smoke from the fire at the oil refinery in Abadan blackened the sky. Almost every house showed signs of being hit by shrapnel. Some of the houses were reduced to rubble, and most of the shops were closed. The few people I saw looked anxious and upset; some had tears in their eyes. The bloom was off the greenery and flowers on the avenues and the decorative palms lining them. Everything was shrouded in dust and grime. Cooped up in the body washers’ these past few days, I had only heard about how the city had changed. How quickly, I thought, did war revealed its ugly and brooding face. People were losing their homes to the war. I consoled myself with the thought that it wouldn’t last. As soon as reinforcements arrived, the enemy would be expelled and people would join hands to make the city better than before. I badly wanted to see every part for myself.

From the Ordibehesht Circle I went to the Gate Circle so that I would end up at the entrance to the mosque from Fakhri Razi Avenue. Gate Circle was the center of the city, so to speak, and I was anxious to see what had happened there. It was my favorite part of town, with sidewalks that were lined with Good-for-Nothing Palms with their layered branches and tapered leaves.[1] In the middle of the circle was a relatively large pool ringed by hedges, rose bushes, verbena, and grass. The trees and greenery made the place very beautiful and, when it was very warm, the spray from the fountain in the pool was refreshing. The traffic circle was where several roads and lanes leading to the markets converged. It was, in short, the hub of the city. But now there was no sign of the pre-war hustle and bustle. The stores were all closed and the fountain was dry. The trees and flowers were covered in soot. I looked in the direction of Hafez Avenue and saw the cinema and market complex had taken a direct hit. Singed limbs from the decapitated palms and clumps of earth lay in the middle of the road. The closer I got to the mosque, the more pedestrians and vehicles I saw. All types of people were outside the building: from military personnel to militia and paramilitary youth in trucks. I didn’t know whom I should see in the mosque. I noticed the Fakhri Razi-side door was open, and there were a number of people inside standing around a desk and talking in loud voices. There was a young man with frizzy hair and dark skin sitting behind it, talking on a telephone. Every once in a while he told the people around him to quiet down.

The conversations around the desk continued. Some men were demanding weapons so they could go to the front. Some had weapons on their shoulders and were asking for transport. Several wanted a vehicle so they could ferry wounded back from the front; they said that boys with simple wounds were bleeding to death for lack of treatment. One man demanded officials see to devastated parts of the city quickly to prevent water from being cut off.

I walked past these people and entered the central courtyard, looking for someone who would listen to our problems. To my left were some people making Molotov cocktails. Arrayed around them were many types of soap: Yas, Johnson, even the green Borujerdi stuff that must have come from people’s homes. Scattered about there were also containers of various sizes and manufacture. Two people were filing down the hard soap and several others were filling the containers with gasoline using a funnel. Near the prayer room were sacks and cartons filled with goods, and next to them stood a tall girl with olive skin. I liked the way she looked, standing there calmly and quietly. She was wearing a blue-purple headscarf held tightly around her face and a navy coat. There were many other women and some children scattered about the courtyard and in the prayer room. Some were squatting in the corners. All the women looked anxious and afraid, as they waited for something bad to happen. A sense of horror was palpable among the adults, but the children were playing as if they didn’t have a care in the world. There was a cleric without the traditional robe listening to some old men who apparently had come from the market. As he listened to what they were saying, he appeared to be deep in thought. Mash Mammad, the keeper of the mosque, was forever going up and down the steps to his room, bringing things that they wanted and carrying out chores for them. His face was lined with fatigue from running around so much.

I returned to the desk next to the entrance to the mosque and stood among the people making demands. The young man behind the desk tried to respond politely. After the crowd had thinned out, I approached him and said, “Excuse me. Who am I supposed to talk with here?”

“Talk about what?” he asked.

“About the dead,” I said.

“I don’t know. Go in the mosque and ask. Eventually you’ll find somebody who’ll tell you.”

“What’s going on here?” I said irritably. “Who should I talk to?

Give me a name. Or am I just supposed to stand in the middle of the courtyard and shout until someone comes?”

My outburst made him laugh and he asked, “Okay, what’s your problem?”

“The dead are lying on the ground in Jannatabad,” I said. “We’re all alone there. There’s no water and we’re short of shrouds. Wild dogs are attacking the corpses.”

He said, “Now calm down and get control of yourself. I’ll call the boys to arrange for them to send people to Jannatabad. Okay?”


To be continued …


[1] Good-for-Nothing was the local name for a kind of umbrella palm that produced inedible fruit.


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