Da (Mother) 47

The Memoirs of Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni

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

2023-5-27


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

 

***

 

I opened the spigot in the yard, but nothing came from the hose but a rumbling of air. Whenever father came home he would hose down the yard, wanting it to be clean when we ate outside. As I looked around, I noticed that Leila had walked over to the welding equipment father used to do projects for people. I joined her and bent down to kiss the places on the tools where father put his hands. I imagined they were still warm from his touch. I remembered the look on his face as he worked with the tools, then I saw the plastic tub we kept the New Year’s fish in. It was in an alcove. I said to Leila, “The fish!”

We both ran to the tub. The surface was covered in a thick layer of oily soot from the fire at the Abadan refinery, which was still raging. Floating in the dusty gunk were the lifeless bodies of the goldfish we had bought for the New Years. I plucked at the fish and glanced at Leila, who stood there crying silently. I knew what she thinking: The 1980 New Year celebration with the table spread and the seven things with names beginning with the letter “s”—it was only six months ago.

That was the second time we celebrated the New Year in the house. Father was not that happy about it, but after he had agreed to celebrate, we went crazy buying the table decorations and setting it up. On New Year’s Day we spread the cloth on the floor in the living room and one-by-one decorated it with the things we bought. Mother had made gingerbread; she prepared the dough with sesame and cinnamon and brought it to the baker on the alley to bake for her—it was in a covered tin on the table. Then she made henna paste to decorate our feet and hands. Father appeared to be reading the Quran, but he was hiding the bills he was going to give us as New Year’s presents between the pages.  To prevent the boys from snatching things from the cloth, Leila and I put the fruit and dried seeds in ceramic and crystal bowls. We told Zeynab, Sa’id, Hasan, and Mansur to come to the table and had each take a hardboiled egg to paint. While the children were busy with this, I cleaned the framed mirror that was a souvenir from our home in Basra and placed it along with the silver candlesticks father had bought at the head of the tablecloth. I placed the mirror in front of the fish bowl so that it would reflect the fish that were constantly swimming back and forth in it. I also brought the rosewater dispenser and the sandalwood incense. Minutes before New Year, I lit the candles and the sandalwood. We all sat around the cloth. Although I was terrified the children would get their new clothes dirty, they did what they had to do without fuss. This was the second New Year that they had bought them new sets of clothing. When I was younger, I saw the other children my age in the alley with their new clothes, but my parents didn’t buy any for me and I cried. “Why didn’t you buy me clothes?” I asked mother. “How could I?” she said. “Your father doesn’t have the money.” Then she patted me on the head and asked me not to upset father by mentioning it. “Whenever he has the money,” she assured me, “I’ll buy some for you.”

I just waited until they had some money. When I grew up, I promised myself, I would do whatever it took to buy clothes for my kids.

In my make-believe games, the fathers and mothers had plenty of money and took their kid to the park. The girls in crepe blouses and pleated dresses would play on the swings, and life was good for everybody.

These dreams kept Nuriya and Keyfiya, local seamstresses who were distant relatives of ours, busy sewing clothes for my dolls.

I got up from the tank and unlocked the door. I went straight to the pictures on the wall of the living room. When I saw father’s picture the tears started; I was trying to hide what I was feeling from Leila, but I couldn’t help myself. It was a picture that was taken by one of the families around New Year’s time and father had it enlarged. I stepped forward and kissed it. I looked carefully at his face with those sleepless eyes and his usual composure. He was wearing the long-sleeved shirt with the three buttons and his green pantaloons, and he had Zeynab, not more than four years old at the time, in his arms. Mother’s brothers and few other male relatives were in the picture, but their expressions were nothing like father’s. I went in the small room where father kept his work tools and certificates. I collected the Quran tapes and the speeches of the late Kafi and looked at them. Some were missing. I remembered that one of the soldiers had given them to mother the day of father’s funeral.

He spent a lot of time in this room listening to the tapes of Ayatollahs Motahhari and Beheshti or weeping as Kafi recited the passion of Imam Hoseyn. He was so moved his face was still red when he left the room. I’ll never forget it when he said, “Khomeini is the heir of Imam Hoseyn. We’re always saying we wish we could have been there to help the Imam in his hour of need. Now it’s our turn to help Khomeini and show we weren’t just talking.”

I kissed the tapes and took them in my arms and said, “Father, the message of these tapes was not lost on you. You were true to your word.”

Then I saw his weights and dumbbells. I had come home hoping to find some peace, but I felt worse. I missed him more than ever. I would give up everything I had for just one glimpse of him, one embrace. Unfortunately, it was not to be, and my heart and soul were in agony. I wanted to tear it from my chest. Nothing could bring me peace of mind?

Managing to snap out of this mood, I noticed we had been there an hour, and it was time to get back. I left the room and called out to Leila, but she didn’t answer. I opened the door to our room and found her sitting on the edge of the bed. It was clear she’d been weeping. I sat down beside her, looking around the room with all of its memories—the day the municipality had the lottery and all of us were so expectant, and how disappointed we were when we lost; the second-chance lottery when all our prayers were answered and we got the land for the house. We would visit the site to see how our unfinished house was coming along, waiting for the day we could move in. The day the foundation was poured, the day the house was framed, the day the walls went up.... At each stage we got more and more excited and couldn’t wait for the work to be completed so we could take possession. In the end the pressures and headaches of renting made father move us into the structure before it was finished and, with the help of the boys, sped up work on the building.

Now we occupied a fully built home. But where was the owner? I got up and looked for the key to father’s wardrobe. I wanted to take his clothes in my arms, but I couldn’t find the key. With Leila in father’s room I took the opportunity to open Ali’s closet and kiss and hug his army uniform. Although they had been laundered and ironed, I breathed in their fragrance. The green color was sacred and had a soothing effect on me. Where is Ali? I asked myself. Has he gotten word of father’s death? Is he well enough to come back? Then I prayed he would come. This was how I lightened the burden of responsibility I felt. I left his room and opened the window in the living room that looked out on the yard. I stood where father often stood, staring at the garden, when it was clear something was on his mind. Wishing so much to read his mind at such times, I would look out at the garden from the same angle he would. He had been less talkative recently than in the past. I even asked him outright what was on his mind that time I had returned from Jannatabad. I got the sense that he had a lot to say but wouldn’t. It had to be, I thought, about going away and how he’d leave us to fend for ourselves—and what was to become of us without him.

I recalled that when we first came to the house, it was cold, and we lit a brazier in the yard. After it stopped smoking, we brought it inside. We sat around the brazier warming ourselves and I remember father telling me, “From the time I was a child I didn’t have anyone to look after me; I tried—and got a lot of help from God—not to go wrong in life. It was very hard for me to get where I am. You’ve also got to put your trust in God. Don’t expect anyone to help you, but that must never stop you from helping others.”

Now I understood why he said this; he was preparing us for what was happening now, what had to be done when he was gone. Not to expect anything from anyone except God.

The memories, though very painful, were very vivid in my mind, especially the time we all sat around the brazier. When mother and the children were busy elsewhere, I remember that father whispered to me: “I could have been a better father to you all, could have made your lives easier. It shames me to say that if you had been brought up in another family, it wouldn’t have been this hard for you....”

In the pale light from the embers in the brazier I could see the tears on his face. Trying not to get choked up, I said, “What are you saying? It’s true things aren’t easy but there’s no substitute for the serenity you  bring to this home. If I had been raised by another family, I would never have been able to see the value of the things we do have and could never have become as strong as I am.”

He took my hand and said, “No, you’ve got to forgive me.”

I was shocked. Here was a man who insisted he earn an honest living with his own hands. He even refused to work at the port saying, “There are a lot of things at the docks that make the money you earn there suspect.”

I looked him in the eye and said, “That’s no reason for you feel guilty. As long as everybody’s together, we’ll be fine.” Then I hugged his head and kissed him. He kissed me back.

I looked around and saw that Leila had changed her clothes and was standing behind me. “Should we go?” I said. She nodded and we were off. It was very hard to leave, but we had to. I told Zeynab that we’d be back soon. We closed the compound door and went away. Because the number of casualties had decreased in recent days, I assumed they probably needed us more at the mosque.

Leila and I separated. When I got to the mosque, there was a pickup parked in front with a wounded man in the back. His body was peppered with shrapnel, and he was bloody from head to foot. Mr. Najjar was busy staunching the bleeding. He handed his serum bag to me and said, “Let’s get him straight to the hospital.”

He jumped down from the pickup and it took off. The wounded man was hurt badly. I kept one eye on the serum and one eye on him. We hadn’t gotten to the bridge when Iraqi planes materialized. The area around the bridge was a madhouse. People were fleeing. Most of the shells rained down on the banks of the river. The planes unloaded their bombs in the midst of the bedlam. I realized that they would hit the bridge next, and it was time for people to jump off. I had always been terrified that I would drown someday. There was that one time I almost went under in the water near Basra. I had gone there to soak the newly born Mansur’s diapers. I bent down to retrieve them, but my foot slipped and I fell in. I wasn’t more than five at the time and didn’t have the strength to pull myself out. I went under several times and flailed about. Nearby people saw what was happening and saved me. That gave me quite a scare; even when I was older I never got over my fear of the water. After some time had passed, we would go with father to Kut-e Sheikh, where people would take skiffs to villages along the water. I dreaded the trips in the small boats, and with each movement I thought I would suffocate. Now I was as terrified as I had been then. From the bridge I could see that they had hit Kut-e Sheikh with rockets, making the water in the Shatt choppy. We managed to cross the bridge. The closer we got to Abadan the thicker the smoke from the recently hit refinery became. The billowing blackness covered the sky and made the air hard to breathe. My nose burned from the fumes from the soot in the air. The driver tried to maneuver his way through the traffic but failed. The injured man went into a coma, and began to moan feebly. I asked the young man who had brought him, “Which neighborhood is he from?”

“He’s from around the Mehr Hospital,” he said. “I found him near the Ahmadzadeh Circle.”

 

To be continued …

 



 
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