Da (Mother) 23

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




Five: More and More Dead

The third day was extremely busy. The number of dead increased, especially in the residential areas that took direct hits. Most of the dead were women and children, which meant the female body washers would be under even more pressure to finish their work. By contrast, the number of people volunteering to help decreased. Some of the volunteers stayed for a couple of hours and left saying they would return but never did. Of course not everyone was cut out for this kind of work. Even though the municipal tanker trucks came regularly to replenish the water supply, there were shortages. If there had been fewer corpses, we could have made do with the water in the pool, but the supply did not meet the expanded need. This was especially true when the body washers gave the corpses a careful scrubbing. The second time we ran out of water, we called the city for more, but Salarvand said, “The Shatt is under such heavy fire it’s impossible to draw water from it.”

By noon the situation was desperate. Ambulances kept bringing bodies from the hospitals. Relatives of the dead wrapped their loved ones in blankets or sheets and wailed behind the building. A number of volunteers, who had been riding around the city in pickups, brought in the corpses they had found. They were full of information about what was going on in the city: what neighborhoods were experiencing the heaviest shelling, how far the Iraqi forces had advanced, and where they were at the time. When we asked them how the Iraqi attack progressed so easily despite the heavy resistance, they complained about shortages in manpower and weapons. The sounds of explosions kept coming from places nearby and far away, confirming what the men had been saying. We tried to work even harder. Salarvand furiously wrote numbers on pieces of paper and pinned them to the clothes of the dead, and, after they were brought inside the building, we recorded their particulars in the register. Jannatabad was also running out of graves. The increase in volume of the dead was not only a problem for the women body washers; because of the fighting more men had been killed and there was also a shortage of workers among the men. I couldn’t guess how they were managing. Zeynab and Maryam looked exhausted. They had become weak and irritable from lack of sleep. Zeynab said, “Last night the dogs wouldn’t even let us sleep. We hardly shut our eyes, afraid they’d go after the corpses or after us. They smelled blood; there was nothing we could do!”

Ordinarily very even-tempered, Zeynab was now short with me when she was kept waiting for something. Her tone of voice changed and she’d bark, “Move, girl! What are you doing?” Or when I hesitated for a moment, shocked by something I saw, she would say sharply, “Don’t just stand there; do something!”

She didn’t understand that I could no longer cope with the scene in front of me. All I wanted to do was to curl up in a corner, close my eyes, and not think about anything. When this mood came over me, I didn’t want anybody to talk to me. I craved silence so I could grapple with my thoughts.

We emerged from the building at one point when there was no Iraqi plane to bury the bodies we had washed that morning. I was aware there were people milling about outside, who might help us and then leave. Leila, Zeynab, and I brought some stretchers, and people took them from us. Saying “heave-ho” and offering prayers, we managed to hoist the bodies, but we had to put the stretchers down a few times before finally reaching the graves. They were so heavy I couldn’t straighten my back, and I felt dizzy for a time as things went dark before my eyes.

Two of the people who were big helps to us were an Arabic-speaking boy of about twenty with fine frizzy hair and a thin mustache and an older man named Jaber Jabbarzadeh. The boy, whose name I don’t remember, was a straightforward person and a real worker. He did his job without saying a word. He was quick to help support the stretchers or coffins when they brought them. He also carried the gravestones. Once the bodies were in the graves he covered them with dirt, but he would never touch a corpse. He showed up regularly at Jannatabad as long as there was work. Occasionally he would chant when accompanying the dead to the grave. Though he couldn’t pronounce some of the words, he chanted enthusiastically. He would substitute “f” for “p” so his cry of “war, war, until victory (piruzi)” sounded like “war, war, until fictory.”

We went back and forth a number of times until we buried all the corpses. Seeing a gravedigger had stopped using his pick, exhausted by the work, I said to him, “Give it to me.”

“This is not a plaything. You can’t dig graves,” he said.

I got mad and said, “Why not? Is that what you men think? We’re weak just because we’re women?”

I took the pick from him and started to dig. It wasn’t easy. I began to sweat as I drove it into the ground. The man seemed sorry he gave me his pick. He insisted I give it back, but to spite him I finished digging the grave. Later my hands began to hurt and swell up.

It was very warm and the sun was ruthless. It seemed to get stronger with the constant wailing of the bereaved and the dust. I stood over the grave that I had dug and then bent down to see if the hole was the right size. I said to myself: Now that dying is so easy perhaps I’ll be in one of these holes one day. Amid the din made by the mourners I made out someone saying, “Water, water.”

It was a young boy who had put some ice in a bucket and was serving people cold water. I was about to ask him for some when I saw an old man standing in a grave and telling some people who wanted to bury one of the dead, “No, no. You can’t bury him that way.” I didn’t know what he meant. I continued to look in that direction and saw the old man climb from the grave. He said to one of the men, “Hold this; it’s gotten stiff” and he pointed to the bent leg of the corpse. Then he jumped up and landed with all his weight on the corpse, breaking the leg. We could hear it snap like a twig. The dead person’s family and the men nearby all went into fits of wailing and moaning. There were also cries of “There’s no God but God.” I was shaking from head to foot. I couldn’t believe what I had just seen. I looked down at my own bent knees and felt pain shoot through them. One of the women—I don’t know how she was related to the deceased—after witnessing this scene began to shriek and beat her chest. Then she scooped up some dirt and poured it over her head and shoulders. She pulled her hair and clawed her cheeks. Then she threw herself to the ground and, like a child, tumbled over, twitching her legs. The poor creature was writhing in agony, unable to stop. Some of the women dragged her aside, poured water over her head, and massaged her shoulders. She didn’t come to. I found this scene very disturbing. With the intense heat my nerves were completely frazzled. I asked the boy with the water for a glass. He submerged the glass in the bucket and handed it to me, saying, “Drink and say, ‘Praise be to Hoseyn!’”

The water was very cold. I drank it down and gave back the glass. I returned to the body washers’ with the scene of the leg breaking and the sound of that crack etched in my memory. I didn’t feel well; my chest was on fire. I was on the verge of spitting up the water I had drunk.

I went for more supplies, but Parvizpur said there was nothing left and I’d have to go and get them myself. He got up from his desk and closed the registry, which meant he was leaving. I asked him for a ride home if it wasn’t too much trouble. I wanted to see what was happening there, to see if father had come back. I was worried. Parvizpur said, “No problem.”

We got into his van and left. It wasn’t far. After we turned into our lane, Parvizpur asked me, “Are you going back to Jannatabad?” “Yes,” I said. “Why do you ask?” “I’ll wait. You do what you have to and I’ll take you back.” I thanked him and as I got out of the van, I noticed that the neighbors had gathered. Knowing where I had been, my relatives greeted me and said, “It’s been a long day for you.”

Parvizpur, who knew Uncle Gholami, got out of the van, said hello, and shook hands with him. Then uncle turned to me and said, “You’ve done us all proud, my sweet. Bravo, my brave niece!” If he only knew the truth. I felt I was about to die from exhaustion or I couldn’t bear the horrors another minute; but I didn’t say a word.

The women crowded around me and asked, “Seyyed’s daughter, what’s going on in Jannatabad?”

“Nothing,” I said, “it’s all wailing and moaning, wall-to-wall calamity and anguish, as the dead keep coming in droves.”

Uncle’s wife said, “I couldn’t hold up for a minute there. I think I’d have a heart attack just setting foot in the place. God, it’s great that someone your age is able to cope!”

Naneh Reza also said, “Yeah, you’ve done us all proud.”

What they said came as a surprise to me; I didn’t think my working at Jannatabad was all that important to them or that they even knew about it. Not wanting to keep Parvizpur waiting, I excused myself and entered the house. “Any word from father?” was the first thing I asked mother.

Irritated she said, “Nothing. What word!”

Although agitated myself, I told her not to worry.

Then I went quickly to the wardrobe, took off my earrings and gold necklace and put them on a shelf. These were the first pieces of gold jewelry that father had bought for me as a New Year’s present. The necklace was my favorite and from the moment he put it around my neck until now I hadn’t taken it off. But during the past three days, when I bent down to lift or wash a corpse, it would slip down, which was annoying. Besides, with death all around material things seemed to have lost the meaning they once had for me. How could gold be important when people were losing body and soul? I’d yet to close the door of the wardrobe when I heard mother asking, “Why did you take those things off?”

“They’re of no use to me now.”


To be continued …


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