One Womans War

Da (Mother) 1

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



Translator’s Dedication

To Susan.

Special thanks to editor, Kerry Kern, who not only read the book at least two times, but exhibited great curiosity about the topic, and by asking for clarifications of places, names, and phrases helped make the memoir more accessible. And thanks to Dawn Patterson who was generous with her time and made sure the manuscript was in good shape for the publisher.




Translator’s Introduction

I. Da as Cultural Phenomenon

One Woman’s War: Da (Mother) the Memoirs of Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni is many things.[1] Part autobiography, part oral history of the Iran-Iraq War (1980– 88), the work is the story of Zahra Hoseyni, a female descendant of the Prophet Mohammad (thereby termed a Seyyedeh), whose Kurdish family found refuge in Iran after being expelled from their native Iraq. There are three parts to the book. The first speaks of the author’s early life—her childhood in Iraq, her family’s emigration to Iran, and their struggles adapting to life in Khorramshahr, a port city on the Persian Gulf. The second and largest part deals with Zahra Hoseyni’s experiences during the first three weeks of the Iran-Iraq War (September 22– October 13, 1980), including her activities as a collector of body parts and washer of corpses, her role as a nurse to wounded civilians and soldiers, and her activities as a combatant in the defense of Khorramshahr. The final part of the book is devoted to Zahra Hoseyni’s recovery from shrapnel wounds received on the battlefield and to her married life, spent in two homes: one in a suburban area of southwestern Iran within commuting distance of the front and the second in an urban apartment house in central Tehran.

Da is the product of more than a thousand hours of Zahra Hoseyni’s interviews with Seyyedeh A’zam Hoseyni (a woman with the same family name but no relation to the narrator). The book was part of a larger project to record the oral histories of Iranian women who took part in the Iran-Iraq War. Administering the project was the Center for the Study and Research on Resistance Literature, a division of the Artistic Center of the Islamic Development Organization. In 2000 the Center compiled a list of women who had active roles in the War, and A’zam Hoseyni contacted many of them personally for interviews.[2]

Having outsold or gone through more reprints than all other Iran-Iraq War memoirs by a factor of a hundred, the Zahra Hoseyni-A’zam Hoseyni collaboration has been and continues to be a cultural phenomenon in the Islamic Republic. The nature of its extraordinary sales, however, has been the subject of debate. Official figures are suspect because of the many copies bought and distributed free of charge by government organizations. Zahir Tavakkoli, a journalist and poet, speaks of the “deceptive” (kazeb) purchasing of the book in his article “The Sorrowful Tale of the Book Da and the Injustice Visited upon it.”[3] He reports that among his acquaintances none had actually had to buy Da; they received the book as a gift, and one of them even reported having eight free copies at home. In Tavakkoli’s view the “pointless” (gotreh-i) gifting of the book by officials does a significant work like Da a disservice. He is not alone in thinking the book could have stood on its own merits; indeed, there is ample evidence that broad swaths of the Persian reading public have spent relatively large sums for the 800-page volume, which up to now has only been published in hardcover.[4]  Needless to say, this is startling in the case of a work that critics of state-supported publications generally dismiss as “commissioned” (sefareshi) writing.[5]

What might be termed the institutionalization of Da began less than a year after it first appeared in September 2008. Early in the spring of 2009, Seyyed Mohammad Reza Mirtajeddini, a Principalist[6] member of Iran’s legislature from Tabriz and Vice-President for Parliamentary Affairs under President Ahmadinezhad, proposed ways to publicize and disseminate Da at a meeting honoring its creators and publisher.[7] With the New Year imminent, he suggested the book be presented to deputies so they could read it over the two-week holiday recess. Mirtajeddini further proposed the memoir be awarded to deserving students in schools, universities, and cultural centers.[8]

Da was a hit with more than just hardline politicians like Mirtajeddini. The reformist Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former Vice President of Iran and close associate of Mohammad Khatami (President 1997–2005), recalls that his wife brought the book home, but he was too busy with the 2008 presidential elections to read it.[9] Abtahi eventually found ample opportunity to do so after going to prison in June 2009. Da was among the reading materials brought by a visitor to one of Abtahi’s suite mates in Tehran’s Evin Prison. Zahra Hoseyni’s account of how, as a seventeen-year-old, she resisted the Iraqis and was prepared to sacrifice her life to defend the ideals of the Islamic Revolution made her a transcendent figure for Abtahi. He was so moved by the scenes of raw emotion and privation in the memoir that he would often burst into tears while reading it. Abtahi’s reaction is typical. Many readers see Da as an epic of grief and suffering that evokes the formative event in Shiism: the martyrdom in 680 of Imam Hoseyn, his family, and a small band of followers at Karbala. To the documentary filmmaker Mohammad Mehdi Khaleqi, Zahra Hoseyni’s accounts of the martyrdom of her father and brother are so remarkable that they take the place of the most moving (sangintarin) eulogies (rowzeh`ha) commemorating the suffering at Karbala.[10] In this reading, the Zahra Hoseyni–A’zam Hoseyni collaboration functions like the traditional dirges or passion pageants (ta’ziyeh) performed during the month of Moharram. Da, in effect, brings the archetypal Shii narrative of martyrdom from the seventh century into the twentieth and thereby contemporizes the slaughter at Karbala in the context of the Iran-Iraq War.

The phenomenon that has been described as “Da-reading fever” continues to this day in Iran.[11] One website attributes the book’s popularity among the country’s politicians and members of its entertainment community to the Supreme Leader’s praise. Ayatollah Khameneh’i said the book was “capable of being advanced on a global level.”[12] In one of its recent incarnations as cultural icon, the book was spotted on the desk of the newly elected President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani. With its telltale red-and-white cover, Da became part of the office “décor” at a session with the press on the 100th day of the new administration.[13] This inspired a website headline writer to ask: “Is Rouhani Reading Da?” The news conference happened to fall in Basij Week, an annual event commemorating the selflessness of young, mobilized paramilitaries (Basijis) who fought and were maimed and/or killed in the Iran-Iraq War. The headline writer’s speculation about whether Rouhani was actually reading the book was, of course, rhetorical; however, the author of the article suggests the book was purposely placed on the President’s desk as a fitting reminder of Basiji sacrifices.

Not unexpectedly, given the book’s phenomenal popularity, Da generated serious interest outside of politics. Academics were particularly quick to realize its potential and to make use of it in their research. Scholarly studies began to emerge less than three years after the book came out. In a paper published in 2011, three social science researchers combed through Zahra Hoseyni’s war experiences to see if they conformed to international models of crisis management.[14] The paper begins with a comprehensive survey of the literature in the field and then proceeds to a detailed analysis and sequencing of the chaotic events of the first weeks of the War, as narrated in Da. The general conclusion of their research is that Zahra Hoseyni’s experiences fall neatly into crisis management categories found in the current literature on the subject. One example of the researchers’ findings is that Zahra Hoseyni’s account of what happened at the Jannat-abad corpse-washing and shrouding facility exemplified the 3- and 5-stage crisis frameworks as defined by Mitroff and Pearson, two pioneers in the field.[15] Interestingly, although the paper adheres to the standard format of international academic research and makes liberal use of refereed source materials, two aspects of the final report undermine its formal claims to scholarly rigor and objectivity. First, reflecting the popular misreading of the memoir mentioned above, the paper consistently identifies Da as a “novel” (roman) and not as a memoir or oral history. Second, one can see the influence of Islamic Republican speech on the research in the way it uses—as does Da itself—the pejorative term Monafeqin (“Hypocrites”) for the anti-Islamic Republican group known as the Mojahedin-e Khalq (the MEK or People’s Mojahedin, which until 2012 had been on the U.S. government’s list of terrorist organizations).[16]

In addition to the crisis management study, two dissertations reflect how academia has embraced Da. Payam-e Nur (Message of Light) University reports awarding a Ph.D. to Esma’il Ashhab in 2011 for his dissertation, “A Study of the Story Elements in the Book Da.”[17] The other Ph.D., far broader in scope, is Mohammad Abbas Nezhad’s “A Meta-Analysis of Writings, Criticism, Interviews, Research, and Dissertations on the Book Da” (February 2012), which reports that since Da’s publication there have been eleven dissertations and more than seventy seminars and roundtable discussions on the work.[18]

Da also quickly entered the worlds of animation and the cinema. In an attempt to bring the book to the large audience of nonreaders in Iran, the publisher, Howzeh-ye Honari (Artistic Center), allowed the production of a 120-episode animated feature that began airing on television in June 2011.[19]  Fifty-five of Iran’s leading theater, cinema, and television artists lent their voices free of charge to the program. In this way the animated Da is comparable—and perhaps an indigenous response—to Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s successful graphic novel and animation with characters voiced by such stars as Catherine Deneuve and Gena Rowlands. Of course, as the director of the television Da, Sina Ata’ian, readily admits, although the film contains moving imagery tasvir-e motaharrek), it does not rise to the level of a truly animated feature like Persepolis.[20] Da’s translation to motion picture has not been as smooth as its path to motion drawing. One of the first to express interest in making a film of the work was Tahmineh Milani, director of some of the highest grossing films in Iran. Milani has been accused of being “anti-revolutionary” for her outspoken criticism of the psychological and social pressures on Iranian women and her treatment of sensitive topics such as what happened in the country in the years immediately after the 1979 Revolution.

Zahra Hoseyni strongly objected to having Milani direct the film of her memoir because she believed Milani to be a zed-e arzeshi director, one whose values deviate from those of the Islamic Republic.[21] Accordingly, Howzeh-ye Honari gave the task of making a film of Da to Homayun Asadian, whose values are more consonant with those expressed in the book.

The brief controversy about the choice of director is indicative of how Da is something more than an ordinary memoir. Like mega cultural phenomena in other places, Da turned into a battleground for opposing views on basic moral and ethical questions. On one side was the narrator of the book, with her unshakeable fidelity to proper veiling (khosh hejabi). Throughout Da there is a constant pull between the necessity to remain covered and the demands war makes on veiled women. In Chapter 9, for example, Zahra Hoseyni recalls being tossed around in the back of a van carrying food for the troops. As the vehicle swerves to avoid bomb craters in the road, she is forced to keep one hand on her immodestly flapping chador while steadying pots of rice and stew with the other. In Chapter 20, her commitment to gathering corpses puts the need to maintain propriety at all costs to a severe test. Zahra Hoseyni describes how she and two male companions trudge through a marshland near the front to retrieve a body left out in the sun for a number of days. Because her companions refuse to touch the rotting corpse unless it is covered with something, Zahra Hoseyni has no choice but to remove her chador and use it as a shroud. The very act of de-veiling—however necessary—violates a principle of adult femininity, which became second nature the moment she got her first chador (also described in the book).

Despite being near contemporaries and both having lost a brother in the War, the social, economic, and cultural divide between the narrator of Da and its putative director could not be deeper. According to the Persian Facebook entry,[22] Milani was born in Tabriz in northwestern Iran in September 1960 to a family that placed a high value on women’s education. Her mother is the eldest daughter of Mirza Ali Khan Hashemzadeh, a respected member of the Azerbaijani gentry. Milani’s father is a retired internist from a town near Tabriz, where Milani attended a French-language missionary school. Twice weekly her mother took her to the Metropol Cinema, where she saw many western movies—often more than once. Milani’s mother continued to expose her daughter to films after her husband was transferred to Qazvin. Milani’s background would have placed her in the upper strata of Iranian society. As a native Persian user, educated in a European language, exposed to Western art and music as a child, and brought up in a secular household indifferent to veiling, she was poised to prosper in the rapidly Westernizing Iran under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (ruled 1941–79).

Zahra Hoseyni, by contrast, comes from an impoverished refugee family from Iraq with two home languages (Kurdish and Arabic), which put her on the lowest rung of the Persian-dominant society of Iran. Her father, Hoseyn Hoseyni, was a low-wage laborer, a political dissident in both Iraq and Iran, and a devoted follower of anti-monarchist Shii spiritual authorities, some of whom were living in exile in Iraq. Opposed to the mandatory coeducation in public schools under the Shah, he refused to allow Zahra to continue her education. But the advent of war changed Hoseyn Hoseyni’s ideas about the role of women. In his eyes the need to repel the Iraqi invasion was more important than keeping his daughter out of society. This change of heart enabled Zahra to continue her schooling, albeit using a curriculum necessitated by conflict: dealing with the dead, nursing the wounded, and operating weapons. As it was for many of the young people in southwestern Iran who suddenly became combatants in a conflict they had not started, the War became a kind of post-secondary education for Zahra. The indiscriminate shelling of the city also made it necessary for those from two distinct speech communities (Arabic and Persian) to communicate. Thus, Zahra’s fluency in Arabic changed from being a marker of social inferiority to a needed skill, one that gave her entrée to circles in male society that ordinarily would have been closed to her.

The wide social and cultural gap between Zahra Hoseyni and Tahmineh Milani is also reflected in their choice of a spouse. Habib Maz’ali, Zahra’s husband, is an Iranian Arabic speaker and a commander who spent the War serving in the southern battlefields. Da often describes him coming home with his uniform soaked in the blood of one of his men whom he has driven to the hospital. Zahra also mentions her husband’s frequent dreams of martyrdom. Mohammad Nikbin (b. 1953), Milani’s husband, spent his youth studying in the United States: the University of Colorado at Boulder (1971-79?) and the University of Minneapolis Twin Cities (1977-79), from which he graduated with a master’s degree in architecture. Nikbin returned to Iran after the Revolution and established Atabin, an architecture firm with around thirty employees (including Tahmineh Milani as a consulting architect) that frequently worked with an American design, planning, and management concern.[23] Unlike Habib Maz’ali, whose sights Zahra Hoseyni tells us were often set on the enemy and eternity, Nikbin, according to a 2007 profile in the journal Entrepreneurs, looked forward to a time when management principles he had learned in Minnesota would apply to the business of building in Iran.


[1] The Persian title of the work is: Da [Kurdish for “mother”]: the Memoirs of Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni as told to and set down by Seyyedeh A’zam Hoseyni, but it is commonly known as Da.

[2] On the genesis of the book, how it has been read and translated into nonprint formats, see Laetitia Nanquette, “An Iranian Woman’s War Memoir on the Iran-Iraq War: The Production and Reception of Da” (Iranian Studies 46: 6; published online July 11, 2013).

[3] The story is “Dastan-e ghamangiz-e ketab-e da va setami keh bar an raft.” It is dated August 7, 2013, and filed at

[4] Over the course of its more than 150 reported printings (see “Ketab-e Da bish az 150 bar chap shodeh ast, the book has ranged between the equivalent of ten and fifteen dollars.

[5] One blogger at Zambur ( reports hearing that many intellectuals, who have no truck with the Sacred Defense and are even antiwar, have extolled (tamjid kardeh-and) Da.

[6] Principalist or Osuli politicians adhere strictly to articles of faith of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, among which is the belief that a Shii Jurist (faqih) is the rightful and supreme leader of the Islamic Republic. The first such faqih was Ayatollah Khomeini; the second is his successor Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i.

[7] See

[8] In his remarks Mirtajeddini termed the work a roman-e haqiqi or a “real novel,” which may remind English readers of Truman Capote’s characterization of In Cold Blood as a “non-fiction novel.” Because One Woman’s War at times reads like a thriller, it has often been mistaken for fiction. Needless to say, Zahra Hoseyni stands by the truth of everything she relates in the book.

[9] See, a blog dated September 22, 2010.

[10] See his review of Da posted at

[11] Iman Motahhari Manesh uses the phrase “tab-e da-khvani” in the article “The Book with the Most Adventures in 2009” (por majartarin ketab-e sal-e 1388) at

[12] See Ayatollah Khameneh’i calls the book “qabel-e tarh dar sath-e jahani” at

[13] Aya rowhani ketab-e da mikhvanad at

[14] “A Study of Models of Crisis Management in the Novel Da,” by professor Hamid Taboli of Payam-e Nur University and two graduate researchers Samaneh Karimi Afshar and Elham Ashrafzadeh at Islamic Azad University, was published in the journal Perseverance Literature (Adabiayt-e Paydari) of the Faculty of Letters and Social Sciences of Shahid Bahonar University and is available at:

[15] In Ian I. Mitroff and Christine M. Pearson, Crisis Management: A Diagnostic Guide for Improving Your Organization’s Crisis-Preparedness (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1993).

[16] On these terms, see the glossary at the end of the translation.

[17] Bar’rasi-e anaser-e dastan dar ketab-e da,


[18]Da Transported the Literature of Perseverance of Iran beyond Boundaries” (Da adabiyat-e paydari-e Iranra be-an su-ye marzha sader kard), a Javan newspaper article dated November 6, 2013, published at

[19] See the article in Hamshahri at The series is available at

[20] See

[21] See the article in Serat News dated July 1, 2012 at

[22] See

[23] From an interview with Nikbin published in Majalleh-ye Karafarinan (“Entrepreneurs”) dated December 20, 2007. Nikbin left Iran in 2008 and works in Los Angeles.

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