Da (Mother) 32

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




 As I struggled to keep my emotions in check, the young soldier was calling everywhere he could, trying to reach Commander Jahan Ara. After several failed attempts and being told to hold, he said, “Thank God. I found him.”

When Jahan Ara came on the line, the young guard explained a little about the situation at Jannatabad. Then he said, “There’s a sister here who needs to speak with you herself.”

I nervously took the receiver, praying to God I would be able to‌ explain things so well he would react with good grace. Unable to mask the fear in my voice, I sheepishly said hello and continued, “My name is Hoseyni, sister of Seyyed Ali Hoseyni.”

He returned my greeting and said amiably, “We miss Ali a lot; he’s a real man. It would be a big help to have him here now—both as a tactician and a man of action. He could do many things. He’s a strong and brave boy. I pray that he gets well soon and can be with us again.” Then he asked, “What’s going on at Jannatabad? What problems have come up?”

Assured by what Ali had told me about Jahan Ara, I felt confident telling him the truth. “There are very few of us working in Jannatabad. We can’t bury all the bodies. At night the dogs attack them and we have to throw stones to keep them at bay. Even though Jannatabad is not secure, we feel it’s our responsibility to stay there through the night protecting the dead. We have no weapons or any other thing to keep the dogs away. There aren’t even any guards to protect us.”

“How many people total?” he asked.

“Five women and two men,” I said.

“You mean that’s all you have? Without any guards, without weapons?” he said in disbelief.

“Yes,” I said.

His tone changed and obviously put out he said, “God willing you’ll be rewarded by the martyrs and the Prince of Martyrs. I will definitely follow up on this. Something’s got to be done about the water and the shrouds, too.”

I thanked him and said, “You are my only hope.”

“I’ll follow up on it, and you’ve accomplished your first goal, which was telling me about it.”

I said goodbye and put down the receiver. The young guards asked, “What happened? You got your answer, we hope?”

“Yeah, he’s going look into it, and the situation there will be put right.”

Ebrahimi, who was listening the whole time, put his hands together in mock prayer and said laughingly, “Thank God! Praise the Lord! Jannatabad’s going to be right as rain.”

I couldn’t help laughing; the poor guy was really fed up with me. I said to the guards, “If it’s not too much trouble, could you give me brother Jahan Ara’s number? He said himself that I should monitor what’s being done.”

They wrote the number on a piece of paper and handed it to me, and I felt relieved. I left the mosque, but before I stepped into the street I saw a young woman shrieking. Several older men in charge of affairs at the mosque were insisting that she return. It was late, and she had no business being outside. She was clearly a refugee and they wanted to keep her safe in the mosque, but she seemed a little simple-minded and refused to go inside. The men were at a loss as to how to communicate with her; they tried Persian mixed with a sprinkling of Arabic words, but they apparently did not know the language. The girl, no doubt in a bad way, began to swear.

I stared at her in amazement; she was a very odd creature of around thirty in horrible physical shape. Her emaciated face was filled with large, festering pockmarks. Her eyes, barely open, made me think at first she was blind.

As I stared at her, I heard Ebrahimi saying, “Sister Hoseyni, before you go, would you get her to come in?”

“Who is she?” I asked.

“Some poor thing with a screw loose. She’s been giving us hell since morning. She doesn’t understand what we say to her. She just screeches, not listening to a word we’re saying. She walks around aimlessly and then returns to the mosque. I can’t make up my mind whether she’s really crazy or pretending to be. Farsi is not one of her strengths.”

I nodded and walked over to the young woman, thinking that by talking to her I could calm her. As soon as I said, “Come, let’s go to the mosque,” she clawed my face.

I pulled back saying, “Why did you do that? I’m talking to you.”

When she began to curse in Arabic, I shouted, “Shut your filthy mouth!”

This frightened her and she said in Arabic, “That wasn’t meant for you.”

“Who was it for?” I asked.

“For them,” she said pointing at the men.

“They’re not around. They’re over there,” I said.

“It wasn’t meant for you,” she repeated.

I heard the men calling her Genoa, so I said, “Genoa, why are you behaving like that? Why do you want to leave the mosque?”

“They’re bothering me,” she said.

“No, they’re good people. The street’s not safe; that’s why they want you in the mosque. They’ll get you with a fifty-five caliber machine gun if you’re not careful!”

“My house is on the border,” she said in Arabic. “I want to go home.”

“The Iraqis are there now. They’ve crossed the border,” I said.

“I’m not afraid of the Iraqis; they’ll leave me alone.”

I said, “So they’re harmless like first cousins on your father’s side, then? Believe me, if they see you, they’ll shoot.”

In that strange voice she said, “No, Saddam is one of us. He won’t kill Arabs.”

I nearly had a fit. Saddam’s propaganda, I said to myself, had even reached this sick woman. Baathist radio was continually encouraging people—especially the Arabs—to leave the city or to flee in the direction of their army, enticing them with offers of hospitality. They claimed that the Arabs of Iran were on their side; they were brothers. It was only the Khomeini regime that they were fighting.

I didn’t say anything as I mulled over what she said. She stared at me, then suddenly as if remembering something, asked, “Who’s your father?”

I laughed saying, “If I tell you his name, will you know him?”

Ignoring me, she asked, “Aren’t you the daughter of Hajj Khalaf?”

“I’m the daughter of Hajj Salbookh,” I said mockingly. I had heard the name mentioned in satire. It meant rough terrain full of gravel and sand, but we kids would always call each other Salbookh as a joke.

“I don’t know any Hajj Salbookh, girl,” she said mystified.

I laughed and gave her a hug. With my skin prickling from being close to her, I said, “Come let’s go into the mosque.”

Even under her loose-fitting shirt I felt the boils on Genoa’s skin, how uneven it was, and nearly threw up. What puzzled me was why, in addition to her scary looks, was she so grubby and foul smelling? When was the last time she bathed? Had water even touched her skin? Her bare feet were cracked and calloused, and her matted hair, which looked like sackcloth, had escaped from her head cloth. The most disgusting thing was that lice had the run of her forehead. I got more nauseous when I noticed them.

She was disgusting but I felt obligated to bring her into the mosque. It was worth wading through her mire if only to get her to talk. Genoa liked the show of affection and hugged me tighter. I didn’t pull back even though I couldn’t stand the odors coming from her. She said in Arabic, “I love you so much, my dearest.”

“Enough.” I said “Promise me you’ll stay in the mosque. Why do you want to leave anyway?”

“I’m hungry,” she said simply.

“There’s food and water here. You don’t need to go outside,” I said.

“Who should I tell that I want food?” she asked.

“It doesn’t matter. They’ll feed you whoever you tell. They’ll give you biscuits.”

Then she suddenly went off on a tangent and said, “I want cake.”

This made me laugh “Where are they going to find cake in all of this? What’s wrong with you? Did you think there’s a wedding going on here? We’re under fire now. There’s a war on, understand? What do you mean cake?”

She shrugged like a little girl and said, “What am I supposed to do? I want cake.”

She was driving me mad, and I was at the point of leaving her on her own, when someone brought a package of petite beurre biscuits and offered them to her. As soon as she opened them, she began to noodle around on the ground. I said, “See! They’ve got everything here. Don’t go out. There are other women here, and they don’t wander around outside. Just tell them whatever you want.”

Absorbed in eating, she didn’t register what I said.

I left the mosque and headed for Jannatabad with my mind on the conversation with Jahan Ara and Genoa’s antics. I hadn’t reached the avenue when I heard someone behind me calling, “Sister, sister.”

I stopped and turned around. Two boys thin as rails were coming toward me. One of the boys, taller and darker than the other, had an M1 rifle slung over his shoulder. They had been at the mosque when I was speaking to Ebrahimi. When I had raised my voice, I noticed they had come nearer to hear what we were arguing about. They said hello and one of them asked, “Do you need people at Jannatabad?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“We’re ready to help,” they said.

I looked at them and wondered: How could these two runts help move heavy bodies around? They seemed so young. How could they be expected not to run away when they saw the corpses? Many older and heftier men couldn’t stand the sight and left without as much as a backward glance. Then I had second thoughts and scolded myself: Not so fast, girl! Don’t pretend you didn’t faint the first time you were in Jannatabad. What makes you think that you’re any better than these two? How do you know they’re not strong? At least they’re males and have more tolerance for that type of thing than females. Finally I said to them, “The work there is very tough. You’ve got to wash the bodies and then shroud them. You’ve also got to carry the bodies to the graves. If you think you’ve got the stomach for it, more power to you.”

The boy with the M1 said, “But you were saying that you need armed people for guard duty.”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“Fine, so we’ll be guards, and, if we’re able, we’ll help with the other things, too.”

“That’ll be a big help, thanks. Can you come now?” I asked.

“Yeah,” they said.

In order to put Ebrahimi’s mind at rest, I said to them, “So let’s go back to the mosque. I’ll tell them you’re going to Jannatabad.”

We went back to find Ebrahimi again. As usual he was busy talking to many people, answering the phone, and just smiling when people like me started brow-beating and yelling at him. Once in a while he would lose his temper, but this didn’t last long and he became calm again. What a patient man, I said to myself.

I managed to make my voice heard over the uproar. I said I thought I should tell him about the two boys. But, I added, that this didn’t mean that he should give up on sending more people to Jannatabad.

He said, “Don’t worry; I’ll do my best to make sure they look into it.”

As we were walking back to Jannatabad, the boys asked me questions about the conditions there. I gave them a complete rundown. They got very upset when I told them that the bodies were piling up with nobody to wash them. They said, “If we had known, we would have come earlier. We’ve been sitting around in the mosque the past days with little to do. We were getting bored—wish we’d known about Jannatabad.”

Then they asked, “You’re sister Hoseyni, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, so?” I asked in surprise.

“We’ve heard your name a lot.”


To be continued …


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