Da (Mother) 81

The Memoirs of Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni

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

2024-1-21


Da (Mother) 81

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

 

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Chapter Seventeen: Life Along the Shatt

Ever since I started working in the clinic, whenever there was nothing to do, I would go to the new place where meals were being prepared. They had transferred the kitchen at the Congregational Mosque to a bank compound. To get there I walked toward the Shatt. The glass building was located on the corner of an alley, on the left side of the road just before Ferdowsi Avenue. I turned into the alley and entered the partially covered compound through the back door. Among the mosque women already gathered there and cooking was Mrs. Pur Heydari, Mrs. Fuladi, the mother of Yusof Ali, the mother of Yunes Mohammadi, the mother of Khosrow No’dusti, and others. All were there always working away whenever I visited.

As always, there were sheep in the yard, some of which were donated by people to feed the defenders or had been found wandering in the city and would have died anyway. Religious authorities were questioned about the propriety of eating sheep abandoned by their evacuee owners or felled by hunger or shrapnel. The ruling was that it was permissible to eat them until peace was restored and their owners could be recompensed or that alms be given with the intention of compensating them.

The atmosphere at the kitchen was nice and friendly. Passionate about their work, the cooks would chant and send up prayers to heaven as they prepared food. People treated me with great affection whenever I came by. They tried to draw me out of my shell and restore my spirits after the death of father and Ali. Khosrow’s mother, a thin, sharp, quick-witted woman, was devoted to me. She would tell me, “I wish God had made you my daughter.” I was very fond of her. She was a knowing and sympathetic person. When we were working in the mosque, she noticed every time I caught my arm on something, I couldn’t help groaning in pain. Since my skin was very rough and sensitive, a thread or a button from the clothes we were sorting would tear it open and cause bleeding. The burning and itching were driving me crazy. Khosrow’s mother told me to rub sheep fat from the tails of the donated animals on my hands to make them feel smoother.

They slaughtered the sheep in the avenue beside the mosque that faced the bazaar and brought the carcasses to the mosque. One day I asked the butcher if he would give me some tail fat. He cut off a piece the size of my palm and handed it to me on the point of his knife. “That’s too much,” I said. He cut a smaller piece, which I took to the dispensary. There I sat behind a divider and rubbed my hands and forearms with the fat until my skin was soft and smooth. From that day, every time I saw Khosrow’s mother I would say, “God bless you.”

Men usually did the outside work at the mess. They loaded the large rice pots on handcarts and brought them to the Shatt. One man would climb down to the shore and fill a bucket or a smaller pot with water and pass it to the men above, who would fill the larger pots. Several times when I was there, the men came back empty-handed. Planes had strafed the shore, and the men had fled leaving behind the pots, which floated away. The look on the poor men’s faces was a sight. Embarrassed and ashamed, they were looking to be forgiven, but the women spoke up, “It’s one thing you didn’t come back with water, but losing the pots is another!”

Once or twice when there was no water, one of the women and I put pots in a wheelbarrow and went to the shore. The first time the sight of the waterway gave me a chill. Enemy planes had hit the tankers and their half-sunken hulks jutted out of the water.

Then I remembered how it was before the war. The scene was firmly etched in my memory. Both sides of the Shatt were lined with trees so lush and leafy that walking under them was like entering a tunnel sheathed in green. The sounds made by passing ships’ horns were a reminder we lived in a port city. When the tide was high and the water muddy, gulls and other fowl gathered to hunt fish swimming near the surface. My favorite thing was watching the green dragonflies whizzing among the reeds along the banks.

It was so hot during the day, the samosa, falafel, roast liver, and stewed offal sellers had to wait until sunset to set up shop. Peddlers would spread blankets with expensive foreign goods, clothing, toys … things that people out for a stroll in the cool and refreshing air along the Shatt would buy. Back then people rented rowboats, and boys would fish along the shore. A few meters out to sea, men sat in boats waiting for fish to catch in their nets. Ships from abroad docked at the jetty; the ordinary act of unloading cargo took on a certain grandeur especially in the dark of night. Their lights sparkled on the water, adding to the allure of the waterway. The whole thing made a person want to hole up somewhere comfortable and just drink in the beauty.

We went down the steps leading to a part of the shore where there were no scrub bushes or trees and fetching water was easier. Beaches farther down the shore were clogged with the bodies of fish and the well-fed sharks killed during the shelling. The water stank. The guys said they had seen the corpses of Iraqis there, too. That day the water level was low, and it seemed cleaner, almost glassy. But, despite that, the taste was off. Added to the stench of the rotting fish, which the locals call zefr, there was the smell of loose earth and a hint of fuel oil. Trash of all descriptions was also in the water. On previous days, when the level was high, we could easily taste a combination of oil, diesel, and grease, which made it impossible to use the water immediately for cooking or drinking. At the kitchen they would fill large pots and wait for impurities to settle to the bottom. Then they would remove leaves and branches floating on the surface and use the water for washing.

With my thoughts on how the Shatt had changed since those pleasant summer nights, I absentmindedly watched as planes returned to strafe the shore. Several bombs landed in the water, causing it to rise. To keep myself from being dragged in, I had to dive through the filth along the shore. After the planes had gone, I struggled to free myself and emerged from the muddy mess covered head to foot in slime.

 

End of Chapter Seventeen

 

To be continued …

 



 
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