Da (Mother) 93

The Memoirs of Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni

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

2024-4-14


Da (Mother) 93

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

 

***

 

Chapter Twenty Five: Evacuating Arab People

Most of the city’s inhabitants had been evacuated, but there were still some holdouts. The boys in their travels would come back, reporting that, unlike most other areas in the city, in the Arab neighborhood of Mowlavi many people had remained behind.

They said folks in the neighborhood stayed because they thought the Iraqis wouldn’t harm fellow Arabs. Iraqi radio propaganda promoted this idea, constantly telling them that they should stay in their homes. The radio said Iraqis were battling the Zoroastrian Persians not their fellow Arabic speakers, whom they were going to liberate from the Khomeini regime.

Of course, this incitement didn’t have much effect on our Arab fellow townsmen, who were smarter than to fall for such lies. In the past the Iraqis had tried to foment separatism by spreading this poison but got nowhere. Among the army boys, there was a revolutionary unit with a large number of Arab guards. Of course, the people who had stayed in the neighborhood generally had nothing to do with the government or politics. They would say, “We just want to lead normal lives and not get involved with other folks.”

When the boys were leaving to evacuate people from the Mowlavi neighborhood, Mr. Nuri and Mr. Mesbah told me to go with them to translate. I was to try to get the women to leave, even by force if necessary.

One of the men gave out weapons saying, “This time you’ve got to be ready to get them out even at gun point. Threaten them. Fire your weapons in the air.”

I said to him, “These folks aren’t even afraid of canons and tanks. What makes you think that they’d be scared if we fire a few bullets in the air?”

Someone else suggested, “If firing in the air doesn’t do it, then what if we fire at their feet?”

“No,” the others answered him in unison, “that wouldn’t be right.”

It was around 10:00 a.m. when we got underway in a pickup. Mowlavi was one of the old neighborhoods; most of its inhabitants were among the downtrodden. There was one main avenue with many secondary streets, lanes, and alleyways branching from it. The avenue ended in a date grove, the customs area, and the port. All in all, it was once a densely populated, noisy, and bustling place, made even livelier because of the traditional fruit and vegetable market as well as shops on either side of an old, run-down gateway, and the peddlers selling their wares from cloths spread on the ground. They called the market Satan Bazaar.

At the end of the avenue where it reached the railway, there was an extensive date grove that went back a long way. Over the years it had become somewhat smaller because of the expansion of the customs area. The people living in the mud and straw houses in the grove grew greens, tomatoes, and okra, which they sold at the market.

When the driver stopped the truck he said, as he had done many times before, “Don’t get separated. Go in small groups.”

We divided ourselves into two groups, one patrolling the end of the avenue, the other the head. We knocked on door after door. Most of the homes were empty. When no one answered, one of the boys would climb the walls and look inside the compounds from there. When they were satisfied there was no one home, they would jump down. Occasionally someone would open the door and say, “No one’s in this alley” or “One family just left” or “The people in that house evacuated the very first day.”

We would ask them to come out, but they refused.

When we were loading them into the truck, they cried and cursed Saddam in Arabic. I would tell them in Arabic, “We’re Arabs like you. Remaining here will result in one of two things: either you’ll add to the number of casualties or you’ll be taken prisoner. What good is staying here? If the enemy attacks, you’ve got nothing to defend yourselves with.”

After going through several alleys, we realized some people had remained behind because of their livestock. They had nothing to their names but their cows, water buffaloes, and sheep. As they boarded the truck, they begged us to let them bring their livestock.

We told them, “The truck isn’t even big enough. With the bridge under fire we have to cross by boat. There’s no room for your animals and even if there were, the water would spook them, and they’d capsize the boat.”

Some suggested, “Bring the animals to the mosque and slaughter them there for food for the troops. If they stay here, they’ll be blown to bits by mortars, or fall into the hands of the Baathists. We don’t want that to happen.”

In one of the alleys, there was a partially open door. I knocked and said a warning “Yallah.” In both Arabic and Persian I asked, “Is the landlord around?”

There was no answer. I peeped in and saw a young woman by the reflecting pool washing a pot and a middle-aged woman by the oven. She appeared to be about to bake bread. As soon as they saw me, they both stopped what they were doing and ran into the rooms at the end of the courtyard.

I stepped into the yard and asked again, “Is the landlord here?”

A voice said, “What the hell do you want from us? We’re not coming out.”

I walked over to the rooms and said, “Please let me in.”

When I got to the door, a voice said, “Please, come in.”

I knocked on the door and opened it. The room was pitch dark. Light streamed in when the door opened, but I still couldn’t make out what was in the room. It was made of mud and straw and smelled damp. There was a faded multi-color floor covering in the middle of it and, shoved in a corner, a bunch of futons and random household items. The ceiling was covered in plastic to prevent leaks. Now used to the darkness, I said to the women, “Do you know how dangerous it is for you to be here? Don’t you see the fire raining down on us from the sky? Why be so stubborn? Why did you run away? We haven’t come here to take you by force. We are requesting you leave. It’s not safe here. To Saddam there’s no difference between Persians and Arabs. What they say about him not harming Arabs is a lie.”

One of the women said, “We’ve got nothing to do with Saddam. To hell with him! We just don’t want to leave. We prefer to stay here and live in our own homes.”

“You can’t live here,” I said. “They won’t let you go on with your lives. If you stay, you’ll be killed. Is that what you call living?”

I spoke to them until I was blue in the face, but the women said, “We can’t go now. Our men aren’t around. If they come home and agree to it, we’ll go, but we can’t go without permission.”

“Where are your men?” I asked.

“They went out to find work.”

“We’ll come back around noon for you. If not noon then we’ll come in the afternoon. Tell the men what I’ve told you. Take whatever you like. We’ll come for you.”

When we left the compound, I saw two boys standing in front of a house at the end of the alley; one had his gun pointing at a gaunt but tall old man. As I approached them, I heard one of the boys saying, “If you don’t leave, I’ll shoot you.”

“Go ahead,” said the old man. “You’re just like Saddam. I’ve got to die anyway. So fire away. I’d rather die at home.”

It was heartbreaking to hear this. “Don’t treat him that way,” I said to the boy. “It’s sinful. These people are attached to their homes. This place is their whole world. You can’t strong-arm them. Step aside and let me see if I can convince him.”

The boy with the gun said, “Fine. I swear: we’re only doing it for his sake.”

Then he turned to the old man and said, “Don’t take what I said seriously, gramps. But it’s your fault. Why do you have to be so stubborn?”

“Father,” I said, “will it do you or anyone else any good if you die? Isn’t this a kind of suicide? Staying in your home means only two things: you will die or you’ll be captured. Why do you want things to end that way? Leave the city and when we drive the enemy out, God willing, you can return to your life.”

 

To be continued …

 



 
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