Da (Mother) 94

The Memoirs of Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni

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

2024-4-21


Da (Mother) 94

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

 

***

 

The man gave me a hard stare and said, “You weren’t around to see how the English took Khorramshahr before. Now these Baathists, stirred up by those same English, have come to take the city from us. It’s the Sheikh Khaz’al story all over again.”

“No, God willing, that won’t happen. That was the time of the Shah, who was the lackey of the English and the Americans. That’s over.”

Hoseyn Eidi, now standing behind me, confirmed what I was telling the old man and tried himself to win the man over. We finally persuaded him to go. Although convinced we were right, the old man still had a hard time coming to grips with leaving his home. He lingered in the doorway, which was made of wooden beams and covered by sheets of metal from oil drums. Staring back at his home, he said, “I don’t have the heart to leave. I built this place with my own hands. It wasn’t easy.”

The mud and straw structure was in very bad repair. The wooden beams supporting the ceiling of the rooms at the end of the yard were exposed. The garden was covered in dust. The old man had planted a few date palms in the untended garden. A small channel carried wastewater from the reflecting pool to the alley. There was a shed for animals by the door. From the straw and animal waste strewn in the yard it was clear he had kept a cow. The old man had nothing beside this home. He wore a faded blue jacket over his dishdasha, which was worn and full of holes. He wound a white kafiyyeh around his head and, when he slipped his sun-blackened feet into a pair of torn plastic sandals, it made them look even more ragged.

I kind of liked the old man. Not only was he able to maintain a measure of personal dignity, he also understood to an extent what was behind the war. I examined his grieving face more closely. It showed all the signs of the pains and hardships of his life—like the faces of the hard-working people who by the dint of their own labor managed to get through life.

A bit farther along the alley was another scene that I found very upsetting. This was unlike the other places where there were only one or two people. Here were several families—young men, their young brides, and grandchildren with their grandparents. They had refused to evacuate. We talked and talked until finally convincing the men to leave. I signaled to the driver, who brought the pickup forward. The people walked to the truck, carrying bundles with their possessions. But no matter what we did, the old man and woman in the group would not come with us. The old woman, who appeared to be very attached to her husband, refused to be separated from him. The old man said to her, “You go with our sons. Don’t worry about me.”

The woman was crying. Her chubby face was red. The man said to her, “Don’t cry. Why are you crying? I’ll come for you later.”

This failed to calm her. I hugged and kissed her, trying to reassure her that there was nothing to worry about. In Arabic she asked, “How can I just leave him and go? I’m everything to him. I’ve always been by his side, cooking for him. His favorite is fish. Who’s going to make fish for him?”

“Mother,” I said, “will it make any difference if he doesn’t have fish with what’s going on here? Besides, where are you going to get fish nowadays?”

The old man spoke to his wife and sent her over to her children. He wouldn’t abandon their two cows. The old woman hesitated getting in the truck because of the strange men. She kissed her young son, who was single and wanted to remain with his father, and said, “Look out for your father. Make sure he takes his medicine on time. Don’t run about or you’ll be hit by a mortar. Stay by your father.”

The grandchildren and the young women came forward to kiss the old man’s hands and feet. He caressed them and kissed them on the head. The brides pleaded with him to come with them. “Leave the cows. God will look after them.”

He suddenly became angry and barked at them, “What do you know? My whole life is wrapped up in these cows! How can I leave them? Aren’t these the same animals that gave you milk and the whey that you drank? They’re the ones that kept you going, aren’t they?”

The men and their wives gathered around him again and said, “Take care of yourself.”

As we neared the last part of Mowlavi, the place became more deserted. Bombs and mortar fire had knocked holes in the walls around many of the homes. We could see children’s clothes still hanging on clotheslines through the broken walls. Their pink, red, and blue plastic sandals were also visible. This made me think of Sa’id, Zeynab, and Hasan. I worried about what had happened to them. I saw a doll buried in the debris. I felt its blue eyes staring at me. With each step I expected to see Iraqis or to be ambushed by them.

A breeze whipped up dust in the alleys and sent garbage blowing from one side to the other. At times it was so quiet the whistling of the wind made me imagine all kinds of frightening things. The silence brought memories of the long days of summer before the war, when everybody would gather by the gas coolers and sleep with the ceiling fans going. But we didn’t have the means of keeping cool. When it got very hot and dry, father would go to the marsh and wet some straw. Then he would put the wet straw in front of a fan to make the air cool and damp. Sometimes he would wet a cloth for the same purpose, but it would soon dry, losing its effectiveness. Not used to sleeping during the day at all, I would go by the door and peek out into the alley. Nothing was moving in that heat, not even the birds. The silence and the emptiness of the alley frightened me, and I would quickly shut the door. Mother was always frightening us with stories about kidnappers lurking in the deserted alleys. It was like that now. I don’t know how long we had been working, but the boys were very tired, and when the truck, which had been ferrying people away, returned empty, we climbed in and headed for the mosque.

I was wondering what to do next, when I heard someone shouting. I raised my head and saw a slim young man in the doorway of the mosque trying to draw people’s attention. He was saying, “Our forces have no water at the front. It’s so bad they’ve been forced to drink marsh water. You have to do something.”

I had the feeling I knew him. As I was trying to recall where I’d seen him before, I asked myself: How does he know they need water at the front? Then it suddenly hit me. This was Behnam Mohammadi, one of Uncle Shanbeh’s relatives. Whenever he visited them, they would warn the neighbors what a devil he was. He’d sneak peeks into their yards from the roof and play with a dog chained there. I was amazed to see him looking so thin, so battered and worn. He was very sunburned, and his long hair needed combing. “What are you doing here, Behnam?” I asked.

He just stared at me in silence, as if he didn’t recognize me. “Don’t you remember whenever you came to uncle’s house, you’d appear on our roof and drive us crazy with your monkey business?” I said.

He smiled, seeming to remember. “What happened to your dog?” he asked.

“Nothing. No doubt he’s a refugee like everybody else.”

Then I asked, “What’s happening? What did you say about the front? Were you there?”

“Yeah. I go to the front with the defender boys. A few days ago we were surrounded all day and couldn’t get water. With me being so wiry and strong, they said I should try and get some. That’s the reason why I went through hell to do it. Even though the water was filthy, I had no choice. I brought it back but after the boys had drunk some, they all started puking.”

“Around evening we managed to get away from the Iraqis, but we were dying of thirst. I went everywhere, knocked on every door to find some water, and finally I ended up by the pool at the mosque. But is that what you call water? There’s scum all over it, it’s been in the pool so long. I pushed the scum aside and shoved my head under so I could gulp down some of the swampy stuff. But I couldn’t help swallowing some of the scum and got sick to my stomach. All of us were like that, everybody throwing up, but because we were still parched, we went on drinking.”

I got upset and said, “That shouldn’t happen. I’ll tell everyone I can to get them to bring water to the front.”

After that wherever we went, I tried to make sure that we carried water jugs with us. We would fill them at the Shatt where the water was boiling hot and had fuel oil and gasoline floating on it, but it was still better than marsh water.

 

End of Chapter Twenty Five

 

To be continued …

 



 
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