Da (Mother) 6

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




Moving to Iran

Mother did everything she could to get permission to visit father in prison. She made daily trips to various government offices, only to return fed up and tired, telling grandfather and mother’s Aunt Mimi where she had been and to whom she had spoken. Ali and I would be all ears when they talked, and, after mother had spoken to grandfather and Mimi, we nagged and nagged her about seeing father. Doubtful herself that anything could be done, she would pat our heads and say, “God willing, we’ll see.”

Mother’s constant visits to government offices and her prayers finally worked. On a spring day in 1968 she left the younger children with grandfather and auntie and brought Ali and me to visit father.

In those days people normally traveled on foot or in horse carriages, but because the prison was very far away, we had to go by taxi. This was the first time for me in a car, which as I recall was an old blue Chevrolet. I also remember going a long way. Ignoring mother’s nervous state, Ali and I never stopped fidgeting and clowning in the car, raising and lowering the windows and staring at the passing scenery. But the excitement of being in a car for the first time didn’t stop us from pestering mother about when we would see father. She only shook her head, saying nothing.

After several hours we reached Khanaqin. The car stopped in front of a multistoried building with a wide stairway. Two armed guards in military uniforms stood beside its large brown door, but inside the building everyone was in civilian clothes. One of the men brought us up the central stairway. It was dimly lit inside; I had never seen such a place and had a bad feeling about it. We stood at the end of the second floor hallway in front of a window with steel bars. The window was too high up for me to look through it. Mother picked me up, and I grabbed the bars. In the semidarkness I saw a room with several cells, each with a prisoner inside. They opened the door of the cell where father was crouching. He had trouble crawling out of the cell and, as though his whole body was stiff, he couldn’t straighten his back and knees. I wasn’t more than five years old at the time, and the scene terrified me. The excitement of seeing father again disappeared. Viewing him in that state, I was terrified, and the closer he came the more afraid I became. His features had changed a lot; there was no life in his face, which had become boney, making his cheeks jut out. His hair was matted. There was no sign of the spark that was always in his eyes; instead they were red and lifeless. It seemed he had lost a lot of weight. But in spite of it all, he maintained his usual dignity and aplomb.

As soon as mother saw the condition he was in, she began to sob, making Ali and me burst into tears. Though father was an emotional person, he tried to hide his feelings, but the tears came rolling down his cheeks when he saw mother crying. He reached out through the bars to hold and caress me. Then he put me down and hugged Ali and kissed him. Poor mother had to keep holding me in her arms the whole time we were there; Ali was able to climb onto the bars and pull himself up.

I felt father was upset because Ali and I were there. He asked mother, “Why did you bring the kids?” It was as if he didn’t want us to see him that way. Then he said, “Try to leave the country. Take the kids and go back to our homeland.”

It was not a good visit. I wanted to leave as soon as possible and wouldn’t stop crying. Father patted my head to calm me; he tousled my hair and said in Kurdish, “Don’t cry, little mother.”

After our visit, I couldn’t stop wondering why father was in that place. Why did he have to go to prison? I finally came to the conclusion that he was innocent, and it was only because he was faithful to Imam Ali that they put him there. I had heard from mother some people were against those friendly toward Imam Ali. I wished I were strong enough to break the bars and free father from his cell myself.  In the days and nights following the visit, I imagined the prisoners in those cells marching past me. My mind was so preoccupied with these thoughts that every window, every metal bar I saw would remind me of the prison. But despite it all, we were happy to see him; the visit lessened the pain somewhat.

Following father’s instructions, mother visited the Iranian consulate in Basra and petitioned to return to Iran. Because we had never taken Iraqi citizenship, we didn’t have identity cards. Father had even gotten our birth certificates from the Iranian consulate. This was why our exit would not be that difficult. We just had to wait a few months until they issued permission. The problem was elsewhere; leaving grandfather and his family was going to be very painful for us. What would we do without them? We were part of their family. Grandfather’s protection and support for us knew no limits, and his love for father was very strong.

The children adored grandfather. We would spend all day and night at his home, which was only a few alleys away from ours. We’d go there at the break of dawn and have breakfast with him. He’d give us whatever small change he had in his pocket. Even when father was home and didn’t permit us to go to grandfather’s, my grandmother, Bibi Ezzat, would come around with a breakfast tray and money and cajole father into accepting it.

After breakfast we would normally go to Uncle Salim and Aunt Salima’s house in Shakha and bring mother’s geese and ducks with us. Shakha was a very pretty spot watered by a branch of the Tigris, which explained its lush palm groves. The other girls and I would roll up our pants and play in the river, while the boys fished. Sometimes Uncle Salim and Ali would climb the palms and pick their dry, yellow dates and give them to us. We had such a good time there we forgot all about the time. When the sun was overhead, we’d return to grandfather’s house, leaving the geese and ducks to fend for themselves, but knowing they’d return on their own by sundown.

As soon as we got to grandfather’s house, we’d make a beeline for the rope swing that he had hung from the awning poles. The blazing afternoon sun scorched our heads and bare feet, but we didn’t mind. We’d just run over to the clay water-cooling jar and have some cold water when it got too hot. We’d also always have one eye on the front door, waiting for grandfather to come home. In the summer he’d always return with a watermelon tucked under his arm. He’d wash it and stick it into an ice chest. After it had cooled, he’d cut it open, give each of us a piece, and say, “Now, go home.”

Grandmother spoiled us as much as grandfather, treating us the same way she treated her own children. She was so loving and generous that until her dying day we didn’t realize she was our mother’s stepmother and that Uncles Nad Ali and Salim were grandfather’s stepchildren. Grandfather married Bibi several years after the death of his first wife, the mother of my mother, and Uncle Haqq Ali had died. Bibi was also a Seyyed. People said that the inhabitants of Zarinabad, all said to be descendants of Ebrahim, son of Imam Mohammad Baqer, only married with Seyyeds.

After grandfather’s marriage to Bibi there was a drought, and he had to abandon farming in the village to join his family in Basra.

Bibi gladly took on the role of mother to his children and was especially fond of my mother. Because of this kindness we also became attached to her. Unfortunately, as fate would have it, something terrible happened to take her from us. Early one Ramadan morning, Bibi lit the brazier to prepare the predawn meal, but as she poured kerosene on the coals, she caught fire and was badly burned. Hearing her screams, grandfather came running to help her, but he was unable to douse the flames, burning his arms in the process. That morning they sent word of what happened, and we came immediately. We could still see traces of the fire in the compound beside the small pool to which the burning Bibi had fled.

Mother looked after Bibi during her dying days at the hospital. Bibi was very thirsty, but the doctors wouldn’t let her drink, and, after enduring a few days of pain, she died. Grandfather had her buried in Najaf. Bibi’s death took a heavy toll on mother.

After the incident, Aunt Mimi took over managing the house. Mimi had come to grandfather’s home a few years before and had been helping Bibi with the housework. Mimi told us she had married at nine, and some years after her marriage God gave her a son, who was apparently very smart but died of measles at the age of eight. Two years later her husband died, leaving her all alone in the world. Mimi was a young woman at the time and for that reason went to live with her only brother. She never got over the death of her son. Whenever we did something that upset her, she would sit in the corner, going on and on about her son and crying. We children all adored Mimi. She went out of her way to take care of us, treating us like a mother would. In addition to us, she also helped raise our cousins on both sides of the family. I preferred to be with her most of the time, because when I was home I was so busy playing I wouldn’t hear mother calling me in Kurdish to take care of Mansur. When I didn’t answer, she would get mad and say in Kurdish, “Little brat, where were you?”

Mimi, on the other hand, didn’t care what we did. We would jump up and down on the beds, and play with Aunt Salima using dolls we made from straw, a metal tin, and scraps of cloth. When Uncle Nad Ali became fed up with all the noise, he would break up our game or untie the rope swing. Then we would be quiet for a time, waiting until uncle’s anger died down or until he went out so we could start playing again.

Mimi would sleep outside in the compound every night under a mosquito net on a separate bed grandfather had for her. When we slept out there with her, we—especially Mohsen and I—would fight. To get us to fall asleep, Mimi would get between us, hold our heads, and tell us many stories and recite poetry.

Though he couldn’t read or write, grandfather would tell us stories from the Shahnameh and recite the poetry of Rumi and Hafez. He was the elder of the clan. He had a family tree that bore the seals and signatures of Ayatollah Mohsen Hakim, Sheikh Morteza Ansari, Ayatollah Golpayegani, Ayatollah Marashi Najafi, and many other clergymen. He was very protective of this document, and a few times he took it out of the metal casing he had made himself, very carefully exhibiting it to us with the utmost of respect and countless prayers.

Grandfather was quite a sight when he stood in the middle of the compound and, dressed in his robe and black turban, gave the call to prayer. His glowing face imparted a peculiar sense of serenity, and even at the end of his life, when he was very frail, he continued to declaim his prayers to the congregation. Anything they gave him by way of alms or charity, he would bring to us.

I’ll never forget the first time I prayed. I came to grandfather, and he sensed I wanted to pray, which made him very happy. He hugged and kissed me and said, “I’ll teach you myself.” I stood up, and grandfather told me to repeat what he said. Whenever I made a mistake, he patiently corrected me. When it was over, he gave me some money. Afterwards, he never failed to encourage me when I prayed.

There was a kind of prayer and pageant hall called a Hoseyniyeh near grandfather’s house. During Ramadan, I would go there with the neighborhood kids just before dawn and stand by the door waiting for the call to prayer. The moment the sound came from high up on the mosque’s minaret, we scattered into the alleys, each of us racing home and shouting, “The call, the call!” Because the sound of the muezzin did not reach every part of the neighborhood, and because most homes had no radio, this told everyone it was time for the predawn meal.

Sometimes mother would go to the market, taking Ali and me with her. The path took us over the wooden bridge on the irrigation canal known as the Shatt al-Khandaq. Located on the canal was grandfather’s mill or, as we called it, the “flour machine,” which along with one or two other mills supplied the needs of the whole town. Before kerosene and electric generators were installed, water from the canal powered the millstone. When we got to the mill, mother would normally leave the path and look for grandfather to see how he was. We couldn’t wait, rushing ahead of her to find grandfather. He would call me “dalakam” in Kurdish, which means “my little mother,” which delighted me because it showed how much affection he had for me.

We knew grandfather wore a skullcap in the mill instead of his black turban. He also wrapped his green shawl firmly around his waist and tucked the ends of his dishdasha in it so he could work more freely. I felt sorry for him every time I saw him in that blazing Basran sun, wiping the sweat from his sunburned face with a bandana he kept in the pocket of his dishdasha. The last thing I wanted to see was grandfather lifting heavy gunnysacks packed with flour. But these thoughts didn’t last.

As soon as Ali and I reached the flour machine, we’d get into mischief. Inside the mill it was generally dark; it was only around noon that the sunlight would stream through the skylight. While mother was asking after grandfather, we would scamper over the flour sacks and the apparatus, getting into everybody’s hair. Grandfather kept an eye on us even as he spoke with mother and occasionally said, “Don’t climb on the flour; it’s a gift from God. It’s wrong, get down from there at once!”

But we didn’t listen and just went on doing what we were doing. One time when playing with Ali, I jumped down from one of the sacks, but my foot slipped, and I landed in a pile of flour. All at once everything went white, and I couldn’t see. I couldn’t breathe, either. Flour went in my mouth and up my nose, and I was choking. I used all my strength to scream, “Help!”

Mother and grandfather heard me fall into the flour and quickly pulled me out. Grandfather said irritably, “How many times did I tell you not to go in there?” But when he saw how scared I was, he just blew the flour from my face and dusted off my clothes, asking, “Little mother, why can’t you just sit still? You don’t want to turn into a little devil, do you?”

Such childhood memories and countless others like them made it impossible for me to understand why we had to leave grandfather behind. In the meantime, mother was busy auctioning off the contents of our home, which were her dowry. Each day a few neighbors would come in and buy household items for less than they were worth. Everything was for sale at a low price: mother and father’s metal bed with the pleated white spread I loved; the blue, Japanese and Chinese ceramic cups painted with birds and trees full of blossoms; the double-door wooden wardrobe with the full-length mirror in the middle; the dish closet; Mansur’s cradle. Leila and I were on the verge of tears, seeing mother putting our possessions in the for-sale pile. Whenever she put her hands on something else I begged her not to sell it, but she would only say, “It can’t be helped, Zahra.” When I insisted, she explained, “We can’t take all this to Iran.” But when she took my cloak, the dam burst, and tears started rolling down my face. She consoled me by saying, “Where we’re going they’re Persian; they don’t wear this type of thing.”

But it didn’t do any good; I loved that cloak. It was silk with gold threads and piping. When I wore it and went around carrying a basket woven from date palms, I felt all grown up. That was why I cried my eyes out when mother tried to sell it. Mother saved only those things we absolutely needed. We were also forced to sell the house, and we moved into a room next to grandfather’s house that he had rented for us. The landlady, an old woman living alone, was a poor creature who lived off the rent and what she earned selling odds and ends near her front door. We didn’t stay there long.

When they sent word from the Iranian Consulate that we could go, the long goodbyes began. Grandfather’s home took on an air of mourning. Family, friends, and neighbors came in groups to wish us farewell. We could only cry; we were very upset. It hurt most of all to say goodbye to grandfather and Mimi.

While this was going on, Uncle Hoseyni, mother’s brother who lived in Khorramshahr, got word to us that father was there. The news of father’s release made us very happy, especially at the moment we were leaving Iraq. All the same, the pain of leaving grandfather was still unbearable.

The day of our departure, we all went to customs in Basra: grandfather, Mimi, Uncle Salim, Uncle Nad Ali, and Aunt Salima. Everybody was crying, especially Mimi and mother; until that day I had never seen grandfather cry. When we got on the launch he tried to cheer us up saying, “You go, and we’ll gather and come right after you.”

Uncle Nad Ali, no more than eighteen then, accompanied us to the water border with Iran. We cried the whole time we were in the launch. Uncle played the clown to cheer us up, but it did no good. In the end, he was crying too.

The look on grandfather’s and Mimi’s faces when they said goodbye stayed with me; the thought that we were leaving them behind was torture. But Ali was different; somehow he was able to keep himself amused. He was his curious, naughty self. Ali pestered the captain so much that the poor man allowed him to steer the launch for a considerable way.

There was another family originally from Elam in the launch. They also tried to console us by saying, “God is great; someday, if He wills it, you’ll be reunited,” which was no comfort. In my own childish way I thought, “Easy for you to say. You’re all together—you even have your daughter-in-law and your grandchild with you. You didn’t have to leave anybody behind in Basra.”

The Consulate arranged for an Iranian boat to meet us at the border. They transferred us from the Iraqi launch to the boat. Staying behind in the launch, Uncle Nad Ali went to pieces. As the Iranian boat moved away, the launch remained where it was, which was probably what he wanted. I could see him crying; but soon he became a dot disappearing over the horizon.


To be continued …


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