Da (Mother) 15

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


The woman was in tears and said, “I don’t have anything. You see how I’m dressed.”

I said, “No problem,” and covered the little girl with a corner of the blanket.

The woman seemed to be paying attention to me, but her crying and moans made me speak more directly. “If you go on this way, you’ll make it worse for the child. You’ve got to get yourself under control first and then try to calm the child.”

“You have a point, but I’m dying inside. There’s nothing I can do for her.”

I sat down and caressed the child’s face. I wanted with all my heart to do something to soothe her but couldn’t. Just then I heard a man say, “Where do I give blood?” This gave me a start, as I realized: At last, here’s something I can do. I quickly ran toward the man and followed him into the room where they took blood. It was full of metal cabinets with glass doors. There were also nurses cutting lengths of adhesive and sticking them on the side of a trolley. Before the man could speak, I said, “I want to give blood; where should I go?”

The nurse looked up and asked, “How old are you?”

“Not quite seventeen.”

“Impossible. You can’t give blood.”

“What’s wrong with me?” I asked.

“You’re under eighteen and you’re on the thin side. We only take blood from people over eighteen, who also have the right weight.”

I was so frustrated. Here was one thing that I thought I could do, but even that was impossible. Now what was I supposed to do?

I thought I would go home and take a page out of father’s book, because he had been a great help to the boys at the mosque when there was the problem with the Arab separatists. He told Leila and me to go around to the neighbors to collect sheets, petrol, and soap. I had made up my mind by the time I left the ward. As I was leaving, I saw a nurse poke her head out of one of the rooms and said to a man, “Go tell the morgue attendant to come by. Another one’s gone and needs to be taken to the freezer.”

This made me think of the martyrs. I ran into the courtyard. There was a lot of noise coming from the morgue. Men and women were standing in front of it beating themselves and calling out the names of their loved ones. There was a man standing in front of the door, stopping the mourners from rushing inside. He kept repeating, “Why are you crowding around here? We’re going to eventually transfer all of them to Jannatabad. You have to go there if you want to take possession of your dead.”

I said to myself: Go to Jannatabad and see what’s happening there and maybe you can do something to help. There were two ways to go there, and, after leaving the hospital, I stopped to decide which way was best. One was the Ring Road that went through the wasteland outside the city; the other was the main Forty Meter Road. I decided to go on the main road, but the vehicles that passed were all full of people, so there was no chance of catching a ride. I was walking past a furniture store when a white Peykan appeared. I waved my hand and it stopped; there were only two women passengers inside. The driver asked, “Where to?”

“Straight ahead. I want to go to Jannatabad.”

“We’re going up to the entrance of Congregation Mosque,” he said.

“So I’ll get off at the corner of Mosque Avenue,” I said.

I got out at the corner and when I tried to pay the driver, he wouldn’t accept the money, saying, “Pray for me.” I thanked him and headed for Jannatabad. The cemetery was near our house; I had been there many times so I wasn’t that afraid of the dark atmosphere there or of corpses. I remembered one time I was with mother and Zeynab going home from uncle’s house, and we were standing on the Ring Road, waiting and waiting but there were no taxis. It was getting dark and Zeynab was tired and crabby. We had no choice but to walk. As we passed Jannatabad I said to mother, “Let’s cut through the cemetery.”

She said, “It’s not good to walk there at sundown, especially in the middle of the week.”

“What’s the problem?” I asked. “The people resting here were just like us.” Then I walked toward the cemetery, forcing mother to follow. I remembered what the kids in the neighborhood had said about being afraid of the place, but I wasn’t scared. As we walked among the graves, I noticed that my shoelace was untied. I knelt down to retie it and noticed a coffin a few feet away from us. I was curious to look inside, but mother said, “You’ve got no business looking at coffins. Let’s get out of here.”

“Wait a second; I’m coming,” I said. I raised the lid a crack and looked inside. There was a body wrapped in a shroud. Mother, who was now really frightened, didn’t wait for me and hurried off. I said a quick prayer for the dead and ran after her. We got to the place where they washed the bodies, just as a pickup was entering the cemetery. I wondered whether they were transferring corpses to another place.

It wasn’t long before I reached the cemetery. All hell had broken loose. Waves of people were there, moaning and wailing to the heavens. I had never seen Jannatabad like that before. They had laid out row after row of corpses on white sheets and packed them with chunks of ice. Blood from the dead mixed with the water from the melting ice, and small pinkish streams flowed out from under the corpses. A few people were standing over each corpse reciting dirges and pounding on their heads and clawing at their faces. The fury of their mourning made a person tremble; the way the women grieved was especially heartbreaking. Some of them had gouged their cheeks so deeply their blood had begun to flow. Some also tore at their hair so ferociously that tufts of it were in their fists. There were others who had fainted, while those around them tried to revive them by slapping their faces, forcing water into their mouths, and massaging their shoulders. Even some of the men, unable to be taken in the catastrophe, fainted. Some pounded their heads against the wall or threw themselves on the corpses. There were also people who had heaped mud and dirt on their heads and shoulders. Most of the Arab women mourners formed a circle to mourn as though it were Moharram. One of them sung the lines of a dirge, while the others responded and beat their heads and chests. I sobbed as I walked through the crowd and heard the dirge leader sing in Arabic:


O woe! O woe! Everyone say, Woe!

The women answered: O woe! O woe!

The leader said: O woe unto us! Ours are the martyrs!

The women answered: O woe! O woe!

The leader said: Woe unto us for Mohammad’s heart is seared!


Whenever they said the name of one of the martyrs, the crowd would shriek. Then they would immediately start with rapid-fire face-slapping and choral responses: “Hooo Haaa….” Some couldn’t take it any longer and lost consciousness. Those were strange scenes, and even though I had seen mourning processions during the course of the revolution, which celebrated martyrdoms from the Arab separatist trouble and the Hypocrites’ bombings, this time the number of killed was greater. This time the dead were innocents buried and bloodied in their sleep. The sun was merciless, and the smells of earth, blood, and gunpowder filled the air. All these things made me sick to my stomach; I felt so terrible I couldn’t stand. It was as if I’d lost every ounce of strength in my body. I was dizzy and everything went blank. My knees weak, I was forced to lean on a nearby pillar. But that was no use, and I slid to the ground. The scenes were just like the descriptions of Karbala. I scolded myself: What’s wrong? Why are you so weak? This was how I tried to regain control of my body. I got up and walked toward the place where they washed women’s corpses. Men and women were massed behind the door, sitting on the ground waiting to take possession of their dead. As soon as the door opened they charged inside, wanting to be there when they washed the bodies and wrapped them in shrouds. But the door would close immediately after a body emerged. One person had a list of people in his hand and would send out bodies in order of the names on the list. After pushing myself forward only to retreat several times, I finally managed to cut a path through the crowd. I knocked on the door but they didn’t open it. I waited until they sent out another body and, using the force of the crowd, hurled myself inside. I waited in the middle of a room for someone to ask testily what I thought I was doing there. My heart was racing as I looked around, stunned and confused. There were two rooms connected to each other and only one entrance. The room I was in was about 120 square meters. The walls and floor were made of cement painted with a leaden color that caused the atmosphere in the room to be even more dismal. In front of me was a window with a green wooden frame. Sunlight from the window combined with the faint glow of electric lamps to light the room. Everything in the place was cold and soulless, which made it seem even more morbid to me. But what really broke my heart was seeing the bodies of women lined up from the walls to the center of the room. As soon as I saw them, I instinctively stepped back; the bodies were all aligned with the heads facing me and the feet pointing toward the wooden door separating the two rooms. Some eyes and mouths were open; others were full of blood. The faces and stringy hair of the dead were blood-soaked. All the corpses were those of young women. Their arms and legs hung limp from the rest of their bodies. Some didn’t have arms and legs at all, and one that made my heart break had her arms torn off leaving two jagged gashes at the elbows. I recalled that whenever mother was distressed, beseeching God for something, she swore by the two severed hands of the revered Abbas.

Seeing the bodies made me weak again; then I felt nauseous. I wanted nothing more than to have someone splash water in my face and say, “Get up. This is just a nightmare,” but the screeches and wailing coming from outside the body-washing room and the combined smells of blood, camphor, and wet earth told me otherwise. The bitter truth was that there was no escaping the scene, and I was sorry I had entered the room. I asked myself: What the hell were you thinking coming here? Why didn’t you get off at the mosque where there was probably a lot for you to do?

On the right-hand side of the room there was a cement bench and in front of it a metal cabinet. Beside the bench was a thickset old woman, soaked in sweat. She was in such a bad state that she didn’t notice I had entered. She seemed to be taking a breather. I stood there not know what to do, when a thin, relatively short woman entered from the back room. She was in dark, loose-fitting clothing and had a red cotton cloth on her head. Her face was olive bordering on yellow.  As she passed me, I got a strong whiff of tobacco, and I realized her lips were so bluish because she was a heavy smoker. As she went to the cabinet, she glanced at me. I was petrified, thinking that there would be an argument. In a raspy voice she asked, “Are you here to help or are you looking for your dead?” At a loss I only said, “I’ve come to help.”

I didn’t know what my face told her I was feeling, but she asked me, “You’re not afraid?”

I sensed that there were still signs in my expression of the weakness I felt. I said, “I’ll try not to be.”

“Come and help us, then.”

“Okay,” I said.

She pulled lengths of muslin from a drawer and said, “Take these and help that woman cut it into shrouds.”

I took the fabric and walked toward the old woman and, as I did, I glanced at her; there was no color in her face. Her blouse was so damp it clung to her body. Strands of her gray hair had crept out from under her head cloth and were splayed over her forehead. Her thin, braided forelocks, red with henna, also protruded from the cloth.

I gathered my chador and squatted on the floor in front of her. To break the silence I said, “Looks like you’ve been working hard?” She nodded and took the fabric from my hands and measured it out with her thumb. Then she had me hold one end while she cut the other with a pair of scissors.

As she was cutting the fabric, I heard sounds coming from the otherroom. I was curious to see what was going on. I could hear a woman say in a caring voice, “Bring the hose over here and hold it right. Why are you doing it that way? Now this poor creature’s going to fall. Point the hose that way….”

When she mentioned falling, I felt a pain in my heart. I moved around trying to see what was happening in the room. The door was ajar and I could see a woman laid out on a bench with water flowing over her limp hair. Gloved hands were pouring pails of water over the body. The scene was familiar to me; about a year ago Nahid, the sister of Uncle Nad Ali’s wife, had died not from the burns when the brazier she was fanning exploded—they were minor—but from kidney failure. Nahid’s long locks were spread out over the body-washing stone, waving and dancing as the water flowed through them. The scene stayed with me for a long time; there was something troubling about it. Now I was seeing the same thing.

After the fabric was cut into shrouds, the old woman said, “Put them in the cabinet.” I did this and walked toward the back room. My heart was in turmoil. After going through all that to get inside in the first place, snaking through the crowd and, above all, doing so without my parents’ permission, I needed to accomplish something so that, if I had to leave, it would give me a reason to return. There was another thing also; I wanted to experience everything I could. I stepped into the other room even though I found it difficult to look at the corpses laid out that way. Seeing the floor swamped in a pink mixture of blood and water, I hoisted my chador. The first thing that caught my eye was the small cement pool in the middle of the room that was ringed with a narrow drainage channel filled with blood. I immediately thought of the slaughterhouse that was near our home when we lived on Mina Avenue. Sometimes mother and I along with the wives of the neighbors would go there to buy sheep heads and trotters for a stew. I had also been curious to see what went on in that place. There was a steady stream of blood from the carcasses hanging from the ceiling. My sympathies were with the sheep.


To be continued …


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