Da (Mother) 33

The Memoirs of Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni

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

2023-02-07


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

 

***

 

 I didn’t ask how my name had come up, but I guessed that because of all my visits to the mosque and the shouting, I had become the talk of the town. Seeing that they knew my name, I decided to ask theirs. The shorter one said, “I’m Abdollah Moavi; my brother, Hasan, is in the army.”

The other one said, “My name is Hoseyn Eidi.”

He looked familiar. I wondered where I had seen Hoseyn Eidi before.

Finally I said, “Your face is familiar, but I can’t remember where I’ve seen you.”

He got all bashful and said, “Our house is on Mina Avenue across from the bakery.”

Then I remembered. He was one of the kids in the neighborhood who was now all grown up.

“Are you the same Hoseyn that the kids used to call ‘black frizzhead’?” I asked.

He laughed and said, “Yeah, that’s me.”

The closer we got to Jannatabad, the more anxious I became. I hoped the workers there wouldn’t have the same doubts as I about the two kids’ ability to stick it out and say, “So this is what you meant by fresh forces, huh?” Thank God that didn’t happen. Everybody greeted the two boys warmly, which made me happy. I said, “You want to help? Go to the place where they wash the men.”

The poor things. They wanted to be guards, but they went to the body washers’ without a peep. Zeynab and I along with two of the men grabbed a stretcher with a corpse. The body was very heavy, and carrying it strained my back. I had to rest after we returned from the grave. Then I saw a girl coming toward me, a girl that I had seen at the mosque that afternoon; she had been sitting on some boxes stacked by a wall. She said, “Come here, sister.”

Puzzled, I asked, “Are you talking to me?”

“Yeah,” she said. “You don’t know me, but I’ve heard a lot about you. They talk about what a fine job you’ve done at Jannatabad, how you’re really brave staying here. I’d be scared to bury the dead like you do.”

“Yeah,” I said.

She told me her name at that point: Nahid. Then she came nearer and asked, “Wouldn’t you rather sleep in the mosque?”

“No, I stay here at night,” I said.

“Here?” she said in disbelief.

“Yeah, and this is not my first night,” I said.

Her tone changed all of a sudden. It surprised me to see the kind girl she had been suddenly turn so bossy and quarrelsome. She said, “It’s not proper for a young girl to sleep here!”

“It’s got nothing to do with age; I’m not alone here. The others also stay.”

“You mustn’t,” she insisted. “I’m going to bring it up with the committee.”

That made me very angry. “What? You’re going to do what? What the hell does it have to do with you? You like to play boss, honey, don’t you? Go and take it up with the committee, for all I care!”

“You’ll answer to me eventually. I’ll show you,” she threatened.

Now I was steaming mad. “You’re threatening me now? Go and do whatever the hell you want.”

Zeynab, who had overheard our run-in, said to her, “What are you doing here? Get out and mind your own business!”

The girl was around twenty something and relatively chubby and short. She walked away in a huff only to come back less than half an hour later.

It had gotten dark and I was going to wash for prayer when Zeynab said, “Zahra, come here. That girl is back, and she’s got an official with her.”

The man was thin and short and his white shirt was not tucked into his pants. He seemed to be one of those thick-headed types, indifferent to logic. When they got close, he asked, “Who’s Sister Hoseyni?”

“That’s me. You want something?”

In a voice full of disapproval, he asked, “I want you to explain why you’re spending the night here. Who gave you permission?”

I said, “This is not my first time. My father has given his approval. Besides, what’s the problem with my staying here in your opinion?”

“Problem, I’m saying for your sake it’s a problem, because it’s not safe here. You’re a young girl, after all. Taking care of this place at night is a man’s job.”

I said, “I know about this place, and incidentally, it’s because there’s no security here that I’m staying. The bodies of the fallen would be all alone otherwise. Nobody’s given a thought to protecting them. Why don’t you show me the men who’re coming here? Come to think of it why don’t you spend the night here, and I’ll go home?”

“I can’t do that; I have tons of work already. Besides, what do the dead need with protection anyway?”

“If you’d kindly come with me,” I said with mock deference, “I’ll show you.”

We walked to the body washers’ building. I showed him the rows of corpses lying by the path and said, “These need protecting. At night when the dogs get aggressive, you’ll see what goes on here. Last night we couldn’t let our guard down for a minute, and this morning you can see how the dogs had rutted around in the cemetery. There’s more: the Hypocrites. When they went to Taleqani Hospital to claim ‘their’ bodies, they wouldn’t deliver them, saying they needed a letter. It became clear they were stealing bodies to hike up their own martyr count for propaganda purposes. So whether the dogs attack or the Hypocrites, what can you expect a handful of old men and women to do to defend the place?”

“In any case, it would be better if you didn’t stay here,” he said.

“I agree,” I said, “just provide us with some armed men, and you’ll have a clear conscience.”

He said, “I’ll go and see what I can do.”

That was the end of the conversation, and they left with their heads hanging. I was really upset finding the whole thing offensive. How dare they come here and get on their high horse with me in the middle of all this!

After a few hours it was completely dark. Everybody stopped working. Dinner that night was bread and canned fish; I had no appetite for either. Ignoring the food, I got up and sat with Leila and Zeynab by the small garden near the mosque. Hoseyn and Abdollah were sitting a few feet away. They would occasionally get up, walk to the door, and come back.

The sound of dogs barking could be heard over the din of the explosions. The sound got louder and closer as the night wore on. The sounds had been coming from the wasteland behind the Sabaean cemetery, but soon we could here them from all around us. We all pricked up our ears, anxious to see what would happen next. Zeynab said, “The dogs had so much blood they’re rabid.”

I recalled how they were on the previous night: ready to attack with foam dripping from their mouths. All at once the sounds started coming from the part of the cemetery where the wall was broken. Zeynab, Leila, and I immediately ran to that side. Hoseyn and Abdollah got there right after us. Hoseyn said, “You shouldn’t go farther, they’ll flank us. I’ll shoot them.”

“That’s sinful. Why do we have to kill these dumb animals?”

“If I don’t kill them they’ll tear us apart.”

I said, “Shoot in the air; that’ll probably scare them off.”

I hadn’t finished speaking when the forms of dogs appeared, and the sound was now coming from the garden area. They were running toward us. We were all crouched on the ground gathering stones, which we threw at the dogs. This only made them bolder, and they came at us more quickly, and at the same time increased the space between them. Some went to the left, others to the right. Two or three also attacked from the center. In an instant they had formed a semi-circle around us, ready to pounce. They gnashed their teeth, and there was fury in their eyes. When they were four meters away, they stopped and began to bark. Their sharp teeth were glistening in the semi-darkness. The savagery in their looks scared me out of my wits; it seemed they could devour us just with their eyes. Obviously we were all terrified, but I was even more worried about Leila. We warned one another not to approach them, because the dogs were definitely rabid.

When a couple of the dogs stepped closer, the others followed and Zeynab began to shriek like a baby, which I found both ridiculous and irksome. Here was a woman who had remained firm in the face of all that went on at the cemetery, who supported me, now breaking down. It was totally unexpected. “Don’t shriek,” I said. “It’ll only encourage them.”

She kept on screaming, though. “They can’t get any more vicious than this! They’re going to tear us to pieces any minute now!”

Hoseyn cocked his rifle, but I said, “Don’t shoot; it’s not right.”

Zeynab and Leila said in unison, “Let him fire. Shoot, Hoseyn!”

Abdollah, angered by what I said, yelled, “What do you mean: Don’t shoot? You want them to eat you alive to be sure they’re rabid?”

“The dogs are innocent,” said Hoseyn. “We’re the guilty ones here. They’re going to eat us now,” and he fired several shots in the air. The sound of the gun wound its way around the cemetery, and the dogs stopped moving. At the same time I threw a rock at a large dog, which seemed more dangerous than the rest. Since it wasn’t entirely dark, I could aim and hit it on the snout. The dog growled and retreated; the rest followed suit and ran away, looking back at us as they did. Hoseyn and Abdollah ran after them. Fear of the dogs had taken so much out of the rest of us we fell to the ground and lay there for a few minutes waiting to catch our breaths. I sat with my back against a tree and stretched out my legs. I looked up to see clouds moving across the sky. They covered the moon and it got pitch dark. As they scudded along, it seemed as though the moon was moving along behind them.

Able to breathe again, we returned to the building. Maryam and the others, still afraid, looked around nervously. One of the old men had a shovel and greeted us by saying, “I was going to come and help but they wouldn’t let me. They said I might fall if I tried to run.”

Maryam said, “We were very afraid for you. I thought they’d tear you to shreds.”

I took out the piece of paper with Jahan Ara’s number from my headscarf and went to make a call. I told them who I was calling as I dialed.

It took a while for him to come to the phone. I told him about the dogs, saying that we had won one battle, but they might be back at any moment, and we couldn’t beat them back a second time.

He said, “Don’t worry. God will reward you for the way you’ve put yourselves on the line.” His message was: we must continue to resist. I thanked him and joined the others.

A couple of hours later we were eating a supper of bread and watermelon, when the phone rang. One of the old men answered. Then he said to me, “It’s for you, sister.”

I was surprised, but then I realized that it was probably the mosque calling. Jahan Ara was on the line, asking whether the people they had sent had arrived yet.

“No,” I said.

“We’ve collected some shroud material and sent it along. They should be arriving soon, but the corpses have to stay piled up, because we don’t have people to spare. We’ve decided to move the bodies from Jannatabad to nearby cities—to Abadan and Mahshahr. A truck will come in the morning to pick them up.”

 

To be continued …

 



 
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