Da (Mother) 87

The Memoirs of Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni

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

2024-03-03


Da (Mother) 87

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

 

***

 

There were several people from Jannatabad with us in the truck. We all got out. The path we had to take to get to the spot the driver showed us was under fire. The Ring Road was slightly elevated, nearly two meters in places above the surface of the land, and we had to climb down an embankment. The road ran through swampy land, which flooded when it rained. They had installed large cement drainage pipes under the road to allow water to flow from one side to the other. We went as far as we could on the embankment. To get to the body we had to reach the other side of the road, which was under fire. I gathered my chador around me and crawled through one of the pipes. Now in range of Iraqi shelling, when at any moment a bomb could find me, I thought I was going to die.

Going through hell, I finally reached the body. It was face down in a mass of dirt soaked in all the blood the man had lost. I tried to turn the man over but couldn’t. I looked behind me and saw the boys crawling on their chests toward me. “Come on,” I said. “Give me a hand.”

“We’re not going to touch it,” they said.

They had a right to say that. After three days in the broiling sun, the body had become something no one would want to touch. I put my hands under one side of the corpse and tried to lift it. It made a dry rasp as it separated from the ground. Finally, it rose and then settled back on the ground, making things worse. The innards had spilled out. Shrapnel had severed the man’s throat. It was clear that after being hit, he had thrown up some bread and cheese.

When the boys caught a glimpse of that, they said, “Leave it. We can’t possibly touch that thing the way it is now.”

“Guys, don’t you see we’re in range?” I asked. “You can’t keep sitting on your hands, can you?”

“There’s no way we’re lifting that corpse given the state it’s in,” they repeated.

They turned away as they said this, refusing even to peek at the body. I became annoyed and said, “So what’s it to be? We’ve come all this way, gone through hell to get here. What do you want to do?”

“Fine, but can you just cover the thing somehow?” one of them asked.

“How on earth am I supposed to do that?”

“I don’t know, but we can’t touch it if it’s like that,” he said.

I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have the heart to leave the poor soul in that state and return empty-handed. There was nothing in that wasteland that would do the trick. Then it hit me: cover the body with my chador. But that would be difficult for me. These days, even during the worst conditions, I managed to keep on my chador. Without it I didn’t know what I’d do. The girls were always urging me, “Come on, you can take your chador off.”

I ignored them. Wearing it, I told them, was a comfort to me.

This time I had no choice. Whatever it took, we had to remove the body. Underneath my chador, I was wearing a turquoise terry cloth shirt with long sleeves and silver stripes father had bought me for New Years that year. I also had on a black headscarf and blue jeans. I took off my chador and drapped it over the corpse. Then I said to the boys,

“Okay, now? Help me pick him up, will you?”

Together we managed to get the body on the stretcher and dragged it along behind us. When we got to the truck, I breathed a deep sigh of relief and got in. After the truck started moving, I asked the old woman who was crying over the corpse whether she would lend me her chador.

“There’s nothing wrong with the way you’re covered. What do you want with a chador?” she asked.

“I’ve always worn one. I can’t now just appear in public without it.”

“Put that out your mind,” she said. “Who would possibly give a thought to your chador in the middle this mess?”

I kept nagging until she finally gave in. She wasn’t all that happy about removing it as well. We took the old woman and the corpse to Jannatabad, and I, now dressed in the floral print white chador, went on to the clinic. The girls kidded me about it mercilessly. “For God’s sake,” I said, “does somebody have a black chador they can loan me?”

“No,” they said.

All my clothes were stiff as if starched with dirt, grime, and dried blood. So I finally settled for a loose-fitting coat. As luck would have it, Elaheh Hejab, whose family had taken her out of the city the first week of the war, came back to Khorramshahr. On a visit to the clinic to see me, she said she would get me another coat.

While her family was away inspecting their home, she ran from the clinic and quickly came back with a crepe coat. I put it on and said it to the girls, “For God’s sake think of something. Let’s go to the public bath in Abadan. I can’t stand myself any more.”

Almost everybody was filthy. We didn’t give the matter much thought while there was work to do, but when we had time to sit around and check one another out, we noticed how horrid we looked. We were covered in sores and we stank, and, if we didn’t do anything about it soon, we’d all come down with skin infections. Having spent so much time wallowing in the dirt and the blood of the dead, I was worse off than the others. My skin was dry as paper. My hair was so filthy I couldn’t stand it myself. Those first days, my scalp itched so much it drove me crazy. I scratched and scratched it until it became a mass of welts. But this became the norm gradually, and the itching bothered me less. My hair automatically formed dreadlocks, which I didn’t even try to untangle. The first week the runners had told everyone to cut their hair short to avoid lice. They were afraid the large number of corpses rotting under the rubble would cause a typhus epidemic. This reminded me of what I had seen in World War II movies, but I didn’t believe the war was going to go on long enough for that to happen.

I often went to the shore either to evacuate people or to get water from the Shatt. I would sink knee-deep in mud and become covered with diesel oil. I tried as best I could to wash it off and shake out my clothing, but that only made matters worse.

One time, before Ali’s death, all of us girls decided that we should go to the bath. We left the mosque together, telling Mr. Najjar that we had something to do.

“You’re all leaving? Where to?” he asked in surprise.

We had to admit we were off to the bath.

It wasn’t easy to reach Abadan, and when we got there, we realized it was a mistake. We had no money, nor did we know where a bath was. None of us had the nerve to knock on someone’s door and ask if we could use the shower. I had once asked Zeynab about washing, and she kindly said she would arrange something. Zeynab kept herself very clean. She regularly went home to change her clothes and would bathe at the body washers’, which was something I couldn’t bring myself to do. The place still gave me the creeps.

Zeynab finally told Abdollah about the bath situation. He and his brother Khalil drove Sabah, Leila, Zohreh, and me to Abadan. We went to their home and Khalil opened the door for us, saying, “We’re going to the bazaar to get something to eat.”

After they had gone, we went into their bathroom one by one and, in a clumsy haste, washed our hair and clothes with laundry detergent. As there was no time for the clothes to dry, we put them on wet. Abdollah and Khalil returned a little later having bought bread, tinned fish, and eggplants. We warmed the food on the stove and ate. The glass of hot tea we had after dinner perfectly completed the joy of feeling clean again.

Now several days had passed, and there was no telling where Abdollah had been sent or what disaster had befallen him. We had all agreed to find a place to bathe, but no one knew anybody in Abadan. Despite this we went. When we got there we explored a bit, but no one was brave enough to knock on a stranger’s door. We decided to go back, but since we had come this far, we figured we should at least have something to eat. We were starving.

“I’ve don’t have a penny to my name,” I said.

Everybody was in the same fix, nevertheless we pooled the last of our funds, which didn’t amount to more than a few tumans. We went to the Kafesheh Bazaar, and to our surprise several shops were open. First, we bought fresh bread because we didn’t have enough money for anything else but half a kilo of pickled vegetables. We mixed the bread in the bag containing the vegetables and wolfed it down. I said to the girls, “The vinegar in these things is going to upset our empty stomachs.”

“No way,” they said, “our stomachs are bullet-proof.”

As we were speaking, I noticed a boy of about seventeen approaching. He had been leaning against the wall of the Abadan Construction Corps building. “Excuse me, sisters,” he said. “I don’t want to interrupt, but are you waiting for someone?”

We looked at one another and said, “No.”

“So why are you standing here?” he asked. “I’ve been on guard duty for a couple of hours.”

We didn’t know what to say to him. Finally one of the girls said, “We’ve come from Khorramshahr thinking maybe would could find a public bath, but we don’t know where to go. It’s embarrassing to go and knock on some stranger’s door.”

The boy, whose sunburned face was innocence itself, said, “My aunt’s house is right near here. Everybody’s gone away, leaving me the key. I’ll go and get it, and you can take a bath there. You can bring the key back afterwards, and if I’m not here, give it to one of the Construction brothers.”

We looked at one another uncertainly. “I swear to God,” the boy said, “it’s my aunt’s house. You don’t have to worry.”

We nodded and the boy ran into the building to get his bicycle. It took a long time for him to return. In the meantime a truck pulled up with some of the mosque boys and runners who knew us. One of them was Maryam’s fiancé Yaddi, who scolded us, “Why did you come here?”

I thought to myself: Now the great poet Hafez, Master of Mysteries himself, will be the only who doesn’t know we’re in Abadan to take a bath.

The girls had no choice but to say nervously, “We’ve come to have a bath.”

“So why are you standing here?” asked Yaddi.

“Well, we don’t have anywhere to go.”

“Get in,” he said.

I didn’t know whether I should have been happy or upset by that show of male pride. “Where are we going?” the girls asked.

“The home of one of my relatives,” Yaddi said.

We got in the truck. Just as we were leaving, the boy who went to get the key showed up at the end of the street. When he saw us in the van he held up the key and shook it. He tried desperately to reach us shouting, “Stop. Stop.”

 

To be continued …

 



 
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