Da (Mother) 46

The Memoirs of Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni

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

2023-5-21


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

 

***

 

His tone, which seemed high and mighty, offended me. I said, “If it’s dangerous, what keeps you here? I’m no different from you.” Then I quickly got back on the pickup, and we were off. The driver raced ahead about two or three hundred meters, to a place where a number of boys had taken cover. They banged on the cab and the driver stopped to give them some food. While the food was being distributed, I took a closer look at the road. They had ripped out the concrete curbs and covered them with dirt and turf to make a barrier. The trees here were stripped bare. I jumped down from the pickup and went through the alleys around the traffic circle with food; giving it to the few people I met. Most of the fighters had taken positions on the roofs, where they shouted instructions to those on the ground. They were also firing at the Iraqis. Although this place wasn’t exactly the front line, we could hear fighters giving orders from above: “Go there and fire! Watch out for the tank! Get that RPG guy! Watch your back!” The shouts sent shivers down my spine. There was no telling what would happen next, and I was scared. The shooting got more intense, seeming to come from all directions. Even though I was surrounded by buildings, I knew that if I had stood up, I would have been cut down by machine gun fire coming from the buildings opposite us. As I went ahead, crouching by the walls, I could hear the sounds of the tank treads like the one I had seen on the Forty-Meter Road.

As I moved forward I wondered how the poor souls were going to eat with all this going on; nevertheless, I gave out sacks of food to everyone I met. Some of the defenders were surprised to see the hot meals but said that this was no time to eat. Others welcomed the food, asking, “What have you brought us?” Some said they had no idea that there would be food and were happy to see that people in the back lines had given them any thought at all.

To them I’d say, “Naturally they’re thinking about you. So long as we’re here, you won’t have any worries on that score.” They thanked me, and those who had the time sat by a wall and ate. Handing out food to those who really deserved it was very gratifying to me. It was important to let them know people behind the lines were concerned about their welfare.

As I was leaving the alley, I asked if there were others who had not eaten. People said there were, so I left sacks for them. I went back to the pickup for more food. As I pulled the pot toward me, I heard someone ask, “What are you doing here?”

“What are you doing here?” I repeated.

“Well, I’ve come to fight, naturally,” he said.

“Well, I’ve come to feed,” I said.

“Isn’t there anybody else to do that?”

“What difference does that make? We’re all the same,” I said.

“I meant,” he said, “there are brothers who can do it. So long as there are men around to bring food, women shouldn’t have to come to the front.”

“Why not? Is my blood redder or more precious than theirs?” I asked.

“That’s not what I meant. There are Iraqis everywhere here. What if one of them sneaks up on you?”

“Let him,” I said bluntly.

“This one’s got an answer for everything,” he said testily. “What if they take you prisoner, girl?”

“So why are you standing around here and arguing?” I asked him.

Then he threw up his hands and said, “Okay, friend, forget it! Do whatever the hell you want!”

I said, “Don’t think that only men can fight; women can also. My father said that at times like these it makes no difference who’s a man and who’s a woman.”

The fellows who had come with me on the pickup explained to him, “We’ve told her the same thing, but nothing we said worked. Now that we’re at the front, you want to convince her to go back?”

I picked up the nylon sacks and went through the alleys in the area for a second time. In some places I had to crouch down and, when the firing got too bad, I sat. Then I ran as fast as I could. People I met would snap at me, “Where the hell did you come from? Who brought you here?”

I ignored them and went on, this being no place to argue. Seeing no one in some places, I would call out, “Anybody here!” Hearing no answer, I ran back. Though the very thought was terrifying, I felt like climbing on the roof of a house and joining the battle myself. After the food ran out, I returned to the pickup to find that everything had been doled out. I really wanted to stay behind and said so to my companions. This took them by surprise, “Stay and do what?” they asked.

Considering just my coming to the front a miracle, I said, “There’s always work to be done. I can hand out weapons.”

“What weapons?” they objected. “All the arms are already in their hands. Some boys don’t even have a gun.”

It was very upsetting not to have an excuse to stay, but everybody was against it. If I only had brought a medical bag or a weapon, I could have remained.

Seeing my hesitation, the boys said, “If this is the way you’re going to act, we won’t bring you along next time.”

I thought they were just trying to fool me into going back, and that wasn’t going to work; but I sized up the situation for myself and, though it went against everything I wanted, I didn’t want my being there to cause a problem for the others. So without another word, I hopped on the pickup and we raced back. I was certain I could find a better way to get to the front. By the time we reached the mosque, the cleanup was over.

Even though servers at the mosque had yet to eat, Soleymani set aside a small pot of it for the body washers. I took the pot and headed for Jannatabad, praying to God that I wouldn’t find mother there.

When I got to the cemetery I handed the food to one of the old men by the entrance and went to the body washers’. Leila emerged from the building just as I came. As soon as she saw me she said hello and, pointing at a white bundle she was carrying, asked, “Zahra, will you bury this for me?”

“What is it?” I asked.

“Somebody’s remains,” she said uneasily.

“What? In that bundle?”

She said, “The people who brought it said this was all that remained of one whole woman.”

“Why did you bundle her like that?” I asked.

“What else could we do?” she said. “Zeynab used gloves to scrape her off a blanket. Zahra, I’ll never eat meat again in my life!”

I felt terrible for her and took the bundle. The thing was light but carrying it made me weak in the knees. I couldn’t feel any bones in it. Probably a mortar blast caused this, I thought.

I gave it back to Leila, who went off to bury it herself; it seemed she had found the strength to do the job now. I trailed behind her as she walked on determinedly. She put it in a hole in the ground we found and used our hands to pile dirt over it. Not wanting Leila to linger there and see such horrors, I suggested we go back to the mosque, where there was more than enough work to do. But she said that she didn’t mind and preferred to stay in Jannatabad.

“But I’m worried about you,” I said. “You’re going to see more gory things.”

“It’s okay. I feel more comfortable here. The dead are piled up everywhere, in the houses and other buildings.”

I realized she was right. Then I asked, “What’s new?”

“Since this morning, we have buried a few,” she said. “Mother came by with Mansur and Mohsen to visit father’s grave.”

I said, “I told her to wait until I could come for her. I didn’t want her to come all this way on foot, but no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t find a vehicle. So, how was she feeling? She wasn’t torturing herself, was she?”

“She was, in fact,” she said, “crying a lot, wailing all she could in Arabic, in Kurdish. I tried everything, but I couldn’t calm her. I showed her the graves of the dead, saying look the people buried here also had families. I said, ‘You’ve got to be strong; you’re father and mother to us now.’ But it was no use. I forced her to get up and sent her after the children.”

I left Leila and went to father’s grave, feeling very upset. I knelt down and put my face to the earth and said, “Do you hear me, father?” I so wanted him to hug and caress me. I kissed the place on the stone where his name was written, scolding myself for not appreciating him more when he was alive.

I sat there with tears in my eyes. It was unbearable as I waited for him to take me in his arms.

Sobbing uncontrollably, I poured my heart out to him, and if there had been others around mourning the loss of a loved one like me, I didn’t hear them. But I didn’t want anyone to see me like that so I returned to the body washers’. Two or three young men had brought in a corpse and were standing in front of Parvizpur’s door. I knew he wasn’t there. The young men were waiting for someone to record the particulars of the dead person. The door was unlocked. I told them to come in, and I would record the body. I sat behind the desk and took the register from the drawer. I asked them about the deceased and, in tears, they answered me. He was from the Taleqani neighborhood and his name was Abdosattar. As I wrote this, Leila entered and sat in a chair by the filing cabinet. The men left to take the body to the mortuary. I said to Leila, “I had this awful feeling I wanted to go home.”

Leila said, “I had the same feeling. Get up. Let’s go. At least we can change clothes.” We left the office and said to Zeynab, “We’re going home.”

She got up halfway and asked, “Want me to come with you?”

“No,” I said. “We’ll be back soon.”

On the way home we spoke about what we remembered of father. When we got to the door, I realized I didn’t have my key. I looked up and down the alley, but didn’t see anyone. I put my foot on the wall and grabbed the edge of the roof to hoist myself up. I perched on the tall fence father had placed around the little garden to keep the hens and roosters in and jumped into the yard.

This was the first time I had set foot in the house since father’s death. I said to Leila, “What I really wanted to do was look at the pictures of father I had put up in the bedroom and living room. I thought seeing them would help me feel better inside.” I opened the door to the yard and Leila came in. It felt as though I had been away for years. Looking around the garden, I noticed all the plants, the tomato and the okra, had dried up. I thought: Father had put so much work into the garden, and now look at it! When he worked in the garden, father would mumble in Kurdish about the death of his parents and the hardships they had. He not only made himself cry, he brought all of us to tears. Often our neighbor, Mr. Goruhi, hearing father, would knock on the door and come in. Being a good friend of father’s he would insist that he sing in Kurdish. At first he refused, but then he would sing like a professional neighborhood crooner.

 

To be continued …

 



 
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