Da (Mother) 68

The Memoirs of Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni

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

2023-10-22


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 moon was out. The air smelled like gas. They covered up the hospital door and windows with sandbags so no light shone through the cracks. There was no noise, no sounds of traffic. After a few minutes, several nurses and workers showed up. A door opened and a ray of light escaped. I went to the door. It seemed they wanted to put the dead there. I went in and entered a large room with a floor and walls made of stone. There was a raised slab in the middle and a large number of utility sinks on one side of the room, which meant this was where they did autopsies. I stood to one side as they brought in the bodies one by one. I went over to them. The first three were boys from Aghajari with bodies mangled by shrapnel, but with faces still intact. Their olive-colored uniforms were now stained black from blood. As the nurses and workers had finished bringing in the stretchers, a strange fear gripped me. My heart was racing. A voice inside me kept asking: Who was that dead boy? Why can’t you stop thinking about him? The fourth body they brought in had a torso but no head. Shrapnel had torn his shoulders apart and the lower part of his body was missing. The corpse was nothing but a lump of meat with innards draped over the stretcher. What was left of the boy’s hair and the relative bulk of his upper body told me that the corpse was Taqi Mohsenifar. Taqi had frizzy head of hair after all and was on the chubby side. Seeing him in that state turned my stomach. I remembered how modest and reserved Taqi was when he would visit us. He would knock on the door and ask, “Is Seyyed Ali home?” I mumbled to myself, “God help your mother, Taqi....”

As I spoke to his corpse, I saw that they had brought in the next body. I ran to the stretcher and looked at the face. Stunned, I couldn’t help blurting out, “Oh, but this is Ali!”

One of the nurses turned to me and asked, “Why are you shouting, ma’am? Who’s Ali?”

“Ali!” I said, “Our own Ali. You mean you don’t know him?”

She looked at me, not knowing what to say. I was in shock. I flung myself at the body and lifted Ali’s bandana from his head. I looked at him carefully. It was him, Ali himself. I didn’t know what I would do. I began to kiss him, breathe in his scent, caress him.

I was in tears complaining to him: Why did you do this to me? Why did you get me to come here? Why don’t you get up and speak to me?

I cradled his head in my arms. His eyes were open, and there was a beautiful smile on his lips. I cleaned the dust from his face. One fist was clenched around his bandage. I took it and opened the bandage. His fingers were separated. How soft his skin was. I showed the hand to the others. Look, I said, how beautiful the skin is, how soft; it was in plaster after all.

I examined his body. Shrapnel had torn through his left side, which was drenched with blood. A large piece of shrapnel was lodged in the gash in his chest. A bone protruded from his mangled arm. Pieces of shrapnel were also embedded in his legs.

I didn’t know how much time had passed, what I said, what I did. For a moment it felt like my cheeks were on fire. Two or three people took me by the arms and lifted me off the body. I didn’t know what was happening. Then they slapped my face, and I heard someone plead, “For God’s sake, that’s enough. Stop, will you! That’s enough; this is murder for us.”

They dragged me out to the van and made me get in. It was clear they also had been crying. I heard the nurses say, “We can’t keep them here a long time. You have to come soon and take him.”

I said, “I beg you for God’s sake don’t let anyone take Ali. I’ll come myself and get him early in the morning.”

“Fine,” they said, “but make sure that you come before our shift is over. If not, our colleagues might not know about it and hand him over to someone else.”

The van drove away. Wind blew in my face, making my skin tingle. I was silent. The soldiers were talking to me, “The radio we found belonged to the mother. There’s no doubt they were Fifth Column.” Then they said, “Sister, you kept us waiting for you a long time, but seeing you like that, nobody dared come near. Your grief paralyzed us.”

I didn’t answer them. I had only one thing on my mind: Hoseyn Tayinezhad had lied to me. I wanted to get back to the mosque and take out my feelings on him. There would be no question of standing on ceremony; I was going to let him have it. We were there before I knew it.

I jumped from the van before it stopped and ran into the mosque shouting, “Hoseyn! Hoseyn! Hoseyn, you lying bastard, Ali had already been martyred when you told me that he was at the front.”

All at once I noticed it was dead quiet. There was no sign of all those wounded people and the hubbub they caused. Mr. Najjar jumped to his feet and said irritably, “Hush! Quiet! What’s the matter with you? What do you think you’re doing? What’s all the noise about? Everyone’s

asleep. They’re exhausted.”

I told him, “That lying Hoseyn told me Ali was at the front. Ali’s dead.”

With that he stopped being angry and said softly, “Okay, calm down. Everybody’s asleep. They’re tired after being awake since sunup.”

The noise woke up the poor guys, and realizing what had happened, they stood around hugging me, saying things that would comfort me, and wailing. There was something raging within me, and I couldn’t stand still. Mr. Najjar told them to inject me with a sedative, but I wouldn’t hear of it and started to struggle out of their arms. Several people were now holding me down. I couldn’t move. Afraid of tearing an artery, they had to remove the syringe from my arm several times. I begged, “For God’s sake! Don’t make me fall asleep. I’ve got to go and get Ali. I swear to God, there’s no one else. I have no one. I can’t go alone; you’ve got to come with me.” They said, “Fine, we’ll go with you, but why don’t you get a little rest now?”

I didn’t sleep despite the sedative. I flailed my arms and legs in a nightmare. I screamed and awoke suddenly. Everyone was looking at me and speaking at once, trying to calm me. I got up all at once and said, “I can’t wait longer. I’ve got to go and get Ali.”

“Wait for the call to prayer,” they said.

I stretched out, but with the sudden sound of the call to prayer I was fully awake. It was coming from a loudspeaker and made me feel strangely calm. I rose and asked the girls to use tweezers to remove the bits of glass making my foot ache. Then I went to wash my legs for ablutions. I came to the prayer room, stood by a pillar, and prayed. After completing the normal prayers, I did two extra ones, gifts to the revered Zeynab, begging God to grant me strength. I wanted that saintly woman to help me go on. My tears flowed as I said, “Don’t let the calamity make me lose my faith. I leave mother in your care. The grief will surely kill her.”

If I had been able to let my emotions show, if I hadn’t been afraid of robbing the others of their will to resist, I would have torn myself to pieces. The horror of Ali’s death itself was hard enough on me, but trying to keep my emotions in was harder to bear. I wanted to tear open my breast and pull my heart out and shred it to keep myself from feeling. I went through this when father passed away. But this time it was worse, much worse. I was already carrying the scars caused by father’s death; now a new agony was added to that. I hadn’t seen Ali for three months and, after all that searching, I was suddenly confronted by his corpse. All that made it even more painful, like a burn that never stopped throbbing. Why go on living? I asked myself. What good was this world? Life without Ali was meaningless. Better for me to die also. I wanted mother to stay in Khorramshahr and meet whatever fate had in store for her.

I felt lost, adrift, flailing madly in a vast ocean but getting nowhere. There was no one to hear my screams. I couldn’t feel more alone, even in a crowd. After a good cry, I found a quiet place and unloaded my feelings to God. The lump in my throat was gone; it felt as if a weight had been lifted from my chest. But this was no comfort; everything seemed dead to me, shrouded in grief. I saw the world as grey. Little by little the sun was rising, brightening the air, but for me the morning was ruined and agonizing. The roars of the shells were still there. I put my shoes on and, before leaving the mosque, I placed a call to Jannatabad. I wanted to ask Zeynab whether Leila knew about Ali.

But it was Leila herself who answered the phone. This surprised me, being so early in the morning. “What’s happened? Is there’s news of Ali?” she asked.

“No. No news, but Ali did get a chance to tell mother to leave the city. If you can manage to find a car, get her out of the city.”

“Fine,” she said. Then she said, “Zahra, for God’s sake, you’ll tell me if something’s happened, won’t you?”

I didn’t want to say anything at that point. I wanted to tell her in person. I knew the news would be impossible for her to bear, so I didn’t say anything. I put the phone down. I felt I was at the end of my tether. I didn’t know who would come with me to Abadan to retrieve Ali’s body. Then I remembered that Salim, mother’s brother, was with her. He had returned in the last couple of days because the army had called up military men who had left the service in 1977. He had been loading the giant copper rice pots into vans or wheelbarrows and fetching water for the mosque. But I wondered what I would do if I tried to contact uncle and mother saw me. She’d ask about Ali. Should I tell her he had been killed and remind her that I told her to make her peace with him? At that point she’d have a heart attack. Then they’d all be gone: father, mother, Ali. I was nearly certain she wouldn’t survive seeing Ali’s corpse.

A few months earlier, before Abbas Ferhan Asadi and Musa Bakhtur were killed in the border skirmishes with the Iraqis, Ali with his native command of Arabic spoke to the Iraqi troops. He tried to explain the nature of the Baathist regime and convince them that war between Iran and Iraq was a conspiracy to sow dissent among Muslims. But the Iraqis responded by firing at our defensive positions. Repeated attempts to raise the issue only led to Baathist snipers taking aim at Ali or others like him who were propagandizing against them. The next night there was a fierce battle and our positions were overrun. The next day Ali and his friends were busy shoring up the foxholes with sandbags, when a snake lunged out of its lair and bit his hand. Ali’s friends rushed him to Mosaddeq Hospital. It was the crack of dawn when one of the neighbor’s boys knocked on our door. I opened it and he said, “I happened to be at the hospital and saw Ali there.” Shaken by this I asked, “What happened?” “Don’t worry,” he said, “it’s just a snake bite. But Ali told me not to tell anybody but you. You’ll have to tell your mother and father.”

 

To be continued …

 



 
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