Da (Mother) 31

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 men continued burying the dead. As there were no female corpses, I went to fetch the wheelbarrow beside the building. I managed to put several gravestones in it and wheel them away. The terrain in Jannatabad was uneven, which made handling the wheelbarrow difficult. It would hit a hole and lurch to one side, causing me to cry out. I had to bend over and put so much into wheeling it over the bumpy ground I couldn’t straighten my back when I reached the graves. The gravestones were cement slabs about 40 x 65 centimeters.

The men said, “Don’t bother with the stones. They’re too heavy; you can’t lift them.”

“Yes I can,” I said defiantly.

As I struggled with the wheelbarrow, I saw a young man rapidly photographing the empty graves and the bodies beside them. He seemed out of place in those grim surroundings, too clean-cut and stylish. He was wearing jeans and a tee shirt, and his hair was combed over his shoulders. He was in constant motion, bending down, standing upright, and, at times, kneeling as he fiddled with his camera. He even went into the graves. One of the men asked, “What are you doing?”

“I’m taking pictures of the dead,” he said.

“What for?” asked the man.

“No reason. I’m a photographer and I’ve come to take photos of the martyrs at Jannatabad.”[1]

 “What do you want the pictures for?” I asked joining the conversation.

“For an exhibition,” he said. “For posterity, so history won’t be forgotten. When future generations see them, they will know what happened here. There are pictures, for example, from World War II that tell people what it was like during that time.”

I felt what he was saying did not go with how he looked. Suddenly it occurred to me: Maybe he could take pictures of the unidentified bodies. I placed the wheelbarrow by the grave and then approached him. He was thoroughly involved in taking pictures. I said, “Listen. We have a number of bodies here that haven’t been claimed by family members. We are burying them as ‘unknowns.’ It might be a good idea for you to photograph them so that later on we could show the pictures to people looking for their loved ones.”

“Okay, but even if you show them the pictures, they still won’t know where their dead are buried.”

I said, “We thought of that. We have recorded their particulars and noted the locations of the graves. But it would be much better if we had pictures. Come with me and we’ll tell Parvizpur about it?”

He nodded and we headed for the office. When Parvizpur saw the photographer, he asked him, “Did you take your pictures?”


“Would it be a good idea for him to take pictures of our unknowns, Mr. Parvizpur?” I asked.

“That’s just what I was speaking to Salarvand and the others about,” he said.

“We can record their particulars and paste their pictures in the register next to them,” I suggested.

“Can I see this register?” asked the young man.

“Sure, come in,” said Parvizpur.

We entered the room and Parvizpur took out from the drawer the little, twenty-page notebook with the plastic green cover and showed it to him. The young man paged through the notebook, which was almost one-third full, and said, “This is fine, but it would have been better if it were bigger so we could record the particulars of the dead and paste in their pictures.”

As soon as the photographer got to work, Parvizpur divided a larger register into categories written across the top of the page: gender, age, distinguishing marks. We also were to make educated guesses about the ethnicity of the deceased from the type of clothing they wore, their features, the neighborhoods where they were found. We put a swatch of clothing next to the names, along with a photograph of the unclaimed body. They put the register in the room. For every unknown female, Leila or I would record their vitals. The photographer, who waited outside the door of the body washer room, would take the picture. Sometimes the dead were so disfigured it was impossible to tell the gender.

The photographer was to provide prints two days after taking the photographs.

After he left, I returned to my work washing bodies. By sundown I had run out of steam. Without telling anybody, I left and headed for home, wanting to know if father was still there. The streets were deserted; it seemed everybody had fled the city. Just as mother opened the door, the Iraqi batteries started up again, shelling mercilessly.

Though I hadn’t seen mother since noon the day before, as soon as she opened the door, I asked without so much as a hello, “Mom, you’re still here?”

Seeing me, her face lit up and she said, “Where have you been? I can’t tell you what I’ve been through waiting here for you to come home.” Then she looked around and asked, “Where’s Leila?”

I said, “Don’t worry. Leila is still at Jannatabad.” Then I asked, “So why didn’t you leave? Why are you still here?”

“Where am I supposed to go?” she grumbled. “This is home.”

“Mom, it’s not good for you to stay here. Go to the Congregational Mosque. Everybody’s gathered there. It’s not just the bombs and the tanks; the neighborhood has emptied out, and there are Fifth Column elements and Hypocrites around, and they are more dangerous than the Iraqis. Why inflict this on the children? What have they done to deserve it?”

She gave me such a murderous look I didn’t dare argue further with her. I asked, “Any news of grandfather and them?”

She said, “Uncle Hoseyni came in the morning saying he had told grandfather and Mimi to get ready. He’s going to come for them and take everybody to Khorramabad, to his wife’s family’s home. Uncle Nad Ali is also taking his family to Sar Bandar.”

I took the opportunity to continue the conversation about leaving. “So what did you say to him? I wish you had gone with Uncle Hoseyni with the children.”

She said, “He kept insisting that I go, but how could I? I told him that Ali was not around. Suppose he comes all the way from Tehran and sees the house empty? He’ll run around frantically trying to find us. My older girls are also never here and their father has gone off to war.”

“Father came home?” I asked.

“He came in the afternoon to say goodbye. He took his prayer cloth and left.” Her voice cracked when she spoke about father. She went on, “Your father didn’t tell you to tell me to go. We have to know what’s going to happen to us. With all of these kids, where am I supposed to go?”

I pointed to Mansur, Hasan, Sa’id, and Zeynab, who had gathered around us as we were speaking, and said, “I’m begging you, Mom, for our sakes, go to the mosque. Don’t make us worry so much. I’m not saying you have to go to Khorramabad; just go somewhere safer.”

She said, “Nowhere is safe. The way it’s going now, you can’t tell what’s going to happen. It makes no difference whether we go or stay. My heart tells me something bad is going to happen, Zahra.”

I comforted her and said to the children, “Don’t upset mother. Don’t leave the house either. The block’s totally empty.” Sullen and withdrawn, they didn’t say anything in response. I turned and looked in the corner of the yard where the sheep and a goat, which were bought for Moharram, had been. It was empty. I asked mother, “Why aren’t the sheep there?”

“Your father brought them to the mosque. He also said they’d be around later for rice and cooking oil to prepare food for the troops.”

For two years now we had been holding recitals of the mourning for Imam Hoseyn during the beginning of Moharram. On the ninth and the tenth we would host the sheep sacrifice. Father believed that the animals had to be fed pure grain before they were slaughtered to produce the best meat in honor of the Imam. Anything, he said, dedicated in the name of the Holy Imams had to be of the utmost purity. He would buy the sheep several months before Moharram and fatten them or he would have them brought from Elam. He bought our home based on this vow; every year before the advent of Moharram he would drape it in black to prepare for the recitals, which were very well attended. So many people piled into our living room that there was scarcely enough space to turn around. The recitalist was Alawiyeh, who had studied in the Religious Studies Center in Qom. After her recital we served cinnamon tea or cake or halva.

I spoke and spoke to mother until I finally convinced her to go. Once I was certain she wouldn’t remain there, I left. As I walked away, I reviewed her features in my mind; she had gotten very thin and pale. The woman who always seemed steadfast and calm was now showing signs of anxiety and fear.

I found myself in front of the Congregational Mosque. As soon as Ebrahimi saw me, he said, “God help us, look who’s here: the cyclone has come to clean out the cobwebs around here!”

“If you saw the situation there,” I objected, “you wouldn’t say such things. The only reason why I’m running around like this is to get some results.”

He said, “Why don’t you see Jahan Ara himself and explain what’s going on? He’s the commander. If there’s a way, he won’t disappoint you.”

“Where do I find him?” I asked.

“Don’t know really. At the war room, the mayor’s, the mosque, at the front—he’s everywhere.”

“What an answer! I can’t spend my whole life chasing him.”

From the way he averted his eyes, it was clear he had reached the end of his rope. Then he pointed and said, “Go ask those brothers over there,” indicating several Revolutionary Guards standing in the courtyard of the mosque, apparently waiting around for someone or something. The whole time I was there, they had been coming and going in and out of the courtyard and talking to people.

As if he had just found the key to getting rid of me, Ebrahimi now called out to them saying, “I beg you, guys, please come over here and see what the sister wants.”

They walked over to us and, after exchanging greetings, asked, “What happened? What’s the matter?”

I said, “I don’t know whether you can help or not, but I don’t think you know how things have been at Jannatabad during these last few days. The dead are stacked up like firewood, and there’s no one to help shroud and bury them. It’s way beyond what the old body washers can do, and no matter how many times I come here begging them to help us, it doesn’t do any good. It’s true that Jannatabad is a cemetery, but that doesn’t make it any less of a military issue. The war is the reason why things are the way they are there. It is precisely why the dead are piling up. It wouldn’t be right to leave them in that state.”

The young guards looked at one another; clearly what I said had had an effect. One of them said, “Yeah, I saw what it’s like there. It’s really bad.”

“We’ve got to tell brother Jahan Ara,” said another.

“Can I be sure you’ll tell him?” I asked. I wondered how I could be so calm given the lump in my throat and my anger. One of them said, “Give us a chance and maybe we can find Mammad. You can update him.”

Then they all went over to Ebrahimi’s desk. One of them took the receiver and dialed the phone. For a moment fear gripped me. This was more than embarrassing. I had heard many things about Jahan Ara from Ali and others. To them he had a special presence and dignity. I prayed he wouldn’t act gruff because he was forced to keep up a military bearing or that he wouldn’t be in a foul mood because of the difficult conditions. The last thing I wanted was to have him bark at me, “What am I supposed to do about it?”



To be continued …



[1] According to Parvizpur, his name was Mojtahedi.

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