By Guita Sazan
It is not winter. Yet, the cruel icy winds are blowing in the burn unit of the army (artesh) hospital where I volunteer as a nurse’s aide. Mr. Azaree was not in his room when I arrived in the morning. The odors of his infected, scorched body, hydrogen peroxide, and antiseptics still saturated the room. Azaree, a sweet and whimsical 21-year old soldier was the victim of mustard gas. He had sustained third degree burns over 70% of his body. Blisters covered his inner lungs too. The scabs on his legs had to be shaved, scrubbed, and washed everyday. He cried, screeched, and begged to be left alone. The cleaning kept the deadly infections at bay. But his condition had deteriorated over the past few days. I run to the head nurse, “Was Azaree moved to the Intensive Care Unit?” The red pen continued gliding on her clipboard. She didn’t look up. “He died last night and joined the Army of Martyrs.”
I am nineteen. I assist in cleaning and dressing the wounds of young boys who have sustained horrific burns. Burns caused by chemical warfare that the Iraqi army used in its war with Iran. Initiated by Iraq in 1980 and lasting until 1988, the war left an estimated half a million dead and hundreds of thousands wounded and homeless.
Azaree with his mischievous brown eyes was a favorite of mine. I had to leave my shift early today. I wanted to be alone with my wounded soul. Stepping out of the hospital, I put the black chador over my head that was already covered with a big white scarf. The five kilometers walk home under the chador let my tears run in a private space.
The cloaking of the entire female body for modesty, hejab (covering), became mandatory for women of every faith in the Islamic Republic of Iran within one year after the revolution of 1979. Minority Jewish, Christian, Baha’i, Zoroastrian, and secular Muslim women reluctantly covered their heads loosely with colorful, thin scarfs. Often they were harassed by the “Ethical Sisters,” a band of radical Muslim women wearing thick, black chadors who policed neighborhoods in their white vans. Typically, the Ethical Sisters launched demeaning verbal attacks at women who revealed a lock of hair, wore bright colored scarves, red lipstick, or tight-fitting attire. They declared, “This country is no longer tolerating whores like you, shamelessly seducing our pious brothers who give up their lives for Islam.”
To the radical believers of Islam and those faithful to the revolution, the proper covering of the female body from head to toe with a long dress and a headscarf was a basic step in declaring the modesty and sanctity of women. Putting a black chador over an already covered body perfected the hejab.
I felt at home under the black chador. There my body found her solace and safety. Sheltered from the dirty, ravenous gazes of swaggering adolescent boys and vicious older men. The depth of black shamed them all. No color has a power or presence above and beyond black.
I held the conviction that my body and all its earthly desires were nothing but a shroud to my soul. Its delicate skin, voluptuous flesh, and citrus tang trap my celestial being. Faith is the ultimate color to wrap my existence.
Ten steps to the front gate, my feet palpitations pound the downhill street. As I arrive at our house, my eyes habitually scan the street, hoping no one is watching me. The swift sound of pulling the chador off my head shreds the stillness of the afternoon.
Wrapping the chador around my right arm, in a flash I stuff it in my ragged book bag. I feared my parents, siblings, or the Jewish neighbors might catch a glimpse of my black chador.
Turning the cold iron key twice, the gate clicks open. The courtyard is layered with fallen leaves. All resting in their majestic death. It is not winter yet, but its scent has brushed over the leaves of autumn. As I walk into the courtyard, the crisp air and whiffs of kerosene fill my nostrils.
I walk through the courtyard towards the flight of stairs that takes me to the first floor flat where we live. Again, the smell of Kerosene! Its smell always made me feel nauseated. Though we had central heating in our new home, my mom brought out the kerosene heater in the fall to warm up the living room. It is not winter yet. It is too early to take out that heater.
As I walk up the stairs the stink becomes stronger. Up several more steps, its pungency is now getting into my eyes. The air reeks with a heavy odor. I struggle to breathe. An accidental spill? I wonder as I rush up the half dark staircase.
When I get closer to the entrance of our flat, long sighs and soft weeps mix with the stench of the kerosene-saturated air. Feeling dizzy and nauseous, my blurry eyes freeze.
Mahman (Mom) is sitting on her knees by the flat’s door next to a red kerosene container. Her disheveled hair and blue housedress are soaked in the oily substance. She is squeezing a box of matches in her palm.
Her body is rocking back and forth. Her cheeks are covered with tears that have made tiny roads on her Kerosene covered face. “Khoda (God) take me, burn away this shame, Khoda let me die.”
She slaps her thighs over and over with an open hand. The flesh on her thigh is redder than her bloodshot eyes. “Let the (atash) fire bring peace to me.”
I kneel next to her, stuttering.“Mahman (Mom) what are you doing?!” I pull the matches out of her tight grip. Her shaking hand reaches to grab the matches out of my fist. I hold tighter. I know far too well how in an instance her kerosene soaked body can incinerate. The images of the Army hospital flood my mind .
“Mahman jaan (dear Mom) don’t (nakon), please nakon.” My jaw is now frozen.
“How can I witness my Jewish daughter praying like Muslims? Wearing a black chador? Making pilgrimage to Qom with radical Muslims? What is next? Marriage to an Ayatollah? I want to burn to death!”
I embrace her, kiss her head. The smelly oil soaks my lips and sticks on my tongue. But the unbearable disgust is the roaring guilt in my head.
“Mahman BeBakhsh, forgive me. I am Jewish, at heart, forever.”
“Then take this goh (shit) chador off your head! All our Jewish neighbors ask me – who is this Muslim woman in the black chador who comes to the house everyday?!”
Her fist lands on her head, hard . “What do I tell them? My child is a Muslim fundamentalist?!”
“Tell them I have chosen a meaningful life of service to humanity.”
“Stop with the empty slogans!” She is wailing, “You are setting this family on fire!”
“I wear the chador because I want to be allowed to teach in school, work in the orphanage, and tend to wounded soldiers. Only the people who follow the rules of the new Islamic Iran can do these things.”
“Your Baba (dad) barley survived a heart attack when you disappeared for three days. These Muslims will eventually force you to marry a Muslim boy. Then we will lose you forever!”
“I will never get married to a Muslim ever. I promise you with all my soul.”
Flames have now engulfed my soul. Who will burn and get buried? My Baba’s heart, my Mahman’s flesh, or my “Divine calling” to save destitute beings?
Mahman has calmed down and I bring her to the shower. The heat and intensity of shower stream compete with the tears we both shed and the pain that has seared us.
Author’s note: Mahman’s unwavering love and tenacious efforts to save me from radical Islam never ceased. She studied behavioral psychology and hypnosis, she turned to Zen and Hindu practices to change and cleanse my “distorted beliefs.” In her way she managed to burn her influence deep into my existence and all that my unconscious mind revealed to me decades later.
Guita Sazan is a Clinical psychologist, 22 years in private practice. She lives in Stamford, Connecticut with her husband and three children. She has written and given talks about Iranian Jewish Immigrant woman living in the United States.