By Abdulkadir Saeed Sarchinary:
Extracts from ‘The Weeping Snow’, a novel by Abdulkadir Saeed Sarchinary, translated by Yasin Aziz.
This story is about the victims of the Halabja chemical attack. A child loses all his family and is taken to Esfahan, East Persia and grows up with a Persian family. After many years he goes back to Halabja to try to find out what happened and who he was.
It was an early spring morning, just like in March 1988, when my mother died. Our neighbours gathered around to take part in her burial ceremony. She was taken by a crowd of neighbours, friends, family and relatives to the local cemetery. I remember a crowd of men carrying my mother’s coffin, walking along the way, some of them were silent and sad, and others whispered or chatted quietly. I never knew what they were talking about. Some others were talking about what was happening, or they talked about their own family or the daily news.
I felt pain like a fire burning inside me and consuming me within for the loss of my mother. A few friends kept comforting me, putting their hands on my shoulders and some others assisted me, as I was often going to collapse from distress. But I still cried and their soothing words did hardly anything to stop me.
The cemetery was a spacious area with trees and shrubs. Many types of trees, each one looking as if it one had its own meaning or expressions; many were planted on graves by loved ones who had their own meaning or particular intentions in planting them. On each headstone, the epitaph contained the date of birth, death, gender and the cause of his or her death.
For the idle ones, this was a kind of interesting time to go around and read the headstones, to know who they were, and the reason for their deaths. Around those graves were many flowers grown to beautify the scenery, especially that year when the spring season seemed to come earlier than usual.
Various types of flowers, roses and herbs had grown around the graves, with aromas and colourfulness that would make many linger to read the messages on the graves. Adding to that, various colourful butterflies, birds and insects were tweeting and buzzing around, creating lively scenes. This was in contrast to the silence of the cemetery’s congregation. The colourfulness, the noise and singing birds created an atmosphere that was fascinating and thought-provoking about the two contrasting worlds of the living and the dead, as if these two different worlds were complementing each other.
The burial ceremony was underway: the sound of the religious man was heard loudly, as some of the crowd were silent or reading verses of the dead. My mother’s grave was at the north end of the cemetery, a lonely dark place dug up deep into the ground. When the Mulla, the religious man, indicated where to put down the coffin, at the side of the grave, still the crowd kept coming, and gathered around to watch the burial ceremony. If one peered over the crowd could see the white
turban of the Mulla, squatted next to the newly dug grave.
I tried to go nearer to my mother’s coffin. The crowd made allowance for me to go where I wanted to be nearer to my mum’s corpse and to touch the colourful material cover of her coffin. I was crying and thinking and looking back at my life with mum: how we had lived together. I was tempted to raise the cover, to have a last look at her face, to hold her hand and feel her caring touch for the last time. I wanted to look into her eyes, even though I knew she had closed her eyes for the last time; there was no way to see her caring and loving looks that I loved seeing so much.
A few people around me tried to stop me touching her coffin, I did not understand why, but the Mulla asked them to remove the cover. As they did, everyone stood up and looked at my mum as if to learn what is like to be dead, and many looked curious to learn how a dead person is buried.
As they removed the cover, two middle aged men grabbed the corpse and lowered her into the damp and dark grave. Seeing that, I felt my heart wrenched so tight, my tears seemed exhausted, as if I would not be able to cry anymore. I still wanted to cry and was gasping for air. A few men were trying to comfort me but, with a few shovels of soil thrown on her, I felt a shiver going down my spine. When they filled up the grave with soil, a few were talking about her kindness, while looking at me with sympathy. Many of these people did not know even my mum and my own story.
After the Mulla’s verses of the dead, he read a few short sentences about virtues, sins, and the goodness of life and death. As if seeking to purify the dead souls, the crowd was silent with respect. Those who were squatted stood up, and no one uttered a word. A few who knew me expressed their sorrow with a whisper, and comforted me, and not long after that many people were leaving.
I had to get up and leave my mother’s grave. But I felt I could not leave. My legs were heavy, although I knew death was a natural process, and everyone would die, one generation after another. But the propsect of returning to my lonely home without mum made me willing to stay, and I knew loneliness was like being in a narrow space like a grave.
I passed that day thinking about my mum. I was chatting with her in my mind, but she was silent. I called her many times, but there was no reply. I wanted to ask her many questions: for example, I would ask, “Aren’t you scared? Aren’t you thirsty? Mum aren’t you interested to listen to my latest story? Do you know how fascinated I was when you were in the agony of death? When you stared at me, you told me: ‘Ali, my only one, please don’t cry, I am going to the poisoned families, and I will tell them all about you.’
‘I will tell Halabja victims, how kind you were and so generous, as you often brought home hungry children, the ones who were lonely and in need, and you told me, ‘mum we have a guest.’ Just like the ones who lost their fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters in the chemical attack of Halabja. They were the ones who had no one to go to. The ones whose mothers were waiting for their return, the ones who lost their way, and nothing is known about their fate.’ ”
My dear mum, I tried to tell you more stories, but there was no reaction or reply, then
I cried a lot, the distress of being far away from mum let my tears stream down a lot. With so many sweet memories I began to realise the distress of losing her would become a bitter reality, just like the effects of a snake poison. But I had no way out. I had to withstand this distressing time.
The distress of losing her might have killed me or not. I felt like I was destined to live in loneliness; it was a clear indication that I had to get used to it and live with it.
I stood up, collected a few stones around her grave, just like trying to protect her with the sense of loving her. I did that with unconscious willingness, but I knew I had to do something to show my respect and express my loving intent before I left. It was getting late. I felt like a person in despair when, at the time of need and hardship, one was left with no friends.
I saw there were tall trees, singing birds, flourishing grasses, roses and flowers that I was leaving behind. Seeing all that, I felt a sort of relief from my distress, but I did not understand after losing Hajar, my mum, that life with all its agony and pleasure would go on.
I went home. There was no mum to greet me, I knew she was not there anymore, she was in a narrow, and dark space. I unconsciously pressed the door bell, and suddenly realised she was not home. I tried to take out the keys from my pockets, but could not find them. I checked all my pockets, I could not find the keys. I wanted to go back to my mum in the cemetery, to check there, or, just like I used to do – whenever I had a problem I went to seek her advice – this time to ask her what had happened to my keys, where had I left or dropped them.
It was like a pretext, to search pockets of my memories for her wise advice when things were not right. I was about to step forward to go when I heard my keys, their clanging alerted me to where they were. I took a deep breath and said, “Oh mum, your death made me forget everything, when I am so apart from your love.”
In a hurry, I opened the door, and went straight into my mum’s room, to smell her, especially her white headscarf and her beads that were there. I could not have enough of mum’s aroma, and sweet memories. I opened my room, and glanced at the picture on the wall at the side of my bed. I kept staring at it, but did not know what to start with. It was a picture of a town whose inhabitants were now all dead. Above the town was a pale cloud, with a continuous downpour of anger, even though it was not lifeless yet.
I was certain the town was where I was born, and had crawled along with expectations of a happy childhood, and I knew that life after my mum’s death would be harder than the painting that I was used to seeing every day. After a while I thought I was discovering a few more meanings in the painting that were not known to me before, like unexplored mysteries that had not yet been discovered. In my new discovery in this painting were expressions that made my heartfelt emotions thaw like a clot of snow into tears.
I felt it was a fact that this town was not armed at all, and so beautiful. Why should it be destroyed like that? Even all the birds and animals, and all the living things were poisoned and gassed to death. I went to my bookshelf and picked up a poetry book by Shirazi, the Persian poet, which was so prominent amongst other books. I picked it up, kissed it and hugged it tight into my chest. I often put this book at the front of the shelf, I picked it up smelt it, like the passionate aroma of my mother, because a few years earlier my mum Hajar had bought it for me as a gift for our Newroz celebration. She knew I loved those sad and emotional poems. The poems gave me incentive to learn my mother’s language, Persian. As it is the original language of the poems, I tried to learn, just a few words every day. I was not keen though. I often forgot the words, and had to look them up again, a few times more. Therefore, I bought a translated copy; this book was translated by Haqiqi into Kurdish. The translator was one of those who had left Iraqi Kurdistan with a few others and settled in Esfahan after the Algiers pact of 1975, when the Kurds’ September revolution ended: terminated by the conspiracy of the International Community to deprive Kurds of basic human rights.
A few years earlier, as I learnt to read and write, I started reading many books, many different stories and poems. The ones I liked best I kept at the front of my little bookshelf. There were many books around me. Reading books became my obsession. I was confused, many different thoughts and illusions were crossing my mind, as if every corner and space was full of different pictures, shadows stacked up and juxtaposed like spiders hard at work; like a net closing on me, as though I was being entangled, with no way to escape.
Wherever I looked, and even at the corners of the high ceiling, edges of the window frames, around the pictures on the wall, where the wall clock was, as if spiders were coming and going busy at work, looked like leaving shadows and building webs all around the house, doors, window sills and the veranda. Whenever I came home, I felt as though they were trying to block my way, like barriers to prevent me from getting into the house. I felt I had no alternative but to snap their threads, columns, walls of mesh webs that were entwined into each other for the sake of barring my way in. I saw or I imagined there were these illusionary spider webs, big and small, everywhere at work building and using various methods to block my way into my bedroom. It was every day and night, even when I was exhausted with thinking about snapping and demolishing these barriers.
Sometimes, when I was too tired to snap the newly built barriers and had no more energy to snap them, I had no alternative but to stay out and sleep on the dark pavement until the morning. Therefore, I decided from then on, I would not lock the house when I left, I would lock my bedroom door, I thought it was easier to snap those at my bedroom, as they were not as strong as other meshed web nets that were barring my way into the houise.
I managed to pass a few months like that. Even though I was visiting my mum’s grave, for fear of the spiders in my room, I did not stay too long and soon returned home. But the secrets of my bedroom, of the entwined nets I could not disentangle, helplessly I had to leave and could not stay with anymore: I had to leave my lonely room. I moved to my mum’s room, with my mum’s shadows and memories that gave me peace and tranquillity, my distress eased. I felt my sleeping was serene and peaceful and then, whenever I woke up, I could think back with a clearer mind than ever before.
But what fascinated me most was my mum, as often I saw her in my dreams, she often stood and looked down on me with her usual motherly stare, just stared at me and said nothing. What I read in her face and her eyes was that she was blaming me for something, I guessed that was why I could not dismiss all those spiders and their webs all at once, and save myself from that enclosed loneliness I was in.
In fact that house was all I needed in my life, it was more precious than any other sanctified objects; but my mum’s suspicious looks, as I saw in my dreams, was about those spiders that often harassed me, as if they were trying to change my perception, until I got to a stage where I found that the loving feeling had no borders. Wherever we are, one’s heart can be filled with faith and loving feeling. Wherever we are, we could send its glowing ambiance to those we intend to be associated with or have a strand of loving connection with.
I often stared at the picture above my metal bed, the one that Hajar, my mum put up. I thought that she did not hang it there unintentionally. Her intention was that, she wanted me to get used to seeing it, to overcome my plight and to learn from it in the stages of my growing up. I thought I had enough satisfaction that, every now and then, I learnt more from it, as so often I saw in a different way to expand on what I could interpret, as I begun to realise the painting was filled with mysteries that should be explored and exposed.
That painting was the only incentive behind my intention to take up the art of drawing and painting, until it occupied most of my free times. That was how I tried to learn about the art of sculpting, and tried to understand mysteries of sculpting and began to learn, until later I tried to look deeper into the pictures, into the true meaning in all of them.
In the meantime, I knew that my mum, Hajar, had not achieved her ambition that one day I would be reconciled with my lost family. As it was vital for me try to learn much more about my destiny, I had tried to sum up enough reasons to justify my returning to Halabja. To go back to the town where the chemical attack happened on 16th March. I thought that, if I tried to do that, I would save myself from loneliness and would be able to search for the lost possibilities, to discover and learn about the fate of my family, relations and my people.
For my mum, her aspiration was that one day I would be able to go back, to be reconciled with my lost family and Halabja, as though it was for the plight of that town that she lost her life and for the final time she left me. That was all because of her true humanity…