Iran–Iraq War, 1980–1988
War tricked us into believing it wouldn’t stay.
Draining all the while from its corner seat
my father’s middle-class pockets, gorging itself
on our food and my mother, not unlike our allies
who bled the oil fields of Ahvaz.
Once a week our faux-Baroque table stretched
with Ash Reshteh, sturgeon, Sabzi Polo.
Basmati kernels, steamed to utmost reach,
lay pearled and piled, in a high-Qajar mound
of aristocracy, the saffroned crown diffusing
a genteel glow into the room, heedless,
like my mother, of the setting sun, unwitting
of yesterday, of where we’d hunched without
power, of tomorrow, our fumbling for the wick.
My mother, mute as a 1920’s flower, deaf as if
by grace to the air raid siren, turned now
a blind eye to the thinning leaves of the rationed
vouchers war had slipped into the drawer.
A plastic peony pinned high above her right
clavicle caressed her rouged cheek, whispered
into her ear, her dreamy face swiveling
like a doll’s to greet a guest. She looped through
folding stools, her gold hoops lost in her curls,
the large deaf and dumb society of Tehran
tucked into our three-bedroom flat decked into
a French brothel but for the barefooted children
who ducked behind imitation Louis-the-fourteenth
armchairs, engrossed in their own game of tag.
The evenings, quiet but for guttural cries
torn out of cleft throats, and the play-laughter
of children, eluded the Morality police.
The bane of their lives had turned wartime boon--
not called to the frontlines, the deaf signed into
the night, sharing what they’d culled from pictures
of martyrs in papers, from a cousin who both
heard and signed, from the muted TV box
in the parlor that crawled with foot soldiers, mullahs,
then soldiers again, against a semi-arid desert
backdrop punctuated with explosions, the close-up
wailing of a mother pounding her head.
Though not spared, the war escaped the deaf. Not because
their small children couldn’t relay the twisted turn
in the mullah’s Friday sermon, not because
they had never heard the pained midnight howl
of a siren. True, they were immune to the allure
of propaganda, but that wasn’t it either.
The deaf were the lamb of God, mild and mute,
and the war loud, too grotesque to fathom.
Yet with guesswork they filled in the missing pieces
into a pastiche of a worldview—a circle
and a half about the head for a turban and a dab
at the pocket branded the mullahs as thieves.
Four fingers over the brow fanned out the full
dynastic plumage of the Shah, and bobbing both
hands up and down in the air dubbed him a puppet.
Then two smacking gestures in midair for stars
and a pointed index meant America was to blame.
Then my parents quarreled. I stared at the corner
and accused war of stealing my feline bottle
of Coca-Cola, my Friday drink, the skewer
of dripping mutton, the coals cold, my mother
no longer squatting in a flower housedress,
fanning the flames, fanning herself.
Then it got bad. I begged war to drown
her gnarled screams and rush us underground in respite
where my mother rocked me like an infant
before the neighbors. Blind as mice, we kept
to shadows and those among us who could hear
listened for the bomber crossing our heads.
• • •
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ROOJA MOHASSESSY lives in Northern California. She is currently enrolled in the MFA program of Pacific University, Oregon. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, Poet Lore, California Fire and Water: An Anthology of Poems, Ninth Letter, Interlitq, Bare Life Review, and elsewhere.