by Mohammad Yadegari
Most houses in Karbala, and the Middle East in general, are built around a central courtyard and have a howz (decorative pool), usually in the center of the yard. From the Taj Mahal of India to tiny village homes, the howz is a universal feature of Muslim architecture. The howz might be simple in an ordinary home but it is usually ornate in the homes of the wealthy. Most of them are rectangular but some have other geometric shapes. A faucet provides running water for ritual ablution before prayers. There are also similar shallow pools in mosques and schools.
I don’t remember exactly how old I was when my little sister drowned in a howz. I couldn’t have been older than four. My sister was around one year old, still crawling, and the delight of all who knew her. It has been so many years that I seem to have even forgotten her name. Maybe my memory refuses to remember it. Raziah sounds familiar.
My mother had taken her along when she walked to a seamstress’ house in our neighborhood to arrange for a dress to be made and to pick out cloth for the dress. My sister had crawled out of the room without being noticed. My mother swore that she had kept a watchful eye on her all the time but like any accident, it happened quickly. Maybe it was because of that tragedy that my mother always reminded us to be careful. “Accidents happen within seconds and if they do, nothing can reverse them.” I don’t have to tell you that people can get busy talking and chatting about serious as well as trivial matters and forget to be watchful.
The howz at the seamstress’ house was rectangular, approximately eighteen inches deep, built in the middle of the yard. While I did not go on that day, I had been there with my mother several times. According to her, on that particular day, it was full of leaves that had fallen from nearby trees. The seamstress had not cleaned them out. Though relatively shallow, the howz was deep enough to drown a crawling baby, my young sister. The water shimmering in the sun or newly fallen leaves floating on the water may have attracted my sister. Crawling babies are not afraid of anything. They don’t know what danger is. One second she was alive and exuberant and the next she was floating unresponsive on the surface of water. That is how my mother found her.
When she was brought home, my sister was laid out on the floor. Her small dress was torn away so that her body was bare. She looked soft, her skin fair, her stomach smooth, but she did not move. My mother was constantly patting and kissing her on the lips, on the cheek, on her abdomen. I stood there, a little boy in a circle of weeping women. I did not cry because my feelings were numb. I did not know how to react. All I knew was that she was dead. She was dead and gone and she did not move.
She did not look at me, the one who had been her constant companion and playmate. On the night before, this little sister of mine had been so happy when I put her on a big metal serving tray, and spun her around and around as I pushed the tray around the room. She had laughed loudly, her squeals of delight making everyone turn and look and smile. My mother had stopped me. Some people say that spinning a child on a tray brings bad luck. Call it superstition, call it a mother’s intuition, call it whatever you wish. I distinctly remember my mother stopping me and saying with a nervous smile and a worried look that it was not good to put a baby on a tray and push her around. Something bad could happen to her.
And there I was with my wide eyes looking down at my sister’s abdomen because I couldn’t understand why mother kept kissing her there. It was white and soft and different from mine. A woman next to me slapped me lightly on my forehead. “Stop ogling her bare body,” she shouted. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself!” I could not understand why. I was bewildered at the whole affair. I had never seen my mother so sad, wishing she’d been the one who had drowned instead of her daughter. And then I heard a wail that seemed to swell up from the depth of her soul. “Leave Mohammad alone! My dear son, you want to look? Look, look, look. She is beautiful.” She bent down again kissing my sister’s cold abdomen. Less than four years old, too young to understand, I witnessed the pain that a mother feels at the loss of her own flesh and blood.
It was over seventy years ago and no one knew about CPR. And by all accounts, I can surmise that my poor sister had no chance of survival at that point anyway. My mother pleaded with God. My mother was calling on God but He did not answer her pleas. A short silence was followed by a weak sigh of desperation and resignation. Only later, when I had children of my own and could comprehend the finality of life and death, did I begin to imagine what really went through my mother’s mind during that fateful moment.
My mother never wore the dress she had ordered that day. And, though time heals all wounds, she never forgot that awful moment. I doubt if she fell asleep that night. I am also sure that, although she did not voice an objection to the will of the Master of the Universe, she still blamed the city of Karbala, that city of agony and calamity, whose earth was always thirsty for new flesh.
Mohammad Yadegari, an Iranian born in Iraq, moved to the United States in 1964. He studied at SUNYA and NYU and then taught mathematics and history in both high school and college. “The Day My Sister Drowned” is from his recently completed cultural memoir, A TALE OF THREE CITIES.
Mohammad Yadegari, an Iranian born in Iraq, moved to the United States in 1964. He studied at SUNY-Albany and NYU and then taught mathematics and history in both high school and college. This piece is from ALWAYS AN IMMIGRANT, A CULTURAL MEMOIR, to be published by White River Press in 2020.