Azar Mahloujian: Soap

Dear Mehri,

I miss you so much. Since the day before yesterday, when I found the sweet-smelling piece of soap in a shop in Stockholm, I think of you. The soap with the fresh green smell of apples which I saw the first time I visited your home. We had come home to your place after work at the hospital. It was so pleasant to wash away the hospital smells with that soap. Your husband was home and asked us how it all had gone. He thought we were mad to take these risks. But we were so sure of ourselves that we didn’t listen to him. You accused him of being too theoretical. “He lives in his dream world of books” you explained and dismissed his laziness. But later we understood, we realized that we were simply being ridiculous!

That was at the beginning of our friendship. You were new at my place of work, a young beauty with beautiful long hair which you often plaited at the back. You made a strong impression on me with your natural manners. Warm and sensible, a young woman just returned home after years of study in the west.      I liked your temper and your smile.

The soap which I just now used to wash my hands awakens my memory of you. The soap had been imported from Germany and was thus only sold by street vendors who by then had occupied nearly all the pavements of Pahlavi street. The young without employment had become street vendors and sold everything from books and cassette tapes to clothes, and when the local authorities prohibited this they demonstrated on the streets against the unemployment and you said it had become our duty to defend them and their rights of employment.

The fresh scent from the soap releases me from a memory of a fragrance, at the same time being itself a reminder. I can never forget our night at the hospital. The night we spent in darkness in the corridor as ambulance after ambulance brought in the burnt men from the front. The stench of the burnt men I can still feel in my nostrils as soon as I start thinking about that night. In the moonlight we saw them being unloaded from the ambulance. Two helicopters had brought them straight from the front. They moaned and groaned and begged for water, but the doctors had forbidden us to give them water. Lights were not allowed as they might lead to the city being attacked by bombers. Inside the hospital candles had been lighted. Here all the beds were occupied so extra beds were set up in the corridors. You and I passed in a shocked state between the beds and when we, after several hours were allowed a few minutes pause for smoking in the secretary’s room we were quiet, we had no words for each other. We were the doctors’ and the nurses’ helpers, sent off to fetch one thing or another from cupboards and stores. That was all we could do. Yes, we did talk with anyone who was able to talk, trying to give some comfort. A very young man was calling for his mother, another wanted us to contact his family, a third talked about his will and testament and cried for Allah…

What an unbelievable night! Most horrible was the smell from a soldier who had burned inside a tank, the stench made me ready to pass out. We were not prepared for what we saw that night. Our preparations consisted of just a self-help course we had managed to provide at work. We had invited two doctors who went through the most important parts with all the employees at our library. “It is war and everybody must increase his and her preparedness”, we said and fought for making everybody who wished be let off work in order to get some hospital practice for one week. Everybody must be mobilized. You and I had chosen this particular hospital as it was specialized on burn injuries. The only one in the country, with the best resources and built just a few years before the revolution. Now we were there, without really understanding what we were up to. When the day shift came on we were so exhausted that the medical superintendent decided we were too tired and should not come back until the following day. When we returned seven burnt men from the night before had died.

What were we really up to? Were we masochists perhaps? Or had we just been smitten by the hysteria of war, which is so difficult to avoid? We who were against the war? No matter if it was Saddam Hussein who started it or Khomeini who in reality had started it with his intrigues in our neighbouring country’s private affairs. Eventually, as the bombers started to reach also Teheran night after night, it was no longer enough to take part in discussion groups outside the university and to write slogans on walls and hand out leaflets against the war. In daytime we hurried to the bombed housing areas before they were levelled with the ground by bulldozers. The young revolutionary government wished to keep morale high by not letting us see the destruction! Instead our reporters kept telling us, night and day, how we were advancing against the enemy’s heart. But we are a people with lots of memories of the lies from those in power through the millennia, and we have learnt us to distrust those in power even if we  don’t always dare say so, or can be bothered to. We already knew that we ought to read between the lines and draw our own conclusions. In the evening, when curfew was in force, the curtains drawn and windows taped over with black cardboard people would sit at home listening to all the foreign radio stations transmitting in our language. We also listened to the voice of our enemy, Radio Bagdad!  When guardsmen came to search people’s homes, they would turn the radio on to see what frequency they had been tuned to. A good friend of mine was arrested a couple of years ago while sitting on the toilet listening to the BBC. He hadn’t heard them ring the door-bell and his wife had opened the door believing their neighbour wanted something and hadn’t the time to warn him. Of course the listening to the BBC made his case worse.

The war hysterics hit also the leftists. Some opposition groups mobilized their members and sent them to the front, but this got to be called the leftist conspiracy against Islam, a way for the left to  get their hands on weapons, which later could be used against the government. They were shouldered away from the front, thank God. It would be the last straw having leftists fighting under Islam banners. It wasn’t long before everybody who was against this war, which suddenly was being called the Holy War, were accused of being Saddam’ spies and traitors to their country.

During that week at the hospital we saw so much misery and the most awful suffering that it became too much for us. We understood that we were no Florence Nightingales. We didn’t fit even
as nurses´ assistants. I just became obsessed with washing the stink from my clothes and my body. I had had enough of dramatic and heroic acts and was content just to help the neighbours in my house. I lived at the bottom of a four-story building. I and Homa, who lived on the top floor, were the youngest in the house so it was expected that we would be available during bombing nights.

The alarm sounded and the radio instructed people to run for the air-raid shelters. But no-one asked “what shelters”! Meaningless to ask as everybody knew that such things did not exist.  People rushed for the basements, garages and parking places. The neighbours were content to come into my apartment when I offered it. This was not very wise. If a bomb were to hit our building we would all be buried alive under the ruins. When the alarm went off Homa and     I ran, with electric torches in our hands, from apartment to apartment and helped everybody into my place. A crowd of some thirty people of all ages, most of them scared to death. We sat around the radio with a candle and waited for the sirens to signal the “all clear”. Then we helped them back into their own homes. The first nights everybody was scared and quiet. The neighbour’s children cried in the arms of their parents in the unknown surroundings and among so many people in the dark. Many of the older people found it hard to breathe. We couldn’t open the windows as no lights were allowed to show.
For the first few nights we didn’t trust each other and sat and kept quiet, but after a few such nights several angry voices could be heard among my nightly guests. The radio told us that anybody who turns on a light is a traitor, somebody who wants to signal to the enemy’s bombers, and we heard the  guardsmen on patrol on our streets call threateningly: “You there, you communist, you contra-revolutionary! Turn out the light!” as soon as anybody turned on a light behind the drawn curtains. Black cardboard was sold out in the shops after just a week of war and it became a trick to get hold of it on the black market.

One day a neighbour came up with the idea to buy a pickaxe and leave it in my apartment, to help us dig ourselves out if we were shut-in under the ruins. One person with heart trouble left a part of his medicines with me so as not to have to think about them when hurrying down to my place after  the alarm sounded. For myself I packed a rucksack with some medicines and spare clothes and a bottle of water – so as to be able to get away quickly at any time. It happened that the alarm went off several times during the same night and we had to repeat the procedures. One of those nights I was so tired I slept in my bed with my shoes on so as to be able to spring up directly and fetch the neighbours. It became a funny story, something to laugh at long afterwards. After some time my nightly visitors tired of all the nightly fuss – “If it’s God’s will I’ll die, wherever I may be” they said and stopped leaving their apartments.

The war is now over, thank heavens, but the smell comes back to me when I think about our night at the hospital. The smell of war I wish to wash away with the soap that reminds me of you.

A big hug from Lund.
Azar Mahloujian   


Azar Mahloujian (1949, Bâbol, Iran), an Iranian Writer,  fled to Sweden as a political refugee in 1982 and has been living in Stockholm ever since. She is the author of several books including Back to Iran and The Torn Pictures which became bestsellers in Sweden. She introduced and translated the Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlou into Swedish.  She writes regularly in the Swedish press about exile, identity and culture clashes. Her latest book, Meet you in Larnaca (Sept 2011) is based on the murder of an Iranian refugee.

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