First Edition: Prose

Ardalan in the Army

by susan sasson


Have I told you about when I went to the army? Ardalan said.  I’ll be honest with you it was the best time of my life. 

It was 1939 and I was eighteen years old when they first came to take me for my mandatory service. Two soldiers — a short one following after a shorter, fatter one — came into my cousin’s liquor store in Sanandaj, Kurdistan where I worked. It was cold; some time after lunch, some time around Chanukah. They wore brown, wool army jackets with shiny brass buttons over the traditional linen damalghaopan, the baggy pants that we tie at the waist and at the cuff. That is how I knew they were soldiers and that is how I knew they were Kurdish, like myself, men of the mountains.

I saw them come in, but I pretended I didn’t. I treated them like ordinary customers.

“We are looking for Ardalan,“ one of the soldiers said. “Is he here?” He held a warrant in his hand, which he waved at me.

“Just a moment,” I said. I took my time. I switched two bottles of arak behind the counter. Moved one right. The other left. Then I turned to the soldiers.  

“You want Ardalan? “

“Yes.” They thrust a paper at me and pointed, tracing their fingers under letters that did not form my name. That is how I knew they could not read. I picked up the paper and read it through. I thought about telling them they had the wrong name; that the order was for Shakrollah or Amandollah or even Siman. See right there! I could have said, pointing to any section on the page. But instead I looked the soldiers straight in the eye, smiled, shrugged my shoulders, shook my head.

“You just missed him,” I told them. “He just stepped out. That way.” Walking them to the door, I pointed to the back of a man about to turn the corner fifty paces ahead.  No matter that that was a recent customer, an older man in his thirties with curly hair and quite stocky, whereas I had straight thick black hair and was slender and tall for a Kurdish man. Who could tell from that distance how much hair was under a turban, how much weight under a loose fitting tunic, how thick a moustache grew, how many creases lined a face?

The soldiers ran off down the street, and I went back to work. At home that night I told the story of my escape to my mother, grown brothers, their wives and children. We sat on pillows on the patterned carpet in the main room of our stone-faced mud house, cut into the hillside of Sanandaj. We ate dish after dish of my mother’s stewed vegetables with rice. I told them how the soldiers had come in, big and tough and swaggering, and asked for me, right to my face! How I had not given myself away, but kept calm, even read the summons through without betraying a flicker of concern. How I had set them out after a customer, a visitor who would not know my name.

Shimon, my oldest brother who was good-natured but serious, raised his glass. It was tea. My mother Ghonce, although small as a schoolgirl, barely taller than my waist, admonished us about alcohol. “Never drink it,” she said, her dark eyes piercing, her two long braids never cut wagging. “It will make you do things you regret.” Shimon held his glass in a half salute, half cheer and bowed his head to me. “Bravo,” he said. “But be careful, Ardalan. Step with care.”

While performing their service a decade before, he and another brother Yosef had been picked on — taunted, beaten — for being Jewish. Our Rabbi’s son Mashiach was made to the carry the water and wash the supervising officer at the latrine. Beaten if he refused. But I wasn’t worried. I smiled and made friends with everyone, Jewish and Muslim, Kurdish and foreign. I lived my life the way we dance the Chupi. You step forward then backwards and sideways, changing direction, circling, but advancing all the time. That is what I did, always, going around and around, sideways and backwards until I found the best way forward.

After that, whenever soldiers came asking for me for army service, I told them, ”Ardalan has gone to Tehran.” If they inquired further I would shrug and say, “He might be gone for a few months, maybe a year.”

I wasn’t unwilling to serve the country. I loved my country. My county is beautiful, one of the most beautiful places on earth. They say the Garden of Eden existed somewhere nearby. Sitting high in the mountains, we have white snow and blue glaciers all winter, lush grass and dense forests and sparkling water in the summer. How I loved to go to the edge of the forests — full of ram and deer and leopards and wolves — and hear the birds sing as they returned in spring, sit by the fresh glacier-formed lakes and fish in summer, take goats to green pastures in fall, visit the hot mineral springs in the north in winter, or sit in the ancient caves, carved everywhere into the mountains, eat fresh figs from the forests and sing.

My city, Sanandaj, the capital city of Iranian Kurdistan, sits in a lush valley between the high rugged ice capped peaks of Mt. Abidar and Mt. Kochka-Rash, peaks that are difficult to pass but easy to hide in. My people speak the oldest surviving language on earth, a version of Aramaic, the tongue of Abraham, although our official language is Farsi. We are strong and brave, made hardy by the tough terrain and cold winters. But we are also jovial, perhaps from the warm summers. We love life. We love our families. We love to sing. We love to dance the Chupi. I’ll be honest with you, it is the best place on earth.

But in 1939, when the soldiers first came to take me for army service I couldn’t go. My mother needed me.

My father had died while I was still in my mother’s arms. He lay down one night and never woke up. So I, child of my mother’s greying years, always worked, all my life, even as a young boy. We all worked, my mother, my brothers, my sisters and me. When I was five I sold socks and prayer caps that my mother knitted. I walked up and down the narrow lanes of the market calling out her wares, the work of her hands, the best socks, the finest caps, the thickest wool, the nicest colors, the best price. When I was twelve I sold fine silk that I smuggled over the border from Iraq. When I was fifteen I went to work in my cousin’s liquor store. I would sell my own eyes if my mother’s life depended on it. And so my mother and I always had enough food, as well as a horse, some chickens and a goat.

A boy without a father has no protection. A woman without a husband has less. That is why I had to be a guardian, all my life, for both of us.

In 1939 and into the 1940s, when I was eighteen years old and supposed to do my army service, we had food shortages in my country because of the war in Europe. Back then when Hitler was a problem, there were lots of foreign soldiers in my country, mostly British, who were buying up the grain. The British had camps all over Iran, many in the south where the oil and their Anglo-Persian oil company were, but also near my city, which was only a day’s ride or so even on a slow horse to British-occupied Baghdad. They wanted to keep their eye on the Shah, who was friends with Germany, and to protect their oil. Stalin’s troops also sat on the northern border, not far from us, and later invaded the city of Tabriz. And the Americans set up factories in the south to build aircraft and vehicles for the war, which they shipped through the Caspian Sea to Russia and beyond. It was as if everyone was dancing the Chupi — each one stepping sideways, forward and back, circling, waiting to see what the Shah and Hitler and each other would do. But they don’t know the Chupi, which should be danced with joy.

There wasn’t enough grain for everybody, for all of the foreign armies and for all of us. Grain became expensive. Other items too. Many people went hungry. I could not let my mother or my family go hungry.

The foreign soldiers created a problem. Also an opportunity. I waited on British soldiers in the bar of my cousin’s liquor store. They always came to me, because most of my countrymen were wary of them, did not understand their ways, thought they were tricksters. How can you serve them? Nouri who had his store next to ours said. They will take our food then our homes then our country. But as I saw it, these soldiers had nothing against us Kurds. They came to my store for a good glass of arak or vodka, just like everyone else.

I particularly liked the British and the Indians who served in their army. I learned their language, enough to greet them: hello, how are you? Cheers. I learned their names: Sergeant Rupert, Captain Abbott, Private Sundaram. I learned their polite phrases: please, you welcome, bloody hell. I learned to count in their numbers. I gave them discounts on their second drink.

The foreign officers traveling through my city always had plenty of supplies. Their units carried large bags of dried goods, tea and rice and beans. They sold me their extra provisions. I kept what my family needed. I resold the rest for a profit.

I made a good friend in the British army, a big Indian man named Aroush who came often to my store and whom I served at the bar. He came to my house and ate with us on every holiday, on Shabbat, on Rosh Hashanah, on Chanukah too, even though he wasn’t Jewish. He brought my family extra tea and sugar. 

One night Aroush invited me to the British camp. They had beer and other alcohol. I got drunk with all the soldiers there. We sat around a big campfire that lit up the night sky and kept the winter cold at bay. The soldiers sang songs for their king and country. I didn’t know the words, but hummed along as best I could. They laughed at that and I laughed too and we drank some more. It was fun. I thought I would like to serve in the British army if I had to serve somewhere. In the middle of the night I started home. On the way, noticing how hard it was to walk straight and how the familiar roads and buildings looked blurry, I became worried that my mother would be disappointed in me, perhaps angry. I stopped in the middle of the city in the big open main square where there was clean snow. I rubbed the snow all over myself, over my face, and eyes, over my nose and chin. It burned my skin and I felt very hot.

Back home, I covered my eyes with my hands at the front door. My mother pulled me inside. “What’s wrong?” she said.

“My eyes,” I said. “My eyes are a little bothering me.” The words sounded muffled through my mittens. I passed her and went straight to bed. 

I tossed and turned all night. I couldn’t sleep. Not because of the burning of my eyes. Not because of the alcohol in my blood. But because of the untruth I had told my mother. So in the morning, red-eyed, I told her everything.

She stood before me, tiny, in a full, long purple skirt woven from goat’s hair and pieced together with embroidery. Her two dark braids — so long she could have sat on them — wagged back and forth under her red headscarf. Her eyes pierced. “Never get drunk again,” she said. 

How I had let her down.

Later, when word reached us about what was happening to the people in Europe, my mother told me to go up on the roof of our house with a pot of boiling water in case anyone came to bother us or take us away. Then I was to tip the scalding water onto their heads. I stood up on the roof for hours, day after day, the heavy pot boiling over a low fire set on the thick wood rafters, warming my hands, watching people go by. Nobody ever came to take us, not my family or any other, thanks to God. But what if I were gone, a soldier at a base away from home, and they had come then to take my mother? 

Then, one day when the Kurdish soldiers came again to the store asking for me, my cousin Nasrallah happened to be there, and this time they approached him.

“Are you Ardalan? We have orders for Ardalan who works here.”

I started to speak, to interrupt them, but my cousin pointed me out.

“That is he.” It was not a decent thing to do, particularly to family. But Nasrallah, skinny and tall like a kabob with the meat sucked off, was not decent. Nasrallah was there that day and it was done.

The soldiers didn’t let me go home to pack my things. I couldn’t tell my mother where I was going or even say good-bye. They clasped me under my arms and pulled me out to the street, and me a head taller than them both. We walked out of the dense commercial district to a side street where they had left a wagon.

It was 1941. By then I was 20 years old, two years older than most recruits.

It took no more than fifteen minutes, the horses clopping along the mountain road at an easy pace, to reach the base, on a bare plateau on the side of the mountain. I calculated we had traveled less than ten miles.

The central square appeared deserted when we drove in. The soldiers led me into the office and gave me army clothing — boots, trousers, cap, and overcoat. They issued me a cot in the wooden framed mud barracks. The mattress felt thin and hard. The blanket rough.  But I remembered my time at the British camp and I thought, This will be okay. This could be fun.

I went to the supervising officer standing by the door. I asked for permission to go home. I explained that my mother was alone, that I had not had time to tell her good-bye or my whereabouts, that it wasn’t far. I could be back at sun up, in the morning. The officer raised his hand, fingers up, palm out, the international gesture for stop, and turned his face away.  I wouldn’t accept this answer.

“I will give you 20 toman,” I said. I pulled a few coins from my pocket to give credence to my words.

“What?” he spoke loudly and with force, although there was no one else there to hear. “We are army men. Even for 2000 toman, I could not let you go.” He said this, but at the same time he stared hard at my hand holding the coins. His legs flinched, as if he wanted to move. Then he straightened and stilled and spat on the floor near me. “What sort of a man do you take me for?”

“How about 3000?” I asked. I didn’t have it, but I wanted to see what sort of a man he was.

The soldier raised his hand again and I thought he might hit me, so I let it go. This man is not Kurdish, I thought. By his accent, I was sure he was Esfahani, from the city of Esfahan. People from Esfahan are full of glass shards.

But it was settled in my mind. After dinner I went out in the fields to have a proper piss, since the latrines stunk something awful. There were no guards, and no one was watching, so I went all the way home. I walked for over an hour, on the main road through the mountains where we’d come, up and down the snowy hills, in my warm army-issue coat and my good, army-issue boots. I don’t recall the calendar day or the day of the week. Only that it was the first candle of Chanukah. And my mother was alone.

photo/jamie westdal
A lifelong Bay Area resident, Susan Rothblatt Sasson is working on a novel inspired by the voices and stories of Kurdish and Iranian Jews now in the United States. She holds a master’s degree in public policy from U.C. Berkeley and an MFA from St. Mary’s College.