“The Waiting Bones”—an essay by Maryam Haidari

3 December, 2023,
The long Iran-Iraq war left many traces, names and ghosts in its eight-year wake.


Maryam Haidari

Translated from Arabic by Salar Abdoh


The war was a plague. It began before I was born and affected the lives of all of us who lived close to the Iran-Iraq border. Bombing raids forced us to move constantly, from one town to another, time and again. It was during one of these departures that I was born. 1984. The war was already four years old. A few months earlier one of my brothers had started going to the frontlines without telling anyone. He was only 16 and I would never know him. Now and then he’d come home — wherever home was at the time — and tell everyone he’d gone faraway to continue his studies. I’m told it was during one of these brief visits that he named me Maryam.

One day, however, he didn’t come back and the family finally knew it was the war he’d been disappearing into each time. Before long a young man who had been at the front with him showed up to tell us they’d served together for a time, but he didn’t know what had become of my brother. This was all we had. A vague report from a near and far war for us Arabic speakers in Iran’s southwest province of Khuzestan.

The war finally ended in 1988, but still no sign of my brother. Missing in action, they called it. No one could tell us for sure if he’d been martyred or was a prisoner of war. A year later the first prisoner exchanges between the two countries started. All those buses full of freed men smiling and waving to a country that awaited them with open arms. Now they were no longer the missing; instead they were called “the freed.” Their names preceded them in all of the newspapers so that families would know who was on a bus coming from Iraq and they could rush to welcome them. War’s end had truly arrived at last for these families and new lives were beginning.

In the mornings my mother would head to the marketplace and return with her basket filled with fruits and vegetables. Sometimes she’d bring a little toy that she’d picked up for us kids on her way, and always the day’s newspaper was pressed on top of that basket. She’d carefully go through the listings of the latest freed prisoners printed in the newspaper, making the search last as long as possible. And every day her search would end in disappointment. She was waiting, and I was waiting for her to transform: since I did not remember my brother at all; what feelings I had for him were really for my mother’s sake, for the sake of seeing her happy at last, seeing her dress in colors again and put away the black that she’d worn ever since his disappearance.

Inside a closet in our house sat a photo of him wrapped in a smooth and glossy piece of green cloth. Whenever the house emptied, my mother would sit on the floor and face the closet, gazing at it for the longest time before opening it. Then she’d unfold the green cloth, stare at the photograph and slowly begin weeping. During those times I’d tiptoe next to her and wait for that almost epic moment when she unfolded the cloth and my brother’s face appeared. I watched her watching the picture, watched her crying, and then I would begin crying with her.

She’d whisper to him, beseech him, scold him and eventually she’d pray for him. Soon I’d lay my head on her shoulder and pray too, asking God to end her grief one day.

Our ritual lasted the better part of an hour usually. Then she would kiss me, enfold the photo in the green cloth and put it back in its sacred spot in the closet. It was as if during that hour I had taken a break from childhood, and as soon as our ceremony ended, I’d go back to playing and being a kid again. Until of course the next time, when the two of us would meet for another interlude by that closet.

More years passed that way without any sign of my brother. The newspapers never carried his name. Other men who had also served with him would drop by now and then to offer nothing new to end the waiting. Then one day it happened. By now I was ten years old. I’d just gotten home from school and noticed we had a guest I’d never seen before sitting in the living room. I went into the courtyard to play; some minutes later my mother rushed out screeching at the top of her lungs at her own motherhood: Yumma!

This was 1994. A warm day just before spring. Those moments in the courtyard were as if something fell apart and was shattered forever. And the weight of the wreck from then on seemed to take over our entire household and inch its way into our collective lives. My parents were told that during recent government searches they’d come upon a bone that carried a chain belonging to my brother. The word bone scared me. Even at school I was afraid to look at a skeleton or read about them in our schoolbooks. Now I was especially afraid to ask about anything that had to do with a bone that belonged to us.

Our world grew silent from then on and within days my mother began to age rapidly. Her eyes no longer had that shine to them, and her face seemed to slowly disappear into itself.

Years later that photograph of my brother found its place on a wall of our house, and later still it became a part of his grave. My mother’s dreams told her that those bones were not my brother’s, nor was that grave containing his remains really his. Still, she visited the site punctually, even if she was still not sure. I’d insist on going with her, and though she didn’t want to she’d let me. I’d squat next to her and wish myself into mourning for a few minutes and then I’d run up the hill playing alone and pretending I was climbing a huge mountain. Soon my mother would call to me and we’d go home together.

The history of my province and my town and my own birth all are somehow merged into the history of that long war — of night and day raids and rockets and ruin and tears and waiting that so many families shared for so many years afterwards. Yet closure, when it came, never came for my mother. Because sometimes there never really is an ending.


Maryam Haidari, born in 1984, is from the Khuzestan province of Iran. She is the translator into Persian, from Arabic, of noted Arab poets such as Mahmoud Darwish and Sargon Boulus. She has also translated numerous Persian and Afghan poets, as well as Persian travel writers, into Arabic. She is the author of the collection Bab Muareb (A Door Ajar) and the 2018 recipient of the Arab world’s prestigious Ibn Battuta Prize for Travel Literature. Her latest book (2022) is Persian Carpets, a collection of modern Persian poetry translated into Arabic. She is also the Culture editor of the Arabic language journal Raseef 22 in Beirut, the premier journal of art, literature, history, and politics out of Beirut. And her translations into Persian and English (with Salar Abdoh) of the writings of the tenth century Arab mystic, Al-Niffari, is forthcoming in 2024. She lives and works in Tehran, Iran.

Salar Abdoh is an Iranian novelist, essayist and translator, who divides his time between New York and Tehran. He is the author of the novels Poet Game (2000), Opium (2004), Tehran at Twilight (2014), and Out of Mesopotamia (2020) and the editor of the short story collection Tehran Noir (2014). His latest novel, A Nearby Country Called Love, published last year by Viking, was described by the New York Times as “a complex portrait of interpersonal relationships in contemporary Iran.” Salar Abdoh also teaches in the graduate program in Creative Writing at the City College of New York at the City University of New York.

ArabicIranIran-Iraq warIraqKhuzestanPersian

1 comment

  1. …”sometimes there never really is an ending” is such a tragic way to end a story about a war. Thank you for sharing this beautiful piece.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Become a Member