Shemshaad playground

My mother's family are from Abadan. I was born there but never technically lived there. But since we lived in the south, we used to go there once or twice a month to visit my grandparents.

I was never short of cousin playmates, as my aunts lived in and around Abadan. I was quite young when the war with Iraq began in 1980 so my memories are in the form of short clips rather than lengthy moving images.

I remember shemshaad fences lining the whole length of narrow streets in Beraim. The first of five houses was my Mambozorg's house. Mambozorg's house was like a guesthouse. The rectangular living room was filled with mattresses every afternoon and every night.

There was a low-level air conditioner at one end of the wall. Abadan was so hot that all of us wanted to take the mattress next to it. There were arguments (and a lot of cheating) involved. If you went to the toilet after you had conquered the spot, you would lose it. It was as simple as that.

I remember shemshaad leaves tasted so bitter that they would even leave a strong smell on your fingers. The most popular game we played was
malakh giri (catching grasshoppers).The skin under their wings came in all colours. My biggest achievement was personally catching a pink grasshopper. I kid you not, pink grasshoppers did exist. Only in Abadan.

The kids were split into age groups. I hung out with my cousin Irene who is a little younger than me. My older sister hung out with 3 cousins her own age and the 2 younger boys hung out together. The eldest boy hung out with my youngest uncle. At the time we were only 9 grandchildren. (There are now 20 of us, and 7 great grandchildren –

Irene and I used empty Cerelac or Nido dried milk tins to imprison our
malakh. They would suffocate and the stench was foul. Now I wish we had set them free — too late!

The older kids had another technique — they would keep their captured
malakh in a plastic bag with breathing holes. Then every afternoon at 3, they would choose one and chop its head off! It reminds me of a particular
Beavis & Butt-head scene, when they used a chain saw to chop off a grasshopper's head!

I remember the toy shop, not too far from Mambozorg's house. I once bought a little toy fan (
pankeh) which was a novelty at the time. I can't remember which cousin took it and ruined it.

I remember Mambozorg was so patient – god bless her soul – but even she would have to tell us off as we finished all her cheese. Every two minutes, someone was in the fridge taking a big piece of Feta with bare hands.

There is one bizarre memory which is as vivid as a video clip. I must have been about 3, when my sister, my cousin Amin and I were sent to a store close to Mambozorg's house to buy everyone
bastani livaani (ice cream cups).

As soon as we walked out of the store, there were about 7 little
bacheh araba (Arab kids) waiting for us! God knows where they had come from but they started bullying us and I burst into tears. We had to cross the main avenue to get to the shemshaad lane lining Mambozorg's house. I cried so loud that a street vendor stopped us and asked what was wrong. This gave
bacheh araba an opportunity to cross the road ahead of us. As soon as we got to the lane, they pushed Amin into the shemshaad.

I thought they were fighting for the ice cream, since he was carrying the bag. I cried so much that one of the smallest kids said to his fellow gang, ”
Aghaa – een bechast, gonaah daareh. Bezaarim bereh.” (Hey! This one's just a poor little kid. Let's let her go.) So they let my sister and I go along with the bag of ice cream. I'll never forget the sympathetic tone of his voice.

We ran back to Mambozorg's house and immediately after that my memory is blank as to what happened. Next thing I remember, Amin was sitting on the sofa and everyone was asking him, “Who were they? Tell us and we'll go to the
kalaantari (police) right now.” Amin didn't say anything; he just shook his head, looked down and a single teardrop fell from his eye. The rest of my memory is blank.

I had a chance to visit Abadan for about half an hour on my way to Amin's wedding in 1993, five years after the war ended. We tried very hard to find Mambozorg's house, but we weren't sure. The shemshaad had been replaced with a long brick wall. We left without getting out of the car. As we drove off, my sister managed to see the 5 rooftops lined along the lane. She shouted, “That's it! That must have been Mambozorg's house.”

Alas, circumstance didn't give us a chance to go back. It is still on my agenda though. One of these days, I will go back to find my shemshaad playground.

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