The French-language literary tradition distinguishes between "French" or "hexagonal" literature, written by authors born in France (the hexagon), and "Francophone" literature, written by authors born elsewhere. Based on geography but also echoing the country's colonial history (and, arguably, reflecting the associated tropes of exoticization and condescension), the distinction has often been maintained in both reception and awards; the major French literary prizes went largely to native-born writers, and Francophone writers often found larger audiences abroad. In recent years that imbalance has started to shift; in 2006, four of the six most prestigious prizes went to writers born elsewhere, and when French-Mauritian author J.M.G. Le Clézio—a Francophone advocate—won the 2008 Nobel, his success brought renewed attention to other writers from the marginalized regions.
The trend toward parity continues. In 2016 Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou was named to the Chair of Artistic Creation of the Collège de France in Paris. Mabanckou was not only the first writer to hold the post, he was the first African; which meant that the first French writer in this prominent appointment at this venerable university was Francophone, rather than French. In his inaugural lecture Mabanckou spoke to the vexed relationships between France and its former African territories. In an interview after his lecture, he reinforced the need for French literary culture to embrace a global approach, remarking, "Whether we like it or not, French literature is no longer a hexagonal literature, but a 'world literature.'"
As the definition of French literature expands beyond the traditional binary, the diverse voices outside the hexagon have their counterparts within, as writers from former colonies and elsewhere relocate to France and begin, or continue, to compose in French. These writers have migrated geographically and, in some cases, linguistically. In blending an outsider’s perspective with the local language, they create a new French writing, reframing and expanding the literature of their adopted country. This month we present a selection of these new voices.
Several of the writers here hail from former French colonies and grew up suspended between their mother tongues and the official French of the occupiers. One, Zahia Rahmani, writes from the dual perspective of the doubly exiled. Rahmani is the daughter of an alleged Harki, one of the thousands of Algerians who fought alongside or otherwise supported the French Army during the Algerian War of Independence (1954–62). These men were twice rejected: first in their homeland after the war, and later in France, where fleeing Harki families sought refuge but instead faced contempt, discrimination, and exclusion. In an excerpt from Rahmani's autobiographical novel Muslim, a Harki's daughter is forced to abandon her native Kabyle for French. Ten years later, she recovers both her language and her memories to solve a lingering mystery from her past.
Rwanda's Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse also fled war, in her case the Rwandan genocide. Here she makes her English-language debut with "Motherhood," from her first collection of short stories, Ejo. When a Tutsi widow's Hutu in-laws spread the rumor that she poisoned her husband, her bereft fifteen-year-old son turns against her; and when he reaches adulthood, his vicious uncle exploits his festering resentment to recruit him for the extremist Hutu militia. Caught at the intersection of family quarrels and ethnic conflict, his mother fears he will explode into unthinkable violence. In Mairesse's native language, Kinyarwanda, "ejo" means both "yesterday" and "tomorrow": a fitting description of the inescapable effect of war and the intrusion of the past into the present and future.
Rachid O. was born in Morocco and, unlike Rahmani and Mairesse, came to France by choice. In his "Hot Chocolate," a Moroccan adolescent is entranced by his nanny's tales of her doted-on previous charge, the adorable French boy Noé. The old woman's daily reminiscences over Noé's photo fan the teen's infatuation until, obsessed, he finds a way to shorten the distance between them. Rachid O.'s work addresses the struggle of being gay and Muslim; here, the teen's conflation of his desire for Noé with his yearning for France foreshadows both his adult attraction to men and his eventual departure.
Novelist and playwright Aziz Chouaki's impressionistic take on an Algerian immigrant's arrival in Paris moves through a series of quick images to produce a photographic portrait of disorientation. Bombarded by sensation and lubricated by multiple rounds of drinks, the giddy Jeff caroms from his cousin's claustrophobic apartment to the teeming streets of Pigalle. Chouaki's staccato prose captures Jeff's frenetic first night and telegraphs the chaos ahead.
While the colonial migrants at least come equipped with some knowledge of French culture, those from other countries must find their own tools to navigate the turmoil of arrival. In Négar Djavadi's autobiographical tale, a teenage Iranian immigrant discovers the route to peer acceptance in Paris winds through English-language punk. In the cacophony of the Sex Pistols and their three-chord cohort, she achieves a harmony of wardrobe, language, and worldview. She embraces the music and its culture "because it denounces the hypocrisy of power and demolishes the certainties and social and ideological affirmations that claim to explain to us how the world works. Because it is made so that people like you will look at people like me." (Watch our blog for a playlist.)
Shumona Sinha, born in Calcutta, moved to France and worked for a charity providing interpreting services to asylum seekers. Her experience informs "The Man with the Guava Tree." A brusque immigration officer grills a bewildered Hindu refugee as an interpreter struggles to bridge the linguistic and cultural divide. Caught between the obtuse bureaucrat and the flummoxed young man, the interpreter responds in the only way possible. Sinha has been on both sides of the desk, and her black comedy of rigid bureaucracy exposes the cruel joke on immigrants who flee terror only to endure a second ordeal in their "haven."
These stories represent only a fraction of the richness of topic and language found in this new French literature. As the traditional geographical distinctions recede, the new angles within the hexagon promise a reformulation and remapping of contemporary writing in French.
© 2017 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.
New Journalism. Crónica. Creative nonfiction. Whatever you call it, and whatever labels we continue to conjure up to describe a genre that has been around in one form or another for a very long time, the genre occupies an in-between space, with one foot in the world of journalism and another in fiction. Despite its association with the 1960s, some have suggested writers such as Defoe and Twain as progenitors of the form in its Anglophone variety.
On these coasts, the early giants include Gay Talese (“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” has become a staple in journalism programs not only in the States, but abroad), and today Jon Lee Anderson is just one of the better-known writers in this august tradition. More recently, longform journalism has evolved to point of being taught in many MFA programs throughout the US. In Latin America, the tradition of the crónica in a form we would recognize stretches back at least to Cuban writer and revolutionary José Marti. During his stint living in New York between 1881 and 1895, he composed more than 175 such texts as part of the series “North American Scenes.” (If, given the season, you’re interested in seeing how the Coney Island of today differs from that of the 1880s, you might start with the Martí crónica that takes its name from the neighborhood, in Esther Allen’s marvelous translation.) At the turn of the twentieth century, there was Paulo Barreto, better known as João do Rio, “the cronista of Rio’s soul.” (“The street,” he wrote in his most famous text, “is the eternal image of innocence”—and the flâneur turned cronista, he continues, the eternal innocent.) More than a half-century later, Gabriel García Márquez’s 1955 text on Hiroshima revisited the bombing of the Japanese city through the eyes of a Spanish priest: “The first encounter Padre Arrupe had with victims of the catastrophe was when he saw three young women clinging to one another, their bodies turned to raw flesh, emerge from the rubble. It was then he understood that this had been no ordinary fire.”
Today, to our great fortune, there are still magazines throughout Latin America dedicated to the form: among them, Etiqueta Negra in Peru and Piauí in Brazil. And, of course, there are the cronistas themselves, nudging the form forward, ensuring its endurance into the twenty-first century.
Among them is Julio Villanueva Chang, founding editor of Peru’s Etiqueta Negra—a magazine often described as the Peruvian New Yorker. Chang has been writing profiles for over two decades, and he has earned an Inter American Press Association prize for his work. Over the years, Chang has garnered his share of admirers: “The profile is the subgenre in which, within the tradition of the crónica, Julio Villanueva Chang is a master,” the great Mexican writer Juan Villoro has said, drawing comparisons between Chang and García Márquez during his days as a cronista in Barranquilla and Cartagena, Colombia. In this issue, Chang takes readers to Tres Cruces, Uruguay’s main bus terminal, located in the country’s capital, Montevideo. There, he plumbs the seemingly innocuous routine of the commuter station, creating a memorable portrait of the people who define and who are defined by Tres Cruces, in a translation by Sophie Hughes.
Brazilian journalist Eliane Brum is no less spectacular in lending voice and visibility to those hiding in plain sight—or, in the case of her piece in this month's magazine, those “hiding” in the midst of the rainforest: midwives who have brought generations of children into the world and into rural Brazil. In two decades of reporting, Brum has won over forty national and international awards, among them the Premio Rey de España and the Inter American Associated Press Award. In 2008, she received the United Nations Special Press Trophy. “The Forest of Midwives,” translated by Julia Sanches, is emblematic of Brum’s knack for immersing readers in the singular atmospheres she conjures.
Our youngest practitioner of the crónica form comes from Guatemala. His name, Arnoldo Gálvez Suárez. A journalist and writer, he has published two novels—Los Jueces and Puente Adentro—and a short story collection. His first novel earned him the XI Mario Monteforte Toledo Prize for Fiction, and his second won the III BAM Letras Prize for Fiction in 2015. Here, in Geoff Bendeck’s translation, Suárez brings us a story of urban Guatemala through its taxi drivers. Rather than trail them on their routes, Suárez is interested in where his subjects don’t go.
Though a modest sample of the possibilities and elasticity of the nueva crónica latinoamericana, New Journalism, or whatever label you choose to apply, the writers in this month’s feature provide assurance that the genre is source of some of today’s most vibrant and compelling stories, fictional or otherwise. If the past is any guide, we have no reason to believe that the future of the form is also assured.
© 2017 by Eric M. B. Becker. All rights reserved.
A private history of Tres Cruces, Montevideo's main bus terminal
where every day thousands of strangers collide,
converse, grow bored and even, sometimes, get hitched.
Why does Mom always say
we shouldn't talk to strangers?
The woman who serves coffee in Montevideo’s central bus station is good at talking to strangers. “Sometimes it’s easier chatting with someone you don’t know,” says Raquel Quirque, a stranger to me, and one with no less than three Qs to her name. She has just sat down in one of the waiting rooms in Tres Cruces, Uruguay’s national bus terminal, after three straight hours on her feet in Del Andén, a café right in the heart of this transport hub, where she rolls out “Good morning, sugar or sweetener?” with the casualness of an auntie serving up breakfast. Raquel is blond, Sagittarius, and dressed head to toe in black. Her telephone ringtone is the club anthem for Atlético Peñarol, and she wakes up every morning before five. By that time, her husband is already on the road, driving a bus for the Compañía Oriental de Transporte, whose ticket office stands directly opposite the spot where Raquel serves commuters their coffee. Their son works in the dispatch office for the same company. It’s not a coincidence: it’s called family. Having finished her shift in the café, Señora Q now clings to her thermos of yerba maté. Her husband brings her favorite blend from inland Uruguay, the place he drives the same strangers who approach her every day for a chat. Raquel Quirque’s whole life revolves around Tres Cruces. “I go to a supermarket and instead of asking ‘How much is that?’ I’ll say, ‘Anything else?’ The phone rings at home and I pick up, ‘Café del Andén, buenas tardes.’” Her special brand of autopilot politeness reveals a cheerful sense of fatality: she wants to die serving coffee in Tres Cruces.
“I have a saying: ‘From here it’s either to the BPS or El Norte.’”
The BPS is Uruguay’s national retirement registry. El Norte is the country’s largest cemetery.
“I’ll retire here or die here,” she says. “But look for another job . . . no way.”
On the main door of Tres Cruces terminal is a welcome sign: AN ENTIRE NATION UNDER ONE ROOF. Welcome posters tend to have a demagogic slant. If a foreigner were to arrive one Sunday to the deserted streets of Montevideo, it’s more than likely he’d ask himself where all the Uruguayans were. If he went that same Sunday at midnight to Tres Cruces, he’d find his answer: they’re all there. The human landscape is largely homogenous, but with a hint of a local flavor: gauchos with smartphones, and executives addicted to maté. People rummaging through their pockets for their tickets, or holding onto children with one hand and suitcases with the other; travelers killing time smoking, or dozing in the waiting room, their mouths wide open; college students with tickets between their teeth, running to make their buses; men with suits swung over their shoulders to avoid them getting creased; travelers lugging backpacks the size of a healthy eleven-year-old; women wrapped up in scarves. A tourist with a travel brochure walking a memorized route; scruffy musicians with guitars in black cases; lost youths looking for someone; commuters eating on the go; moms holding dolls waiting for their little girls by the restroom door. Men who still use watches to tell the time, their hands in their pockets, businesswomen pulling carry-ons with grace and panache. A girl with an eye patch concealing a surgical scar. Skinheads skulking about as if someone were following them. Bald children post-chemo being wheeled in chairs. A black man and a white woman kissing. The man who has put several coins into a public telephone and says “hello-hello” in vain. A solemn fireman in a marine blue uniform; one kid in a Grêmio de Porto Alegre T-shirt and another in a Boca Juniors; plagues of old people in baseball caps; hordes of teenagers wearing headphones; families hugging one another as if for the last time. All of them traveling to one of the nineteen “departments” that make up Uruguay, a terrain you can cross in less than half a day by bus, and which is a hundred times smaller than Russia, a square kilometer bigger than the Republic of Suriname, and whose entire population is equal to its neighboring Brazil’s annual birthrate. It’s a tiny, flat country where airline companies don’t stand a chance. The Promised Land for any bus-travel impresario. Almost half of all Uruguayans live in Montevideo. In 2011, the shopping-mall-cum-bus-terminal received twenty-one million visitors: seven times Uruguay’s population. Tres Cruces, “AN ENTIRE NATION UNDER ONE ROOF,” is not a demagogic sign: it’s a theater for an anthropologist specializing in short-distance travel. A laboratory of conversations between strangers.
“When you have a coffee, you tend to have a chat,” says Señora Q. “Maté is more personal.”
Señora Q is an accidental ethnographer. For almost two decades she has observed travelers and shoppers in Tres Cruces, a station that’s been around for some time. She isn’t one to maintain a courteous distance, and her trusting familiarity is infectious. She talks to strangers because she learns more from others. She looks you in the eye when she talks. Del Andén has two locations: the café on the first floor, which is otherwise dominated by ticket machines and waiting rooms; and the second-floor branch, where they sell pastries and cakes among the other stores. Raquel Quirque arrives at work by sunrise and leaves at lunchtime, injecting her thermos with hot water to top up her maté supply in the meantime. The clients order tortugas, little rolls with ham and cheese. They also ask for medialunas, pastries that don’t really resemble their crescent moon namesake. And yet, Señora Q’s real profession is that of observer: seeing what, due to overexposure, we no longer see. Or what amounts to the same: seeing what we choose not to see. Like matters of life and death; all the people who live inland have to pass through Tres Cruces to be cured. The station is close to several hospitals, including one for children with cancer. And Señora Q sees the sick. She sees their parents’ anguish. She sees how the child gradually gets better. She sees when they stop coming. High coffee consumption might get bad press, but Señora Q says that serving coffee in Tres Cruces has changed her worldview.
“What have I got to complain about if I have my health and my job?” she says. “In this place you see real problems. Compare them with my life, and I look like Alice in Wonderland.”
Alice in Wonderland was born in Minas, a slower, quieter city than Montevideo, which is already slower and quieter than every other capital city in the world. The Uruguayans run on a low voltage, their temperament undergoing an explosive metamorphosis when they turn out at Centenario Stadium. This is a tiny country famed for its happy cows, football fanatics, and melancholy. There’s an old Argentinian joke: “Sad like a happy Uruguayan.” Uruguayans spend their lives correcting people who call them Argentinian, just like Canadians spend theirs being confused for Yanks. Uruguay has one of the highest suicide rates in the Americas, the longest and safest Carnival in the world, and one of the oldest and most Spartan presidents in the universe. “As a country, we love our long weekends as much as we love our freedom,” José Mujica once said. Mujica was born the same year the tango singer Gardel died. Gardel was born in Argentina, but ask anyone around here and he was Uruguayan. The president says that his countrymen value “life” in the lowercase, serenity, and signs of affection. In Tres Cruces, there is certainly a lot more affection than serenity.
“It’s fun working with the public,” Señora Q tells me. “Even if every now and then they’re a little overwhelming.”
“People from inland always say ‘please,’” says Natalie Benavides, who once worked in Customer Services. “The city slickers from the capital don’t ask, they order.”
“Inlanders are warmer and arrive in good time,” Señora Q goes on, “They’ve always got a moment for you. People from Montevideo spend their lives dashing from here to there.”
To make out a single face among the thousands who pass by each day and remember one detail. A biography in the blink of an eye.
“People are more aggressive these days,” she says without blinking. “I don’t know. Someone might have more problems than I do, I don’t dispute that. But I would never take it out on a stranger.”
Señora Q looks at you with maternal eyes, the kind you can’t pull the wool over.
“My colleagues say that when I moan at them I put on my stern eyes. I glare.”
One kid who works in the café likes to give her a monosyllable of advice.
The boss of Tres Cruces’ control tower, a man used to resolving the tangled mess of over a hundred bus drivers, doesn’t own a car. He prefers to travel on foot. “The first time I sat down in front of a wheel,” he tells me, “was on a bus.” One early Friday evening, radio in hand, Osvaldo Torres directs the traffic in the rainy streets surrounding Tres Cruces. It’s rush hour. “The station is an enormous jigsaw puzzle and it’s our job to put the pieces together,” he tells me, standing in his rain boots and a bright yellow raincoat. Umbrellas litter the scene. Passersby walk wrapped up in their own worlds, pensive in the rain. The country spans such a small distance that every day thousands travel back and forth between the capital and the interior. The ant nest swells at the start and end of the week. Some days, three buses enter the station per minute. During these times, fellow countrymen and women come into contact, even bump into one another. “I like being among people like that,” says Torres, Mr. Rush Hour. Every Friday, between six and seven a.m., more than one hundred buses enter and leave the forty-one platforms in just one hour. “It’s the most important moment of the week, and we enjoy it,” he says, with a Friday kind of look on his face. “The adrenaline runs high.” He has come down from his humble two-story tower, from which a team of controllers oversee this chaos-on-wheels. Torres has the authoritative swagger of an army general. He could direct the rain if he wanted to.
“I like people who can command a group, who are willing to put themselves on the front line,” the boss says. “People who command and lead by example.”
Torres always wanted to be in the army, but fate kept foisting on him its own ironies and coincidences. He was a tour guide with the Organización Nacional de Autobuses (National Organization of Buses), a transport company with a greyhound dog for an icon, à la Greyhound. He explained all sorts of things to the tourists, from the history of the city, to the morphology of a waterfall. One day they had to move a bus and he happened to be there. Fate always handed him opportunities: an aunt had married a marine who would end up becoming Commander in Chief of the Navy, and as a child he often visited their house. One night, when he was ten and staying over at his aunt’s, he lay out on the lawn in the yard to watch the night sky, and his uncle, the commander of the seas, pointed out a star; the brightest in the Taurus constellation, and today, the namesake of one of Torres’s daughters: Aldebaran. He will never forget that night. “I’m a frustrated marine,” he admits. At one point, it crossed his mind to join the naval academy. Torres is a frustrated admiral.
“Even today I ask myself why I didn’t do it,” he says.
By six thirty p.m., Torres is moving around like a traffic policeman. He rules the road in the rain, zigzagging his way down a tailback of eleven buses. Behind them, you can make out a couple more. The people staring out the bus windows are the very picture of boredom: faces masked behind their breath on the glass, just-woken-up faces, nothing-but-the-music-playing-on-my-headphones-exists faces, please-god-come-to-pick-me-up faces. The buses appear, one after the other, and completely obscure all other cars from view. Some companies have names fit for spies, like Central Agency. Others would be better suited to the coast, like Turismar. Some are named in capital letters, CITA and COT, or geographically like Paysandú. Some are just friendly, like Bonjour. Their buses are emblazoned with classic slogans—“We love to get you there”— or WI-FI. All of them are obsessed with converting their buses into hotel beds. The Chief of the Control Tower makes no distinctions and has no favorites. One time, a driver left his bus in the station for longer than is permitted without reporting in first.
“I overstepped the line a little,” he says, as if by way of apology, “but I had no choice. I told him that from the moment he was inside the station, if he so much as wanted to take a shit he had to tell me first.”
By six thirty in the evening, there is a crowd of passengers waiting to leave.
Men checking their tickets to make sure they have the right details.
Girls with either very floral or very black luggage.
People opening their umbrellas against the rain.
The Frustrated Admiral looks at photos of burning ships as they scroll across his computer screen. He scans through some photos, of his three daughters and grandchildren, of a few quotes he likes to read aloud, of cities like Rio de Janeiro. Photos of women like Marilyn Monroe and Mother Teresa, boxers like Muhammed Ali, singers like Frank Sinatra, and military figures like General Patton. Another one pops up: the storefront of one of the ticket offices in the station. He plans to write an email of complaint to the manager: “One of my jobs is to make sure the stores are in a decent state.” He has a cat called Maika, which he rescued from the street. He’s a fan of Defensor Sporting Club because he’s not interested in clubs that always win. He is into conspiracy theories and remembers where he was the exact day and hour Kennedy was killed. He smokes less and less, but still gets through a ten-pack a day. He smokes more at night. He has friends, most of who he sees at the bar, but one in particular, by far and away his favorite: a first cousin who was a translator for the United Nations, and with whom he talks on Skype. His ninety-year-old mother is called Valkiria and she lives in a retirement home. His wife is a cashier for one of the transport companies. Torres is about to turn seventy, the legal age of retirement.
“No,” he says. “This is where I belong.”
No one dreams of a fire breaking out in the early hours of Christmas Day. On the Twenty-Fifth of December 2010, Torres, the chief of the Tres Cruces Control Tower, was sleeping a hundred and twenty-five miles from Montevideo when someone sent him word of the incident. “It was the equivalent of a captain being told his ship has sunk," Torres recalls. “You feel completely lost at sea.” The fire had started at three minutes to two a.m., on the mezzanine floor of a shoe store and a sports clothing store. Eduardo Robaina, Director of Operations at Tres Cruces, who had worked every one of the previous twenty-four Christmases, interrupted what was going to be his first holiday off in memory: he was at his mother’s house, in Canelones, thirty miles north of Montevideo. “They called the fire department first, then me.” The flames were making ashes of brand new stores. Señora Q didn’t know about the fire until later that morning. “It was as if my soul had left my body,” she says, and it was two days before she went back to Tres Cruces. “A grim gift from Father Christmas,” says Pablo Cusnir, the Marketing Manager. “We were outside of Montevideo when they woke us up. And my wife was pregnant.” That morning, Osvaldo Torres, who was set to go back to work two days later, returned to his tower and found it transformed into a Situation Room: the president of the board of directors, Carlos Lecueder, the vice-president, Luis Muxi, and the director general, Marcelo Lombardi, were discussing what to do. “These men are either going to have to steer the shipwreck or direct the rescue operation,” Frustrated Admiral told himself. And the director general, who that night had been enjoying a barbeque with over fifty friends, set off toward the station. They never found out what started the fire. The firemen had put it out by seven thirty a.m.
“You get used to situations to which you’re more or less accustomed,” Lombardi says, “But we’d never seen anything like this.”
Fires are common at Christmas, and yet they also belong to the realm of the unexpected. Lombardi believes a firework may have fallen on the roof, or that there was a short circuit in the air conditioning. What the fire didn’t reach was destroyed by the smoke and water. The air was thick with soot and the smell of burning. After the fire, they had to roll up their sleeves. “You woke up knowing it was going to be a rotten day,” Lombardi says. “Every morning, dozens of problems awaiting you.” The working day began at six a.m. and didn’t end until eleven at night. “I went and saw what was left: the wooden benches were still in one piece, but they had become charcoal, and the whole place was flooded,” Señora Q recalls. “The stores had all turned into black holes.” Ana Claudia Casas, who worked at Óptica Lux—one of the new stores that lost everything—recalls from behind her eyeglasses: “It looked like a bomb had hit it. Everything was black. Bent iron girders all over the place.” Lilian Lerena, a local who does her shopping in Tres Cruces, sums it up like this: “I saw a lot of smoke, but even more sadness.” It was a tragedy without any fatalities or injuries, but which clocked up some seven million dollars in losses. “I would keep popping into the shop to find something,” says Casas. “A temple, a lens, I don’t know. I needed to find something just as it had been left.” She had hundreds of glasses there. Sunglasses sold like hotcakes at Christmas.
“And did you speak to your wife on the phone?” I ask Lombardi.
“Yes,” he responds, “But in monosyllables.”
That Christmas, when the Director General of Tres Cruces finally got home, his daughters were already sleeping. So long, vacations. There would be no New Year’s festivities that year. Instead, they would have to come up with some urgent solutions so the bus service didn’t grind to an absolute halt, notify the storekeepers of their losses, and reconstruct the shopping mall. When people get off buses, they just walk away. But to get on, they have to find the right coach; they can’t get it wrong. Departures had to keep running from Tres Cruces. That very Christmas Day they set up an arrivals terminal in a parking lot in front of the Centenario Stadium. They had water dispensers for the passengers, portable toilets, a waiting room on the asphalt, music and loudspeakers, awnings to protect people from the sun, and even a hotdog cart. A station, campground-style. The public was understanding. But back in Tres Cruces, just a few blocks from there, the press had begun demanding an update on the bus services. “An emergency situation demands verticality, and the whole team adapted,” Lombardi tells me. “Decisions were made, not argued over: they were made and followed through.” It called for collective improvisation among locals, authorities, and storekeepers. In one month, by the end of January 2011, the station was back up and running, and in five months the shopping mall had reopened. They had to reconstruct over thirty out of one hundred stores.
“More than nightmarish, it was unforgettable,” Torres says.
Going through a fire certainly helps you to loosen your collar and roll up your sleeves. For Pablo Cusnir, the marketing director, a man of action and sales, going to work with a tie on was a must for any businessman, just like a chef puts on his apron to cook. He had long since buried his past as the shaggy-haired son of a hairdresser with a torso that had never seen a shirt, and feet that would do anything to avoid a pair of shoes. If he wasn’t wearing a tie, Cusnir felt uncomfortable dealing with other businesspeople. In the weeks after the fire, nobody in Tres Cruces worried themselves too much about getting back into their suits. Instead they wore pants fit for tramping around in the fire’s ruins. It was summer in Uruguay, and the fire helped Cusnir grow accustomed to going tieless. Months later, the marketing director changed his cell ringtone. He had begun to detest it. Aside from his wife and mother, he mainly received calls asking him to fix endless issues. From six thirty in the morning to eleven at night his cell would ring with other people’s problems. Now the association between ringtone and interminable glitches had already been ingrained. One day, as he was sitting in a work meeting, the sound of one of his associate’s telephone set his teeth on edge. It was his tune from around the time of the fire. A ghost in the form of a ringtone.
“It was like an abyss,” Cusnir says, “It gave me goose bumps.”
Today his cell rings Rock n’ Roll.
The one man a woman might expect to meet in the event of a fire is a fireman. But there are some exceptions. Two days after that Christmas tragedy, Natalia Benavides, a tall blonde who worked in Customer Services went to the makeshift station in the Centenario stadium to receive the arriving passengers. David Souza, a cashier for the bus company General Artigas, and shorter than Natalia, went along to the same place to welcome his company’s buses as they arrived from Brazil. “I was trying to be nice, so I told him that I spoke other languages, that he could come to me for anything,” she says. “She noticed I had trouble speaking Portuguese,” he says, “and used the opportunity to impress me with the fact that she spoke several languages.” He asked her out; she said no. He asked again; she made excuses. He had never had a serious relationship with anyone; she thought she could never go out with a guy like him. A day before the year came to a close, she offered to give David the number of any of her girlfriends if he agreed to take a friend of hers to buy her cigarettes on his scooter. He said he would take the friend, but that he was only interested in having her number. She never did give him her number; he asked a buddy for it. They went for a maté. They had a child. They met thanks to a fire.
Everybody thinks that Señora Q met her husband in Tres Cruces. Preconceptions dressed up as fantasies: there’s a hint of lyricism and adventure to the idea of meeting someone at a bus stop, and even better if it happens under the rain. But when Raquel Quirque, Señora Q, began working in the Café del Andén, they had already been a couple for nine years and had a little girl together. She had previously worked in a pizzeria in Montevideo Shopping, where she met one of the future owners of the café. In fact, she has worked in all the shopping malls in Montevideo. “A bus station is special,” she tells me. “You get a different kind of person there, a different movement, a different kind of curiosity. I wanted to work in Tres Cruces.” The owner of Café del Andén is a doctor. Back then he was the doctor who visited the houses of the workers of the Compañia Oriental de Transportes (COT) to verify if they were ill. One day he went to her house to examine her husband, who had begun working at COT’s headquarters: he took the buses to the car wash and back to the parking lot. The sick man became a driver when they opened Tres Cruces, and she became Señora Q. To sleep alongside a bus driver is really to ensure they don’t fall asleep at the wheel.
“It’s a huge responsibility, staying awake,” she says, blinking.
Julio Sánchez Padilla is someone who knows his stuff about drivers though she doesn’t sleep next to one: he owns the transport company CITA and is one of the founders of Tres Cruces. There is something patriotic about the way he holds himself, and his biography makes you think he knows a bit too much: basketball referee in the Rome and Tokyo Olympic Games; Guinness World Record holder for hosting the longest-running football television program in the world—Estadio 1, every Monday since 1970, without fail; and heroic survivor of two heart attacks. Sánchez Padilla tells stories full of pregnant pauses, like someone who knows he’s being listened to. Decades of watching televised politics between the good and the bad, decades of living among bus drivers with their cargo and life baggage. Señor Guinness World Record remembers one of his bus drivers above all: a certain Febres. He tells me he was an exceptionally elegant, meticulous, and punctual man. One who has now passed away.
“You don’t get drivers like Febres anymore,” Señor Guinness World Record laments.
“People get down on their knees and beg for a job, then do it with no love.”
Señora Q, who has been sleeping next to the same driver for twenty-five years, believes that there aren’t any drivers like Montiglia, her husband who sits at the wheel of a Scania. She has a son who works just as vigilantly as her husband in the Tres Cruces dispatch office. She has a daughter-in-law who also works in the dispatches department. And she has a daughter who works in a clothes store that’s not in the Tres Cruces mall but who comes to visit her family in Tres Cruces anyway. There are thousands of college students who travel inland almost every weekend, and thousands of them receive parcels from their parents: boxes of food, darned items of clothing, animals. And they go to Tres Cruces to collect these boxes, for the ironed shirt, the casserole their mother made on Friday. They go in desperately searching for that box, to tear off the wrapping. It’s a box connected to the earth: even today, if you send someone a gift or item, you send it in a box. Mom’s favorite dish can’t get there by email. And in Uruguay all the journeys are short-distance. That’s why the casseroles get there okay.
Her son, who works among other people’s casseroles, often sees more animals than people.
“He receives chickens almost every day,’ Senora Q says, “Chickens going back and forth, coming and going in boxes with holes in.”
Her daughter, the only one of the clan who doesn’t work in Tres Cruces, also goes to the station.
“But she comes to see Mom,” Mom tells me.
“What do you talk to your husband about each day?”
“Everything apart from work. He gets all those people from A to B, but I’m the one who talks to them most.”
Some people go home and forget about work.
Others make hard work of forgetting.
Samantha Navarro has a song about Tres Cruces.
It’s not a cumbia. Or a tango. Or a candombe. It’s heartbreak.
The singer’s hair is full and wavy like her songs. Samantha sings:
♫ Terminal Tres Cruces/grayyyyy dawn/take your backpack with you/Don’t want to see you no more. ♫
It’s about a summer fling, a good-bye.
♫ Terminal Tres Cruces/fare thee well/I loved you so/but if I love you now I can’t tell. ♫
Desire, disillusion, doubt.
♫ Now now I’m losing eeeeverything I had/And I hate myself. ♫
The song’s chorus goes:
♫ And I’m bleeding myself dry. ♫ Three times.
Three Crucifixions. Three Crosses. Tres Cruces.
According to the singer, she isn’t the subject of the song, although everyone thinks she is. Rather it’s a character made up of different good-bye stories she’s heard. “I wanted to treat the whole station as if it were a single person,” she explains. “The character I invented thinks she’s never going to be able to love again.” What Navarro doesn’t make up is the fact that Tres Cruces has been as much a part of her life as her three hundred or more songs. When she was a little girl, she would take a bus that passed the wasteland where they planned to build the station. She studied guitar, chemistry, and anthropology. She is a trained sommelier, writes science-fiction stories, sings. When she travels inland for concerts, Samantha Navarro takes the bus from Tres Cruces. As a young woman, she would watch from the window of other buses as builders moved an entire plaza to accommodate the station. Back then she worked as a secretary and studied chemistry at college.
“It was like a place of quantum perturbation,” the singer recalls. “A commotion of machines and things that I had never seen before.”
“The station created a new city center,” Señor Guinness World Record says.
“What do you do when you go to the station?” I ask.
“Just say hi,” he says. “That’s all. Because everyone is on the move.”
Señor Guinness World Record had the plans for Tres Cruces in his possession when nothing was even in motion yet. In 1990, years before the station opened, Julio Sánchez Padilla was Mister Transport in Uruguay. “The station was the main event,” he says. “The mall an added bonus.” Two decades later the fire happened. The Ex-President of the National Carriers Association, the one who knows a thing or two about heart attacks, also understands that a tragedy can be turned into something positive. Today, Tres Cruces is free of bulkheads, construction workers, and noise. What the Singer with the Full Hair used to see from the bus window when she was a young woman is today another song. No longer a noisy racket, it’s an orchestral synthesis, a scene of meetings and good-byes, a labyrinth rehearsal. Some people had opposed plans to build a station there. On the day of Tres Cruces’ inauguration, Sánchez Padilla fitted a golden plaque on a wall in the main hall. Inscribed on it was a well-known saying: “Great works are dreamed up by crazy geniuses, accomplished by born fighters, enjoyed by the happy sane, and criticized by chronic wastes of space.” Any phrase framed in inverted commas is destined to create enemies. Señor Guinness World Record is a fanatic Peñarol supporter—“I can admit that to you because you’re foreign”—and an admirer of Carlos Lecueder, the President of the Tres Cruces Board of Directors who travels the world and comes back with ideas for his shopping malls. Today the drivers’ patriarch hardly ever visits the site. Instead, every Wednesday, his company takes hundreds of kids from Uruguay’s inland areas to visit Montevideo.
“Some of them, the ones who come from far, have never seen the sea,” Sánchez Padilla tells me.
Señora Q has a privileged view of a sea of strangers. And she has a gift: Quirque is a people magnet; and those people tell her things. A fat, blonde woman walks past the waiting room toward us and her smile widens with every step as she realizes that Señora Q is looking at her. For three and a half years, Sandra Díaz Reyes cleaned the ladies’ restroom in Tres Cruces. For three and a half years she earned a salary, but above all she lived off the tips the women would leave her. She was originally employed to sweep and mop, until one day the woman responsible for the restroom in front of McDonald’s didn’t show up for work. From that day on, Sandra Díaz Reyes looked after it as if it were an extension of her own home. With her own money, she bought an air freshener that smelled nicer that the official disinfectant, decorated as if it were her living room during the holidays, and politely encouraged her clients to leave it impeccable. There’s nothing like a restroom line to get to know a woman: “I knew who would leave the cubicle clean from one look at them,” recalls Señora Restroom-Cleaner. That afternoon, in the middle of a throng of passengers moving around the station, both women stopped to talk by the waiting room. As if they had radar to locate one another.
“We see more than what you people think,” Señora Q says. “Our tracking gaze picks up everything.”
She couldn’t remember the surname of Señora Restroom-Cleaner. In Tres Cruces, memory for detail is hazy. You remember major episodes, and forget last names. Your memory is emotive, dramatic, anecdotal. Sandra Díaz Reyes stopped attending the ladies' restroom at Tres Cruces when she split up with the father of her five children. The job of keeping a public bathroom impeccable requires even more self-respect than detergent. The classic cinematographic stereotype of ladies' restrooms smells closer to vanity than physiology, to a woman’s perfume than her bodily functions. The Tres Cruces restrooms are not cinematographic: they are defined by urgent need, people in line, impatience. Señora Q remembers a tragic day. It happened the year after Tres Cruces opened. Sandra Díaz had taken a half an hour break and her friend was covering for her. The cleaning woman started to scream and called security: they had found a fetus in the waste bin.
“It was one of my worst days at Tres Cruces,” she says. “The other was the fire.”
Señora Restroom-Cleaner knows that a public bathroom is a theater. There are tragedies and comedies.
“I was pretty hysterical about cleanliness,” she says, referring to her own bathroom at home. “I got it from my mother. And my daughters are the same.”
Señora Restroom-Cleaner believes in supreme cleanliness and the Bible. A cheery Capricorn herself, she doesn’t believe in the signs of the zodiac. She believes in the Evangelist’s God, in work, and in her friends from her old job. She believes in having seven children and in a mother who worked with her cleaning bathrooms in the station and in a restaurant at night. She did her shopping in Tres Cruces; celebrated her birthdays with friends in Tres Cruces; moved in two blocks away from Tres Cruces. When she grumbled about not having a job in Tres Cruces, she went to see her friends in Tres Cruces. She sold clothes in Tres Cruces. She worked in a delicatessen. She worked as a security guard. She cleaned houses. She met her second husband. They had two children and opened a bakery together. “I came from inland, from Salto. Tres Cruces changed my life,” Señora Restroom-Cleaner says. “I learned I could get ahead with my kids there.” Back then she had five children. One of them was a future football player. Luis Suárez, number 9 on the Uruguayan squad, wasn’t yet the boy with buckteeth who made a living out of intimidating the world’s goalkeepers. He was less than ten years old when one day he went looking for his mom in Tres Cruces. His siblings had sent him to ask their mother for money to go food shopping and the boy took the stairs from the restroom to the supermarket. Luis Sánchez would go on to play on his nation’s team as well as for the Dutch team Ajax. He then became Liverpool’s golden boy, with a reputation of making goalkeepers regret being the one to guard against him at the door. The mother of one of the most famous footballers in the world was the public restroom cleaner.
“It annoys me sometimes that people hang around you because of who he is today,” his mom says. “I know how to sniff them out. That’s why I have my people from Tres Cruces. Today, some uncle or cousin I’ve never heard of might crawl out of the woodwork, but I know who’s always been here.”
Señora Q remembers one such man.
“I’ve known him since he fixed the plugs,” she says. “Now he fixes everyone’s problems.”
Señor Fix It All is an imposing title. It almost calls for a bow. But Eduardo Robaina is a bald man who has fought for everything, including his Van Dyke beard. The title, Señor Who Used to Fix the Sockets, reminds us of his origins. He pulled out of his three-year studies in engineering to slog away in a refinery. He descended from the heights of estimates and projections to dive headfirst into an underworld of fuel and cement. The work of a tough, no-nonsense kind of guy. He studied hydraulics, thermodynamics, chemistry, tanks, pumps, logistics. Working in a refinery is like working in a jungle gym of hazards: it means being capable of producing giant works and studying endless details to avoid a catastrophe. That was his school. Robaina entered Tres Cruces officially as a maintenance person, a man who trafficked in electric plugs and nails. Today he is the Chief of Operations. “That big man is just as kind today as he was when he went around fitting electrical sockets,” Señora Q tells me. “But it’s not the same thing going around fixing sockets as having to manage this many people.” Robaina holds the master keys, and with them, a wealth of opportunities to mess something up.
“Our job is to fix problems,” he says, two hundred-plus pounds of man. “And within the advantages of this, we can be humane.”
Señor Who Used to Fix the Sockets is a human antenna. To this day there’s a common sight in Tres Cruces: the men, women, and sick children who the Ministry of Public Health funds to make the journey to Montevideo’s hospital. Their getting home is dependent on the spaces limited to the transport companies by law. Sometimes they can stay a whole day in the station waiting to get a ride. Sometimes Señor Plug pays for the food for a mom waiting with her child. Señora Q will catch him rifling through his pockets for money . . . and inside there’s almost always a plug socket, humble and explosive, just like the slots we were prevented from putting our fingers in as children. Señor Who Used to Fix the Sockets is never without a radio transmitter in hand. One gets the feeling the man could even fix problems of the heart.
Even Señora Q, who talks to hordes of strangers as if they were family, needs downtime now and then. There’s one patron who mumbles to himself in a monologue and she just looks at him and smiles. There are women who tell her about their problems with their overbearing husbands. “They get to know you,” she says. “Or you get to know them.” You only have to be aware of how far people want to go. Some pour out their life story and then you never see them again. Others give a courteous wave for years and then, one day, move in together, like Pablo Cusnir, the marketing director who began as a delivery boy and would say hello to the pretty girl working for DHL, who is now his wife. It’s not uncommon for Señora Q to come across people from her city, old school mates, childhood friends. In Tres Cruces, she bumped into the nuns from her high school, Nuestra Señora del Huerto. At school, she only ever saw the nuns’ faces. These days she’s allowed a glimpse of their hair.
“Sister Domitila only remembered me when I explained who I was,” she says.
One of the greatest tributes a teacher can receive is to have an ex-pupil stop her on the street years later to say hello. Some turn the other way. Others run to hug them as if the coincidence were a miracle. One day the manager of Ópica Lux came across her history teacher in Tres Cruces. She only remembered his name: Ángel. She spotted him from behind her 0.5-level myopia lenses. Ana Claudia Casas has worked nine hours a day since the station first opened seeing to people who can’t see well. Sometimes, Glasses Girl has to attend to people with perfect vision; cases fit for Oliver Sacks.
“They’d come in to the opticians to ask us for a haircut,” she says, smiling.
She has been looking after one of her clients since he was a boy. He has suffered two retinal detachments and has -31-level myopia.
“Today he installs fiber optic cables,” she says.
Fate is ironic with special effects.
The director general of Tres Cruces, for example, doesn’t park his car in the station’s parking lot: he pays for a private parking space opposite.
“No one gets special privileges here,” Lombardi tells me.
Lombardi, a public accountant who got bored with accountancy, now has plenty of experience fighting fires.
“One day,” he says, “they detected that a member of Al Qaeda had passed through the station.”
Interpol has an office in Tres Cruces. It’s not just an entire nation awaiting you inside.
You see Bolivian women arriving on their way to work with upper-class families.
You see foreigners climb in and out of the nine thousand taxis that pass through each day.
You see rowdy groups of Argentinian, Brazilian, and Uruguayan football fans.
You see Bolivian women returning from their high-class families, mistreated.
“I once saw someone fall from the second floor,” Señora Q tells me. “He just walked up to the handrail, flung his foot over, and threw himself off. A guard from Café del Andén couldn’t stop him. The man flew over the rail as if he was running from himself and fractured his leg twenty feet below. Nobody down on the ground floor noticed that they’d witness a failed suicide attempt. They just asked if he’d tripped.
“You see so many people that you no longer see anyone,” Señora Q says.
Lilian Lerena, a neighbor who works in the funeral parlor, Previsión S.A., says that her clients are alive. Last year she recognized a childhood friend in the station. She hadn’t seen him in more than thirty years. Today he is the owner of a club where they play cumbias.
“We agreed I’d go one day for a dance,” she says, smiling.
Natalia Benavides, the ex-rep for Customer Services, remembers things going missing.
“A gentleman came to ask us if we had found his false teeth. He couldn’t remember if he’d left them in the restroom.”
Then someone found them.
Tres Cruces has a lost and found.
If some time passes and nobody comes to collect their bike or umbrella, the company doesn’t hold onto them. They donate them to Montevideo’s schoolchildren who, with a little luck, won’t lose them. Natalia Benevides still has faith in the human race.
“More people hand things in than don’t,” she says.
“How does the world look from Customer Services?”
“People look deranged,” she says. “Like they’ve got no time for anything. And it’s not just the odd person; it’s everyone who passes through here.
They return our gaze on their watch faces.”
Señora Q is so punctual she’s not punctual: she arrives half an hour early to work and drinks maté in the entryway of Tres Cruces. Two worlds exist there: the one up above and the one down below. She worked nine years on the first floor and seven on the second. These days she’s back in the epicenter. Those who go upstairs are there to buy, wander around, window shop, browse. Those down below are there to travel, to drink maté, wait, and chat. After five or more hours on a bus, arriving passengers are never in the mood to go shopping in Tres Cruces. Instead, they look for a taxi or a hug. Great big hugs are the most natural gesture for its fifty thousand-plus passengers a day. There are also solitary acts. Desperate ones: a man pulls the trigger against his own head in a restroom cubicle. And absurd ones: a man dies choking on a rib.
“Tres Cruces is what the people make it,” Señora Q says. “We spin on its axis.”
Before saying good-bye, Raquel Quirque—three Qs in thirteen letters—blinks. Whenever you have crowds, you can pick out types. One such type is the beggar who tests the limits of our charity: to give or not to give. Sometimes, since she can’t give them anything from the café, she looks for coins in her own purse. Sometimes, when she gives them something to eat, they throw it away. Whenever you have crowds, you also find exceptions to types. Eccentrics. For years, Señora Q had a client who turned up every day to eat breakfast. He was single. He worked in a supermarket and lived in a dark house where he’d gotten into the habit of only putting on one light at a time. For years he searched for the woman who served him coffee just the way he liked it: milky, two sachets of sugar, no foam. He didn’t skip a single morning for years and the one day he did, he called to let them know he wouldn’t be coming. He went to Tres Cruces from the day it opened to the day he retired. She doesn’t wait for him anymore, but the lady who serves the coffee knows just what she’ll say to him when he comes back.
© Julio Villanueva Chang. By arrangement with the author. Translation © Sophie Hughes. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from a book-length work of the same name, Eliane Brum explores the sacred mystery of life via the remarkable tales and intuitions of the indigenous midwives that usher children into the world in rural Brazil.
They were born in the humid belly of the Amazon, in Amapá, a state forgotten by the news at the northernmost tip of Brazil. The rest of the country won’t listen to them, tone deaf to the sounds of their ancient knowledge and to the beat of their song. Many there don’t know the alphabet, but they read the forest, the water, and the sky. They have come from the bodies of other women who also bear the gift for pulling out children. Theirs is a knowledge that can’t be learned, or taught, or even explained. It simply is. Sculpted from the blood of mothers and the water of children, their hands birth a piece of Brazil.
A wild, female cry echoes out from its perching place at the peak of the map, a reminder that birthing is natural; that it doesn’t require genetic engineering or surgeries, nor the smell of hospitals. For the midwives of the forest, who have kept this tradition alive thanks to the isolation of their birthplace, it’s easier to understand that a dolphin might emerge from the igarapé to impregnate a maiden than to accept that a woman will schedule a date and time for her child to be wrenched out of her. Almost the entire population of Amapá, less than half a million people, were brought into the world by the hands of seven hundred child-pullers. These are women who conjugate in the plural and overuse collective pronouns. In their lives, the I is alien and reserves no privilege.
Perched on a boat, or feeling their way with their feet, the índia Dorica, the cabocla Jovelina, with her copper skin, and the quilombola Rossilda, a descendant of slaves who escaped long ago to set up free lives, are guides in this journey through ancient mysteries. Their paths meet with those of Tereza and with the indigenous midwives of Oiapoque. They are joined by the lines inscribed in the palm of their hands, each representing a different birth. “Pulling children means patience,” explains Maria dos Santos Maciel, or Dorica, a Karipuna, and the eldest of the Amapá midwives. She is ninety-six, and more than two thousand indigenous men and women have arrived in the world through her small, almost child-sized hands. Dorica—grandmother, mother, godmother of hundreds of pulled children—never even wanted this gift. “This is how the gift works. It’s born in you. And you can’t say no,” she explains. “A midwife doesn’t have a choice. She’s called in the dead of night to populate the world.”
A female specter, Dorica navigates the rivers of Oiapoque with no more than a small lamp. She travels with her sister, Alexandrina, who is sixty-six years old, and whose children—nine out of eleven—she has helped birth. “Woman and forest are one,” says Alexandrina. “Mother Earth has everything, and you can find everything else in a woman’s body. Strength, courage, life, and pleasure.”
As the oars slice the silent river, they are stalked by the lamplike eyes of crocodiles. “They’re not dangerous. All they eat is dogs and sandals,” reassured Dorica. “We opened one up a little while ago and that was all there was.” The midwife recalls her own belly’s sixteen miscarriages; she was prevented from having a child by designs she is in no position to question. “I’m tired,” she says. “I’d like to ask God to let me retire from midwifing.”
But God moves more slowly than a government employee. To this day, her request has been left unanswered. So when she reaches her destination, Dorica digs her heels into the earth and crouches between the woman’s thighs while Alexandrina hugs the pregnant woman’s body from behind with her legs. Dorica does not force anything from inside the female body. She simply waits. She pulls at the mother’s belly, positioning the child. She lathers the belly with tapir, stingray, or opossum oil to hasten the cramps, and recites prayers and incantations to consecrate the mystery. She punctures the sac with her nail and cuts the umbilical chord with an arrowhead. “Pulling children means waiting on the birthing time,” she teaches. “City doctors don’t know this, and because they don’t know, they cut women.”
For eight days, Dorica will leave her cassava plantation. It’s the midwife’s calling to cook and to clean, to draw out the uterus every morning and every afternoon, so that the woman is healthy. It is her duty to brush the mother’s breast with a thin comb and with water poured from a white gourd, so that her white milk will rush into her child’s lips. It is her wisdom to suck air out of the baby’s nose with her mouth until it cries. After this, Dorica hands the wife over to her husband: “I’ve done all I can for your wife. Now you have to take care of your family.” The husband responds, in thanks: “I’ll give you whatever you need.” To which Dorica replies: “God pays.” So the dialogue comes to a close. That is how it goes. And how it has gone for over five hundred years.
The woman will only open the door of her house after she has rested with her child for forty days. Before the baby breathes the forest air, she is blessed with water and salt to ward off evil spirits. Over the course of two thousand births, Dorica has lost only three. There isn’t a day that goes by she doesn’t mourn them. “This child is missing from the community,” she declares. For the people of the forest, no one is replaceable. Or expendable. A life that ends before it takes hold cannot be. It will be lamented forever.
The Amazonian midwife waves good-bye as our canoe vanishes upstream. A macaw watches her from a branch as a flock of parrots cuts through the sky cawing and a girl bathes in the igarapé before she gets ready for school. It’s just another day. Dorica places her hand on her old heart and, mouthing quiet words, pulls out a blessing to those who are departing. Then, turning her back, she goes off to puff tobacco, to pass the time until the fifth child of the village’s last big-bellied woman, the índia Ivaneide Iapará, thirty-three years old, pounds at the gateway to the world, requesting entry.
Most of the midwives of the forest are Catholic, some Pentecostal. Others are batuqueiras, Spiritualists. Even when they invoke a male Christian God, the Holy Spirit, or the Orishas, they declare themselves the guardians of mysteries that have been passed on by mothers and grandmothers in a chain that stretches back centuries. In this nameless faith, the great godhead is a woman. It is said she rules over the beginning-middle-end, birth-life-death, and present-past-future.
When they row miles and miles down the river, or walk to help another woman consecrate her miracle, childbirth, it is an act of resistance and subversion, proof that each woman has a bit of the Goddess in her. Many midwives burned during the Inquisition; and those who obey their calling today didn’t learn this history in books. But they still somehow carry the memory of that heat in their bones.
At seventy-seven, Jovelina Costa dos Santos is the most famous midwife of Ponta Grossa do Piriri, a sad, scanty little village of a few dozen scattered houses and plantations a hundred miles from Macapá. “God gave me this standing,” she announces from the door of her shack. Her face has more wrinkles than the sky has stars. Cheerful like no other, when she opens her mouth it is as if a piece of the world might break loose. It’s not that Jovelina is happy, exactly—she laughs because she has chosen not to be sad. That’s Jovelina: complex simplicity. When she wakes up in the morning, she doesn’t even know if she’ll eat before the sun rises again. But to her, she is richer than most. “Children are riches, sister, and so beautiful to look at.”
She continues her philosophizing: “Here, in this faraway place in the depths of this country, we either fill the world with children or disappear.” And this is the only way to understand when Jovelina says, as she hides her teeth, threatening to submerge the world into darkness: “I only had eight.” Only? “Well, yes, only. It’s so good to give birth to them . . .” And then she corrects herself, naughtily: “And even better to make them.”
Jovelina became a midwife when she was still a girl, as if fallen into a trap God laid pointing her to her destiny. When she tells this story, she is joined by so many it might as well have been a ticketed event: “The first one was Isabel, compadre Sevério’s wife, who lived out back by Volta das Cobras. Leave Isabel to us, compadre, my mother told him. That night, Isabel caught a fever and got the chills from the cold, but she didn’t even once cry ow. In the morning, Mom went back to the plantation, and it was just me and Isabel. Jovita, Jovita, go collect water for a bath, she said.” And Jovelina interrupts herself to explain, in a different tone, that she is Jovita in the story. “Here you go, Isabel, I said. Did you know I felt chills from the cold this morning? she asked. Did you, Isabel? I asked. I did, Jovita. I was brushing her hair when the spill came. Jovita, sister, give me a hand. Isabel crawled under the mosquito net, and that’s when I pulled out the boy. He was cold. Dead. When Mom arrived, she asked: How’s it going, Jovita? Fine, mom. Then, she said: good, daughter, from now on you can go instead of me. And I did.”
Simple as that. For help, Jovelina relies only on São Bartolomeu, advocate of midwives, and São Raimundo, Our Lady of Good Birth, and other, more important saints who also support them. But it’s not quite São Bartolomeu, either. To Jovita, he’s “São Bertolamé,” which she says with a touch of a French accent, and much more pizzazz. “At four in the afternoon, Bertolamé rose and his staff arose with him. Along his way, he walked. And that’s when he bumped into Our Lady, who asked Bertolamé where he was going. I’m going to Our Lady’s house, he said. Go on, Bertolamé, for there I will give you great powers, so that women will not die in labor or girls die smothered.” That’s how it goes. Recite this prayer and the baby will slide out and into the forest, right into the midwife’s hands.
Cabocla Jovelina is haunted by only two things in life. When speaking of them, she even allows herself the luxury of sighing. One is her first husband, for whom a deep passion blazes inside her to this day, even though he has passed away. “I was crazy about that man. But I had to let go. There was me, and three other wives. Ugh!” The other is doctors, to whom Jovelina attributes an extraordinary ignorance. “The things these women suffer in the maternity are a blow, my sister,” she says, appalled. “Here, if the baby’s settled in awkwardly, we go on and turn him. I put my hand in and pull and pull until he’s been set right and his head’s in place. That way, you don’t need to cut anything. Doctors, the poor things, they don’t know how to turn children.”
Before she says good-bye, Jovelina calls to her “umbilical children” so that she can show them off to the guests. The only reason the entire village doesn’t show up is because most of them are at a soccer tournament in the next town over, where members of both teams were brought onto the field by Jovelina’s hands. The midwife plants her legs—crooked like Garrincha's, the soccer-playing angel with bent legs—on her doorstep, places her blessed hands on her hips, and belts: “Come on now, you little band of brutes! Oh, if only my mother had sent me to school, I wouldn’t be breaking my neck to get by.” She smiles wide again, lighting up the sky, then warms up and says: “Oh, but they’re a beautiful bunch, aren’t they?”
Giving birth is women’s mystery. Performed by women and between women. It’s their affair. It’s beyond the comprehension of the midwives of the forest that life could come into existence in a hospital, a cradle of death, as if childbirth were an illness. For each midwife, pain is a sign of the ecstasy of birth. Opposites as inseparable as night and day. Giving birth is not suffering. It is celebration. “I’m from a time when you had to be a child’s mother to know the mystery. Virgin girls didn’t speak about sex so they wouldn't feel pleasure in the speaking,” says Rossilda Joaquina da Silva—sixty-three years old, eleven children, twenty grandchildren, and four great grandchildren. “When it’s time for the baby to come, all the women get together and it’s a beauty.”
She is black, as black as the earth of the quilombo of Curiaú, in the outskirts of Macapá. She opens her plump arms, strong and muscular from pulling children, sewing dresses, and blessing the ill: “Inner Curiaú, Outer Curiaú, I helped birth children inside and out. Everything hereabouts was born from my hands.” Rossilda is solemn as she drops her broom to tell her lot, rocking in her rocking chair to the sound of songs that would rush entangled births. “Oh, Lord, glorious São João, who was anchored in the River Jordão. God make me worthy, oh God of mercy, the ropes that hear me will bear me.”
In Rossilda’s Curiaú, they were holding a celebration for São Lázaro, the patron saint of dogs. Yes, explains Rossilda, even dogs have patron saints. As dignified as ever, Rossilda speaks of how lovely the banquet for São Lázaro was. “There was beef, Christian food. We each had our own plate set on the table. There was such respect, such delicacy. It was all very civilized.” In the quilombo’s newspaper, O Sabá, written by the midwife’s eldest son, the headline read: “The sheep Chibé, after many a head-butt, is now this year’s Christmas barbeque.” And on the last page, the following explanation: “Chibé was mischievous, playful, and daring, and never missed an opportunity to run at people and knock playing children to the ground. We all miss the sheep Chibé whose fatal destiny was to become our Christmas barbeque.”
This is Curiaú, a land full of rhymes since the time of slaves who chanted at trees to keep from losing their breath. And like the ground she stands on, Rossilda is a woman soaked in enchantment. For every birth, she is accompanied by another midwife, a conjured spirit, Angelina, who was long ago disembodied. But Rossilda will not speak of the secret of their partnership, one living and one unliving. “Or else,” she says, “it’ll lose its valuableness.”
After nine moons have passed, the men of Curiaú are sent on their way, so that they can’t make a ruckus. Because at times like this, men only know to fuss. Childbirth is a female celebration. Neighbors come from all around, sisters and girlfriends. They fill every corner of the house, brewing coffee, making cassava pap, and telling tales and jokes to distract the big-bellied woman. Laughing a little and praying, Rossilda, dressed from head to toe in white, readjusts the baby and keeps track of the pain. And seeing it, she goes, “Here comes the baby sliding into the world.” Only then is the father called to cock his rifle and shoot into the air—three times for a boy, two for a girl. If it’s a boy, he’ll be another Joaquim or another Raimundo. If it’s a girl, more often than not, Maria.
This is how Rossilda’s children were born: Sebastião, Eraldo, Leonice, Leonilza, Leoneide, Lourença, Leicione, Leodenice, Leodivaldo. . . “Am I missing one? Ah, yes, Lucivaldo.” How her grandchildren and great-grandchildren were born. And how her great-great-grandchildren will be born. Framed by the door and crowned by a wooden acapú cross, which wards off the forces of evil, Rossilda says good-bye with a rhyme. “Clean hands and pure heart, I’m a midwife, bringing children to earth.”
The forest of midwives is a forest of singsong. “Those who say we’re nothing and have nothing are wrong. Look at us, here, well-organized and prepared, with these midwives I’ll stand,” croons Tereza Bordalo—fifty-one years old, five children and five grandchildren, a midwife since the age of sixteen—in the wide-open vowels of the North. As mysterious as the rest of them, she raises her hands to the sky and traces an invisible cross at the woman’s vagina, the crocodile tooth swinging dangerously between her breasts, like a profane Madonna.
Then she prays and fulfills the secret she will never tell a Christian soul. A secret that rose out of the middle of the night in the shape of a woman who wore a trail the color of the sky. In a whisper, the one who was not of this world ordered her to be rid of her husband, the innocent man who snored beside her. She had nights and nights of haunted dreams. She’d barely fall asleep and the lady would appear, all made up in reverie. Tired of arguing with the hereafter, she told João Bordalo to go sleep somewhere else. Only then did the spirit reveal what she was there for, and then vanished forever. But not before she warned Tereza: “Reveal my secret and I will take back your powers . . .” Since then, she’s never been in a tight spot between women’s legs.
Swinging her umbrella—an indispensable tool for an Amazonian winter—Tereza calls the midwives of the forest to participate in a ritual of thanks. She places her foot on the ground, pregnant with the waters of Saint-Georges-de-l’Oyapock, in French Guyana, which is separated from Brazil and from the Oiapoque by no more than a river of the same name. She greets her friends with a “bon soir, ça va bien?” On the other side of the border, the midwives are all madames. Or, more accurately, “madam.” Such as Madam Marie Labonté, an indigenous Karipuna with the poise of a child, who slinks into the bush in search of snakeskin. “If you drink snakeskin tea, the baby will be born without pain, oui?” Oui, merci, who would dare dissent.
From inside the forest, they emerge, shy and silent. Barefooted or wearing rubber sandals. They are poor, they are midwives. Many do not even have teeth. Others only eat tapioca flour. For the task of helping humanity into the world they have never been paid a dime. “What I most want in life is a nice bed,” sighs Cecília Forte, sixty-six years old, who has known no other resting place than a cotton hammock. When hunger strikes, the heart gives in, threatening to stop. Thick-skinned, Cecília resists. She does not even like midwifing much, she confesses. “What I like most is mending old clothing. Why? Well, I think all old people like mending clothes. It’s a bit like mending life. Like mending both, mending one to mend the other.”
Delfina dos Santos, fifty-six years old, raises her hand to trace the path of the children she’s pulled. Her hand is dark, knotted, each palm a tangle of lines leading to the weft of all the lives she has welcomed. “I helped Eremita birth twice, Elvira once, Odete once, Alzemira once, Leliane once, Helena twice, Celina once, Josefina once . . . ” Her trail of sisters is long.
Marie Labonté, now forty-eight, helped her own mother give birth when she was just fifteen. Maria Rosalina dos Santos, fifty-six, was midwife to her daughter. Just like Nazira Narciso, forty-five, who welcomed her granddaughter when the midwife refused to do it, because it was a “strange belly.” “She’s not married,” Nazira translated. Whether the baby was conceived by a porpoise or by immaculate conception, it doesn’t matter, “God was the midwife.” But he did so with a woman’s hand, because childbirth, believes Nazira, “must be done by an equal.” “Indigenous, creole, Brazilian, it’s one pain,” she explains. “It’s the same crying.”
Their hands full of life hold each other, their trail-worn feet planted in a circle in the forest’s uterus. The midwives thank the divinity until dawn. Like all creatures in the world, day rises at a precise hour without anyone or anything having to tear it out of the night’s womb. Day and child follow the same law of nature, each with the same seed. Complementary parts of one single universe.
The midwives raise their candles asking for a light to guide them in their art. They invoke the earth, the river, the forest. This is a conversation between sisters, prose whispered with bated breath. An image that speaks to a society that is deaf and lost to its umbilical cord, with a larger world forged within our world. The voice of Dorica, the oldest midwife in the forest, echoes within each woman when she declares: “It’s time that makes man, and not man that makes time. Childbirth is a mystery. Children are not torn out. They are received.”
The circle is broken and the midwives board the boat on which they will sail the rivers that line the borders of Brazil. To answer a call only they can hear.
© Eliane Brum. By arrangement with the author. Translation © Julia Sanches. All rights reserved.
Arnoldo Gálvez Suárez examines the violence of urban Guatemala through the anecdotes of its taxi drivers, finding that where they've been is less telling than where they are no longer willing to go.
One asks the questions and the taxi driver responds. After many years of taking taxis, I know that although there are some more inclined to chatter than others, no taxi driver can resist talking about his job. And what does his job involve? Does it involve transporting human beings from one place to another in exchange for whatever sum the meter dictates? Absolutely. The taxi as a means of transportation is only the tip of the iceberg.
The whole world knows, yes, but there are truisms worth repeating: If you want to get to know a city, you need to talk with its taxistas. The taxi driver, as Shrader and Scorsese so expertly understood, is the worm that explores the dark tunnels of the rotten apple. He is the restless, harmless amoeba wandering through the guts of the city. He is the witness who lives to tell the tale. The taxi driver recounts the horror of which Kurtz often sang.
Taxi drivers are indiscreet types. There are those who are not only indiscreet, but extremely imaginative. What fascinates this last group is to talk of the dead. But not the dead splayed out along the side of the road—rather, they are fascinated by the well-dressed, and one assumes very pale, elegant dead who get in their vehicles toward midnight and whose faces can’t be seen in the rear-view mirror.
As I have no interest in the supernatural, these aren’t the type of conversations that I prefer. My interests lie elsewhere. For example: if the statistics are correct and in effect Guatemala City is one of the most dangerous cities in the world, how do these numbers look through the big, clear screen that is the windshield of a taxi? What happens when the predictable path of a taxi and the erratic trajectory of violence meet along the asphalt?
The taxis I take aren’t those one hails arbitrarily in the streets. I prefer those arranged for over the phone which later arrive at an agreed-upon address. They belong to a company that, in addition to a fleet of taxis, runs a call center. The reason? To reassure myself of that elusive, nebulous idea that in a country like this, there truly exists such a thing as that most prized of commodities: security. And this is precisely what such a company offers. It preaches of its most virtuous service: “a safe trip.” And we, the trembling and paranoid consumers of security, this century’s most coveted good, believe every word. Without a doubt, the more experienced taxi drivers are less convinced.
An article from Siglo 21, published in May of 2012 and titled “Seventh Taxi Driver Murdered in Eight Days,” mentions that two of the taxi drivers who were killed worked for the same company I call on. Further on in the article, we learn that, when asked about the incidents, a company spokesman denied the murders had anything to do with extortion. However, I’ve heard another version. Various taxi drivers have told it to me over the course of the last two years. The details of their accounts vary very little from one taxi driver to another: according to them, the company was in fact subject to extortion; the extortionists asked them for a sum of money right then and a monthly cut of each taxi’s revenue. The company refused and the first taxi driver was kidnapped in the outskirts of the city. His corpse showed up in a different periphery of the city. The next day they murdered the second driver but, by then, the company had already contracted the services of a foreign security company (Israeli security companies dominate the market in Guatemala) that “foiled” (in the words of a taxi driver who I spoke with a couple weeks ago) the group of extortionists and delivered them to the authorities.
Almost seven years ago I got the urge, for the first time, to write a novel. I knew what I wanted to say, I knew that I wanted to talk about the peripheries of the city, but I lacked a plot, the motive for my narrative. I started asking taxi drivers questions. After a while I had developed a basic questionnaire that, one novel and seven years later, I still use every time I get in a taxi.
“Hey, do you go everywhere in the city?”—Almost all of them think a moment here and ask if I am asking if they go to any site in the country and then respond yes, that they can take me anywhere between the borders.
“No, no,” I tell them, “I mean do you go to Limón, to
Búcaro . . .”
“If I’m dropping off a client, yes. But to pick up a client, never. If someone calls from one of these, let’s say, complicated places, the call center lets them know that the company doesn’t cover those areas.”
“And if a client calls, let’s say from a fancy place like Oakland Mall, and ask that you take them there?”
“If it’s one of those neighborhoods that are really fucked-up, we leave them at the entrance.”
The client grows angry, argues that the taxi driver is obliged to take them where they wish. What fault does a working man have if he lives in the middle of a place populated by criminals, or governed by hooded neighbors, armed with homemade rifles, who charge an entry fee—or if he lives in the middle of a gang battlefield?
“We know, of course, that it’s not the client’s fault, but I’m also not going to risk my life for a seven-buck trip. The plus is that the company lets us decide if we want to go to certain places or not. It’s up to us in the end. There are some drivers who go everywhere."
And so, the taxi drivers build themselves a security system that, effective or not, at least provides some peace of mind. It gives them the illusion that, if they follow certain rules, nothing will happen to them. For example, even before the military presence in the Limón neighborhood, taxi drivers only entered Limón through the main street; entering Gallito (famous in Guatemala for being controlled by drug gangs) you can always enter driving slow with the windows down; other places can only be entered during the day; and in others one can only go as far as the entrance. And so on.
“And are there other places that you definitely don’t go?”
“To Carranza. That place is no joke.”
The story involving Carranza happened some five years ago. At least that was when I first heard it. Let’s do some quick math: let’s assume that in five years of taking at least two taxis a month (this is a conservative guess), we get a total of a hundred and twenty taxis taken in five years. Maintaining a conservative estimate, let’s assume that only half of those taxi drivers told me the story of Carranza. The figure is alarming: I’ve probably heard the story of Carranza some sixty times.
And what happened in Carranza? Nothing extraordinary for a country that has a murder rate of 39.9 per 100,000 residents (per the 2013 Global Study on Homicide, from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime): a taxi driver arrived to drop off a client, it was nighttime, he traversed the terraced streets and when he went to leave, a group of armed, masked men, their faces covered with towels and scarfs, stopped him as they fired their guns into the air. Instead of stopping, the taxi driver accelerated. The bumper of the Nissan broke one of the assailant’s knees before his body smashed against the front windshield. And still the taxi driver kept going. The result? Some say the taxi was riddled with fifty—others says a hundred—bullets.
“It was a miracle they didn’t kill him,” one taxi driver told me. “We saw the car, there were holes in the back of the driver’s seat, in the dashboard, in the GPS. But no miracle happens twice. The next time the same thing happens to one of us, we won’t be so lucky.”
The taxi driver survived, his coworkers say. He developed diabetes and lost eighty pounds, but he survived. Meanwhile, Carranza maintains its status as the favorite type of the success stories told by the media.
A badly written page (with lots of grammar mistakes), on Wikipedia, lets us know, nevertheless, that the neighborhood of Carranza, in the town of San Juan Sacatepéquez (on the fringes of Guatemala City), was purchased from the Spanish crown by a group of Cakchiquel Mayans in the colonial era. The property title notes the year as 1752. Until 1955 a little over 300 people were living in the neighborhood. And until 1980 the population was majority indigenous. Nothing of this image survives. What came afterward was overpopulation caused by an internal refugee situation resulting from the civil war and the consequent exacerbation of the neighborhood’s poverty.
Perhaps if we were to ask the surviving taxi driver to imagine hell, he would mention something like Carranza. And who could blame him? But Carranza isn’t hell. Hell doesn’t exist. What exists is extreme poverty—illness, hunger. Overcrowding. The absolute lack of basic services, of opportunities and of hope. What exists is a neighborhood like that found there today, forgotten by the state, a part of the capital city of a country that boasts the largest number of private helicopters per capita in Latin America. What exists are the generous conditions for the incubation of violence.
“Carranza doesn’t scare me,” another taxi driver told me. “It makes me sad. And there is nothing in my life I hate more than to have to tell a client, ‘I’m sorry but I can’t take you to your home because we don’t go there.”
© Arnoldo Gálvez Suárez. By arrangement with the author. Translation © Geoff Bendeck. All rights reserved.
Aziz Chouaki's Algerian immigrant arrives to the sensory assault of Paris in this excerpt from The Eagle.
Marcadet-Poissonniers metro station, 7:30 p.m. An enormous bag on his back, Jeff’s looking for rue des Portes-Blanches. As if in a dream, he crosses rue Ordener, which is buzzing with life. He’s just off the plane, it’s eight years since Jeff’s set foot outside Algeria. First Orly, a slap in the face, the sheer luxury of it—ah, so that’s what it is. Heady perfume aromas, Jeff sweating at border control, visa’s in order, OK, then the bus, the luminous motorway, giant billboards all the way to Denfert. Is this for real?
In his head, raging echoes of Algeria, Hocine and Hassan, who came with him as far as the airport. Tough to tear himself away.
Next, the metro, Jeff’s at a loss—hardly surprising, it’s been eight years. Magnetic walkway marked with arrows, all sliding and smooth. Jeff can’t see straight, everything’s so sharply defined. He checks out what people are wearing, the women walking by, bodies so free, so in your face. Jeff ruminates, takes it all in, it’s crazy, a whole other planet. He’s learning, though, getting the hang of it, two thousand miles an hour.
He goes down rue des Poissonniers, then turns left into the narrow rue des Portes-Blanches. Just praying he’s in . . . Cousin Kamel, who emigrated ten years ago, hasn’t seen him in at least three years, fine to crash there to start with, sort it out later.
Number 7, old building, nicely kept up. Not a kid in sight, believe it or not. Algiers easily averages ten kids per stairwell. Swarms of them, razor-sharp eyes, capable of anything.
No, mobs of ten-year-old adults more like, sucking at every vice, already utterly jaded.
Second floor on the right, Jeff presses the buzzer and waits. Weird, no one in? He rings again, then three times . . . But I gave him a heads up, maybe he went to get something from the shops, whatever happens don’t freak out. Jeff stands outside the building, well, maybe get something to eat, there’s a small Monoprix on the left. The light’s blinding, everything blinks and dances in front of his eyes. Cold cuts, meat at thirty francs a kilo. What? Yep, you read it right, thirty francs. In Algiers it was two hundred and fifty.
Jeff feels dizzy: lucre, the rewards of excess. A hundred and thirty-two billion types of yogurt, cheese, coffee, almond shampoo for cats. Blurry-eyed, he hesitates, seriously nauseated —a physical thing, strictly speaking. Jeff leaves the shop, gasping for air.
He goes back to Kamel’s building and rings, at last the door opens and here’s Kamel, looking well-fed:
“So, the refugee! How’s it going? Come on in, was the flight delayed or what?”
Kamel ushers him in, carpeted studio flat, TV’s on, the news, Saddam Hussein, coalition forces issue an ultimatum, kitchenette, a poster of Platini, Jeff’s spaced out, can’t take it in.
Kamel’s certainly got the gear: video recorder, stereo system, microwave, totally normal here of course, but over there . . . Shh, stop comparing everything to Algeria. Kamel says:
“Sit down, dump the bag, do you want something to drink? Whiskey, beer, port, Ricard?”
Jeff goes for Scotch. Kamel brings a tray, serves the drinks, they clink glasses.
“To your getting here! I always wondered what a brilliant guy like you was doing back there, in that godforsaken place!”
Still in a daze, Jeff caresses his glass:
“Yeah well, what can you do . . . anyway, you’re doing all right, huh?!”
“Oh you know, can’t complain, I bust my nuts, I’ve got my identity papers, it’s going OK. So, have you got yours?”
Staring at the wallpaper, Jeff says:
“One-month visa, till the first of January.”
Kamel’s face clouds over:
“One month? That’ll be tough, they’re being really strict now, especially with that idiot Saddam Hussein. Anyway, we’ll work it out. You need a shower? We can go for a walk after.” Jeff says yes to a shower. Cheap stuff to wash with, ordinary enough, but the difference . . . turns on the tap, a miracle, water comes out. Never seen water gush from a tap in Algiers, water shortages since the beginning of time.
Washing off a hundred and thirty-two years of stress, frothing shower gel, go on treat yourself, Jeff, a brand-new body getting all the shit off, oh but this is untrue?! A working shower, like in the movies. After, he’ll have a good slug of whiskey, just like that.
“The eagle tenses for takeoff, Jeff,” Mr. Zoubir said.
His thoughts are all confused: frail outstretched hands, Algiers, his family, laughter, friends, childhood, dreams, and tears—thin, plaintive voices fading further and further into the distance.
He shaves, splashes on some of Kamel’s Balafre aftershave, inspects his dark brown face, dries his long curly hair. He checks the wad of notes in his socks, five thousand francs, changed on the black market in Algiers, very special rate of one to six. Rubbing his hands together, Jeff joins Kamel, who’s already refilled their glasses.
“So, all nice and clean. Finish up your drink, we’ll go for a walk and you can tell me about the shit going down in Algiers.”
Jeff’s a new man, knocks back his drink without sitting down.
“Let’s go! Just say the word.”
They go out, the air’s cool, lights and cars gleaming, everything sparkles, the women are proud like vixens, they smell delicious. Life! Whereas in Algiers . . .
Kamel shows him round, Jeff registering everything that moves, like in a film, hard to walk properly, well-stocked shops, so clean, so ornate. So this is the world, the real one, the other’s just a . . . what . . . a rough draft, that’s it . . . So where the hell was I living? Shut up Jeff, OK, OK.
A little bistro on rue du Baigneur, Kamel’s a regular here. The owner, a Kabyle, is working the till, a Frenchwoman, no doubt his wife, behind the bar.
Perching on a stool, Kamel:
“Hey Mimiche, hey Nicole, this is my cousin Jeff, from back home. Just arrived.”
They look him over, routine interest, the blonde Nicole:
“Oh yes? And how are things over there? What about the Islamists?”
Jeff, being polite:
“Oh, you know . . .”
Kamel, easy-going, cuts in:
“It’s like Iran over there, totally fucked! Isn’t it, Jeff?”
Jeff nods. Nicole, very blonde, wearing too much make-up, the type to set the ardent North African libido ablaze, and she knows it. Takes their order, two beers.
They know it too.
The boss, man of few words, welded to his till, looks furtively at Jeff:
“It’s a real mess over there. How’s the dinar doing?”
Sipping his beer, Jeff:
“One to six, six and a half.”
Kamel, acting sophisticated:
“Oh, soon it’ll be one to ten, make it an even number, one million to a thousand dirhams, it’ll serve them right.”
Apart from two or three sad sacks, the clientele’s mostly North African, and in the corner, with two black guys, an Asian woman wearing a leather miniskirt that only just covers her tush.
Jeff hones his gaze, taking in reflections, blind spots, tricks of the light, shadows, surveys the scene.
Can this be Paris?
Got to pinch myself to see straight. It’s not going to last long with Kamel, imagine soaring up, up to the highest heights, fast, a long way from this scum and their troughs, yes, as fast as I can.
Leaning her heavy, perfumed breasts toward Jeff, Nicole asks:
“Are you on holiday? How long for?”
Jeff, toothy grin, I’d flip her over and give her one right there, just as she is, against the bar, don’t you move, baby:
“As long as it takes, no idea really.”
More customers come in, friends of Kamel: Mouhouche and Akli.
Introductions all round, Jeff shakes paws, Kamel gets in another round. Mouhouche:
“D’you hear about Arezki? He missed out on the lottery, by just one number.
You should’ve seen him last night, he was drunk as a skunk.”
Jeff’s soul detaches from his body, an animal lying in wait. He’s there and not there, a significant absence. He couldn’t give a shit about the lottery, about Nicole or Kamel. Going to have to get going, quick-time.
Mouhouche, abruptly changing the subject:
“And what about your cousin, what’s the news from home?”
Jeff, rolling his eyes:
“Better off here than there, I reckon. Got to consider ourselves lucky, but most of all, pity the poor bastards over there.”
Akli, in his accountant’s glasses, says:
“I was there last year, the people are completely corrupt, it’s revolting. Everything’s gone down the drain, the black market, the shortages, and on top of all that the Islamists, for God’s sake!”
Kamel’s got a touch more class, and he knows it.
So do Mouhouche and Akli.
Putting down his glass, he goes up to them, his tone all confidential:
“I’ll tell you how it is. The FIS was created by the Russians and the Jews, they had a baby behind Algeria’s back. And our lot, well they’re just morons, they fell for it. Simple as."
The situation in a nutshell. Jeff’s gobsmacked.
Kamel goes on:
“Even Saddam Hussein’s a Russian puppet!”
Akli, picking his nose:
“Still, Gorbachev . . ."
Kamel, on his own little journey to the end of the night:
“Exactly! On the one hand they say no, on the other they’re manipulating him, by remote control. It’s all between them and the Americans.”
Mouhouche looks puzzled.
“And where are the Arabs in all this?”
Kamel’s triumphant, especially since Nicole, who’s sprayed on more perfume, now turns her heavily made-up eye toward him, resting her plump breasts on the bar.
“The Arabs? But the Arabs are sheep! They’ve always been sheep! Isn’t that obvious?”
“Yeah, but if it all kicks off, things’ll get rough for us over here, with the Front National. Everything will change, I’m sure of it.”
Dancing in Jeff’s head: the jasmine in his grandmother’s garden in Birkhaden, Hocine’s potbelly back at the Perroquet, the tender look in his sister’s eyes, the first poem he learned, when he was ten:
On rustic paths the thin grass I shall tread,
And feel its freshness underneath my feet,
And, dreaming, let the wind bathe my bare head . . .*
Jeff savors his beer, the fact that he’s here, on his right a pinball machine and a jukebox, when you think that over there . . . . Stop it, Jeff, there’s no comparison.
Kamel, Mouhouche, and Akli discuss racing, the Front National, setting up a laundromat together, the prostitutes on rue Saint-Denis, Saddam Hussein, smuggling foreign currency. Jeff ponders his life, staring into his beer. After the fourth round, they decide to leave the bar, go walk round Pigalle, bye, see you, everyone goes.
Boulevard Barbès, Rochechouart, like a film clip, Arabs, blacks, half-whites. Whores, cops, pimps, dealers: a whole underclass in the free world’s shop window. Got to adapt, right?! Jeff’s got to rewrite the codes, quick, get up to speed.
They’re in Pigalle now, a mind-blowing ballet of lights, it’s imperial Byzantium, sex and gold, frilly panties and deep pockets, offering any variation of the arcane mysteries of fantasy, whatever you want. Jeff’s eyes devour it all, every minute of the spectacle written out in front of his eyes, calligraphic text on display, silky gilt edges, voluptuous arabesques.
The streets are alive, Jeff clocks everything, Kamel, Mouhouche, and Akli hitting on every girl they see, Jeff feels tender toward the plucky little lambs, he watches them, it’s touching really.
When they get to Place Clichy, they go into a McDonalds, it’s Jeff’s first time; heard of it but never been in. Jeff appreciates the very American power of the global image, yeah, the democracy of myth.
They order and sit down, each of them busy with his Big Mac.
Two girls at the next table, sunny blonde hair. The three men eat, drooling at the sight of them.
Jeff bites into his Big Mac, drools at the sight of them drooling at the sight of them.
Emboldened by four beers, Kamel risks it; they’re well out of his league:
The sunny blondes don’t understand.
“Have you got a problem?”
Jeff spots a copy of the Nouvel Observateur on their table. On the tip of his tongue . . . no, shut it, think first, Jeff.
Akli takes over, strong Kabyle accent:
“Are you English? Swedish? German?”
Jeff whispers: they’re French. The three of them sit back, but don’t let up. Ah, they’re French!
“Good evening, ladies, can we offer you a drink?”
“That’s kind of you, but we’ve got people waiting for us.”
The others pile in, charging into the breach, sticking like glue. We’re in there! Fuck, we’re going to get laid!
The other one, the least lively:
“Hey, you want to piss off? Or get a kick in the face?”
The three of them shrink back, Jeff laughs, they all bite into their Big Macs, in silence. They’re out of there, heading for Barbès, to the Bar de la Famille, Ramdane’s place. The bar’s murky, dim lighting, just men, Arabs, Ramdane among them, gold tooth, voice like a scorpion fish:
“Hey there, come on in, it’s my round. I like good boys.”
Jeff goes wide-angle, the bar’s hardcore and druggy, run by the local mob, dodgy little underworld. Arabic music crackling, Oum Kalthoum, supreme mother of all Arabs. Sleazy punters, pathetic in their vapid exile, rock-bottom depression. A lot of youngsters, pickpockets, gold-chain bracelets, back-alley pimps. The music changes, now rai punctuates each round of drinks, the men dancing alone on the spot, urgent tango of sex, knives, and wine.
Kamel orders a whiskey, it’s classier:
“It’s not my scene here, it’s so . . . common.”
Akli, his glasses on crooked:
“It can be good sometimes, like being back at home.”
Kamil, whose eyebrows say the exact opposite:
“No, no, not for me. As soon as I work out how, I’m going to be a French citizen, simple as.”
“But of course, we all want that. Just a matter of finding a Frenchwoman who’ll take us on.”
Kamel rubs his hands together:
“Look at Arezki, he’s no better than us. But he found a Frenchwoman. Now he’s living it up. With a French ID card, you’re a French citizen, untouchable, you get rid of all the shit. Whereas we’re about to get screwed by Saddam Hussein.”
Jeff watches his eyes swimming in his beer. Got to get going, top speed, before . . .
The conversation turns to women, all the romance of rutting pigs: "and I did this to her and I did that . . ." Akli suggests winding up the evening in Clichy, going back to his to watch a porno with Tracy Lords—God, the ass on her—getting fucked by two black guys, whose dicks are this big, I swear, this big!!
Really irritated now, Jeff begs off, saying he’s tired, needs to rest. Sorts it with Kamel, leaves the key behind the meter on the landing, OK, camp bed under the sofa, blanket in the cupboard, all right. They go their separate ways, three of them heading off to watch porn, Jeff to spend a few hours alone, catch his breath, relax.
*"Sensation," by Arthur Rimbaud, translated Jethro Bithell, 1912
© Aziz Chouaki. By arrangement with the author. Translation © Lulu Norman. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from Négar Djavadi's novel Désorientale, an Iranian teen finds sexual and cultural identity in the Parisian punk rock scene.
The revelation came to me a bit later, through the TV (an old, poorly-functioning set left by previous renters and installed in our room by my sister Leïli), which I watched until late at night. That evening, a concert in a small venue was being shown on Les Enfants du Rock. Because Leïli and Mina were asleep, I’d turned the sound off, so it wasn’t the music that struck me—but rather, the dangerous energy emanating from four young guys dressed in black, barely older than my sisters, strutting across the stage like they owned the world. They were feline, powerful, Dionysian. Their clothes were ripped and their fists raised, rage made the veins in their necks stand out. It was dark and luminous. Secretive. Subversive. In front of them, human waves, dense and insatiable, crashed against the edge of the stage before rising up and shouting in unison. They kept their backs turned to the world, to its values and obligations, to the past; they were drunk with the joy of being there, of living in a different way, of living at all.
I wanted to be there with them.
There, where Iran and France didn’t exist.
Alone and insurgent.
I was so enthralled by the images thumping against my retina that I didn’t hear Sara come into the room. Her hips blocked the screen. Her finger pressed the power button, and a black veil fell over the picture.
“Good lord, Kimiâ, it’s one-thirty in the morning. You need to sleep!”
Don’t count on it, I thought, staring at her.
I am fourteen, but I look older because of my height (almost five foot seven), my large hands, and my eyes, which have lost their innocence. I wear jeans and whatever blouses my mother, Sara, buys me on sale. Despite her efforts she can never find skirts in my size. Maybe in the adult section, but I’m not old enough to wear those yet. I am thin, but strong; a confusing physique.
For the first time ever, I skip afternoon classes and go to the Fnac in Montparnasse, trawling the rock section in search of the group I’d seen on TV. I find it at the very back, under “U.” U2. There are two LPs in the bin, October and War. I can’t afford to buy them, and we don’t have a record player anyway, but I discover that I can read the lyrics on the sleeve. I understand a few words here and there, but the rest remain a mystery. I copy the lyrics to Sunday Bloody Sunday into one of my notebooks.
From that day onward, my life changes. Music bridges the gap between the past and the present; childhood and adolescence; what has been and what will be. A new world has opened up for me, where it is better to be clever and resourceful than to have money.
As a result of the hours spent carefully translating song lyrics so I can understand them, I become a whiz at English. My vocabulary is far more advanced than that of the other students, and I can pronounce the “th,” sliding my tongue easily between my teeth. I spend my Sundays at the movies, watching dubbed and subtitled American films. I buy one ticket and sneak into another theater for a double-feature. One day I go into the wrong one and stumble across Alain Resnais’s Love unto Death. Shaken, I watch it twice in a row. I discover the flea market at Saint-Ouen, where I unearth an old record player, second-hand albums, and previously-worn clothes. Perversely, the outfits I assemble for pennies give me a new style all my own. Velvet jacket, ruffled 1970s blouse, fringed suede trousers, work boots. Horrified by the dirty things I keep lugging home in plastic bags, Sara stuffs it all straight into the washing machine.
I plunge headlong into punk and postpunk. Johnny Rotten, Ari Up, Ian Curtis, Joe Strummer, Peter Murphy, Siouxsie, Martin L. Gore. Their music fills every emotional and intellectual hole in my life. It becomes my daily bread, my life preserver. Because it puts the world back in its right place and tears away the facades. Because it is aware of the rage and the sweat and the strikes, the working-class quarters and the revolts and the gunpowder. Because it denounces the hypocrisy of power, and demolishes the certainties and social and ideological affirmations that claim to explain to us how the world works. Because it is made so that people like you will look at people like me.
I shave my head on the sides with some old clippers and cut it short as a boy’s in back. Sara, appalled, doesn’t speak to me for weeks, and Leïli rebukes me for adding to her suffering. I promise her I will keep up my good grades; as for the rest, I tell her it’s none of her business. Oh, and I begin swimming every day. At noon, instead of going home for lunch, I go to the pool next door to the high school. The official reason: I love sports. The secret reason: I dream of having a body like Peter Murphy, the sexy lead singer of Bauhaus, instead of my hybrid body whose strangeness sometimes makes me ashamed. I think my flat bum and narrow hips are already a good start; the rest—long, slender muscles, straight shoulders, well-defined thighs—depends on my own perseverance. I think of my body as my only country, my only homeland, and I will draw its contours the way I want them.
Now I’m sixteen. My in-depth knowledge of the underground scene enables me to go out in search of people who listen to the same music as I do. I’ve reached my adult height of nearly five foot eight, and I propel my lanky, solid body curiously through the city streets. I stamp Paris with my own footprints. It has become my city, a liberating and insidious place.
My route takes me to the Forum des Halles one Saturday afternoon. It’s a meeting place for teenagers estranged from their families; social services cases, gutter punks, Goths, young homosexuals rejected by their parents, and marginal members of society just passing through. A motley, aimless group that grows and shrinks with the season and the vagaries of chance. My looks are unusual enough that they elbow each other to make room for me. No one asks me where I’m from. No one cares. No one’s waiting for me to let slip a grammatical error. They call me by whatever nickname occurs to them, or just “K,” the initial of a first name most of them don’t know. They’re defensive, unpredictable, disruptive, loudmouthed, brazen. Sometimes in the metro, when they’re sprawled out on the bench seats singing at the top of their lungs, they offend the reserved politeness instilled in me during my upbringing—but they’re not cruel. Some of the girls react to my presence in a way I find comforting. They make sure to stand close to me, ask me to walk them home, play with my hair. One of them, Barbabeau (a nickname given because of her elaborate witch-clown makeup), always sits in my lap, exclaiming: “You’ve got knees like a guy!” I love it when she says that, because she’s acknowledging my bizarre physique while, at the same time, letting me know that it’s no big deal. Every time I see her I wait impatiently for her to come and sit in my lap so I can hear her say those words.
With these people, I learn to exist in an infinite now. To drink beer and cheap wine, smoke, drop acid, and spend wild nights in abandoned buildings and crowded dance clubs and tiny bars with battered stools. I learn to talk to the bouncers, guys who let me slip into concert venues without a ticket. I learn what “hit on” means. And above all, I learn, to my relief, that sexuality has no boundaries except the ones we impose on it. Being homosexual or heterosexual doesn’t mean anything. These considerations, so contentious and polemic in the harsh light of day, are too porous to resist the nights of this restless decade as it winds down. After a certain hour and in a certain light, edges blur. The middle-class wives, taking advantage of their husbands’ absence on work trips, slum it in lesbian nightclubs. They come early and sit in the corner with a glass of wine, patiently watching the girls dance, looking for the right one. Men in business suits ditch their girlfriends and slip into the bathroom to join the young guy who smiled at them before turning away petulantly. Couples arrive together and then, by mutual agreement, split up to go on the prowl. AIDS is still just a distant rumor, a disease too exotic to find its way into these dark basements, thumping with savage urban sounds.
From Désorientale. © Négar Djavadi. Published 2016 by Éditions Liana Levi. Translation © Europa Editions. Forthcoming from Europa Editions as Disoriental. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
In this short story by Rwandan author Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse, a mother finds herself caught in the intersection of family battles and ethnic conflict.
Amagara araseseka ntayorwa
Guts spill on the ground but cannot be gathered back up
I stayed kneeling longer than everyone else, pressing all my weight into the wooden slats. My head buried in my hands, I kept whispering, “Don’t betray his name, don’t betray his name, Lord!”
When I got up, my eyes were moist—sweat or bitter tears—and I didn’t notice the little nail that had snagged my pagne, God’s only answer. The children stared at me anxiously. They could tell I was troubled just then, but Félicita alone knew why I was worrying myself sick.
Only twelve, Félicita is my timid shadow, always trailing just behind my pagne, quiet and obedient. Her skin is as dark as mine is light, but we have the same heifer eyes with long, curved lashes. It is she who helps me look after her brothers and sisters, sweeps the courtyard of our rugo early mornings before school, knows where I hide my savings and saw Harerimana—"it is God who raises children"—raise a hand to me last week.
The padiri passes through the congregation, blessing the cut branches we hold out to him. Yohani, my youngest, is wiggling his under his big sister’s nose to tickle her. He’s young still, and he must think this Palm Sunday Mass is taking forever. A mere wrinkle of Félicita’s brow is enough to settle the two children down. I had Yohani and the three other girls between the ages of thirty-one and thirty-seven. My eldest son, Harerimana, and Félicita, the next oldest, are ten years apart. My husband often said, laughing, that he found my way of having children completely incomprehensible.
Harerimana was born a few months after we were married. Then many long years went by before my belly grew round again. Other women on the hill would tease me, implying that my cleaning job at the National Population Office had doubled as birth control. Despite the wicked gossip spread by my mother-in-law, who believed me unable to bear children, I appreciated the years alone with my eldest child. While other mothers my age were drowning in rug rats, I had the luxury of being able to attend Mass without the bitter smell of urine clinging to my clothes.
Kubyara indahekana—that is what we say of a woman who has more babies than she can carry on her back at once. My son had the ingobyi,* that tanned leather carrier, all to himself, and he breastfed till he was two. Less overwhelmed than other mothers, I could devote myself to him, teaching him to speak well, singing him lullabies. I even planted a few feet of strawberries by the banana plantation where he spent his afternoons squatting while I shelled peas or sorted beans in the courtyard. People said, “That boy clings to his mother too much. He’ll never be a real man.”
And then came Félicita, when I was least expecting it. If we make it through this life, she’ll be the staff of my old age. It’s a good thing she’s so clumsy; no man will want to take her from me. Her soul has all the qualities that Harerimana’s lacks, convinced as he is that his size and strength put him above everyone else. Félicita’s birth caused me great pain. I lost my voice from screaming so much during delivery; it was a whole week before I got it back. The wrinkled little mauve creature immediately fell in tune with my silence: she never cried. We stared at each other for a long time; I was weeping, in pain, afraid. That’s why I called her Umuhoza: she who eases tears. Gazing at her, I would often repeat, “You who cause me so much pain, you must be good and obedient, to make me forget the painful way you came into this world.” And yet she wasn’t the one responsible for my fright, the one who sent me into premature labor.
I’m still convinced there’s something odd about that child. A strange power that lets her read people’s thoughts, speak with the dead. A bit like the seers of Kibeho who were gifted with seeing and hearing the Virgin Mary.
I’ve always believed nothing good could come from our lives as women. We are too full of bitterness and stifled sufferings, passed down from generation to generation, an essence mothers unconsciously distill before mixing it in with the butter they smear all over their daughters’ bodies. If only every other generation men could take a turn carrying children around in their bellies and raising them, then the vicious circle would be broken and girls freed from their fate.
The only thing women pass on is suffering. Didn’t the Mother of God Herself, on the day Félicita was born, tell us through the voices of young middle-school girls that the skies would open and rain hell down on our heads?
It was hot that day of Epiphany, and I most definitely shouldn’t have left Butare to visit my sick cousin when my own pregnancy was so advanced. No sooner had I arrived than she asked me to accompany her out on the esplanade of apparitions in Kibeho. There were hundreds of us, clustered together in the sun, spellbound by the singing of the young girl who stood on the platform, eyes bulging and arms outstretched. She sang an ode to Mary, and despite the crackling of static, her voice, borne by the loudspeakers, poured into our ears like a joyous balm. After several canticles, she began to pass on the message of the Lady in White. It was when the Mother of the Word announced that the land would be drowned in a tide of blood that I felt my pagne grow wet, and I lost consciousness.
Men carried me off to the clinic in Kibeho in the ingobyi of a disabled woman who’d come to hear the prophecies in secret hopes of a miraculous cure. Shortly thereafter, they used the same means of transport to take my cousin back to her house. She died not long after.
Despite all these deaths, foretold or unexpected, surrounding Félicita’s birth, her arrival was like an outbreak of life. When I see her so grown-up, so dark, I tell myself she was a stopper of a baby who stayed inside me for years, refusing to come out and confront a world that was too cruel. A ball of clotted blood that dwelled in my uterus while her brother was raised in the exclusivity of my love. After Félicita, I gave birth to four other children, one every two years.
Félicita’s never shown any jealousy over the love I bear Harerimana. She’s always been there, in the shadow of our bond, which even my husband complains about, hiding in a corner of the house just as she once did deep inside me, listening to us sing and laugh.
But the day came when bitter reprimands replaced the murmured nursery rhymes, the riddle games children adore: the “ncira umugani, tell me a story” and “sakwe sakwe—soma.” My son now despises me. He has joined the other bored and aimless boys, and spends his days in training that is both absurd and unsettling. They look like kids with their wooden rifles, but there is nothing childish about their songs. Harerimana doesn’t love me anymore. He is ashamed of me. The only people he cares about are his uncle Arsène, who supervises their training, and his wife, Chantal. Harerimana once told me, “Now she’s a real Rwandan!” Arsène and Chantal are Hutus.
Harerimana was fifteen when his father died. My sister-in-law spread the rumor that I’d poisoned him, that nothing good could come of a serpent born of a family of poisoners. Word reached my boy. Distraught at finding himself the man of the house at too young an age, he believed the rumor. I’d catch him looking at me sideways sometimes, eyes dark, hands shaking. He left school, grew ever more distant. When civil war broke out, his uncle began to fill his head with evil thoughts and it was easy for Arsène to recruit him into the local cell of Interahamwe militiamen—not only Hutus, but extremists—last year. There is no greater shame for a widow than to be renounced by her eldest son. A woman isn’t much of anything without a man to tell everyone, “This is my wife,” “This is my mother,” or “This is my sister.” I’m not much of anything. A bent shadow hugging the hedges of rugos, and hoeing, all by herself, the little patch of land that is all she has left.
Last week, when he came to fetch the last of his father’s things and sell them at market, I clung to his arm, begging him. He freed himself, tossing me violently against the door, where my left breast slammed into the padlock and my head hit the jamb. The sight of blood on my forehead failed to move him. He left without a word. If he could’ve killed me, as he claims I did his father, he’d no doubt have done so. Would he really dare? Of course, by doing so he’d get rid of the Tutsi part of himself he denies among his friends. But I am still his mother. No, he’d never do a thing like that.
I clench my fists till my joints pop and repeat in a whisper, “Keep him from the worst, O Father, do not make his name a lie.” When I come out at last, there’s no one left in front of the church. Félicita has led the little ones to shade beneath the old avocado tree by the presbytery. She has the girls reciting a canticle. Yohani has fallen asleep.
*“Ingobyi” also refers to a kind of stretcher made from a woven mat and two wooden poles, traditionally used to carry sick people, and as the poor man’s ambulance for reaching health clinics.
"Febronie—Maternités." From Ejo. Published 2015 by La Cheminante. By arrangement with the Astier-Pécher Film & Literary Agency. Translation © 2017 by Edward Gauvin. All rights reserved.
Zahia Rahmani portrays the mental and physical manifestations of dual exile from both homeland and language.
Franco-Algerian author Zahia Rahmani is the daughter of an alleged Harki, one of the thousands of Algerians who fought alongside or otherwise supported the French Army during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). It was the fate of such men to be twice exiled, first in their homeland after the war, and later in France, where fleeing Harki families seeking refuge faced contempt, discrimination, and exclusion. After her father escaped from an Algerian prison in 1967, Rahmani’s Muslim, Kabyle-speaking family came to France on a Red Cross convoy, and eventually resettled in the rural region of Oise, where they encountered widespread ignorance and racism. Muslim is part of a loose trilogy of novels that blend autofiction and an oral tradition of storytelling, each rendered in Rahmani’s unique lyrical style.
One night, I lost my tongue. My native tongue. I was barely five years old and had been living in France for a few weeks. I could no longer speak a language I once knew, a spoken language, a language of fables, ogre tales, and legends. In one night, a night of dreams or nightmares, I began to speak another language, a European language. I came to it that night. The night when, fast asleep, I encountered an army of elephants . . .
My childhood brought me to this place. I have only a single image of those early years. One photo. I’m in Kabylie. I’m old enough to walk, but I’m wrapped in a shawl on my mother’s back, a bulky scarf around my head. She told me that she had placed potato slices under the fabric to cure my headaches. Did I get headaches a lot, as a child? I didn’t have any medicine, answered my mother. And I got the headaches often? Constantly, she said. In that second, the pain comes back. I remember my brother burning his arm when he was only five years old. His furious cries and squirming when they tore his little green acrylic polo from his body after he spilled boiling milk on himself. I saw his skin come off with the shirt. His cries reverberate inside of me, they echo my own when I took my first steps, moved by hunger, because I wanted to sneak something from my cousin’s, my playmate’s, warm meal. She pushed me to the ground, onto a pan filled with oil, from which my mother had just removed a mouthwatering beignet, an accident that would leave me a burned child for several months. I don’t have many memories of what happened, but I still remember crying. I felt an immense rage against my cousin. Then she became deaf and dumb. Later, her illness was compounded by a mental and physical degeneration. I didn’t want to see or hear her. Her misfortune was too great a reminder of our family’s history. I understood that the bad luck I wished upon her was meant to punish her. To punish everyone for all the shit clinging to me. Nothing religious about it. Easy enough to understand. Every encounter I had with her was painful. I couldn’t help but think about our childhood, our poverty, our fathers destroyed by war who ignored our very existence. She was losing her language. She stopped speaking. One day, I went with her to Paris. She was going to visit a center for children like her. Our fathers came with us. We entered a room with tables and headsets. She and I played together with the devices. We were six years old and had only been in this new country a few months. She was losing her language. They took her away. Her disease was accelerating. They ran some tests on her. The center was run by nuns. There was also a doctor. They were all facing us, we were seated behind her, listening to her pronounce, very slowly, the e, e, they were trying to get her to say. Ee, ee, repeated the nuns. Eh, eh, said my cousin. It was 1968. Paris was in revolt. Its youths were once again swarming the streets. Revolution’s hand was outstretched and it had lovely plans for the world. “Sous les pavés la plage,” read our fathers. Under the cobblestones, the beach… That slogan opened up a path, and in the medicine factory where they had just been hired, people were talking about strikes and insurrection. Our fathers once again feared for the life they had. We were children. Little girls shaken by trauma. My cousin didn’t return home with us. We left her alone in that boarding school for the deaf and dumb. Outside, in the yard, there were other girls. Older. All older. And we left her there, my cousin, who was deaf and dumb, and who knew nothing about this country and its language. We left her there alone. Her parents had no other choice.
No more words. No more melody. Just a few brief sounds. And my cousin became The Child Who Does Not Speak.
As an adult, she came back to live with her parents. People said she was a little better. I went to see her. She had a resigned smile on her face. Concentrating, she made a few sounds with her mouth. Broken-up words. She wasn’t mute anymore. But she could barely stammer. I knew where she came from. What had they done to her?
We would never find comfort for what had happened.
At five years old, I abandoned my family so I could learn, on my own, how to escape a community that didn’t want me the way that I was born: excluded. If I hadn’t succeeded, I would have remained nothing but a block of pain encased in silence.
Ten years later I remember going to my mother to ask her, in her language, why I always had the same nightmare.
I’m being chased by old women. She tells me, Those aren’t old women, they’re children. I show her the scar above my eye and ask her who caused it. She says, The children. And I repeat, No. No, there are only old women. Old women running after me with sticks.
The nightmare ended. It ended after I was able to tell my mother in her language: I’m running, I’m running so fast, I turn around, the old women are chasing me, I’m crying, I insult them, I run, I run so fast, I scream, I tell them they won’t get me and, right when they’re about to catch me, I open the door to the house where we used to live, I go inside, I close it. I wake up exhausted. The old women are behind the door.
It was the children running after you, says my mother. Sometimes you would run into the yard, you wanted to go outside, and you would go see them, just to say that your father would be back soon. They’re the ones who threw stones at you. They’re the ones who hurt your eye. So why the old women? Why do I only see old women? No children. No little girls like me. She doesn’t know. She just tells me, Back then it was only the women and children like you. Women, mothers aged by suffering and death. Grieving their lost ones. And you kept demanding that your father, a Harki but still alive, in prison, come back. But they wanted him dead.
I was the daughter of a tainted man. The unwanted offspring of a new world, born in 1962. In Algeria, there had been deaths, martyrs, and combatants. Nobody wanted the rest, the “survivors,” those caught in the middle. So I had been expelled from a community moving forward, and from its future. I finally understood that I wasn’t the only one to suffer in this story.
I had spoken to my mother in her language. I hadn’t breathed a word in Kabyle in ten years and there I was, talking to her in her language. I wasn’t alone or abandoned anymore. Time had done its job. I stood up straight and reconnected with my family. I never saw the old women in my dreams again.
Why, a few months after leaving Algeria, did I stop speaking my language? Only to find it again ten years later?
I was in France. I learned and spoke a new language. At school. I had a new country, a new language, but above all, there was school. A New World. Leaning toward me, begging me to learn. Leaning toward me, index finger pointing at a word. Say, Little. Say, Little. Little. Little Tom. Say, Little Tom Thumb. I weighed barely anything. In my mother’s country, I had stopped eating. Tom Thumb was the youngest, like me, in a family fallen on hard times. Little Tom Thumb. I was him and my father had come home. Thin, sad, but home. At five years old, I stopped eating. I was waiting for him, waiting for him to return. He came back. No, he came. I was born without knowing him. He was in prison at the time. I hadn’t seen him for five years, and then he was there. He had escaped and we ran away. Left Algeria for this country. My father was finally back, but he didn’t see me. I had been waiting for him, and he had nothing to give me. So I held out my hand to the woman, at school, leaning toward me. And she gave me hers. She held my hand every day that I was beside her. Read. Read little one, and Mrs. Boulanger became my angel at the same moment when Tom Thumb, who so loved his poor brothers, encountered the breadcrumb-eating bird that would make him lose his way. I learned the language of Europe in one day. The day when Tom Thumb got lost on his path, the same night I dreamed of the elephants, the night I lost my native tongue, I spoke in his language. I left my people to join him. A companion in misfortune, betrayed by his own, like me. His story became mine. Together, his brothers and I could form a family. I would never want to leave his forest. During the day, I heard birds singing and at night, when the paths sunk into shadow, I happily kept moving. One more night, just one more night with them. Over and over, I climbed trees, tossing and throwing the words of our future into the sky. I didn’t want our life in this place to ever end. For these new brothers, I collected marvels and created shelters out of wood. Stretched out above those makeshift structures, we gazed at the stars and then looked down to watch the nocturnal activity below. It was through Little Tom Thumb and his language that I learned to negotiate my new world.
I waited ten years. Ten years to return to my family. Like Tom Thumb, who had to save his own, I needed to face the ogres and defeat them. The ones from the childhood fables that I had abandoned on the night of the elephants. I had to recognize them and find the words in Kabyle to vanquish them. Ten years to understand that I also had a home. My native tongue. Tom Thumb returned without me. The language of my childhood, my language from elsewhere, my mother’s language, a fading language welcomed me. A language that I had rejected the night of the elephants was still with me. I knew that all along. So how did I lose my voice?
I remember sitting across from the door to my closed bedroom. The mother who finds me in the hallway, asking me what I’m doing on the ground, is no longer my mother. Leaning down, she’s talking to me, I understand her, but I don’t say anything. I won’t say anything. She asks me what I’m doing, I know what she’s asking, because the sun is rising and it’s early, I know that she got up to do her prayers and that she’s wondering what her sweat-drenched child is doing in this hallway, and I don’t answer. Not a sound comes out of my mouth. I can’t talk to her anymore. And yet I hear her. I understand her. I had been living in a world that only her language could access. So I understood her. And if I kept that language with me, it’s because it had been my guide and companion since infancy. But in France, it represented a universe that could never match what was expected of me, here, in this country. I had to get away from that struggle. I only ever had one angel to watch over me. Only one angel who asked me to read. But there was no one, during this whole time, who could teach me to live in this country. My language was my only recourse. I had to find it again.
I know the solitude of the displaced child. You are ripped from your story and, blindly, you have to keep moving ahead anyway. You are told to keep going, in ignorance.
Your language is dead, said my books. And yet the words of my childhood were just walled away. I learned that a language doesn’t die. Languages don’t die. I was born in a cramped space. I was chased. I’m still being chased. I run, I find the door, I slam it shut, I lock it. I’m safe. I’m still behind a closed door. At fifteen, I brusquely asked my mother, in my rediscovered language, Who are the women chasing after me? She says, They’re children. The other children always ran after you. You would go find them and come back running. And that scar on your left eye? It was the children. Just children? I only see old women, chasing me. I want to know why they’re the ones I see. Why do I only see old women? Tell me, why do I only see old women? They’re always there, behind me, like those toothless faces in Spanish paintings! They were children. Only children. No, they were old women. I know, I saw them!
I ran so far.
I always ran when I was afraid. Ran to escape the army, the soldiers. Ran to escape the sticks, rocks, or hands. Ran to escape someone yelling at me in a language I didn’t understand. A soldier yelling at a child in a language she doesn’t understand. Ran until the door. I was always looking for that door. Leave, go, flee. Find a door. Shelter. And every time, I locked it shut.
One day, I swallow an orange seed. My mother isn’t here. I don’t know why, but she isn’t here. Maybe she’s at the hospital. Bringing my brother into the world. My brother who wore her out. She hasn’t been here for days and I don’t go see her. I’m in France, but I’m not allowed to see her. My father refuses. He locks us inside. He says that we can’t trust anybody in this country. But I have an orange seed in my throat. So I run away. I run to my older sister’s house. I run fast. I hold my breath, the seed is stuck deep inside my throat, I have to hold it there otherwise it will start to talk in my stomach. I hold it as I run, I hold it until I get to my sister’s house. Houria, Houria, a seed is going to start talking in my stomach. It’s going to talk, talk and take my place. I’m going to die. I’m suffocating, I can’t breathe. My sister dries my forehead with a washcloth. She tells me, You can swallow. I can swallow the seed? Let it reach my stomach? A tree will grow, I tell her. No, there won’t be a tree. I have a seed in my stomach that won’t talk. And there won’t be a tree?
That’s how I know that I heard and understood my mother’s language. She’s the one who told me the story about the Magic Pit and the Tree of Adversity.
There once was a king’s daughter whose beauty was so rare and gentle that they built a palace around her meant to equal her in every way. They brought her the most beautiful things from all around the world. But you can’t leave this place, said her family, fearful that her purity would be tarnished. Every morning, before they went hunting, her brothers and father brought her to her palace. They left her alone, surrounded by everything that had been given her. Her voice, they say, was as soft as a bird’s breath and she would practice singing their songs. She sang to the animals and they all understood her. Tender and affectionate, they accompanied her wherever she went. Flowers bowed at her passing, some growing even more beautiful. From them, she gathered vibrant colors and poise. The trees and plants weren’t about to be outdone. They shared their power, with complete trust, with their hostess, in a language that only she understood. Nature kept few secrets from her. The zephyr came at night to carry away the ravaged stamens from the flowerbeds, while the rain would arrive a little later, sprinkling this gracious and delicate place with its cool water, as the palace awoke. And thus every morning, men and women came to pay court, in their most becoming clothes, to the princess who had, everything considered, thanks to her grace, beauty, and intelligence, blessed them with virtue and kindness. One day, a man came to her door. She refused to open it. Every day he came back to say, This world you’re living in won’t last. Like every one of us, you will know adversity. The princess didn’t respond. She said nothing to her brothers or father. Never open the door. Never, they had told her. And every night, carried on her silk- and gold-adorned palanquin, the princess was brought back to her parents’ home by those who loved and cherished her. In her absence, the palace was put back in order by bustling servants. They cleaned the mirrors and the aviaries, and then the pathways. They spread scented oils near the benches, chairs, and tables, and, picking up leaves and flower petals, spread gleaming milk over the grass. Perfumed pomades were rubbed over all the furs and hangings, and before leaving, the servants put out small delicacies. The princess was living in an enchanted world. Those around her wanted her to know nothing of suffering or death. But the man came back every day. Would you rather know now or later what you’ll experience? You will know unhappiness. This life you’re living will end one day. Do you want to know? Tell me, do you want to know or not? The man came back every day. Every time, he asked the same question. Do you want to know? The princess gave in. If I have to know unhappiness, then make it so that I’m surrounded by those I love. I wouldn’t be able to stand it as an old woman. The man left. When night fell, none of the princess’s brothers came to get her. She waited all night but didn’t see a single person. At the first hint of daylight, she ran to her family’s palace. What she saw devastated her. Desolation everywhere. She climbed the stairs. She saw her father on his throne, dead, pierced through the heart. She ran to her brothers’ quarters. They were all dead. Her mother, her dear mother, was lying on the ground. The princess began to cry. She couldn’t stop. It’s my fault all those I love are dead, she thought. And yet she had been warned. She wanted to die but her grief was too big. Several days went by. The man reappeared. She couldn’t make out his face. Now that you know, he said, what do you plan to do? She didn’t know how to respond. You must either die or leave this place, he said. Please return to my palace, she told him, and bring me back something. One single thing. Go to the tree of adversity. Pick the most beautiful fruit and bring it to me. She described the tree to the man. He left to carry out her request. In the meantime, she prepared a fire. The man came back. His face covered, he held out his arm and handed her the fruit. Wait for me outside, said the princess. The man quietly stepped out. She took a knife, opened the fruit, and removed the pit. She threw it in the fire and held it over the embers with a stick. Endure what I endure, she said to the pit. But it leaped out of the fire. She started over. Endure what I endure, she said once again. But the pit leaped out of the fire. She started over and put it back in the fire, on the stick. Endure what I endure, she said, but the pit didn’t want to burn. It leaped out of the fire. She repeated her efforts seven times. And the pit leaped out of the fire seven times. Then she picked up the magic pit. She placed it against her heart and made her way to her father’s throne. She saw that he was seated there with his ministers. She climbed the stairs. She heard her brothers and their wives, one of whom was calling for her husband. She kept climbing. Until the last set of rooms, the queen’s. A valet announced her. Her mother was alive. A servant opened the doors and the princess ran towards the window. Far in the distance she saw the ghost of the man who had predicted her loved ones’ deaths. She went to her mother with open arms. What are you doing here? asked her mother. I know that you wanted to raise me in ignorance, replied the princess. The tree of adversity had shared its secret with her: the world that surrounds you as a child is a lie.
An orange seed is nothing, nothing at all. You have to swallow it. Just swallow.
Excerpt from Muslim © Zahia Rahmani. By arrangement with the author. Translation © Lara Vergnaud. All rights reserved.
A Moroccan adolescent becomes obsessed with his nanny's previous charge, a French boy, and imagines a life with him.
My Lalla continued telling me stories to keep me calmly at the house, which was how my father liked it. I liked to listen to her, but she simply liked to know that I was close to her. She would come take me away from my friends, and other times when I was with girls, under the pretext that a boy was not supposed to play with girls. What I liked about her stories was that she would tell them again and repeat the parts that made me happy, like her story about the French family she used to work for. I used to accompany her, she told me, when I was really little. It was actually her boss who had insisted that she bring me with her. “You were a perfect little boy, all I had to do was put you on an armchair and you wouldn’t budge,” she would repeat to me while stroking my cheek. I would spend my time immobile on that armchair, watching Noé, the French boy she was governess to, and with whom I would sometimes play. These are her memories, onto which I imposed my own images. Noé was the same age as me. Once in a while, I got the impression that she brought up her time at that family’s home just to speak as much as she liked about Noé, with a lot of love. He was like her second son, she would say each time she had her nose buried in her things and she came upon the photo of him, but I was sure that she cleaned out her closet expressly to unpack all her memories.
I also adopted the habit, to the extent that I became familiar with the odor specific to that photo and those postcards. My Lalla was antsy for me to learn French, she even begged me, so that I could respond to the postcards she received and write long letters to that family. At the time, I said to myself that she would have to wait until I was competent, but that even then the French family would be disappointed in my revolting, illegible handwriting and she would be better off having it typed up by a professional writer. That way the family would spend just two minutes reading it instead of taking two and a half years to decipher each symbol of my hand. But soon after, I realized that I was also antsy to be able to write a real letter in French, and in my own handwriting, which would lend it a more sensual and physical proximity. It made me happy to be able to do that for her, I could tell it made her enormously happy, and it made me happy, too, out of pure egotism, to be able to touch that family indirectly, and like her, it was Noé I was interested in. I liked to see her get emotional, tell me about her life and how good she had felt in that family.
I grew to love sitting near her, and little by little I saw that I could permit myself to touch that photo and those postcards, hold Noé in my hands. Something in me stopped me from bluntly staring while I was opposite her, as she pretended to tidy away her clothes and her few traditional dresses that she never wore because they were too beautiful and made from silk. I was too uncomfortable on my knees, I couldn’t find a comfortable position in which to stare at Noé the way I wanted. I saw her groan, too, and lose herself in her tidying and in her dresses that were so silky they slipped from her hands and fell to her knees. Her demeanor didn’t really help and I was starting to feel something new toward her. All of a sudden I was timid and too polite, I felt like these were her things and I couldn’t access them. I was embarrassed and it was difficult for me because I was starting to care for Noé as much as she did. She could look at him as much as she liked from morning till night and even put his photo under her pillow and sleep with it. I escaped by lying down on the ground, leaving her behind me in her silk, to gaze at Noé in peace. And then one day she imitated me and lay down with all her weight—and that position was the last thing I expected from her, sly and smiling and sweet—to once more comment on the photograph, tear it from my hands to describe Noé, who was only four years old, completely naked in his plastic inflatable pool on the garden lawn. She mentioned, as she did every time, that she was the one who used to spray him with water and play with him.
That posture became a kind of daily reflex for me, but never did my gesture of throwing myself on Noé and staring at him agitate my Lalla. Not at all, on the contrary, it was also an opportunity for her to caress that photo. Little by little, she no longer needed to start with Noé’s parents, pretending to think of them so she could then talk about Noé as she loved and knew to do. The ritual kept me at her side; Noé had become our thing in common. I lost myself in our feelings for Noé, I didn’t know if our love for him was alike, I knew only that I wanted for him to be there at my side, his world and his family, his French way of life enticed me. All the empty space from having lost my little baby brother I projected onto Noé, but no matter the kind of love or how I saw it, the important thing was that it enveloped me in a sweet joy. I learned to love him and I am grateful to my Lalla for that. Once in a while, I was sad that he was no longer there, in Morocco, he had left too young, before I had even had the time to cling to a single memory of him, to bind us together. His family’s life consisted of roaming the world from one French embassy to another. But often I found happiness in the simple fact that he was in the world at the same time as me, far away, but at least we were on the same earth.
The images on the television screens at the Hitachi store as I went back and forth between my house and school only intensified the desire that bound me to Noé. France, that word and that language sounded good in my ear. I transposed my fixation for all of that onto the photo of Noé. I started to miss him so much that it became physical, I wanted more than that photo and my Lalla’s stories, but, as sad as I was, I enjoyed living in the proximity of that lack that grew as I did. It was my whole life, and I learned to grow up alongside it.
I went to look for the photo, cautiously, trying not to upset the neat arrangement of all that silk that could slip so easily. I became selfish, monopolizing those moments for myself alone, without my Lalla. I loved to stare at him, smile at him, his face with the blue, narrow eyes that saw only me, smiled at me too, and that skin, so white. I was afraid that my Lalla would suspect my obsession with that photo; discovering me rifling through her things made her angry.
It took a long time for me to hatch the idea that would make me happier than anything. I was thirteen years old, it was time to steal. But not really steal the photo, I wanted her to have it too. A few streets from my house, there was a professional photographer whose store window was plastered with photos. I liked to look at them, and after pressing my nose to the glass so often he was used to me and my visits, which were pointless in his eyes. I liked to go to the back of the studio while he was busy with customers at the counter. I didn’t turn on the lights, not because I was afraid of getting caught, but because the giant posters of Tahiti at sunset and Paris with its super tall tower sufficiently illuminated my view. I adored the decor, that was where people went to be photographed and they liked it too, evidently, since they seemed so happy to be there. At first, I thought that those people were displayed in the window because they were beautiful and I didn’t understand why there were also ugly people. One day I asked him, and he replied that they were the people who didn’t have the money to pick up their photos, and he thought it was a good punishment, to evoke shame in them and their families, especially the young girls, immediately seizing the opportunity to warn me that the day I found myself in that room, the same thing would happen to me if I didn’t pay. That was when I came up with the idea for Noé and me.
I took the photo of Noé and one of me at the same age. I placed them on the counter. The photographer was appalled by my acute assurance of what I wanted to do with the two photos. All he did was stare at me and listen to my explanations. I neglected to say that the blonder boy wasn’t my brother since we didn’t look much alike. I didn’t know if he figured it out or if he would agree to do the work, he stayed silent for so long. I wanted for him to reproduce the two photos as one, with me next to Noé. I had to go back two days later to pick them up and I took care to save up the money. My fear was that my Lalla would feel the need to look at Noé at some point during the two days. I didn’t let her out of my sight, I did everything possible to keep her busy until I could put the photo back in her closet.
In the finished photo, Noé and I were each in a circle. I could finally have him on me at all times, in my school bag, from morning till night and from night till morning. When I held him in my two hands, lying on my bed, I loved to extend my arms and then bring the photo right up close to my face and stare straight into it until I had tears in my eyes. From then on, I always went to bed happy, no more of that fear of the night, no more need for my door to stay open so that I could see my father’s bedroom on the other side of the patio on the first floor. I used to be scared of the sky that I could see from my bed, crammed with stars. Once my eyes were closed, my father would come to turn out the light and close the door, and he would cover me back up because I would make my covers fall off the bed with all my tossing and turning. Finally he came up with an idea that made him laugh: he put a big heavy carpet on top of my sheet and covers, so that only my head would move. The first night, it kept me from losing my sheets but it also kept me from sleeping; I was used to him coming to my room every night. I was afraid that he was sick of getting up for me, but over time I understood that he was simply worried I would be cold. I was no longer afraid of “jinn,” the demons. I used to torture myself praying to God to chase it all from my imagination but I still didn’t know how to recite the prayers of the Koran, I would just say, “Oh God protect me.” I thought my prayer wasn’t valid, that I couldn’t find the necessary words that could only be found in the Koran. I felt reassured with the photo of Noé because it took my mind off of it, even if I slept impossible hours.
My grandparents’ visits had become less and less frequent ever since my dad had refused to do as they had advised him, which was to kick out my Lalla if he cared about them. My father protected her. He would drive me to the countryside to see my grandparents during school vacations. I had less and less desire to go there, especially for the summer break when it was too hot, but also because I wanted to be a part of Lalla’s clan, she had become like a memento of Noé for me. I told myself that it would be better for me to love my Lalla more, more than my father did. I loved her, and my love for Noé increased. To be able to say to myself simply that I loved Noé without it seeming insane, to hold the photo, kiss it, and tell him: “Good night, Noé,” was already an enormous pleasure, I adored that and I would have adored a thousand other situations if he had really been next to me.
More and more I loved to plunge myself into that atmosphere and travel through all those screens. I could only barely hear the sound through the store window. France and the French were everywhere for me, and none of those boys transfixed like I was in front of the TV screens suspected that I had more reason than them to love that universe that linked me even more to Noé. It was a sensation that I had never imagined could exist. I started to project my relationship with him into the long term: I would carry his photo on me as much as I could, I would love him for a very long time. At least for the near future, a few months, a few years, and as long as I could, I was prepared to love him. I had never thought that the other boys I saw on the TV screens could remind me of Noé, or that their silhouettes could provoke thoughts of him in me, until the day when I absolutely had to enter the Hitachi store, so strong was the image, I was beckoned inside to better hear and see.
A little boy with a bare chest, completely disheveled, was waking up on the screen. I am incapable of saying what it was that stirred me to such an extent, it was simply that I saw him holding a bowl of hot chocolate that a woman had just given to him. It was clearly a movie. The chocolate overflowed his lips. One thing was for sure: nothing I had ever seen before had struck me in this way. I understood in that moment that his morning was not like mine. I thought of my drink, mint tea, with bread drenched in melted butter, and I felt like they summed up my culture; I was sick of mint tea. A few days later, I got up at dawn, before my Lalla prepared my breakfast. I had not planned out the moment when I would find myself face to face with her. How to ask her, explain to her that this morning I wanted hot chocolate? I didn’t think it would be that strange for her, surely she had already prepared that for little Noé, and imagining it made me emotional. Seeing the expression she made, I quickly changed my mind and settled for my mint tea without her having to say a word. She was looking at me like I was a Martian. And I couldn’t get the image of the boy with the hot chocolate out of my head. Everything reminded me of Noé, and the only thing that differentiated him from me was hot chocolate.
From Chocolat Chaud. © Editions Gallimard, Paris, 1998. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2017 by Emma Ramadan. All rights reserved.
Calcutta native Shumona Sinha describes a communication breakdown when a French immigration officer interviews an immigrant circus performer.
He looked perpetually amazed and stupefied. I recall having to ask him at several moments if he understood what I was saying. At several moments I thought he was simple-minded. He always took a few seconds before opening his mouth, to swallow his saliva, like a fish gasping for air. Only then did he utter a few hesitant, inaudible, frightened words. I knew then that in his mind there ran a slender thread of a tale, upon which he swayed, with faltering step. A trapeze artist, he wasn’t. Rather a village boy whom the traveling circus had found to be sufficiently goofy that he didn’t care how goofy he appeared, and would put on a show. They got him up on the tightrope.
“We hunt down those who cross the border. But what about the ones who make them come? The ones who make them work illicitly? The ones who constructed this slavery machine?” asked the officer with exasperation.
She’s a triumphant forty-something. Hair cut short in a blonde bob. From time to time she sweeps back a few strands with a brisk hand, meaning that she is excited and tense, like a cat that has spotted a far too stupid mouse.
I am polite but I can hardly hide my joy, believing that I am on the point of discovering one of life’s great truths.
“That’s correct. They bring them over as labor. And who profits? You guessed it! By making them pay for the passport, the voyage, and the story, too.”
“You mean they also buy their stories?!”
She shrugs. Raises her eyebrows. It’s obvious. She doesn’t say it but I get the message, loud and clear.
She stubs out her cigarette and I take a final swig from my bottle of orange Oasis. White clouds scud across the soaring gray windows of this complex of buildings, doubling in volume then fragmenting, before merging to form clusters of strange, distant, unexplored planets. They penetrate the simple geometry of the glass panes, progressing like some unknown gas, like smoke from a fire, frightening and invasive.
We continued the interview with the boy from the village circus.
“Right, do you have any brothers and sisters?”
“Two what? Brother? Sister?”
“No, no, three.”
“One brother and one sister.”
“And the third one?”
“OK. Why didn’t you say that from the start?”
“Well, because he’s dead.”
“In what circumstances?”
“The terrorists killed him.”
“Right. Are you married?”
“Do you have any children?”
At this, the circus youth wails like a clown who’s picked the wrong mask. Indignant, he wonders how we can ask him if he has children. Didn’t he just state that he was unmarried? The protection officer tries to understand. Where is the problem? I sidestep the social and moral niceties, and tell her in a nutshell that for him it is quite impossible to conceive children outside of marriage.
“Well it’s not exactly difficult, is it?!” the officer goes.
We let it drop and move on.
“Did you work before coming here?”
“How did you earn your living?”
“My father had a grocery store. I stayed with him at our grocery store.”
“I see! So you worked with your father.”
“I didn’t work, I told you. We had a grocery store. Sold bits of . . . er . . . stuff . . . things to eat.”
“So you did work, in your grocery store!”
“I didn’t work. I sold things.”
“How many days a week? And how many hours a day?”
“Monday to Sunday. Closed on Friday. Eight o’clock to ten at night.”
“You worked a lot in your grocery store.”
“I told you I didn’t work. I had a grocery store.”
Now it’s the officer who looks at me, astonished.
“Is there a problem? Do you understand each other? Does he understand you? Or is there an issue with the language?”
“He understands me perfectly,” I reassure her. “Maybe it’s the word ‘work’ that bothers him. He understands ‘work’ as being employed. He’s the owner of this grocery store. Therefore superior to those who work, who work for other people.”
“OK, well, we’ll leave that there. Otherwise we’ll never get through this,” says the officer, and she hits the Enter key with her forefinger, the nail of which is damaged by dint of typing terrible tales.
“What made you leave your country?”
“The terrorists . . . everywhere . . . they harass us . . . I am Hindu . . . the fundamentalists torture us . . .”
“What was the incident that forced you to leave your country?”
“Well . . . the terrorists . . . the fundamentalists . . .”
“What was the precise reason you left your country? What did they do to you? Be specific.”
“A young woman from my village killed herself. That’s why—”
“How does that relate to you?”
“Well . . . she was Muslim. She was dating a friend of mine.”
“How does that relate to you?”
“Er . . . my friend was Hindu. Like me.”
“But . . . how . . . why was that a problem for you?”
“This girl’s brother was a terrorist in our village. He had beaten up his sister’s boyfriend. He had prohibited him from seeing his sister. And the girl hung herself. And they accused me of murder.”
“But how were you responsible? You weren’t her boyfriend!”
“No . . . but the terrorist and his men had brought the woman’s corpse and had hung it from the guava tree at my place.”
“Why? Wasn’t there a guava tree at the other guy’s place?”
I burst out laughing. Impossible to stop myself and translate the question for him. He stares at me, amazed and stupefied. A fit of giggles before a man in distress. Enough to make you blush with shame, bite your nails, lower your head right down to the table, and slyly laugh even more. I think of the woes of the world. Woes I myself have known. Or that I will know. Get myself knocked down by a car before I can take a bite of my meat and plum sandwich. A flowerpot fallen off a balcony right onto my head. Shattered skull—my cell phone rings right at that moment, but I can’t reply. It’s like the flowers were laid in advance for my funeral. I die. I cry. I cry for the people who would have cried for me. Nothing to be done. My body shakes with laughter as if a host of sparrows were flitting, fluttering, and chattering inside my skeletal cage.
From Assommons les pauvres! © Shumona Sinha. Published 2011 by Éditions de l'Olivier. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2017 by Roland Glasser. All rights reserved.
Alain Mabanckou’s Black Moses is the story of the life of a Congolese orphan named Moses. His full name is Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko, which means “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors” in Lingala. His grandly prophetic name leads him to a destiny that’s far less linear than that of the original Moses, but just as gripping and fantastical.
Moses enters his teenage years in an orphanage as a government with a pan-African socialist message assumes power in the Republic of Congo. He escapes from the orphanage to wander along with a gang of fellow orphans, and then by himself, on the streets of the city of Pointe-Noire. Throughout the novel, Moses drifts from parental figure to parental figure, including Papa Moupelo, the priest who gives him his “kilometrically extended” name; the school nurse, Sabine Niangui; and a Zairean madam in Pointe-Noire nicknamed Maman Fiat 500.
Moses does his best to live up to his name. Throughout the novel, Moses harkens back to the life story of his biblical namesake, who provides him with a shining example of taking a principled stance against power. The story from the book of Exodus in which Moses kills an Egyptian overseer mistreating a slave, coupled with an understanding of the fundamental principles of socialism, give Mabanckou’s Moses a strong sense of justice.
But Moses doesn’t gain an understanding of socialism from the government propaganda he learns at school or the presidential speeches he is forced to memorize. In fact, his sense of justice persists despite rather than because of his education—an education dispensed by “bruisers with zero intelligence” turned party cadres, who pepper their speech with gratuitous uses of the word “dialectically” and say things like “the superstructure must not be allowed to outweigh the infrastructure” without seeming to understand what this vocabulary means. True to form, Mabanckou serves up his social commentary with a side of humor, satirizing pseudo-Marxist posers who substitute conceptual name-dropping for any type of action that might benefit the people.
As for Moses, he’s the exact opposite of the apparatchiks: he internalizes the spirit rather than the letter of the socialist discourse he is taught. From a young age, he is concerned about people who are more vulnerable than he is and tries to defend them from more powerful people. For example, in the orphanage, he takes revenge on the school bullies who terrorize his friend Kokolo by spiking their food with devastating amounts of chili pepper, which earns him the nickname Little Pepper (the title of the original French-language novel is Petit Piment). Aside from the biblical Moses, Little Pepper’s most important role model is Robin Hood, because he steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Moses actually does steal things from the market to hand them out to poor people at the mosque or on the street. Our protagonist is like the humble orphan in a fairytale whose good heart guides him to make good decisions and judge people for who they are rather than their position in society.
The society Moses lives in has nothing to do with fairy tales, though. He’s continually mocked for his collectivist spirit. Black Moses paints a picture of a society where socialism is the official ideology even as it’s not actually implemented anywhere. In a country that was actually socialist, there wouldn’t be hundreds of homeless teenagers wandering in the streets of a major city, subsisting on petty theft and scavenging. Driving poor people out of that city wouldn’t be considered a real solution to poverty. The mayor of that city pledging to “clean it up” by expelling undocumented sex workers would be decried as the cruel demagoguery it is. On a smaller level, a young woman’s life wouldn’t be ruined if a rich married man strung her along, made her believe he would support her, and ditched her when she became pregnant (this is what happened to the mother of Moses’ friend Kokolo).
Yes, by my telling Black Moses sounds like it’s all Dickensian tribulations. But in fact, true to Alain Mabanckou’s freewheeling, irreverent style and to real life, this novel is full of hilarious vignettes. To name just a few, there’s a story straight out of Mabanckou’s polyphonic, Rabelaisian Broken Glass, about a mortician who loves corpses a little too much; a lecherous artist named St. Francis of a Titty; and a comical shouting match between the idiotic president and his idiotic henchmen, which could have been a scene from Dr. Strangelove except it’s about whether the president’s favorite sex worker is seeing other clients behind his back.
This unclassifiable novel contains elements of comedy and tragedy, of realism, naturalism, and magical realism, but it is none of these. It most closely resembles the earliest examples of the novelistic form, dating back to the 1600s. One could say the novel was born pre-deconstructed in the sense that the major early works in the form were far more experimental in terms of style and content than most of the novels most of our contemporaries are producing. From Don Quixote to Tristram Shandy to Jacques the Fatalist, these early novels smashed the Aristotelian unities to bits in an effort to portray life as we experience it: not unified in the least but chaotic, completely disjointed, chronologically nonlinear because we reminisce and forget, a melting pot of every single emotion and every kind of experience. In Black Moses, Mabanckou returns to the very roots of the novel to produce a story that’s too thoroughly modern to concern itself with genre or register. Best of all, he does so effortlessly and without taking pains to point out that he’s being experimental (thus avoiding the pitfall of so much experimental literature that tries to knock the reader over the head with its affected weirdness). This is a novel that’s as entertaining as it is engrossing, and reads as though you were experiencing Moses’s life as your own.
Photo: Courtesy of Dana Awartani and Athr Gallery
The four writers featured in the July 2017 issue of Words without Borders are among the over 150 artists coming to London this month as part of the biennial Shubbak Festival. Shubbak: A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture encompasses a dazzling range of art forms and an almost overwhelming array of artists. This month, we welcome artists for sixteen exciting days of events across more than thirty venues, closing the festival with the literature program. This year’s theme for our intensive weekend of literature at the British Library is “Writing Against the Grain,” and it features eighteen writers from ten dialects and many different homelands, spanning the Arab region and the diaspora.
There are over 400 million native speakers of Arabic across a vast swath of the planet: no single writer or text can begin to represent that many unique minds and pulses. With a broad diversity of voices teeming across the various realms the language spans—geographical, socio-economic, stylistic, ideological—the selection process for Shubbak at the British Library is always a fascinating task, but never an easy one. Working across the genres from poetry to graphic novels, from science fiction to romance, in our program the traditional meets the experimental, the ancient meets the futuristic, the famous meet the little known. Even the Arabic language itself is not always a point of commonality among the vibrant group in our prgram; some authors write in Arabic and are translated, some write in English, and some translate their own work or other writers’ work from Arabic or back into Arabic. All of their work is aesthetically appealing, original and alluring, in all their different ways and for all their different reasons.
But the one thing all the writers on the 2017 Shubbak program clearly share is that each of them is pushing the boundary of the known and working against the grain of the status quo. This resistance means different things to different writers, given that there are different struggles going on even within one single city (or within one person)—let alone across the whole region. These writers are pushing against convention and conformity, rejecting various aspects of the formulaic and the hegemonic, and this takes a range of forms, from the subtle to the massive: some of these writers are smashing down the old system with a sledgehammer, while some are dancing through the cracks appearing in it.
We are delighted to be partnering with Words Without Borders to bring readers a little taste of this work, in brand new translations exclusive to this issue. We have selected pieces by four of the writers featured in our 2017 festival lineup: Nadia Al-Kokabany, from Yemen; Mohamed Abdelnabi and Basma Abdel Aziz, both from Egypt; and Mansour Bushnaf, from Libya.
Despite the huge challenges that bringing a writer from Yemen to the UK involves under the current circumstances and border regime, at Shubbak we were determined to try our best to do so and thereby celebrate the creativity of that beleaguered place. Often overlooked by international media, when Yemen does come into the spotlight it is usually only as a disaster zone. This not only means that Yemeni art is all but invisible to the international community, but that the 2011 revolution risks being eclipsed by all that has happened since. The time lag involved in literary production means that six years after the uprising began we are seeing those events celebrated, explored, and unpicked in Yemeni literature.
Nadia Al-Kokabany’s 2016 novel The Ali Muhsin Market has been rightly celebrated in the Arab press for its handling of the Yemeni revolution and the humanity of its portraits, as well as its exploration of the effect that the events of 2011 had on the ordinary people on the ground in Sana’a. Al-Kokabany writes with tenderness and deep empathy for her characters, painting a detailed picture of their daily lives and concerns, their perspectives and their emotional outlook, even as her busy plot races on. In the extract we feature here, Al-Kokabany zeros in on some of the most marginalized and vulnerable members of Sana’a’s urban population, for whom the revolution seems to offer an extra hope of scraping together their precarious living. Oblivious to the politics at play, swept along in events they barely understand, the characters end up becoming victims of the violence that breaks out, in a cruel and painful twist to their fraught story of attempted survival. The glimpse she offers into the harsh lives of these working children is a stark reminder of what lay behind the uprising against the regime, and a sensitively imagined insider’s eye view into the grassroots of urban Sana’a life. Away from the news channels and the spotlight there are rich worlds to be told.
Mohamed Abdelnabi’s In the Spider’s Room, meanwhile, is based on the real-life experiences of the more than fifty men who were imprisoned in the infamous “Queen Boat” incident in Cairo in 2001, accused of homosexuality. This spring, the novel was shortlisted for the Abu Dhabi-funded International Prize for Arabic Fiction, becoming the first novel with gay characters and gay lives at its center to receive that honor. The novel is the tale of Hany Mahfouz, a character the author has to publicly stress is fictional, given the violently homophobic context in which he writes and publishes and the tendency to assume queer narratives are autobiographical. Although there have always been some gay or sexually nonnormative characters in Arabic literature—as far back as medieval poetry, or the “Arabian Nights,” as well as in modern fiction—they have tended to be marginal characters, one-dimensional, and usually written by straight-identifying authors. But recent years have seen an important shift in the Arabic scene, with a diversity of queer writers inscribing their own multiple selves onto the pages of Arabic literature, something we are celebrating at Shubbak with a dedicated queer literary event this year for the first time.
Being assumed to be one of these queer writers, despite identifying clearly and publicly as straight, is a difficult place for an Egyptian writer to occupy. The scenes I witnessed at the IPAF prize ceremony and book fair in Abu Dhabi this year demonstrated both the extent to which spaces are opening up for queer Arabic literature to blossom and the terrifying extent of the homophobia in literary audiences there. Those new spaces are breathtakingly exciting and heartening, but the old order is a sickening thing to witness firsthand. Saying there is a long way to go would be an understatement: so the place Abdelnabi writes from is one of vulnerability, and the strength it takes to conjure up and tell these tales is formidable. “How do you know all these details?” as an uptight female guest at an Abu Dhabi public appearance asked pointedly, her voice taut with fear and suspicion. “I was lucky enough to have really informative sources, people were very generous with their accounts during my research into that community,” replied Abdelnabi with utter calm—a calm he maintained even in the face of audience members advocating violent physical punishments for the “crime” of choosing whom to love.
Abdelnabi’s artfully woven tales have multiple engrossing layers, sensory effects, and technical flair. Although still in his thirties, he is a celebrated translator of English literature into Arabic and a gifted historical novelist, spinning a multi-generational family epic in this novel in the background of his main characters’ lives. Given that the Anglophone literary context has a richer body of homoerotic work already in publication than the Arabophone one does, we have chosen an extract, entitled “My Grandfather and Sitt Biba,” that shows Abdelnabi’s ability to write beautiful prose about family histories, rather than only highlighting his work on physical and emotional intimacy between male lovers, important as that is in the original linguistic and social context. But given that context, it is also essential to applaud his work on that basis, and to see it as activism, clearing the path for a freer, more vital future.
As someone who spent twelve years in prison under the Gaddafi regime for his play “When the Rats Govern,” seminal Libyan playwright Mansour Bushnaf knows more than many about waiting for a revolution. Despite (or because) of their incendiary nature, the more than thirty plays he has written since the 1970s have all been performed in Libya to critical acclaim, and several have been staged elsewhere in the Arab world too. But until now, the only work of Bushnaf’s to appear in English translation had been his characteristically irreverent political novel Chewing Gum, published by Darf Press in 2014 in Mona Zaki’s translation. In a tragic reflection of the hellish situation post-Gaddafi Libya finds itself in, that novel was banned in Libya in 2012 and remains so—the only copies available there have to be smuggled in from Cairo. “Fundamentalists control the cultural scene,” as Bushnaf unequivocally put it to me. So much has changed in terms of the context in which he writes, and yet of course there is still so much to be resisted: in the short play we publish here, Bushnaf turns his sharp eye and his searing critical mind to the vexed question of the interplay of the secular and the religious. “The Veil” is an important example of a dissident practicing Muslim critiquing dominant Islamist discourses from within: in this case, using the age-old theatrical tool of surrealism. Lean, taut, and eerie, in under five hundred words the original Arabic text hits the reader on myriad viscerally discomforting levels, as the staccato action stutters and all certitudes disintegrate in a juddering mash-up of familiar cultural references both religious and profane. These spare and stylized scenes are haunting, and the lights fade to black at a moment when little hope seems in evidence anywhere on stage.
The phenomenon of theater work leading to prison sentences is a sadly familiar one, not just in Libya but in many other places on this planet, Egypt among them. Basma Abdel Aziz references it as a metaphorical structure for the erudite piece of sociolinguistic political reportage we feature here, first published in the independent Egyptian online newspaper Mada Masr. Abdel Aziz’s polymathic multidisciplinary approach to critiquing and healing Egyptian society has seen her celebrated as a poet, novelist, journalist, sculptor, academic and—crucially—a psychologist specializing in the rehabilitation of torture victims. For a masterful demonstration of the way these art forms interweave for Abdel Aziz in her fiction, in a sublime English translation, her 2016 novel The Queue (an excerpt of which was first published in the January 2016 issue of WWB) is not to be missed. We chose to translate some of her journalism here, however, as none of it has appeared so far in English despite her significant reputation in Egypt.
Abdel Aziz’s depiction of totalitarian president Sisi’s heavy-handed, ill-advised, and inappropriate public rhetoric will perhaps feel more familiar and relevant to the American or British reader now than ever, in a political moment when we can draw useful parallels between demagogues without losing sight of the specificities. Abdel Aziz notes the theatrical approach to political discourse Sisi employs, and his wayward attempts to win over his audience, freestyling unexpected policies and dropping crude off-the-cuff comments that alienate as many people as they attract. Abdel Aziz’s astute analysis of how this rhetoric holds various different demographics in its sway, despite its lack of any rational persuasive power, will surely resonate with readers from many global political contexts. As she says of one such section of the population living under Sisi, “They discuss, criticize, and ridicule his rhetoric, but do not have the strength to organize actual opposition.” Sisi is an easy target for caricature, perhaps, but to get an analytical insight of this level straight from Cairo in English translation is a rare privilege indeed.
The festival program encompasses a diverse group, and these four writers are brightly distinct from each other—but what they all have in common is a trueness, a reaching beyond, an originality, a forging ahead, a will to complicate the picture and add new beats to the tune.
© Alice Guthrie. All rights reserved.
In the current environment of relentless political strife, both the US and UK seem increasingly polarized. Debate deteriorates into name-calling; partisans morph into zealots, complex issues are reduced to binary terms, and hostility seethes just beneath the surface. To date, the discord has been restricted to verbal sparring; no arms have been taken up. Yet much of the world—torn by racial and ethnic conflicts, clashes between political or religious factions, and territorial disputes—has seen internal divisions escalate into war. Here we present a selection of writing that seeks to understand this volatile process and the experiences of those living with, and through, the internecine battles.
Political scientist Wendy Pearlman spent five years traveling through the Middle East and Europe collecting the stories of Syrians displaced from their savaged country. Among them was a doctor from the besieged town of Homs, who continued to treat the wounded even as the Syrian government appeared to deliberately target hospitals. His story reveals the harsh conditions under which he and his colleagues did their increasingly dangerous jobs. "Kareem" left Homs only when he knew another physician could take his place and shrugs off any suggestion of heroism: "I performed my role and there's no need to talk about it."
In an extract from Palestinian writer Abbah Yahya's Crime in Ramallah, the adolescent Noor, the odd man out in his politically engaged family, struggles to live a normal teenager's life in the thick of the intifada. Placid, more comfortable among girls, Noor is also grappling with identity and self-definition in a community noisy with war. Yahya's book has been banned in the Palestinian Territories not only for its inclusion of gay characters but also because of its unflattering portrait of Palestinian government and society, and Yahya is stranded in Qatar, victim of both political and personal divisions.
Iraq's Nawzat Shamdeen recalls the terror of the Iran–Iraq War. When a high-ranking officer disappears and is presumed murdered, his widow protects the life of her vulnerable only son, Tha'ir, by building a hiding place in the dank cellar. She cleverly disguises the entrance with an enormous portrait of Saddam Hussein and denounces her son as a deserter to her neighbors; momentarily safe, Tha'ir has ducked one form of imprisonment only to be forced into another. Like Yahya's, Shamdeen's writing has enraged politicians, and he now lives in exile in Norway.
By contrast, the steely young heroine of Salvadoran Claudia Hernández's "Fifteen Years" not only meets the enemy but defies him. When a band of marauding deserters come looking for her absent guerilla father and attempt to kidnap and brutalize her, the fierce teen stands her ground and stares them down. Exasperated and unmanned, the men let her go; she survives to avenge their crimes.
While many of the narratives here detail violence and death, Pema Bhum's gentle memoir of an adored teacher describes another sort of casualty. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao banned all languages but Chinese; Bhum's native Tibetan language was banned, and anyone who even owned a grammar text was at risk for arrest. His teacher cannily circumvented that in the most subversive way possible: he used a Tibetan version of Mao's Little Red Book in lieu of the textbook, turning the oppressor's tool against him.
Turkish author Kemal Varol presents a more passive resistance in "Angels Who Wiped My Fate Clean," narrated by Mikasa, a street dog turned minesweeper for Turkish forces in southeastern Turkey. Pining for his mate, Melsa, and yearning for the uncomplicated life he left behind, Mikasa halfheartedly sniffs out the occasional bomb and marks wherever he goes in the futile hope that his beloved will pick up the scent and find him. In the meantime, an unwilling recruit to a cause for which he cares nothing, he provides a telling portrait of the banality of war.
But not all this month’s stories take place in the thick of battle. Others consider its aftermath. Belgian artist Jeroen Janssen first traveled to Rwanda in 1990 to teach art; he fled during the genocide of 1994 and did not return until 2007. In his vivid Abadaringi, he draws from that and subsequent visits with his friends and neighbors, taking the pulse of the country after the clashes. In the wake of the war, the survivors are also facing new threats—"Global warming, the disappearance of the rain forests in the mountains, the building boom in the river basin"—that compromise their efforts at recovery.
Survivors of another ethnic conflict collide in Croatian writer Zoran Janjanin's "Losing Ground." Twenty years after the abrupt ending of their high school romance, Serbian Petra and Croatian Zvonko have an unplanned and not entirely welcome reunion. The stiff inquiries typical of such encounters bring a grim response: “Dad’s alive. Mom disappeared with Grandma and Grandpa in ’95. Your justice system informed me today that I have no right to compensation because they were killed in the war zone.” Their exchange deteriorates into the political debate they never had in their hormonal youth ("It wasn't a civil war, Petra. It was a rebellion"); when Petra says, not so much bitter as matter-of-fact, "Twenty years ago we shared the most intimate things two people can share, but now we know nothing of each other,” she speaks for more than the two of them.
One of Jeroen Janssen's weary friends remarks, of Rwanda, "The fears and insecurities of ordinary people are abused by both sides to conquer and divide: us against them." We hope this selection informs, expands, and clarifies our readers' understanding of the individuals caught in these battles and others. We note, as well, that the conflicts represented here escalated from verbal disagreements, from violent rhetoric turned declaration of war. While these stories need not be read only as cautionary tales, they serve to remind us of the consequences of inflammatory language, and the costs of converting those words into action.
© 2017 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.
In this essay, Basma Abdel Aziz considers the consequences of the coarse rhetoric that surfaces when Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi goes off-script.
In the theater many decades ago, actors would have been at a loss without prompters, because they were expected not to deviate from their scripts. Actors waited to hear their cue and then delivered the line just as the playwright wrote it, not a word more or less. If they blanked or missed their cue, they tried to fill the silence as best they could.
As time went by, strict adherence to the script became less critical, and there emerged actors who modified their lines. They added or removed dialogue, and sometimes even invented new scenes to surprise an audience. Today, prompters have practically disappeared: sticking to the script has become the exception, and deviating from it the rule. The ability to improvise is a source of pride for actors, and the same is true for politicians. Those who read directly from prepared speeches or teleprompters are few; most prefer to rely on their charisma.
Improvising is commendable if actors or speakers are skilled, but it can be unsuccessful if they aren’t eloquent, intuitive, and skilled in rhetorical devices, or don’t have a strong and engaging delivery.
Going off script can also have disastrous effects, which can spiral out of control. For example, Egyptian actor Saeed Saleh received attention a few decades ago when he strayed from his written lines in the middle of a play. The incident landed him in prison, albeit indirectly, and Saleh became famous for his incendiary political comments. One particular remark became well known, and may have been the main reason he was later harassed by authorities. In a satirical scene, Saleh delivered a line that wasn’t in the script: “My mother married three different men: the first man served us moldy cheese, the second taught us to be thieves, and the third bends with the slightest breeze!” Saleh didn’t name specific individuals, but it was clear whom he was referring to: Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak, three successive presidents of Egypt. In the early 1990s, Saleh was arrested in his home, charged with possession of hashish, and sentenced to prison. He was released shortly afterward. In the eyes of many, this was direct punishment for crossing the line with his pointed quip.
Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, also strays from the script that his listeners expect. He does so in speech after speech, to the point that his digressions can no longer be considered anomalies. Just as Saleh brought laughter to millions, so too does the president. His most recent speech on February 24, 2017, about the future of development in the year 2030, is one such example that crossed bounds of normalcy and caused a stir. It sparked page after page of commentary, and dozens of articles and analyses, ranging from criticism to justification.
Leaving ridicule, resentment, and rapturous applause aside, one can identify several consistent features of the president’s discourse. Even though he speaks off the cuff, and not from a prepared speech, certain elements have become regular fixtures over the past year and a half. His most recent speech is an ideal example, as it contains many of the most prominent features of his rhetoric.
The president consistently wins over the masses with his unrehearsed comments by playing to their nationalist sentiments. Yet somewhat contradictorily, Egypt often appears in his speeches dressed in rags, and it’s up to average citizens to mend the nation’s tattered clothes: by donating money directly to the state. The president went a step further in his latest speech, when he proposed that people make donations to the state over the phone. Citizens could dial specific numbers that automatically convert their calls into Egyptian pounds, he suggested, and government officials could snap up the money to support the economy. This was a clear departure not just from his prepared speech but also from the hopes and dreams of many citizens. Instead of giving them the impression that the current government can capably uphold its responsibilities, it filled them with a deep sense of weakness and helplessness. The nation emerged not as a great and powerful entity, but instead as an ailing beggar, to the displeasure of many listeners.
In subsequent speeches, the president consistently focused on the idea of a widespread international conspiracy that threatens Egypt’s national security and is on the verge of destroying the country. This is a baseless idea, not grounded in reality. On more than one occasion, the president used the phrase “evildoers,” in a literal sense, perhaps to indicate the parties allegedly orchestrating this conspiracy. Never has he specified who these “evildoers” might be, however. The ambiguity of the word strips his speech of credibility; it could be interpreted as referring to any number of actors. One possibility is that he was alluding to other Arab countries. The Egyptian media has repeatedly and openly attacked certain Arab nations for “conspiring” against Egypt, but the state no longer adopts this line in its rhetoric. Alternatively, the president may have been referring to certain religious groups. However, a considerable part of the public has begun to realize that these groups are weaker than they are made out to be; their often-exaggerated capabilities are actually quite modest, and most of their leaders are now behind bars. Western countries could be another potential target of the phrase, were it not for the fact that official discourse consistently paints them in positive terms. While the Egyptian media tirelessly demonizes the United States, the state seeks to express its goodwill and announce new partnerships, and it benefits from the U.S. on multiple levels. Ultimately, the president’s use of the word “evildoers” in both his last speech and subsequent television appearances was less convincing than usual. The word is no more than a flimsy excuse he employs to avoid discussing his economic plans and their uncertain prospects.
Another distinct feature of the president’s discourse is his use of words and expressions ill-suited to the esteem, respect, and status that the state supposedly conveys. For example, in his latest speech he told listeners, “If I could be sold, I’d sell myself,” and “Chip in a buck for Egypt every morning.” This demonstrates how overwhelmingly crude his rhetoric is, far beyond what could simply be considered colloquial, given the tone and frequency of such remarks. The president could certainly have found a more respectable, dignified way to convey what he meant. The idea of sacrificing oneself for the nation is regarded highly, and resonates with a majority of people across the political spectrum. The problem lies in his choice of expression, which turns a positive sentiment into yet another negative one. Needless to say, popular connotations of “selling oneself” are more a point of embarrassment than pride.
Many centuries ago, the great Arab thinker al-Jahiz wrote that a model orator should choose his words to target different sections of the audience. This strategy is clearly of no concern for the president, and completely lacking at the level of the state. One could identify many more features of his rhetoric, but careful analysis requires twice the amount of the words I’ve used here.
Even though the president’s rhetoric lacks persuasive power and a cohesive argument, he is still able to sway a section of his audience. These are by no means a homogeneous group. Some are people who still have faith in the ideals chanted during the 2011 revolutionary movement—“Bread, freedom, social justice”—and believe that his proposals can achieve them. Others are people who realize that his discourse is a far cry from what they hoped for but are in denial. After all, it is difficult for a person to admit that he or she has been abandoned; individuals have a deep desire for security, and create psychological barriers that prevent them from acknowledging defeat. Still others simply pretend to be affected by his rhetoric. These are people who benefit from the status quo, but given their increasingly negative reactions, it seems their ranks are dwindling. The regime makes more enemies every day with its repressive policies and unjust actions. Finally, there are people who understand the depth of the crisis, and how weak the state’s vision for the future is, but they are exhausted from the volatility and instability of the past five years and unable to mobilize. They discuss, criticize, and ridicule his rhetoric, but do not have the strength to organize actual opposition.
It is natural for actors and performers to take pleasure in going off script. The desire to break free of all constraints, whatever they may be, is innate and undeniable. Restrictions—whether imposed by a playwright, director, or prompter—inhibit spur-of-the-moment creativity, and hinder actors’ efforts to engage their audience, gain popularity, and increase revenue for artistic work. The Egyptian president’s off-script remarks cannot be said to achieve the same goals, however, or even come close. The reaction to his February 24 speech made this abundantly clear. The public may have rushed to tune in, and laughed in response, but if he continues to speak in this manner, they may soon come to their senses.
"تأملات في خطاب الرئيس" © Basma Abdel Aziz. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Elisabeth Jaquette. All rights reserved.
Mohamed Abdelnabi's narrator revisits his childhood and his grandfather's path from childhood poverty to a love affair that became the stuff of family lore.
My name is Hany Mahfouz. I was a spoiled only child. My mother was the sun and my father was the moon.
The one who doted on me most was my grandfather, Khawaga Mida. At the age of six, I thought I had killed him. I had a dream in which he woke me, kissed me, and stroked my hair, then opened the window and floated upward until all I could see were his feet and the hem of his striped galabeya, before he disappeared completely into the darkness of the street outside. I went to my mother while she was still in bed and told her the dream. Without knowing why, I whispered as I spoke and felt a twinge of fear. She pulled me to her and instructed me to not tell the dream to anyone else, especially not Grandma Sekina. It was a bad omen, she said, Grandma would be upset and throw a fit.
Less than a week later Grandpa died. Then my mother surprised me by revealing our secret herself. She recounted the dream to everyone like it was a source of pride. She said that I was a spiritual, clairvoyant child. I didn’t understand at the time, but I did sense a change in the way they all looked at me. For some time after that, anyway, before the whole thing was eventually forgotten. Well, forgotten by everyone except Grandma Sekina, who continued to bribe me with sweets and money as if I had the ability to dream her dead, so she would fly out of the window and join Grandpa wherever he had gone. This did nothing to assuage my guilt. I was convinced that I really had caused the death of the one I loved most, the only one who had listened to my pleas to put off my matriculation at school for another year, the one who had loved me and pampered me like I was the only star in his night sky.
My grandfather’s real name was Mohamed Mahfouz. He was given the name Mida by the Jewish lady who, when he was twenty, took him under her wing and employed him at her small fashion atelier on the first floor of an old building on Adly Street in downtown Cairo. The story goes that he came to her an ungainly youth who didn’t even know how to thread a needle, and that she taught him everything about the craft of tailoring. “And the craft of gentleness too,” Grandma Sekina would add with a flirty lift of her eyebrow.
I imagine him as a tall and athletic young man, with bright honey-colored eyes, agile of movement and sweet of tongue. His most notable feature though would have been his beautiful, clear voice. In his later years, during the short truces he made with his chronic dry cough and the pain brought on by arthritis, he sang me lullabies, in a rough but sweet voice. I danced as I sang along.
The day has broken
The night has lifted
The bird is singing—tweet tweet!
He had migrated from Mahalla, almost a teenage runaway, in order to enter the world of showbiz—that obsession that almost no one in my family could escape. The large extended family he ran away from was poor and the children were too numerous to count. Most men in the family were workers in Mahalla’s textile factories, their lives decided from birth to death and intimately entwined with threads, fabrics, and the cogs of machines. The only escape was to die of some respiratory disease, or to cut ties like my grandfather did and move away. Perhaps he had always felt different from his siblings and cousins. His voice and good looks would have earned him the constant admiration of those around him, until his ambition boiled over and could no longer be contained. He set off for the capital with no money, no connections, and no plan.
The story goes that he waited outside the theater for the famous actor Naguib Al-Rihany, then threw himself before the man and begged him to let him join his troupe, or to at least hear him sing, even for just one minute. Rihany must have been preoccupied or in a foul mood—maybe his troupe wasn’t doing so well at the time—for this is what he said: “There are enough dead bodies in the morgue. Get out of here, son!” But when he saw the look of defeat on the retreating young man’s pale face, Rihany called him back, pushed a heavy coin into his hand, and said, “Find yourself another job or you’ll starve.”
Between working as an errand boy at a coffeehouse and selling tigernuts in cones outside cinemas and theaters, my grandfather found himself slowly turning into a street dog—sleeping wherever he could, eating whatever he could find—all the while looking at film posters and dreaming. Until he was saved by Biba, dressmaker to high-society women. A box-office clerk had introduced him to her and said she would help him. Biba, or Sitt Biba as everyone called her, taught him everything: how to dress, how to talk, how to treat her distinguished clientele when presenting newly arrived samples, how to smile at people and look them in the eye to make a confident impression. She taught him about fabrics and about the company of society ladies, and he was a good student: within a few months, he was cutting his first dress patterns.
She started calling him Mida, a nickname derived from Mohamed that somewhat rhymed with Biba. Later on, in jest or in mockery, his friends added the title Khawaga, leading clients to often presume that Mida was Jewish, like his employer. He was the only one she seemed to trust. There was no sign in her life of a husband or children, and she treated Mida like the last remaining member of her family.
I imagine him taking the elevator up to her flat in the same building and ringing the bell on evenings after closing the atelier. She opens the door herself, the maid having gone home for the day, and leaves only a small gap for him to walk through, her soft house robe lightly brushing his body as he passed her. There he finds everything that a self-assured young man, living away from home, could want: food, comfort, an attractive woman—even if that woman is almost as old as his mother. Like his mother, she enjoys listening to him sing and laughs at his witticisms. She has bought him an oud and arranged for him to take weekly lessons. Every Friday afternoon, she looks up from her work and says, “Time for your lesson, Mida,” and he smiles, stands up, puts on his jacket and tarboosh, picks up his oud, and walks over to Emadeddin Street. There, in one of the street’s famous coffeehouses, he meets his teacher—an old blind sheikh who doesn't let an opportunity pass to mention “the Sitt”: “How is Sitt Biba? Give her my regards,” sometimes adding sarcastically, “So Mr. Mida, do you plan to go professional or will you remain a private oud player for the Sitt?”
Mida would have swallowed these hints with a quiet smile. That’s how I like to imagine him: shy and reserved, with a smile that subtly belittled everything around him—everything except for music, his patroness, and life’s pleasures.
I don’t think she would have made a move on him immediately. She would have taken it slowly. She would not have been the kind of woman to pick an unripe fruit and eat it hurriedly. She was neither hungry nor needy. No. With her wide dark eyes, she would have watched him come and go, watched as he slowly shed his Mahallawi accent and picked up a few English and French words from her and from clients, gradually learned how to dress, how to pick the right color and size to show off his lean body and sculpted muscles. I imagine the first encounter between the patient body of the older woman and that of the young beau to have happened at least a whole year after she had taken him in. I see him sitting cross-legged on a plush sofa in her flat, playing the oud and singing:
Light of spirit
She flirts with her lashes and her brow
I see her get up and sit down next to him, close enough to be able to stroke his dark curls. He keeps his eyes closed and keeps the smile on his face until he had finished the song. The he turns toward her, pleased that the moment he has long waited for has finally come. He places the oud face-down next to him, gazes at the trembling water in her eyes, then pulls her toward him, gently and with care, as if he fears crushing the bones of her slim figure. At that moment, Mohamed Mahfouz, or Khawaga Mida, understands the secret of his escape from his village and his people. It wasn’t fear of respiratory diseases, the dream of glory and fame, or the search for adventure. He came to Cairo, the center of the world, in order to find his true home, the home he has always been destined for, in Sitt Biba’s body.
On that tender night she might have said to him, “Don’t do anything you don’t want to do,” and he might have replied, “But this is a dream come true, Sitt Biba.”
* * *
With time, and under the caring patronage of his mistress, my grandfather grew into a commanding figure. His passion for music abated, and his oud playing and singing became nothing more than hobbies relegated to his free time and the hours spent in his lover’s company. Without hesitation he turned down an offer from his old teacher to join a respected band as their oudist. He must have loved Biba, and must have also come to love his new profession—the fabrics turned under his hands into breathing creatures that wrapped themselves around the bodies of women and girls.
He stayed with her as she advanced in years, as every day another petal fell from the flower of her youth, until Mida the lover became Mida the nurse and personal masseur. It was she who eventually encouraged him to marry the embroidery girl Sekina, having noticed how he talked about her and how they constantly bickered. She helped him rent and furnish the flat in Abdeen. Then she received their only child, my father, Ahmad, like any loving grandmother would. My father had vague memories of his holiday visits to the old woman—her moist kisses and the way he quickly wiped their traces off his face. She was nearly ninety and no longer had the strength to leave her flat. The atelier still carried her name, but it was Mida who oversaw it day after day.
When anti-Semitic sentiment rose in Egypt, some angry young men threw petrol bombs through the atelier’s window. There was minimal damage, the fire having been put out as soon at it started, but my grandfather grew worried. He told Biba that she should close her business and leave the country, as many others had. He said she could find any remaining relatives elsewhere and join them. She must have replied bitterly, “What relatives? I have no one but you, Mida. The one niece I have is like a vulture waiting for my death.”
As a cautionary measure, and at her insistence, they changed the name of the shop to Atelier Mida. What my grandfather didn’t know at the time was that in the official documents he was already the actual owner, even before the sign on the shop front was changed, or that is what he later claimed anyway. Biba only lasted a few more months. The night before her death, he would have sat with her and sang her an old taqtuqa that she liked.
O light of my eyes
In your love I lived and died
When all was said and done
I never lost, I never won
He would have stopped when he heard her light snoring and knew she was asleep. He might have noticed how her lips curved upward on one side in a faint smile and would have planted a light kiss on her smooth forehead before leaving the room.
It came as a surprise to everyone that she left the atelier to Grandpa Mida. He was surprised as well—or pretended to be. Not everyone believed him, least of all Biba’s niece, whose lawyer gave my grandfather an extremely hard time before she accepted the validity of the title deed. Did Grandpa retain a trace of heartache despite the victory, or is that just how I like to think of him?
My father and Grandma Sekina tell a different story. Their version is crude and ordinary: Handsome Hustler Ensnares Rich Cougar. A smile, a wink, followed by a few songs in his beautiful voice, were all it took to open the door to a garden of pleasures. In the center of that garden, the young man found a well, and with his long tongue he licked and licked, until the well trembled and its water overflowed. The mistress of the garden moaned, “Take me, Mida. Everything I own is yours.”
In their version, he charmed and tricked her into transfering possession of the atelier to him. But I can’t think of my grandfather like that. That could be because when I got to know him, time had blunted his claws and the last of his peacock’s feathers had been shed. But it’s also simply because the many disputes he had with my father and grandmother make me doubt their stories about him. And my first-hand memories of him are beyond doubt.
From In the Spider's Room. © Mohamed Abdelnabi. Translation © 2017 by Nariman Yousseff. All rights reserved.
In this short play, Mansour Bushnaf turns his sharp eye and his searing critical mind to the vexed question of the interplay of the secular and the religious.
An Arab nightclub with male and female customers. The men are wearing black suits with red neckties, which look like official uniforms. The women are wearing tight pants. A waiter in a white suit and bow tie is handing out drinks.
A woman is singing—or rather lip-synching—the song Salimah ya salamah by the Greek-Egyptian singer Dalida.
Two other women contort their bodies in dance. The men cry out lustfully.
The women blow kisses to the air. The men pull dollar bills out of their pockets and throw them at the women’s heads. The women give kisses to the men now, instead of to the air. Something goes wrong with the playback system, confusing the singer, whose lips come to a halt. The men’s lips freeze on the women’s lips.
A long silence.
The waiter heads backstage, and a few moments later the voice of an old man loudly exhorts about the torment of the grave.
The men remove their lips from the women’s. Everyone lowers their heads.
Silence and people staring into the void.
Male customer: “What’s this? Stop the tape, boy! We’re not in a mosque.”
Female customer: “This is a nightclub, a nightclub, a nightclub . . .”
Another male customer: “There’s no power or strength save in God, I ask God for forgiveness, I seek refuge in God.”
A third male customer: “Leave him alone. We need him. We’re doers of evil.”
All of them freeze in astonishment, staring into the void while the old man’s voice drones on about the torment of the grave.
Things slowly grow dark.
The old man’s voice persists: It has grown louder and taken on the form of a threat.
The singer takes off her clothes piece by piece and flings them at the men’s heads. They deeply breathe in the smell of the clothes, but they’re somewhat distracted by the old man’s voice. The singer has taken off her entire outfit, but we discover that a black gown had been concealed beneath her clothes—she remains completely covered.
The singer stands there on stage, shy and pious.
Silence and astonishment and everyone’s mouths agape.
The other women take off their dancing outfits piece by piece and throw them at the men’s faces. The men tremble, as if the clothes were snakes.
Shy and pious, the women stand there in black gowns that had been concealed beneath their dancing attire.
The men take off their suits piece by piece and throw them at the women’s heads.
The women groan in disapproval.
The men stand there, shy and pious, in black robes that had been concealed beneath the suits.
An outpouring of tears and grief from all the customers.
The waiter in his white suit pushes a trolley with small whips on it.
He gives a whip to every man and a veil to every woman.
The men raise the whips. The women bow their heads to the men, and to the whips.
All the angry men freeze.
The voice of the old man continues to flow.
Things slowly grow dark, turning to black.
© Mansour Bushnaf. Translation © 2017 by Kareem James Abu-Zeid. All rights reserved.
Between 2012 and 2016, I traveled across Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Denmark, Sweden, and Germany, interviewing more than three hundred displaced Syrians about their experiences, feelings, and reflections on the conflict in their country. My new book, We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria, weaves these individual narratives into a collective narrative that chronicles the lived experience of the Syrian conflict, exclusively through the words of Syrians themselves. Among the voices in the book is that of "Kareem," a doctor from the city of Homs, whom I interviewed in Jordan in August 2013. Doctors have been on the frontlines of the conflict in Syria since peaceful demonstrations met with harsh repression in spring 2011, and the conflict descended into a brutal and complex war. Indeed, some analysts argue that the Syrian government has deliberately “weaponized” by carrying out large-scale attacks on medical facilities, targeting health workers, and violently depriving civilians access to care. Kareem’s testimonial, complementing other selections from his story featured in We Crossed A Bridge, offers one window into these issues, as well as the overall humanitarian crisis devouring Syria.
My loyalty is to medicine. I speak to you as a doctor.
Before 2011, people in Syria were suffocating. There was so much corruption. If you had a business, government agents would stop by and demand part of the profits. They’d say, “Give me a bribe or we’ll write you up for committing some infraction.” There was no freedom. If you dared to talk about politics, the next day men from the Intelligence Service would come and ask why.
The first demonstration in Homs was in March 2011. We couldn’t believe it was happening. The barrier of fear broke. People went into the streets to say "no."
Demonstrations continued every Friday. They went out from mosques, because that was the only place where people could gather. Even people who do not normally pray would go to the mosque just to participate in demonstrations. There were Christians, communists, liberals. Everyone was thirsty for the chance to stand up and express themselves.
Most massacres occurred after Friday prayers. Some people were going to die and some were going to get hurt, but people still went out to demonstrations. We’d go to the hospital and wait. This was every Friday, every Friday, every Friday.
The demonstration would begin. A little while later, a pick-up truck would arrive at the hospital loaded with people, with dead and injured as if they were sheep. We’d fill all the hospital beds and then lay people on the floor to examine them. There were so many people that sometimes we would get confused: Did we examine this person or not?
Within hours, security agents would descend upon the hospital to arrest the injured on the grounds that they had participated in demonstrations. So we would provide first aid and send patients home as quickly as possible. During the rest of the week, we’d prepare pseudonyms. We had to notify the security forces of the names of our patients, so we’d use the names of dead people. That’s how we worked.
The regime considered us in league with the opposition because we were treating people. From its perspective, if you treated the brother of someone who walked in a demonstration, then you both deserved to be punished. But as a doctor, I can’t deny treatment to anyone.
The revolution continued, and the regime’s repression intensified. People learned to differentiate between the sounds of bullets: a regular bullet, a sniper’s gunshot, machine guns . . . The regime started shelling with tanks, and then used missiles, rockets, and airplanes. No one in the international community said anything. And so it continued.
The hospital was located next to an ancient fortress. A sniper was stationed there, and he fired on anything that moved on the streets below. One day he shot a young man walking in the area.
We managed to get him inside the hospital. The bullet had punctured the main vein leading back to the heart. It was my task to stop the bleeding, but we didn’t have the necessary tools. All I could do was press down with my fingers. They would get so tired that I had to release them. But then blood would gush out, and I’d apply pressure again.
In Homs there are only four vascular surgeons qualified to perform the operation that the patient needed. But none could come because regime forces had blockaded the area. So we called one of the surgeons, and he gave us instructions over the phone. We followed the steps until the patient stabilized.
Still, his lower extremities were going to fail if we didn’t transfer him to a specialized hospital quickly. I called the Red Crescent. The officer said, “If we come, the sniper will shoot us. I can’t sacrifice a crew of five for one patient.” He suggested an alternative: if we could transfer him outside the blockaded area, they would get him from there.
The patient’s brother and friend decided to take the risk. We moved him to the back of the truck; he was still anesthetized and connected to a ventilator. His brother stayed with him and we explained to him how to hold the machine to keep the patient alive. And the friend drove the car.
They sped by the sniper. We heard shooting, but they weren’t hit. The patient made it to the designated place and then to the other hospital. But he died there on the operating table.
The regime placed checkpoints around the city, and it became more and more difficult to move around. Once I was working in the operating room, where my patient was on a ventilator. Downstairs another patient was on a ventilator. The technician informed us that our oxygen supply was almost out, and that I was going to have to choose: which patient gets the oxygen and lives? Which one dies?
We made several phone calls for help. The honorable people of Homs tried to help us. A car came carrying oxygen from another part of town, but the security forces at the checkpoint wouldn’t let them pass. And then, one of the patients passed away. And this relieved us of having to make that choice.
Most doctors stopped working in their usual hospitals and instead started working in the hospitals closest to their homes. I was just 500 yards from a hospital, but I couldn’t get there because there were snipers along the way. Once the hospital was inundated with casualties and they told me I was needed. I said farewell to my wife and son because I knew I might not see them again. They sent someone who took me by foot on a back road where there were only two snipers. Along the way, he shouted: “Sniper! Run!” And then, “OK, relax.” And again, “Sniper! Run!” That’s how it was until we got to the hospital.
The situation continued to worsen. I took my wife and son to live at my parents' house, which was safer. One Sunday I spent the night at the hospital and woke up to intense shooting. Regime forces were shelling and occupying the whole neighborhood.
During the siege, they arrested many people, including people I’d worked with. It was just a matter of time before they came for me, too. I weighed my options. I could be arrested or be killed, in which case I’d be of no benefit to anyone. Or I could leave Syria. I did not want to leave until I knew that another doctor would take my place. When that was assured, my family and I left. After that, the siege on Homs continued to intensify. Eventually, people became so hungry that they resorted to eating leaves from the trees.
I don’t usually tell these stories. I performed my role and there’s no need to talk about it. But I have a duty to speak if it can help others know the truth.
© 2017 by Wendy Pearlman. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from writer Nadia Al-Kokabany's Ali Muhsin Market, a silver-tongued young man lives to regret convincing his brother of a scheme to earn a few extra bucks in the midst of the Yemeni Revolution of 2011–12.
18 March 2011
With all his smooth talk about making money, Mehdi Al-Rimy convinced his younger brother to work Fridays in the bustling revolutionary square, which throbbed with visitors and men going to prayer. On those days, it was easy to collect the many plastic bottles littered across the square to make some quick cash. Mehdi’s mother, like most of the women of Madhbah, said that the square is full of vandals who take drugs and sleep with girls in the tents, that the protestors are paid to be there, that they are armed and their revolution isn’t peaceful like they claim it is. She’d forbidden both of them from going there, even after Mehdi tried to convince her he was only interested in earning money—whether in the revolutionary square or elsewhere – but this did nothing to curb her anger.
Mehdi’s brother was excited about the prospect of working one day a week. He’d make more in that one day than he did with his usual odd jobs: selling nearly expired goods on a street cart for discount prices in Ali Muhsin Market, calling out to passers-by through a bus window to attract passengers, collecting copper from discarded wires in dumpsters and selling it, and picking through the bags waiting for the garbage truck to find plastic bottles, tin cans, and used wires that he could take without guilt. Mehdi also convinced Younes to work Fridays, tempting him as he had with his brother. The money would bring Younes a little closer to fulfilling his dream of owning a live poultry shop—all he had to do was tell his mother he was going to Friday prayer, then to hang out with his friends, and that he wouldn’t be back before sunset.
The two started their new job, dropping by the wheat vendors to collect plastic bags. They sat in a corner and began to take them apart, sewing them into two large bags for collecting bottles, and then headed to the square. Mehdi met them there with the bottles of cold water he was going to sell the worshippers, to be collected by his brother and Younes as soon they’d been emptied. He told them to keep working after prayer ended—into the late afternoon, passing by the tents to collect what they could from the groups of men sitting inside chewing khat. He showed them a good place to flatten the bottles with rocks so they could fit more in their bags before heading to the recycling depot.
That Friday afternoon, things were different. The square was suffocated by cement walls surrounding it from three sides. Earlier, the pro-regime neighborhoods around the square had built walls up over the asphalt to stop the tents from creeping into their areas. Gray cement blocks piled on top of each other, six feet high—inducing claustrophobia and the fear that they could collapse at any moment.
Mehdi walked between the rows of worshippers, selling water. Mehdi’s brother gathered the empty plastic bottles. Since the beginning of the revolution, more men had come to pray at the square with each passing Friday. That Friday, small children walked in front of their fathers, carrying their prayer rugs on their shoulders. Most of the men wore white shirts and black coats, with small, decorative janbiya daggers at their waists. The children were small, radiant copies of their fathers, whose stern features on that afternoon—glowing with the fire of the sun and the revolution—betrayed fear and anxiety.
Some took out umbrellas to protect themselves from the merciless blaze of the noon sun as they listened to the sermon and prayed on the asphalt. Others could not find shelter and drizzled water onto their heads and those of their children to quench the sun’s rays, providing relief from the scorching heat, even if for a moment. The worshippers packed themselves into jubilant rows to listen to the Friday sermon: the Friday of Dignity. The protestors had taken to giving every Friday protest a name representing each phase of the revolution. Last week had been the Friday of Anger, before that had been Friday of the Beginning. The preacher finished his sermon and called the congregation to prayer. Stillness swept over the square and people submitted themselves in prayer. As prayer ended, fumes of thick smoke burst into the sky and the worshippers looked toward their source—they came from behind the grim cement barrier to the south. The smoke rose until it overtook the neighboring buildings, tongues of flame rose angrily fanned by gusts of wind. People took off in all directions, afraid the wall would collapse on them as young men jostled to save those behind the wall.
To everyone's shock, the square was pierced by the sound of bullets aimed at the worshippers’ chests. Death opened its jaws wide to consume them; it had no need to hide behind excuses like it did on ordinary days. It was blunt, definite, let loose by people who wanted nothing else, who would not be satisfied until they saw those bodies—draped in white clothing and the purity of worship—covered in blood. No one realized what was happening until blood began to flow on the asphalt and people collapsed onto the ground. The crowd started looking for other walls to hide behind, to escape the death pouring down on them from the smoke-filled sky overhead, brought by rooftop snipers whose faces were concealed by masks, save for their eyes targeting the hearts and heads of people below.
Mehdi’s brother rushed toward a startled Younes who was looking for him. He was the only face he knew in the crowd, a guardian to tell him what was happening, what to do, how to survive. Something he didn’t recognize leaped in front of him. It might have been his heart, or his mother’s heart visiting him in that moment—that no one could see but him. Mehdi’s brother didn’t know how to explain the panic overtaking him just then and settled for silence—his expression itself a cry of terror and fear. Where is Mehdi? Where do we escape? And in the space of a moment his features transformed completely: became calm, smiling, serene as if looking at his mother—her arms open to hold him, not angry as he expected but stroking his back, arms around him as he gazed at his crazed father who waved as if to say good-bye. Behind the window, he saw the neighbor’s daughter—a year younger than him—looking desolate in the corner where they used to meet, yelling something in Mehdi’s face that he couldn’t hear. In the distance, he imagined he saw the sister who died on her wedding night, arms open, hand beckoning him to come, to go with her.
Mehdi’s brother couldn’t explain all this to Younes, couldn’t think of an explanation other than the serene look he gave him. They searched for an exit to save themselves, or a wall to shelter them. Younes left the unsold half of the water carton behind, and Mehdi’s brother carried the bag of bottles on his back. As they were about to enter a side street to the main route, Younes felt something. And when they stopped in front of the small house that opened its door to shelter them, Mehdi’s brother dropped to the ground. Younes turned to look at him, asking what was wrong. When he didn’t get an answer, he knew he had been shot. But where? Not a drop of blood spilled from his body.
Mehdi’s brother put the bag down and pushed his back up against the wall to rest. He looked at Younes with a dazed expression. Was it because of what happened to him? Or what was happening around him? Or was it that something overtook him in that moment, something he couldn’t express? His small body rolled off the wall, his legs kicking the bag of bottles away. He slowly closed his eyes, and went into a deep sleep. A terrified Younes shook his body to move him, held his eyes open to wake him up. And when he failed to save him, he despaired and began to scream, clasping the small body against his own. Strangers around him chanted:
There is no God but Allah
The martyr is beloved by Allah
Younes rejected their words: “No, not a martyr. He’s not dead, just dizzy from fear and the sound of gunfire.” He asked them to help move him to the field hospital. The owner of the house—his door open for those seeking safety—threw him a black blanket he could use to move the young body to hospital. Younes quickly found help amid the spirit of solidarity surrounding them—others, too, carried those who had fallen, rescued those who were bleeding but alive. The sniper’s bullet was clever and precise, hitting its target on first attempt and choosing targets—head, heart, neck—that could only end in death or tragic disability.
Younes wanted to charge forward with the small body lying in the heart of the black blanket, the body he carried with a stranger toward the field hospital. On the way, he saw a panic-stricken Mehdi heading in the opposite direction and called out to stop him. Mehdi looked around for the voice that was calling him and when he saw Younes, jumped across to him. He looked at him pleadingly, scared and apprehensive, trying not to ask anything about his brother. Younes was silent. Mehdi al-Rimi wanted to tell Younes about all the horrors in the world, but instead he said: that is the body of my brother. Mehdi took the place of the stranger, holding the edge of the blanket, and they headed toward the field hospital. They wanted to move quickly enough to defeat time, quickly enough that he would still be alive when they arrived.
The mosque at the beginning of New University Street, near the protest stage, had been converted into a field hospital. In the mosque courtyard, medical equipment had been installed and toilets had been built for visitors. Mehdi did not know where to go, where to turn for help. He stood stunned in the doorway. In the front courtyard, the constant ringing of ambulance sirens grew louder as more and more wounded arrived and their families flocked to see them. When Mehdi and Younes approached the stand for receiving the wounded, a nurse asked Mehdi if the person in the blanket was injured or a martyr. When he couldn’t find an answer to her question, she asked him to follow her. Mehdi placed his brother on the ground, shocked at the number of bodies around him. Some bleeding, others writhing in pain, some completely motionless. The nurse asked a doctor to examine the new arrival. It was obvious to the doctor that the body in front of him was dead. The cowardly bullet that had pierced his heart made sure he would no longer peddle bottles of water or return home to his mother.
The nurse tried to calm Mehdi and asked him to notify the family of the deceased, if he knew them. She wrote the number 18 on a body tag and placed it across the small corpse, using a white string to tie his hands together atop his chest. A cloth and another piece of string were used to hold his jaw together. His eyes remained closed as if he were in a deep sleep.
Outside, bullets continued piercing bodies, making no distinction between revolutionaries and those who had nothing to do with the revolution. Tall and short bodies, thin and fat, big and small: from noon until sunset, when President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced a state of emergency in Sana’a. State television announced that over forty had fallen victim to unidentified snipers from nearby neighborhoods opposed to the protests in the square. After the state of emergency was announced, a revolutionary cry shook the square: There is no God but Allah, the martyr is beloved by Allah.
Mehdi lay still beside his brother’s corpse, tears falling thick, a storm of contradictions raging inside him. He held his head in his hands, burying it between his knees as if trying to preserve what was left of his mind, trying to hide his tears. His guilt over bringing his brother to the square added to his pain—he had met his death having done nothing wrong, only trying to earn a living. Incredulous and without words, he watched as more bodies continued to pour into the hospital.
Younes asked Mehdi if he could leave—there was nothing they could do for the body lying covered there before them except shed more tears. He had no means to console Mehdi, so he held him and stroked his shoulder before leaving the square, heavy with pain. As he arrived home, he tried to leave the pain at the front door so the horror of what had happened wouldn’t show on his face. Walking through the door, he started to tell his mother about the day he’d spent with his friends and went to bed early to avoid giving further explanations. Given the chance, she would have certainly have more questions: Why did he look so tired? What was behind his absent stare? Where had the dirt on his clothes come from, why did they look as though they’d been dyed in black smoke? But he could not sleep. He tossed and turned in his bed, trying to wrest those hours from his memory, those moments when death had clung to him like an unwanted friend shadowing each step that he and Mehdi’s brother had taken.
From Ali Muhsen Souq. © Nadia Al-Kokabany. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Thoraya El-Rayyes. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from A Crime in Ramallah, Abbad Yahya's narrator Noor remembers his adolescence in Palestine, marked by the second intifada.
At its peak, the intifada took over my parents’ lives. They weren’t explicitly affiliated with any one faction, but they tended to support anything Islamic, and the intifada fueled the continued rise of Hamas. My older brother's wife was an activist, a leader in fact, and our family was very proud of her. I was never sure what my brother's role was—I always had the feeling that he was a big shot in the Organization, but security considerations meant it couldn’t be revealed.
My father had a good relationship with Hamas because he was a shopkeeper and he would sell Hamas the provisions they then discreetly distributed to the poor. I suspected that my dad earned a tidy profit from Hamas, though he kept quiet about it all and managed to deflect attention through his generous donations to the needy—orphans, the destitute, and the families of martyrs and political prisoners.
Whenever anything of national importance happened—like the funeral of a martyr or a national festival—my family would always be there, every single one of them. From the way the organizers and activists interacted with them, I could tell my family members were key players in the movement, but I wanted nothing to do with it. It wasn’t until years later that I realized how smart my father was at keeping everyone satisfied, because we never had any trouble from the Occupation, or from the PA or Fatah. No one in our family was ever arrested or got mixed up in the infighting between the factions. My dad always knew when to come forward and when to stand down without losing face—a trader by nature. So perhaps that’s why he focused on everything outside the house, leaving domestic matters to my mom.
Mom was a pious woman and proud of her faith. The women of the neighborhood and prominent female figures from across the city would congregate at our house to discuss religious matters. Mom lavished hospitality on these devout women, and whenever any women came over who were politically involved with Hamas, mom would parade her eldest son’s wife in front of them. Of course, they all knew my sister-in-law. A single obsession guided my mother’s life: the “Organization,” or the “Movement,” as Hamas was referred to. Her beloved movement was the one thing that was always on her mind. I remember her delight, her almost drunken glee, every time she saw the daughters of her Hamas “sisters.” She’d gush about how beautiful and grown-up they were. Time and again, I’d heard her squeal, “Aren’t our boys lucky!”
Nothing made Mom happy like arranging marriages between the sons and daughters of the Hamas families, as if it were a way to secure the future of the movement and ensure its survival. Through the door to the sitting room where we received guests, I would often hear her singing the praises of one of the girls to the mother of an eligible Hamas brother. Mom knew full well that social ties were the most important things in politics, and anytime she hosted a meeting of women at our house, she would be showered with hugs and kisses.
My sister-in-law’s most important role, meanwhile, was finding new husbands for the widows of the martyrs. When a Hamas son is martyred, the movement takes over as protector of the widowed wife, and her future becomes a matter for Hamas, regardless of how she feels about it. My brother's wife and her fellow activists saw this as a duty to be fulfilled, and they would work tirelessly to find a brother who would marry her. However, all the respect and special care that were lavished on martyrs’ widows vanished the instant they were married off. They might become a second or third wife to their new husbands, but the important thing was that they were married by whatever means possible. My sister-in-law achieved all this with her rare skills of persuasion coupled with her zealous enthusiasm for everything associated with the movement.
Whenever I think of my sister-in-law and her gang, I remember the day I peered through the keyhole and watched them in the sitting room, the day when I realized that the movement rested on their shoulders more than on the men’s. Given how she constantly drilled the sisters’ children and how, before she even asked “How are you?”, she would be testing them on how much of the Koran they knew of by heart, I am often surprised at the way people talk about “men of faith” and seem to ignore the “women of faith.”
My brother was happy with her. I’ve often tried to imagine his private relationship with her—this strong, passionate, capable woman in her prime, so mature in her figure and features—and her physical devotion to him, with her vast experience in everything.
Our family was blessed by its female members, women who were dedicated to serving the men and making them happy. This was always clear to see at the brothers’ weekly gathering every Friday morning around my parents’ dining table—you could see it in the men’s faces, sated with the pleasures of Thursday night. While on Friday mornings their lips never stopped reeling off the word God and muttering prayers for the Prophet, the night before they had indulged in the torrents of lust.
The plan was that I would wait until I was older before I followed in my brothers’ footsteps, with my sister-in-law finding me a bride, just as she had for nearly everyone in our family. She would always present the potential bride to the mother of the young man in question, letting the girl flaunt her knowledge of the Koran, and emphasizing her pious and God-fearing nature and that of her family. Then, my sister-in-law would drop in some comment about her physical integrity, as though it just slipped off her tongue accidentally. “The girl’s all in one piece,” she’d say. “From her hair down to her toes, she’s—pardon me—a virgin—God, forgive me!” Her apparently spontaneous “pardon me” was of course intended here to trigger a waterfall of associations where naked virgins splashed and frolicked.
Well, the whole thing about me getting married wasn’t to be.
At the height of the intifada, I chose to stay at home, unlike all the other guys my age. I didn’t go to any rallies and I didn’t throw any stones. I felt too young. I was afraid of the outside. I was happy to stay in and use helping my mom with chores as a pretext to steer clear of what my classmates were doing. I would help mom wash the dishes, mop the floor, and hang out the laundry.
Why didn’t I go out with them? Was I really just afraid? I don’t know. Perhaps what my classmates were getting up to simply didn’t inspire me, it didn’t turn me on. At school, I could see the thrill in their eyes, and in their bodies, as they boasted about their clashes with the Israelis at the city gates, as they described the smell of gas, the flaming tires and the blood, showing off about how brave and strong so-and-so had been.
A few months in, they were picking up empty shell casings from beneath the demonstrators’ feet. The demonstrations no longer got anywhere near the Israeli checkpoints at the city gates; now they were contained within Palestinian territory. There were a lot of weapons being brandished, a lot of threats being shouted, and there was a lot of waiting around.
The intifada uprising shifted from the streets onto the TV. We would all sit there watching Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi, trying to keep track of what was happening and who had been martyred, trying to make sense of all the arrests, the shelling, the operations, the shooting and the casualties. Everyone was glued to their TV sets, watching events unfold. We’d laugh for an hour, then sob for hours.
With every assassination of a Hamas leader, my family entered an undeclared period of mourning, which meant that attempting to do anything vaguely normal brought nothing but trouble. I remember my older brother’s reaction once when he was sitting in front of the TV watching the morning’s news. There had been a major assassination operation, and as the names of the targets scrolled across the screen, his face seemed to crack, as fault lines of grief and rage spread across his features. His wife was sitting at his side, trying to comfort him, but she couldn’t hide her emotion, her tears. This was a seismic shock that shook them both to the core.
My brother got up to get dressed and head out. Dad asked him where he was going, but he didn’t answer. I spent the whole day watching TV, enduring endless patriotic songs about martyrs’ bodies and bullets, convinced that the next news item I’d see would be about an explosion or an operation in an Israeli city confirming my brother’s involvement. I couldn’t sleep until I knew he was back home with his wife.
I hated the television and I hated the long hours that everyone had to spend at home, and this was even before the paralyzing days of curfew. I hated it when everyone amassed at our house, robbing me of my privacy. I hated everything, and I especially hated the intifada.
At night, when everyone was asleep, I tried flipping between the satellite channels in search of anything other than news of shooting and casualties. My favorite channels and all the ones at the top of the list had been overrun by death, and it was only on some of the very last channels and the hidden ones that I found movies and music videos. I explored these with the sound off so my mom and dad wouldn’t wake up. I didn't want them to discover that I was browsing through forbidden territory at the very moment when the channels where our blood was to be coursing were the news and the streets. I craved many things, but nothing that was going to be sated anytime soon.
From A Crime in Ramallah. © Abbad Yahya. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp. All rights reserved.
In Croatian writer Zoran Janjanin’s short story of personal love and loss complicated by national conflict, two ex-lovers assess the impact of the Croatian War of Independence on their teenage relationship, twenty years later.
He noticed her out in front of the courthouse on a sunny spring afternoon. He couldn’t place where he knew her from; intrigued, he followed her for a few minutes before he mustered the courage to speak up.
As graciously as he could, he smiled. He hoped he wouldn’t put her off with his six-foot, 250-pound frame.
“Hi. I know this must seem odd, but I have the impression I know you from somewhere. Am I wrong?”
The woman might have been about thirty-five, a head shorter than he, short black hair, and wore a well-used leather jacket. Her eyes were hidden behind sunglasses. She was reserved but she didn’t appear alarmed.
“I don’t believe I know you,” she shrugged. “Sorry.”
Instead of retreating, Zvonko was compelled by curiosity.
“Are you from Karlovac?”
“Yes. Well, used to be. I don’t live here anymore.”
“Yes . . . or no actually . . .” Her insecurity exposed a growing sense of unease. “Ninth grade, then I left.”
“Maybe that’s why you look so familiar,” said Zvonko with a broad smile. “Really, I’ve no evil intentions. I’m married with two kids. I promise I’m not hitting on you, it’s just that I felt so strongly I was seeing someone I . . . ” He stopped when the women removed her sunglasses. Flooding back came the identical feeling as when those same pale blue eyes drilled holes in his head. He’d hated her for them and adored her. “Mother of God,” he said. The woman pushed her glasses back onto her nose and turned.
As if his voice weren’t his own but the shy kid’s from years past. Paralyzed, he watched her walk away. As if they were back in the corridors of their high school. Or that evening when he’d escorted her home, walking her bike back for her. It was early in 1991 and kids had already taken up their parents’ habit of passing judgment on neighbors. His mouth dry, he’d asked whether she needed help. “No,” she’d said, “unless you have a spare tire handy.” He shrugged. “At least they didn’t puncture both,” he grinned, hoping to coax a smile out of her. But she was on the verge of tears. So he offered to see her home. He walked the bicycle all the way to Udbinja, though he lived in Grabik. Along the way, Petra warmed up a little, even smiled a few times. She was a girl any high-school kid would have been crazy about if only the times had been different. And if the times had been different she’d never have looked at him twice. As it was, she even laughed at his jokes no matter how dumb they were. That evening, it took him a long time to fall asleep. He was smitten.
Zvonko strode along and reached for her arm, She pulled away, shooting him a glance over her shoulder as if he were crazy. He shrugged, all innocence, to make it clear he was no threat.
“What do you want?”
“Nothing! I’m surprised is all. Shocked, actually. How come you’re here?”
“Croatia, I reckon, is a free country. People, presumably, have the right to be here . . . ”
“Hey, you know what I mean. Don’t make this worse.”
She was quiet and watched him. She was holding a file. She didn’t look as if she were about to say anything.
“How can any of what happened be my fault? I was just a kid. And you were a kid.”
“Are your parents alive?”
“Yes,” stuttered Zvonko. “They’re alive . . . They still live in Grabik. And yours?”
“Dad’s alive. Mom disappeared with Grandma and Grandpa in ’95. Your justice system informed me today that I have no right to compensation because they were killed in the war zone.” A wry smile escaped her. “Tough luck for them that they were civilians.” Zvonko remembered Petra’s plump mother. She was always urging him to have a little more cake. He was her daughter’s first boyfriend.
“I’m sorry, Petra, really I am. But that was war . . . ”
“Spare me, Zvonko.”
Petra turned to walk away, but this time he caught up and walked beside her.
“Sorry, that’s our typical knee-jerk reaction: justifying everything. Of course I’m not saying your family should have been killed.”
She stopped and looked at him.
“Please, I beg you, leave me alone. You don’t owe me anything and all is forgiven.”
She went on walking, while Zvonko stood there, frozen.
“What do you mean, all is forgiven? What did I do to anyone?”
Petra didn’t look back, she kept walking toward the pedestrian underpass. Her close-fitting jeans confirmed it . . . she still had that same firm little butt. He’d adored watching her when she rode her bicycle.
“Hey,” he hurried after her. “How could any of it be my responsibility?”
For her sixteenth birthday he’d given her a cassette of Joyride by Roxette. He didn’t dare admit he liked the music, too; he pretended he was listening to it just for her sake. She got her hair cut just like Marie, she looked like she was above them all. None of his friends envied him for anything before Petra came along; some of them called her a whore, or a Chetnik slut, some said her dad had posed for a picture with Šešelj, the Serbian firebrand, that she always first wrote out her homework in Serbian Cyrillic. Zvonko was indifferent to these aspersions. He adored her. Despite his poor posture, his clumsiness, he had a beautiful girlfriend who let him push his tongue into her mouth and grab her rear. Maybe she really was a slut, he thought once, but if she was, she was his slut.
“Petra, please,” he groaned behind her.
She stopped. She bowed her head, worn down.
“Zvonko,” she said, without looking at him, “there's no point in doing this now. We were something, now we are completely different people.”
He stopped in front of her.
“You still look terrific.”
Her shoulders straightened.
“You don’t. Well actually you never were much of a looker.”
“Why were you with me, then?”
“I felt desired and that was nice, I guess.” She looked him straight in the eye while she said this, but in her sunglasses he could see only his forlorn expression. “I often wondered whether I might have dumped you if one of your better-looking buddies had asked for a date. I think I would have. I’m sure of it.”
“Miroslav Bijelić was a Serb, wasn’t he? But still he didn’t ask you out—”
“He started out as a Serb, but then his folks converted. They became more avid Croats than the Croats. And your friends were more avid nationalists than you were.” She gave her wry smile. “You weren’t a bona fide Croat, Zvonko. You cared more about your prick than about patriotism!"
“So did they, but they figured that out too late, when I was already in the picture . . . Things have changed, Petra. Croatia is not the same place it was in ’91. We know now that things are much grayer than they are black and white. You don’t have to feel you don’t belong here.”
“Still, I don’t. They let me know that at every step. As if, single-handedly, I murdered half this city.”
“You’re here because of your mother? What happened to her?”
“Not much, actually. In ’92 we fled to Belgrade. In the summer of ’95, Mom was staying with my grandmother in Virginmost when the Operation Storm military onslaught began and my folks, with a few others, were killed in a column of fleeing refugees shelled by planes. Apparently pigs devoured their remains.”
“Sadly yes, for real. Some of the families sued Croatia, but Croatia didn’t give them so much as the time of day.”
“Fuck it, war is war. People die,” Zvonko shrugged.
“Do you say that about the people who died in Karlovac, too?”
“Pardon? No. But . . . they were civilians.”
“My folks were civilians.”
“Sure, but . . . You have to understand how we felt. You’re living a perfectly normal life and then out of the blue . . .” he fell silent when he saw the irony play in her eyes.
“I, too, was living a perfectly normal life, Zvonko. And then out of the blue . . .”
“Sure, but you were . . .”
“What? Tell me. What was I?”
He sighed, seeing he’d walked right into that one.
“You weren’t, Petra. I know you weren’t.”
“You were! You weren’t! You were! You weren’t! Zvonko, where did you get this idea that every Serb in Karlovac knew what was going on and was guided by some secret Serbian plan? My dad was a judge. Mom worked at Karlovac Bank. What were they scheming? What did they plan to destroy? Their lives and the life of their only daughter?”
“Why tell me this now? Did I ever say anything about your ethnicity?”
“You were a kid, Zvonko. You weren’t thinking with your head. You wanted a girlfriend and you got one. When your dad said, ‘Dump her,’ you dumped her.”
Zvonko stared at Petra. If they hadn’t been on the street he would have slapped her.
“I . . . I would have done anything for you, Petra! I’d have thrown myself in front of a car!”
“So, did you?”
“What? Throw myself in front of a car? No, I did not but . . .” he stopped. There he was, a thirty-year-old engineer, married with two children, standing by the entrance to the pedestrian underpass, trying to persuade a person who’d disappeared years before that he wasn’t a total cad. “What do you want me to say?”
“Nothing. You came running after me just like you did twenty years ago. You don’t need to say a thing.”
Petra was the girl Zvonko lost his virginity to, long before his friends, the cool kids, lost theirs. He drank in her blue eyes as he climaxed and didn’t give a shit that his dad was a member of the Croatian National Guard or that his grandfather, tears welling in his eyes, put the portrait of the Nazi puppet dictator Ante Pavelić back up on the wall. All he could see and feel was Petra.
He hadn’t merely loved her, he'd worshipped her. There was nothing he wouldn’t have done for her. Why couldn’t she see that?
“I enjoyed our first time much more than you did. I know that today. I couldn’t see it back then.”
“I don’t blame you,” laughed Petra, “I truly don’t, all the women I know say that when they first had sex they thought the sky was falling and it was sheer coincidence that the cataclysm ended with no victims . . . Zvonko, our relationship was no different than a million others, regardless of the civil war.”
“Actually, it was a rebellion,” Zvonko corrected her.
“It wasn’t a civil war. It was a rebellion.”
“A rebellion? Do you really need to tutor me in history right now?”
“No, it’s not, but . . . Just saying. It was not a civil war.”
Petra watched him.
“It was a rebellion? And it’s OK to rename the town of Vrginmost ‘Gvozd’?”
Zvonko coughed, cleared his throat.
“So who were the rebels in this rebellion?”
“Well, the Serbs.”
“Was I one?”
He squinted at her.
“No, of course not.”
“No. Wait, you didn’t rebel but other Serbs did. They weren’t for a free Croatia.”
“And what does this have to do with my parents, Zvonko? Why were bombs planted twice in our house? Did you know the first time my legs were all lacerated by the broken glass? They weren’t the second time because I pulled blankets up over my head after the blast and sobbed. I thought about how I’d see you the next day and how everything would be nicer then. Dad called the police so instead of you I saw some cop standing in our garden with a flashlight eating strawberries. Where were you that day?”
“But you . . . ” stuttered Zvonko, “fled to the Serbian-held territories, didn’t you? Your dad was . . . ”
“My dad was what?” Her voice was calm; it didn’t sound as if she were expecting an answer. “He was shooting a sniper rifle from the courthouse roof? No, he wasn’t. Depending on whom you asked, half the Serbs in Karlovac were ninjas.”
“It was a war, Petra!”
“A rebellion, Zvonko!”
“Now you’ll be rubbing my nose in it.”
“You’re the one who started in with the facts.”
Zvonko sighed wearily. This was getting out of control.
“Listen, you left without a good-bye. One Monday you weren’t at school and that was that.”
“That Saturday they’d set a bomb off in our house for a second time, Zvonko. Dad maybe wouldn’t have left, but Mom was on the verge of collapse. We went to Hungary. Nobody cared what I had to say about it.”
“You know what that looked like to some people? Nobody runs away for no good reason.”
“No good reason? Hey, man, they blew our house up while we were sleeping in it!”
“Sure, but . . . You know yourself what people around here were going through at the time. Many saw the blowing up of Serbian houses as a kind of justice.”
Petra smiled and spread her arms, incredulous.
“I’ve heard that a thousand times. That I should accept them destroying our life because other people were suffering and felt better when we did. But did they? Feel better, I mean. Did anyone ask them what kind of justice they desired? Can one injustice be made right by more injustice?”
“Listen, there were a lot of people who didn’t think blowing up Serbian homes in Karlovac was an injustice.”
“I know,” nodded Petra.
“I’m not speaking for myself. Damn it, according to you I should be walking around wearing one of those black T-shirts the Fascists wore. The idiots blew up empty houses, too. Even my dad felt that was pointless, and you know what he’s like. He watched the Serbs being run out of town and wondered why we were doing our level best to undermine our own city all by ourselves.”
“Such a rational, orderly, legalistic mindset.”
The two of them stopped, their gazes scanned the surrounding buildings. They knew their discussion wasn’t over, but they couldn’t pinpoint what was missing. Petra lit a cigarette. She offered one to Zvonko but he waved her off.
“I called you after the first bomb went off in our house. Your mother picked up. At first she sounded overjoyed that a girl was calling her son, but as soon as I gave my name she hung up on me.”
Zvonko’s eyes widened.
“My mother? She never said a word.”
“And she never will. Now she’s probably too ashamed.”
Zvonko stared at the ground, shaking his head.
“I’d never have thought that of her. Today she and her Serbian neighbor are best friends. Why didn’t you say something?”
“What would have been the point? I had the impression it was just a matter of days before we, too, would be leaving . . . or disappeared. And your mother is forever.”
Zvonko looked up at Petra’s glasses.
“Not for some.”
“Oh, you get used to it,” Petra shrugged. “Sometimes I feel as if Mom, Grandma, and Grandpa never even existed. As if I’m grieving for shadows.”
Among the rare passersby in front of the pedestrian underpass Zvonko spotted a cousin and waved hello. His pot-bellied cousin walked away with a brief, curious glance over his shoulder. Zvonko knew he’d be met with questions from relatives and friends. And his wife!
“There are people,” said Zvonko with resignation, “even today you are the Petra whose dad was a sniper who, when push came to shove, fled to Krajina and from there continued shooting at his former neighbors. There were rumors he was killed in Operation Storm.”
Petra’s emotions weren’t legible behind her sunglasses. She replied coldly.
“I know people here constructed him into a Chetnik. In 1994 Dad managed to open a law firm in Belgrade. He is working to this day, though he’s not earning much . . . How do you think it was for me in Belgrade with my Croatian accent? During my first month there I’d slip up and say bok for hi. Nobody called me a Chetnik slut there, of course, but other nicknames dogged me. In sophomore year I was even pummeled in the school hallway.” She smiled sourly. “Just girls. I often wondered whether it would have been the same if I'd been ugly.”
“I’m sorry, Petra. But how was I to stand up to bigotry?”
“I can't believe a Croat would have the nerve to say that!”
Petra glanced around, as if out of habit.
“I admit I’m no saint, but I think there’s no way we’re worse than the Serbs. Especially the Serbs from Serbia.”
“You’re referring to faceless masses,” whispered Petra. “How do you know which you belong to?”
“Nothing. Just something a woman, a poet, once said.”
“See, you didn’t come back to Croatia expecting anything positive. You came to judge and be judged and that’s what you got.”
“Well of course, who could there be to blame but me?” Petra gestured to a man who was dumpster-diving by the pedestrian underpass. “You have your freedom, Zvonko. You’ve had your Croatia for twenty years now. And what have you made of it? How can the Serbs still be your worst nightmare?”
“There’s a crisis on everywhere. Have we elected thieves to office? Sure we have. Are things any better in Serbia?”
“Probably not. But why do you need so badly for the Serbs to be worse off than you are? Besides, I don’t live in Belgrade any more.”
“Really? Where are you now?”
She looked at him for a few long moments, tossed away her cigarette, and stubbed it with the toe of her shoe.
“Doesn’t matter. I’m off before my parking meter runs out. Don’t follow me, Zvonko.”
Her words stung him.
“Don’t follow you? I’m not a high-school kid any more, Petra. I’m no stalker.”
She smiled. “How could I know that? I don’t know you, Zvonko. And you don’t know me. Twenty years ago we shared the most intimate things two people can share, but now we know nothing of each other.”
“Maybe that’s what you think.”
“It’s what I know.”
“Bullshit.” He could feel anger crack his voice. “Do you know how my friends treated me after you fled? They used to whisper that Zvonko’s girlfriend hotfooted it to Krajina after spreading the Chetnik virus.”
A smile escaped Petra.
“They said that to you? For real? What can you expect from such friends? I, too, had loads of friends who became strangers after ’91.”
“You find that amusing? After you disappeared nobody would speak to me for months. None of it would have bothered me if you’d stayed. Or at least said something before you left.” His voice shook. “Didn’t I mean anything to you?”
Petra watched him from behind her dark glasses.
“You’re asking if I was in love with you? No, sorry, Zvonko. I liked you, but you were not my type by a long shot. A person does what needs to be done to survive. Your mother, for instance, hated Serbs during the war but today she probably doesn’t hate them anymore. I was a kid. It made sense to have a boyfriend. It turned out you were the boyfriend. It allowed me to feel normal. Despite the war I went out on dates, I had posters on my bedroom walls, there was someone else besides my parents who’d remember my birthday . . . Sorry if I hurt your feelings.”
“No, no, you didn’t,” Zvonko shook his head firmly. “Though I don’t remember you being so cold back then. Can anyone be so calculating at fifteen or sixteen? Was it all just an act?”
Petra watched him, turning her head slightly.
“Well, who has the right to control my life and my feelings but me?”
Zvonko looked at her askance.
“On the one hand, my parents and I were expected to embrace the newly founded Croatian state, and we did, without much fuss, but then they planted bombs in our house, treated us like Serbian extremists, and wondered why we hadn’t yet left for Krajina. When we did flee in horror, everyone was fine with that because Chetniks were supposed to flee. When most of my family was killed in a column of civilians escaping the onslaught on tractors, they said: 'It’s their own damned fault, why were they fleeing anyway? Why didn’t they stay and embrace the Croatian government?' But if they’d stayed and were killed on their front doorstep, would that be their fault, too? Zvonko, why does my mother’s loss still hurt so badly after all these years?” Petra took off her sunglasses so they could look each other in the eye. “I was eighteen when I lost her. Don’t I have the right to grieve?”
“Who says you don’t?”
“Everybody! Sure, my mother, grandmother, and grandfather were civilians and utterly innocent, but a Serb in some other place killed a Croatian mother, grandmother, and grandfather, and everybody seems surprised that I’m seeking justice for my family. I don’t remember when I last heard as much song and dance as I heard today in that courtroom.” She stepped toward Zvonko for the first time, close enough for him to smell a mingling of perfume and tobacco. “My mother lost the right to be innocent in Croatia, and I lost the right to mourn her. It’s as if one's right to grief is measured according to a point-system. I do not have the right to grieve more than Croatian daughters grieve.”
She was about to touch him but pulled back when he gave a barely visible cringe. An older woman who was walking by with a white poodle eyed them with curiosity.
“I never saw any sort of plan for a greater Serbia,” sniffled Petra, stepping back. “I never contributed to it, I never advocated for it. If such a thing did exist, it destroyed my life every bit as much as it did many other lives. How am I to feel responsible for something I never could have known about or prevented?”
“No one holds you responsible,” muttered Zvonko.
“Everyone holds me responsible. My mother was responsible, probably her mother as well. If we weren’t responsible, then we reaped what the Serbs sowed, and we deserved it.”
“Petra, you have to understand that . . .”
She raised her hand and he stopped.
“Don’t. I can no longer bear to listen to how I have to understand why it makes sense that my family was killed.” She put on her glasses and her blue eyes disappeared again. Zvonko’s heart sank. On the one hand, he wanted to tell her how deep an impact she’d had on his heart and soul all these twenty years, on the other hand he itched to set her straight on some of the delusions she was evidently still clinging to. Maybe his dad could have explained to her what the Homeland War was all about and what it meant for every Croat.
“Now I’m really going,” said Petra. “Sometimes I have the impression that it's no longer even possible for Croats to live here. Have a nice life.”
She made no attempt to shake his hand. She simply turned and continued toward the pedestrian underpass. Just like that, as if they’d be bumping into each other the next day, too. She was walking away again, except this time he was watching her do it.
“The third of April!” shouted Zvonko after her. “April third is your birthday.”
“And what’s today’s date, Zvonko?”
He swallowed hard. Petra grinned and continued on her way. He stood there, lopsided like a half-empty sack. “Oh shit,” he muttered.
© Zoran Janjanin. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 Ellen Elias-Bursać. All rights reserved.
The following excerpt is from the tentatively titled Doring: Remembering Dorje Tsering, Pema Bhum's memoir of coming of age in Tibet during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, in which the author recalls a resilient teacher in Rebkong who kept the Tibetan language and traditions alive.
When I first came to Dharamsala as an exile, the question that I kept hearing from Tibetans and non-Tibetans alike was how I had managed to learn such decent Tibetan when I came from inside Tibet. For an ordinary person from an ordinary nation, it would be incredible for this kind of question to arise—the question of how he had come to know, to know well, his own language. But for us, Tibetans who had lost control over our destiny to others, this had become a very normal everyday question. Indeed, this question had become especially commonplace for someone like me who had grown up (in Tibet) during the Cultural Revolution.
As the Chinese state claimed, the Great Cultural Revolution of the Proletariat “turned the sky and the earth upside down,” “overturned the universe,” and was a revolution that “touched the very souls of men.” This was no empty claim. If the events of the Cultural Revolution were related to a person who had no idea what the Cultural Revolution was, the person would think the storyteller was a madman, so extreme were the events of the period. Let me give you this example from Tibet. Before the Cultural Revolution, Tibetans so revered their Lama that there were those who considered even his urine to be blessed, to be holy water. But during the Cultural Revolution, the very students of these Lamas called them oppressors and exploiters—the students attacked their Lama, spat in his face, and even forced him to drink his own urine. There were many such incidents. This “revolution” left nothing untouched—not Tibetan religion, not culture, not language, not even Tibetan clothing and utensils.
It may not sound like an unusual thing for a Tibetan teacher to teach his Tibetan students the Tibetan language and to encourage them to learn Tibetan. But during the Cultural Revolution, it was an extremely unusual thing. When the Cultural Revolution had just ended, there was an older Tibetan man who happened to teach at the same school with me. He was a scholar of Tibetan and he didn’t know any other languages. He always told his students not to learn Tibetan but to learn Chinese instead. He told them in class, “You must learn Chinese as well as you can. Now it will be only fifteen, twenty years before we have a fully Communist system. When the Communist system arrives, no one will have to go to the store to buy what they need, they can just get it from the storeroom. But you have to know how to write a letter for the item you need. And there will be only Chinese at the time, no other languages. If you don’t learn Chinese well now, when the Communist system is here, you won’t even be able to get things you need from the storeroom.”
Who knows if this old teacher really believed in his heart that a true Communist system would reign in fifteen or twenty years? However, in those days, no matter who you were, no matter what you believed, you had to be a revolutionary. There was no way around it. And everyone knew that the way to become a revolutionary was through the Chinese language and not Tibetan. The government and the people both believed this, so that even though there was never any clear and official announcement that Tibetan should be banned, it just naturally happened that it was no longer possible to learn Tibetan in many Tibetan regions. Those who wanted to learn Tibetan became fewer and fewer indeed. This old Tibetan teacher had three children himself, and he sent them all to Chinese school instead of Tibetan school. And so a new generation came of age in Tibet, a generation who cried, “You bet the three jewels I am Tibetan! You bet the three jewels I can’t read Tibetan!”
At a time when such things were going on, there was a Tibetan language teacher at the Teacher’s College in Malho Tibetan Autonomous County in Rebkong, Amdo. His name was Sir Dorje Tsering. Dorje Tsering’s philosophy, as he expressed it, could be summed up in the following sentences: If you wanted to be a revolutionary, you had better know Mao Zedong Thought. For a Tibetan, it was certainly easier to learn Mao Zedong Thought by studying it in Tibetan rather than Chinese. Thus, the Tibetan students had to learn the Tibetan language as best they could.
During the Cultural Revolution, whatever end one had in mind, if you could demonstrate that it was for the sake of Mao Zedong Thought, then no one could place any obstacle in your way. Even the elements were powerless—water couldn’t have flooded it and fire couldn’t have burned it. The Tibetan language was considered contemptible and there were obstacles to overcome if you wanted to learn it. But if anyone had tried to stop someone else from studying Mao Zedong Thought in any language whatsoever, that gesture would have been as vain as a moth striving with its wings to put out the flame of a butter lamp.
So Sir Dorje Tsering taught us with Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book standing in for our Tibetan language textbook. This was so that we would learn Mao Zedong Thought. Then Sir taught us the fundamentals of Tibetan grammar with the basic Sumchupa Tibetan grammar. This was also so that we would learn Mao Zedong Thought. Then we worked on Dhagyig Sheja Rabsel (The Clear Rules of Tibetan Orthography) for a long time. This, too, was so that we would learn Mao Zedong Thought. The fact was, at that time it wasn’t allowed for someone to even look at a book of Tibetan grammar and orthography, let alone to teach it.
Sir Dorje Tsering and his colleagues Dorje Rinchen and Jamyang persisted in teaching the Tibetan language in Rebkong during the Cultural Revolution, and it was their teaching which kept the heart-root of Tibetan alive in Rebkong during the Cultural Revolution. After the Cultural Revolution was over, many Amdo townships depended on these Tibetan students of Rebkong to resuscitate Tibetan language in their areas. Later even places like Chamdo in Kham and towns in Utsang had to bring in teachers from Rebkong. But Sir Dorje Tsering didn’t have a great many volumes to his name like the scholars of old nor did he have essays and short stories like contemporary writers today, and so his reputation dimmed. Now there are only a few of us, we who are his former students, who know of his great legacy.
Dorje Tsering was born in the year 1934, in the Wood Dog year of the sixteenth sexagenary cycle, to a couple named Namtsek and Manitso in the village of Gengya in Trangyarnang, Rebkong. He had one sister named Chomotso. Whether he had other siblings or not, I’ve been unable to ascertain.
The elderly folk of Gengya remember that Dorje Tsering was a brave and strong-hearted boy who stood up for the weak. Whenever he saw a bully pushing around a weaker kid, he would confront the bully.
Dorje Tsering’s father, Namtsek, was one of the poorest men in the village. He made a living by working as a laborer in the neighboring villages. It was in the village of Bayan, now called Hualong by the Chinese government, that Namtsek met Manitso and married her. Namtsek brought his bride back to Gengya village. Since he owned no land in the village, the two of them ended up in nearby Chuma Thang. Here they fenced in a small plot of wasteland, tilled and reclaimed it as farmland, and built a small house where they settled down.
Namtsek died when Dorje Tsering was still very young. From the age of around ten till he reached sixteen or seventeen, Dorje Tsering herded the family’s sheep and goats. I have heard his family say that he herded the animals with the same dedication and commitment that he brought to everything else he did; while he was the family herder, not a single sheep or goat ever went missing.
It was in the first half of the 1950s that the Communist power began to make itself felt in Rebkong. In order to raise a Communist cadre from among the Tibetan people, the government required each district to send a quota of young boys and girls to school in Xining. At the time, Tibetans thought it was the most terrible fate to send their children to the Chinese schools. In Gyengya town, the people had to resort to drawing straws to determine which children would be sent to meet the quota. Dorje Tsering and Chomotso escaped; their names were not drawn in the lottery. However, the news soon spread throughout town that Dorje Tsering’s mother Manitso had sent off her two children to the Chinese school to take the places of two children whose families didn’t wish for them to go.
There were those who said that Manitso was paid by the families whose children were drawn in the lottery to send her kids in their place to the Chinese school. However it happened, in the early Fifties, Dorje Tsering and Chomotso went to school in Xining. Here Dorje Tsering majored in Tibetan and Chinese languages in the Language Department of the institution that we now call the Qinghai Nationalities University. Then he studied at the Northwest Nationalities University in Lanzhou. After graduating from Lanzhou, he returned to Xining to teach.
This was a time of violent rebellion by the Tibetans who rose up against the Chinese rule that was being newly established across Tibet by the Communist Party. The government responded by sending in the People’s Liberation Army to brutally suppress the rebellion. Dorje Tsering was called upon to translate for the Liberation Army, and as translator, he assisted in the “resolute pacification of rebellion” in areas such as Golok in Amdo and Zachukha, Jyegundo, and Karze in Kham.
As the Chinese Communist Party established itself in Tibet, they began their campaign to seduce people to their cause by first winning over the poorest of the poor. As Dorje Tsering’s family was one of these poor households, the Party wooed his mother Manitso and installed her into the ranks of the Gengya village leadership. Later she was assigned to lead other villages as well. Manitso was a blunt, rough-spoken woman, but she was very capable and she had a kind heart. The villagers feared her because she wielded the power of the Chinese government, but they also respected her because she truly cared about the villagers’ welfare. She became quite famous for a time in Trangyarnang in Rebkong.
Dorje Tsering’s sister Chomotso worked in the broadcasting services of the Qinghai National Radio Station in Xining. Before the Cultural Revolution, the Tibetan service used to broadcast the epics of King Gesar of Ling and traditional Tibetan folk tales. Chomotso had excellent articulation and great facility with imitating the voices of various characters in the stories, male and female, young and old, and she became famous all over Amdo. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, the program was brought back on the air and in fact I have listened to Chomotso a few times telling children’s stories and folk tales on the radio.
I heard Sir Dorje Tsering’s name a couple of times before I saw him for the first time. I had heard people say that there was a scholar from Rebkong called Dorje Tsering who lived and worked in Xining because a small place like Rebkong offered him no opportunities to use his scholarship. He must have been teaching in Xining at the time. In 1970, I was accepted into the Malho Trik National Teacher’s College in Rebkong. I can’t remember whether it was that same year or another year when the news spread at school that the great Tibetan scholar Dorje Tsering had just joined our faculty. Of course no one knew exactly how he was a great scholar or in what field, but the story that the students told again and again was how he had once gone to Dzongkar monastery in Upper Rebkong and sat in a debate against all their monks and roundly defeated them.
I was wondering when I would catch a glimpse of this famous teacher when I finally saw him for the first time; I still recall the day clearly. The first time I saw him, I felt fear before I felt respect. He was talking with some teachers in the courtyard of the staff room. He was the tallest of all of them. He also had the longest face and the darkest. His hair was as black as pitch.
When we addressed our teachers, we addressed them with the Chinese word for teacher, “Laoshi,” after their name. In the school, there were two teachers whose names were Dorje and “Dorje Laoshi” could have meant either of them. So we addressed Sir Dorje Tsering as Doring Laoshi, the “Do” from Dorje and “Ring” from Tsering forming the word “Doring,” the Tibetan word for a stone pillar. Whenever we heard the name “Doring,” we felt instinctively that the word also referred to his figure and his face.
Just as Sir Dorje Tsering had a physique unlike all the other teachers, so he had a personality that was all his own. We could tell he had a unique personality from the way he dressed alone. Ever since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution when Mao Zedong greeted the Red Army in his olive green military uniform, it had become a trend for everyone in China and Tibet, for everyone under Party rule, to wear an olive green shirt and an olive green cap. At first people were making do with just wearing the olive green color because it was impossible to get your hands on a real army uniform, but after a few years, everyone began trying desperately to get a real army uniform without the insignia, and would pay soldiers very high prices for old army caps and so on. In our school, for instance, there were only a very few folks among the teachers and students who wanted to wear Tibetan clothes; the rest of us were doing what we could to find an army uniform. But in all those years, we never saw Sir Dorje Tsering in anything that was olive green. He always wore a pale blue Chinese suit until winter arrived. Then he put away this pale blue suit and came to class wearing a lambskin burgundy Tibetan chupa.
When he came to class in Tibetan clothes, we always felt awed and intimidated by him. We were awed because at that time everyone wore Chinese clothes to appear as Chinese as possible, and everyone wore army clothes to appear as revolutionary as possible, but Sir Dorje Tsering went around wearing not only a Tibetan lambskin chupa, but a burgundy chupa that was almost the color of a Tibetan monk’s robes. And we were intimidated because, as I mentioned earlier, Sir Dorje Tsering was very tall with a long, dark, forbidding face. In his Tibetan chupa, he looked even more imposing and intimidating.
Just as Sir Doring had no interest in fashion himself, so he had no liking for the students who were interested in being fashionable and stylish. He often said that these students were like butterflies. Because Sir Doring was absolutely unconcerned about his clothes, the fact that he bought a new pair of leather shoes became hot news at school one day. A student saw him at a shop buying a new pair of leather shoes and immediately rushed back to school to broadcast the news so that, before Sir Doring and his new shoes had even stepped foot on campus, all the students already knew about them.
He would tell us again and again that of all the subjects we were studying, the most important was the Tibetan language and the second most important the Chinese language. His view was that if you knew one of these two languages well, then your language helped you become naturally good at the other subjects such as math and geography and history. Before Sir Doring became our Tibetan teacher, math was the subject that I liked the most and the subject that came most easily to me. But when Sir Doring became our Tibetan teacher, Tibetan became my favorite subject and my flair for Tibetan also increased greatly.
In our class there were about ten students from a village of Rebkong called Togya Bokor. The people of Rebkong called them Dordos and the government called them the Hor people. They didn’t speak Tibetan. Instead they spoke the Dor or the Hor language. They had no problems learning Tibetan but they had poor pronunciation. Their village was close to a large Chinese town called Togya. Even though their curriculum was different from the Chinese, they went to the same school as the Chinese, so the students from Togya Bokor had better Chinese than the rest of us in the class. We Tibetans looked down on the Dordos for having poor Tibetan pronunciation and envied them for their good Chinese, and the Dordos looked down on the Tibetans for our poor Chinese and envied us for our crisp Tibetan pronunciation. As our class was divided into two factions, so it was with our Chinese and Tibetan teachers. The Chinese teacher favored the Dordos and the Tibetan teacher favored the Tibetans. Even though Sir Doring constantly advised us that it was imperative for us to study Chinese well, if we had to choose one or the other, then he thought Tibetan was the more important.
Although we had heard many stories about Sir Doring’s excellent Chinese, we had no idea how good it actually was. We found out the extent of his Chinese expertise at an event that brought tears to our eyes. At that time, there was a campaign launched all over China called “Remember the Past Suffering and Be Happy for the Present,” to recall the suffering of the old society and to be grateful for the happiness of the new society. To ensure that we didn’t forget the evils of the old society, every once in a while the school invited people who used to be destitute in the old society to talk about how the landlords and the rich people used to oppress and torment them.
As we listened to these talks on the evils of the old society, many of us tried to cry to show our hatred for the old society and our love for the new. At that time, if anyone accidentally laughed for any reason, that person was considered to have committed a political crime. There were definitely more than a few students who had to swipe some saliva over their eyes during these sessions so as not to look so dry-eyed.
One day the school called in a Chinese laborer to talk to the teachers and students about his suffering under the old society. The Chinese had been talking for about ten minutes when our teachers started crying. Then they began to take their handkerchiefs out of their pockets and wipe their eyes. Now the students from the two Chinese classes began to cry and wipe their eyes. As more and more people began to cry and the sound of crying got louder, the Chinese man also raised his voice, which now had a new note of tears in it. His face was wet. At times he would stop and pause, unable to speak for a moment, and during these pauses, the sound of his listeners crying got even louder.
The rest of us students who had only the most basic Chinese watched this scene unfold. Some of us kept staring at the Chinese guy’s face. Others stared at each other, and yet others stared at the teachers and students who were crying. Perhaps an hour went by. The majority of us who didn’t know Chinese were still dry-eyed. There were some girls who were now weeping. It wasn’t that they were saddened by the Chinese man’s sorrow; it was seeing and listening to the crying that pulled forth their tears.
Seeing my teachers weep made my heart heavy. I wanted to know whether Sir Doring’s face was wet or not. I think many other students were also eager to see his reaction. But he was standing far away from us, all the way at the front of the lines. His face was turned toward the podium and we could only see the back of his head. If we had seen a stray tear on his long and dark face, then his tear would certainly have caused most of us to cry as well.
The Chinese man finished his narration of the old society’s evils and all the teachers and students wiped their eyes and gave him a long and thunderous round of applause. The principal thanked the man and then the teachers and the students from the Chinese classes all left the hall to go to class. Now it was just us students who didn’t know Chinese left in the hall. Sir Doring went to the podium, opened a little notebook in front of him, and began interpreting the entirety of the Chinese man’s talk into Tibetan.
I scanned Sir Doring’s face but saw no signs of tears at all. His eyes were bone dry. His face was long and dark as usual, with no sign of any sorrow or joy. For over an hour, Sir Doring talked, translating the Chinese man’s speech of the evils of the old society. Sir Doring’s voice sounded as if a glob of saliva were clogging his throat but apart from that, his voice betrayed no hint of joy or sorrow.
Sir Doring had not been speaking for long when some of the female students started crying. A few of the male students also began to cry. I started wondering whether the notes in Sir Doring’s notebook were in Chinese or in Tibetan. Whether he had taken those notes in Tibetan or in Chinese, I thought it was wonderful that Sir Doring had listened to the Chinese man tell his story for more than an hour and then after the man had finished, reproduced the same talk in Tibetan, interpreting for over a full hour.
After the function was over, I marveled with my friends over Sir Doring’s display. And that’s what we talked about, Sir Doring’s skill as interpreter and translator; hardly anyone talked about the Chinese man’s story of his suffering in the old society.
From Doring: Remembering Dorje Tsering. © Pema Bhum. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Tenzin Dickie. All rights reserved.
When her high-ranking husband disappears and is presumed murdered, a widow protects the life of her vulnerable only son, Tha'ir.
There was nothing unexpected about it. It wasn’t a coincidence, or something that just ended up happening in that haphazard way things sometimes can in life. Nor was it something done on a whim by a young man who suddenly decided to start living in the dark for some capricious reason of his own. No, this was a plan carefully thought out and put into action by my mother, a martyr’s widow and mother of ﬁve fearful about the fate her only son would meet above ground. She began work on my cellar kingdom the moment I handed her my high school graduation certiﬁcate in the summer of 1986—I had been placed on the literary track and earned a 95.5 percent grade average. She forbade everyone who lived in the house from going anywhere near the long hallway that led to the big wooden door of the cellar, on the pretext that she didn’t want us to disturb the spirit of our late father. She explained that he had chosen the cellar as his barzakh—his place to rest in after death, before he met his maker. She convinced my sisters that the spirits of the dead had ugly faces they only showed to their close relations, and if any of the girls in their family looked at them, even accidentally, they would get hexed and go mad and would therefore remain spinsters forever.
I don’t know why I believed my mother’s tales about the barzakh. I was too engrossed in our family’s collective mourning sessions for my father, all the wailing and face‐slapping, to really notice the noise of the builders, carpenters, and plumbers working beneath us. I would sit with my sisters and my paternal grandmother and we’d chant the traditional dirges together, like a group of widows at a graveside, “O you, the one who has gone and left us! O you, the one who has gone and left us!” Our eyes were full of tears but they stayed steadily trained on the picture of my father that hung in the living room with all the sanctity beﬁtting a shrine to a general in the Republican Guard.
It took two months and seven days to get the cellar ready. By the time I began my ﬁrst year of studies at Mosul University Faculty of Law everything was in place for me to avoid the fate my father had met in the Iran–Iraq war, a blazing ﬁre that was then in its seventh year, still raging ferociously all along the eastern border of the country. Even though I was over eighteen by that point, and would therefore be considered an adult according to the criteria used by both the Department of Civil Status and the Department of Child Services, my mother and my grandmother insisted that I was still a child. They weren’t bothered by the fact that I was now the tallest person in the household—they treated my height as if it was just another normal stage in a child’s development, like losing baby teeth. And, hemmed in as I was by this strict female leadership, I didn’t have room to explore my masculinity, which was tentatively unfurling before me: locked in the bathroom after midnight, I had to make do with a few surreptitious sweaty spasms.
We lived in the center of Mosul, in a neighborhood that most of the military officers called home. I didn’t have any friends there. As far as the neighbor kids were concerned I was the spoiled son of a snobbish family, so on the rare occasions I attempted to slither out of my mother’s grip I was an easy target for them. Not even their parents did anything to discipline their crazy children or condemn the kicks and slaps they directed at me as I ﬂed. They would pound along behind me shouting “Sissy! Weed!”
At primary school I wasn’t lucky enough to make any friends who could restrain themselves from laughing at my stammer and the fey and extremely delicate way I had of expressing myself. It was only the girls who treated me like a human being and accepted me just as I was, transcending what appeared freakish to others. The female teachers noticed this, and in the ﬁfth and sixth year of primary school they let me carry the ﬂame with the girls’ division of the Vanguard Cadets at the school’s annual spring festival.
When I moved on from primary school to begin the next phase of my schooling at al-Dawahi Middle School and Eastern Preparatory School, neither of which were co-ed, I stuck with my usual seat at the front of the class. I was considered the brightest pupil, and I was by far the most attached to the blackboard. I was always eager to answer the teachers’ questions, and I posed a lot of them, too, and would then wait for the answer with a look of urgency on my face. I constantly had my foreﬁnger raised to request the teacher’s permission to speak, and I would ignore my classmates’ fits of laughter at my stutter and the froggy way I leaped around at the front of the class. My beautiful handwriting would carve out bright white solutions on the smooth black surface of the board, and I took it upon myself to write the date or the subject of the class or whatever the teachers dictated to me. I was famous for being the only person who would burst out crying if he earned anything less than ninety percent on his written exams.
The route from our house to school and back was the only one I knew. I wasn’t allowed to do any housework, or to even have an opinion about it. My only duties were to do my homework and to listen to my grandmother’s stories. She told long tales of my father’s heroic deeds and the battles he’d fought for the sake of our nation, and others about my grandfather’s work to preserve the true history of our country and save it from being falsiﬁed.
I surrendered absolutely to my mother’s aﬀection and acumen. She would do my thinking for me and make decisions on my behalf, feed me and bathe me and choose my clothes and toys, draw me to her and hold me close like a newborn every night. So it was only natural that I would talk like her, walk like her, laugh and eat just like her. Maybe that was what made my sisters feel like I was one of them, so much so that they drew me in to the games that boys didn’t usually play: counting games, word games, singing games, plus hopscotch and musical chairs. They also let me use their crayons to draw ﬂowers and practice printing teddy and rabbit designs on pillow covers. Perhaps it was also my girlishness that made them tell me all their secrets; I would blush and curl up in a ball like a hedgehog to hide my erection.
My mother was the commander of the battleﬁeld in our house, as the saying goes—she was in charge, and she was the brains behind everything that went on, because my father was always busy making war. After his empty coﬃn was carried out of the house draped in an Iraqi ﬂag my mother’s authority became absolute: she was the sole decision-maker now, only occasionally conceding to my grandmother the minor standby role of deputy, or consultant, on a limited range of issues. Even before that she had always treated my older sisters Sandas, Shams, Nasma, Israa, and Suad like puppets she could jerk about with the strings of her authority as she pleased, so they had grown up to be identical copies of each other, stuck in the house for years on end, stagnating like unused amulets hanging on a wall. The hand of a suitor never reached out for any of them, so in the end my mother got a magic charm made by a fortune-teller from al-Rashidia to lift the curse of spinsterhood from Sandas, the eldest. But she was divorced and back in the house with her two children just two weeks after my father's wake.
Things carried on as they always had when I became a university student, except that my mother and grandmother began teaching me how to live in the dark. I was forced to complete this additional homework every Friday, blindfolded and half-naked, in the concrete storeroom in our back garden. It was a weekly training camp that they took turns leading, and it took place at dawn, out of my sisters’ sight. To motivate me and instill in me a determination to learn the art of staying in the dark like an owl they made sure that I watched the program “Scenes from the Battle” every day without fail. It was normally broadcast on Iraqi state television, but it carried on being shown on a video player in our house even after the war had ended and I had reached the third year of university. My mother and grandmother had easily achieved their desired result: I would panic if I even heard the theme tune, and start to gnaw at my ﬁngernails, terriﬁed of the presenter’s voice as he bellowed his commentary over the rolling footage of mutilated Iranian corpses and their destroyed weapons, their helmets and army boots shredded by bullets and shrapnel.
Two ceaseless sirens rang inside my head for over four years, shrilling their twin warnings of war and the death sentence for evading it, both of which would lead to exactly the same outcome: my death. Martyr, traitor, whatever—it was all the same thing as far as my mother, my grandmother, and I were concerned, and the only possible deliverance from it was to hide me away completely and turn me into an invisible creature of the underworld until some miracle might bring me back up to the surface.
Until I entered the cellar, I believed that when the Ba’ath Party and security force squads, the secret police and the military staﬀ discipline enforcement oﬃcers repeatedly raided our house without any warning, sometimes late at night, it was just the actions of a nation checking that a martyr’s family was doing all right. I never believed—contrary to the gossip our malicious neighbor Om Yaqoub used to spread about us—that they were actually searching for my father’s soul.
The ﬁrst raid took place in the middle of 1985, the day after my mother declared my father missing in action. According to the army’s previous announcement he had been martyred, but she rejected this verdict as there was no physical proof. The sudden raids continued throughout the following year, including one that took place just a few days after my mother and grandmother announced that they were now convinced, on the basis of what a conscript who had served under my father told them, of my father’s death.
The men spread out all over the house. They searched under the beds and beneath the sheets, tearing away bedcovers and pillows. Then they looked in the cupboards, in the kitchen, and in the bathroom, the front and back garden. They went up onto the ﬂat roof, down into the cellar, and out into the storeroom. Then they began ﬁring questions at my mother and grandmother and writing their answers down in a big notebook. Then they left.
Every time government men raided our home I would squeeze into my sisters’ bedroom with them and we would all recite the fear prayer together while we watched the soldiers torture our nightclothes and toys. We tried not to let them catch us staring at their angry faces. When they moved on to the other bedrooms we would be so anxious to hear what was going on that our ears would be out on stalks. Mainly all we could hear was their pounding footfalls in their heavy army boots as they crashed around barking and grunting at each other; even if we’d been able to make out their words, we wouldn’t have understood them—but we knew from experience exactly what those sounds meant. On two occasions my mother came and took me out to the soldiers: them with their red berets and their thick mustaches, and me with my civil status card and my student card in the pocket of my al-Baza brand pajamas. They mocked the way I repeated my full name and school year. I clearly remember one of them saying, as my mother was taking me back to my room, "Tha’ir, you’re Nestle spunk."*
Before my father disappeared in the war our house was a place of pilgrimage: friends, relations, and acquaintances flocked to it day and night. They often brought ﬁles with them, and military applications for the transfer of certain soldiers from the ﬁrst line of ﬁre to the rear section; or they might be trying to ﬁnd out what had happened to someone of whom they’d had no news during the battles. My mother would gather up the requests and wait for my father to come home on leave. She would emphatically refuse to accept any of the gifts the visitors brought her in an attempt to gain my father’s favor. During my fourth year of preparatory school I walked in from a math exam one day to ﬁnd my father in the kitchen tearing up paperwork in a frenzy, thousands of scraps of paper strewn around him on the ﬂoor and all over the chairs and the worktops. My mother sat at the table scooping the ﬂesh out of an eggplant and trying to stiﬂe her sobs. Jabbing his ﬁnger at the name on a ﬁle he was about to tear up, my father said to her:
“I told you not to accept any documents from those dogs, Ahlam, and to chase them away from the door.”
My mother snorted back her snot and tears, and my grandmother’s head came into view as she leaned forward to watch them from where she was sitting in the living room.
“I’m a military professional, a self-made man: I built myself up from nothing. We are at war, don’t you understand? Think of my reputation!”
Then, stomping on the torn paperwork, he said, “These cowards want special treatment, do they? So what makes them better than all those other youngsters who’ve given their lives on the frontlines?”
After the news of my father’s death was conﬁrmed everyone stopped visiting us except for my uncle Ziad. Uncle Ziad was a carbon copy of my mother—minus the long hair, mustache, and breasts. He’d always maintained his special connection with his twin sister and was by her side in her joys and her sorrows, even though he himself was very unlucky, a constant object of life’s calamities and catastrophes. At the beginning of the war he had been hit by two shrapnel shards: one of them had severed his right metatarsus and the other one had taken out his left eye. He was also unable to have children, but he left the matter in God’s hands rather than consulting a doctor.
Our neighbor Om Yaquob’s sudden visits weren’t really any diﬀerent from the government forces’ raids—they were full of questions, and blatant visual surveillance of everything that went on inside our house, big or small. She was fully primed and ready to report back on it all to her husband so that the party subdivision in our neighborhood could, in turn, be reassured that nothing was happening behind its back. The gardener who usually came round once a month to prune and train back our trees and cut the grass stopped showing up, and the local imam excluded our household from his seasonal alms-gathering plan. My grandmother counted this as a blessing—peace and quiet sent straight from God, an exemption from what would usually have been costly and onerous kitchen toil. But my mother thought more carefully than my grandmother about the implications of this social isolation and feared for my sisters’ chances of ever marrying.
Eighteen minutes past one in the afternoon on Friday, January 11, 1991. At that exact moment I was descending the nine steps down to the cellar with my mother. I was rigid with fear. My senses were shutting down one after the other. My mother was reciting the Verse of the Chair in her gonglike voice and dragging me along like someone being led to the gallows. Nothing could have helped me at that point, not even her last hugs in those rapidly dwindling ﬁnal moments of my freedom. Sobbing, she said to me:
“Tha’ir, don’t hate me, I’m doing what your father told me to do.”
I didn’t answer. I stared into space as she inhaled deeply, savoring my scent, and stroked my face. Then she began murmuring something with her eyes closed and blowing on my hair and chest. After that she grabbed me by the arm to take me on a tour of my new home. The thought of staying down in the cellar all by myself for an unknown period of time terriﬁed me, and that terror was mixed with a fear of seeing my father as a disembodied and disﬁgured spirit. I said nothing of this to my mother, but she understood exactly what was going on when I stopped stock still in an attempt at protest.
“Don’t be afraid, I won’t be far, and”—gesturing over her shoulder at the door—“I’ll stay just on the other side of that, all the time.”
After a brief pause, she continued:
“I won’t be able to come down and see you during the ﬁrst month unless things calm down. I promise I’ll come down after that every Friday at midday, like we agreed. Maybe things will be over soon, and Saddam’ll announce a pardon.”
Stammering like someone vomiting up letters, I said,
“I’ve told you a thousand times: they will take you from me if you stay up there with us. You’ll either be martyred or thrown in prison.”
She was silent for a few minutes. Then, looking over at the stairs, she took a deep breath, and said:
“The war is real, there’s no way round it. You’ve got to stay out of sight of the military intelligence corps, the security forces, and the party comrades. They’ll search everywhere for you and if they ﬁnd your hiding place they’ll kill you in cold blood: you mustn’t ever forget that.”
She hugged me once more, then she whispered in my ear, “Always remember that they execute people who evade military service. They shoot them right outside their front door and then send their folks a bill for the bullets.”
My mother spread the rumor around our neighborhood that she had kicked me out of the house because she couldn’t stand the thought of a draft dodger living under her roof. She told anyone who would listen how she now considered me not only disobedient and recalcitrant but so ungrateful to my homeland that I didn’t deserve to live in it. She made an announcement in front of Khalil’s grocery shop, on behalf of the late martyr General Salim Abu Deraa’s whole family, in which she disowned me and denounced what I had done. She said my cowardly actions were a stain on my father’s name and an insult to the life he’d led—a life that had been so full of bravery, as celebrated by the nation in the many decorations and medals he received for valor. She took some women from the neighborhood with her to the headquarters of the local Ba’ath party branch, including Om Yaqoub, whose husband was a senior local Ba’ath party oﬃcial, and she stood in front of it and read out a letter supposedly written by me:
“Mom, Granny, and my darling sisters, by the time you read this letter I will have crossed the border at Zakho and entered Turkey. From there I will cross the sea to Greece. I’m sorry that I took your money without asking and I’m sorry I didn’t leave any of it for you, but I promise I’ll pay it back as soon as I get settled somewhere in another country. I know I’ve betrayed you all and I know you will never accept me back into the family after what I’ve done. But I’ll always carry on hoping that one day you will be able to forgive me. Farewell kisses to you all, your son Tha’ir Salim Jamil.”
Hamming it up like an actor on stage, my mother tore up the letter and cried out—in the middle of a crowd of astonished party comrades—that she didn’t want anything from that spineless traitor and that she regretted every drop of milk and every moment of motherly love she’d squandered on vermin like me. And that she hoped I drowned in the sea, because if there was one thing she was sure of, it was that I couldn’t swim.
Despite my mother’s skillful performance as the perfect patriot, a role she played without a single slip-up, our house was raided that very evening by members of the military intelligence corps and party comrades accompanied by the neighborhood mukhtar. They searched every last inch of the house, with one major exception: the cellar. Abu Yaqoub, the mukhtar, and two ordinary soldiers in their red berets got as far as the passageway leading to the cellar, my mother and grandmother quaking in silent terror behind them. But at that point they were faced with a ten-foot-tall picture of the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces Saddam Hussein in his ﬁeld marshal’s uniform blocking the far end of the corridor. That stopped all of them in their tracks. Abu Yaqoub, who seemed especially tense, and kept looking twitchily from side to side, rounded on my grandmother and demanded, “Um Salim, where’s your cellar gone?”
“We couldn’t cope with it—it leaked, it was so damp, and it was swarming with cockroaches and mice, it just got too much for us. So we closed it up.’”
And because no one dared to look behind Mr. President—not even Abu Yaqoub, the Secretary to the Leader of the Eagles Brigade of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party—no one ventured to dislodge the huge portrait. Abu Yaqoub made do with informing the women that Tha’ir would be sentenced to execution for desertion if he was captured, and that the senior Comrades had now bestowed on our family the oﬃcial title of “Spineless Traitor’s Kin.” And that we would no longer have any privileges, beneﬁts, or rights.
After everyone else had left, he leaned in close to my grandmother and whispered in her ear:
“If I hadn’t vouched for you in front of the Brother Comrade Member of the Leadership of the Nineveh Branch then only God himself knows how you would have been punished for Tha’ir running away.”
Then, turning to go, his usual festering stink hovering in the air around him, he added, “The pain of being kicked in the head twice by the same family will be felt, that’s for sure.”
The cellar occupied about half the footprint of the main house, and consisted of several rooms, but I didn’t initially explore it as I perhaps should have. I didn’t care what was inside the four interlinking rooms that took up the central two-thirds of the space. I didn’t even set foot inside those inner rooms at all during the whole of my ﬁrst seven days underground, limiting my movements to the area outside them. To be precise, I stayed in the little L-shaped passageway that began at the steps down from the cellar door, made a sharp bend to the right round the wooden partition wall of the inner rooms, and ended at the back wall under one of the cellar’s two tiny and remote windows.
During the ﬁrst few hours after my mother left the cellar and locked the door behind her with a key almost the size of a kitchen knife, I sat at the far end of the passageway, cowering in the corner of the cellar furthest from the door. I sat on an old cushion stuﬀed with wool that time seemed to have turned to stone, my left side jammed up against the wooden planks of the partition and my right against the cement wall. I was so bundled up in clothes I felt swollen with them—long cotton underwear and two pairs of tracksuit bottoms, three woolen jumpers worn over one another, and a military jacket lined with fur. On my feet were two pairs of thick woolen socks my grandmother had knitted especially for my time away. She’d intended them to keep out the winter cold of the cellar—which could drop to zero Celsius on some days—and also to muﬄe the sound of my movements.
I tried to trick my mind by training myself to hold my breath, using my black Casio digital watch to count how long my lungs could manage without any air. With my eyes shut I felt like my whole body was on pause except for my heart, which began protesting inside my chest once I reached forty seconds without taking a breath. When I reached the ﬁftieth second I felt like I now had lots of extra hearts pounding all over my body—my lips were beating, and my neck, my palms, my feet. Eventually my whole body fused into a single heart thumping out the sixtieth second. Despite numerous attempts I never managed to break my own record of sixty-six seconds, set in the storeroom on the last Friday of training. This was not because I wasn’t athletic, or at least the owner of a young set of lungs strong enough to cope without oxygen for a full minute; it was because despite my desperate eﬀorts to occupy my mind with something other than what was happening to me and what lay ahead I couldn’t stop the long list of terrifying things playing through my head. Some of these things were quite familiar to me, some I had to imagine, but it didn’t make any diﬀerence to the clarity of the footage playing in front of my eyes like a video I couldn’t reach the oﬀ switch for. My father’s head is on ﬁre and he carries his severed right arm in his left hand as he wades through a pool of blood, trying to reach me. Saddam guﬀaws and points toward me with his fat Grotto cigar, announcing his discovery of my hiding place. My mother and grandmother and sisters wail over my grave. Black dogs drag me along by my legs. Hundreds of snakes slither over each other, ﬂicking out their forked tongues to lick my naked body. Ghosts with sheep’s heads and cat’s eyes dance around in a boisterous dabke circle that expands and contracts then disintegrates to spawn endless other circles. Cringing and clammy, I gulp as I try to recall my grandmother’s words of encouragement: “Boys become men in the military, and in the darkness.”
I didn’t change my sitting position until my butt and both my legs had started going to sleep. I stretched out on the smooth concrete ﬂoor for two or three minutes, panting like someone who had just run a marathon. I rested my head on the musty old cushion with the rock-hard wool stuﬃng covered in a linen cloth that had turned yellow in the damp. And then, to avoid an inadvertent daytime nap, I went back to my original position and carried on testing my capacity to resist suﬀocation.
Night fell all at once, or that was how it seemed to me as the darkness erased any visual sign of life around me. When I held the ﬁngers of my left hand up in front of my wide-open eyes I couldn’t make them out at all. I touched my nose. I tapped at my forehead with the tips of my ﬁngers. I held the upper and lower lids of my right eye wide apart with my foreﬁnger and thumb, then repeated the test on the left side, conﬁrming that my eyesight was completely shot. The darkness of the cellar was diﬀerent from the darkness of the storeroom: it was as heavy and sticky as concentrated black paint and made me feel like I was shrinking and disappearing. In the state I was in, trying to ﬁght back at the enveloping darkness without a lamp, a lantern, a candle, or even a box of matches was quite simply a waste of time, and would only drain the patience I so desperately needed to conserve.
After I had made sure that any sounds drifting in from the street outside had completely died down, I shifted my body—now completely numb from sitting—over onto the ﬂoor. I lay spreadeagle on my front, the right side of my face stuck to the cold damp-smelling ﬂoor. Then I fell asleep. The television channel in my brain carried on broadcasting its usual programs, but with less terrifying eﬀects than it had on me when I was awake. I found myself in front of a large photo album. I took hundreds of animated dream photos out of it, photos of my classmates in various eras. They were smiling and kind, unlike they’d been in reality, their expressions aﬀectionate and welcoming, accepting of my presence among them. I moved the photos around, and then I stepped right inside them, into the scenes they showed. I wanted to say something to Yasmin as she walked past me with her girlfriends. I ran along with a group of girls including my sisters, Sandas, Shams, Nasma, Israa, and Suad—we were wearing our Vanguard Cadet uniforms and we were trying to catch up with a parade massing alongside the Nineveh wall in Republic Street. I put a heart-shaped letter into Yasmin’s civil law textbook. She waved at me during our graduation ceremony in the student center. My father was bleeding from a hole in his right shoulder but he was smiling. The buses swept us along from Mosul army recruitment center toward the infantry training camp. Snakes climbed up me. My dancing sisters chanted “Lay out the best rugs for him, in the heart of our home” over and over, and at the Ardaat Square training center Saddam angrily completed the chorus of the song as I lay on the ground in front of him, my hands and feet bound: “Our enemy died of envy, turned green and ceased to roam.”
The muezzin's voice woke me: “Prayer is better than sleep,” each word stretched out and slowed down, and propelled across the neighborhood from the nearby mosque by a loudspeaker. It seemed as if he was shouting from inside the cellar, and his voice hummed and buzzed in my ear like tinnitus. I took up my place in the corner once again. I felt as if my head had been wound in a thick bandage so tightly that it hurt. I had to acknowledge the reality of my situation, as my birdlike attempts to escape the idea I was in a cage hadn’t worked. I found myself staring into space, fearful and all alone in pitch-dark solitary conﬁnement. Neither I nor anyone else knew how long I’d be in there. Incarcerated, imprisoned: those two words would suddenly reveal themselves in moments like these, coming up out of the darkness to slap me in the face as if trying to awake me from a deep sleep so that I could understand the diﬀerence between them. In my years of studying law, they’d been nothing more than two inky words staining the pages of my textbooks, but in the cellar they sprang alive, two addresses for a fate I had just taken my ﬁrst steps toward. I asked myself, without expecting an answer, how my incarceration would be classiﬁed in the Iraqi Penal Code 1969 Article 111: “minor”—deﬁned as a sentence between one day and three months, or “serious”—up to ﬁve years. Or would this prison carry me away to even more distant reaches of time than that? In any case what I did know for sure was that I was not like the inmates of ordinary prisons, who were granted the mercy of serving only nine months for each year they were sentenced to; the time I would serve in my prison would contain a full complement of temporal detail, every single moment in place and included. Each of my years would consist of 365 days, each day would be made up of the full twenty‐four hours—and I had no idea how many leap years would pass while I was stuck underground like a worm.
I tried to ﬁnd a legal way out that I could use as a glimmer of hope to counteract all this darkness. I thought about the possibility that the charge of evading conscription would eventually lapse, or be dropped, and wondered how many years I would need to hide in order for my record to be cleared. I asked myself how it worked—was it charges that could get dropped, actually, or judicial rulings? But I didn’t come up with a satisfactory answer, as everything I’d studied in the Faculty of Law had evaporated and nothing remained of those four years except my classmate Yasmin’s face. Thousands of pictures of her were stored in my memory, and every single one showed her looking at something other than the lens of my soul.
During my ﬁrst week in the cellar, I limited my movements to the L‐shaped corridor outside the central rooms. And even those movements were very restricted and only happened during the daytime. I scheduled most of them around my feeding needs—getting a date and sesame kleeja cookie or a coconut sweet from the big aluminum foil bundle of them my mother had put on top of the old A/C unit under the stairs; pulling a dried ﬁg oﬀ the two big string loops of them that hung on a bent nail in the wall between the cellar door and the bathroom door; ﬁlling my cup from the earthenware vat of drinking water that stood beneath the ﬁg loops on a rusty stand covered by a stainless steel tray; reaching up for a large dry disc of raqaq bread from the pile in the red plastic bowl balanced on top of a barrel half full of hardened cement. These basics were all I had to eat during the entire month that passed before my mother came back down to the cellar again. Of course it was all nutritious food that would take a long time to go oﬀ, which was why my mother had chosen it. Dull and cheap though this food was, at that point it wasn’t yet part of the family austerity plan the economic sanctions forced us all into, when they were imposed on Iraq by the United Nations four days after the occupation of Kuwait on August 2, 1990.
The other part of my movement regimen concerned emptying out what was inside me into the squat toilet. The tiny bathroom area was squeezed into a small space dug out of the wall in the corridor, exactly underneath the bathroom of the main house. When the usual gloom of daytime intensiﬁed into full darkness with the onset of night I would become paralyzed by my fear of bumping into something and making a noise that would reveal my hiding place in the cellar, and so I would lie motionless on the ﬂoor all night long. As I waited for morning, I had to bear my bladder’s spasms and pacify my large intestine with some controlled releases of wind. With the ﬁrst rays of morning light I would set oﬀ across the room on my tiptoes like someone performing an archaic dance routine and then crouch over the toilet hole and strain until I was as tense as a marble statue. I would remember my sisters and think of my lost freedom, my darling Yasmin, and Corporal Amanaj, and weep silently.
My eyes needed several days before they acclimated to the feeling of utter isolation that crept in as the meager daylight crept out through the thick decorated glass and the old metal screen of the cellar’s narrow, remote windows. Not only were they far away from me, tucked in under the ceiling at the very top of the back wall, but the wall was so thick that they were set in almost three feet deep. My mother hadn’t wired the cellar up, heeding my grandmother’s warnings that an electrical fault could easily cause a ﬁre and devour me along with the little wooden rooms and their contents. Or perhaps they imagined that in a moment of madness or stupidity I would turn on a light and give away my presence down there. I needed to remain alert at all times and allow my instinctive fear to prepare me for the worst to happen at any moment. As far as I was concerned, any noise, however small, represented a threat, and I would be seized by panic at the slightest sound. I would crouch in the corridor, my heart pounding violently. Voices from outside, especially in the evening, were enough to keep me on high alert for a long time, my ears working like radar. Even the normal daytime sounds of the hawkers selling paraﬃn, gas, vegetables, and antiques, the muezzins’ calls to prayer and sermons, would all tug on me with invisible threads that only slackened once I was a gibbering wreck. And the theme tune to “Scenes from the Battle” played on in my head without pause, like a neatly looped tape.
I would be defeated by the new depths of isolation that evening sank me into, joining forces with the overall isolation of life in the cellar to torture me night after night. It wasn’t just the darkness that scared me but the things I imagined it ushering in, the things that lurked there and watched over me without moving, throughout the long hours of inky night. I had to make a huge eﬀort and force myself to accept the presence of the mice, the lizards, and the insects, and to share my living quarters with them. With the passing days I watched them transform into gentle creatures whose funny quick movements slightly lifted the fog of sorrow from me—until in the end my old fear of them was dispelled and I took to deliberately leaving out scraps of dry bread in one of the corners and then waiting impatiently for the inevitable rodent raid. As soon as I heard the carefree, giddy little sound of bread being scattered around and crunched, I would spring up like a tomcat, delighted by the way the mice darted oﬀ at rocket speed and vanished into thin air. I would go back to my place with a smile on my face, utterly convinced that they were watching me from somewhere and were moved to an immense animal aﬀection for me by the realization that I was playing with them.
I wasn’t all that afraid of death itself exactly. After all, my grandmother had drummed a deeply held conviction into me of its twin characteristics: inevitability, and eternal reunion with my father and grandfather. What I deﬁnitely did fear, however, was the specific way in which I might meet my death. I would often imagine angry-looking people in military uniform standing in formation with the muzzles of their Kalashnikovs all pointed at me. I shut my eyes and hold my breath. After that I hear the command to shoot, and feel the indescribable yet unmistakable sensation of burning bullets smashing holes right through my head. The characters in my execution scenario don’t change, but the small details do, every time. I control whether the shots are all ﬁred at once or whether they come in quick succession. Sometimes I add the smell of gunpowder to the scene, sometimes the smell of hot, viscous blood gushing out of my head and running down my face. I add a blindfold over my eyes, and let my ears imagine the entire scene by themselves, or I lift it oﬀ and I see the whole thing. I turn the volume of the command to shoot and the shots themselves up and down—my mental state at the time of imagining all this determines those last two aspects. And even though I was executed in this way thousands of times during my early years in the cellar, I never ever reached a level of pain I could bear. Every single time I would feel a unique pain, distinct from the time before. I was overcome by total despair and I surrendered to my fate: execution by ﬁring squad in front of our house for evading military service.
*A local vernacular term for a spoilt or privileged child: under sanctions only the rich could eat Nestle products, so an indulged child from a privileged background was said to have been conceived using Nestle ingredients. The soldier is also derogating Thaʼirʼs fatherʼs virility—as represented by his role in the childʼs conception—because he is known as a deserter.
Originally published in Arabic by The Arab Foundation for Studies and Publishing © 2015 by Nawzat Shamdeen. Translation © 2017 by Alice Guthrie. All rights reserved.
The following excerpt is from Salvadoran writer Claudia Hernández's Roza tumba quema, the story of a peasant who dares become a guerrillera at a young age, and the daughters she will have to raise, protect, push forward during constant rural turmoil. The story is inspired by events surrounding the civil war in El Salvador, which raged from 1980 to 1992.
When she turned fourteen, three men came for her at her maternal grandmother's house, with guns. They said her father had sent them to tell her he was ill, near death, and that he wanted to see her. They would take her to him.
She recognized one of them, even though he'd shaved his head and his features had hardened since the last time she saw him: a year earlier, he'd been in one of the many camps her father had visited. She'd never seen the others, but could place them from the description she'd heard from one of her neighbors. Just three days ago her neighbor had warned her to leave and hide in the hills or in the gorges because there were three guerrillas with rifles wandering the area and raping any woman they found. They raped me then asked me where you lived, she said. They asked and I had to tell them.
At the time, she hadn't believed the girl. She thought it might all be a dirty trick since that neighbor was one of the girls she'd struck with the guamas that time in the river. She couldn't rule out that, though long delayed and a bit excessive, this could be the girl’s way of getting even. Besides, she had a hard time believing that one of the men who'd organized and gone to the mountains to fight for them could be going around doing a thing like that. To her mind, it was soldiers who raped. They were always the culprits in the stories she’d heard of assaults. But what her neighbor had said was true, at least partly. The boys had been at the camps. But as soon as they'd earned the guerrillas' trust and their weapons, they'd set off on their own path and followed their own goals. They took advantage of the fact that everyone was busy running from soldiers and advancing their positions to go to unprotected zones and take as many women as they could.
They'd take the girls to the hills for three or five days. Then they'd bring them back and take others. They'd rape grown women in their homes and make them cook for them while they raped their young daughters. Later, it became known that just one of the boys also raped elderly women. His compañeros abstained, one out of fear it would mean some additional kind of punishment at the final judgment (if it ever arrived) and the other because he found no pleasure in a woman without the strength to resist or a future to compromise.
Nor did the boy rape all the elderly women he found or come down from the hills to search them out. It was more a matter of circumstance, of making the most of their efforts, so long as the woman looked at him badly for it. He'd never touch her grandmother, for example, because, even after he'd provoked her a little, he didn't see in her the sort of response that inspired him to humiliate. Her granddaughter didn't much interest him either. He recognized that she was pretty, but didn't find her attractive, like his compañero, who hadn't stopped talking about her since they'd set off on their own venture. She was too skinny for his taste. And he didn't like her hair or her attitude. Had his compañero not insisted on having her, he would’ve passed her over. But he'd backed his compañero’s choice and so he’d protect him as he tried to convince the girl to answer her father's supposed call.
She said she wouldn't go. She said that, if her father had to die, there was nothing she could do about it. Unless they could do her the favor of bringing him here, to his home, where there was medicine to treat him and people to look after him. Impossible, the boy said: she had to be the one to go. It was the right thing to do. She—who knew her father was fine because she'd seen him a few days ago—said that she couldn't, she was in charge of collecting water for the house and for her grandparents. They'd seen it for themselves. She'd just filled the pitcher when they found her. She'd stopped a moment at her grandmother's to rest.
When the boy, who'd seen at the camp just how much she loved her father, couldn't convince her to go to him, he put his rifle to her chest. He'd tried to persuade her, he said, he'd asked nicely, but she'd left him no choice now but to take her by force. He said it was time she went with them, and there was no need to worry, it'd only be a matter of three or five days. They told her it was so she could make them tortillas in the foothills where they were camping, that was all. She refused. She couldn't make tortillas. Her mom could attest to that. She was always scolding her for it.
She responded calmly but, inside, she was shaking. She knew what the boys were plotting, and she wasn't about to allow it. She also knew that she had to keep them entertained for as long as she could because, being deserters, it wasn't in their interest to spend too much time in one place. The punishment for deserters was just as severe, if not worse, than it was for enemies. She knew because she'd witnessed it at the camps. She also knew the insurgents weren't the kind to forgive a person who hurt civilians. She hoped that if she stalled the boys who were trying to take her just long enough someone would warn the guerillas in the mountains, and they'd come down and kill them then and there. But no one budged, not to warn anyone, nor to defend her. Not her uncles who were present, nor any of the kids who were nearby, nor the women who watched them through their windows, did anything except watch in silence as she resisted what everyone knew was bound to happen and lay out obstacles for all the excuses they gave her.
The boy who raped elderly women got annoyed. He said they had no more time for her, to cut the nonsense and come with them immediately. He slung his rifle over his shoulder and got ready to grab her. But she threw herself on the ground to make it harder for him, even though, in reality, it wasn't tough at all—her height and weight, short and slight, were no struggle for the boy. What did complicate matters was that she grabbed onto the railings, the branches, and anything else she could reach. This gave her grandmother the chance to send a kid they hadn’t noticed off to warn the girl’s mother about what was happening. She resisted so much it gave her mother enough time to reach them, with her six kids clutching her hand and her skirt, and ask what was going on and why they wanted to hurt a girl who'd done nothing to them and could do them no harm.
The boys told her not to fret, they'd bring her daughter back soon enough, to go home and look after her other kids. Her mother asked them to let the daughter go and kill her instead, if it was blood they wanted. And she asked them to, please, kill all the little ones who were with her at once, too, because, without their mother none of them would manage. There'd be no one to feed them. No one to care for them. No one to watch over them. Best if they all met their end together.
No, they answered. It was her daughter they wanted. No one else. Her mother grew furious when she saw them put the rifle to her daughter's throat and said something to the boy that drove him to reach his rifle out to her and say Go on, lady, take it. Kill me. I can see you're real angry. You'll burst if you don't. Her mother said he'd best give it to her daughter. Seeing as her dad had taught her how to handle guns, she'd figure out how the rifle worked in no time at all and finish him, even if the other two finished her, too—that is, if they didn't scare and run off like the cowards they were. But he knew who he was giving the gun to. He said he was only giving it to her because she looked angrier than her daughter. He offered it to her again and she decided to take it. Even if she didn't know how to use it, she could at least hit him with it. She knew you didn't need much to kill. She'd done it herself once long ago. She hadn't liked it, but she’d do it again if necessary. Then her daughter spoke. She told him to stop. She swallowed her pride like her aunt had taught her you should do with certain men and begged them to leave.
You've raped them all, she said. I owe you nothing, there’s no reason for you to want to hurt me, too. She was acting then like she'd been taught to with dogs: showing no fear, even though she could feel it in her fingers. She did what she could so her body wouldn’t give off the smell of terror. She said she knew who they were and what they were doing. She even called the one she knew by his name. His cover blown, he told her he was sick of fighting for her and, if he couldn't take her with him, he'd kill her right there. He pushed her against the wall and made her spread her arms out in the shape of a cross.
He gave her one last chance: she had until the count of three to change her mind. After saying the number one, he said Only two left. After saying the number two, he loaded the clip. Then he said Three. She didn't close her eyes. She looked straight at him, without a single tear. He said You're a brave one, you fucking bitch. Her mother would've rather she said nothing, that she stay quiet like the rest of them. Instead, she said: I’m not. But I don't owe you a thing. There's no reason for you to come bothering me, she continued. I don't know why you want to kill me. He said it was because she didn't want to come with him, even though he wanted her. How hadn't she noticed, all those times she'd seen him at the camp? Hadn't she seen him smiling at her? No. She hadn't noticed. She was just there to see her dad. She didn't have eyes for anyone else or room in her heart for another. Not even then. She didn't like men as men yet. They didn't interest her and she didn't plan on having a life with one, like the other girls in the area. She didn't even pay any mind to the boy who often stopped by her mother's house offering to help her with anything she needed, ingratiating himself, even though everyone in town said he was a good kid, strong and handsome, though being handsome didn't mean much in the country, since it was no use at all in working the land. Her mind was still on dolls, even though she didn't have a single one because there wasn’t the money for it and everyone said she was too old to play with them.
She didn't mention the thing about the dolls or about her suitor to the boy with the rifle. All she said was that she wouldn't go with him. Then your uncles are coming with us, he said. He ordered his compañeros to tie them up and take them up the mountain, where they beat them and reminded them they were doing this for her.
A moment came when one of her uncles said That's enough. If you're going to kill us, kill us. Her suitor liked his show of courage. He said that, because he was brave, he'd let them all go, even though the truth was that his quiet compañero, the one in charge of calculating how much time they could spend in each region, was just about to tell him that it was time to move on somewhere else if they didn't want to get caught. They were being followed by the military who thought they were guerrillas and by the guerrillas who considered them deserters. They couldn't keep risking their necks on account of his whims.
They said they had five minutes before they started shooting. They told them to run as fast as they could and to always remember that everything that had been done to them was because of the girl. Neither her grandmother nor the rest of the family ever forgave her for it. They never came by to see her again or let her rest in their homes when she was on her way back with the water, nor play with their kids. They never again brought her mother and her little brothers and sisters some food. The one thing they did do was give her the message the boys had sent: that they'd come for her in three days and they didn't want her acting up like she had last time.
She began to cry and didn't stop. Not even when her village suitor found out and, determined to protect her from them, took his gun and posted himself in front of her house next to her brother, the one who earlier had confronted the soldiers and been named the new man of the house. She only stopped crying after the arrival of her father, who’d come down after being informed of what had happened to confirm whether what he'd heard was true. He didn't think his daughter was capable of putting up such a fight or showing such courage. He asked her several times if they'd done anything to her. She and her mother swore they hadn't. Then you're coming with me, he said. To the mountains. She asked for how long. About fifteen days, he said, while they tracked those guerillas down and killed them. She shouldn't bother taking anything with her, she'd be back soon enough. So she obeyed (and, in the mountains, she waited). At the fifteen-day mark, they informed her the three boys were dead and thanked her for the coordinates she'd given them.
From Roza tumba quema. © Claudia Hernández. By arrangement with Casanovas & Lynch Literary Agency. Translation © 2017 by Julia Sanches. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from Kemal Varol's Wûf, we find our hero, Mikasa, reluctantly serving as a minesweeping dog at the Karakeçi military outpost in what we understand to be southeastern Turkey. He has been torn from his life roaming the streets, hanging out with his pack, “The Burning Hearts,” and courting his sweetheart, Melsa. Here at the outpost he is only known as “Bobi” by the soldiers, but little does he realize that the vile Turquoise, the man who kidnapped him and the only one who knows his real name, will soon pay a visit.
“They carried the soldier's greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place . . . ”
Tim O’Brien,The Things They Carried
My days were dull replicas of one another, much like the photocopies of my dark fate deposited in the army’s files.
I was bound.
I was a registered piece of inventory.
I was a liability.
I wasn’t going anywhere.
There was a war on, and my job was to find the damnable landmines the Southern guerrillas had placed expertly in the ground. These were guys who really didn’t know shit about technology. They became pros at hurling rocks at tanks before heading into the mountains, where they became equally skilled at killing. However they learned it, they were now certified masters at laying mines.
This was why I had to be ever vigilant. I’d been taught that the moment I heard click, I was a goner. It was no rubber ducky making that noise beneath our feet but explosives waiting just to make that sound, to blow us all to kingdom come. The important thing was to give word before hearing it. If I could do this, I’d live. If I couldn’t, I’d find myself flying through the air in a haze of dust and gunpowder. Not a bone of mine would be left for the doggy cemetery. Worst of all, I’d lose Melsa forever.
These were times when I tried to be careful, making an effort to survive, if for no one else, for Melsa.
I didn’t die.
But only to end up this weird mess.
Mami, the soldier responsible for me, tied a chain to my collar and I went wherever it dragged me. The scars it left on my neck were as deep as my dreams of returning to the dusty streets back in town. I sat there waiting, the chain tied to my shed in the outpost garden. I sat upright and ready for duty, thinking my name would be called at any moment. I kept my eyes forward, my ears shifting right to left, my tail stiff and motionless. But it was all an act. I wasn’t waiting to go to work or whatever. All I wanted was to dash out of there as soon as possible.
All I longed for was to roam the mountains, drink from the streams, dive into the yawning wheat fields, doze under the trees, chew the fat with the sheepdogs trailing the passing villagers, dangle my tongue as I sprinted against the wind, roam the streets with my compadres, chase cats, scare strangers, then nestle into Melsa’s delicious, now-distant caramel scent and daydream.
I’d pace round and round my shed as far as my chain would allow. I burrowed into the dark, red earth without touching the food poured into my bowl. I knocked over my water. I grew testy and growled at the passersby. But none of it was much use. No matter how I barked, either no one heard me, or they just blasted some righteous profanity in my ear. At times like these, I’d throw my head back to the sky and call to Melsa, hoping she'd hear.
I howled my heart out, and voices floated in from the nearby towns and villages. My canine brothers and sisters answered me. The dried grasses rustled, answering me. The rushing streams answered me. The North Star flickered, answering me. The waters of Lake Papaz, the holy man lying in his tomb atop Mount Makam, and the distant lights of the town answered me. Kitmir, the patron saint of dogs, answered me. Muhterem Nur answered and that dummy Bushwack answered me. Even God—who decreed that the nights and we, his silent servants, would one day speak—answered me. But Melsa never answered me.
When everyone withdrew to sleep, I was left alone with the guys on patrol. The frost made our hair stand on end, and I watched as the sleep-deprived soldiers changed shifts. They fought to keep their eyes open as they dragged themselves to their posts. Most had even forgotten to tie their bootlaces. Along with the short-term sergeant who had the difficult job of shaking them awake at three in the morning, they walked over to a barrel, weapons in hand, and fired a shot inside to make sure their guns worked before slinging them over their shoulders. Their bayonets made a rhythmic ding ding as they brushed against their machine guns, a sound that nudged their eyes open little by little. They struggled to march properly, pacing for hours around the perimeter of the outpost, which was built atop a steep hill. Sometimes they headed to the North Tower, sometimes to the misty Jehennem Valley. I’d be left alone once again with memories that waited to be revisited.
At times like these, I pricked up my ears and listened to the distance. I heard the voices of sheep in the next village over. The distant lights of the city came and went like the beams of lighthouses. The whole of the town would be buried in silence. I heard the whistles of the patrol units in the town. Strangely, an unfamiliar briny smell scent floated up to the top of the mountain. Though there was no sign of it around, I sensed we were near the sea. A low hum rose from the big city in the distance. A panzer waited at its usual spot at the intersection ahead, prompting approaching cars to slow down in apprehension. Every now and then, a member of the Special Forces opened the hatch atop the tank and poked his head out. Soon the leaves of the oak trees would begin rustling, light as feathers. The barking of my brothers and sisters reached my ears, but I couldn’t answer. The soldiers scolded me the moment I opened my mouth.
They spent a lot of time readying their firearms, flares, canteens, helmets, and bayonets. Then they waited for orders. The bolts of their guns went shak as they slid back and forth, over and over. While the Lada jeeps and armored Akreps were being readied, Special Sergeant Papa, who strutted around with his enormous gut and always reeked of sweat, would bark orders at the soldiers. They got in line and conducted repeated headcounts to make sure no one was missing. They added me to the count before giving roll call.
Then they'd stare at the mountain ahead as they waited to take to the dusty road. They would soon check its every curve, examine its every culvert, inspect its scattered bumps and ridges, and scrutinize any piece of cable—big or small—found along the way.
Just as I nodded off at the crack of dawn, they would grab my chain and take me on the road. Once we’d set out, they let me off the chain and waited for me to give them a signal. Always on edge, their hearts leaped into their throats every time we took off. I was all too aware of what was going on and everything that was about to happen. These scenes repeated themselves over and over, and I knew their every detail by heart.
The Karakeçi Outpost, the rear of which overlooked the Jehennem Valley, served but one purpose: to set out ahead of military convoys about to go down the road and sweep for landmines. Me and all the soldiers were charged with this duty. They were all just young kids. There were new arrivals as well as the restless ones who were so close to discharge that they scratched the number of days they had left on everything—latrine walls, benches, even my shed. As the seasoned guys prepared to go out and sweep for mines, the rookies hung back to deal with the outpost’s routine work. They waited silently for Chief Sergeant Kabba, who always reeked of drink. Their hearts pounded anxiously in their chests. I could even feel them breathing. I couldn’t help but stand at attention like them. After all, Chief Sergeant Kabba was commander of all of us.
He was commander of the creepy crawly things and of the morning, too. He was commander of the forty-four soldiers at the outpost, the roll call done four times a day, the prayers said before meals three times a day, the 449 days of military service, the notebooks where soldiers counted down the days left, our fatigues, shopping leave, the Akreps, the Ladas, the barracks, the watchman’s booth, the barrel where they test-fired the guns, the North Tower, Jehennem Valley, the outpost gate, the casino, the bathhouse, the mess hall, the dormitory, the volleyball field, my shed, the artillery warehouse, the G3s, the Kalashnikovs, the M-16s, the mortars, the bazookas, the Dashkas, the machine guns, the bombs, the cartridge belts, the bayonets, the thermal cameras, the parachute flares, breaks taken to air out foot-rot, changes in the weather, vulgarity, words of wisdom, the villages of Arkanya, the roads and the trees. But at night he wasn’t the commander of the caves, Jehennem Valley, the gorges or the cliffs. At night they were the domain of the others.
The mine detector usually wasn’t working. The gizmo was supposed to let out a whoop-whoop when it detected something underground. If the damn thing weren’t broken all the time, it would comb one side of the road while I did the other. That way, we’d have an easier time and get back to the outpost faster. Without a doubt, it was more reliable than me. But seeing as it was made with mortal hands, however, it was always going kaput and all the responsibility fell on my shoulders.
“Get in!” Chief Sergeant Kabba would order. We’d hop in the Lada and take off, we gliding slowly from the outpost at the top of the mountain to the main road, where the village guardsmen awaited us. Some of the soldiers called me "Bobi." But like all Southerners, the village guardsmen said everything wrong and called me "Bubê." Despite their army fatigues, these sunbaked old men looked nothing like soldiers. A few of their comrades had been killed by the guerrillas and their corpses hung, mouths stuffed full of money, from the telephone poles I loved to pee on. Still, they didn’t give up their line of work. They were bound to the state. They showed Chief Sergeant Kabba the utmost respect, following his orders to the letter. After determining who would walk on which side and how fast the car would go, we formed two columns and began to march. Typically, we walked for hours and hours under the scorching sun. We started out with the village guardsmen at the front and me bringing up the rear. I ran my nose along the ground, searching for mines and booby traps laid on the edges of the road with an involuntary instinct.
My job was actually quite simple. As soon as I smelled something, rather than start digging, all I had to do was sit down right where I was and bark. The rest was up to them. They proceeded to search the area on pins and needles. Chief Sergeant Kabba would stretch out on the ground, his commando knife between his teeth, and lightly brush the dirt aside. For hours, he dug like this, painstakingly—the sweat dripping from his brow enough to set off the mine. He wiped it away and patiently continued his work. He never found anything. I always gave false alarms. They would curse at me and continue on their way.
Only once in my military career did I correctly identify an explosive device on the side of the road. The ground had been freshly dug and the wires were jutting out of the ground. Our guys would have seen it even if I hadn’t sat down next to it and pointed proudly with my paw. Still, this supposed merit was added to my record. After I’d found a simple trap, the guys warmed to me and started calling me "Bobi." But how was I to know that my real name, known only by the commanders, would soon be revealed to everyone, the decisive moment looming nearer every day, like a curse.
Every now and then the soldiers took a break from minesweeping to patrol the area. They held their breath and scanned the surroundings. They didn't say a word, but signaled to one other using gestures. Their fingers reached for their triggers. An ominous stillness settled over the asphalt road stretching between the mountains. The real problem lay not in the asphalt, but in the soil. At times like these, I’d watch the soldiers as they sat in the middle of the road, running their eyes fearfully over the earth.
They waited for death, ruminating on their own dread. They thought of the loved ones they’d left behind. As they waited on edge, they hoped, at worst, to get maimed rather than end up in the afterlife. The thought of taking out a few of the enemy before they went comforted them. As they looked around, fingers on triggers, they’d signal for me to keep quiet. I’d then sprawl out in the middle of the road and think about the past, which bore down on me with all its weight.
My mother, who’d not only deprived me of her milk but also disowned me simply for allowing a man to pet me, was in the past. My brothers and sisters were in the past. Uncle Heves, who cursed himself for losing Muhterem Nur to someone even more miserable than himself, was in the past. That idiot Bushwack, who shouted, “I’m flying, flying just like a cow!” as he rolled off a cliff, was in the past. The Burning Hearts were in the past. The streets I’d tramped around day and night were in the past. The hands that stroked my head, scratched my neck, and squeezed my chin were in the past. Melsa was far in the past. My light grew dimmer with each day gone by. Turquoise, who decided I was a prime specimen of a mutt as I loitered around the streets, who sent me to the capital, who turned my luck upside down, who delivered me to a training center, who was responsible for the state I was in, was in the past. Who knew where the trainer who made a minesweeper out of a street dog was to be found. Even that faggot Lama, whose spit never seemed to dry up, had long since been discharged. Third Lieutenant Zafer had probably become a staunch dog-hater and returned to his job at the courthouse. I was the only one left choking back sobs, reflecting on bygone days.
Eventually, Chief Sergeant Kabba would raise his hand, ordering the marching column to continue down the road. Special Sergeant Papa and Special Sergeant Nene, whom the guys didn’t really like, would send the soldiers under their command searching here and there. They’d make them check under bridges, culverts, ditches along roadsides, and the bottoms of trees. Excited about the reward to be given (usually a bone), I’d run my nose along the ground, trying to find the mines laid by the Southern guerrillas.
Every now and then I was misled by the scent of bones buried along the road by other dogs. I’d start digging excitedly. The members of the marching column would brace themselves, trying to figure out what I was looking for. Their fingers rested, as always, on their triggers. Their pupils grew wide with fear as they scanned the summit of the mountain for even the slightest movement. The notebooks in their pockets with photos of starlets like Sibel Jan, Ahu Tuğba, or Müjde Ar were soon covered in sweat. Their hearts raced as I dug like a madman. When, rather than signaling the mine they expected, I emerged with a bone between my teeth, they’d cuss like sailors. Special Sergeant Papa was the worst.
“Fuck your mother-loving cunt!” he’d shout at me.
They got mad, paced, sweat, went quiet, and worried. But none of them were as disappointed about the situation as I was. I’d urinate on each telephone pole I came across, most of which had been scorched when the chaff was burned. I peed on the boulders, dry brush, and the oak trees circling the edge of the mountains before continuing sheepishly down the road. The soldiers trailing behind figured I peed right and left out of animal instinct, but I did it for Melsa. I hoped maybe she’d recognize my scent, realize I was nearby, and come running after me.
But Melsa never came. She never called to me. She never beckoned with her paw, saying “Come to me” from behind the razor-wire fence. Who knew how many holidays the Southerners had celebrated while I wasn’t around!
I was like an injured footballer who makes a circle with his finger to say, “Take me out,” as he heads to the bench. Take me out. That’s what I was saying with all my howling. They never did. “We’ve used our three substitutions. You have to play,” they told me. But later I’d listen to the thoughts of the fear-stricken soldiers behind me. None of them had counted on seeing days like these.
From Wûf. © Kemal Varol. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Dayla Rogers. All rights reserved.
A Fortune Foretold is an emotionally complex coming of age novel. It digs deep and narrow into the history and memory of the story’s narrator and protagonist, Neta. I emphasize Neta’s two roles in this novel separately because the story is primarily, though not always, told in the third person. The present is narrated with the first-person "I," while Neta’s childhood and adolescence are treated with “her.” That is, most of the time, though the past has a funny way of infringing on the present, changing it, tainting it.
Neta is a startlingly self-aware young woman who knows how to navigate harsh realities. As her family moves from Stockholm to Lund (with a brief stint in Princeton), Neta understands she will always be second to her father’s career and second to her mother’s other passions, ideas, lost lives. Neta’s life is filled with constant uncertainty, but she moves forward with a confident face.
She knows she has a better life than most people. But there is a shortage of love—no more than the odd glimpse from time to time. It’s not just because they are moving and she will never see the red-haired boy again. There’s other stuff too.
The story is simple enough, the life of a young woman moving from childhood to adulthood. Neta is reckless at times, self-indulgent, typical and arrogant in the way she approaches her life as a teenager. Encountering a female protagonist prone to such flights of narcissism is refreshing and somehow Neta remains a sympathetic character despite all of these character flaws.
Like most family stories, there is a veil of mystery behind her very bourgeois Swedish family’s activities. Her father the professor, whom she idolizes, turns out to be less than perfect. Her mother, a Dutch woman of Javanese descent, has a disability and often embarrasses Neta, is able to love her children in particular, confusing ways. The mother is a talented pianist whose career was cut short by having a family and for this reason she is prone to bouts of depression and anger. Behind this tale of difficult family dynamics, issues of race and disability lurk in the background Neta, perhaps because she is a child, tends to side with her father, even through his distance and infidelity. Neta often helps care for her two younger sisters, thinking of the youngest girl as her own baby. She has friends, boyfriends, but she feels the weight of family problems, even if she cannot identify them, throughout her life:
Childhood is a no-man’s-land . . . Now I’m going to talk about something for which I didn’t have words back then. About the fear. About the feeling of being overwhelmed, attacked in fact, by my body. About the loneliness all children share. And about the shadow cast by my parents’ dysfunctional marriage. But if they hadn’t met, I wouldn’t exist. Some other child, perhaps, but not me. That thought crossed my mind from time to time when I was growing up, and it was terrifying.
Like every mother-daughter relationship, this one is complicated, loving, and often painful. Neta seeks female role models in her beloved Aunt Ricki and family friend Vibeke, but is incapable of seeing any of that same feminine strength in her own mother. This seems to indicate something particular about Neta’s emotional work in separating herself from this “foreign” mother, her desire to be something else, something more accepted, more mainstream, more womanly, more able. Looking back on her relationship with her mother, she writes:
I dug out the memory of the steamboat pier much later, when I thought I had never yearned for my mother. The strength of the emotion within the memory convinced me that wasn’t the case. Feelings have an archeology; you can dig down, discover new things.
This novel in translation touches on something I often think about while both reading works in translation and while practicing translation myself. In the Anglophone world we are deeply focused on the scene of a story, showing instead of telling, a fixation many might say stems from MFA program culture. This book, and much other prose in translation, is unafraid of telling us something. The narrator’s voice is powerful enough to carry the plot and the suspense, certainly, but the text also leaves a touch of the foreign. While Marlaine Delargy’s name is not on the cover, and nothing indicates right away that this is a work of translation, the words themselves sometimes feel as if they are being spoken from a Scandinavian’s very refined, very close, but not quite native English. What is striking about this translation is that it doesn’t seem to be seeking invisibility, it allows for the foreignness of the text to come through. This is fitting because A Fortune Foretold is also about communication, the difficulties of communicating with those closest to us. While reading this novel I was reading Eleni Stecopoulos’s book of essays or meditations or memoir, Visceral Poetics, published by ON Contemporary Practice in 2016. Reading the texts simultaneously brought out the confessional quality of Agneta Pleijel’s narrative voice through Neta. Stecopoulos writes about the curative properties of language, of "language as homeopathy, language as antidote to language." Neta needs to tell this story, in her wavering first and third person she creates a new history for herself, an honest version with which she is able to live. Her body and her words finally find a way to thrive and move forward:
We are fiction. We create ourselves with words. This is my fiction . . . I could have been wrong.
Minae Mizumura’s Inheritance from Mother is a literature lover’s novel and a translator’s novel. The narrative is split into two parts, with a total of 66 short chapters. Chapter 1, “The Long Telephone Call in Lieu of a Wake,” opens with a conversation between sisters Mitsuki and Natsuki, who speculate about how much money they can get back from Golden, the barely-used assisted living home where their mother once lived. The frank conversation upends some of the most common stereotypes about the Japanese as ritualistic and indirect collectivists who put family above self. But the social pressure to present oneself as such is implied in the response from Mitsuki, the protagonist, when she lowers her voice even in the privacy of her own home to whisper the sum they hope to collect. That number also marks the novel as a translation, because it’s footnoted with both a US Dollar approximation and a general guideline for US-Japan currency conversion. The layered emphasis on linguistic and monetary conversation adds extra weight to the scandalous nature of the conversation––death and translation are always accompanied by concrete losses and gains. To add to that, Noriko (the mother in question) was a difficult women, and her relationship with both daughters is so strained that Mitsuki recalls how, when Noriko was first rushed to the ER, Mitsuki sat in the waiting room, thinking:
Mother is dying.
My mother is dying.
Finally she’s going to die.
In fact, Noriko didn’t die that night, but Mitsuki is seized with the thought, and the words become a dark, persistent refrain in her life, a shameful wish she can only share with her younger sister Natsuki. The sisters are close despite, or perhaps because of, the resentments between them, stoked by Noriko’s lifelong tendecy to play favorites.
Early in life, Natsuki was the favorite because she was more beautiful, and Noriko trained her to become a pianist, to marry into status and wealth. That preferential attention shapes Natsuki long after she falls out of favor––when the sisters convene for their frequent commiserating phone calls, Natsuki retreats to her soundproof piano room, out of earshot of her husband and daughter. Meanwhile, the long-neglected Mitsuki bears the burden of Noriko’s attention late in life, taking on the lion’s share of hospital visits in spite of her own poor health.
What both sisters inherit equally is their mother’s cultured sensibility and a love of the finer things in life, from French lace curtains and opera visits, to their respective artistic training: Natsuki in piano and German, Mitsuki in singing and French. As readers, we are immersed in Mitsuki’s cosmopolitan sensibilities and her meditation on life through art. Every major personal event in her life is contextualized by different artistic depictions. In the opening chapter, even as Mitsuki talks with her sister about their mother’s death, she thinks: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Today, Mother died. The opening line of the first novel she had ever read in French, long ago.” As a young woman, years before her mother’s death, Mitsuki went to Paris to study chanson. There she met Tetsuo, her future husband, a boursier––a graduate student on scholarship from the French government––who lived in a cheap, shabby apartment on his meager funds. He struck her as La Boheme’s Rodolfo in the flickering French candlelight of their engagement night, as an artistic soul living in charming poverty. She saw him as a kindred soul who would be her storybook hero as they romantically pursued a life of art and culture together. But when they moved back to Japan, Tetsuo’s materialistic side became apparent, as he became more and more preoccupied with the thought of owning a sleek, large condo downtown, rather than their homey but less fashionable apartment. Worse, on the same day that Noriko is rushed to the hospital, Mitsuki discovers that Tetsuo is cheating on her with a younger woman (again), and these twin blows send her into a tailspin, forcing her to come to terms with a life long on responsibility and short on happiness.
Several times throughout the narrative, Mitsuki declares herself someone who “wouldn’t make a good heroine in a novel.” A middle-aged woman about to slide into old age, Mitsuki has an unenviable life: her husband is preparing to leave her for a woman who calls Mitsuki “pathetic,” and she is saddled with a mother whose deteriorating body forces her to "fluently speak words like 'Dysphasia' and 'nasogastric tube." Meanwhile, her husband’s social ambitions require that she reject passion projects––like translating a new Japanese edition of Madame Bovary––in favor of working as a freelancer and adjunct professor, teaching English during the day and translating French patents at night. These thankless, boring jobs exacerbate her lifelong physical frailty. Yet until the double shock of that day, Mitsuki does not allow herself to recognize that her life is caught in “sticky meshes of woe.” Once that page is turned, she must decide if and how she can extract herself.
Part of what makes this novel so striking is its narrator's self-awareness, a quality that may not appeal to everyone. But for readers fascinated by the entanglements of language, society, and the way we create stories of ourselves, this book is a must read. It is also a novel acutely aware of its contemporary context, and the narrative gestures toward pressing issues, such as Japan’s aging problem, the cultural-linguistic hegemony of the West, and the double bind of women expected to act both as familial caretakers and productive workers.
Constant references to foreign literature aside, this is a novel deeply rooted in Japan. While Mitsuki regrets not re-translating Madame Bovary’s Emma, and Natsuki fantasizes about the pleasures of a “a room of one’s own,” the sisters’ very existence is contingent upon their grandmother’s conviction that she, a former geisha, is the heroine of Japan’s first newspaper novel, The Golden Demon. At one point, Mitsuki views the crisis point in her life as the frenetic pitch in a play by Noh master Zeami.
The tightly woven literary self-awareness and the emotionally heavy themes are shot through with surprising humor, like the moment when Mitsuki buys her fashionable mother emergency clothes for her hospital stay, selecting sturdy pajamas for “solid citizens” that fairly shout, “Hello, underwear here, at your service!”
Mitsuki’s incisive observations and cosmopolitan sense are mirrored in the author’s other works, an aesthetic sense rooted in her distinctive biography. A Yale graduate and former faculty member of the Iowa International Writing Program, Mizumura is a respected French literature scholar, and this is her third collaboration with translator Juliet Winters Carpenter, who translated Mizumura’s English debut, A True Novel (2002), and the thought-provoking essay collection The Fall of Language in the Age of English (2015). That past relationship is evident in the deftness of Inheritance, which offers little gifts made possible by an English translation—like the fact that Carpenter is translating Mizumura translating Camus’ The Stranger when Mitsuki recalls that famous French line, “Aujoud’hui, maman est morte," and renders it as "Today, Mother died."
These nerdy delights add to the novel’s overall literariness. And like Mizumura’s other works, Inheritance is just as interested in exploring form as well as content. The novel’s two parts are so distinct that, stylistically, they almost feel like standalone novellas––except that the narratives are so deeply entwined they end up looking like eerie, inverse silhouettes. Meanwhile each chapter is short and punchy, a reflection of its original context as a serial novel, published weekly in the Yomiuri Newspaper. A dying genre of fiction, the newspaper novel is largely read by middle-aged women, and Mizumura’s story elucidates the nuanced complexity of being a woman of a certain age in Japanese society. The female mind-body is on full view, with all its desires and disappointments, vitality and indignity. Mizumura’s insights edge on brutality, but in the best way possible, demonstrating that a middle-aged woman is more than capable of being our novel’s protagonist.