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.
In “Delay," from Ester Naomi Perquin’s newly translated collection of poems The Hunger in Plain View, she remarks “We are modern. It’s the wrong century for love." Yet love is everywhere in this collection, complicated by the messiness of modernity, true, but appearing all the same, if not always where we expect to find it. Perquin's love is instead the contradictory kind, simultaneously mundane and surreal, and shared by criminals and prison guard’s wives, just as it is by family or lovers, and this perspective, style, and poetic play are expertly handled by translator David Colmer, in whose English none of the weird is lost.
Perquin's poetics are conversational, intimate and direct, such as in her poem “Quiz:"
Cross out: I am not a woman / I am a stupid woman.
In recent years there are at least six things
I have regretted. On my fingertips, I prefer:
gold leaf, paint, tomato juice.
The Hunger in Plain View provides a good overview of her three previous collections, Napkins at Halfmast, In the Name of the Other, and the captivating Cell Inspections, the last of which was partially inspired by her time working as a prison guard. This experience crops up in other places as well, like in her poem “Guard Duty” from In the Name of the Other. But it is love that appears again and again, providing the connecting thread throughout the collection, as in “You Are the Wrong Man:"
You always were the wrong man
and you, incontrovertibly, are the wrong man still.
I don’t like love and never have.
I’ve stayed with you because I am so sure of it.
Not exactly the stuff of fairy tales, but Perquin’s dismissal of the subject only serves to heighten the end of the poem five stanzas later, “Maybe I do love you, as long as I don’t stop / meaning it as something inalienable, / as long as I can keep it safe and well.” For Perquin, keeping something safe is a form of enclosure or confinement, whether it be in a prison or in our hearts. Personas and characters often appear celled or walled off, physically as well as emotionally. Take for example “Enclosed” where she begins:
Being alone in the sense
of constantly your own smell,
over the wall a view
of unfinished sheds
She juxtaposes the narrator's view of what lies beyond with the immediate surroundings:
But the perfect company
of a wallpapered cell, clippings
of glossy sluts, mothers
breastier than ever, girls
climbing onto laps, daughters
who feed the ducks.
Likewise, in her prose poem “Within Limitations” she begins:
You get used to your format. Walls built up out of patience, the height of the ceiling with peculiar stains, a sticky floor, your unstoppable breath feels out the room and rebounds, in the dark your hands know where to find the switch.
As in “Quiz,” the persona is aware of the poem as a prison, and in both poems is able to joke about things like “format” or telling herself to cross out words or phrases.
There are many solid poems in the first two collections, but it is the selections from her third, Cell Inspections, that really show off the nature and breadth of Perquin’s imagination, her eye for detail, for inhabiting character and voice, and her ability to imbue humanity into criminality. She worked in a prison as a way to pay for creative writing school and it is clear that the experience was formative. So many of the poems deal with specific prisoners, their crimes, their interiority and identity as something more than simply those convicted of a crime.
Many of the crimes described are difficult sounding to deal with, yet Perquin’s gaze is unflinching. Consider how Perquin describes love in “David H.”:
Of course it was love—but love can’t lie, it doesn’t scream
when you say, quiet, it doesn’t run out of breath and
doesn’t force me into anything. Love lies down
before you and listens. True love
is always willing.
Love here is the specious delusion of someone who can’t quite confront what he’s done. And indeed Perquin gives us the ending we expect, though in such a quiet, breathless way that is stunning:
As far as that goes, I know better now. I wouldn’t have looked
at her like that, I would have loved her differently,
not in a hurry with my two hands round her neck,
but thoughtfully, mournfully, gently.
At the same time there is monstrousness, there is also humanity, and Perquin’s knack for getting us there is nothing short of amazing.
My only regret with the book was that Cell Inspections wasn't translated and included in its entirety, as it was the strongest section of the book for me. Yet all the selections in The Hunger in Plain View are spellbinding, weird, and completely different than so much poetry I have read recently. Perquin was recently named Poet Laureate of the Netherlands through 2019, and based on the work on display here, it's no wonder. Hers is a unique, subtle, fascinating, sometimes weird, and sometimes creepy voice.
I will not sing—
I will sing today no rose song, no song of the nightingale,
No song of the iris, no hyacinth song,
No song to ravish nor song intoxicated
Not languor’s sweet, slow songs—
Not the least song—
I will not sing—
Not when the dust cloud of war skins the iris for its hue—
When the thunder of guns tears out the tongue from the nightingale—
When I hear the clamor and clatter of chains, here
Where there were hyacinths—and the diseased eye of lightning is webbed-closed,
And mountains recoil
Back onto their haunches; when black-death gathers close
Cloud tops to embrace—
I will not sing—
For now warlord and the bureaucrat stand girt-about
With an eye on my Kashmir.
I will not sing—
I will sing today no song of Nishat or Shalimar, no annealed song of waters
Engraving terraced gardens, no bower songs of bedded flowers;
No soft songs flush or sweetly fresh, not green dew songs
Nor songs gentle and growing—not the least song—
I will not sing—
Not the least song—
Not today—not when here is no place
Where the day’s white-seething pan of light is not set, poised to distress,
Setting shake, spilling from quavering vessels what life there was yet
To blight my garden waking—
So the rose holds its breath, and
The tulip its brand; quick rivers stall their song and keening koels shake
In their palpitating hearts,
Where throbbing song is stilled—all fearing,
A wild starling idly sinks into the quiet of its unsettled perch.
I will not sing
For now warlord and the bureaucrat stand girt-about
With an eye on my Kashmir.
I will not sing—
I will sing no song today of incipience, no late songs favoring the spring
of first friends, the fevers willed, of new love and wildness in longing;
I will stage no song to effloresce red and yellow, with tender crests
Of the blue and green stuff growing—not the least song—
I will not sing—
No such song—not today—
Translation © 2017 by Sonam Kachru. All rights reserved.
I, too, can’t bear the pain that’s yours
on being so far away from me.
I will die young.
You’ve abandoned me to pity:
to feel the pain that follows pain.
I will die young.
My neck’s in the coils of your serpentine curls:
what’s left is the tale—
So tell me,
which tales would you now have me tell?
You’ve rent my heart—I’ll be damned
if your nose
isn’t a sword
of silver! How many lions now
has your blade laid low?
The sunshine, my sun, has shamed the light
of the moon of Qandahar—I’m waiting,
in your memory—
In my dark he spoke
(the seller of red gems)
to show me
what’s evident: “A jewel
comes into view
from inside stone.”
You’ve loosened me, my love,
to fall—I can’t stand
on my feet. Now whom
Are they more beautiful than me?
In this garden of love, flowers
are wounds of my heart,
the swaying cypress sounds
my sighs; with tears
I’ll fill rivulets—
but I’ll run
right on after you—
I’ll hold on,
Grab you by the collar
of your cloak—I swear I’ll grip its hem
on resurrection day—
I will die young.
Translation © 2017 by Sonam Kachru. All rights reserved.
Our eighth annual queer issue launches in the wake of several notable international LGBT literary successes. Garth Greenwell's What Belongs to You, a smash in the US last year, was awarded the British Book Award for a Debut Novel and will be translated into a dozen languages. Édouard Louis’s autobiographical End of Eddy promises to be only the beginning of a major career, selling a remarkable 300,000 copies in the original French and arriving to acclaim in English. And Qiu Miaojin's Notes of a Crocodile was praised for its depiction of teenage alienation in mid-1990s Taiwan. Yet these welcome literary occasions occur in the shadows cast not only by events in areas associated with oppression, but also by regression and erosion of rights in the US. In Europe, Chechnya arrests, imprisons, and tortures gay men while denying they even exist; in Indonesia, police cane two gay men in front of a cheering crowd, then announce the formation of anti-gay task forces. Meanwhile, recent advances in the US are reversed, as new regulations restrict transgender bathroom access, religious liberty initiatives militate against LGBT rights, and authorities refuse to classify homophobic attacks as hate crimes.
In this troubling context, the need for portrayals of queer lives around the world becomes even more urgent. The work in this issue highlights the plurality of queer experience in light of both advances and setbacks. Whether struggling with established prejudice or claiming new rights, protagonists—real and imagined—assert a place for themselves in the world.
Families, as always, provide both comfort and conflict, offering havens to some and springboards to others. Our issue opens with fiction from Equatorial Guinea's Trifonia Melibea Obono, who reveals a secret society within a narrow-minded West African village. On her way to collect firewood, a teenage girl runs into a trio her grandmother has darkly referred to as "indecent and mysterious." The three girls gently tell her that her effeminate uncle has been run out of the village. While she struggles with this news, the girls lead her to a clearing and induct her into their “indecency club." Her uncle may have been banished from their community, but she has been welcomed into one that feels far more like home.
In a chapter from her Kapuściński Prize finalist I Won't Apologize for Giving Birth: Stories of IVF Families, Polish journalist Karolina Domagalska travels to Tel Aviv to meet with a self-made family: two same-sex couples who collaborate to produce two children. The four adults navigate the logistics of multiple households, the definition of parenthood, and the unexpected complications of the male couple's breakup in establishing their very modern family. As the older daughter turns seven, one of the women declares, "I can say with a clear conscience that our arrangement works.”
By contrast, very little functions as it should in the troubled multigenerational household of the Serbian intellectual and political activist Biljana Jovanović's "Lida, Danilo, and the Others." Lida's fractured family struggles with internal violence and the social changes of Tito's Yugoslavia. Breathless, angry, fragmented, Lida jumps through time and memory, from her uncle's cruelty to her first stirrings of same-sex desire, to create a portrait of emotional and physical pain.
Another sort of danger informs the transgender world of "Miss Eddy," Mexican writer Milena Solot's English-language debut. The title character and her friend Úrsula fall in with the seductive sex trafficker Tommy. As they work their way toward the border, Eddy's initial infatuation turns to suspicion and then fear; when Tommy announces a change of itinerary, she stays behind in Tijuana, but cannot persuade the lovestruck Úrsula to do the same. The result is no less tragic for its inevitability.
David Albahari's Brother portrays a novelist famed for his depictions of his idyllic childhood whose orderly existence is rocked by the appearance of a brother he never knew he had. At their rendezvous in a Belgrade restaurant, this new sibling upends everything the writer thought he knew about his family, and everything he thought he knew about himself. Reeling, he has no idea that his brother has even more shocking news in store.
In another restaurant scene, Caio Fernando Abreu's talky obsessive struggles to reconcile romantic ideals with harsh physical reality. After their dinner is interrupted by an aggressive young actor, the morose theater critic Pérsio launches into a gritty, earthy monologue with his bemused friend. Focused on the carnal elements of male sex, he works himself into a funk. His friend challenges his reductive viewpoint: "What if everything that you find disgusting was precisely what we call love?" And, moreover, "What if love is stronger?"
Turkish artist and writer Beldan Sezen, now living in New York, returns to her native Istanbul in the "fearful, despondent" early months of 2016. On top of the threat of war and increased suicide bombings, her friends worry about the Erdogan government's association of the queer community with the opposition party and the loss of their majority, and the resulting escalation of anti-gay police action. They meet the cancellation of the annual pride parade with defiance and ingenuity to remain visible both in Istanbul and around the world.
The invisibility of queer identities, of course, takes on many forms. The University of East Anglia's B.J. Epstein, coeditor of the new collection Queer in Translation, takes up a related battle against the double erasure of queer translators. Epstein discusses both the content and source of queer translation, and creates the portmanteau word "eradicalization"—the eradication of the radical element of queer translation—to assail the normalization of queerness in translated texts.
If Epstein laments the use of words to put a damper on the representation of queer sexuality, Uruguayan poet Raquel Lubartowski's "Triptych" rues their futility in the face of desire. "Poetry is no longer enough," she declares, then undercuts her argument with powerful imagery and compelling emotion. Love is a mirage in an endless desert; "We're seeking water / where there is only thirst."
This traditional month of celebration may have a more defiant edge this year, as the international queer community battles the current political and social environment. With that in mind, we offer the writing here as rebuttal, as testimony, and as a declaration of the force and importance of queer writing. And as we fight the forces of hatred, prejudice, and oppression, we must maintain our belief: yes, love is stronger.
© 2017 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.
The jewels of my eyes I’ll lay at your feet
Come, beloved mine, my childhood friend.
Like a kukil you flew to rivers and shallows
my heart, deceived by calls not really yours,
tore in two.
Come beloved mine, my childhood friend.
Yellow blossoms festoon the banks,
I know you’ll fulfill your promise today.
If you come, I’ll lay my head at your feet.
Come beloved mine, my childhood friend.
Garlands of flowers I weave for him,
Won’t he revel in the jasmine, for my sake?
Desire fills these goblets with wine,
Oh for his place in this heart of mine
One glimpse of his face will restore me
Won’t he revel in the jasmine, for my sake?
My garden awaits your footfall,
Place your feet upon my head
And I’ll wear the mark like a crown.
In the pain of separation, I sundered my veil,
Won’t you ever return to me?
A wreath of jasmine I once was,
Now withered to a blade of grass.
O let me wear your footprint like a crown.
Hum not with pain, my spinning wheel,
I’II soothe your aches with scented oils
Hyacinth! Lift your head your head from within the mud
The narcissus waits with her brimming cup.
A jasmine bush am I, and I will not bloom again.
Hum not with pain, my spinning wheel,
I’ll soothe your aches with scented oils.
Translation © 2017 by Neerja Mattoo. All rights reserved.
Born of earth, I fell into contemplation
Hari, you alone open the doors for me
Enlighten me, be my ferryman
You kindled hope in me. Now fill my cups.
The sword of meditation slung by my side
I mount the horse of twin breaths.
The oriole’s song, like a veena, fills the air,
Conches resound, all around
Cymbals ring, the river of Practice springs forth,
This is how I worship Shiva.
Ever-alert Self, she plays and dances
She decks herself in shining clothes.
Always conscious, always perfect
On Shiva’s path, She becomes one with Him.
Translation © 2017 by Neerja Mattoo. All rights reserved.
The translations of Kashmiri poetry presented here grew out of a project at Sangam House, a writers residency program in the Indian countryside about forty-five minutes west of Bangalore. Every year, Sangam House invites writers and translators working in languages across India—and, indeed, the world—to live and work among their peers in a safe, supportive, and nurturing space. As an outgrowth of our core residency program, Sangam House began organizing workshops to facilitate exchanges between writers and translators from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. In the winter of 2014, we began work on a special project called Simurgh. Supported by the Aditi Foundation for the Arts, and named after the mythical bird born from the combined energies of those who sought it, the project was designed to seed a new generation of translators from Indian languages—who could come together as a community, enriching not just their own work, but bringing the treasury of Indian writing to a wider audience.
Simurgh’s first translation program focused on Kashmir and the Kashmiri language. The aim was to place young Kashmiri writers and translators in the presence of their literary past, and to get them to create their work within the larger context of history, genres, themes, and concerns of their own larger literary traditions. An intensive nine-day workshop, held in Srinagar and Pahalgam, brought the young translators together with scholars, poets, and writers who guided them through the classical texts as well as through the translation process. In the course of these discussions and readings, the translators confronted such critical issues as unstable texts from the oral tradition, meanings and interpretations from esoteric mystical traditions that lay behind the use of everyday language, and how form and structure might be carried across in translation.
By all accounts, it was the first time that the diverse and dispersed writers and scholars of the Kashmiri literary tradition were brought to work together under one roof. And it would seem that a small community was indeed seeded: the translators and mentors established a working, supportive relationship with each other, and broke through barriers of language, community, religion and politics in personal as well as professional conversations.
Perhaps the most critical realization of the workshop was that the texts we were working with were profoundly unstable. Vociferous arguments and discussions arose about the words, their meanings, the order of verses, and the verses themselves. It became clear that as important as it was to translate these classical works, it was even more urgent to record and document their multiple versions, all laying claim to be the poets’ "authentic" and "complete" oeuvre. Our intention was not to stabilize the texts, but to represent the oral tradition as it is—contested, known, recited, beloved. As a result, the second round of Simurgh in Kashmir focused on making oral recordings of these classical works. We asked scholars and poets to read and recite the poems that they believed were the authentic works of the poets, thereby generating an aural sense of the unstable texts. We also hoped that these multiple versions of a poet’s oeuvre would enable conversations about the meaning and significance of "canon" both in the world of scholarship and in the popular imagination. The translations presented here represent not only a portion of the work that came out of Simurgh in Kashmir, but a historical overview of Kashmiri poetry written in four centuries: the seventeenth-century Roop Bhawani; the eighteenth-century Arinimal; the nineteenth-century Rasul Mīr; and the twentieth-century Dina Nath Nādim.
Kashmiri is one of the oldest languages of South Asia, with a rich vocabulary. While its grammatic base is Sanskrit, it has happily absorbed words from other languages such as Farsi and Arabic. Its literature can be traced back to the fourteenth century. Among the first mature poetic compositions in the language are the vaakhs of Lal Ded, who laid down a strong foundation of mystic poetry which continues today.
The first practitioner of the other prominent form of poetry in Kashmiri, romantic verse, was also a woman, Habba Khatun. In the selection here, Roop Bhawani (1625–1721) represents the mystic stream, and Arinimal (eighteenth Century), the stream of love.
Roop Bhawani was a practicing mystic who left her husband’s home and renounced domestic life. She had philosophical dialogues with prominent Sufis of the time in Kashmir, among them Shah Sadiq, also known in Kashmir as Shah Qalandar. Her poetry, also in the form of vaakhs, is steeped in the beliefs and practices of Kashmir Shaivism. The vaakh consists of four lines, each a trochaic tetrameter, and does not adhere to a strict rhyme scheme. In fact, more often than not, there is no rhyme, but a solemn rhythm, which suits the generally grave tone of religious poetry. Of course such poetry is often ecstatic, too, and her work includes varying rhythms to suit mystic exclamations.
Arinimal celebrates the world of the senses. In her poems, we find an acknowledgment of a woman’s sexuality, a frank desire for a union that is not at all platonic. Arinimal's poetry is invested with the romance of loneliness, a brooding reproach to the absent lover, her husband, with whom she was deeply in love, and for whom the wait never seems to end. Arinimal’s husband, Bhawanidass Kachru, was a scholar, poet, and linguist, a sophisticated member of the courtly circle of the Afghan Governor of the time, Jumma Khan, who himself was interested in music and poetry. Kachru had no use for the sensibilities of his wife and did not appreciate her poetic skills; perhaps the unpretentious lyricism of her songs did not appeal to his serious, purposeful, even moral view of poetry. Ironically, it is Arinimal’s verses that are sung today, while Kachru's Persian magnum opus Behr-I-taveel lies forgotten in some archive. Women’s voices have a way of escaping the stifling silences they are forced to maintain.
Rasul Mīr flourished in the nineteenth century. His friend and fellow poet, Mahmud Gāmi, allegedly said about Mīr: “He will die young.” The comment has been widely viewed both as prophetic and as censure of a dissolute lifestyle. It could also be considered a comment on Mīr’s body of lyrics, endowed with irrepressible personality, and swerving away from the kind of mysticism that came all too easily to Kashmiri poets between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Mīr’s ear for detail is unparalleled in Kashmiri poetry. As are the moments of sudden transformation, where sound and meaning coalesce. Note, for example, "grāyi mārān kot gachhakh kan dūriye," where the beloved, whose distinctive gait at the beginning of the lyric was enough to identify her from a distance, is now transformed by her possibly retreating motion into a last glimpse of her own pendant earrings, ornaments which shake with every turn of the head: a moment of affection even in the acknowledgment of diminution, and a metamorphosis that is impossible to translate.
Dina Nath Nādim’s poems are distinguished for their experiments in form as well as for their vocabulary, pitch, and tone. What is distinctive is not simply the quality of his attention to life but his way of focusing that attention through the use of “hard, ordinary words” (as John Hollander said of Whitman). Kashmiri, itself, is both the subject and the site of his verse. Every word in his poetry requires its own commentary, each indicating a choice of attention, each bearing the burden, through idiom or etymology, of a way of life.
Nādim was a genius with images, as in “day’s white-seething pan of light,” or “the mountains recoil / back onto their haunches” in "I Will Not Sing." But it is in the hard, ordinary words and the phonetic texture of this poem that you will find the event the poem was: free-verse in distinctively Kashmiri idioms, the meter a matter of stride and breath. Such a poem you translate with your body; if the English cannot be chanted, if the lines no longer train your breath, it will not be Nādim’s poem. Even the phonetic details matter; entirely appropriately, the only break in the richly worked alliterative and assonant surface of the Kashmiri texture of this poem, as Professor Braj Kachru once noted, consist in those two words, jangbāz, jālsāz, which Sonam Kachru has translated as “warlord” and “bureaucrat”: this is auditory intelligence of the highest caliber.
The brief selection presented here is but a glimpse into the mystical, lyric, and political poetry that forms a part of the long tradition of Kashmiri literature. At this point in time, as Kashmir burns and religious and national identities are contested on a daily basis, these poems from the past remind us that a happier, more peaceful time of syncretism and harmony once existed in this troubled land.
© 2017 by Sonam Kachru, Neerja Mattoo, and Arshia Sattar. All rights reserved.
I didn't understand what it meant to be a man. If in the past I thought that it was enough to have genitals dangling between one's legs, now I began to doubt. I doubted, because Uncle Marcelo's did dangle but nobody in the village considered him a man. Then would the perfect male be one who fathered children? "Of course not," I answered myself. My grandfather fulfilled that function and, in the opinion of my grandmother, he shouldn't be considered a man because he had shown himself unable to impose order in the family. Would a man be a person who managed to subdue or dominate other people? I didn't know, and I tossed and turned in bed unable to fall asleep, until I saw my mother, walking before me. I followed her in silence, without asking about my father.
The next day my grandmother left for the farm and gave me a task: to go into the forest for wood, but not to mix with Dina and her friends, three girls who went everywhere together cloaked in mystery. With the basket already on her back, she bid me a dry farewell. As she drew away, I stared above all at her rival, leaning in the kitchen door and holding in her arms her youngest child, seven months old, and calling my grandmother an old crone.
"Don't you understand why Osá no longer visits your bed? It's because you're an old hag who no longer gets her monthlies! Do you want to give my husband your curse, eh?"
Aloof from the confrontation that took place between the two women, my grandfather calmly played checkers in the House of the Word. After the first round of the game was finished, he asked for his breakfast. Once I had served him, I left for the closest forest in search of firewood. Crossing the village, I felt that everyone looked at me strangely: the women who came to pray that their polygamous spouses would pay more attention to them during the day and especially at night; the men who returned from hunting and were selling the animals before reaching their homes; the girls who left with their mothers to work on the farms, lugging baskets or carrying their little brothers and sisters in their arms as was the custom; the children who played football in the village's arena.
When I reached the highway I ran into Dina and her friends. Oh my! I didn't want to join them, so I picked up my pace and lowered my head so our glances wouldn't meet. I feared that someone might see me with them and tell my grandmother. But it was useless. Dina, the nicest of the group, looked at me tenderly and said something that it seemed everyone already knew: "Your uncle Marcelo has fled the village along with the woman who lived with him. Last night they burned down his house while he slept. He is lucky to be alive."
"What are you saying?" I approached the girls, who were also carrying baskets. "And when did all this happen?"
"Last night," Dina answered, touching my arm.
The moment her arm touched me, I noticed I was trembling. I hunched over. We sat down together on the trunk of an Okoumé tree abandoned on the side of the highway.
"They demanded he offer his member for the good of the tribe. And your grandmother, along with the rest of the women in the village, had decided to cast out Restituta, who he lived with, for . . . "
"For what?" We were in the middle of a highway full of mud.
"For . . . that is . . . " She looked at the two other girls who went everywhere with her and then said in a low voice. "For being a whore. It seems that the women have the support of the priest, who says that your uncle's friend brought sin to the village."
"The priest has agreed that they set out to burn alive the . . . whore and my uncle?"
"No. The priest says that prostitution is sinful and so that it doesn't spread, she must be cast out from the village. How that is done was the idea of the women of the Adoration of the Virgin Mary. It seems that their husbands frequently visited the . . . whore."
We were silent for a long moment, and then Dina spoke again.
"As for your uncle, the true goal of the tribe was to burn down his house with him inside it. That's why the people set out with their torches already lit. However, they made a mistake in taking for granted that he was already asleep. They found him sitting on the terrace, talking with his companion."
On hearing this news, I wanted to run toward the burned house. Dina held me back and gave me a letter from Marcelo. I read it with trembling hands and tears, but with the fortitude that only the daughter of an unmarried Fang woman manages to accumulate during years of humiliations, interminable moments of loneliness, and the lack of paternal kindness in being the daughter of all the men in the world but of none in particular.
The letter said the following:
I will always love you. You know that, right? All the love I feel for you doesn't fit in this letter that I write with great urgency and tears. Your grandparents, along with all the tribe, have cast me out of the village for various reasons: I decided not to lend my member for the good of all and I keep in my home the ashes of my father, which, according to them, have provoked the barrenness of the land and other disgraces in the village, including your uncle's infertility. And also, the woman who lives with me is a prostitute and receives visits from various men of the village, among those your grandfather. You are a young girl and easily influenced. You must know that I am innocent. You believe me, don't you? Of course I am, I am sure that my girl believes me. I shall hide in the Otosia forest near the Míong River. I have a hut there. Visit me soon. I can't live without you. The girl who gives you this letter, Dina, is a friend of mine. With her, you can come whenever you want. In the end, I can live permanently in the forest. I am in good health, don't worry. I have brought with me only the painting of Guernica and my memories of your mother. I will talk to you about her when you wish and we can also talk about your father. My home is ash. Don't go there because they will associate you with the curses.
I love you very much, my daughter. And worry not: I will be well.
Your uncle who loves you,
I couldn't believe the contents of the letter. Meanwhile, my companions were looking more nervous than I was. After a few minutes of silence broken only by sobbing, Dina spoke. She said that only ash and loneliness were left in my uncle's home. I felt somewhat relieved after having read the affection and the advice the letter contained. If Marcelo found happiness in the forest, which is where he spent the majority of his time anyway, then all the better. At last he was free from so much disdain for not fondling women or fathering offspring.
Soon we moved into the forest after traveling half a kilometer along a path that illusorily was called a highway but was barely an earthen track.
"Don't be friends with those girls, they're indecent and mysterious," I remembered my grandmother telling me. But these three adolescents defended my uncle because they considered that he lived as a free man. With their baskets on their backs, they said that he had become an example to follow in having dared to challenge the Council of Elders of the tribe.
"The tribe to whom I owed respect and submission?" I asked myself, walking behind the three girls. Only Dina had turned eighteen. She revealed herself to have a strong character and looked at everyone discreetly but without fear. The second young woman was named Pilar, a very quiet orphan. In the village people whispered that her mother had died from witchcraft, and since then her father had sworn to maintain chastity, despite not leading a religious life. In the House of the Word, my grandfather asked him where his seed rested (that is to say, his semen) if he didn't have a wife. He remained silent.
Pilar had a paramour: Plácido. I discovered this because once the boy gave me a letter to deliver to her at school. I opened it and inside I saw a drawing of a heart. How jealous I was! Nobody had ever made such a tender gift for me.
The three girls spoke of Marcelo with much affection, especially the last of them, whose name was Linda. And she was as pretty as her name meant, with lovely eyes and, especially, a nice rear. I always noticed her charms with some anxiety, for I knew that my feelings were destined for some man as tradition decreed. A man who I didn't yet know and who, according to my grandmother, must have money.
Linda described for us the kiss that my uncle had one day given her on her forehead as the tenderest kiss of her life and complained that her father never even spoke to her, unless it was to order her to do something.
"It was here," she said, as she touched the center of her forehead with the palm of her hand. She was standing in front of us, always with the basket on her back like every Fang woman, and smiling.
At that moment we stopped to rest from the long walk. We sat on one side of the track and began to tell one another anecdotes about our lives in our homes. I had nothing to tell. What would I talk about? The constant fights? My perpetual loneliness? My father's abandoning me? The heroes of my tribe who worried above all about getting women pregnant? Of course not! My life lacked emotion. But I found one subject of conversation: I hated my braids. Oh, how I hated them! I also detested lipstick, eyeshadow, blush, and everything used to paint women's faces.
It turned out that I wasn't the only one. Dina and Pilar were with me. The only one who adored makeup was Linda, who couldn't buy any because her father was addicted to cards and gambled away all the family's money. What would she call family? I didn't know where mine was. Or maybe I did. Perhaps my true family lay in the forest, where Marcelo took refuge. And I was desperate to see him that afternoon after cutting wood as my grandmother had ordered me to do.
My grandmother. Nothing remained any longer of the woman she once was. She had changed when her husband became polygamous. I couldn't believe all the fuss she was mixed up in as a result of this, and before saying good-bye to me she had promised me that later we would talk about Marcelo. I anxiously awaited that moment.
We four girls started walking again and, half an hour later, we found various dry trees that we decided to cut. The night before it had rained and the forest was cold, although not enough to put out the torches that burned the home of the man-woman and force him to abandon the village. This was once again the main subject of conversation of the three friends who I had joined, in disobedience of my grandmother.
But, far from starting to work, the girls cut down some large leaves from the trees, cleared a space on the ground, and placed the leaves on the ground like a blanket and sat down on them. I remained standing, holding a machete and watching them without fully understanding why they were doing what they were doing. But they were all cracking up with laughter, which gradually gave way to silence. The first of them to undress was Dina, who started to kiss Pilar. She kissed her on the mouth! The image produced a double sensation in me: shame and unease. I began to tremble and the machete I held fell to the ground, with a loud thud that the girls seemed not to hear. The last to join in was Linda. They kissed one another and they practically forgot about me, while inside me three ideas fought with one another: to keep working, to head back to the village, or to wait for them to finish.
Dina was in the middle between Pilar and Linda. She held out a hand to me: "Come on. Join us."
"No," I answered. "I can't."
"Don't worry. At first it seems strange, but it's nice. You don't need to obey your grandmother, she is not here to watch over you. Come on, try it, you'll like it. You are in the forest: the Fang forest is a free space. Now you are free."
I shook my head again and Dina stood up. She started to kiss me while the other two began to gently remove my clothes. I couldn't refuse a third time. I was enjoying it and for the first time in my life I felt free sexually.
We made love for fifteen minutes. At last I could caress Pilar's rear which had excited me so much in school every time it brushed against some part of my body when the teacher ordered us to all stand in a row to sing the national anthem.
That feeling had always made feel much shame. "I am sick," I told myself often, sick with sin, ashamed that my eyes weren't able to look away from her feminine charms. Sometimes I felt that I had no air in my lungs, when I was overcome with a feeling of guilt for not being like the other women around me, who were always telling anecdotes about their sex lives. Who would I talk to about my own? I didn't know how to answer that question, I was afraid even to think it.
As we got dressed again, Pilar confessed that my uncle had once discovered them making love in the forest. They begged him not to tell anyone. Later, the girls found him with a man in one of the shacks he had in the forest, located near the river where the fishermen of the village often went. Since then, they had shown great complicity toward one other, since they were all part of the same club.
"What club?" I asked, covering my nipples with the palms of my hand.
"The Indecency Club," Linda answered with a smile. She was always content and laughed all the time. "You've become the fourth indecent woman of the village. Before, we were only three."
When I returned to the village, my grandmother was already at home waiting for me and bursting to talk. It was three in the afternoon.
We both found ourselves at the door to the kitchen with our baskets on our backs. Her husband was still in the House of the Word playing checkers with his brothers of the tribe. I placed all the firewood I had brought behind the hearth, so it would be at hand when we were cooking. After sneezing twice, she asked me to sit down, she needed to talk with me urgently and she didn't even change out of the smelly clothes she wore from when she had been working on the farm. I didn't change either. I was still very nervous because of what had just happened in the forest with the girls and I feared that she would find me out by beginning to ask me all the usual questions: "Girl, are you well?" "Are you still thinking about your wretched father?" "Have you finally met a man? Where does he work? Does he have money?" "Did you know that girls your age in the village already feed their families by bringing home rich lovers? What are you waiting for?" "Did you know that women age much sooner than men do?"
My thoughts whirled as I tried to guess what she wanted to talk to me about. For a moment, I mistakenly thought that she would mention the attempt to murder Marcelo or my excursion with the three mysterious girls to cut wood. After placing a bit of tobacco right at the root of her lower lip, she announced that tomorrow I would leave for a village named Ebian where her married daughter lived. My mission consisted of bringing back fifty thousand francs for her.
So. I recalled our visit to the witch doctor. The money was so that she could bring my grandfather back to her conjugal bed. As she swallowed the tobacco she asked me who I had gone into the forest with.
"Alone," I answered, without hesitating. "Completely alone."
"Very good, my girl. At least you didn't join those three indecent girls. I hate them so much! I especially hate Dina. Did you know that she doesn't have a boyfriend, and at her age?"
"She doesn't have a boyfriend!?" I feigned surprise at Dina's disgrace while I sliced ripe bananas with a finely-sharpened knife.
"No she doesn't, my girl, no," she confirmed, staring into my eyes. Her own were reddened by the effects of the tobacco.
"And is that serious, Abuela? Is not having a novia serious?"
"Did you say 'girlfriend' or did I hear wrong?"
"I'm sorry, you never hear wrong, Abuela, I made a mistake. I meant to say novio."
"Just as well!" she sighed. "Just as well you made a mistake. Otherwise I'd begin to worry. Of course it is, my girl, it's very serious. What is a woman without a man? Dina is on the edge of old age, she is eighteen years old and has no partner! And her family still has not benefitted from her body. At least you're not like that. Just as well!"
Was this the point of our conversation? My grandmother spoke and spoke without pause, until she ordered me to leave the next day for Ebian, alone.
Alone? Something shivered inside me. Alone.
From La Bastarda. Published by Flores Raras. © Trifonia Melibea Obono. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2017 by Lawrence Schimel. All rights reserved.
That it is ridiculous to speak of joy
that “the promised land” does not exist
that our rage will find no calm.
All this I know.
Yes, I introduced them, but that was all. Everything that happened afterward, what they said, I swear it’s not true, sugar. Úrsula was on the other side of the tracks when I met Tomás, so it was me he saw first. He looked at me and said, Going North? We became traveling companions, and—this is just between you and me—I fell in love with him. He made me feel like his wife, like he was my protector. He was so sweet, my Tommy.
I knew Úrsula wanted Tommy, but we have a code, a kind of unbreakable code. Wait and see, sugar, if you take a liking to my man, keep it to yourself, but if my man comes after you, then we share. That’s the way it is.
We escaped from El Danubio. Well, you know the reputation that alley has, right? We fled like dogs with our tails between our legs, and during that journey I learned a lot about life, honey, learned that sometimes it’s just trying to make things tough for you. We’d had it up to the back teeth with Genaro—the pimp in the bar where we worked. For months we’d been talking about leaving, about getting out of that rat’s nest. But you see, it took Úrsula a while to persuade me because at first, in comparison with my hometown of San Pedro, El Danubio was a paradise. Well, anywhere’s a paradise in comparison with San Pedro, right? Some nights I came away with more dough than I’d have earned in a month there. But, like everything else, I finally started to take it for granted, and when Úrsula told me about the possibilities here, well . . . What can I say? My little heart was beating fast. But we ran away from there like thieves, like vermin.
Tommy was so strong. And he had those really short, Chinese sort of eyelashes, and coffee-colored eyes that made you think of a puppy dog or well-polished wood. He was a candy you wanted to pop in your mouth and suck real slow. When we first met—word of honor, honey—I believed him, and when he said I was so good-looking, I felt like everything was just churning up inside me. He looked me straight in the eye, cupping my chin in his hand, as if I really was the most beautiful girl in the world. He told me I was like Penélope Cruz and I—talk about dumb—fell for it. That, dearest, is the way we are: they find our weak points and we’re lost.
Úrsula came with us. The three of us traveled together, and we made a good team. While one of us was gathering the gossip or getting the best tips, the other rested, and Tommy went for water, or so he said. I didn’t want to think too much about who he was, though of course I realized he was different from the rest of us. It was as if he had hope. Do you understand that, honey? I do, because a Mexican I met on the tracks said so, he said that those of us crossing through had need written on our faces. Hunger doesn’t lie, honey, it oozes out through every pore in your skin. Those other people, traveling in their cars, staring at us, they look for that hunger in your face, sniff it out, before unfolding their fists like some disgusting flower and showing the green stuff. Maybe they saw something in Tommy’s face that made them tighten their fists and not even let go of a single peso. Well, it’s like I said, honey. I wanted to believe Tommy’s story. Wouldn’t you do the same if someone made you feel so close to what you’ve always dreamed of?
The glow began to wear off when we were passing through Sinaloa. And listen, honey, if I hadn’t seen what was underneath with my own two eyes, I’d definitely be with Úrsula over there—wherever she is—right now. Something began to smell rotten to me, really rotten, so bad not even I could go on fooling myself, however much in love I was. All those dreams of marrying him, all that believing he loved me and feeling I was beautiful went straight down the drain. But I prefer being alive and ugly to dying with an illusion of love.
Here are the mistakes he made: lying to me about not having a telephone with him, hiding himself away to talk in a loud voice on his phone, and—this is really important—telling whoever was on the other end of the line my name and Úrsula’s. What frightened me most, honey, is that he used our other names, the ones on the official ID. Just when and how had he gotten into our things? Why was he saying our names to that person? Something inside me began to break apart little by little, and I can tell you it hurt to think the worst of my Tommy, but the idiot began to get nervous—if there’s one thing I recognize, it’s nerves—and the nearer we got to the border—up there on La Bestia, moving like a worm through the hills and deserts— and the stronger the scent of freedom and money in the air, the weirder that rat got. Then in Tijuana, looking at anything but me, he said:
“You’re getting off with me here, and we’re going to El Paso.”
“But we’re heading for Nogales, Pop.” His eyes were empty, like a crow’s. I felt a stabbing in my heart: the warning this guy was seriously dangerous.
And right then I stopped being a victim.
“Change of plan. You’re getting off with me in Tijuana, and we’re going to El Paso.”
“No, Pop. You don’t get it. We’re going the other way.”
“And what about me, honey? Aren’t you going to take me with you?” That was Úrsula. She was watching the ending of our love affair, and didn’t want to miss her chance.
“We’ll go wherever you want,” said Tommy, but talking like a pre-recorded message. You know the way, with no truth in his voice, and I could hear the lies, but my dumbass Úrsula couldn’t. And I realized that was just how I’d looked when Tommy told me that stuff about Penélope Cruz. But there was nothing I could do to wipe that enchanted-child expression from her face, especially when that Tommy began saying she looked like Sofía Vergara.
“Hey girl, you’re breaking my heart. Stick with me,” I pleaded with Úrsula, but it was a waste of breath. Even so, I tugged her away to where Tommy couldn’t overhear us, and said what had to be said.
“There’s something not right about that guy. I overheard him talking to someone, sugar. I’ve got a hunch.”
“No way, babe. Tommy only wants to help us.”
“Come down from the clouds. He’s got something up his sleeve.”
“What he’s got is that lovely little butt that makes me want to eat it by the spoonful.”
“But we’re almost there.”
“And what if I go with him for a few days, and then meet up with you in Nogales?”
“And what if he does something to you?”
“What would he do? Come on, babe, you’ve had your taste, it’s my turn now.”
My heart was beating so loud, I thought my chest would burst, and I could feel the blood pounding in my brain.
There was no power in heaven or on earth that could stop my precious. Tommy promised the three of us would see each other real soon in Nogales. And I said good-bye to my Úrsula there in the street, in Tijuana. When they were walking away, just like a real couple, and I was ready to start screaming, Úrsula turned and handed me a scrap of paper with a telephone number and address: “Talk to my cousin Ezequiel.” I hugged her, kissed her, breathed in the scent of her neck, a smell like sweat and dust mixed with the rosewater she used. I gave her the little Virgin I always carried with me—it had belonged to my grandmother. All that time, Tommy was smoking, one foot resting against a streetlight. Úrsula shouldered her backpack and went back to him. I watched them walking away from me, until they became two tiny figures at the far end of the dusty street.
Some time later, when I’d already been working a while at Adam & Eve (I was a big hit in that club, honey), Ezequiel turned up waving a newspaper. I swear I haven’t read another since that day. I told him straight out not to come around showing me sob stories, or any of that dumb stuff. I said I preferred the society pages, because you can see wedding photos there and read about those romances I love. Or magazines where the movie stars look so gorgeous with those stunning curves.
I’d been fearing it for months, but now I knew for sure: Tommy was trafficking trannies, and any other kind of trans. Of course, his name wasn’t Tomás, nothing like it; he was, according to the newspaper, Luis Guillermo (Memo) Reyes, member of one of those kidnapping gangs. I didn’t read much because there, a little further down, I saw Úrsula’s face among some others. It was her passport photo, and she looked all stiff, with her hair gelled back, and the shirt she’d had to wear for the shot, but it was her, her round eyes, her almost black ears, her wide, thin-lipped mouth, those high cheekbones that made her so good-looking.
I don’t remember much about what happened that night. Just that I got drunker than ever before on the bottle of tequila I was keeping for the celebration when Úrsula arrived from Nogales. And I danced to that Paquita song my soul sister loved, the one about life being a carnival, and you have to enjoy it, dance your troubles away. You know the one?
That night I fell asleep in an armchair, and later, when the sky began to turn gray, and then got brighter and brighter, it was like someone was smashing the skull of the fucked-up fucker I felt I was. The whole apartment smelled of something like sulfur. Then I heard someone knocking on the door. The bell didn’t ring, it was three loud raps. Through a crack in the door, I could just see two police officers. One was tall and thin, the other burly, with a square jaw. The lanky one was clasping his hands in front of him, the other one was standing arms akimbo. I didn’t want to open up, I wanted them to stay out there, but it was too late. They knew I was inside. It would have been stupid to run, there’d be others waiting in the street. What I had to do was open the door and let them in.
“Good morning, sir. Rough night?” said the tall lanky one.
“Perhaps he prefers to be called Miss,” said the other with a sort of giggle, twisting his mouth.
“Miss, yes. What can I do for you gentlemen?” I answered in my lousy accent.
“We’re on a case. May we sit down?”
“Please, yes, yes. Coffee?” I was trying to keep my calm, but noticed my hands were beginning to shake.
“Well . . . why not? Coffee would be fine,” said the burly one.
I put water on to boil. Then I looked at the open window and got the urge to run, to talk to Ezequiel, ask him for help. Instead, I poured two cups of coffee and took them to the living room.
They were walking around, looking at my stuff.
I sat on one of the armchairs and crossed my legs, but then caught the lanky one looking at me. I was still wearing the previous night’s clothes, so I explained,
“I dress for work.”
“What kind of job do you have, miss?”
I hated that question, and hated having to answer it even more.
“I work in a bar.”
“Is this a special kind of bar?” asked the burly one.
“Yes, sir. It is that I love my work. I do it with love.”
I don’t know why I said that, but they were looking so hard at me, nothing else came into my head. And then I was real edgy. I think anyone would be, talking to the police.
They were silent for a moment, and my ears began to buzz, coz I guessed what they were going to say would be ugly.
“Do you know this man?” asked Lanky, taking a photo from a folder.
“Yes, I do. I know him in Mexico.”
“Do you know his real name?”
“I read in the paper, yes. I read his name is not Tommy. I read the news. He said he was going to marry me, you know? He said we could get married here, but I had a feeling. You understand?”
“Hold it, miss. We ask the questions, you answer. That clear? What about this young man?” he said, showing me a photo of Úrsula, dead. They’d cut her hair, the brutes, and she looked everything she wasn’t, but I knew it was her by the eyebrows. I always thought she had great eyebrows.
I felt as if a balloon was going to burst in my belly.
“Bathroom,” I managed to say. I vomited into the toilet bowl, pure bile, sweetheart. When I returned to the living room, they were both on their feet.
“Miss, Eddy? Is that your real name?” asked Burly.
“Yes,” I replied, feeling like my throat was on fire.
“Can I see your green card and passport?” asked Lanky.
“I think you’re fucked,” said Burly with a little smile.
You know the rest.
Have you ever seen iguanas standing so still on stones? They’re like creatures from another world, and they look at you with those eyes and seem to know everything. They’re like birds, but from down here, not from the sky. That’s the way the eyes of those people who judge me are, the ones who look at me as if I were the pits. But they can’t fuck with me, they can’t reach me. And I’m free inside, sweetheart, and I know exactly what I did, and what I didn’t do. I know I met Tommy by chance, that life set him in my path so I’d experience true love, if only for a short while. And I know no one will take my Úrsula from me.
They said so many things, honey, said I just passed myself off as a tranny to make contact with others and then exploit them. They said Tommy was my sidekick, that I just used him (he’s in the slammer too, but he’s been charged, poor wretch). Luckily that cat-eyed attorney they sent me put up a good defense and they dropped the charges. I was only accused of being an illegal, and that’s why they sent me here, with you. But who’s going to believe me? It puts me all on edge to imagine having to make my way back through those hills, in men’s clothes, walking, never stopping. I know I’ll get the urge to turn around and say something to my Úrsula, to tell her a joke, to chat, but I know too that when I do turn, there’ll be no one there, just the hills, the air, and me. And it’s really cold out there. But like I said, they can’t fuck with me, those people with their lost eyes. Hey, I can tell you one thing, honey: everything in this life is provisional. Everything passes, just the way these sticky grits will pass through my guts. Ah, well, what’s past is past. Tell me about yourself.
"Miss Eddy" © Milena Solot. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Christina MacSweeney. All rights reserved.
In this chapter from Polish journalist Karolina Domagalska's I Won't Apologize for Giving Birth: Stories of IVF Families, the author meets a Tel Aviv family of six: Dana and her girlfriend, Dafi; their two daughters; and the children's fathers, Ronen and Yanai, a gay male couple who have just broken up after seventeen years.
“Hey, Dana, I just wanted to ask which shoes Abigail's wearing today. The pink Crocs? Right, I'll pop over to your place before preschool and take the sandals. See you then, bye.” Yanai puts down the phone and sighs.
It's Thursday, Abigail is spending the night at his place. They will visit the grandparents: Yanai's brother has had a baby and they are throwing a small party. He really dislikes Crocs. But what can you do, Dana has never paid attention to clothes or colors. Just in case, he checks Abigail's room, looks under the bed, the desk with the old computer, the chest of drawers. But the silver sandals that would go with his daughter's dress are not there. He glances at the floor of the slightly messy living room combined with the open-plan kitchen, peeks into the recess with its desk and work computer. Well, such are the charms of having two homes.
Yanai takes the keys and the phone from a tall table separating the kitchen from the hall and leaves. Outside there is heat, noise, and the postindustrial landscape. He passes a freight elevator and a garage on the way to his car. He is the only resident in the area.
The preschool and Dana's place are fifteen minutes away. Yanai opens the gate, crosses the yard with its huge inflatable pool, and jogs up the stairs to the house. Dana's living room and kitchen also form one space, but they gleam with white and pale wood. A side wall is covered with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. In passing, Yanai greets Dafi, who has just gone to the glassed-in veranda for a smoke. He quickly locates the silver sandals and walks to the preschool, only two blocks away. Initially Yanai also lived in this leafy district, perfect for young families. But after a year he and Ronen broke up and he moved to the loft.
“That was a shock to us,” recalls Dana, a slim forty-year-old with strands of gray hair and a keen gaze. “At that point Yanai and Ronen had been together for seventeen years, and that was what attracted us to them. When my girlfriend and I met, I was twenty-six and Dafi twenty-nine. We always knew we wanted to have a family and we wanted the children to have fathers. Do you mind if I start making lunch?” she asks and stands behind the kitchen island with the sink and cupboards. I can hear splashing from the bathroom: after a few hours in the pool the girls are taking a warm bath.
"Why did you want fathers for the children?” I ask.
"Dafi had a very strong relationship with her dad, who's dead now. In her opinion a father is very important for the child. Besides, when she wanted to have kids, I was busy writing my thesis, I knew I wouldn't be able to combine that with parenthood. I thought that we didn't have to build a family like straight people do. I told Dafi: 'Go and find a father for your child.' And so she did.”
Dana opens one of the white cupboards on the wall, takes out pasta and tomato sauce, reaches for fresh vegetables from the fridge. Chopping the tomatoes, garlic, and onion, she tells me how Dafi went to the Center for New Families, which arranged dates for her with three gay men, but she didn't take a liking to any of them. The breakthrough came at their friend's fortieth.
"Would you happen to know a gay man who'd like to be a father?” Dafi asked an acquaintance. "Just a minute ago one asked me if we knew a lesbian who wants to become a mother,” was the answer. This is how Dafi met Ronen and a two-year-long period of dating began. All four of them—Ronen, his boyfriend, Yanai, Dafi, and Dana—had lunches together, partied, went away together for the summer, and even traveled to Lesbos. During all this time Dafi and Ronen kept discussing their expectations, and eventually, after two years, signed a contract. Before long Dafi and Ronen started the home insemination attempts but were only successful after a visit to the hospital.
"Daughter of Ehud Olmert Has Baby with Longtime Girlfriend,” the papers reported in September 2007. Dana is the daughter of Israel's ex-prime minister, member of the centrist Kadima party.
When Amalia was two, Dana decided it was time for her and Yanai. They signed the same contract, with small changes, and were successful with their first attempt at home insemination. Amalia felt threatened, rejected Dafi, wanted to be only with Dana. This first-born of four parents was now supposed to make space for her sister, and she didn't like it one bit.
"When somebody asks how many children you have, what do you say?” I ask while Dana picks fresh leaves from a basil plant in a pot.
"I say two. I was with Dafi during labor, not Ronen. He was waiting in the corridor. And I was the first one to hold Amalia. I consider her my first first child, and Abigail my second first child. Amalia showed me that it's possible, it's thanks to her that Abigail was born. Still, at first I didn't want Amalia to call me 'Mom.' I thought it's strange and confusing for a child to have two moms. It's interesting that she has no name for me. I'm a parent, but not a mom or a dad.”
Dana and Dafi are not legally married. Amalia is Dafi and Ronen's daughter, Abigail Dana and Yanai's.
"In the families of my lesbian friends who've used a sperm donor, the nonbiological mom would adopt the child and officially become the other parent. I am Amalia's parent, but the law doesn't recognize this. That's why we're thinking of changing our last names. All six of us will be called 'Alvi,' which means 'my heart' in Arabic and is a combination of our initials. It will be a long process, but we want to do it to emphasize that they're sisters, even though they're not biologically related. I don't want anyone—not the school, the world or society—to tell them one day that they're not sisters because they don't share a last name.”
It is hard to believe that as recently as twenty-six years ago homosexual relationships were a crime in Israel. Today, Tel Aviv is considered a paradise for gay men and lesbians, especially those who want to start a family. Nobody is surprised to see two men or two women laden with children and their odds and ends. That such families are commonplace here is evident in preschools and schools during the annual Family Day in February. All kinds of celebrations take place on that day and children draw portraits of their families. On those, the so-called new families appear alongside more conventional ones. Two moms, two dads, two moms and a dad, two dads and a mom. Amalia drew herself and Abigail, and four parents too—Ronen, Yanai, Dafi, and Dana.
And now for some facts: since 1994, gay couples have been eligible for marital benefits and the full extent of tax and inheritance law if they decide to formalize their relationship. In 2006, Israel started recognizing same-sex marriages solemnized abroad. In that same year, it became possible for gay couples to adopt a biological child of one of the partners, and two years later to adopt a child that was not biologically related to them.
In terms of reproductive medicine, it's easier for lesbians: they can use donor sperm, and the state—just as in the case of straight couples—finances all their attempts up until the birth of their second child. Surrogacy, however, was only available to straight couples until 2014, which resulted in medical tourism of gay men to the USA, India, Thailand, Mexico. Since 2010, the state has been granting Israeli citizenship to children born abroad to surrogate mothers.
“Encouraging people to have children and funding medical procedures are all part of the state demographic policy. Jews should be the majority in Israel, the demographic contest with the Arabs is still on. So whether you're straight, gay, or trans, you have the right to start a family. This, of course, is beneficial to the gay community,” explains Dana.
Anthropologist Susan Kahn's research shows that families that had been unable to accept their children's homosexuality change their attitude when a grandchild appears. This was also the case for Dana's parents.
Her parents, Ehud and Aliza Olmert, stand in the middle. On the left—two daughters and a brother with their families, on the right—Dafi, Ronen holding Amalia's arm, Dana with Abigail on her hip, and Yanai. In the family photo, Dana and her family unit take up the whole wing.
“My dad is very pragmatic,” says Dana. “He said: 'I won't make myself miserable because of the decisions you make.' When Amalia was born, he got that this was serious. Before then he thought something might change, that maybe I'm doing this to prove something to him. When I started a family, he understood this had nothing to do with him. It's not like my parents have suddenly become rainbow-flag-waving activists, but they have definitely come to accept my choices. The fact that the girls have fathers helps them—it's a bit like when a straight couple gets divorced. Actually, Mom sometimes calls Yanai my husband. She'll ask: 'Is your husband coming?' She calls Dafi 'wife,' loves her and treats her 100 percent like family.”
The girls have a huge family: lots of cousins, aunts, uncles, and four sets of grandparents. Dafi and Ronen's parents are as close to them as Dana's. They see the girls at least once a week. Yanai's family is the exception; he is reluctant to speak about them.
“My parents are from Yemen, they're very conservative. Instead of telling them I'm gay, I moved to Tel Aviv and kept my distance. When Dana got pregnant, I decided I needed to come out. My father wanted to kill himself, but in the end he got over it somehow. I still don't go there often, though. They don't understand, I can't explain to them what it means to be gay. Only Abigail and I exist to them, they don't want to know the others.”
The mom's house is the child's main abode.
Initially the child lives only with her. After a year she spends a night at the dad's. Ultimately, two nights and one weekend day (no overnight stay) at dad's.
Financial split: dad bears sixty percent of the costs, mom forty.
If one of the parents dies, the child stays with the other mom and her sister.
If one of the parents moves abroad permanently, they lose custody rights.
In the case of a temporary move abroad, the parent undertakes to finance visits from the other parent and the child three times a year.
In the case of a move outside of Tel Aviv, the parent who moves is obliged to provide the child with transport.
A parent who converts to ultra-Orthodox Judaism loses custody rights.
Those are some of the stipulations of the contract. Nobody has looked at it since it was signed. Yanai doesn't even know where he put it. The process of arriving at it was crucial; through it, all four of them got to know each other, their motivations and needs. Of course not everything can be regulated in advance. Because how can you maintain harmony in a four-parent family when, say, one couple separates? One home automatically breaks up into two. Initially Yanai and Ronen wouldn't see each other, so how to sustain contact between the nonbiological parent and the nonbiological daughter? Can the sisters sleep together at one of the fathers' houses? It was the overnight stays that sparked the conflict. According to Dana, Abigail should not sleep at Ronen's with Amalia, because she should have two homes, not three. Yanai, however, thinks that it would not hurt Abigail to spend the night with her sister at the home of her other dad, whom she loves.
“I'm the evil one in the family,” comments Yanai. “I don't want to move to Bicaron, I'm fine in my ruin of a house, I have lots of space and freedom here. I also don't let the moms interfere in how I spend my free time. It was hard right after the break-up, but I'm still friends with Ronen, we see each other at least twice a week, he brings Amalia over for dinner. Sometimes I feel like Dana wants to have me at her disposal. When Abigail is ill or something else comes up, immediately there's pressure for me to mind her. I'm also often reproached that I don't spend enough time at their place. But the truth is that although Dana and I argue, I wouldn't want to have a child with anyone else.”
Another issue that is difficult to regulate in a contract: new partners. How do you introduce them into the lives of the children and the whole family? What if one of the parents wants to have a child with the new partner too?
“It turned out that Amalia, who never said anything about our break-up, was very affected by it. At some point she said to Mom: 'I think Yanai left Dad because I cried too much.' We were all shocked. So when I met Aviel, my new boyfriend, I was very careful with the girls at the start, I didn't introduce them until six months later. They liked each other a lot, but unfortunately our relationship ended after two years. It's hard, but you can't worry about it too much either. Arab families used to live together, like tribes, and bring the children up together. People come and go in the kids' lives. For example, Amalia was recently transferred to another preschool and missed her old teacher a lot. It's natural.”
Bathtime over, Dana dries Amalia's dark blonde wavy hair and the mop of Abigail's dark curls (she takes after Dad: Yanai has curly hair too, hates it and keeps it very short). Amalia has unbelievably blue eyes—emphasized by dark eyebrows and lashes—and a melancholy look; Abigail has a jolly round face and eyes like chocolate. The elder goes to play with a friend in her room. The younger wants to play a game on an iPad, sits next to me on the couch. Dana throws pasta into boiling water.
“I used to like advising other couples, I even gave lectures at a center for gays and lesbians. Now I'm a bit more careful; this path is full of challenges. Negotiating the contract isn't enough, a crisis can happen. We talk a lot, we shout a lot. Like in a marriage. I am Dafi's wife, but Yanai's too. Dafi is my wife, but also Ronen's. Those relations are a little complicated. For example, Yanai frequently clams up in a conflict, doesn't want to talk. I can't do that. He sulked for a month once. When you have a child with someone you don't love romantically, you have to understand that they won't change for you, you can't expect them to. Now I know that.”
“Maybe an anonymous donor would've been better?”
“No, I'm very glad that Abigail has a father who loves her, that she knows who he is. I don't think biology is that important, it's more important who takes care of you. But I think it's vital to know who your father is. And besides, this way we have two evenings a week just for each other. I don't know how other parents manage. Abigail is going to be seven soon and I can say with a clear conscience that our arrangement works.”
From Nie przeproszę, że urodziłam. Historie rodzin z in vitro. Published 2015 by Wydawnictwo Czarne, Wołowiec. © 2015 by Karolina Domagalska. By arrangement with the Andrew Nurnburg Agency. Translation © 2017 by Marta Dziurosz. All rights reserved.
Translators and queers have a lot in common.
For one thing, we’re both invisible. You can’t tell just from looking at someone that they’re a translator or that they’re lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise queer (LGBTQ). (Unless, that is, they’re wearing a T-shirt that proclaims “I’m a Queer Translator,” and now that I think of it, I’d like to get one of those.)
Furthermore, many people would like us to stay invisible. They often don’t want to see the fingerprints of translators in translated works or even to know they’re reading translations, and they don’t want to hear about queer issues or see evidence of queer “lifestyles.” I can’t overstate how many times people have told me they don’t read translations, and when I point out which texts they might have read that are translations, they often reply in an underwhelmed voice, “Oh. Well, does it really matter? Why do I need to know about the translator?” Similarly, I’ve had people say, “I don’t care what folks get up to in their own homes, as long as I don’t have to see it or be told about it.” It’s as though many believe that translation is confined to an office and sexuality or gender identity to a bedroom, and they’d rather not think any more about it.
Then there’s the matter of how both translation and LGBTQ topics are not studied enough. This relates back to the previous point: neither translated texts nor queer texts are generally considered canonical, and therefore they are not thought to be worthy of being more visible. Queer texts don’t necessarily get written, published, translated, acquired by libraries/bookstores, or studied in schools. Those who have traditionally held the power within the publishing industry and the literary academy have not always wanted to allow different voices to be heard or studied. Look at any syllabus for primary school, secondary school, or university, and count how many of those books are translations and how many are by queer authors or about queer topics. And if you’re feeling especially brave, count how many are translations of queer texts, perhaps even translated by queer translators—I have a sneaking suspicion the percentage would be incredibly small.
So it’s time. It’s time for LGBTQ texts to be translated and for those translations to be analyzed, and it’s time for translators to consider what it might mean to translate LGBTQ texts and authors, and whether there are, or should be, particularly queer methods of translation. After all, there are feminist or postcolonial translation strategies so why not queer ones, too?
For instance, feminist translators use particular translation strategies to highlight issues such as sexism or to emphasize an author’s gender or an author’s feminist views. Examples of strategies that translators and scholars such as Luise von Flotow, Sherry Simon, and Suzanne de Lotbiniére-Harwood have proposed include: supplementing, prefacing, deleting, footnoting, hijacking, or radical changes, such as invented spellings. In other words, translators can draw attention to gender itself and to related issues, such as the treatment of female characters, by choosing to highlight, to add in, or, indeed, to remove particular aspects of a text. They may not do this in all cases (for example, there may be a text where gender does not seem relevant, or where a translator does not feel like pointing the reader toward gendered ideas), but there are options for translators if they want to or believe there is a need.
Queer translators and translators of queer texts can do likewise. They can focus on the queerness of a character or a situation, or they can push a reader to note how a queer character is treated by another character or by the author, or they can otherwise hijack a reader’s attention by bringing issues of sexuality and gender identity to the fore. I like to call such strategies “acqueering,” as they emphasize or even acquire queerness. For example, a translator can add in queer sexualities, sexual practices, or gender identities or change straight/cis identities or situations to queer ones; remove homophobic, biphobic, or transphobic language or situations or highlight them in order to force a reader to question them; change spellings or grammar or word choices to bring attention to queerness; or add footnotes, endnotes, a translator’s preface, or other paratextual material to discuss queerness and/or translatorial choices.
On the other hand, a translator may choose—or be encouraged by the publisher to choose—strategies that remove or downplay queer sexualities, sexual practices, or gender identities, or that change queerness to the straight/cis norm. Doing so can be considered what I term “eradicalization,” as this eradicates the radical nature of queerness. We’ve all heard stories of writers who have censored themselves and have chosen not to include queer characters in order to increase the marketability of their work, or who have been forced to do this on orders from their editors or publishers, and therefore it wouldn’t be a surprise if translators do this at times as well.
The desire to make the invisible visible is one reason why I decided to explore the translation of queer texts in my own academic research. The outcome, I hope, is multifold, including: we can come up with new strategies for translating queer texts or for encouraging the translation of queer texts; we can analyze which queer texts get translated and by whom and how; we can support the publication of work by queer writers or work on queer themes; and we can likewise support queer translators as they enter and build careers in the translation industry. Perhaps we’ll one day be able to start a prize for translated queer fiction, just as there finally is a prize for translated work by female authors.
I started with a small project, looking at just two young adult novels and their translations to Swedish. The two novels are Aidan Chambers’s Dance on my Grave, which was translated as Dansa på min grav by Katarina Kuick, and Julie Burchill’s Sugar Rush, which was translated by Moa Andersdotter as Sugar Rush.
Aidan Chambers’s Dance on my Grave tells the story of high school student Hal and his friendship, and then romantic relationship, with Barry. They become lovers, Barry cheats on Hal with a Norwegian woman called Kari, and then Barry dies in a motorcycle accident. The book was published in 1982 and is quite experimental/daring in terms of style and format, in that it is a mixture of newspaper clippings, psychologist’s reports, narration, and other pieces and styles. Hal is well aware that he is attracted to men, though the phrase he employs is that he is looking for “bosom palship,” such as the one David and Jonathan in the Bible shared. Barry, meanwhile, does not use such terminology, but he does make it clear that he is unwilling to be tied down to just one partner.
Julie Burchill’s Sugar Rush is a more recent work, published in 2004. The novel is about Kim, an upper-middle-class teenage girl. Her mother leaves the family, financial difficulties ensue, and Kim switches from a private school to a state-run school. There she meets Maria “Sugar” Sweet and they become friends. They start a sexual relationship, but the passion is rather one-sided, and eventually it fizzles into “lesbian bed death.” Like Barry, Sugar has no wish to be monogamous, or to be intimate with only one gender, but Kim refuses to accept this. Sugar cheats on Kim with a number of men. As in Chambers’s book, the characters don’t use terms such as gay, lesbian, polyamorous, bisexual, or queer. Sugar never uses a term of any kind to define herself, and Kim is also quite reluctant to, even looking down on queer teens. Kim somewhat sarcastically refers to her feelings for Sugar as a “temporary pash for the naughtiest girl in the school.” The book was made into a Channel 4 TV program in the UK, which added more drama and made Kim seem much surer of her sexuality; the first episode starts with Kim masturbating with an electric toothbrush. The issue of queer adaptation is an interesting one that should be explored more elsewhere.
In short, both of these young adult novels show teenagers who aren’t fully out as queer but who certainly are involved in same-sex relationships and who are coming to terms with their sexuality. In English, the terms used to describe the characters, their feelings, and their sexual interactions are often subtle but still clearly sexual. In the Swedish translations, however, we see a different story, and this influences the queerness of the texts as a whole.
In Kuick’s translation of Chambers’s novel, many terms that reference sex, sexuality, or genitals are changed or deleted. For example, “nut-cracking scared” (p. 19) becomes “skiträdd,” or “shit scared” (p. 22), and “impotent sails” (p. 22) becomes “slaka seglen,” or “slack sails” (p. 25), and “his presence fingered me pliant” (p. 126) turns into “blev jag alldeles knävsvag av hans blotta närvaro,” “I got weak in the knees from his very presence” (p. 139). Much of the sexuality in this book is quite euphemistic, so it is possible the translator didn’t recognize the sexual connotations, but it also changes the tone so it is less sexually charged. It does make me wonder whether queer translators would be the best choices for queer texts, but of course that implies that a queer person would be familiar with all sorts of sexual terms and practices, which isn’t necessarily the case, nor would it always be straightforward, so to speak, for a publisher to find a good translator who works with a particular language pair and is also queer.
In Chambers’s book, terms that subtly suggest gayness are also changed and softened. For example, “effete” (p. 29) becomes “dekadenta," or “decadent” (p. 33), “You crafty young bugger” (p. 95) is “Din smarta lilla skit,” “you smart little shit” (p. 104), “Lazy bugger” (p. 99) becomes “lata jäkel,” or “lazy devil” (p. 109), and “hello-sailor clothes” (p. 175) turn into “matroskläder,” or “sailor clothes” (p. 194).
At one point in the story, bullies stop Hal and Barry and seem to recognize them as a male-male couple. The bullies taunt them with phrases such as “a little Southend pier” and “a couple of bottle boys” (p. 133), while also pretending not to know if they are male or female and acting camp as a way of mocking them. In Swedish, this scene is shortened and simplified so that the taunts are just well-known slang words for “gay” (“akterseglare” and “fikusar”) (p. 147). So in translation, the insults and the threats seem less scary and there is also less of a poetic, euphemistic feel. On the other hand, one could argue that using the slang words gives a stronger sense of queerness here, even if it changes the style of Chambers’s writing.
There are also many references to “body” in the book in English, and these are most often translated as “lik,” or “corpse,” rather than “kropp,” or “body.” While “corpse” is relevant in some places, as Barry is dead, these changes also make the book less physical and active. The vital, sometimes confusing sexuality of the original has become dead and passive in translation.
In short, the subtle references to sexuality in Dance on my Grave, especially gay sexuality, are removed in translation, and the book generally feels less sexual and less active.
In Andersdotter’s translation of Burchill’s book, too, sexuality is deemphasized in translation. For example, words such as “frig” (p. 56) are deleted and terms such as “hot perving date” (p. 81) are softened into “het date," or “hot date” (p. 86). “Wanker” (p. 42) becomes the English word “loser” (p. 48), “het up” (p. 49), with its subtle nod to heterosexuals, becomes “upprörd,” or “upset” (p. 55), and “buggered” (p. 51) turns into “fan,” or “damn” (p. 57). Perviness and sexuality are removed from the story.
Also, besides the English word “loser” being added in, lots of challenging, taboo, and/or sexual words are simply kept in English rather than being translated (“bitch,” “freak,” “ladee-lovers”, etc.). This occurs throughout. Perhaps there is the assumption that Swedish teens will understand these words since they tend to have studied English (after all, the title is kept in English, too). Or maybe the translator (or editor or publisher) felt that these words were impossible to translate, or inappropriate to translate. But one could say that readers are kept at a distance from the meaning of the novel when the words are not translated; if readers wanted to read the text in English, presumably they would have chosen to do so.
One of the most interesting aspects of Sugar Rush is that Sugar explains how she does not want to be tied down to one person. Though she doesn’t call herself polyamorous or discuss having multiple lovers, she repeatedly states that she doesn’t want just one partner. She compares love to liking music; just because you like one song and want to play it a lot, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy other songs as well. Kim, on the other hand, clearly wants a traditional monogamous relationship and finds Sugar’s poly tendencies threatening. So Sugar is queer both in that she is having a relationship with a woman, but also in that she is probably what we would call polyamorous.
It’s pretty clear to a reader that Sugar will not be able to stay in a monogamous relationship with Kim, and sure enough, toward the end of the book, Kim finds Sugar having sex with four boys. The Swedish translation, however, changes this to one boy. In English, Sugar is with four boys (p. 207) and she is described as “ENJOYING BEING GANGBANGED . . . with four boys” (p. 209, caps in original) and to be “THEIR Sugar” (p. 210). In Swedish, she is with one boy (p. 210), is said to “NJUTA AV ATT GÖRA DET . . . med en kille,” or “ENJOY DOING IT . . . with a boy” (p. 212), and to be “HANS Sugar,” or “HIS Sugar” (p. 213). In other words, Sugar’s polyamory becomes sex with just one guy in Swedish. Perhaps the idea of sleeping with four boys, one after the other, was thought to be too queer for translation. Or perhaps the translator was uncomfortable with this scene of hedonistic orgy, or even felt it was antifeminist to show a young woman being gangbanged, though Sugar is clearly said to be “enjoying” it.
Whatever the reason, Sugar’s radically queer nature—her pleasure in being gangbanged by four boys at once, while her girlfriend is first just inside the nearby house and then outside watching—is drastically eradicalized in translation.
Indeed, both of these queer YA texts are not so queer in translation; eradicalization and not acqueering have been the overarching strategies here. In the Swedish translations words/phrases about the protagonists’ sexuality are toned down, changed, or even deleted. Perhaps the translators, editors, or publishers were uncomfortable with queer sexuality and/or didn’t think it was appropriate for Swedish readers. Or maybe the translators didn’t even recognize all the queer aspects of the books. Maybe some of the euphemistic language was too difficult.
While this is a fascinating case study and should be explored in more depth, it’s only the beginning. We need to do more research into queer texts and translation, and into how queer authors/works get translated. Should only queer translators translate queer texts? What distinct strategies can translators use with queer works and how drastic might some of their interferences/hijackings/approaches be? Do queer texts from different cultures need different approaches? Those are just a few of the questions we need to consider.
Let’s continue to queery translation and to make both translators and queers more visible. In the meantime, I’ll be ordering my “I’m a Queer Translator” T-shirt right away.
© 2017 B. J. Epstein. All rights reserved.
That sturdy show
All was not said
nor did you then
dress your gaze
All was not said,
the rain a kind of tango.
It was dawn.
What’s sacred is the voices
never the words.
poetry is no longer enough.
Desert without mirrors
no longer profane.
to so much masquerade.
It had all been said
can only silence.
Sadness is not so sad
nor so arrogant
the hand of the sun.
It’s this: we’re seeking water
Where there is only thirst.
© Raquel Lubartowski. From Raras. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Carolina De Robertis. All rights reserved.
This excerpt is adapted from David Albahari's novel Brother (first published in Serbian in 2008). The novel's protagonist is Filip, a writer living in Belgrade whose novel, A Loser's Life, idealizes his childhood and family. Filip receives a letter from someone he has never heard of, a man named Robert, who claims to be Filip's older brother. Robert writes that he has just arrived in Belgrade from Australia where he, too, was working as a writer, and would like to meet with Filip. The very fact of the existence of this brother he knew nothing about brings into question everything Filip thought he knew of his life.
They agree to meet at the Brioni, a restaurant named after the late President Tito's lavish Adriatic-island summer residence. The restaurant itself encapsulates Belgrade's postwar transformation: a squalid bar remodeled into a luxury watering hole for the Belgrade postwar elite who made their millions as war-profiteers and through the sleazy dealings that so typified the post-Communist economic transition.
During the dinner Robert upends all of Filip's cherished childhood memories. He produces a letter from their father that corroborates his story of how, during a dangerous political moment in the 1960s, their parents actually sold Robert, for a diamond necklace, to a couple who were unable to have children, who then moved with Robert to Argentina. Robert is obsessed with the necklace but Filip deftly evades Robert's ever more desperate demands to see it. In response, Robert's behavior grows wilder as the night progresses.
David Albahari's novels and stories often revolve around two bickering characters, in this case Filip and Robert. His narratives engage us with the implicit suggestion that the quarreling characters may be read both as distinct individuals and as a single person inside of whom the quibbling voices clash. Nowhere in Albahari's opus do these two possible readings merge, interlock, and challenge us as richly as they do in Brother.
Robert was still rocking back and forth, now more powerfully, so the chair beneath him creaked and rasped, and the heads of the other customers began again to turn toward them, and Filip finally had to reach over, grab Robert by the arm, and say, in a firm voice: "Enough, now this really is enough." Robert stopped the rocking, then he opened his eyes slowly, and for a moment he looked like someone who had wandered off and wasn't sure of where he was. Enough, he repeated, now this really is enough, and Robert looked straight at him and said: "You don't believe a word I've said." It hadn't occurred to him to doubt, but from that moment on he couldn't stop thinking about the question of believing. Why would he believe Robert? How could he know that this truly was Robert or, if he was Robert, how could he know that what Robert had been telling him really happened? Until that moment, Robert hadn't offered him any evidence, no photograph or document, except the twenty pictures in which he was always alone, and, despite trusting his heart more than the statements of a witness, still he would like to see something tangible, something that could dispel his doubt the way an evening breeze disperses the clouds that obscure a sunset. All that time Robert was eyeing him, openly showing he was hurt. Then he snorted, and with a wave of his hand he leaned over and pulled a red file from his bag. Without a word he rummaged through it. He rummaged for a long time, as if leafing through a telephone directory, and then he set down in front of him an old envelope from which someone had cut away the corner where the stamps had been. For a time the two of them stared at the envelope, and then Filip took it and pulled out a sheet of thin paper. He immediately recognized his father's handwriting, though he didn't say so to Robert. He took the sheet of paper and began to read. In short, it was a letter in which his father confirmed Robert's story, while clearly evading anything explicit. His father expressed his hope, the letter said, that the little angel was prospering, that he'd enjoyed the long journey. We all like a change, after all, no matter how old we might be, said the letter, so presumably the little one was no exception. A person so easily grows fond of angels, the letter went on to say, one need only spend a few hours or days with them and you already begin to miss them. We trust in God, said the letter in closing, that what we've done was the right thing and that we will all ultimately be sufficiently happy. He thought that he'd start to sob, but the tears didn't come so in the end he just smiled. Robert watched him closely, and then he took the letter and put it back in the envelope. He hoped now everything was in order? asked Robert, and Filip nodded in assent. His father's letter had indeed put everything in its place, dispelled all doubt, and, at the same time, partially destroyed the sense of mystery that had cloaked the whole event. He finally realized that Robert had probably heard the whole story from his new parents, and he guessed this might have happened when one of them was near the end of their life's journey and wanted to ease their heart of the burden. He could picture Robert coming attentively over to feeble father or fading mother, falling on his knees and taking up the proffered hand, which then slipped from his grasp and moved to his head. He couldn't hear what the father or mother said to Robert, but he sensed the horror of the shock that must have come over him. There was suddenly nothing left, and all that was reliable was emptiness. The world caves in at moments like that and it seems as if it will never reformulate itself. If you look in the mirror you see nothing, you aren't there, as if you never were. Of course, all of life is like that, Filip thought, and in the end you have no idea why the beginning existed in the first place, but at least you live in the conviction that everything is precisely the way it seems to be, and when they pull the rug out from under you and you start to fall it's terrifying. That is how he felt when he learned he had a brother, an elder brother no less, and that must have been how Robert felt when he learned that his parents were not his parents and that he'd been purchased for a handful of jewels. Filip deliberately avoided the phrase that he'd been bought for a lousy necklace, because he didn't want to provoke a new onslaught of Robert's rage, but such a miserable action contributed to making everything else seem equally miserable. He’d never thought that the truth about him and his family might be anything different from what he’d described in his novel A Loser’s Life; and, after all, if he’d thought of them differently he never would have written the book he wrote. Now he’d have to rewrite it, or, better yet, write a new book in which his newfound brother and he would sit at the Brioni and try to make sense of the chaos their lives had become. The book, of course, would have to mention the part about how the Brioni was no longer the dive bar it used to be; now it was a fancy restaurant with a menu in multiple languages, and this fact might serve as a handy segue to the part where he’d explain why a shared life wouldn’t be possible and why, after all that had happened, they were left only with chaos. When he entered the remodeled Brioni, it didn’t occur to him that this fact could be treated as emblematic of all the other changes going on, but now he saw that everything was intertwined and improvement to one side would bring deterioration to another. In order to add something, something must be taken away elsewhere, that’s one of those calculations doable without knowing any math. All this, thought Filip, could be handled easily enough, though the same couldn’t be said for the dilemma that had now become his obsession: the question of how to write about what his parents had done. In A Loser’s Life, they were portrayed in an ideal light as unerring, self-sacrificing parents who never hesitated to do everything they could possibly do for the welfare of their children. The story of the necklace and the sale of their child did not fit into that narrative, but if he didn’t include these new facts he was lying to his readers and to himself. And to Robert, who was sitting across from him, eyes half-shut, reminding him, for a moment, of a cat eyeing its prey. When he weighed everything in this light, Filip thought it might be wisest to give up now, but he couldn’t because the wheel had already begun turning and the pendulum swinging. Fate has a logic all its own, and nothing can be done, especially when it goes berserk and shoots off on a trajectory no one expects. Meanwhile, Robert was amazingly quiet, as if he’d settled something with himself and had found peace, or had decided that what was happening was of no concern to him. It’s incredible how we mount our own barriers, first you’d die for something to happen, then you die wishing nothing were happening. No matter which way you go, you aren’t satisfied, you drop things, your memory melts like ice in the sun, no matter where you go nothing changes, as if you’re marking time. Then he asked Robert whether he had ever felt as if he were marching in place, and Robert, without hesitation, answered in the affirmative. There were moments, said Robert, when he even felt that the ground under his feet had been packed stone-hard by the power with which he’d pounded it down with his shoes while marching in place. Then the waiter who was removing dishes from the table started whistling the “River Kwai March” and both of them burst out laughing. The waiter glanced over at them, shrugged, and went on whistling, and Robert stood up and began marching in place. He marched with growing zeal, swinging his arms briskly and lifting his knees high, thumping the floor with all his might, he pushed his chair away with his heel and it skittered over to the next table, and then Robert bumped into their table which didn’t tip over only thanks to a hasty intervention by Filip, and then he began emitting full-throated bloodcurdling shrieks. The shrieks were truly terrifying; when he'd read the adventure stories by Karl May as a child Filip imagined Indians shrieking like that when they went after the scalps of pale-faced invaders. He felt absolutely certain that they’d been described that way and he was also certain that the horror stirred by Robert’s shrieks was genuine. The whole café stared at them again, including the cook, who peered out of the serving hatch. Robert uttered his final shriek, though it was more a whimper, and dropped into the chair next to Filip’s. His own chair was still lying on its side next to the neighboring table and nobody showed any inclination to right it. He could see the waiters conferring in whispers and at a corner table a vehement dispute appeared to be underway; a man kept leaping to his feet, the others dragged him back and made him sit, and all of them kept turning to face Robert and Filip, somebody even shook a fist at them. Robert dropped his head, resting first his forehead and then his left cheek on the table. He was panting, his mouth agape, and Filip could see Robert’s tongue and teeth quite distinctly and a string of spit dribbling from his mouth. His eyes were closed and, if he hadn’t known Robert was alive, he’d have written him off for dead. In a sense Robert was, indeed, dead, at least in Filip’s heart. At first, his heart had been overjoyed at the prospect of having a brother, it had beat inside his chest as if prancing in a hip-hop dance, and then it gradually slowed, cooled, and in the end informed Filip he could no longer rely on it, just as he could no longer rely on Robert. Oh Robert, Robert, Filip repeated to himself, why have you forsaken me, but Robert was silent. His eyes were still shut, and only a gentle shiver along the rim of his right nostril suggested he was breathing. Filip reached over and laid his hand on Robert’s head. He smoothed his hair, feeling the beads of sweat on his fingertips, seeing how the locks of hair rippled back. Robert sighed. His was such a long and ponderous sigh that it sent Filip back to thoughts of death. Not his own, of course, but Robert’s. He wasn't picturing Robert himself, he summoned no images. It was the sentence “Robert is dead” that he thought of and this is what he saw. He saw a sentence that was more final than an image could ever be, because after it, after the sentence, there was nothing left. The sentence notwithstanding, Robert was alive. First he shut his mouth, then he opened his eyes, then he lifted his head slowly and looked around. “Damned parents,” he said in a soft voice, “look what they’ve made of me.” Filip wondered whether Robert might be about to sob, and he was already bracing himself for new unpleasantness and the intrusive stares of the other guests, but Robert grinned and announced that everything was fine, especially now that, after so many years of searching, he’d finally found his brother. The only thing that he regretted, said Robert, was that he hadn’t come here sooner, where his life with his brother would have been so much nicer than his life had been in Australia or Argentina. Filip said nothing, not because he had nothing to say but because all of this was starting to bore him. Inside, his loser blood was stirring, and instead of the sentence “Robert is dead,” which had, he confessed, soothed him immeasurably, he now saw the sentence “Robert has betrayed me,” which left him unmoved. When he thought of all the joy and dread with which he’d anticipated this meeting, he couldn’t fathom his own absence of emotion and empathy. He wanted to go, walk straight out of the Brioni, and forget everything, though he had to ask himself whether one could ever forget a newfound brother. The heart never lies. First it rejoiced and then it retreated, crawled into itself like a snail into its shell, and announced fair and square that this brother, Robert, genuine or otherwise, was no longer interesting. Apparently, nobody was interested in this brother anymore, but then he heard a ruckus and turned to see that the man who’d been quarreling with the others seated at his table had finally pulled free of them and was lurching toward him and Robert. As he staggered, the man veered into chairs and tables, though it was unclear whether he was drunk or merely agitated. Filip did his best to ignore the man. The man, however, came right to their table, swaying a little, and leaned on the armrest of the unoccupied chair. That was the third chair, empty, while the fourth chair was still toppled by the adjacent table. Listen, you fags, said the man, time to go. Vamoose. He had come to have a nice time at this café and not to be subjected to such offensive rubbish. If they didn’t quiet down he would personally boot them out, so wise up. He was barely able to stand, and as he turned he began to stumble and Filip leaped up to steady him. The man refused the offer of help, shoved Filip’s hands away, and said he would have nothing to do with homos. Don’t you touch me, said the man, because he didn’t want to contract some vile fag disease. He swerved back to the table where his company was seated and no longer turned around. He didn’t even turn when Robert suddenly howled, in English, “Hey, mate! Fuck you, mate!” Robert alarmed Filip more than the man who’d threatened them, who probably knew no English, though it was hard to believe a person could not know that most familiar of English vulgarities. He tried to explain to Robert that it’s risky engaging a person like that man in conversation, especially when he’s drunk, but Robert was already counting this as a victory and wouldn't listen. At that point Filip still didn’t know how the elements of future events had already fallen into place, how pathways, coincidences, departures, and encounters had been predetermined and how there could no longer be any reversal or change of direction. Once, long ago, Filip had dipped into the I Ching, but when he saw it only gave him as much wiggle room as he needed to serve heaven and earth with patience he dropped it. Sure, on the surface everything confirmed that you’re a master of your fate and you could change and adapt it to your needs, but that was an illusion. All of fate is an illusion, though he would rather believe in at least a modicum of control over fate. Up to a point, we choose for ourselves; from that point on someone else chooses for us. The art is in recognizing the point and helping to determine it. This was what he meant to explain to Robert, but, as before, Robert wouldn’t listen. He had no interest in fate, shot back Robert, and with creeps like that asshole there’s only one way to communicate. He took a deep breath but before Robert uttered a word Filip clapped a hand over Robert’s mouth. Robert’s eyes rolled for a moment over Filip’s hand and then they went still, and not only his eyes, his whole body slumped, it shrank and sank into the chair. In seconds, the brazen flinger of curses had become a defeated manikin, and this worried Filip even more. He warily pulled his hand away from Robert’s mouth, still fearing a furious outburst. Nothing. Crumpled on the chair, Robert looked like an advertisement for despair, the only part missing being the caption about anti-depressants that lift the spirits. Then, while gazing at Robert, possessed by presentiments he couldn’t explain that upset him even more and heightened his sense of dread, Aristotle popped into his mind. The brother he had just seen for the first time in his life started to fade before his eyes as he groped for an answer among Aristotle’s musings. Something was very wrong here, and he should have chided himself more seriously, but too late, he was already awash in passages from the Poetics and soon he saw Robert and himself as exemplars of what Aristotle described as tragedy. He could not, of course, recall all of Aristotle’s statements, his acquaintance with the classics had been piecemeal at best, he said, but he was sure that the customers and waiters at the Brioni could be deemed the chorus, the Brioni—the stage, and the participants—the audience. They were a performance, he said, watching itself perform. He tried to explain this to Robert, to draw his attention away from his self-obsession, but Robert didn’t understand or chose not to listen. Impossible that he knew nothing of Aristotle. Someone who has written about Borges would have to know of Aristotle and another thousand or so creative figures from ancient China to our times. And he had to know the essential premises of the Poetics, because they were huge in shaping the genesis and development of all literature. Then, as Filip was talking about Aristotle, Robert sat right up, looked around, rose to his feet, picked the chair up that had toppled over, and brought it back to the table. Some numbskull, said Robert, knocked over the chair and didn’t put it back. He set the chair in its place, stepped back, and looked at it the way one usually looks at a picture just hung on the wall. He was not entirely satisfied, so he went back, adjusted it a little, first to the left, then to the right, and then he sat back in his seat and said: Aristotle is interesting, but he had it all wrong, the genesis of poetry, the role of rhythm, the significance of mimesis, and the necessity of a unity of time, place, and action; what he offered was the most ordinary form of cultural dictatorship, the kind that insists that a good work be written in such and such a way and no other, this being the worst advice to give to a person who would like to write something good. There is only one way to write something good: by destroying everything that would, following Aristotelian logic, be considered a hallmark of what is good. He had said all of this in one breath without looking in any particular direction. Then he focused a long, pleading gaze on Filip and asked him whether he’d say now where the necklace was. Filip hesitated before he answered, fearful of Robert’s reaction. He finally mustered the strength and a little primly, enunciating every word, said the necklace was in a safe place and that Robert had nothing to worry about. Damned parents, muttered Robert. He covered his face with his hands as if ashamed and said that Aristotle wrote the best text about parents, but this one, like most of his texts, had been lost. In it, Robert went on, Aristotle describes parents as parasites who only have children so that the children will take care of them, though they accuse the children of exploitation. Robert even believed that Aristotle’s texts had been destroyed, at least in their original form, only because parents had been determined to destroy his words on parenting so they destroyed everything they could grab. For this very reason, said Robert, since Aristotle’s works are not originals but imitations, the literature written under their influence is not original but a pale imitation. Only a few writers, Borges among them, succeeded in shrugging off the deadly influence of Aristotle’s ironclad, dictatorial Poetics to create works that were original from their first word to their last. All that, said Robert, could be read in his senior thesis on Borges and in the articles he’d written for assorted magazines, collected in his book of essays. He hadn’t brought the book with him because of the weight restrictions on airplane luggage. And, besides, when traveling all the way from Australia one carries more than usual and every ounce is precious. Robert was of the opinion that Australia, for many people, was more exotic than Africa. Africa, he said, had appeal for the descendants of white colonizers because they were torn between being colonizers and identifying with the colonized. Every outcast, he said, could relate to what he was talking about, as could any émigré. It’s always the same story, though he couldn’t say why he was bringing it up at all: he was no émigré, nor was he an outcast, and he didn’t want to stick his nose into other people’s business, but sometimes a conversation takes a turn we don't expect and at that point walking it back is difficult. And so Aristotle stayed with him despite Robert’s remonstrances and occasionally reminded him of their similarity to ancient Greek drama, the way a parent prods a child to eat the rest of its cereal and finish its breakfast. Then he remembered that he hadn’t asked Robert what they’d called him, Robi or Bobi. Earlier that had seemed so critical, though now he was no longer sure: Robi, Bobi, Bobi, Robi, there wasn’t much difference, perhaps because he'd already gotten used to calling him by his full name, but still he asked him what his best friends called him, Robi or Bobi? Robert shot him a surprised glance, as if no one had ever asked him such a question, and then he burst out laughing. He laughed with a wheeze, with halts and gasps, and soon all the guests and the waiters at the Brioni were staring at them again. Then Robert began thumping his hands on the table and his feet on the floor, and Filip saw out of the corner of his eye how the man was pulling free again of his associates and Filip laid a hand on Robert’s arm and asked him to quiet down. Robert stopped immediately with his awful, forced guffaws, but in response he tenderly took Filip’s hand in his, turned it, brought it to his lips and planted a moist kiss on Filip’s palm. Filip jerked his hand back, not daring to glance anymore in the direction of the table where the man was sitting. Robert looked him straight in the eye a while longer and then he said, “It wasn’t Bobi, or Robi. They called me Alisa.” Filip grinned, but when he saw Robert watching him solemnly his smile froze. He tried to interpret his gaze, keeping an ear out for any sounds coming from behind his back, but he failed. Before him there was only emptiness and the more he tried to focus on Robert’s response and his gestures, the emptier the empty space became, until it finally filled him completely, though perhaps it would be more precise to say that it emptied him completely, he became his own absence and all he felt, the only thing he felt, was fear that he wouldn't succeed in returning to his old form, that he would always remain brimming with emptiness, hollow, unreal, and mute.
© 2015 David Albahari. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Ellen Elias-Bursać. All rights reserved.
Santiago had seen the young man watching from afar for some time. While he related his story, he noticed—out of the corner of his eye—that the kid was trying to get Pérsio’s attention. He moved around nonstop, speaking loudly, but Pérsio was entirely immersed in Santiago’s words, a man-boy listening to a tale of fairies, witches, princes. He had even forgotten the burning tip of the cigarette between his fingers, his mouth ajar, eyes open wide, almost green with the light striking the pale iris directly like it was. Santiago wanted to warn him—wannabe celebrities, he remembered Pérsio’s words from before—but the young man crept up from behind, stealthy, catlike, before laying a hand on Pérsio’s shoulder. Spooked, Pérsio started, burning his fingers.
“Shit,” he snarled, smashing the cigarette butt in the ashtray. He turned toward the grinning young man, an excess of large teeth lined up above a turtleneck, a ’50s quiff with short back and sides, his hands tucked into the pockets of his cargo pants. A huge pendulous keychain jangled as he leaned over.
He greeted Pérsio, “Oi, remember me?”
“Oi.” Pérsio licked his burned fingers, extended his hand. “Of course I remember you. How’s it going? You’re in the cast of Oedipus?”
“Antigone,” the young man corrected him, “The chorus, I’m Carlinhos from the chorus."
“Of course, of course. The chorus, I remember. Didn’t you bring the photos and the press release in to the newspaper? How’s the show going, Carlinhos from the Chorus?”
“Not great—you know how it is.” He dug his hands into the depths of his pockets, rocking forward and back as though having a catatonic episode. “We canceled today. Only half a dozen people. This fucking crisis, right?”
“SO fucked,” Pérsio agreed, and then, looking directly at the three girls at the next table, he repeated, “So fucked. I don’t know where it’ll end. The theater, don’t even start. The arts, in general.”
Perfect cue. Santiago went back to taking slow drags on his cigarette, the cognac, the wine, to his myopia, to looking around. But there was nothing going on: the three girls at the next table fought over the last slice of pizza (anchovy, he noted), one of the babies at the large table slept, sunk into its mother’s full breast while someone sang la stata sera cominciata e giá finitta in a melancholy tone, the wind blew outside, the guy with the pencil-thin mustache and the fat girl with the braids had left and some frenetic Japanese had taken over the table, speaking a language full of tiny little spasms.
Practically breathless, Carlinhos swooped. "So yeah that’s why we need support you know we’re a cooperative we’re all young people everyone’s put money together it’s super-tough you know so if you could lend a hand there at the paper, you know how it is, the publicity always helps, it’s vital, it all depends on the good nature of a few just a matter of believing in the project and getting behind it.”
Pérsio put Santiago’s glasses on. He crossed his arms, tilting his head with a professional air. “Fine. I’ll see what I can do. It’s not up to me—there are the higher ups, you know, who have more say. You have your director, I have my editor. It’s they who decide.”
“We are grateful.” Carlinhos bowed his head. He made a belated and gracious gesture that said I-don’t-mean-to-interrupt-anything-between-you, squeezed Santiago’s hand somewhat complicitly, and disappeared between the tables.
Pérsio removed Santiago’s eyeglasses, crossed his silverware, and pushed his plate back. He seemed miserable. He grabbed another cigarette and lit it with the butt that Santiago was about to put out. “Christ. There’s always one. The next time I say some place is normal, spit in my face, got it?”
“Or I could call Rejane,” Santiago joked.
“Wonderful. Call Rejane and order her to stand at the door and scream ‘Faaaaaaaaggot!’ at the top of her lungs so that everybody can hear.” Pérsio licked his burned fingers again.
“Shit. A shit profession. Do you know what I did last night? I wasted three sheets of paper bar-ba-rous-ly savaging that Antigone. Especially the chorus, who appear to suffer from a lack of motor control, squirming around like contortionists. Who didn’t memorize the script. Who should go back to making asinine children’s theater, the kind with hand puppets. Who would have thought that Antigone would come to an end in Mooca? And I—who actually enjoyed the theater—am sick of it. I see a stage and I want to go out and smack everyone. The chorus has at least twenty people. That’s twenty enemies, you realize? You need a patron saint strong enough to protect you. Don’t you find it the absolute worst thing to keep offering opinions on other people’s work without really knowing the other guy’s story?”
“I grade tests.”
“Ten years. Drama class. All those monsters screaming in the street. Ask for the check, I’m fed up with this place. Poor kid, he must live in Pirituba. He has to eat quickly because he takes the metro back. Does the metro go to Pirituba? He lives in a BNH housing complex, with his sister the seamstress and his disabled mother. He sleeps on the top bunk of a bunk bed. His brother, who’s a riot cop, sleeps in the bottom bunk. And tomorrow it’ll appear in the newspaper what an idiot he is. Signed by me.”
Santiago told him he was exaggerating, that he was just playing a role, that it wasn’t as serious as he made it out to be, but he wouldn’t stop. Santiago called the waiter.
“God!” he said in English. “Ten years. Did you take it in the ass in those ten years?”
Pérsio tapped his knife against the wineglass, his eyes bloodshot. “Your ass, that’s what it’s about. Ultimately that’s what it boils down to. If I just did this with my fingers, Carlinhos would fall at my feet and take it in the ass in public. Or he’d fuck my ass. It might even be nice. At his size, he must have a great dick. Carlinhos, Paulinho, Luizinho, all the inhos with their huge keychains. I’d like to smack them all. Ass, ass, ass,” he repeated. The girls at the other table stood up, watching the whole time. “Those monsters—for fuck’s sake, I was only thirteen. I was disgusted. Between men, love is sex is ass is shit. Did you know I can’t stand shit? I see a guy and I like him and all, and then I think, Deus, soon we’ll go to bed and suck here, suck there, grasp, drool, grind, bite, and in the end there’s the ass and shit everywhere. You always end up taking it in the ass or fucking the other’s ass. If you take it, that’s not even the half of it. There’s the pain, the fucking pain. Hell, it hurts like hell. Even so, there are ways, spit, creams. But it’s disgusting to think that the other guy’s dick is going to come out of there covered in your shit. Even in the most respectable cases, can you imagine Verlaine fucking Rimbaud? And if you fuck him, you have the other guy’s shit glued to your cock. Even in the dark, you feel it. It’s impossible not to be aware of it. No matter how clean you both are that smell endures, that smell of shit loose in the air. Sometimes I go to the bathroom in the dark and wash my dick with my eyes shut, soap it up good with the tap full blast, so that I can pretend that all that snot-like filth is from the soap, not from the shit. But the stench of the shit is always stronger. Stronger than anything. Is there a love that can fend it off? Now you tell me,” he banged Santiago’s eyeglasses against the table, so hard that Santiago was afraid the lenses would break. But they didn’t break. “However many flowers and laughs and kisses and caresses and, crap, mutual understanding and ma-tu-ri-ty. However much in love you are, however amazing. For me, never. Everything smells of shit. Even if you don’t see it. Can’t feel it. In the dark. The next day, straightening the sheets, by chance you end up finding a small stinking stain: shit, pure shit. Don’t talk to me about sexual liberation, tell me it’s natural, or nothing is too much trouble, or it’s a choice like any other, or whatever else. Who’s gonna stop me being sick of the smell of shit? Love between men always smells of shit. That’s why I can’t stand it. One month, two. You cover it up, disguise it, use Vaseline, soap, but the smell of shit stays stuck to your skin. I can’t accept a love that’s synonymous with the asshole, with the smell of shit. So I say this to my therapist and he’d always repeat, ‘But what’s sooo disgusting about shit, anyway?’ Really? What do you mean, what’s sooo disgusting? It’s more than disgusting, fuck. And not just in terms of homosexuality. Actually, I will never accept that human beings have assholes and shit. Can you imagine Virginia Woolf shitting? I’m only talking about this now because we finished eating. If I’d said something before, no one would have been able to eat anything.”
The waiter brought the bill and two coffees. Pérsio continued.
“Last night I underlined some sentences in a book by Anderson. The girl with the red shoes. The curse, when the angel says . . .”
“‘Dance you shall, you shall dance forever.’ Isn’t that it?”
“How did you know?”
“I saw it in your room. It was open.”
“Well, it’s like that. A curse. Forever. It only stops when they amputate the girl’s feet. When you die, do you lose a piece of yourself? When you negate yourself? When you swear off and never fuck again? I can’t do that. Jean Genet would spit in my face . . . Then you say, so stop. I try. I manage a week, two weeks without fucking. Then I miss it. So I go to the corner and grab the first guy who walks by. I ask how much, anyone, nordestino, hustler, crioulo, no problem. It’s quick: towels, sink, condoms, that’s it. The money, defined roles, no entanglement. They’ve robbed me before, one day they’ll kill me. But is that what they call love? Your story, I haven’t had anything like it. I’ve just had glimpses, it seemed promised, all set, but it never happened. I never managed it, I wasn’t able, it must be my fault. Oh, how banal. To what extent did circumstances not favor me, or was it me who didn’t favor the circumstances?”
Santiago put his eyeglasses back on. He reached his hand out to take the bill.
“How much was it?”
“I’ve got it, don’t worry.”
“We’ll split it then.”
Santiago placed two bills on the small plastic dish. Pérsio foraged through the pockets of his green jacket on the back of his chair. He grabbed the two bills and wrote a check. He insisted.
“The shit, man. What do I do?”
“You forget it. I don’t know. It’s not that important. And if it was stronger?”
“No, of course not. Love. I don’t know, such a ridiculous word.”
“Love doesn’t exist. It’s a capitalist invention.”
“All right. But what if . . . Let’s suppose that the two people, the two guys, really like each other.”
“Which is difficult enough.”
“Maybe it is, but . . . Let’s suppose. I’ve already experienced that. And if they really like each other? If the touch of the other was somehow, suddenly, good? If the smell of the other’s sweat was good as well? If all the smells coming from his body were good: his feet, his mouth, early in the morning; good, normal smells, just because they belong to the other person. Because they’re familiar smells, secret. Because no one else knows about them who hasn’t stuck their nose in there, their tongue in there, deep inside, deep in the flesh, right into the smells. And if everything that you find disgusting was precisely what we call love? That’s when it happens, when you become most intimate. So intimate, but so intimate that all of a sudden there is no disgust at all anymore. You have smells too. People have smells. It’s natural. Animals smell each other. What do you want? Virgin white lace? Couldn’t it be that love starts when disgust, hygiene, or any one of those words—sorry, you’re going to laugh—when any one of those bourgeois little words no longer have meaning? If all of this, if you throw yourself in shit, if you don’t just tolerate and accept the other’s shit but rise above it or even enjoy it because all of a sudden you can even enjoy, without it having to be a perversion, what if all this was what they call love? Love in the sense of intimacy, of profound knowledge. Of the poverty and also the nobility of the other’s body. If love were the courage to face shit itself. And then, a moment later, it wouldn’t even be courage at all, because it would no longer be important. What matters is having known the body of another person as intimately as only you can know your own body. Because then you can love yourself as well.”
Pérsio put his jacket on, cigarette pressed between his lips.
“Very inspirational,” he said, squinting his eyes to avoid the smoke, “But who knows, who knows? So therefore you’ve concluded that I don’t understand shit about love.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But it could be true. My problem is a maturity problem, caused by a closeted adolescence. Or one of a bourgeois kid who took their First Communion and will eternally feel guilty about the possibility of pleasure. It’s all so Christian.” He rolled his eyes, “Ah, martyrdom, hair shirts. I must have come to a sudden halt at Peter Pan. Flesh is unbearable, I either act like a sort of sexual prude—purely nonphysical—or else I’m voraciously lewd.”
Pérsio was going to say something else, but he suddenly extended his arms across the table and grabbed hold of Santiago’s shoulders. He squeezed tight. The warm scent of leftover pizza floating in oil, full ashtray, empty glasses, plates piled between them, pieces of linguiça, olive pits, melted cheese, greasy strips of ham. Santiago almost couldn’t make out what he said, the confused words spilling out from between teeth which clenched a cigarette.
“Did you know I like you? I like you very much, babe.”
From Pela noite. By arrangement with the estate of Caio Fernando Abreu. Translation © 2017 by Ed Moreno. All rights reserved.
Biljana Jovanović's novel Psi i ostali, published in Yugoslavia in 1980, explores the life of a tragic and dysfunctional family in Belgrade in the 1970s. The matriarch of the family is the ailing, elderly grandmother, Jaglika, who is of mixed Hungarian-Montenegrin descent; the rest of the family are Serbs who have grown up in Tito’s Yugoslavia, with its increasingly urban and modern style of life. The family members include Lidija (also known as Lida) and her troubled brother, Danilo; their largely absent mother, Marina (Jaglika’s daughter); and Marina’s two brothers, Lidija’s uncles, identified only as F. and K. Milena is a family friend who becomes Lidija’s lover.
Marina, my mother, had two brothers; in addition to having hate-filled dreams about them, I also had real experiences with them when I was a child. In fact, those experiences form part of my “liberated” memory.
At the time, the two of them lived here; they used to come periodically to our place on Svetosavska Street, and their thousand and one pieces of junk would come with them—oh, screw it—they never brought anything; they came over and gossiped and ran off at the mouth, spitting, chomping, and, like everybody in the building on Svetosavska Street, shamelessly exploiting pathetic, beleaguered old Jaglika, my grandmother: she cooked for them, washed, cleaned, and, to top it all off, we took her pension for ourselves; she took care of all of us on Svetosavska Street, languished day and night, and declined, inevitably declined. We bustled here and there and didn't even take her on an outing, not to mention a summer vacation.
First I dreamed about my maternal uncle, F. He was the older one, taller and skinnier than Uncle K. It was approximately a year ago, and the long and short of it was this: in his room—in his house in Ljubljana (both of them live there now)—I killed him, with a listless movement of hand and knife; there wasn't terribly much blood; he was standing with his back turned to me and the patio and an important picture on the wall—everything simultaneously: picture, patio, me, and my uncle's back; I couldn't resist, and why would I? I stuck him with the short blade, planted it right in the center, between those shoulder blades of his that I thought were too close together (that's how skinny he was), noiselessly and effortlessly: Uncle K. didn't make a sound; then, somehow—I’ve always known that I was as strong as a horse, and that there are things that I could handle that not even a horse could, and not even in a dream could a horse carry such things . . . I carried him onto the terrace, where a great cauldron was already set up over a fire (like in a fairy tale); I thrust him in and cooked him, until the water (his blood) turned completely white—now that was some wondrous alchemy! Afterward his body grew stiff and shrank—the handle of the knife, however, was still jutting out, completely undisturbed, from the middle of his narrow, gaunt back, like from the center of the cosmos. I removed him from the cauldron—he had been reduced in size so much that I only needed to use one hand—as if I were picking up a big loaf of black bread, let's say—in the grocery store; I've known for ages that in actuality I'm pretty much as strong as a mouse—and I slung him up onto the railing and shoved. A hundred years after that, some people appear, let's say they represent the “dream police”—they're all sweet, sympathetic, but also pretty shrewd, something that was very much in evidence after these one hundred new years. They asked if I had any ties to the rubber doll down there in the garden; by that I mean down there in the park; what connection did I have to this figure made of some odd composite that was so irresistably reminiscent of Mr. F.? I betrayed my own secret to them, naturally enough: I said that the doll down there, of rubber, was the head of my former uncle F., of flesh and blood. Several of them smiled, and then off they went, all together. After three hundred more years, they returned; and now Marina was with them. She was the first, and this can be attributed to her innate fastidiousness, to see the great stain on the carpet in the bedroom—the room in which Uncle F. had had a knife stabbed into the middle of his back. It was, I assume, my uncle's blood, which must have been dripping, leaking out of the wound the whole time, until I transferred him, with the strength of a horse and a mouse simultaneously, from the room to the terrace and into the cauldron.
My dream about the other uncle took place in circumstances that were no less grim. All the relatives had gathered for a family celebration—there were so so many of them that they seemed to spill out like ants into Svetosavska Street, both the living and the dead. Uncle K., who was younger and heavier than Uncle F., I castrated with a razor blade; although I'm no longer sure whether it was a razor blade or a pair of those scissors for clipping nails; but it seems most likely that there was a dark brown penknife in my hands—in one hand, just in one hand. First we all played some dreary party game: we hid ourselves in all possible locations. A few of them came into the wardrobe; Daniel's and my clothes started falling out; in that part of the dream, a towering burst of rage came over me: I attacked people, with the intention of throwing them out of the wardrobe, or out of the house; after Marina intervened, they remained, there at Svetosavska Street, but now they were hidden; instead of being in the wardrobes and cabinets, they were under all the tables; as if it were a present, I got a dangerous look from Marina—which had to mean, and still does mean, this: “If you dare do it, I'll kill you after they leave, you little bastard, you scourge of God!”
The next dream sequence, the main one, actually, was: sexual intercourse with Uncle K., and immediately afterward the castration; he didn't make a peep, just as Uncle F. didn't, when I plunged that knife into the middle of his back. Uncle K's phallus was wrapped up in a wad of rags; nicely, that is to say politely, and that means in a soft (courteous) voice, I asked Jaglika to toss it down the garbage chute when she went out. Jaglika merely nodded her head and crammed her son's phallus into her pocket. After that point, the events got less dramatic: Marina's husband showed up in a clean white shirt and a tie with dots all over it (red and blue, quite the prosaic combination) and a pipe in his mouth, to boot. In the corner of the room an unknown woman was seated; she was wearing an old-fashioned evening gown and sitting right below the portrait of a man on the wall who's also unfamiliar to me. When I caught sight of them, I went directly over (both to the man in the photo on the wall, and the woman underneath the photo); and a moment later I took down the picture, sliced it into pieces (but I carefully set aside the pane of glass) and then began making a few pictures of my own—which I then later glued to the table. Jaglika in a tuxedo, although perhaps it was Marina, I don't know. Marina was more corpulent, wider, as if she'd been inflated. She was pulling me out onto the dance floor, and ultimately I felt like we were just hopping around in front of the woman in the ball gown.
Once, a long while after that, when I told Danilo's doctor about this dream, he said to me—and good Lord I never doubted his skill, even if I did harbor suspicions about his virility; most assuredly I had no doubts about his skill—he told me that the picture on the wall and in my head was actually my father, and that cutting it up was the expression (what an expression!) of my ambivalence toward my father; and then he went on to tell me that the woman in the evening gown beneath the picture was in part my mother, and in part not, and it was even to a small degree me. Psychiatrists, not all of them, but for sure all the stupid ones, and thus all of them, come to think of it, simply pull a formula out of thin air, as casually as if they were striking a match or having a bowel movement: ambivalence and so forth, right on down the line.
So what happened involving me and Marina's two brothers, the skinny, older one F., and the chubby younger one, K.? One day, F. and K. burst into (with the best of intentions in their hearts) the place on Svetosavska Street: from the moment they crossed the threshold, they were strutting around and bragging about their plans for that afternoon; it was a Sunday, and I think it was at the beginning of spring. They had come to pick up Jaglika, Danilo, and me to take us to Topčider Park. We took a taxi; or, I mean, actually, we should have gone by taxi. From Svetosavska Street all the way to the National Theater we went on foot, sometimes on the sidewalk and sometimes in the middle of the street. Danilo was ten at the time, and I was eleven. The first thing we did was go into a poslastičarnica, a bakery or pastry shop, there in the vicinity of the theater. I was looking for some cream pie, and Danilo wanted angular baklava and oblong tulumba. Uncle F. (he's the older and leaner one, with the knife in the middle of his back) said, while Jaglika stood there drinking some boza: “That's a lot, Danilo . . . You're going to get a stomachache.” Then Danilo demanded two more cream puffs. I ate two pieces of šampita, whipped cream pie, as I mentioned (earlier, at the beginning), and then I was just sitting in a corner of the nearly empty sweetshop, rocking back and forth in a chair. Now Jaglika got herself a lemonade, too (what the heck!); Uncle K. was sucking in the smoke from one of his Drinas from Sarajevo, while sitting directly below a sign stating that smoking was prohibited. Then F., the older one, said yet again: “That's too much, Danilo. You're going to get a stomachache. You'll see!” But once more Danilo asked for some cake; he wouldn't stop chewing and smacking his lips, so that I had to think that after this Sunday morning there wouldn't remain a single serving of cream puffs, or baklava, either Greek or Turkish, or Cremeschnitte, for the children who'd be coming by later. Now the pastry chef placed two pieces of chocolate cake and two mignons of fruit and candy on a plate in front of Danilo; and Danilo spotted the hair, long, black, and sturdy (as if it were from Uncle K.'s head, which was, truth be told, impossible, completely ruled out by the fact that Uncle K. was standing a good six feet away from the plate, and from Danilo, and from the pastry chef; however you chose to look at it, that is to say, however one might measure that distance, it was not possible that a hair from the head of Uncle K. could have found its way to Danilo's plate and assumed this position across those two mignons). The only link that could be established between the hair in question and Uncle K. was the marvelous similarity of the hairs on his head and the one on Danilo's plate. It certainly did not belong to the baker; his hairs were light brown, thin, and soft. I believe that Danilo would've passed over it in silence if the hair had come from the pastry chef's head; but because it could not have been thus, he was convinced that Uncle K. had deliberately placed the hair on his plate, and he couldn't restrain himself, I know it; he could not do so by any means, and what happened later was necessary; things just had to happen like that. Therefore, when Danilo caught a glimpse of the long, black, thick hair on the plate (I also saw it at the same moment, and I presume that no one aside from the two of us saw it), he cupped his hand, very calmly, over the mignons and the pieces of chocolate cake, and he simply wiped them silently from the plate. He threw them to the floor, together with that long and magnificent black hair that looked as though it was from his uncle's head, and then with his shoe he smeared the cakes onto the floor. Jaglika was beside herself with horror at this (this was her second boza, which she ordered after the lemonade: oh, good grief!), while Uncle F. jumped up and led Danilo outside, carrying him through the air by his left ear; Uncle K. (who was the cause of the entire scandal) asked the proprietor in a very proper way not to be angry “at this impudence—the kid's going to get what he deserves,” and then he paid him for the pastries we ate, and the cake on the floor, and the mess that'd been made, and then all three of us, Jaglika and he and I, went outside; ten or twelve feet away, Uncle F. was giving Danilo a thrashing. Jaglika said: “He had it coming. This is exactly what he had coming.” Unce K. lit up another Drina (from Sarajevo), turned his head the other way, and whistled nonchalantly—what a lack of feeling! Then I, angry to the point of danger, went up to Uncle F. and, with all the force I could muster, I kicked him in the shin with the pointed toe of my polished, hard-soled shoe, the left one. Uncle F. did not seem to notice, or maybe he didn't feel it, the blow I mean—and he continued beating Danilo fervently and methodically; I struck again, this time in the other leg, and then Uncle F. left Danilo alone (my goal along); but his next gesture exceeded all my expectations, or to be more precise, it shocked me: he smacked me across the face, so fast (the first slap in my life—is this happening to me, the shock you feel at something you never expected) that I burst out crying that very instant. Jaglika said: “Dear God, these children—it's like they're little demons!” and she crossed herself. Uncle F. then announced that the excursion to Topčider was off, and that we were going home. And I thought that meant all of us, but then the three of them turned the other way and disappeared. the three of them, Jaglika and her two sons, F., the older one, and K. the fatter younger one, as they disappeared down the street the other way. Through my sobs, I said to Danilo: “It's all your fault. What're we going to tell Marina?” But Danilo was happy, and quiet, as if he had not just had the stuffing knocked out of him by Uncle F., and he replied: “Let's go across the street, Lida, into that little park! I really wanna do it." We didn't get back till evening, after having gotten some stamps in the park in exchange for all the marbles we owned, which were a rarity in those days (and which Uncle K. brought us from somewhere) . . .
It was hard for me to grasp, even later; but this is how it seemed to me in my state of mind then: the same things happened to Danilo and me; we loved the same faces, all the same ones, including our own; there was, however, in everything just one itsy-bitsy difference: Danilo acted, he thought about these things, these people, but I shrewdly (cunning is a distinction of the stupid) took up the role of a nonexistent person who does not think about these things, who doesn't act, and is narrow-minded and scorns these things and these faces. I poured forth a torrent of insulting words, curses, and everything else I could onto Danilo's otherwise superior being, at his otherwise more beautiful face; and no matter how much the tide of insolence and imagination grew, I grew correspondingly crueler. More and more—for Danilo's beautiful face remained beautiful and calm . . .
Never, not for one instant, did I believe even a single one of the words with which I usually pushed back at Danilo's daydreams, at Danilo's deliberate tomfoolery; but I spoke with authority, with my mouth full, clear-eyed and with my hands loose at my side; although with my palms slightly turned out, too; like a self-assured person who is unaware that she's uttering the wickedest lies that are both as heavy as a ton of stone dropped onto someone's head and as sharp as a metal blade used to slice a thin precise line through the throat of a lamb or a human being. Whenever Danilo would say, “Lidija, I had another dream about long, narrow hallways. The way they make you dizzy with their curving and twisting." (I felt like I needed to vomit.) "And it made me want to vomit, Lidija!”—I would slip him a lie, like a piece of chocolate in a scrunched-up hand. Actually I would smear it on his confused face and rub it in. Don't be a drag, Danilo. Other people have dreams, too, and they don't make a big fuss about them. Stop thinking only about yourself. Other people . . .” And ad infinitum about those “other people.”
To all appearances, my fabrications regarding “other people” seemed rather innocent. When he asked, the way all children do, “Lidija, are you sure, really really sure, that there's nothing for me to be scared of?” I would also tell him a story about the other people who aren't afraid, while I myself wondered, really, what does he have to be afraid of.
Danilo and I both had incidents on buses. Danilo's had occurred in a crowd, in the throngs of people, other people; he had never been afraid of the extreme proximity of human bodies, or of lousy human smells, menstrual, ammoniac, fecal, urinary . . . as a result, it was perfectly natural for the thing between him and the woman driver to take place right there in the presence of “other people.” In situations like that, all I have are the instincts of a frightened dog; I had always been afraid of these sweaty, anonymous packs of flesh who jostle me from behind and press against my back, against my pelvis my stomach my head. Although other people are just a deftly prepared illusion, I did truly fear that they would gouge out my eye, like on a slaughtered lamb, that they would spit in my mouth, down my throat, like in a public urinal, spilling their stinky syphilitic semen down my leg, the way a dog pisses against a tree . . .
Because of all that, I only rode buses that were almost empty; that time, when my thing happened, there were barely even ten of them, other people, in the bus. Next to the entrance door, a girl was standing with her back to me; I could not see her face; in fact, I couldn't see anything save her tall, elongated figure and the small, round, perfectly round butt in her pants; the eyes of the other passengers like mine, were glued to the fabric of her pants, but I alone reached out for it, with my hand—I think I wanted to verify one very simple thing: that the curve of that perfect ass differed beneath my fingertips from the same lines of the same ass that just moments before was the object of eyes—mine and those of the others—of all the people around her. And as soon as I touched it, everyone on the bus—all of a sudden there were a thousand of them—began to croak, maliciously: “Shame on you” and “Throw her off the bus” and “Pervert” and “Yuck, a lesbian,” but I don't think the young woman even felt my touch. Ultimately, that rear end, round and petite, had no connection of any kind to the girl's body, and not to mine, either.
When I told Milena about this, she waved it off, laughed at me, and said: “Oh, get real, Lida! We both know that satiny little ass is just meat. Tender or chewy, it's all the same!”
Our friend Milena only came over so she wouldn’t have to be alone when she talked to herself. Later I realized that this wasn't self-absorption, or anything else along those lines; I can even affirm, although it doesn't do anybody much good now, that it was Danilo who first sensed the seriousness of Milena's isolation. Milena's ardent penchant for humiliation (never once did I try to hit her; several times I pinched her, left blue streaks behind; I told her everything that a person can say to herself, to another person, to no one, everything that can be thought up, imagined, and then forgotten) proved to be a grave matter. After all, only out of a sense of seriousness is it possible to permit the things that Milena permitted.
The one person who felt guilty was me, always me; Milena was constantly somber; Danilo worried, and sometimes he cried.
I fantasized that it would be possible to spend the rest of life without moving: Milena and I, as a double static figure in Svetosavska Street; Milena with her legs hooked, thighs around my neck, and her head between my legs—never-ending wetness—and all around, the moving world: Danilo and that bug-eyed friend of his, whispering, prodding each other, and walking on tiptoes, going, coming, the both of them peering through all the keyholes; Jaglika and her homecare aide sending postcards with their regards, walking around the big park at Košutnjak, Čeda sticking right by Jaglika's side; my boss issuing various orders, going out to the movies with his wife, never failing to reflect on the fate of the world in front of the shop window featuring fancy leather goods, and yawning in the library; and Milena and I like stalactites.
Of course, I was not able to avoid ensnaring myself in Milena's serenity; no matter what I did, no matter what I said to her, Milena would always just curl up the corners of her lips, grinning, sneering at me with those gleaming front teeth of hers that were so large, and the big, retracted lower jaw, which she would then pull back even more, always but always repeating: “Oh for God's sake, Lida!”
And when I slapped her one time, Milena said: “Oh for God's sake, Lida!”—and she left with a smile on her face. From the balcony I shouted down; I asked her to come back; and she turned around once and grinned again, as if she were waving, but said again: “For God's sake, Lida!” Creep! I ran to Jaglika; I squeezed onto her lap and cried and kissed the backs of her wizened, gnarled hands, slobbering and whispering into her lap (my head was moored to the bottom of her stomach—and her lap was right there on that itsy-bitsy spot way down low): “Baba, may God help us, you and me,” and Jaglika would say, bewildered, “Get off me, child . . . Why me? I didn't do anything to anyone. Go on, move. Move when I tell you to!”
From Biljana Jovanović, Psi í ostali (Beograd: Prosveta, 1980). By arrangement with the author's estate. Translation © 2017 by John K. Cox. All rights reserved.