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from the July 2015 issue

The Legal Haziness of a Marriage

Leyla’s 10-by-6-foot cell looked like the setting of a bad film noir. A hard cot. A tiny barred window. The air was stuffy and the days dragged by unapologetically. Leyla spent most face down, hands cuffed behind her back. She felt disgusted with her body. It had been a week since her last shower. Her dress was caked with multiple layers of blood and sweat.

She had been arrested for illegal racing in Baku’s city center. The official charge might have been “hooliganism,” had there been an official charge. Car racing was one of the hobbies of rich Azeri youth. The last remaining option for rebellion. Spoiled kids spending their allowances on old Soviet cars that you would have waited a decade to get in the old days. The races happened at night, exclusively in busy areas. It wasn’t uncommon for pedestrians to get run over. This, of course, only increased the allure. Nobody knew who had come up with the idea for these races. Those who got arrested didn’t talk, and their guards didn’t ask.

The presidential family frowned upon street racing. It was among the few offenses that couldn’t be smoothed out with money. The young drivers—none of the arrested had been older than twenty-six—were usually held at the police station, and the officers took turns giving them beatings. A common, even harmless, practice in this area of the world.

And so three times a day, Leyla was led in handcuffs to an interrogation room by a young cadet. The same boy who brought her water and food. He was short and skinny and had the sad gaze of an eternal loser. Except for a table and two chairs, the spacious interrogation room was empty. He tied up Leyla’s wrists and ankles. Only then were they joined by the second cadet. He had a surgically corrected cleft lip and two gold teeth, but otherwise symmetrical features and gently curving eyebrows that were in stark contrast to the lower half of his face. She would recognize him, no matter when and where. His right hand slowly wandered up Leyla’s thigh, lingered on her crotch, found its way into her underwear and there did its damage with slow determination. It only retreated to wipe off the snot that Leyla spit into his face. He might have even enjoyed Leyla’s unyielding disdain. When he was done, he hit her a few times with such force that she lost consciousness. She would wake up later with the taste of blood in her mouth and a hand on her breast.

Early on, Leyla’s ballet teacher had taught her the three kinds of pain: constructive, destructive, and chronic. The human body wasn’t suited for ballet—to be able to dance, the body had to defeat itself. Leyla got used to dancing with pain. Mostly contusions, inflammations caused by overstrain, pain in the lower back and the joints. As long as the pain remained constructive, it didn’t matter. But whenever Leyla had to miss a performance because of an injury, she cried. Alone, in her bed, as most people do.

For at least half an hour, nothing happened. A pudgy man shuffled into the room, carrying tea. Small, pointy teeth crowded his jaw. His big, chapped lips contrasted with his tiny eyes. During the interrogation he popped a sugarcube into his mouth and slurped his tea through the sugar tucked behind his yellow teeth. Leyla didn’t answer, nor did she touch her tea. She didn’t try to talk herself out of it, didn’t beg for forgiveness. She fixated on the monochrome wall directly above the officer’s head, wishing she were back in her dirty cell.

There, where no movement was possible, Leyla’s body remembered whole choreographies and the release of endorphins during a great performance. Swan Lake was the first ballet Leyla had seen at the Bolshoi. She’d gone with Father and Mother. Leyla would have loved to dance the part of the prince who felt this immense longing for a strange creature, a love that wasn’t part of the plan. She saw herself in front of the painted forests, in the soft, purple light. The agony of the swan relieved her of her own and she drank in the dance, the form, the pas de deux, even the tights and the tutu. She rose en pointe. Her movements accelerated, became clearer. She herself became complete. Once again she was a dancer and her partner lifted her up into the air. In the third act, the swan performs thirty-two fouettés, the infamous one-legged pirouettes. She had seen Swan Lake multiple times with Altay, who enjoyed the opportunity to watch the muscular male bodies unpunished from the darkness of the auditorium. One evening at the Mariinsky Theater—they were already engaged by then—Altay began giggling in the middle of a performance. People turned, indignant. “Leyla—the lake, the swans . . .” Altay said. “It’s a total cruising area.” Leyla broke into laughter too, and they had to leave the performance. That morning, in prison, Leyla had her period and she wasn’t sure whether that was for the better or worse.

At the next interrogation, the officer wanted to talk about her father, who was worried about her. Allegedly. He also asked whether her husband would still want her as his wife. Her, dragging the honor of the entire family into the mud. He spoke breathlessly and leaned so closely into Leyla’s face that she could smell his sour breath. Leyla screamed that he should leave her father and especially her husband alone. Then she felt the blow. The floor beneath her feet swayed. Her sense of balance gave out. Leyla focused and looked into his aged face. She tried to read it, and saw nothing but surprise. A family of cockroaches nonchalantly crossed the room. Leyla screamed until three men pressed her head against the floor littered with cigarette butts, shells of sunflower seeds, and spit. The cockroaches scurried by, close to her mouth. Leyla had the dubious honor of being the first female prisoner, and she got the treatment that went along with it.

The directive to arrest the illegal racers was meant to signal that any kind of insurrection was futile, whether it was the result of boredom or inspired by the Arab Spring. The offending kids were generally imprisoned for ten days, regardless of influence, income, or pedigree. Over the course of this time, the officer would rack his brain over how to teach these kids remorse. Not an easy task, considering their only values were money and power. Ten days was too long for a conversion and too short for a re-education. If only they still had the camps.

Leyla felt her feet being lifted and started kicking with all her strength. She heard a flood of voices. Closing her eyes, she tried to control her breathing. When Leyla thought of Giselle, everything came back: Jounoun’s smell, the fine blonde hair on her thighs, the amber hair that she loved diving into. The longing for Jounoun’s body grew into a dull pain. At the end of the hallway she heard sharp cries and Leyla dreamed herself back to the dance of the Willis, dipped her toe into the powdered rosin one last time, tied the ribbons of her shoes and stepped out onto the stage of the Bolshoi. She had been addicted to this stage for all her life, those two meters of incline, invisible to the viewer, perfect for ballet.

She shivered as the officer entered the interrogation room. She no longer knew where she was and she asked him to open a window. Her head swirled with dance sequences and long-forgotten faces, but this time she was unable to grasp onto a single one. Saliva and blood ran down her lips. The officer blushed, worried about leaving scars on Leyla’s face. Her father was, after all, a man with connections. The officer yelled louder, then forced himself to pause before resuming his task with fresh energy. He let his imagination run wild.

Never again could Leyla be what she had been. A ballerina. That’s what she had wanted and decided. Of course she had expected the pain. That wasn’t the problem. Leyla was used to pain and hunger. What surprised her was that she missed ballet. Not like you’d miss a person, but like a drug that’s suddenly withheld from your body. And Leyla was well suited for addiction. Nailing a certain movement was her high. What she acutely missed now was the triumph over her own body. She tried making up for the loss with cocaine or MDMA, but it didn’t work. She thought it would be a relief not to have to dance anymore—she’d had enough of the constant pain, the excessive demands and exhaustion, the fear of injuries, the pressure of competition and the never-ending intrigues. What she wanted was peace, but her body had become used to the daily ordeal and yearned for more. Leyla was a stranger to her own body.

Then she was handed a towel and fresh clothes—oddly the T-shirt and pants she had left behind in her Berlin apartment two months ago. Under the strict watch of two female police officers, she showered and scrubbed off the dirt. She was led into a new room. Two big barred windows, scuffed linoleum floors, and—Altay. 

From Die juristische Unschärfe einer Ehe. © Carl Hanser Verlag München 2014. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2015 by Eva Bacon. All rights reserved.

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