tue 10/12/2019

Book extract: Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich | reviews, news & interviews

Book extract: Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

Book extract: Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

Extract III of III - On Romeo and Juliet... Except Their Names Were Margarita and Abulfaz

Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich© Fitzcarraldo Editions

Between 1991 to 2012, Belorussian journalist and oral historian Svetlana Alexievich travelled the countries that constituted the former USSR conducting interviews with the “the little great people” who had lived under Soviet communism and witnessed its demise. The resulting book, Second-Hand Time, is an oral history which tells through the words of ordinary people the end of what she, in her 2015 Nobel Prize lecture, called a “historical experiment”. This is the third of three extracts.

Margarita K., Armenian refugee, 41 years old

Oh! That’s not what I’m talking about… that’s not what I want to talk about… I want to talk about other things…

I still sleep with my arms behind my head, an old habit from my years of being happy. I used to love life so much! I’m Armenian, but I was born and grew up in Baku. On the sea-shore. The sea… my sea! I left, but I still love the sea. People and everything else have disappointed me, the sea is the only thing I still love. I always see it in my dreams – grey, black, and violet. And lightning bolts! The way the lighting dances with the waves. I used to love staring off into the distance, watching the sun set in the evening. It would get so red towards nightfall, it seemed to sizzle as it descended into the water. The rocks would get warm in the course of the day, warm rocks, like living beings. I loved to look at the sea in the morning and during the day, in the evening and at night. At night, the bats would come out, and I was always so scared of them. Cicadas sang. A sky full of stars… You won’t see that many stars anywhere else. Baku is my favourite city – my very favourite, in spite of everything! In my dreams, I often find myself strolling through Governor’s Park or Nagorny Park. I go up on the fortress wall… Everywhere I went, I could see the sea, the ships, and the oil rigs. My mother and I liked to go to chaikhanas [1] and drink red tea. [She has tears in her eyes.] My mother lives in America now. She weeps and misses me. I live in Moscow…

In Baku, we lived in a big building. It had a large courtyard, with mulberries growing in it, white mulberries. They were so good! Everyone lived together like one big family – Azerbaijanis, Russians, Armenians, Ukrainians, Tatars. Miss Clara, Miss Sarah… Abdulla, Ruben… The most beautiful woman was Silva, she was a stewardess on international flights, she’d fly to Istanbul. Her husband Elmir was a taxi driver. She was Armenian and he was Azerbaijani, but no one ever gave it a second thought, I don’t remember any discussion of their nationalities. The world was divided up differently: is someone a good or bad person, are they greedy or kind? Neighbour and guest. We were from the same village, the same town… everyone had the same nationality – we were all Soviet, everyone spoke Russian. 

The most beautiful holiday, everyone’s favourite, was Navruz. Navruz Bayram is the celebration of the arrival of spring. People waited for it all year long, it’s celebrated for seven days. During Navruz, people didn’t close their gates or doors… no lock and keys day or night. We’d make bonfires… bonfires burned on the roofs and in the courtyards. The whole city was filled with bonfires! People would throw fragrant rue into the fire and ask for happiness, saying ‘Sarylygin sene, gyrmyzylygin mene’ – ‘My hardships to you, my happiness to me.’ ‘Gyrmyzylygin mene…’ Anyone could go into anyone else’s house – and everyone would be welcomed as a guest, served milk pilaf and red tea with cinnamon or cardamom. And on the seventh day, the most important day of the holiday, everyone came together at one table… We would all carry our tables into the courtyard and make one long, long table. This table would be covered in Georgian khinkali, Armenian boraki and basturma; Russian bliny, Tatar echpochmak, Ukrainian vareniki, meat and chestnuts Azeri-style… Miss Klava would bring her signature ‘herring under a fur coat’ and Miss Sarah her stuffed fish. We drank wine and Armenian cognac. And Azerbaijani cognac. We sang Armenian and Azerbaijani songs. And the Russian ‘Katyusha’: ‘The apple and pear trees were in bloom… The mists swam over the river…’ Finally, it would be time for dessert: bakhlava, sheker-churek… To me, these are still the most delicious things in the world! My mother was the best at making sweet pastries. ‘What magical hands you have, Knarik! What light dough!’ The neighbours would always praise her. 

My mother was close with Zeinab, and Zeinab had two daughters and a son, Anar, who was in the same class as me at school. ‘You’ll marry your daughter to my Anar,’ Zeinab would joke. ‘Then we’ll be relatives.’ [She talks to herself.] I’m not going to cry… There’s no need to cry… When the pogroms on Armenians began… Zeinab, our sweet Auntie Zeinab and her son Anar… We fled, and kind people hid us… While we were gone, they took our refrigerator and television in the night… our gas stove and our new Yugoslavian wall cabinet… Anar and his friends ran into my husband and beat him with iron rods. ‘What kind of Azerbaijani are you? You’re a traitor! You live with an Armenian woman – our enemy!’ My friend took me in to live with her, she hid me up in her attic… Every night, they would unseal the attic, feed me, and then I would have to go back up there, and they would nail the door shut. Dead shut. If anyone found me, they’d kill me! When I came out of hiding, my bangs had gone grey… [Very quietly.] I tell people: no need to cry about me… but here I am crying… When we were in school, I had a crush on Anar, he was good-looking. One time, we even kissed… ‘Hello, Queen!’ He’d wait for me at the gates of our school. ‘Hello, Queen!’

I remember that spring… Of course I remember it, but I don’t think about it too often these days… Not very often. Spring! I had completed special courses and got a job as a telegraph operator. At the Central Telegraph Office. People would stand at the window: one woman is crying, her mother just died, the next one is laughing, she’s getting married. Happy birthday! Happy golden anniversary! Telegrams, telegrams. Calling Vladivostok, Ust-Kut, Ashkhabad… It was a fun job. Never boring. Meanwhile, I waited for love… When you’re eighteen, you’re always waiting for love. I thought that love only came once, and you understand that it’s love instantaneously. But the way it happened was funny, it was really funny. I didn’t like how he and I met. In the morning, I usually walked right through security, everyone knew me, so no one would ever ask for my ID: hi, hi, no questions. Then, one day: ‘Your ID, please.’ I was dumbfounded. There was this tall, handsome guy standing in front of me, not letting me through. ‘But you see me every day.’ ‘Your ID, please.’ It just so happened that that day, I had forgotten my ID. I dug around in my bag, but it turned out that I didn’t have any of my documents with me. They called my boss… I got chewed out… I was so mad at that security guard! And he… I was working the night shift, and he and his friend came by to have tea with me. Imagine that! He brought me pastries filled with jam, they don’t make them like they used to, they were so good, but it was scary to bite into them because you never knew what side the filling was going to come out of. We laughed! But I didn’t talk to him because I was still mad. A few days later, he found me after work. ‘I got tickets to the cinema. Wanna come?’ They were tickets to my favourite comedy, Mimino, starring Vakhtang Kikabidze. I’d seen it ten times already, I knew the whole thing by heart. It turned out that he did, too. We walked along quoting lines, testing one another: ‘I’ll let you in on something smart, just don’t get mad at me.’ ‘How am I supposed to sell this cow if everyone around here knows her?’ So, we fell in love… His cousin had big greenhouses, he sold flowers. Abulfaz always brought me roses, red and white… There are even lilac-coloured roses, they look like they’re dyed, but they’re real. I fantasized… I’d often dreamt of love, but I didn’t know how hard my heart could beat, how it could feel like it was jumping out of my chest. On the wet beach, we’d leave our writing on the sand… ‘I love you!’ in giant letters. And ten metres further along, ‘I love you!!!’ again. Back then, there were these vending machines all over town that dispensed soda water. They’d have cups attached to them by chains, and everyone would drink out of the same cup. You’d rinse it out and drink from it. We went up to one of the vending machines, but there was no cup attached to it, and the next one didn’t have a cup, either. I was thirsty! We’d sung, shouted, and laughed so much when we were by the sea – I was thirsty! For a long time, magical, improbable things kept happening to us, and then, one day, they stopped. Yes, yes, I can assure you, it’s the truth! ‘Abulfaz, I want a drink! Think of something!’ He looked at me, raised his hands to the sky, and began muttering. He muttered at the sky like that for a long time… Suddenly, from behind the overgrown fences and shuttered kiosks, this drunk appeared out of nowhere and handed over a cup: ‘For a be-a-u-ti-ful girl, I can spare it.’

And that sunrise… Not a soul around, just the two of us. The fog rolling in from the sea. I was barefoot, the fog rose up from the asphalt like steam. And then another miracle! The sun suddenly came out! Light… so much light… as though it was the middle of a summer day. My dress, wet from the dew, dried instantly. ‘You look so beautiful right now!’ And you… you… [She has tears in her eyes.] I tell other people not to cry… But I… I keep remembering everything… remembering… but every time, there are fewer voices and fewer dreams. Back then, I really dreamed, I was always up in the clouds… Floating through life! Only it never happened. We never got our happy ending: the white dress, the wedding march, a honeymoon. Soon, all too soon… [She stops.] I wanted to say something… something… but I keep forgetting the simplest words. I’ve started forgetting things… I wanted to say that soon, so very soon after that, people started hiding me in their basements. I lived in attics, I turned into a cat… a bat. If you could only understand… if only you could know how scary it is to hear somebody screaming in the middle of the night. A lone scream. When a lone bird cries out in the middle of the night, it’s enough to make anyone shudder. Can you imagine how it feels when it’s a human screaming? I lived with a single thought: I love him, I love him, and again, I love him. I couldn’t have survived otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to bear it. How could I – the horror! I only came down from the attic at night, the drapes were as thick as blankets. One morning, they opened the attic and said, ‘Come out! You’re saved!’ Russian troops had entered the city…

I think about that… I think about it even in my sleep – when did it all begin? 1988… People started gathering on the square, dressed in all black, singing and dancing. They danced with knives and daggers. The telegraph building was near the square, it all happened right before our eyes. We flooded out onto the balcony and watched. ‘What are they shouting?’ I asked. ‘Death to the infidels! Death!’ This went on for a long time, a very long time… many months… They started chasing us away from the windows: ‘Girls, it’s dangerous. Go to your desks, and don’t get distracted. Do your work.’ At lunchtime, we’d usually drink tea together, and then, one day, the Azerbaijani girls suddenly started sitting at one table and the Armenian girls at another. It all happened in the blink of an eye, do you understand? I for one could not understand it at all, I just couldn’t. I couldn’t believe any of it for a long time. I was in love, wrapped up in my feelings… ‘Girls! What happened?’ ‘Didn’t you hear? The boss said that pretty soon, only pure-blooded Muslim girls are going to be working for him.’ My grandmother had survived the Armenian pogrom of 1915. I remember when I was little, she would tell me about it: ‘When I was a little girl like you, they murdered my father, my mother, and my aunt. And all of our sheep…’ My grandma always had sad eyes. ‘Our neighbours were the ones who did it… Before that, they had been normal – you could even say good – people. We all sat around the same table on holidays...’ I thought that it had all been so long ago… could something like that really happen today? I asked my mother: ‘Mama, did you notice that the boys in the courtyard have stopped playing war and started playing at killing Armenians? Who taught them that?’ ‘Quiet, daughter. Or the neighbours will hear you.’ My mother was always crying. She just sat there and wept. Once, I saw the children dragging some dummy through the courtyard and poking it with sticks, children’s daggers. ‘Who’s that?’ I called over little Orkhan, Zeinab’s grandson. ‘That’s an old Armenian woman. We’re killing her. Auntie Rita, what are you? Why do you have a Russian name?’ My mother had named me… Mama liked Russian names. Her whole life, she’d dreamed of seeing Moscow… My father had abandoned us, he lived with another woman, but he was still my father. I went to him with the news: ‘Papa, I’m getting married!’ ‘Is he a good guy?’ ‘Very. But his name is Abulfaz…’ My father didn’t say anything, he wanted me to be happy. But I had fallen in love with a Muslim… he prayed to a different God. My father said nothing. And then Abulfaz came to our house: ‘I want to ask for your hand.’ ‘But why are you here alone without your groomsmen? Where are your relatives?’ ‘They’re all against it, but I don’t need anyone but you.’ And I… I didn’t need anyone else, either. What could we do with our love?

The things happening all around us were very different from what was happening inside of us… Radically different. At night, the city was chillingly quiet… How can it go on like this, I can’t stand it. What is all this – the horror! During the day, people weren’t laughing any more, they weren’t joking around, they’d stopped buying flowers. It used to be that there was always someone walking down the street with a bouquet. People kissing here and there. Now the same people were walking down the street avoiding one another’s gaze… Something loomed over everyone and everything, some sort of foreboding…

I can’t remember everything precisely any more… the situation changed from day to day. Today, everyone knows about Sumgait… it’s only thirty kilometres outside of Baku… the first pogrom happened there. One of the girls we worked with was from there. One day, after everyone had gone home, she started staying at the telegraph office. She’d spend the night in the store-room. She walked around in tears, wouldn’t even look out the window, and didn’t speak to anyone. We asked her what was wrong, she wouldn’t say. And when she finally opened her mouth and started telling us… I wished I’d never heard… I didn’t want to hear about those things! I didn’t want to hear anything! What was going on! What is this – how could they! ‘What happened to your house?’ ‘It was looted.’ ‘What happened to your parents?’ ‘They took my mother out into the courtyard, stripped her naked, and threw her on the fire! And then they forced my pregnant sister to dance around the fire… Then, after they killed her, they dug the baby out of her with metal rods…’ ‘Shut up! Shut up!’ ‘My father was hacked to pieces with an axe… My relatives only recognized him by his shoes…’ ‘Stop! I’m begging you!’ ‘Men, young and old, in groups of twenty or thirty, got together and started breaking into the houses where Armenian families lived. They killed and raped daughters in front of their fathers, wives in front of husbands…’ ‘Stop it! Just cry instead.’ But she wouldn’t cry. She was too scared… ‘They torch-ed cars. At the cemetery, they knocked over tombstones with Armenian last names on them. They even hate the dead…’ ‘Hush! Are people really capable of such things?!’ All of us became afraid of her… Meanwhile, on television, on the radio, and in newspapers, there wasn’t a single word about Sumgait. All we had were rumours… Much later, people would ask me: ‘How did you survive? How could you go on living after all that?’ Spring came. Women put on their light dresses… It was so beautiful all around us, and yet, there was so much terror! Do you understand? …And the sea. 

I was preparing for our wedding… My mother pleaded, ‘Daughter, think about what you’re doing.’ My father said nothing. Abulfaz and I would walk down the street together, sometimes we would run into his sisters: ‘Why did you tell me she’s ugly? Look at what a cute little girl she is.’ Whenever they saw us, they’d whisper those kinds of things to each other. Abulfaz! Abulfaz! I begged him: ‘I agree we should get married, but do we really need to have a big wedding?’ ‘What’s wrong with you? My people believe that a person’s life consists of just three days: the day you’re born, the day you get married, and the day you die.’ He had to have a proper wedding. Without a wedding, we couldn’t be happy. His parents were against it – categorically against it! They gave him no money for the wedding and wouldn’t even return the money he’d earned himself. But everything had to be done according to custom, according to the traditions… Azerbaijani traditions are beautiful, I love them. The first time the groomsmen come, they are heard out and sent away, and only on the second try do they get an agreement or rejection. That’s when they drink wine. Then it’s the groom’s job to buy a white dress and a ring, and bring them to the bride’s house in the morning. And it has to be on a sunny day… because you have to convince happiness to stay, you have to ward off the forces of darkness. The bride accepts the gifts and thanks the groom, kissing him in front of everyone. She wears a white shawl over her shoulders, a symbol of her purity. On the wedding day, the couple is brought gifts by both sides of the family, they receive a mountain of gifts that are placed on large trays and tied with red ribbons. They also blow up hundreds of balloons and fly them over the bride’s house for several days afterwards, the longer the better, it means that their love is strong and mutual. 

My wedding… our wedding… all of the gifts from both the bride’s side and the groom’s side were purchased by my mother… and the white dress and the gold ring, too. At the table, before the first toast, members of the bride’s family are supposed to get up and praise the bride and the groom’s parents, the groom. My grandfather spoke about me, and when he was finished, he asked Abulfaz, ‘And who is going to say something about you?’ ‘I’ll say it myself,’ he replied. ‘I love your daughter. I love her more than life itself.’ The way he said that got everyone on his side. They threw small change and rice at us, for happiness and wealth. And then… there’s another part… when the relatives from one side are supposed to stand up and bow to the relatives from the other side and vice versa. Abulfaz stood alone… as though he were kinless… ‘I’ll have your baby and then you won’t be alone any more,’ I vowed in my head. Solemnly. He knew, I’d confessed to him long before, that I had been very sick as a child and the doctors had told me that I must never give birth. And he agreed to that, too, anything just to be with me. But I… At that moment, I decided that I would have his baby anyway. Even if it meant that I would die, the child would live. 

My Baku… 

The sea … 

The sun…

It’s not my Baku any more…

There were no doors in the entrances, the spaces where the doors had been were covered in cellophane…

… Men or teenagers… I was too terrified to remember… were beating – murdering – a woman with a fence post. Where had they found them in the city? She lay on the ground not making a sound. When passersby saw what was happening, they’d turn the corner and walk down another street. Where was the police? The police had disappeared… I would go days without seeing a single policeman. At home, Abulfaz was nauseated. He was a kind man, very kind. But where had those other people come from, the ones out on the street? A man covered in blood came running towards us… His coat, his hands all covered in blood… He was clutching a long kitchen knife, the kind people use to cut herbs. He had this triumphant, maybe even happy look on his face… ‘I know that guy,’ said the girl standing with us at the bus stop.

… Something inside me died in those days… I lost a part of myself…

… My mother quit her job… It became dangerous to walk down the street, people instantly saw that she was an Armenian. I didn’t have that problem, only under one condition: I could never bring any of my documents out with me. None of them! Abulfaz would pick me up from work, and we’d walk home together so that no one would have a chance to suspect that I was Armenian. Anyone could come up to you and demand to see your passport. ‘Hide. Leave,’ our neighbours, the old Russian ladies, warned us. The younger Russians had already left, abandoning their apartments and nice furniture. Only the old women remained, those kind-hearted Russian grandmas…

… I was already pregnant… Under my heart, I carried a child…

The bloodbath in Baku went on for several weeks. Or at least that’s what some people say, others say it was longer… They didn’t just kill Armenians, they also killed the people who hid them. My Azerbaijani friend hid me, she had a husband and two kids. One day… I swear! I’ll come back to Baku and bring my daughter to their house: ‘This is your second mother, daughter.’ They had these thick drapes… thick as a coat… They’d had them sewn especially for me. At night, I would come down from the attic for an hour or two… We spoke in whispers, but I absolutely had to be talked to. Everyone understood: they needed to talk to me so that I wouldn’t go dumb and lose my mind. So that I wouldn’t miscarry or start wailing in the night like an animal.

I remember our conversations very well. Afterwards, I would spend all day up in the attic going over them in my head. I was alone… All I saw was a thin ribbon of sky through a crack…

‘… They stopped old Lazar in the street and started beating him… “I’m a Jew,” he insisted. By the time they found his passport, he was already seriously injured.’

‘… People get killed for their money and just because… They seek out the homes of well-off Armenians…’

‘… They killed everyone who lived in this one building… The youngest girl there climbed a tree to escape… so they shot at her like she was a little bird. It’s hard to see at night, they couldn’t get her for a long time, it made them angry… They kept firing. Finally, she fell at their feet…’

My friend’s husband was an artist. I love his work, he painted portraits of women and still lifes. I remember how he’d go up to the bookshelves and rap on the spines: ‘We have to burn them all! Burn them to hell! I don’t believe in books any more! We thought that good would triumph over evil – nothing of the kind! We’d argue about Dostoevsky… Yes, those are the characters who are always with us! Walking among us. They’re right here!’ I didn’t know what he was talking about – I’m a simple girl, a commoner. I didn’t go to university. All I knew was how to cry and how to wipe my tears… For a long time, I had believed that I lived in the best country in the world, among the very best people. That’s what they’d taught us in school. He was terribly upset, it was all incredibly hard on him. He ended up having a stroke and becoming paralyzed… [She stops.] I need to be silent for a moment… I’m shaking… [After a few minutes, she continues.] And then Russian troops entered the city. I could go home... My friend’s husband was bedridden, he could only move one of his arms, and barely. He embraced me with that arm: ‘I thought about you all night long, Rita, and about my life. For many years, practically my whole life, I’ve railed against the Communists. Now I have my doubts: so what if those old mummies ruled over us, pinning medal after medal onto one another, and we couldn’t go abroad, read forbidden books, or eat pizza, the food of the gods? That little girl… she would have still been alive, no one would have been shooting at her… like she was a bird… and you wouldn’t have had to hide in the attic like a mouse…’ He died soon afterwards, just a little while later. Many people died in those days, a lot of good people. They couldn’t take it any more. 

The streets filled with Russian troops. Military equipment. Russian soldiers, just boys… what they saw made them faint…

I was eight months pregnant. My due date was coming up. On nights when I was in pain, we’d call an ambulance, but as soon as they heard my Armenian last name, they’d hang up on us. They wouldn’t accept us into any maternity clinics, not the neighbourhood one… not anywhere. They’d open my passport and right away, it was, ‘Sorry, no room.’ No room! Nowhere and no way, simply no way. My mother found an old midwife, a Russian woman, one who had helped her give birth a long, long time ago… She found her living in a small village on the edge of town. Her name was Anna… I don’t remember her patronymic. Once a week, she’d come to our house, examine me and tell us that labour wouldn’t be easy. My contractions started in the middle of the night… Abulfaz ran out to flag a cab, we couldn’t reach one by phone. The taxi driver came and saw me: ‘What is she, Armenian?’ ‘She’s my wife.’ ‘I’m not taking you anywhere.’ My husband broke down in tears. He took out his wallet and waved all his money at the man, his entire month’s pay: ‘Take it… I’ll give you everything… Just save my wife and child.’ We got in the car… all of us… My mother came, too. We went to the village where Anna lived, to the hospital where she worked part-time. To supplement her pension. She had been waiting for us; they put me on the table immediately. I was in labour for a long time, seven hours… There were two of us giving birth that night: me and an Azerbaijani woman. They only had one pillow, and they gave it to her, so my head was very low the whole time, in a painful and uncomfortable position… My mother stood in the doorway. They kept trying to kick her out, but she wouldn’t leave. What if they tried to steal the baby… What if? Anything could have happened… In those days, anything was possible. I gave birth to a girl… They only brought her to me once, showed her to me, and then they wouldn’t bring her again. They let the other mothers, all Azerbaijani, breastfeed their babies, but not me. I waited for two days. And then… along the wall, clinging onto it for support… I crept to the room where they kept the newborns. It was completely empty except for my little girl, the doors and windows were all shut. I felt her temperature, she was burning up, all hot. Just then, my mother came… ‘Mama, we’re taking the baby and leaving. She’s already sick.’

My daughter was sick for a long time. An old doctor, long retired, treated her. A Jew. He went around helping Armenian families. ‘They’re killing Armenians just for being Armenian the same way they once killed Jews just for being Jewish,’ he said. He was very, very old. We named our daughter Ira… Irinka… We decided that she should have a Russian name, it might protect her. The first time Abulfaz held her, he cried. He wept with joy… There was joy in those days, as well. Our joy! Around then, his mother got sick… He started going to see his family all the time. When he’d come back from seeing them… I won’t be able to find the words… for how he was when he’d come back. It was like he was a stranger with a face I didn’t recognize. Of course, I was scared. There were tons of refugees flooding the city, Azerbaijani families fleeing Armenia. They showed up empty-handed, without anything, exactly the same way Armenians fled Baku. And they told the same stories. Oh! Oh, it was all identical. They spoke about Khodjali, where there had been a pogrom on Azerbaijanis. About how the Armenians had murdered them, throwing women out of windows… cutting people’s heads off… pissing on the dead… No horror film can scare me now! I’ve seen so much and heard so much – too much! I couldn’t sleep at night, I kept turning and turning it over in my mind – we simply had to leave. We just had to! We couldn’t go on like this, I couldn’t. Run… run to forget… and if I had stayed, I would have died. I’m sure I would have died…

My mother left first… After her, it was my father with his second family. Then me and my daughter. We had false documents, passports with Azerbaijani last names… It took us three months to buy the tickets, that’s how long the queues were! When we got on the aeroplane, there were more cases of fruit and cardboard boxes of flowers than passengers. Business! Business was booming. In front of us, there were these young Azerbaijanis who drank wine the whole way there. They said they were leaving because they didn’t want to kill anyone. They didn’t want to go to war and die. It was 1991… The fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh was in full swing… Our fellow passengers confessed: ‘We don’t want to lie down under a tank. We’re not ready.’ In Moscow, our cousin came to meet us at the airport… ‘Where’s Abulfaz?’ ‘He’ll be here in a month.’ My relatives got together that evening. Everyone begged me: ‘Talk, please talk, don’t be scared. Silent people get sick.’ A month later, I started talking, even though I thought I’d never talk again. That I’d shut up for good.

I waited, and waited… and waited… Abulfaz didn’t join us in a month… or six months. It took him seven years. Seven years… seven… If it hadn’t been for my daughter, I wouldn’t have made it. My daughter saved me. For her sake, I held on with all my strength. In order to survive, you need to find at least the thinnest thread… In order to survive waiting that long… It was morning, just another morning… He stepped into our apartment and embraced us. Then he just stood there. One minute he was standing there, in the entrance and the next, I was watching him collapse in slow motion. Moments later, he was lying on the floor, still in his coat and hat. We dragged him to the sofa and rested him on top of it. We got so scared: we had to call a doctor, but how? We weren’t registered to live in Moscow, we didn’t have insurance. We were refugees! As we were trying to figure out what to do, my mother burst into tears. My daughter was in the corner, staring with wild eyes… We’d waited for Papa for so long, and now, here he was, dying. Finally, he opened his eyes: ‘I don’t need a doctor, don’t worry. It’s over! I’m home.’ I’m going to cry now… Now, I’m going to cry… [For the first time in our entire conversation, she breaks down in tears.] How could I not cry? For a month, he followed me around the apartment on his knees, kissing my hands. ‘What are you trying to say?’ ‘I love you.’ ‘Where have you been all this time?’

… They stole his passport… and after he got a new one, they did it again… It was all his relatives’ fault…

… His cousins came to Baku… They’d been forced out of Yerevan where they’d lived for several generations. Every night, they’d tell stories… always making sure that he could hear… How a boy had been skinned alive and hanged from a tree. How they’d branded a neighbour’s forehead with a hot horseshoe… And then, and then… ‘And where do you think you’re going?’ ‘To be with my wife.’ ‘You’re leaving us for our enemy. You’re no brother of ours. You’re not our son.’

… I’d call him… They’d say, ‘He’s not home,’ and then they’d tell him that I’d called and said I was getting remarried. I kept calling and calling. His sister would answer the phone: ‘Forget this phone number. He’s with another woman now. A Muslim.’

… My father… He wanted me to be happy… He took away my passport and gave it to some guys to put a stamp in it certifying that I was divorced. To falsify my documents. They wrote something in it, washed it off, tried to fix it, and in the end, they made a hole in my passport. ‘Papa! Why did you do that? You know I love him!’ ‘You love our enemy.’ My passport is ruined, it’s not valid any more…

… I read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet… two enemy families, the Capulets and the Montagues. It’s about my life… I understood everything, every word…

I didn’t recognize my daughter. She started smiling from the moment she saw him, ‘Papa! Papochka!’ She was little… Before he came home, she’d take his photos out of the suitcase and kiss them. But only when she thought I wasn’t looking… so I wouldn’t cry…

But this is not the end… You think that’s it? The end? Oh no, not yet…

… We live here as though we’re at war… Everywhere we go, we’re foreigners. Spending time by the sea would cure me. My sea! But there’s no sea anywhere near here…

… I was a cleaner in the metro, I scrubbed toilets. I dragged bricks and sacks of concrete at a construction site. Right now, I clean at a restaurant. Abulfaz renovates apartments for rich people. Nice people pay him, bad people cheat him. ‘Get the hell out of here, churka [2]! Or we’ll call the police.’ We’re not legally registered to live here… we have no rights… There are as many of us here as there are grains of sand in the desert. Hundreds of thousands of people fled their homes: Tajiks, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Georgians, Chechens… They escaped to Moscow, the capital of the USSR, only now, it’s the capital of another country. You won’t find our nation anywhere on the map…

… My daughter finished school a year ago… ‘Mama, Papa… I want to continue my education!’ But she doesn’t have a passport… We live like transients. We rent from an old lady, she moved in with her son and rents us her one-bedroom apartment. The police knock on the door wanting to check our documents… and we freeze like mice. Once again, we’re living like mice. They’ll send us back – but to where? Where can we go? They can kick us out in twenty-four hours! We don’t have the money to buy them off… and we’re not going to find another apartment as good as ours. Everywhere you go, you see ads that say, ‘Will rent an apartment to a Slavic family’, ‘Will rent to a Russian Orthodox family. Others need not apply.’

... We never leave the house at night! If my daughter or husband are late, I take valerian. I beg my daughter not to wear too much make-up or flashy dresses. They killed an Armenian boy, they stabbed a Tajik girl to death… they stabbed an Azerbaijani. We used to all be Soviet, but now we have a new nationality: ‘person of Caucasian descent.’ In the morning, I run to work. I never look young men in the eye because I have dark eyes and black hair. On Sundays, if we leave the house, we’ll stroll through our own neighbourhood, not straying far from our house. ‘Mama, I want to go to the Arbat. I want to walk around on Red Square.’ ‘We can’t go there, daughter. That’s where the skinheads hang out. With swastikas. Their Russia is for Russians. Not for us.’ [She falls silent.] No one knows how many times I’ve wanted to die.

… My little girl… Since childhood, she’s heard the words ‘churka’, ‘darkie’… When she was very little, she didn’t understand. When she’d come home from school, I’d kiss her and kiss her so she would forget those awful words.

All the Armenians left Baku for America. They were taken in by a foreign country… My mother, my father, and many of our relatives moved there. I went to the American embassy myself. ‘Tell us your story,’ they said. I told them about my love… They were silent; for a long time, they didn’t say anything. Young Americans, they were very young. Then they started discussing it among themselves: her passport is all messed up, and it’s weird, where was her husband for seven years? Is he really her husband? The story is too terrifying and beautiful to believe. That’s what they said. I know a little English… I realized that they didn’t believe me. But I have no proof other than my love for him… Do you believe me?

– I believe you, I tell her. I grew up in the same country as you. I believe you! 

[And both of us cry.

--

[1] Traditional Central Asian teahouses. 

[2] Russian racial slur for a person from the Caucasus region and Central Asia.

I don’t remember any discussion of their nationalities. The world was divided up differently

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