Originally published by the Dalhouise Review, 2006.
Recounts the motivations of a potential female suicide bomber
When I walk downstairs, I will hear my mother say to my father, "Why does she need to be different?" Her voice will be low. She will shake her head and make that familiar tisk sound. My parents will have just returned from work and be sitting over the porridge my father made last night before they left. Milk will dribble on my father's chin. My mother will balance her head on her hand covering an ear to muffle his slurps.
Why can't she be more like Zoë?
They won't say it, but I know they will think it. My mother will nudge my father and point to my football bag. They don't like how I dress and they don't approve of my involvement in football. If I wear my new vest this morning, my mother will notice and say, "Money flows through her hands like water." My father will ignore her, crunch the stale bread he dries out each night to accompany his porridge. Honey will drip onto his shirt as it does every morning.
My older sister dresses in the cover-up garb of our Chechnya homeland and wears her white scarf proudly even though the old ladies on the bus stare and talk about la straniera as if Zoë can't understand what they are saying.
"I don't want to stand out," I will say.
They will reply, "Girls your age fought for the right to wear the hijab for their identification card picture. You should be filled with as much pride as your sister."
We're immigrants in a place where Il Papa encourages tolerance and acceptance. And yet, we are looked upon with suspicion. They call us clandestini. Pictures are flashed on the news each night. Large ships and small boats filled with people just like us wash up on the shores every day. They are searching for a new home. And if our adopted country's glossy-haired political leader asked his Russian counterpart what motivates these people to flee, he might get the standard answer, "They leave of their own volition to avoid the terrorist tactics of the rebels." Russia's human rights record and their complicity would be left out of the discussion.
How can we be filled with pride? I want to ask my da but that would only add vinegar to his puckered mouth.
"You must study. It is the only way to get ahead," my father says.
I don't ask him how he uses his own doctorate in philosophy or how nana uses her masters in biochemistry when they work alongside one another six nights a week, vacuuming floors, dusting windowsills, wiping urine from toilet seats. Or how any education will free us from the ghetto we have settled into. "It's good to be with our own kind," I once heard my mother say to my sister. "This is how they keep an eye on us," my sister retorted.
The vest I'm thinking of wearing today lies on the bed behind me, black and form fitted; the dangling fringes give it a cool retro look. I see its shadow in the mirror as I sweep mascara onto my lashes. In it I will disappear into the crowd. I lighten my skin with pats of beige and brush a hint of pink onto my cheekbones just like my friends do, but I can't do anything to cover my deep brown eyes. They look menacing, even to me and again I'm reminded of my sister's words.
"They make sure we settle in certain areas, live with our own in cramped squalor so they can control us. We are appropriately registered," Zoë complained one night when we were huddled in the double bed we share, "under the guise of getting government benefits."
"No," I whispered. "That's not true."
"Not much different than what was done to us at home."
"People are different here," I said, but I'm not sure I believed what I was saying.
She was staring at the ceiling and I knew she was planning her next rally—deciding on the messages for the placards, wondering how to get our community to participate, strategizing ways to improve media exposure.
"There they banished us to the mountains and took our oil to sell to the west," she said. "They only want the refinery in Groznyy for themselves. They don't care about the people."
I turned over and pretended to sleep but the image of our mountains, the ones between our own Black and Caspian Seas, would not disappear.
The mountains hid the sun until mid morning but that didn't stop Zoë from nudging me out of bed before sunrise on the last March 22nd we would celebrate at home. This was the day of the equinox, an important spring holiday that ushered the start of a new farming season. An old tradition we observed even though it had fallen out of fashion. We'd scrubbed our copper kitchen pots to the kind of shine that would attract the sun. Then we took them out into our yard, situated them on the fence for maximum effect and waited for the sun to climb up and out of the mountains' shadow.
"Everyone must eat today," Zoë said and sprinkled bits of bread and seeds on the ground for the birds. She wore her traditional new party dress underneath her heavy wool coat. "If we wear our new clothes today," she reminded me when we got dressed, "we will wear new clothes all year long."
I felt lucky to have customs we could rely on.
As we stood with our neighbours, we talked and stamped the cold out of our feet. The early morning frost underfoot thawed. When the sun peeked over the top of the mountains and into our valley we clapped, embraced and shook our neighbours' hands. The smell of bread lingered on my da's sweater as he hugged me into his chest.
The sun's glare ricocheted off one of our pots and shone a spotlight on Zoë's creamy complexion. She was sixteen and beautiful. I could see her breath as she laughed and talked to her boyfriend, Aslan. At that moment, I wanted to be just like her.
"He'll build the biggest bonfire tonight and jump higher than any of the other boys," she told me. The boys pay tribute to the sun by building bonfires after dark and then play a jumping game to determine who can jump the highest. The aim is to jump over the fire. "One day I will marry him," Zoë said, and "you can come live with us."
"We can't live together forever," I said.
"Maybe not in the same room, but we can live in the same house so we can talk into the night like we do now. Nothing will change."
Now, Zoë marches in protest rallies down the Via Veneto and organizes rallies. She thinks she can change things. "This is the only way the world will know what is happening," she says. I prefer listening to the gossip at the bar where my friends and I grab our shot of espresso. I think about the matches I see every Sunday between Lazio and any one of a number of rivals. I try to ignore the pictures in the papers or on the Internet—families grieving over another decomposed body found in a field or left by the side of the road.
We've been in Italia for half of my life and my father refuses to give up the past. "I used to make a difference," he says. "One day we will go back, things will be better," my mother reassures him. But, I know our veinakh's history as well as anyone. Our three hundred year opposition dating back to the Ottomans will not suddenly soften or find compromise with the Russians just because my family wants it this way. When I realized this a few years ago, I doubled my efforts to forget the past. I was my high school's valedictorian and helped tutor younger students after school. Scholarships sent me to university where I joined the girls' football team against my parent's wishes. I've made captain. Not sure what kind of leader I am. I'm mostly terrified I'll screw up and be discovered.
Enough with the make-up. I must get ready or I'll never get out the door this morning. I search for and finally find my sneakers under the bed and stuff them into my bag. This simple act for some reason today tires me out and I lie down across my bed.
We left our country the year of our last equinox celebration. I was eleven. My mother told us we were going. I still remember her smile that day; it was on her mouth but not in her eyes. She bit her upper lip, slowly chewing it inch by inch. I remember thinking her lip would disappear if she kept it up.
"I don't want to, Nana."
She ignored me. My sister pinched me. "There is nothing left for us here."
"Just because Aslan is gone, doesn't mean we all have to go," I said.
Zoë slapped me. "Don't talk about him."
My mother helped us pick out what we would take, my father fashioned large garbage bags into packs. I used to think my father was the smartest person in the world. He talked about important things, his voice raised but in control, his eyes lit with conviction. His students, members of our community, everyone he met liked to hear him talk about resistance through education. But on that day his eyes were dull and unfocused. Would we have fled if my aunt Zamira and my uncle Shamil hadn't disappeared; if Aslan hadn't been found in that way? I heard my parents talk about it one night, catching only my mother's words, "Who will be next?"
I've never told them. Instead, I gnaw at the inside of my cheek whenever my aunt or uncle or Aslan show up in my dreams.
The night we left, I scratched my name into my dresser with a rusty nail. Maali. In my language it means blessed. I wonder if the dresser is still there or if another family has moved in and chopped it up for firewood. In my homeland I wanted to be known and remembered; here I hide behind make up, good marks and football prowess.
I lay still now, my arm over my eyes. All light gone. Then, I remember the snow angels my sister and I used to make in our old front yard and I move my legs back and forth. I feel myself smile. My foot touches something and I look up to see the vest near the bottom corner of the bed. My hands are wet.
"I like it here," I said the first time I was approached about my politics at school.
"You must have seen what those dogs do to us," the recruiter said as we sat in the cafeteria. I see images of Aslan jumping over the fire during our last spring celebration at home. Then I see the charred body the soldiers dumped a few months later at the gate of his parents' yard. His resistance and jumping skills didn't save him.
"Your sister lost her friend," the recruiter said as if reading my mind. "And your aunt Zamira made sacrifices too. She had plans for you."
"How can you ignore what is happening to girls like you," he said. "Zamira would never do such a thing."
"She has been rewarded for her efforts in heaven."
My aunt loved to cook, adopted every stray cat that found its way to her door, and hugged me into her large breasts whenever my mother yelled at me for not doing my homework. When I'm really quiet, I can still hear my aunt's heart against my ear.
This recruiter didn't know my aunt, but they find whatever information they need. They put as much zeal into their recruiting efforts as they do into fighting our enemies. Now I'm talking like they talk. I didn't mean our enemies, I meant their enemies. I haven't bought into the doctrine but I listen because I loved my aunt and knowing this other side of her—the rebel leader side this recruiter wants me to believe—makes me feel close to her.
"I want to belong here, not to the past," I said.
His voice softened. "Maali, with a name like yours, a name that means so much you should know that belonging isn't without hardship." He touched my hand. All the things I struggle with everyday—fitting in, being teased about my unusual name, hiding where I come from—didn't matter. I went to a few discussion groups. Being me became a little easier.
I couldn't see anything the night we left our homeland, except my sister's heels, the soiled white soles of her new trainers. I trembled through the many layers my mother made me wear that night. My feet were cold and soaked. I kept my head down, didn't look out at the darkness around me, afraid I might see something I wasn't supposed to see. The night my aunt and uncle disappeared was the same dark blue, the ground wet mush.
I don't want to think about those nights anymore. I get up and pick up the sweaters heaped on the floor in front of the bed. I hang up the two blouses I chose not to wear today, stare at a particular old dress at the back of my closet, then call my friend Sara and get her chirpy voicemail. I have to leave soon but sit down on the floor anyway, pick at a carpet thread until it begins to unravel.
My plan had been to stop in at my aunt Zamira's on my way home from school, see what she wanted to talk to me about and have some of her zigal. I could taste the pumpkin, the buttery pastry melting in my mouth. I skipped down the road avoiding the muddy puddles. Instead I jumped on every fallen leaf I could find, just to hear the crunch. Fall was my favorite time of the year. The last bunch of leaves concealed a small puddle and when I leaped with both feet, drops of mud splattered my socks, calves and dress. I knew my aunt would clean me up before I had to go home so I wasn't worried.
I came around the back of their house. I could hear my own heart beating in my ears and not much of anything else. My uncle was lying on the ground as if he had simply tired and fallen into a nap. Blood seeped and formed a black halo on the ground around his head. His leg was twisted outward at the knee. I wanted to run to him. I don't know what made me think to hide but I did. I could see them but they couldn't see me.
Five uniformed men surrounded my aunt as she lay on the ground. Another soldier was on top of her. She made no noise. There was no sound at all, no birds, no cicadas, not even the beating of my heart. The cool fall breeze had stilled. I heard shouts but they seemed muffled, as though they were coming from a television someone had left on behind me. I tried to turn away, run for my da. My feet sank into the mud and held me in place. I heard a loud bang and thought my head had exploded.
I stared at the back wall of my aunt and uncle's house and tried to make myself very small. I didn't want to see anymore. Someone called out a name but I couldn't make it out.
"I'm here," I heard someone say as if he were beside me. I looked up to see the soldier. We stared at each other, both of us in tears. He wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve, spewed his snot by pressing his index finger to his nostril. It landed just in front of my right foot. "All clear back here," he shouted and whispered to me, "today you are blessed." He stood so close I could smell sweet pumpkin on his breath. He touched my face, then left without another word.
When I heard them drive away, I slipped to the front of the house and stood still for a long time. My own urine stung the inside of my legs but I felt cold, couldn't stop shivering. I washed the mud out of my dress with my uncle's hose. My shoes were soaked. I will always hate that squishy noise, the rubbing, the clammy cold.
On the night we left, the sky was brightened by flashlights. Small boats docked, groups of people stood around with similar garbage bags in hand. It struck me then, how it's possible to shrink everything we once had into a few small bags. I don't think the people in my new country could reduce their lives so quickly. Necessity has made us good at this basic skill. It has made us fighters, and fuggitivi.
A large bearded man with a small clipboard approached us and took my father aside. I saw my father take off his belt and hand it over. The belt was used to hide money. I've known this and have understood it since I was a child. Just like I've always been able to identify and understand the kind of greed I saw in the way that man snatched the belt, counted each note and hid it under his jacket.
We were marshaled to a small boat. Cold water splashed at my feet and soaked the bottom of my good dress, the dress my grandmother had made for me, the one I was wearing the night my uncle and aunt disappeared. I keep it in the corner of my closet now even though I outgrew it long ago. I've never been able to remove the muddy stains.
The small boat carried us to a larger one. The flashlights reflected off the water and lit our way. We climbed so many rungs my hands ached. Later, crowded in the bottom of the ship, we heard the thumping of engines, each other's sighs, and parchment wrapping torn from the sandwiches of those fortunate enough to have brought food. A baby began to cry but I was already too old to cry.
After six days of living with and smelling other people's waste and vomit, I woke and realized the boat had stopped swaying. The knock of the engines was gone. The noise had been such a constant I'd stopped noticing it until it was no longer there.
On solid ground again we were greeted by shouts, line-ups and carabinieri asking us for papers. The police had guns at their sides and skinny, ostrich necks. Their strange official hats cast shadows over their faces and couldn't cover the sneer on their lips. It was hard to see their eyes then, just as it is difficult to see their eyes now as they patrol the tourist areas around the Piazza di Spagna, the Rotunda and the Colosseo. They don't stare at me anymore, and yet my feet turn to ice as I walk past them no matter how hot the day might be.
I look at the vest. Why would I want to give up invisibility and the promise of a future to fight an old war? I don't know that I do. All I know is that I have no answers and I cannot talk to my parents or sister. Even with all that has happened to us, they believe only peaceful protest brings about social change. "At least in this country we are fortunate enough to speak our minds," I heard my sister say to her friends as they prepared for another rally. "It is a luxury we never knew at home."
"What difference have your protests made to those we lost," I said.
"Forgive her," Zoë said to her friends, "she doesn't know what she's saying."
As I pace, words run through my head now—iza as tsa dina: I didn't do it, and q'in teera waalalaH suuna: I apologize. I've become more aware over the past several months of how my old country's language nokhchiin muott comes into my dreams. Yes, I hear it spoken at home and I respond in my new language. This is my home now. So why do I think about what I can do for my old country with this vest, designed with sleek, even fashionable lines that conceal nails and glass meant to tear and maim.
"Are you ready, Maali?" My mother's voice comes from the bottom of the stairs.
"Soon," I whisper and wonder if she'll come and get me like she used to when I was a child and I didn't want to go to school.
I stand in front of the mirror. The make-up I put on earlier seems to disappear and my dark features reveal themselves. I turn my head slightly and the shadow is gone, the fresh-faced university girl is back. I change the reflection back and forth with a slight tilt of my head and try to figure out which one is me, the one who provokes fear and second looks, or the one who blends in and doesn't warrant a passing glance.
"You are blessed. You will enter heaven," the recruiter told me. I know there will be no celebration.
"Like your aunt and all resisters before you, you must be of a focused mind," he said. "If we stop this meeting between Exxon and the Russians there will be no agreement. We will succeed in saving our oil reserves."
To get to the meeting, I must take the bus I take everyday to school. I must not look into the eyes of the old lady who sits across from me or stare at her wrinkled hands as she grips the purse on her lap, her cracked lips open. How can I not look? I must not listen to the little boy's plea to his mother when he asks, again, why she must go to work and leave him alone in a daycare. How can I not listen? I must not think about how often the driver utters the words good morning as passengers climb aboard and how often I've questioned his sincerity. Why would he repeat it day in and day out if he didn't mean it? I must not think about the boy who sits beside me in class or how his green eyes spark each time he's asked me out for a coffee or how he's assured me with his side-way smile that he will keep doing so until I agree to go out with him. He is a different boy than the one who gave me this vest. That boy said, "For us there is no peaceful protest."
"Why do they expect something from us they will not do themselves?" I asked the recruiter.
"They lead. We do," he said. "There is no other way for people like you and me." Is there no other way? Not sure.
I must not think about the girls who sit in the same class and how they allow me to lead them onto the football battlefield each afternoon. Today, no one will question me as they did in my old country, quzaH tsHaa guuranash yui, are there any booby traps near there? Today, I have put on extra woolen socks to keep my feet warm and to stop this cold shiver. Why doesn't it help?
"To make this journey, think of your reward," he said. "Zamira knew what she had to do and did it willingly until she was caught."
I have listened; shown him the face he thinks would carry out such a thing. To everyone else, I will tilt my head just so and show them the freshly painted face of the university student in their midst.
© All Rights Reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all Writings content copyright Stella L Harvey