Web Site: The Rose and Thorn
Rape victim Almasa finds comfort among boisterous and funny old Bosnian women.
For three years I have been embalmed, but there is faint thunder under my ribs. I wear the same outfit in which I left Bosnia: a blue oversize cardigan somebody wrapped around me that night I was shoved into a bus to Sweden, a pink shirt and a white bra with laced edges underneath, a short corduroy skirt and mismatching colourful stockings like the ones of Pippi Longstocking.
I bask in the midnight sun, which is colder than usual. The polar circle is gliding down to this village. I do not want to go to my one-roomer. I have nothing there but two half-withered plants called Adam and Eve, sheltered behind metal shutters, cut off from all the temptations of nightlight. When they are not placed next to each other, Adam and Eve produce drops of water on their thick leaves—tears of separation. But these two specimens are crying all the time, as if they have been unhappily married since naked times.
It would be nice to have a house like the one back home in Bosnia, but what good would it be if it is not crowded by my parents and seven brothers. There would be no steam from the kitchen and thick, pungent smells of exhausted bodies. I used to tell them apart by the sweat on their cheeks, by the way it mixed with the soap smell from their uncombed hair and their hand-me-down clothes. In the mornings, I would lie in my bed, pretending to be asleep till each and every one of them gave me a kiss. They would whisper, “Snow White, rise and shine.” Waking up, the splendid ceremony.
Not any more. I wake up alone and the first face I see is my own. The mirror tells me my hair is no longer jet black; there are lime white, unwieldy streaks on my head, but my skin is still white.
It is 1994, and all quiet on the home front: father gone, mother not near. Only, in my tale, there are no stepmothers or stepfathers, or even stepbrothers. They are dead. So I have heard. The house was razed. So they keep telling me. Nothing changed a bit. So I go on dreaming every night.
I pray pray pray to dream of my family awash in blood, butchered and heaped on one another. But I can only see them gathered under a bright, sunless sky, and the crown of an immense chestnut tree in the middle of a dark-green pasture, beckoning me to come and sit down as if they are taking a picture for a family album, for a fixed future, instead of memory. They haunt me even in daytime these days. Even now when I crouch in a laundry room waiting for my clothes to dry they push my reflection from the washing machine glass and sit tight together watching me, smiling laughing guffawing.
“Disgusting,” I yell at them. “How dare you? How can you just turn up before me like that, clean and without a scratch—happy? Why are you smiling? You smile as if that means something. It means nothing!”
The two Swedish women behind me stop whispering about the scars on my buttocks, and inch out. I can hear their peevish voices and want to tear out their bloody tongues but a feeling strikes me and I can see myself turning into one of them. I take the clothes out of the rotating drum without stopping it and dress. The wet cloth glues to my tight skin. I run to the one place where I can find peace, to Aziza and the incessant chatter of a group of women talking into each other’s mouths. There, I am not the subject, the protagonist.
Aziza is a frightfully lean, seventy-year-old creature from Srebrenica. Her clothes have red rose embroidery over bright, pastel colours. A veil demarcates her bony face with a pointy nose red like a soft cherry. Her puppy eyes are always moist, shyly rolling around, as if afraid to be caught looking too long at one and the same thing. She gives the impression of a jolly drunkard taking it easy for a moment. Not a nice thing to say about such a pious woman but I love her too much to make her a stereotype.
Aziza is living alone. Her small flat is like her place of birth, Srebrenica, whose female inhabitants are scattered all over the world like shiny dots you can see in those satellite photographs of the Earth at night. Srebrenica is no longer a town, a real place, it comes to reality as a pattern that appears only when all these shiny dots are joined by a line, the pattern of the worst crime in Europe since WWII. The all-too-familiar pattern, every war’s cliché that constantly survives the muddy boots of time.
Aziza had five sons and not one daughter. Her boys happened to have sons too. A daughterless family. Nowadays, sonless as well.
She often tells me she has been thankful for the sons, but her fingertips never fail to tremble when she adds the old Bosnian myth that every corner of a house sings when a daughter is born in it. I had heard that a couple of times as a child. It sounded so mysterious, and gentle too. I had to come to another country and meet Aziza to find out why: “Because the house knows that its support is not pillars and ground, but a woman’s back.”
Now that she is so old and has no one to take care of, Aziza devotes her time to prayers. In spite of all her misery, she is the liveliest person I have ever met. She can cheer you up just by looking at you with those mellow eyes. She recites the Quran mellifluously and knows things religious. People say she is an evlija, God’s precious friend. Everybody loves her and there is not a single person who does not respect her, even those who normally do not like old, pious people.
Women and men, well mostly women, come and ask for her help. Lots of them do. If they have difficulty making decisions, marriage problems, love grievances, lost valuables, all worldly matters.
But Aziza is not a fortune-teller. She cannot peer into the future. All she does is pray a special prayer called istihara. The answer comes in a dream. But she never bothers interpreting it. She just says, “Those are not my dreams. They belong to those who have asked for keys, clues and signs.”
Aziza has prayed a great many istiharas for herself as well, to get news about her sons. For too many years they have been missing. Dead? Alive? Every single time she wakes up after a dreamless night as if she has been praying in vain. There is no solace of knowing.
The evening I come to Aziza, there are at least a dozen women there, talking, crocheting, singing, laughing, and then when old memories come over them, crying, laughing again, cursing.
A woman, the only one dressed up and wearing make-up, scolds her friends like small children, “Back in Bosnia, we worked hard, never got rich for that, but women didn’t go around with their hair messy. Here nobody cares. For the love of God, I hear women back there look better now than you do here, in peace and prosperity.”
I sigh, enjoying the invisibility of being there. I feel like an oar in warm lake water, stroked by breezing smells of an early summer. The old Aziza has no satellite dish, so evenings at her home are absolutely news-less; she knows that the kind of news she needs will never be broadcast.
Bosnian women love these short disconnections from the reality of Bosnia and other troubled worlds of which they are constantly reminded by every single TV or radio broadcast. Bosnian men are obsessed with news; they even listen to news in languages they do not understand. A morning piece of news is mulled over and over till the last BBC broadcast at midnight, after which they finally go to sleep.
I search Aziza’s eyes. They are almost closed. She looks cuddled in her sand-coloured veil that is falling over her eyebrows. I feel my own lids sinking down with the buzz of female voices.
“Ha, I can tell you about rubber hats,” a high-pitched, glassy voice cuts short all the ongoing chatter and my nascent slumber, summoning all eager eyes to old Latifa. She is tall and forceful, so there is always empty space around her for her hefty gesticulations. She straightens her back, flails with her big hand and begins, “After twenty years of marriage and seven children, my husband comes to me one night with this rubber hat on his little prick and wants to try some birth control. ‘Birth control, my arse,’ I say. ‘After I’ve borne you five girls and two boys, oh no, that thing is not going into me. Only over my dead body.’ I hit his thing with the remote control so he never again thinks of putting me on like that.”
Latifa had a serious expression on her face, but the rest of us cannot hold back laughter.
A question pops out from somewhere, “Didn’t you bear more children after that?”
“Yes, but just one more daughter.”
Everybody guffaws. I hold my hand over my mouth and nose.
“You just laugh, but when I was your age and newly married, I didn’t dare ask my mother-in-law anything. My mother-in-law told me once that what was in my heart would come out of my belly. I bore child after child till I started to mix their names, then I stopped.”
One woman laughs so much she falls on the floor.
“What are you doing?” Latifa leans over her and slaps her across the mouth.
Only Aziza looks unmoved, except for an occasional content smile. Her hands are stretched down over her knees like on an ancient guardian sculpture, the cracks and crevices in her features holding traces of the winds and rains of ancient times.
I glance at her. I feel safe sitting close by her side. To watch Aziza’s beautifully wrinkled eyes and dimples is like drinking from a cold well whose water freezes your innards so much it feels hot and burning. I ask her how many evanescent hours she spent in crocheting that flower pattern on her scarf.
“Oh, I don’t know. It was long time ago. It isn’t pretty I know, just the everyday one I had on my head when I left Srebrenica. You should’ve seen a shawl I had that I bought on pilgrimage. Sewn with a golden thread. But I don’t care. I don’t miss anything: house, orchard, or garments, not even Bosnia. God’s earth is large, and there is room enough for everybody. These good Swedish people just gave us everything, and what have we done for them. If my family was here with me…” She stops there, turns around and smiles at some women having an argument. It strikes me Aziza must be the best-integrated refugee I have ever met.
This evening nobody has anything they need help with, so after hours of talking with everybody and chanting along with others in her smooth stem, Aziza slumbers. I sink deeper into my chair.
Then, Aziza winces. Only I see that moment, as fast as the closing eye of a camera. It is not even a moment. It is just our faces close to each other, like two leaves, moist and smelling bitter in a hot evening draft, like plumes caressing each other without touching. Her lids open. She smiles and a few silent words ripple the air, “Elhamdulillah.” Then she dozes off again.
Before I can even think about what just happened, there comes a knock at the door. It is the husband of one of the women. He looks bewildered but manages to say “Merhaba,” and inquire of everybody’s health. His wife jumps up from a chat with her neighbour. “The minute we gather for some gossip you men have to ruin everything! What are you doing here? I can’t always take care of everything, you know.”
He gathers himself and looks right through her, saying, “I don’t care about that. I came to see Aziza. It’s urgent.”
“Have you lost your mind? And want her to find it?”
“Please.” He looks at her indignantly. “I have news to tell her.”
“What could a man come with, if not news?” some of the women whisper too loudly to one another.
Everybody turns to Aziza. Gently, a girl nudges her shoulder. Nothing. Then, like after a failed joke, silence spreads in the room, silence that speaks more than a thousand pictures. My irises blur. Everybody’s do.
Then the man starts crying as well, his tears fall down without even touching his face.
“Please stop that,” his wife says.
But there is no stopping the tears. After a few minutes of sobbing silence, he ventures to tell, “Just an hour ago, a man was visiting the Bosnian club, the leader of an excavating team financed with international funds to search for mass graves and identify the bodies of the victims. He was in Sweden to tell about his work in eastern Bosnia and to give information he had about the missing people. On his list of the identified bodies, he had the names of every single man from Aziza’s family.” The man sobs. “I knew this was not good news, but I know Aziza would’ve given everything for any news, good as well as bad. I failed her, and she died with half her heart.”
I clamp my lids shut and they empty like small bowls. I hide my face behind my pale hands, so nobody can see my smile. I smile with Aziza. I know why I should. Somehow, the news has been delivered.
I walk out and keep my eyes wide open as I bask in the midnight sun all the way back to my flat. I do not even find ghosts there. Just my happy couple Adam and Eve. I touch them; their leaves are dry like powder and so is the soil. I put the pots into the bathtub, jump in myself and we all take a long cold shower. The rhythm of the falling water makes me drowsy.
My family turns up out of the fumes. They are swimming in the little river just a mile from our house. My father plummets from the willow that grows out of the cliff above, and dives all the way to the waterfall where I am hiding. He cries, “Look what I found here!” He pulls me out and throws me amidst the rest.
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