Edited b y E l e n a S h u b i n a
W i t h a n i n t r o d u c t i o n b y A n t o n i n a W . B o u i s
ALISA GANIEVA (born 1985, Dagestan) writes under the masculine pen name Gulla Khirachev. She is an outstanding literary critic, fiction writer and author of avant-garde children’s stories. In 2009 Ganieva won the Debut prize for her first work of fiction for adults, Salam, Dalgat!, an insightful and vivid depiction of contemporary Dagestan. In 2011 it was published in French in the collection of stories Ecrire La Vie.
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Translated by Marian Schwartz
The car cut out, stuck in the fog.
“This way, come on,” voices said. The rustling of packages, the slamming of minivan doors. Someone was approaching, squishing
through the mud.
“It’s damp here, put on your jacket,” the women told Naida, wrapping their round heads in long, fringed scarves and clumsily climbing out with their plastic bags.
It smelled of earth, thyme, damp, and, in the distance, roast meat. Invis-ible voices and hands met in the fog.
“The cloud’s settled, it’ll clear up soon,” someone’s raspy bass said. After muffled greetings, after sighs and exchanged whispers, they began
climbing up the rocky lane. They were led by Shapi, son of the deceased, Hasan. Behind him was Naida’s father and Shapi’s friends who had come— a Lak, a Tsuntin, and some Russian. Naida’s relatives followed behind, touch-ing her with their hands.
Singing could be heard from far off, mixing with voices and the distant rush of the river. After passing through a barely visible inner courtyard, where Shapi and his friends melted away, Naida and her fellow travelers en-tered a room crammed with some women sitting on three-legged stools and pillows, some simply on rugs, reciting the zikr. The murmured condolences began, the embraces and sobs. Naida held her package of gift socks and tow-els out to the hostess, who pressed them to her chest. The new arrivals were immediately given white embroidered pillows, and they seated themselves at the threshold, hugging their knees and bowing their heads.
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Bahu, wearing a brown velvet dress and seated in the middle, was slowly, effusively reciting the aiat that preceded the thousandfold sacred formula. Then she clicked her beads and began loudly, Lailaha ilalah, and the rest joined her in chorus. The figure of a curious little girl appeared and disap-peared in the doorway. Then a metal tub rattled on the other side of the wall when it dropped and then, once again, all you could hear was the accelerating refrain, “There is no God but Allah.”
Flushed, Bahu rocked her head from side to side, stubbornly stressing the first la, as if straining to push a boulder off a cliff. One woman shouted loudly, eyes shut; another barely moved her lips, her hand opened flat toward her face as if she were about to wash it. Naida caught herself thinking that she was unconsciously bowing slightly at each repetition.
Once finished with the zikr, they set to their conversations. Bahu leaned
back and relaxed.
“At the Belal’s bukhon1 Sanit fell down after the zikr,” a skinny blond
woman wearing a dark blue skirt said. “She passed out directly after the shahada.”2
“Ba!” a young woman in a chiffon kerchief said in amazement.
They brought in a deep tub where large meat kurze, which looked like khinkal, were. steaming..
“Khhasanil rokhhal’e shchvaı˘gi,”3 Bahu said in her bass, picking up a khink4 and sucking the broth from it.
“Amen, amen,” the others began, reaching for the food.
“How is your Amir, Bilma?” a stout woman said under her breath to the woman sitting next to her, who had come with Naida.
“Fine, pu-pu mashalla.”
“I heard he had problems,” the stout woman went on, looking uneasily into Bilma’s eyes.
“Who does?” the questions came.
“Put that down, Ta bat. What do you care?” a young woman in a kerchief shooed her off.
“I’m just worried. Vah! When Hasan, munag’al churaiav,5 was still alive,
1 Funeral (Avar)
2The ritual utterance: “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammad is His prophet” (Arabic)
3 May this reach Hasan’s spirit (Avar)
4 The traditional Avar dumpling (pl. khinkal).
5 May he rest in peace.
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he even asked about Amir. They say Amir had dealings with Abus’s mur-dered son.”
“People have given him enough trouble over those bribes. I can’t under-stand why people won’t leave him alone,” Bilma blazed up. “He spoke to the man once and right away they started dragging him into everything.”
“Shchib kkarab?”6 the grannies worried, stretching their legs out in their dark baggy pants.
“Abus’s wife says that Bilma’s son had nothing to do with it, too. She thinks they abducted him, planted the weapon on him, and then killed him,” Ta bat reported.
“Astaupirulla,”7 rang out on all sides.
“That may be true. How do we know?” Bilma interjected. “But actually, I don’t know, for me the main thing is for them to leave Amir alone. For now, pu-pu, mashalla, they are.”
Everyone started talking at the same time.
“What are they saying?” a Lak woman in the room asked Bilma.
“Get him married, they say. . . .” Bilma smiled. “Marrying them off now, that’s harder to do these days.”
“Do you have a lot of boys like that?” Taı˘bat asked the Lak woman. “Wagonloads!” She clapped her hands. “Everyone knows them.” “They know them here, too,” Taı˘bat commented with satisfaction, raising
her full arm with the dripping khink high. “In some villages they even have their own mosques.”
“Ullubiı˘, you saw, he built a mosque here!” Bahu informed them gladly, polishing off the contents of the tub. “They say he gave a million out of his own pocket!”
“I was at their new house in Makhachkala,” Taı˘bat immediately caught fire. “Three stories, in short, and they themselves turned the attic into a mosque out of the goodness of their heart!”
New mourners came into the room, embracing the deceased’s daughters and nieces in turn.
“Vaia-ia-ia, we almost didn’t get here,” a white-faced woman wearing an ample dark dress with spangles sighed. “In Khadzhalmakhi the traffic was stopped through the whole village, and then, when the asphalt ran out, the engine died. These cars of young men stopped right away and fixed it.”
6 What happened? (Avar)
7 Lord, forgive us (Arabic)
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“The roads are good now, Manarsha. You don’t remember how they used to hammer rails into the cliffs, lay wooden boards on top, and that’s how we rode,” the hostess said, folding her flour-spotted hands on her belly.
“You couldn’t turn around!” Manarsha confirmed heatedly, addressing the Lak woman.
Then she made her way over to the grandmothers and they started talking in Avar about the clan, how hot it was in Makhachkala, how bad the mosquitoes were there, and how in his youth the deceased Hasan had danced as a masker on holidays and at weddings, jumping around in the mask of a rabbit-wolf or a goat, sprinkling oat flour, and pouring wine, and how the deceased Hapsat hadn’t wanted to marry him and had run away from the village three times and been caught on her way to the district center.
Naida went out into the next room, where they had spread oilcloths, which had been taken in out of the rain and on which split apricots were drying. On the floor, in deep bowls, Turkish sweets waited to be drenched in honey.
Further on, in the kitchen, it was noisy. They were grating, shredding, boiling, cleaning, rolling. There were lots of young women, both from the vil-lage and visiting city girls.
“Ah, Naida, how you’ve grown! Did you come with your papa? Is your mama better?” They buzzed around her. They pulled up a chair for her, a knife, and a bucket of potatoes.
After the greetings, their discussion of the recent flood resumed. The river had washed away the school’s foundation and nearly carried off the steel bridge.
“And then there’s Taı˘bat,” Naida’s neighbor whispered quietly into her ear. “She went to drag rocks from the river. She folded her skirt back to here”—her neighbor ran the edge of her palm a little above her knees—“put the rocks in here and carried them. What a disgrace it was, vaia-ia-ia!”
White-faced Manarsha entered the kitchen noisily, smiling broadly. Exchanging loud kisses with nearly everyone, she stopped next to a slen-
der, narrow-shouldered young woman who was laying sliced circles of tomato on a platter.
“Does this girl have a wedding here in the fall?”
The girl grew flustered, looking around at her mother.
Her mother, who had a large mole on her rosy cheek, clapped her hands.
“All the halls are packed three months in advance, and we don’t know
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what to do. She only wants the Marrakesh, and I tell her, why the Marrakesh? Let’s do it at the Evropa.”
“It’s not cool there, mama-a-a,” the young woman droned softly. “Habib says the same thing, she says people will say we were being
“Couldn’t you do it at the Eltav?” Manarsha asked, taking a tomato the girl had cut and directing it into her mouth.
“Her girlfriend had hers at the Eltav and she doesn’t want the same place.” “You took the suitcase already, right?” the hostess asked, pouring cow
colostrum into a dough envelope and pinching the ends.
“You have no idea!” Her mother gestured emphatically. “They’ve given so much of everything, she has enough for three years. A gold chain this thick, like peas! They gave her a fur coat, a phone, clothing. . . .”
Manarsha sat down next to Naida’s neighbor and began whispering softly. “Sure, Bilma came, but Taı˘bat says that her Amir wasn’t taken in for questioning for no good reason. Why didn’t he come here for the mavlid, she says? Because, she says, they don’t recognize the zikr. And I tell her, Bilma’s son is a good boy. We all know him. The fact that he had doings with
Abus’s son doesn’t mean anything.”
“Don’t say anything, Manarsha,” her interlocutor whispered. “Everyone’s nerves are frazzled from them trying to wear the boy down. ‘Do you know this? Do you know that? Where are these books from? Where are those books from?’ He’s only twenty. Why torment him? His brothers gave him a good beating. To make sure he doesn’t get mixed up with anyone else.”
“Bahu’s asking for tea!” someone shouted out.
A short, sturdy unmarried girl poured thick black tea into glasses and set them on a tray, scattering a handful of caramels around the edge.
“Chamastak, make Bahu’s tea stronger!” the hostess shouted to her. An old woman appeared in the doorway, wrinkled and tanned, wearing
a black chukhta, a sack dress, and baggy trousers. The women pointed out her newly arrived granddaughter to her. The granddaughter, bareheaded and a little bewildered, was sitting in a corner fingering the sequins on her black top and keeping half an eye on her nimble-fingered contemporaries.
“Vaı˘, diliaı˘, g’anie iache, e˙bel’ul,”8 the old woman said slowly, and coming closer she put her arms around her, embarrassing her and bombarding her with questions.
8 Come here, my darling, mama’s darling (Avar)
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“Your grandmother is asking you about your studies, Bika,” they began interpreting for the girl.
“She doesn’t know our language,” someone’s voice said in justification. “Mine don’t either. I speak to them in mine, and they speak Russian,”
one of the women gathered said.
Right then Chamastak returned with one glass on the tray.
“Bahu needs. it stronger.”
“Dil’a abchhi, I told you so.” The hostess frowned as she fished the boiled colostrum khinkal out of the boiling water with a skimmer.
“To be honest”—Manarsha addressed those around her in an indignant half-whisper—“Bahu acts like she’s the wife of the khan. She’s always chief at every mavlid, and she always recites for every zikr. She likes to lead the lilia and she eats for three! She nearly fell into this bowl of khinkal just now, I’m telling you!” The women laughed quietly.
“You really lay it on, Manarsha!”
“What, you mean it’s not the truth?” she objected, breaking out in a smile that covered her entire white face.
“Where’s Uruzma?” the hostess asked suddenly. The women started to fuss. The old woman began talking in Avar about how Uruzma had promised to come and sing the lilia today for sure. Someone suggested sending the girls after Uruzma, so they started for the door, whispering excitedly. They got Naida up and sent her off with the others.
“Only quickly!” someone shouted. “The zikr is about to begin again soon!”
The fog had nearly dispersed. The mountain peaks were not quite cleared yet; dark green spots peeked out of the white sky. The men who had come to offer their condolences were sitting in the yard on long wooden benches along the windows. “Let’s walk fast or people will look at us,” the girls said, turning to one another.
“Do you know me? My name is Elmira,” a swarthy girl said, giving Naida the once-over. “I saw you at Arsenchik’s wedding. You were wearing a red dress.”
“Probably.” Naida smiled.
When they walked through the gates, Elmira turned teasingly to the girl who’d been cutting the tomatoes. “Saida, your fiancé was sitting there.”
“Envious?” Saida smiled.
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“Have you chosen your dress?” Bika asked her, tossing her long hair back.
“The dress is absolutely fabulous!” Saida got excited. “It’s a coffee color, and we got it for 150,000, with a Japanese train. Here, see, here’s the corset, and here, hand embroidery, pearls, and Swarovskis, what have you. When my girlfriend was getting married, she went to Moscow for a dress, but they didn’t have any as elegant as in our salons. She bought a crummy one, without a train. Her fiancé paid for it.”
“Yes, some fiancés even buy a car,” Bika said dreamily. “And do you know where to have your hair done?”
“At Karina’s, I think, with Zumrud.”
“Don’t do it with Zumrud.” Bika shook her head. “She does the exact
same hairstyle for everyone and doesn’t look at your face. And you know
what I advise you? Lip tattoos.”
“Oh no! It hurts, Bika!”
“They give you a shot and it doesn’t hurt, don’t believe it!” Bika began, but short Chamastak hissed, “Don’t shout, you’ve come for a bukhon! Where is your kerchief?” she said to Bika.
“But I’m not here for the mavlid, so I can go without a kerchief,” Bika grumbled.
“Do you hear what she’s saying?” Chamastak said in amazement, clap-ping her hands.
Naida interrupted her, “Who is this Uruzma?”
“Hasan’s first wife, munag’al churaiav. She only lived with him for a year, back before the war.”
“But why so little?”
“He didn’t like her. His parents made him marry her. He lived with her just a little and then sent her away.”
Naida was slipping on the stones, which were wet after the rain, and holding onto the walls, which had spirals and Arabic inscriptions cut into them here and there. In the old part of the village, all the houses merged into a single stone fortress with narrow lanes and arched passageways. Through the collapsed doorways of uninhabitable housing, one could see the long midline columns black with centuries of soot. Uruzma lived in one of the three-story towers with small, unglassed windows and a flat roof, which she had rolled with a concrete roller.
“This way,” Chamastak called out, and they walked up the steps to a dark, spacious room with large wooden chests in the corners. Under the ceiling
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hung dried bundles of St. John’s wort, wormwood, and nettles, and on the walls, carved wooden boxes with kitchen utensils.
Uruzma wasn’t there.
“Maybe she went to the field?” Elmira sighed heavily.
“She couldn’t have gone today, today is the third day,” Chamastak responded. They went out. Flat roofs, here and there collapsed, retreated down the slope. A little further down were new white buildings with gardens. Below, the noisy river, and opposite, surfacing out of the fog, the tall, forested mountain. An old woman wearing a black chukhta was observing them from the
“G’urchhami!”9 Chamastak greeted her in Avar. The old woman re-sponded eagerly and after inquiring in detail about all the girls, who they were and whose, and where they’d come from, told them that Uruzma had not been home since early morning.
The girls stood there, uncertain of what to do, and then headed back. Bika walked ahead resentfully, fingering her sequins, when right in front of her, a donkey fell to the ground and started spinning on its back in the dust, bellowing.. Bika shrieked.
“Ghabdal,”10 Chamastak exclaimed.
“What?” Bika asked, not understanding the oath, and still too frightened to retreat.
Elmira started laughing. “Let’s go look for Uruzma some more. Could she be at the cemetery?”
“She’s not supposed to be at the cemetery today,” Chamastak replied. “She isn’t there.”
“So she must be in the field,” Elmira insisted stubbornly. “Look, there they go.”
And she pointed to the mountain.
Shielding her eyes with her hand, Naida saw two small, bent, female fig-ures descending the mountain paths with huge stacks of hay on their backs.
“That’s Abasilia and Karimilia,” Chamastak said, squinting. “It’s not Uruzma.” “Oh, let’s go back then,” Bika whined, shaking the dust the donkey had
raised from her skirt.
“Yes,” Elmira agreed. “Only we should go by way of the store. What if she’s there?”
“Does she have children?” Naida asked suddenly.
9 The morning greeting (Avar) 10 Fool (Avar)
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“No. No brothers or sisters either. Her father was killed when she was just born.”
“Who killed him?”
“His cousin. Uruzma’s father was a learned man. He knew the Quran. He even made himself a hole in the wall of his house and would poke his head out there and read the Quran like that, where the light was better. And he would plaster his ears with clay so noise wouldn’t distract him. But then, well,
when his uncle died, they suggested he read the ya sın and other prayers at the grave. He was supposed to spend a few nights at the cemetery. His cousin knew the Quran a little, too, and he wanted to recite, too, but the alims wouldn’t let him because he was unclean. He was only fifteen—because of that. And, well, one time the two of them even fought on the grave. But then a voice came from the grave and stopped them. They truly envied Uruzma’s father because he was learned. These enemies started setting this fellow, his cousin, against the learned man. And the boy eventually killed him. He stuck a knife into him and ran all across the village to hide from his enemies.”
“And was he convicted?”
“Yes, he was, only Uruzma’s family wouldn’t take revenge. They had a masliat.11 He came back to the village three years later, put on a white sheet, and went to Uruzma’s mother and her brothers. He lay down on the ground, put the knife in her hands, and said, like, I’m your k’urban,12 kill me. But she forgave him.”
When the girls reached the little store, a dried-up, gold-toothed woman was standing with a flat bread wrapped around a piece of halvah—a gift for the mourners.
“Iakhara?”13 Chamastak said to her, and they stepped aside and began speaking in Avar.
“Vaı˘ Alla-a-a, I’m so tired of being here,” Bika said, getting out her mo-bile and spinning it in her hands.
“Show us photos,” Saida ran up to her. “Aminka is such a beauty here! Oh mama!”
“Subkhan Allakh,14 beautiful, indeed,” Bika agreed.
“Wow! Is that Barishka, from the Teacher Training College?” Elmira asked, also looking at the stylish telephone’s little screen.
“Yes, we took the pics when frosting was fashionable.”
11 Reconciliation (Arabic)
12 Victim (Arabic)
13 Are you ready? (Avar greeting)
14 Allah is great (Arabic)
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“You mean you see her?” Elmira protested, pulling back her swarthy hands. “Do you know they filmed her for the phone? I didn’t see the whole thing myself, but all the boys have the clip. Rusik even showed me the bit where she’s sitting naked in the park and hiding her face.”
“Shut up!” Bika was shocked. “Is that why she’s moving to Kiziliurt?” “They won’t leave her be there, either.” Naida grinned.
Right then Chamastak walked up and looked at the gold-toothed woman walking away. “That’s our distant relative who married into the village up top. It’s hard there, she says. No water, no electricity. She has six children and another four died without doctors. She’s gone home. She’ll be walking until nightfall.”
“Why doesn’t someone give her a ride?” Bika asked.
“There’s no road there.” Chamastak brushed her aside and stepped into the store. Elmira followed.
After they went in, a silvery Lada Priora with tinted windows and a very low chassis turned the corner and stopped in front of the store. Two young men who Naida never got a good look at swiftly jumped out of the Lada. They grabbed a kicking Saida by the shoulders and dragged her toward the car. Bika started yelling and grabbed Saida by the arm. The girls ran out of the store, followed by the shopkeeper. The abductors pushed Bika away, shoved Saida into the car, and the next moment had turned the corner at the village club and were lost from view. It all happened so suddenly and fast that no one had a chance to do anything.
Bika, disheveled, jumped on Naida. “Why didn’t you help me?”
The shopkeeper shouted something in the direction of the store, where a little girl in old stockings poked her head out and rushed to Hasan’s house.
“Vababaı˘!” Chamastak wailed, and she ran after her.
“Hurry up!” someone shouted. “The zikr is just about to begin again!”
The fog had nearly dispersed. The mountain peaks were not quite cleared yet; dark green spots peeked out of the white sky. The men who had come to offer their condolences were sitting in the yard on long wooden benches along the windows. The girls passed by, modestly lowering their eyes, and dis-appeared through the gates.
After the reciting of the dua and quiet conversation, they went out on the porch for dinner. They ate, mentally sending the food to the soul of the deceased.
“How was the drive here, Muhu?” Shapi asked the strong man with the gray head of hair poking out from under his cap.
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“I stopped by at my grandfather’s grave in Gimry. He died in Gimry when he was making the hajj, and now there’s a ziiarat there.”
“What are people saying?”
“I went to the public square. People are very unhappy. . . . Uı˘! Under the CTO,15 they could run into anyone’s house, beat him up, and take what they wanted. They relieved themselves right under the imams’ portraits! Listen, they made a mockery of the entire jamaat! Total khapur-chapur!16 He slapped a fly in his lap. “They chopped down the apricot trees, they chopped down the pears! They even shot the goats. They wouldn’t let you out of your house, and one old man’s whole flock was lost, scattered in the mountains. They burned the forest! People say they barely put it out. They arrested the young men.”
“They didn’t arrest them for nothing,” said a puffy-cheeked man of about forty wearing a dark blue shirt too tight around the collar.
“Le, Alexei!” Muhu threw his hands up. “If a guest comes to your house, what, are you going to turn him out on the street? When an insurgent knocks at your house, you’re still going to give him nettle khinkal! Can you really be arrested for giving a bandit khinkal?”
Shapi tut-tutted. “Don’t tell fairy tales, Muhu. Nothing just happens like that.”
“And I say it does!” Muhu objected heatedly. “You don’t know a thing about it. We know them by name, he says. If you know them by name, go to that address, catch him, and try him under the law. Why humiliate innocent people? Once a whole army came to a neighboring village. Helicopters, tanks, g’ara-g’uraı˘!17 They did a search but never found anything. They just confiscated a gas pistol from one fellow. The soldiers planted DVDs and car-tridge cases on my friend’s son.”
“How do you know they were planted?” stout Habib asked mistrustfully. “What do you mean how?” Muhu jumped up. “What does he need car-tridge cases for? He’s a doctor! He sewed up one man’s head when he came to him from the forest. What, he’s supposed to drive away a wounded man?
A doctor is supposed to heal!”
“Since the big war those Gimry men have been restless!” Habib exclaimed.
Shapi smiled wanly, listening to the Avar of a gaunt old man in a green
15 Counterterrorist operation
16 God knows what, nonsense
17 Pandemonium (Avar)
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skull cup who was sitting on a cushion. “Gazalav says in Gimry people always lived poorly and fought the rich. He says in their valley they raised fruit, while we looked down on them from our mountains.”
“What fruit now?” Muhu gestured dismissively. “It was all flooded out by the power station, so the best orchards were flooded and it got colder. Now the persimmons don’t grow as well. What do you have growing in Tsunt?” he turned to a taciturn, broad-boned man who was staring at the floor.
He smiled. “Nothing. Plenty of alpine meadows and pastures, but things don’t grow well. In winter the roads are impassable, you can’t drive, and there’s no sewer system,” he mumbled under his breath with a strong accent. “People used to go to Georgia to the bazaar, but the borders are closed now, and half our relatives remained there and they won’t let us visit.”
“They resettled you on the plain, they even destroyed your houses so you wouldn’t return, and you went back to those cliffs anyway!” Habib exclaimed.
The Tsuntin scowled.
“You don’t know what that trip was like! My grandmother said they put the children on donkeys and walked to Chechnya through the snowy passes. They didn’t want to. They hid and at night returned to their destroyed village. Then they forced them to go again! People died along the way. And how was it in Chechnya? Everyone there died, too, they got sick. There are lots of mosquitoes there, swamps, but there aren’t any mosquitoes in the mountains. There was a malaria outbreak. They were supposed to plant corn, but our people had never seen it before. Some escaped and went back, to their native village, and they were caught and brought back by force,” he muttered gloomily.
Then, all of a sudden, he started laughing quietly.
“We had these elections . . . What a mess. Listen to this! The head of the administration beat up the local policeman. In Kidero. The policeman wanted to bring his people into the station because they’d fired the other candidate’s rifle at people’s feet. That was wild! And right then our mayor up and punched the policeman.”
“But he got reelected anyway!”
“Just barely! Those Bezhtans weren’t going to let him win. So what hap-pened was, they sent us away and let the Bezhtans stay. They think they’re smarter than us, being closer to town. Their station chief wears a suit jacket. They were so mad when the district center got moved over the pass, from Bezhta to Kidero! Now they want the Bezhta precinct to be separate. Or for
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Bezhta’s mayor to become the head of the whole administration. The Bezh-tan has a brother, he’s sitting in the Popular Assembly, and he needs to be made to oppose Tsunt. They paid five or six thousand a vote! In Tliatsuda their other brother was director of the school, but our mayor closed it.”
“What for, wah?”
“There were more teachers than children. It was their honeypot. What do they need a school like that for? There’s another school in Tliatsuda. There were so many rallies in Bezhta! Because they were stealing from the budget.”
“Vaia, did they ever steal,” Habib confirmed. “They steal here, too!” “There were fights and meetings while the elections were going on. It
was the editor of their newspaper, the Bezhtan’s relative, who was behind it. They weren’t sharing so the Bezhtan closed the paper. And the editor started making trouble. He held meetings and took videos of them. But the Bezhtan’s other brother, who works for the highway patrol, stopped the editor’s car, beat him and his people up, and took away the video.”
The Tsuntin started laughing quietly again.
“But maybe people are lying. There’s a fox sitting in Bezhta, but our administration chief is a real badger. He lies about distributing wages money among the old folks. ‘I have nowhere to live in the village,’ he says. Va, the badger!”
The Tsuntin chuckled and fell silent again, resting his palms on his knees and lowering his head.
“I wonder whether they’re going to choose our Ullubi for the district center?” a young man with prominent cheekbones wearing glasses and a peak cap asked.
“Ullubiı˘’s building a mosque,” Habib said respectfully. “There was a flood here, and the bridge needs repair.” “Ullubiı˘ will fix it!” The men nodded.
“He wanted to go for a principal’s job in town,” Habib grunted, “but there’s a Lezgin line there, no chance for him. He wanted to go for a court job, but the Magomedov brothers are there, it’s their turf.”
“And now Abdullaev might win.”
“Who said?” Habib was indignant.
“The Abdullaevs have this one billy goat kid with ‘Allah’ written on its side.”
“That’s not their’s! It’s some poor shepherds that have a kid like that!” “That shepherd is Abdullaev’s second cousin. Abdullaev used to go visit
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him and have his picture taken with the kid. People are saying it’s an omen.” The young man shook his head and sighed.
“Now there’s going to be a ziiarat for the kid! Abdullaev’s an idiot, and everyone knows it.”
“Hey, watch how you talk about your elders!” Muhu exclaimed. “Halilbek called,” Shapi interrupted them. “I’m calling him back now, he
ought to be here.”
While Shapi was calling him back, everyone was silent. The hostess walked in, deftly collected the dirty dishes, and walked out. An old man in a skullcup was leafing through an Avar newspaper, leaning back wearily on a couch.
“No service. He must have gone into a tunnel,” Shapi said.
They got up, said their postprandial “Alhamdulillah,” and pushed back their chairs. While they were walking into the courtyard, toward the wooden benches, Muhu tapped Shapi and started saying something, smirking and pointing with his elbow toward the next village.
“Le, did you hear what happened to our neighbors this spring?”
“Yes,” Shapi responded disparagingly. “Each village here has different people, even though we’re all the same nation. Hard workers in one, math-ematicians in another, poets in a third, scholars in a fourth, robbers in a fifth, artisans in a sixth, and fools in a seventh. Those”—he nodded in the direction Muhu had been pointing with his elbow—“are the fools.”
“So what happened?” puffy-cheeked Alexei inquired.
“On March 8th, one teacher congratulated another villager’s wife on In-ternational Women’s Day,” Muhu began, smiling. “When her husband saw him congratulating his wife, he got on his motorcycle, chased the teacher down, and bit off his nose!”
“Yes, his nose! The tip!” Muhu confirmed. “And after that they—” Muhu’s story was interrupted by the woman from the small store running
into the yard..
“Vaı˘, Ghadamal!” the woman wailed, and she ran into the house.
In her wake, puffing and panting, flew Chamastak and, without looking at the men, scurried after the shopkeeper. Exclamations came from the house. The men startled. A towheaded boy of seven ran to Habib and said that Habib’s wife wanted him. His wife, Saniiat, the one with the large mole on her pale cheek, ran out into the yard and, trembling, watched Habib walk toward her, his ponderous body waddling from side to side.
“Someone abducted our daughter,” she said in a disembodied voice.
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“What did. you say?” Habib couldn’t believe it.
“Vaı˘, Ghadamal!”18 she wailed, covering her face with her hands.
The mourners had already crowded around. A young man, his face dark-ened, his eyes wild, rushed out the gates. Habib started feeling unwell, and someone ran for his Corvalol.
“They must’ve gone through the district center yet,” Muhu hotly tried to convince Habib. “Let’s get in the van, take witnesses, and chase them down!” Saniiat covered her face with her kerchief and sobbed. The others stood
around in silence.
Panic set in. Habib, red in the face, breathing hard, shook Naida and then Bika by the shoulders and interrogated them: “Did she resist? Did she try to fight them off?”
Meanwhile, the young man in glasses and another, agitated, with a twitching eyelid (they told Naida he was Saida’s fiancé), got in a car and drove off. Bahu was standing in the middle of the yard in her velvet dress, keening softly about shame and her dead Hasan. Saniiat hid in the house, where women’s cries could be heard.
“Vallakh-billakh, my son isn’t going to clean other people’s toilets!” Elmira listened closely, nervously fiddling with a lock of hair that had
escaped her mourning kerchief.
“It’s her fiancé’s mama going crazy.”
Naida’s father came up to Elmira, awkwardly pulling a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket.
“You’re going to go with Uncle Muhu and Uncle Habib now.” “Where?”
“To tell them everything that happened.”
“I won’t go,” Elmira whined when he went to confer with the men. “I didn’t see anything.”
The mullah who had read the Quran over the deceased was in the crowd, and he began to speak, gesticulating. There was honking outside the gate. They took Naida by the arm and led her to the car.
“Take them all!” Muhu exclaimed.
“Elmira won’t go,” Bika complained.
“Yes, she will!” Manarsha’s voice rang out. Manarsha was leading Elmira,
18 Mother (Avar)
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who kept repeating that she hadn’t seen anything and that Chamastak should go instead.
“There’s room. Climb in!” Muhu commanded.
Habib was breathing hard in the front seat, wiping away the sweat with his crumpled handkerchief by the minute and randomly pressing buttons on his phone. Naida noticed how often the blue vein on his fat neck pulsed.
The engine roared to life, someone slapped the trunk, as if seeing them off, and the car slowly set off down the slope. Naida leaned her head back and looked at the structures sailing by, at the cemetery fence behind which leaned gray tombstones with colored Arab script or names written out in Avar without dates.
Around the turn she saw the gleaming scales of the frothing, crashing river. “Remember, yes, Elmira, how we went there, to swim at the waterfall, and then children started throwing stones at us?” Bika whispered, pointing to the narrow stream that split off from the river and took a turn around the mountain. Walking toward them, bent under huge bundles of hay, were Abasilia and Karimilia, with their old, wrinkled faces, wearing dusty workers’ shirts over their baggy trousers. Muhu hit the brakes and got out with Habib to talk to them. Naida could barely make out what they were saying over the rush of the river and the wind that had blown in from somewhere. Straightening their chukhta strings under their chins, the women gestured toward a road that repeated the bends in the river and was lost between
Muhu and Habib got back in and continued on. Naida could hear peb-bles striking the car bottom. There was the sweet smell of gasoline—they must have been carrying canisters of reserve fuel in the trunk. She pressed her forehead against the vibrating glass and tried not to think about her incipient nausea. Mountain slopes with farmed terraces sailed by, and the river hissed in time with the tires, keeping the beat.
Naida started falling into a strange, unhealthy trance. She could hear the girls whispering, Bika describing the ill-starred Lada Priora (“it has this Dag tuning”), and Habib talking about Saida’s usual obedience and about how she never came home late at night, but mixed in with these sounds were new snatches of melody that seemed to be coming from nowhere. At first it was like the muffled tinkling of a pandur, then a zurna joined in, and a tam-bourine thumped. Naida felt as though she had levitated and was moving up, from terrace to terrace, toward the mountaintop.
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She was speeding, faster and faster, her feet not touching the ground. Mountain women pulling weeds in their patches of grain crops were potter-ing about far below. Naida was spun and hurled to the most unimaginably distant points. She was thrown into shallow caves where natural springs seeped in from above, then into the thick Tliarata forest, where Dagestani goats, skittish deer, billy goats, snowcocks, grouse, and partridges hid from hunters, then to deserted passes crumbling in slate, and then she was squeezed into the dark Karadakh defile—a gigantic crevice gouged out of a hulking dolomite cliff by a rolling stream where wild bees nested high.
Try as hard as she could, Naida couldn’t pull herself out of it. She was being shaken and rocked. She was thrown into the luxuriant subalpine mead-ows of the Bogoss glacier with their sorrel, hellebore, whortleberries, rose-mary, and clover, where countless herds grazed. Into gorges with abandoned and resettled settlements. Onto the bare slopes that rise over the dark Betsor River, where horses run and poor recluse farmers live who are visited in win-ter by hungry bears and wolves coming down from distant forests to get at the livestock.
She was flung above fields of hundreds of half-forgotten curses full of usurpers from all ends of the earth. She was hurtled over “the hill where they killed Ivan,” over crumbling signal towers that once passed news of imminent threat from peak to peak, from post to post. Over an enormous boulder where, according to legend, Shamil’s weapons arsenal was buried. Over the tomb of the Christian hermit Tamara, where bright rags tied to the trees flapped in the wind and where you could see, far below, the village of Batsada, whose inhabitants boil a black gum from birch resin and there is gray grass and tiny automobiles. And once again the zurna whined and the pandur tinkled. . . .
“They’re calling!” Habib shouted so that Naida woke up and lifted her buzzing head. “What do you mean ‘but’?” The zurna! “I’ll find you and thrash you! I’m giving you an hour! We won’t let this go, vallakh! Huh? Where are you? Speak! Give Saida the phone! Hello!”
Habib cursed, making forceful, guttural sounds.
“What is it?” Muhu asked, steering onto a small stone bridge where the
Santa Barbara. Café stuck out by the side of the road.
“Khhaı˘van!19 An unlisted number.”
“Why did they take her, did he say?” Muhu asked.
19 Animal, cattle
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“To disgrace my tribe! Why else? Uı˘, shaitan,” Habib rasped, opening the window and listlessly fanning himself with his handkerchief. “That’s it, he’s finished, I’m calling Zakir now, he’ll find that dog!”
Naida’s nausea was growing worse and worse. She looked at the retreat-ing peaks of snowy Nukatl’ ridge, where the great river was born, and closed her eyes again. Habib’s voice was moving further and further away. Once again she felt a change in pressure and, as if she were on an elevator, flew up to the peak of impregnable Saddle Mountain, walled in by cliffs. The moun-tain loomed over the plain of the Avar Koisu river for a kilometer and a half. Rocky footpaths and bridle paths snaked up its multitiered, vertical slopes from the settlements at the very bottom. The sky had cleared, and Naida saw clearly from above the bare Khunzakh plateau and the waterfalls plunging from it, and the Tobot River which hurtled from the plateau into Tsolotlin canyon but in winter froze in the form of a gigantic, hollow column.
Naida looked up, and she wondered why there were stars blinking in the thin air in broad daylight. She heard a whisper. Someone invisible was creeping toward her through the rustling meadow grass. Naida’s head started spinning. She lay down on her back, on the cold green clover, and asked, “Who’s here?”
The whisper sounded very close.
“Shaitans?” That frightened Naida. “Or a budalal?” She had heard some-thing about the budalal . . . A blanket of snow, a bed of ice, trousers of bark, a dress of leaves, the people who don’t eat or drink, the kind that is neither male nor female, a happy budalal . . .
She felt the breath of strange beings forming an invisible ring around her.
“Iasande!”20 a low voice commanded.
“Iasande!” ringing voices echoed.
Someone’s hands were shaking Naida by the shoulders, but their mouths kept shouting the same command. She heard the sounds of the lezginka. Naida was well and truly frightened, but driven on by the invisible beings, she began to dance. She stood up on tiptoe, straightened her shoulders, and minced over the wet earth, slowly rotating her wrists.
The drums beat, harder and harder, shouts rang out, louder and louder, Naida danced and spun, faster and faster. Eventually, driven past the break-ing point, she collapsed and surrendered to the nausea rolling over her.
* * *
20 Dance (Avar)
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Habib’s phone burst out in a lezginka. He pressed a button and shouted into the receiver, “Ia,21 Shapi?”
“She’s sick to her stomach!” Bika wailed. “What’s the matter, Naida?” “Open the door for her.” Muhu looked over his shoulder while stopping
the car at a turn. “Poor thing, we shouldn’t have taken her.” “She got a spot on my skirt,” Bika said indignantly.
Naida tumbled out of the car and, bending over, ran to the shoulder of the serpentine road. She threw up. After a few waves of nausea she felt bet-ter. She stood there a little longer on half-bent legs, looking at distant Saddle Mountain. The sun was already at its zenith and broiling. Naida felt herself break out in a sweat so she removed her light jacket.
“Feeling better? Let’s get a move on!” Habib waved to her from the car.
She went back and took her seat.
“Mama, I hope we find Saida there,” Bika whispered. Elmira, silent, had turned away to face the window. Habib wiped his neck with his handkerchief. The district center was a hundred meters off.
Soon after, the car braked at a dusty, circular marketplace and the entire group got out. A brick wall with huge barred gates, a gleaming iron eagle atop each point, stood out distinctly among the other marketplace structures. Behind the gate was a red, three-story building with a stylized tower and embrasures. Beyond that loomed the administration building, with a poster on the wall: “I have seen how the Dagestanis defend their land and Russia and I have come to love Daghestan and Dagestanis even more. V. Putin.” Beyond that were colorful stalls, shops, and gardens. Near a spring elegantly surrounded with stones, behind which the buildings rose in a pyramid, the tip of a minaret and a dense weeping willow peeked out with the public square spread below.
Habib and Muhu headed straight for the square, holding their hands out from far off and loudly greeting the men sitting there.
“Assalamu ala kum!”
The slap of handshakes and traded vaala kum assalam were heard. Muhu told the men sitting there that they were at the district center on their way to town from their village and thought they would stop by and visit their rel-atives at the same time. Habib added that their young friends must have
21 Reply to a call, “what?” (Avar)
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already been here in a silvery Lada with tinted windows. To this the visitors were told that lots of cars had come through because elections were the day after tomorrow and there had just been a meeting between Abdullaev and the current chief, Akhmedov (here an elderly man in a neatly patched shirt gestured in the direction of the barred gates). And that Abdullaev had brought his shepherd brother and the miraculous kid with “Allah” written in white on its black side, which anyone who wanted to could pet and feed. And that Ullubiı˘ was keeping up just fine and each day brought his wrestlers out for a match, promising he would develop the sport and help the schools.
A crowd of adolescents and young men had already gathered in the mar-ketplace. A large, bright green rubber mat was spread out in the middle. Mustached men in sweaty white shirts were dragging cables, microphones, heavy black loudspeakers, and benches out from the administration building. They were setting up the sound. Habib was visibly nervous, but he was mak-ing an effort to appear cheerful.
Schoolgirls crowded around the spring with their buckets and pitchers, checking out the arriving young women.
“They may have taken us along, but you can bet your life they won’t go to the police,” Bika said, letting spring water fill her hands. “Uncle Habib won’t admit for anything that a disgrace like this has befallen him. But Saida could at least have called us. At my university, when they abducted a girl, she called right away and said where she was. They had a normal masliat.”
In the marketplace, meanwhile, more and more people assembled. Women came down dressed in richly embroidered, brocade headscarves. Ullubiı˘ himself appeared, short, balding, and beetle-browed, as did the town officials, who didn’t know where to put their hands and so kept them clasped over their belly. The men sitting on the square melted into the buzzing crowd. Naida noticed Muhu and Habib circle a little, questioning the vil-lagers, and also slip into the crowd and make their way closer to Ullubi, who, after a brief speech in Avar, raised his fist and began in Russian:
“Here today we have had the honorable. candidate Abdullaev speak. He spoke from the heart, he spoke about iakhh-namus.22 Vakh, I think, now I’ll go withdraw my candidacy and vote for him. But afterward people I know said to me, ‘Ia, Ullubiı˘! This man, sometimes, he never stops talking about the Almighty, but he himself has nothing but fists.’ And I thought, ‘I am, alkhamdullilia, a Mus-lim, and I don’t play those games with signs on animals. That is kharam.’”
22 Shame-guilt (Avar)
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The crowd stirred.
“I wrestled for many years myself, and now I’m giving money for the sport, and if honorable Abdullaev would go out in the ring with me, I would throw him on a three-pointer!”
Ullubiı˘ laughed, as if to show that this was a joke. The officials smiled and whispered as well.
“However”—Ullubiı˘ frowned—“the district has many problems and they need to be addressed. There are destructive forces endeavoring to destabilize the situation. The current administration chief, honorable Akhmedov, has many resources. His brother, as it happens, is sitting in the State Duma in Moscow. Why haven’t I once heard from this brother? Why isn’t he solving our problems instead of just his own?”
The crowd began to hum.
“I’m not accusing anyone in particular, but no one has built roads in the district besides me. Word of honor, I did not want to enter the elections, but the president spoke to me at a banquet. ‘Ullubiı˘,’ he says, ‘what about it, go for your native district, you’re needed there.’ That’s what he said to me. He and I spoke for a whole twenty minutes. There are witnesses. After that, how could I not run?”
Someone started applauding.
“A few people have approached me, I won’t say who, they asked me, say-ing, ‘So-and-so pays us five grand a vote, so how .much are you going to pay?’ Ba! Such things they asked me! I say, I have iakhh-namus, I don’t make deals. Instead, when you elect me, I’ll give you work. Because now, sometimes, there is no work.”
Ullubiı˘ had a brief coughing fit.
“Also, why isn’t any work being done with young people? It has come to my attention that certain young men are refusing to go to the mid-day prayer after Friday prayer, they’re going home, and they’re wearing shortened trousers.”
“Where did they see that?” Voices came from the crowd.
“You know yourselves, I’m not telling you anything new,” Ullubiı˘ con-tinued. “I’m opposed to having the police lock them up just because they left prayer, that’s wrong! But we need to bring in an alim or two, invite the sheikh, and talk it over! I am prepared to do all this. By the way, here we have the honorable alim Shakh-Abas. He would like to say a few words.”
Shakh-Abas, wearing a Persian lamb cap, a collarless shirt, and a heavy
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jacket, stepped up to the microphone and began slowly in his native lan-guage. A bearded young man in a skullcap took it upon himself to interpret for some reason. Evidently the assembled officials included more than Avars.
“I have known Ullubiı˘ since the Soviet Union’s breakup. . . . At the time many people came to see me . . . saying, how long are we going to put up with this state of affairs? . . . Saying, we need to take up jihad and cleanse ourselves of corruption and deceit. . . . At the time, shukru Allakh,23 I did not support them.
. . . Ullubiı˘ has said much here about our problems, but he has not said every-
thing. We are living in Akhirzaman.24 This is why we have so many prophets, and each says, ‘Listen to me. Don’t listen to them!’ They have their own aims, selfish aims in mind. You must do as the books teach, as each ustaz teaches, and keep to their barakat. Ask the ustaz, even when you’re going to the toilet. But do not be prideful. You will gain nothing by books alone. Tarikat brings hypocrites no benefit. After all, there can be no sea without a shore, no belly without a back. In the same way, there can be no prayer without conviction. You see, cattle are colorful on the outside, but man is on the inside. Here the Wahhabites say that the tarikatists are idol worshippers and first turn to the ustaz and only then to Allah. That is not true. During the dua, we first ask Allah, and then the ustaz, and then Allah once more. And the ustaz chain leads back to the Prophet, salalakhu allaı˘khi vassalam. Ullubiı˘ came to me, and I saw he was not a hypocrite but a genuine, loving son of our people. I am not going to ask you to vote for him, that is none of my affair, but I do believe in him as a true Muslim.”
The crowd applauded stormily, and a bearded man escorted Shakh-Abas to a bench.
A woman’s shout was heard in the crowd: “Echchaı˘, ecchaı˘.”25 A woman of about forty whose long scarf had slipped from her shoulders, baring a heavy knot of hair at her nape, rushed to the microphone.
“I have a question for Comrade Ullubiı˘ Gaziev. How is he going to solve the problem with our children who the police are torturing in Makhachkala?” “Who are they torturing?” Ullubiı˘ asked, pushing away the arm of an
aide who was indignant about something. “What is your name?”
“My name is Zaza Makhmudova. Here they arrested my nephew, dislo-cated his hip, left him with bruises, and won’t let lawyers see him. They say he killed an Interior official. Ask anyone in the village. Everyone knows my nephew. They’ll all tell you that Alishka could never have done that. He’s a
23 Thanks to Allah (Arabic)
24 The end times (Avar)
25 Let me through, let me through (Avar)
S h a i t a n s / 379
simple metalworker! Yes, Alishka worked for various people, but he is not responsible for their sins.”
“Have you gone to the prosecutor?”
“Who haven’t I gone to? In Makhachkala I went to a rally. Me and over there, Rizvan Magomedovich, our bookkeeper, he went with me, too. They drove me out everywhere I went,” the woman shouted furiously. “Here, look what they did!”
She showed her bandaged finger.
“They broke my finger!”
Voices were heard in the crowd.
“Zaza, sabur g’abuı˘!”26
“Let’s have the fight!” someone hollered in a nasty voice.
“I know you have many questions, and I will try to address them all,” Ullubiı˘ exhorted the noisy square. “But right now let’s invite our champions to come out.”
While he was trying to conciliate the agitated woman, sturdy, barefoot wrestlers in body stockings stepped on the mat, one in red, the other in blue.
The referee appeared.
“Aı˘saul, start!” the scrawny youth shouted. “Tajudin is going to tear that zero apart. You can take that to the bank.”
The wrestlers started limbering up, then they walked toward each other, locked arms, and planted their feet.
Habib and Muhu tried to move toward Ullubiı˘ and the officials, but the crowd pushed them back. Each person was on tiptoe, trying to get a better view of the athletes.
All of a sudden, a tall ginger-haired man holding a cardboard box squeezed up to the microphone and shouted: “One moment!”
The crowd groaned.
“Wait up! Wait! This is an urgent matter!” Ginger continued. “We have representatives from the city here. Let them see, too.”
He looked around and waved to someone. Two men in cross-trainers were leading along a high school boy shaved bald. He was resisting and turn-ing his face away.
“Look, we caught a guy. You know what we found in his box?” He pointed to the cardboard box.
“Let’s have the fight!” the same nasty voice rang out.
26 Calm down (Avar)
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“There isn’t going to be any fight. Order of administration chief Akhme-dov,” ginger-hair said.
The crowd roared.
“Down with Akhmedov!” a few voices began shouting.
“Ullubiı˘ Gaziev puts on matches here, while at the same time he’s mak-ing fake ballots. Here, in this box. If you don’t believe it, take a look!”
“What ballots?” Ullubiı˘ exploded. “I’m telling you, I don’t know anything! This is not my man!”
He pointed at the frightened high schooler.
“This is not my man! This is a provocation. Don’t believe him!” He waved his arms in all directions.
“Let us see! Let us see!” was heard from the crowd.
The box ended up on the ground and ballots fluttered down.
“There, a checkmark for Gaziev!” one of the villagers rasped dumb-foundedly as he snatched up the scattered sheets of paper. “It’s everywhere! G’ale, g’ale!”27
Zaza Makhmudova popped up again and started howling, “Tyranny!” “Let’s have the fight!” the young people yelled.
“There isn’t going to be any fight until Gaziev withdraws his candidacy,” ginger-hair declared.
Fat officials were bent over the ballots and had started examining them with interest. A distraught Ullubi’s comrade-in-arms ran over and an-nounced into the microphone, “Khiriial g’almag’zabi!28 This is a low provo-cation by Akhmedov. This boy . . . but where is he? He’s run away! We don’t know this boy at all! It was Akhmedov himself who made those ballots and set up all this khalam-balam just to keep the people from having their hol-iday! But we’ll have our holiday despite him! Just let him try to stop us!”
“Yea!” the crowd exclaimed.
The ballots flew up in the air. Someone ran over to Akhmedov’s barred gates and started throwing the ballots through the bars.
“Ma, take your paper scraps back!”
The police came and started driving people away from the gates. Mean-while, the wrestlers started wrestling. Blue threw red over his shoulder, and red grabbed blue by the legs.
Habib and Muhu scrambled out of the crowd and returned to the spring. The girls were standing right where they’d been, leaning against the rocks set
27 Look, look (Avar)
28 Dear comrades (Avar)
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around the spring, quiet and depressed. The village boys were hovering nearby, surveying them defiantly.
“Let’s go to the car,” Muhu said. “We have to talk.”
Inside the car Muhu for some reason took a stack of CDs out of the glove compartment and buried his nose in them. Habib was all red. He had started breathing heavily and suddenly started to shout.
“I told Saniiat to raise our daughter right! She was always spoiling her. ‘Leave her alone, Habib, let her go, let her spend time with her girlfriends…’ Always going to concerts and cafés, wearing eye makeup, and going to school. I paid good money to get her in! And look what happened! When I see her, I’m going to take her in my bare hands and strangle her just like this.”
Habib clasped his trembling hands.
“If I don’t bring her back today, I’m going up that mountain and throwing myself off. Let. everyone say afterward that Habib went mad over his daugh-ter the k’akhhbys.29 That sniveling Kumyk must have. abducted her. Who else could creep up like that, like a jackal, to the bukhon, and cause such a mess. I won’t just let this go!”
“What Kumyk?” Muhu asked, not tearing himself. away from the CDs. “Oh, this one boy came and brought some chhandu.30 He wanted Saida to marry him. I wouldn’t even listen to him, va! That’s all I need is letting my
only daughter marry some Kumyk!”
“It wasn’t a Kumyk who stole her, it was a Dargin,” Elmira said suddenly in a strained voice.
Everyone looked at her in astonishment. Elmira was sitting squeezed into the back seat rubbing her red eyes.
“How do you know?” Habib snapped.
Suddenly Elmira burst into sobs.
“Easy now, easy!” Muhu touched her shoulder and said to Elmira, “Don’t be afraid. Tell us what you know.”
Elmira sobbed and, without looking at him, said through her nose, “It’s a Dargin, Ismail from Levashi. He saw her in the park when she and I were out for a walk, and after that he wouldn’t let her alone at the university, he gave her flowers. He likes her.”
Habib blazed up scarlet red and rasped, “Who does he like? What are you going on about, iasaı˘!31 I’m going to tell your father and mother every-
29 Bitch, whore (Avar)
30 Garbage (Avar)
31 Little girl (Avar)
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thing! It’s your fault we don’t know where Saida’s right now. Do you know his number? Tell me his number!”
Habib was overcome by a coughing fit.
“How could that be!” Muhu threw his hands up. “Why didn’t you say something?”
Elmira was shuddering from her sobs.
“Saida didn’t. want to marry Rasul, she wanted to marry Ismail.”
“Vaı˘, dir rakh!”32 Habib exclaimed, and he ran out, slamming the door. Muhu watched Habib waddle awkwardly to the spring to wash his face,
and he got out, too, looking around at the girls ominously.
“Well, I never!” Bika let out a sigh. “So Saida knew they were coming for her?”
“N-no,” Elmira sobbed. “Ismail told her he’d abduct her. She wanted him to, but she was afraid of her father. She told me she loved him, but she should marry Rasul since he’d given her such wonderful presents and the dress was already bought.”
“She kept talking about the dress! I don’t think she wanted to be abducted,” Naida interjected.
“How do you know what she didn’t want?” Elmira moaned hysterically. “She wanted it badly. They would meet, we’d all go to a café together. She didn’t care if Rasul found out and took back his promise. So I was justified in everything I did.”
“How awful,” Bika murmured. “Elmira, why did you even admit this? They’ll kill you now.”
“What does this have to do with me?”
“What do you mean what? You were helping this Ismail, you suggested we go back by way of the store.”
“Yes, exactly,” Naida recalled. “It was Elmira who suggested it.” Muhu looked in the car window.
“Give over this hero’s number,” he ordered Elmira.
She got out her phone and, sobbing, dictated the eleven numbers. Muhu’s head disappeared. You could see through the windshield that the match was still going on in the marketplace and the wrestler in red seemed to be winning. Ullubiı˘ and the officials had slipped away. The policemen who’d been about to disperse the crowd had been drawn into the spectacle, too, and were closely following the match.
Habib and Muhu got back in the car.
32 Oh, my heart! (Avar)
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“We’re going to Levashi. They haven’t done the nikiakh yet,” Habib said in a steely voice. “If we manage to collect her before sunset, she’s pure. If not, we’ll have to let this Dargin have her.” He spat through the lowered window.
Then he frowned and added, “I’m taking her anyway. Better she. stay an old maid to the end of her days than get married like that, like a khhaı˘van!”
“We’re not going to go see Ullubiı˘?” Muhu asked.
“How can I look him in the eye?” Habib said in a pained voice. “After what’s happened, I won’t leave the house for a month!”
Muhu hummed and started up the engine.
“Le!” A passing villager who’d been sitting on the square looked at him and asked why they were leaving so soon and why didn’t they stop in for khinkal and fortify themselves? Muhu and Habib immediately smiled and explained that they had to leave right away, early. The villager tried long and hard to talk them into staying after all and coming by, but eventually he re-lented and let them go with a farewell.
At the edge of the district center Muhu put on the brakes.
“We can’t take them with us,” he told Habib, nodding toward the back seat.
“Let them go to Aminat’s, Halilbek’s sister, it’s right here, around the cor-ner. They can ask around. Someone will pick them up later,” Habib replied in a monotone.
“Okay.” Elmira nodded and opened the door.
All three got out of the car and for a while, in silence, watched it pick up speed and disappear down the slope.
“Saida didn’t call you?” Bika asked Elmira.
“She doesn’t have her phone with her.”
“This Ismail must be really handsome, right?”
“Better than Rasul.”
“Vaia, Rasul’s not bad.”
“Where does Aminat live, Halilbek’s sister?” Elmira asked a passing boy.
He didn’t understand.
“Gaziezul Aminat kiı˘ iugaı˘?” Naida repeated.
The boy told them the way.
Soon after, they came across a long, terraced garden with a white, one-story building at the top made of raw, cut stone. Aminat was childless and lived alone. But her nephew Hajik was sitting on the porch, his legs spread
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wide. Naida noticed that, when she saw Hajik, Bika gave him a languorous look and made a moue.
After questions and greetings, Aminat treated them to sprouted barley porridge. Bika offered to serve and splattered her shiny top. They said noth-ing about Saida. Hajik ate with dignity and then said slyly to Bika, “I saw your photos on the Internet.”
“Yes, you and I spoke at the forum,” Bika confirmed affectedly. “You brought up a topic there, whether a wife should be covered.”
“That wasn’t me, that was Arip discussing that, my brother,” Hajik grinned. “I was riding in a mini-bus recently”—Bika livened up—“and this girl had gone completely overboard, wearing expensive Muslim clothing, I don’t even know what tailor she ordered it from. All silk. She sits down and pulls out a stylish phone, almost like a Nokia 8800 Sapphire. An exclusive! And she starts talking, showing off. ‘Hello, this and that, blah blah blah.’ And right
then, her phone starts ringing! We positively howled.” Bika started laughing.
“I’m telling you, she stops the mini-bus and shoots out of there like a bullet!” “Did Halilbek come for the mourning?” Aminat asked, looking out at
the porch from the kitchen.
“I don’t know, we didn’t see him,” Elmira answered.
“I’m sorry Hasan died. He was such a cheerful man. He knew so many funny stories. He played so many jokes on us.” Aminat sighed and turned to Hajik. “What news in town, Haji?”
“Oh, the usual, chasing chicks.” Hajik grinned. “What about the elections here? Could Ullubiı˘ win?”
Aminat gestured dismissively. “He’d better stay away!”
Then she invited the girls into the room and pointed to a pile of sheep’s wool lying on the floor.
“The wool needs combing. We’ll comb the wool.”
The girls exchanged unenthusiastic glances. Aminat continued.
“My mama used to say, ‘If you don’t comb wool, you won’t get married.’” “But you didn’t.” Naida smiled.
“I didn’t want to,” Aminat replied, clipping on her glasses and deftly pulling the clumps of wool apart into a fluffy mass. “Do you know how it used to be in our village? When a girl wanted to get married, she came out in front of the square, stood on a roof, and announced it. The elders would ask her who exactly she wanted for a husband. And the girl would point him out. Isn’t that right, Kamil?” she asked someone who had appeared in the doorway.
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He heard the question but didn’t answer.
“But what if that man didn’t want to?”
“He had to buy his way out. It’s all prescribed in an adat: how much he had to give in goods if he refused to marry, how much he had to give if he touched a girl’s elbow. . . .”
Hajik poked his head into the room.
“Abdul and I are going to the white cliff.”
“We’re going to shoot cans.”
He nodded good-bye and disappeared.
Elmira’s phone rang and she stepped out, too.
“Yes,” Aminat continued, showing the best way to comb wool. “They used to raise girls differently. We knew so many poems! Kilometers of them! We knew all of Mahmud, we knew all Anhil Marin!”
“I know, she’s the one whose lips a naib sewed shut so she wouldn’t sing her free songs and he threw her into a crevice. And also, when she sang at a wedding, someone fired in the air and hit her daughter. But she still wouldn’t stop her song. She held her daughter in her arms and kept on singing,” Bika rattled on.
Aminat shook her head.
“That’s a lie about the lips and the crevice. That’s all made up. Who could have sewn her lips? When she was fifteen, a Rugudzhan’s cow destroyed their field, and she beat him so badly that he died a few days later. For this, she was sent out of her village, following the adat. It was the worst punishment for a mountain girl. Another time, after she’d come back and was living on a farm near Rugudzha, she looked out one morning and seven of her sheep had had their tails cut off. She went and followed the trail of blood to the next farm and slashed seven cows there. For revenge. Rugudzha women do not forgive an insult!”
Elmira came back into the room and went back to combing wool with all the rest.
“Aminat!” someone called to her from the porch.
Aminat took off her glasses and went out.
“Saida is married,” Elmira said when she was sure no one else could hear. “She called me from someone else’s phone. They did the nikiakh. ‘I won’t go back with Papa,’ she said, but she was crying.”
“Of course, she was crying. This Ismail, is he at least rich?”
“Yes. He’s building a big house in Reduktornoe right now. But she’ll have to return Rasul’s presents.”
Far off, a rooster suddenly crowed. They heard the sounds of a harmon-
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ica. A folk singer was performing in the marketplace. People there were snapping their fingers in time, and someone shouted, “Vere!”33
When he heard the rooster crow, Kamil, who had been dozing all this time on the porch, stood up and slowly walked down the stone stairs into the garden. It smelled of herbs, roots, rotting apricots, and dirt. He slowly made his way to the side gate, brushed the nameless yellow flowers curiously, and headed out for a walk.
Quickly passing the narrow lanes, Kamil found himself in the market-place, where visiting tightrope walkers were dancing to the beating of drums and the moaning of a zurna. One was jumping on the rope, rising up and standing on his big toe, then sitting down and spreading his legs to either side. A second was encouraging him from below. The many spectators were following each movement with delighted whooping.
The sun was still clinging to the very edge of the western peaks. Kamil squatted on a rock and, squinting, followed the tightrope walkers. A daredevil who had only just been galloping along gaily to ecstatic shouts crawled into a bag and to the measured beats of the drum stepped to the middle of the rope, balancing with a pole. Reaching the middle, he took a three-rung stepladder from his assistant, stood it on the rope, and to the same uneasy yet even beating of the drum began his triumphant ascent. Kamil yawned, frowned, and gradually dozed off to the delighted clamor of the audience and the sounds of the monotonous melodies.
When he woke up he realized it was already growing dark. The marketplace was quiet now. The actors were whispering back and forth and sorting out the props. Kamil remembered he had something to do at the edge of town. When he was walking past the little boys, they shouted, “Kamil, Kamil! Come here!” Kamil looked back at them guardedly, inquiringly, but continued on his way. On the way out of the village he smelled grasshoppers, dust, herbs, and something else he couldn’t put his finger on. A little farther down, sur-rounded with sacks of cement, there was a checkpoint. Kamil stopped, hes-itant, and began to study the figures stirring at the checkpoint. A capless policeman was idly examining his submachine gun; another was saying
something in back, but what exactly, Kamil couldn’t hear.
Suddenly he heard pops. Kamil shuddered. The bored policeman swiftly squatted and shouldered his submachine gun, firing haphazardly across the road. The second grabbed his shoulder, doubled over, and took cover behind
33 Come on, come on (Avar)
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the bags. There were more pops and a strong smell of burning and smoke. Frightened, Kamil threw himself to the ground and then jumped back up and took to his heels. Running into the house, he dashed headlong past the porch and jumped onto the clean cover of his bed.
“Uchit, Kamil!”34 Halilbek’s sister shouted to him, and she drove the cat onto the floor.
“What were those pops?” Bika asked, sitting in front of the television. “I’m going to find out right away,” Aunt Aminat replied, worried, and
she left the house.
Awhile later a neighbor woman peeked in and said that one policeman had been killed and another wounded. Then Aminat appeared and an agi-tated Hajik, who paced from corner to corner babbling, “The guys say they didn’t have any idea where they were shooting from.”
“From the forest opposite, probably,” Aminat said.
Then her neighbor reappeared and started keening and throwing up her hands, saying, “Such poor things, such young things.” Then they started arguing and cursing Akhmedov and his entire clan for some reason.
Meanwhile, Bika’s mama had called from home and said that Habib and Muhu had left Saida in Levashi and were driving back, and that Habib had said he would never forgive Saida, but, she said, his voice was already calmer. Bika’s mama also warned her to keep away from Elmira.
“She’s the Gamidov branch, and almost all their girls are like that.” Then, after straightening up a little, they lay down, and Naida looked at the
black, nighttime ceiling and listened to the buzzing voices of Aminat and her neighbors on the other side of the wall discussing the killing and was amazed to remember flying high up Saddle Mountain. Half-asleep, she imagined the voices getting distorted and turning into an inhuman rumble, first fine, then low. Something awful, teasing, and sly was breaking through the rumble.
She remembered how, as a child, coming to the village, she was afraid of shaitans who were adept at perfidy. They could change their appearance, alter their voices, steal people away, and drive insane those who had fallen asleep in the field. “Even when your Mama calls you,” the village children said, “don’t answer her right away. It could be a shaitan calling for you in her voice. Say a spell and only then speak up.” Cold had crept into Naida’s chest, but gradually she grew too weak to think. The rumble was growing more and more muffled, and, finally, a meaningless pitch darkness fell.
34 Shoo! (Avar)