19-02-2022 Literature 452

ZAINA (woman in Chechnya). Author Polina Zherebtsova

ZAINA Author Polina Zherebtsova

One of our neighbours from the apartment block next-door was a woman called Zaina. She was a woman who sold her body, although she didn’t necessarily charge money. In times of trouble, she would have rebel fighters over. An Ichkerian flag hanging in the window of her apartment signalled her availability.


It was a beautiful flag—rich green, with a fluffy white wolf lying across the middle. Zaina didn’t charge much for her services—a jar of pickles and enough flour to fill a bowl.

Then, after her visitors had left her abode, Zaina would cover her bright red curls with a headscarf and hurry out to share the food she had earned with her neighbours, especially the elderly and families with children.

When the enemy—in the shape of Russian military forces—advanced, and the rebels were forced back from their territories, Zaina offered the same level of hospitality to the invaders. The Russian men gave her tinned meats and tiny jars of jam. And after they’d left, Zaina would do what she always did—share the food with the sick and the young.

This is why, despite referring to her as a “whore” behind her back, gossiping mercilessly, and generally refusing to treat her as a fellow human being, the whole neighbourhood was nevertheless tolerant of Zaina.

Most of the male population used Zaina’s services. Women like her are a true rarity in Chechnya, since the standard punishment for such behaviour is death. It’s the Muslim woman’s brother, uncle or father that kills her. And nobody will ever condemn the murderers. Quite the contrary—people will honour and respect them, and policemen will come to shake their hands, roaring: “Peace be upon you!”

But Zaina didn’t have a family. She didn’t have a father or a mother, or any sisters or brothers who could have killed her or, indeed, shielded her from this life. All we knew was that she was born in the mountains of Dagestan, spoke Chechen, and switched the flags hanging in her window in accordance with the territorial changes of the Russian Federation. We didn’t even know how old she was.

Righteous local women in their long dresses and housecoats would cast an expert eye over her and judge her to be over forty.

“She’s beautiful because she doesn’t have any children!” they would say spitefully. And their faces would contort as if reflected in cracked glass—glass that couldn’t withstand the repeated impacts of a man’s fist and had fractured all the way across and all the way down.

Zaina wore trousers. She was one of the only women in the city to do so. That too was shameful.

Zaina would not have been allowed to have children—local tradition dictated that such a woman was not fit to carry a child in her belly.

In any normal family, a woman was old at forty. It could hardly be helped—she’d have eight or nine children by that age. Married off at fifteen, by the time she was thirty-odd, she’d be a grandmother.

This was a different perception of time and youth. These were different cultural norms—straight from the mountains.

The beautiful Zaina had managed to survive even the strict Sharia persecutions. Other women like her would have been shot of course, stoned, or beaten to death with sticks, but not our Zaina. Strict Muslim preachers would come to our neighbourhood to dish out punishments, but when confronted with the blue-eyed, laughing Zaina, they would smile back at her and then disappear into her tiny apartment for several hours at a time.

Slight and slim, like a miniature statuette, the beautiful Zaina cast a spell over these men the moment they set eyes on her. She loved dancing and music. She was a skilful cook of eastern dishes.

On leaving the fallen woman’s apartment, the preachers would try to make a quick getaway so that people wouldn’t spot their long beards and start making crude jokes at their expense.

“Everyone knows everyone’s business here!” our neighbour Auntie Mariam once said to me. “Where you’ve come from, whom you’ve cast your eye over, and why . . .”

“How did Zaina come to live here?” I asked, as I observed her red curls and smiling face outside the kitchen window, where we were making pilaf with Auntie Mariam.

“Ramses brought her here. He’d picked her up somewhere. She was so happy back then—she thought he might marry her. But his family forbade him from even thinking about it. And without the family’s blessing . . . well, nobody would go against their family’s wishes!”

Ramses was Chechen. He lived upstairs on the third floor. He kept Zaina as his mistress for a while and then he passed her on to his friends, like one passes round a pack of cheap cigarettes.

Zaina was put up in someone else’s apartment—one that belonged to a Russian family that had fled when times got tough. She lived in this apartment as if she owned it. Ramses would occasionally say hello to her if he was sure that none of the neighbours was watching. But of course that’s unheard of in Chechnya—everyone has eyes in the backs of their heads.

Traditionally, people in Chechnya keep their front doors unlocked. Even if the door has a lock on it, it’s pointless trying to keep it shut. People don’t even knock, they just walk straight in. And why ever not? They’re your neighbours after all!

“Auntie Mariam, we need to borrow the iron!” That’s the Avari girls from upstairs. They don’t even wait for an answer before grabbing the iron and running back up.

No sooner has the door slammed behind them than we hear:

“It’s me! I’ve come to get some water!” Old Ahmed makes his way past us to the bathroom, the metal pails in his hands clanking together.

“Mariam! I’m just going to leave a bag here in the corridor!” We can’t see who this is. “My brother will come pick it up in an hour!”

We recognise the voice—it’s Zalina from the apartment block opposite.

And so on and so forth, the whole day long.

“When we first moved here,” my mother reminisced, as she sliced onions for the pilaf, “we never locked the door. Well, only if we were going out to the shops and nobody was staying in. It would drive you mad—having to keep on locking and unlocking it—someone would come knocking every five minutes. Children and adults! Either they’re coming by for a chat, or bringing some food to share, or asking to borrow something. I’ve never lived anywhere so friendly! I’ve grown to love this way of life with all my heart.”

To be honest, I didn’t share in my mother’s delight. I thought that everyone has a right to live peacefully, in their own space, but, afraid of getting a smack, I kept my thoughts to myself.

The pilaf turned out beautifully on that summer’s day, and the grown-ups decided to invite Zaina, who was sitting in front of her apartment block, to come and share it.

In other peoples’ homes, Zaina was always very quiet. She’d only speak if someone asked her something, and then she’d tell brief, funny stories as if her life was one long party and it was everyone else who was living in sorrow and war.

“What a fool I was back then!” Zaina would say with a smile. “When I was younger, I’d forget to lock the door sometimes. So just as my guest was getting ready for earthly pleasures and taking his pants down, a neighbour would walk in, without even knocking, to borrow some sugar or some salt or some such. One esteemed gentleman from the ministry was so shocked when he saw his auntie come in, that he fell backwards onto a table. Something cracked in his back. The poor man’s friends came to take him away on a stretcher, as his auntie ran alongside it, flogging him with his own socks.”

“How did you end up like this?” my mother would muse. “Someone must have betrayed you. Some scoundrel. You must have married, then got divorced, and then your family wouldn’t take you back?”

But Zaina would just laugh in reply and wouldn’t reveal anything about her past life.

During the Second Chechen War—which was actually the Third—Zaina hung the flag with the wolf back up in her window. Shell fragments had shredded the flag in late autumn of that year, but she kept it in place because she didn’t have another. Shells used to explode in the communal yard, right by the front door of our building. We’d have to wait for a lull long enough to allow us to run out and collect snow for water.

One time, the shelling was so violent that it seemed like munitions were raining down on our neighbourhood with enough force to reduce all the buildings to dust, and us along with them. What does it feel like to be the person trapped inside, choking on the plaster flying off the walls and ceiling? Explosions exert the force of an earthquake measuring six on the Richter scale. The building shudders like a dog that’s just been kicked. And all the while, you’re lying inside of it, face down on the floorboards, recollecting moments from your life, trying to remember enough to fill the gaping black void that’s swallowing up everything around you.

This bombardment happened when Old Ahmed the Chechen and his Russian wife Irina were living on a neighbouring street where all the houses were privately owned. They’d been together for thirty-five years. In the beginning, before the First Chechen War, nobody knew what their nationalities were—nobody even thought to ask such questions back then. All we knew was that their only son had died in a car accident.

And then it came to light that Old Ahmed’s wife was Russian. When word got around, some of their neighbours started spitefully enquiring whether he was going to turn her out now. But, after being on the receiving end of Old Ahmed’s walking stick or his slop bucket, they bit their tongues and went back to greeting the couple respectfully.

The street their little house stood on kept changing hands. The rebels, with their small, mobile artillery gun, had retreated behind the garages, while the Russian troops had advanced in armored vehicles and opened fire from all manner of weapons. The old couple couldn’t put out the fire raging in their house and were sheltering in the corridor, where the walls were thicker.

Zaina was lying flat in the snow. She hadn’t managed to make it to the door of the cellar, where she would have taken shelter, and now she didn’t dare lift her head enough to crawl the rest of the way, so heavy was the gunfire. She could see that the old couple’s house was burning, but it was futile calling out for help with the shooting as loud as it was. Nobody could hear themselves think.

Irina suddenly appeared in the doorway. Her housecoat was on fire. She waved her arms in the air and shouted something before disappearing back into the burning building.

The Russian armored vehicle rotated its gun and trained it on the house. Soldiers jumped out and, presuming they’d located the rebels, started firing machine guns in the same direction.

Everyone in the cellar froze. They were watching these events unfold through a small hole in the wall and it was now clear that the old couple were about to die. That was the moment when Zaina suddenly jumped to her feet and ran at the Russians, not heeding the shells exploding all around her.

“Stop! There’s people living there!” she shouted. “Don’t shoot!”

Glued to the hole in the wall, the remaining population of our neighbourhood couldn’t believe their eyes. In her ubiquitous trousers, in a light jacket that wasn’t even done up, with her headscarf lost in the furore, Zaina was shielding someone else’s burning house with her body.

Curls of her red hair fell around her slender shoulders. Her blue eyes shone brightly. Her beauty was breathtaking in the surrounding hell.

The Russian soldiers were so taken aback, they even stopped shooting. And behind the garages, the rebels with their small gun also fell silent.

Zaina ran into the house and led out Old Ahmed, who was choking from the smoke, and then his wife Irina, who had managed to throw off her burning robe and was now wrapped up in a shabby, dark-green coat.

“Are there really people living here?” the astonished soldiers kept asking.

Then one of them walked up to the old couple and shouted, “Show me your papers!”

“They’re in there!” Irina pointed to the charred remnants of their house. “If you want to go look for them, be my guest, you can go straight through!”

Taking advantage of the lull, Old Ahmed, Irina, and Zaina quickly made their way to the cellar. Nobody tried to stop them.

The Russian soldiers and the rebels continued fighting.

With time, word of the fallen woman’s heroic deed made its way round the whole neighbourhood.

“You’re so brave!” People would say to her face, but behind her back they still whispered. “It doesn’t matter; everyone knows what she is. One good deed won’t make up for her past.”

But Zaina sang songs and laughed out loud, just like she always did. Then one time she came to see my mother and have her cards read. My mother hadn’t told anyone’s fortune for a long, long time, but Zaina managed to talk her into it. She said it was very important—a matter of life or death.

“Tell me, will I die young? I don’t want to live to old age!” Zaina kept saying. “An old woman lives out her days surrounded by grandchildren. What kind of old woman would I make? It’s not going to work! I can’t do it!”

My mother fanned out the cards and studied them carefully.

“I can see you’ve had a tough life. But that will pass. Things will change. You’ll meet a good man. You’ll have a house and you’ll grow old. You’ll have grandchildren and great-grandchildren too.”

“That can’t be true!”

“It is! The cards never lie. I’ve broken a vow for you. I swore I’d never read cards again.”

“Will there definitely be grandchildren?” Zaina was thoughtful.

“Definitely. I can see a small boy. But he’s not your son, he’s your grandson. He loves you very much. You’re going to play with him. And a little girl, in a pink dress. She’s still a baby . . . Hold on a minute, are you pregnant?!”

Zaina reached down, picked up a biscuit, and bit into it. That’s when we noticed that she was crying. But she started smiling through her tears straight away, so we wouldn’t think ill of her, and hid her face behind a glass of water.

“Would you like to hear a poem I wrote?” I asked.

Zaina nodded.

Noise cuts through the silence.
Time is no more.

Someone thought up a war,
To last a hundred thousand years.

Someone thought up names,
And sliced up the centuries.
In a world of everlasting war,
The clouds are cursed.

All who were born drew lots,
And all of us will die.
You can decide to go into the light,
Or to fall on the ice.

For a minute, everyone was silent.

“Make yourself scarce!” my mother suggested. “The Russian poets lived and wrote better than you and yet they all died in poverty. Nobody needs your poems here.” “I just wanted to . . .”

“Thank you!” Zaina said and smiled. She added quietly, “I was married off at thirteen. That was no life. I was always trying to please my elders. They beat me. My husband broke my ribs for disobeying him. The neighbor spoke to me and he didn’t like the way I answered him. I ended up in hospital. I lost a child . . . I remember my husband kicking me, while his mother and sisters sat in the next room. Nobody came to help me. I just kept screaming: ‘I don’t love you! I never loved you!’ Then I passed out . . . I didn’t go back to my family after the hospital, I ran away. I never forgave them. I’ve been hiding ever since. My real name is Aminat.”

“We won’t tell anyone!” my mother said quickly, looking pointedly at me.

“It doesn’t matter. Nothing’s going to change now anyway. I’ve lived my life.”

“Things will change! The cards say everything will turn out well for you. The second part of your life will have light, even though the first had darkness.”

Zaina stayed with us for a while longer and then she left. Weeks passed. Neighbours asked each other—“have you seen our Zaina?” But nobody knew anything. We had our own worries and had almost forgotten her red curls and blue eyes, until we ran into Old Ahmed and Irina at the market one day. They had moved away to a village, to live with distant relatives, and rarely came into the city any more.

“Zaina’s gone missing!” we announced.

Old Ahmed sighed and changed the subject, but his wife couldn’t help herself and said, “Zaina has changed her name. She’s had a baby. These are difficult times, but it’s not all bad—a person can disappear and start a new life. We helped her as much as we could.”

With that, the old couple wished us a safe journey home without any shelling, and then they turned to go back to their car.

Polina Zherebtsova was born in Grozny in 1985. She and her mother stayed in the city through the Russo-Chechen wars, the first of which started when Zherebtsova was nine. In 1999, she was wounded by shrapnel from a missile strike on Grozny Central Market by Russian forces. In 2005, Zherebtsova and her mother travelled to Russia as refugees, where she completed her higher education and joined the Russian Union of Journalists. Life in Russia became increasingly untenable after the publication of Zherebtsova’s diaries which she kept from the Russo-Chechen wars. In 2012, after a campaign of discreditation, intimidation and violence, Zherebtsova sought political asylum in Finland, where she lives to this day. Zherebtsova is a member of PEN International, and is a prolific writer and recipient of numerous literary awards.

translated from the Russian by Irina Steinberg


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