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Safeta ObhodjasSafeta Obhodjas

Scheherezade in a Winter Country

Veröffentlicht am 21.02.2021

In 1997 I lived in the city of Stuttgart for three months. I had received a work grant with a condition to live and work in their Writers’ House that summer. For the first time in my life, I lived alone, with no family close by. I did not know anyone in that city and in my loneliness, I began contemplating my childhood and my youth, and my beginnings as a writer in Bosnia. What drove me to write stories about the life of Bosnians Muslims?

I wrote a story about my big success as a thirteen-year-old student in my hometown Pale: I had received a literary prize for my essays in a book publisher’s contest. This story developed further, and I found myself writing a novel about my life in Bosnia before the war of 1992. I was focusing on the time after the Second World War as I was trying to describe, through my own memories, the time when all three nationalities lived together in peace. And so, the novel “Scheherazade in a Winter Country” was born, a testimony of our dreams before the nationalists stirred up the hatred. I am glad I was able to get few chapters translated in English, to add to this blog.

 

Time of the Comets 

      

Nadira wrote her first letters on a board covered with fine sand. Shortly before that she had used the board as a seesaw, just as she had so often done with her friend Milena who was the same age and lived in the same street. Taib Karalic, the brother of her mother helped her to draw the lines. He smoothed away the incorrect curves and strokes, renewed the surface of the sand and used his large gentle hand to guide Nadira's rough little fingers to help her hold the pencil in the proper manner as quickly as possible. Just as the little girl formed the last letters of the word "Muslim" by following her uncle’s instructions, her mother, Ifeta, came into the yard carrying a bucket, and as usual she was in a hurry. She ran to the heap of sand, scooped some of it into the bucket and ran off again without paying any attention to her brother and daughter. Nadira's father, Dervo, was grumbling impatiently because there was no water for the mortar. That week he was using his mason's skills on his own house. He had already poured the concrete foundation for an extension and it was time to start laying the bricks. His wife, Ifeta, had to lend him a hand and like any master craftsman he was always dissatisfied with the pace and skill of his assistant.

"Ifeta", the brother addressed his sister as she came by a second time to collect more sand. "Have you registered your daughter at the school yet?” he asked and completely ignored the drudgery going on around him in order to create what was going to be a comfortable home for all the members of the large family. "You really could not have picked a better time to ask that question." At no time since he had claimed hospitality from her had she snapped at her brother in such a way. His brother-in-law, busy with the bricks, became white with anger as if this unreasonable question that could only have been raised by a town-dweller finally exhausted his patience, which had already been severely strained by the many months Taib had been with them.

“You bookworm, you! Stop scribbling in the sand and bring some bricks over here. It’s high time you did something for your supper!" he shouted. This could be heard three houses away. Even his mother who was normally happy enough of any opportunity to make sarcastic remarks about her daughter-in-law’s brother cautioned him not to encourage gossip amongst the neighbours. Taib responded to this request, let Nadira practise writing on her own and started lugging bricks over to the work place in the handcart. However, later on that evening while he was eating his well-earned supper he put the question again. Would his niece enter first grade this autumn? Nadira waited with a pounding heart for the answer from her parents. Ever since her uncle had made her familiar with the magic of reading and writing she had harboured only one wish: she wanted to go to school as quickly as possible. With a face distorted in pain, the mother massaged her wrist with some rheumatism ointment and with a gesture towards her husband made her brother aware of the grumpy expression on Dervos' face.          

"Upon my soul" Taib protested, "I have never met a more intelligent child. She already knows all her letters and can read whole words without stammering. It would be a crime not to send her to school straight away."  "What has got into you today, why do you keep on about this school?" Ifeta sighed. "She is far too small, she is only five and a half years old and the school is too far away. First, we have to send Rasim to school because he is a year and a half older than her. You know we are building an extension; we just don’t have enough money to send both of them to school." 

Dervo the mason looked at his daughter and saw nothing of any significance, just an ordinary small girl with untidy plaits, overly large eyes and a very large mouth wearing a long dress soiled by the sand. If she was as clever as the brother-in-law maintained why did he have to ask her three times to bring something to him, why did she often not understand what he wanted her to do?  It meant nothing to him that a child of five and a half years had learned to read and write. In his opinion education never brought anyone any luck; not even his guest who had just about managed to escape from the jaws of death.

 

A Time for Reflection

 

Nadira was so absorbed in preparing the pita dough that she didn’t hear when the women's thoughts slipped back again into the past. They spoke about the time when women still wore veils. Emin's mother claimed that there was nothing in the world she hated more than the veil. As soon as she had left the house with her friends she took off the veil and replaced it with a shawl.

But after she got married she had to wear a veil that reached down to her waist. On one occasion she had walked down the Bistrik with her Smailaga. The road was steep and icy and it was hardly possible to walk without slipping. The veil was long and thick so that she could not see in front of her. She hung onto her husband with one hand while she lifted the veil with the other so that she could see better where she was going. "Alja, Alja, what are you doing? If you uncover yourself like that when you are out with me whatever will you do if you go to the Carsija by yourself?"

 After saying this she was quiet for a minute and then added "You know something, there is not much good the communists did, but they did release us women from this darkness? I would not wear the veil anymore, even if someone put a pistol to my head or let me die of hunger. It is better to die than not be able to see the world around you."

 Nadira's heart fluttered and a few tears even welled up in her eyes.  "That was thirty years ago. What a good thing I was not born at an earlier time for then I would not even have been able to read wonderful books. And, as Emin's mother put it, I would not have been able to see my surroundings nor would I have been allowed to write for the newspapers. What a dreadful life that would have been! Yet, at the same time, she thought that the baggy trousers and headscarves, which many Muslim women still wear today, were not much better than the veils.

 The enjoyable meal proved that she had learned something useful in Muftic's home. Her skill in the kitchen had been particularly praised by Emin's mother.

 

Inappropriate Topics   

 "But, my dear, we do not have a paradise here only because of the credit that is available - socialism has also made a contribution" laughed Emin. "And workers’ self-administration has helped too."

 "We will certainly have to wait and see what happens when the credits run out and when the West tightens its purse strings" challenged Nadira as she raised her glass. They had all greatly enjoyed the meal and everybody praised Nadira's pita and zucchini mousaka. Emin, too, came in for praise for the well-chosen wine.

 The mother-in-law entered into the conversation and protested against jokes about her beloved Tito. "He took away these black rags from my eyes and God should grant him Paradise for that. I would have found it difficult to dispense with the veil myself and I needed to be compelled to take that step. A woman wearing a veil could not even manage to buy bread. But now I would not wear one even if it resulted in being condemned to death."

 " My good woman, with so many years of being in authority they must have achieved something else worthwhile" said Nada ironically.

 "Forget the politics" murmured Sreten and complained that he dare not drink any more because he had to get himself and his wife safely back to Sarajevo.

They left the table and went into the living room. There, Nadira served coffee and dessert and finally became somewhat more relaxed. "You aren’t such a bad housewife after all," praised Emin. "If you take enough trouble, you can cook anything you want."

 "Did you help me a bit, then?" Nada asked him.

 "Yes, I changed the fuse when it jumped out. Nada, do you really think it would be right if, with so many women in the household, I washed dishes or cut up vegetables?" Emin looked at her mockingly, almost provocatively.

 "Well now, no one knows what the future holds for you - the children will certainly leave home, perhaps Nadira will fall ill sometime. I do not consider these jobs to be below the dignity of a man. Nada cast a meaningful glance at her husband. An icy smile appeared on his face.

 "Apart from that Nadira needs a little more time for herself. Other people can wash the dishes but they cannot write stories like these. She needs time to develop them". Nada's comments took on an explanatory tone.

 "Nada, I just don’t understand why Nadira's stories are so important. Whatever she has published so far, no one has praised them except you people. I still think you are the only ones that see something special in her. If I have to wash dishes to let her scribble then I will arrange to get divorced." said Emin quite seriously. "No, I would rather embarrass her first by going on to the balcony with my shotgun, firing it and letting it be known that Emin Otaŝ has to wash the dishes for his wife."

 "Why your wife?" asked Nada.

 "Nada, this is none of your business" said Sreten dejectedly.

 "Nadira already knew what Emin thought about these matters; she was not surprised at his reaction and neither did she feel offended."

 "My husband holds somewhat traditional views about such things."

 She turned away so that no one could see her reddened face. She wished the conversation would take a change of direction.

 "But that is why we women are freeing ourselves from tradition. For example, my mother and my mother-in-law still wore the veil. And I write and publish. It is as if we have jumped a few hundred years, don’t you think?"

As she spoke, there was a bitter taste in her mouth. It was clear to her that since marrying Emin she had not given critical thought to this matter. She believed that it would demand too much of her energy and nerves.

 "But we Serbian women, even if we did not wear a veil we still could not do very much about it because our tradition is merciless. The women of Yugoslavia have not had a past and they won’t have one for a pretty long time to come" said Nada.

 "That's quite enough of the feminist propaganda!" her husband decided.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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