All Each Other’s Miracles

Translation of an oral transmission between a mother and daughter.
Originally narrated by Yanina Koubatski. Translated, from the Palestinian Arabic, by Reem Taşyakan

Chrisho, my daughter, I’m going to tell you about what happened to me, but this will be the only time I  go into any detail about it. It’s too hard for me to talk about. It feels too much like I’m reliving it when I  do. But I want you to know about my journey. 

Back in Warsaw, in September of 1939 when I was 14, my father was taken prisoner by the Soviets.  He’d been an official in the Polish government for years and was implicated because of that. 

In December of 1939, while I was in school one day, two Soviet military officers entered my classroom  and asked to see me and one of my classmates. My classmate’s father had been arrested in September  as well. We followed the officers into the hallway and they immediately marched us outside into the  cold. We trudged through some snow that led to their black sedan. They made us get inside. 

After a long ride in a terrible snowstorm, we came to a prison that had barbed wire above the gate and  all around the tops of the high stone walls. My classmate was taken in one direction and I was taken in  another. I was brought inside one of the buildings and left at the top of a dark staircase. The officer  who’d led me there instructed me to go down the stairs. Stepping carefully in the dark, I walked down  the stairs into a damp, dungeon-like room. Suddenly, fluorescent lights flickered on above me. I noticed  a figure in a jail cell huddled in a corner, his bony spine visible through the dingy white shirt he wore.  The figure turned his head slightly, his eyes blinking to adjust to the light. When he made out who I was,  he turned completely and spoke in a hoarse voice. When I heard him call out “Yasha,” I knew it was my father.  

In just a few months, he had lost so much weight. He was pale, his cheeks were sunken in, and his hair  was thinning. I rushed toward the door of the cell and we held each other’s hands through the bars. I  asked him when he’d be coming home. He didn’t answer me. He told me to take care of my stepmother  and stepsisters (as you know, my own mother died giving birth to me, so I was raised by my stepmother). 

I wanted to stay in that cold damp room forever, because I had a terrible feeling it was the last time I’d  ever see my father. I held his hands tightly, but then an officer rushed down the stairs to retrieve me.  The officer violently ripped me away from my father and I was forced to let go of his hands. I cried for him as I was pulled back up the stairs. My father stared at me with his hands reaching out toward me.  He was too weak to call out my name again, and tears were streaming down his face. 

I was brought back to the black sedan. It was cold and I was exhausted, so I fell asleep. When I woke  up, I saw that we had stopped at a rural train station. I was brought inside and lined up beside other  women and children huddled together closely, trying to keep warm. I recognized some faces from the neighborhood where I lived, but I didn’t see anyone from my family. Some people had suitcases with  them, but I had nothing with me.  

A train pulled into the station with a long line of freight cars that seemed to extend for hundreds of  kilometers. The officers standing nearby walked over and rolled open the metal doors to the freight  cars. They instructed us to get in wherever we would fit. Everyone was forced to leave their suitcases  behind. Everyone was too terrified to speak.

In the freight car with me, among many others, was a mother, her infant daughter, and her two older  children. The train left the station and we sat there in the dark and cold without any food or drink. The  infant cried so the mother breastfed her to keep her quiet. But days passed without food or drink. The  mother ran out of her own milk and after that the baby cried continuously for a very long time. When the crying finally stopped, we all fell asleep for a while. 

At some point along the journey, the train came to a stop. There was silence all around at first, but then  we heard footsteps approaching. The metal door rolled open. With some light shining into the car, we  could see that something terrible had happened. The infant, still in suckling position against her  mother’s breast, had turned completely blue. An officer speaking Russian gestured at the mother. We  couldn’t make out much of what he was saying. The mother began to sob, but wouldn’t look down at  the dead infant. The officer picked up a burlap sack from beside him on the ground, untied it, and dumped dry oats all over the floor of the car. Then, he yanked the dead infant away from the mother’s  breast and tossed it into the empty sack. The mother screamed inconsolably as the officer slammed the  door to the freight car. The train soon pulled away again. Later, we ate dry oats off the floor and tried  to sooth the mother, but it was hopeless. 

Chrisho, we were taken to a labor camp in Siberia. I was told just weeks after arriving there that my  father had died of starvation in his prison cell. I never found out what happened to my stepmother and  stepsisters. I stayed in the camp for almost six whole years. I worked in the fields in summer and knitted  blankets and sweaters in the winter. I cooked, cleaned, sorted and carried crops, and mended clothes.  We worked nonstop until our bodies were heavy with exhaustion, and we ate and slept only very little. 

You were born in that camp, Chrisho. I can’t tell you much about who your father was, but I can tell you  that your birth made me happier than anything that had ever happened in my life before. You were  born into loving arms and you were nurtured. Your arrival gave me a new reason to be alive. It helped  me survive the remainder of my time there, and it gave me the strength and courage to come here to  Palestine after we were released at the end of the war. I wanted better things for you, in a better place. 

Chrisho, always remember, your Palestinian baba is as much a father to you as he is to your younger  brothers and sisters. He loves you like a daughter. He gave us a both a home when we didn’t have one – when we didn’t have anything at all. Like your arrival into my life, his arrival was a miracle too. And  he feels the same way about us – that we’re his miracles. If truth be told, we’re all each other’s miracles.  

Palestine, 1947

******

Translator’s Note:

I was inspired to create a written record of this oral transmission—originally spoken in Palestinian Arabic dialect—to preserve my grandmother’s memory. I wanted to do so in English because it’s the language with which I’m most familiar. There’s no source document available for it because the content was transmitted orally and never audio recorded.

When I began working on it, I wondered if I was in a sense disrupting the natural state of the narrative because I was changing not only the language but also the form. The story remained strictly oral for decades and held tremendous value that way because the impromptu spoken word has a rawness and authenticity that cannot be fully represented in writing. Also, Palestinian dialect is normally reserved for the spoken rather than the written word. For those reasons, part of me wanted to just continue to pass it down orally. Then I realized that in another sense, recording it in a new language and format can be seen as continuing my grandmother’s legacy in a unique and fitting way. With displacement, individuals are forced to negotiate all kinds of changes. Variations in things like language and setting are characteristic of migrant journeys. If we believe that individuals can experience events in a language, then my grandmother likely witnessed these events “in Russian” while processing them “in Polish.” Then, she eventually transmitted them to her husband, children, and grandchildren in Arabic. These experiences took place in three different countries, on two different continents, and in three different languages. Now, from a fourth country, on a third continent, and in a fourth language—I’m creating this written record. Perhaps this process doesn’t disrupt the natural state of the narrative as much as it echoes and embodies it.

*

The speaker of this oral transmission was Reem’s maternal grandmother, Yanina Koubatski. She was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1925. In 1939, she was captured by Soviet forces and taken to a labor camp in Siberia where she remained until WWII ended in 1945. After being freed from the camp, she migrated to Palestine with her young daughter, Reem’s mother Christine, who had been born in the camp in 1944. Yanina then trained to be a nurse and began to work at a hospital in Bethlehem. At that hospital, she met a Palestinian man named Ibrahim who she eventually married and had six more children with. Ibrahim was the man Christine came to know as her father.

Reem Taşyakan is currently a second year PhD student in the UCSD Literature Department. In her research, she focuses on Arab-American literature, exploring orientalism, cultural translation, and representations of the Arab world and Arab culture in Arab-American fiction. Reem was born in the US but speaks Arabic and has traveled to several parts of the Middle East and North Africa. In addition to her other academic pursuits, Reem writes fiction and poetry, translates works from Arabic into English, and works as a TA in the Making of the Modern World program.

32


32 (excerpt)

 

Komodo had mentioned, as we talked about her brother, that her husband in Sri Lanka didn’t live near her mother. She had married her current husband Prasanna, a month ago. Before him, she had been married to Mohammed, a Sri Lankan Muslim living in Lebanon. She herself is a Buddhist. And she hadn’t told Prasanna that she had been Mohammed’s wife here. She told me that women who marry in Lebanon gain a “no-good reputation.” It also didn’t help that she had married a Muslim. She told Prasanna that she had lost her virginity in a fling. I asked her: “so a fling is more socially acceptable in Sri Lanka than getting married in Lebanon?” “Of course,” she answered me, “It’s like nature itself gave that union its legitimacy.”

She had her first date with Prasanna over the phone. They had one long talk and fell in love, especially after they exchanged pictures. She went to Sri Lanka and they got married. Then she left him there and came back to continue working here as a house cleaner. She still sends him new pictures every now and then. The first batch she sent was of their marriage day and of the day before, which she developed in Lebanon. I saw those pictures. In them, Koko was wearing magical dresses. Saris, colors, tight cloth wrapped around her belly, a stern look that rarely relaxed into a smile, and an expressive pose. One picture remained fixed in my mind:

Koko with her girlfriends the day before her wedding. She was sitting slightly higher than the rest of them, her legs rigidly fixed on the ground, and her friends were sitting on the floor around her, all looking at the camera, including her, with her arms draped around them as though she were their mother or guardian. And she was looking defiantly at the camera, like a protective Goddess. She doesn’t smile in photographs. Photographs are formal.

In one of the non-formal photographs that Koko had taken of her in a photography studio in Lebanon, she was wearing green contact lenses. Her eyes pierced through the photo, alien-like. I laugh every time I see it, and she laughs at my laugh and asks me what I think of her sex appeal, and I say: a queen! Then we laugh together.

When I asked her how far her husband lived from her family in Sri Lanka, she told me very far, which I found to be strange. I asked her: “aren’t you worried he might cheat on you?” She waved her hands around anxiously, and her vocals peeked as if jumping for freedom, then she threw words around until she finally put a useful sentence together: “Listen to me, a man will step out on his woman if she is there, and he will step out on her if she’s not… He wants to step out? Let him do it! Am I right?”

A result of economic independence, I suppose.

Her ability to provide and put a roof over the heads of the men and women in her family, young and old, made her independent. “If he wants to come live with me here, he’s welcome. If not, then I’m going to live my life.” I was a little hurt to find out that in Sri Lanka her first husband took a second wife, a Muslim, to please his family, and without telling her. She divorced him. She lived with him in the same house after the divorce for about a year, because the occupants of the building where he worked as a janitor were fond of her and refused to keep him if he was single. They wanted a family to guard their building. So she stayed with him platonically. She kept her divorce a secret until he brought his wife to Lebanon. And during that year, Koko didn’t fall for any of his attempts to wheedle her back. Nothing could change her mind, even though she loved him and knew he loved her. She made up her mind and stuck to it. “Enough.”

This independence, I think, is what drives the women of my generation away from marriage.

Add to that the many divorces we keep hearing about, and the “I’m satisfied with what I’ve got” types of marriages that are followed by constant nagging.

He smokes cigars, Dalal’s husband. And Dalal told him over and over that she couldn’t stand the smell of cigars. At first, in the first flush of their relationship, he used to put out his cigar whenever she got bothered by it, and assured her that he would never hesitate to please her even if it meant his having to fly to the moon for her. Yup yup yup. A parade for putting out a cigar. Then the days passed, and they turned, and the wedding ended, and they were no longer stars to their families and friends. Their glow faded, and they became just another normal couple… naturally. And that’s when he stopped putting out his cigar for her. That’s the main reason she’s so annoyed by him. He fills the air around her with cigar smoke early in the morning. She gets suffocated by the smell. And then the concept of the whole thing suffocates her even more. And her life becomes a cycle, circular like the body of a cigar. The cigar became the purpose for Saeed’s (her husband’s name is Saeed) existence. His life is meaningless without the thing he cherishes most: his cigar.

Then he’d go on about the thighs of the Cuban women who rolled his cigar especially for him. The Cuban women whose beauty Lebanese women only dream of. Oh my, those Cubans.

And Dalal would start making fun of him: “beautiful, yeah, but they rolled that cigar for you? Just for you? Some Cuban girl rolled that cigar especially for you? Believe me, one look at you and she’d quit her job. God, if she met you, she’d set herself on fire.”

Dalal defends her feminism in the face of Saeed’s attacks. And she is repulsed when Saeed struts around the house like a peacock. But, where would he strut if not in his own house?

And their shared life became a living hell.

I’m certain that the cigar is not the main reason for their marriage trouble, even though I myself go crazy every time I get stuck in a bar or café with someone smoking a cigar. I don’t understand this invasion of personal space! It’s the same with the sound of smacking gum. How can people invade other people’s personal space like that? Unhesitantly, carelessly, unaware that they’re committing assault.

Despite that, I’m sure that the problem between Dalal and Saeed is not the cigar. The problem is their coexistence. Such a life is no longer comfortable or possible, and the thought of marriage is no longer seductive. They both began to hate each other, and their lives turned into constant daily revenge upon one another. As if, now that she was his, he no longer needed to be mindful of her. And she felt as if she had lost her connection to her true self, and she could no longer tolerate his getting in the way.

I’m aware that there are more serious divorces, where the couples tear each other apart, but Saeed and Dalal’s divorce became more of a retreat than a divorce. They wanted their old lives back and no longer wished to live their current reality.

And that’s when old age comes up.

Every day at work, Dalal described to me an episode in her married life. And at that point, we usually started talking about old age. Her parents would tell her that Saeed would make a good partner for her when they grow old, so she should put up with him. She told me: what if I tolerate him and he dies of a heart attack ten years from now? Or what if I kill him before he reaches old age? How can I sacrifice the best years of my life, only to grow old and still have to face him, like a bad job? And what if he gets sick, coughing constantly, and ordering me around; me, who’d be old too, and would have to take care of him. And what if he divorces me then? What if he gets run over a year from now? What if I die young and never reach old age? Should I spend the best years of my life waiting for either death or old age? I can’t stand him! Geez.

After four years of marriage, they got divorced.

His family dragged her reputation through the mud. Lazy, doesn’t cook, doesn’t take care of her house, doesn’t want to get pregnant because it would ruin her figure, neglectful, dirty, reckless , goes out too much, works too little, spends too much, of her money and his,…

And her family dragged his reputation through the mud too. Grumpy, arrogant, a mama’s boy, cheap, lazy, smokes cigars from the crack of dawn, neurotic, never likes to go anywhere, rarely ever showers, insults her, …

I also know more dignified and less messy divorces. And I know of mature and conscious divorces, more like separations than anything. And there are divorces of couples with children, that are accompanied by whispering and references to the ex’s positive traits. The woman would say: “he’s my son’s father.” And the man would say: “she’s my son’s mother.” And “as we entered this marriage gracefully, we will exit it gracefully.” And as Abu Nuwas once said, “Don’t blame me, for blame is tempting.”

And I know of divorces in between: sneering put-downs would hang from the couples’ lips, but their mouths would refuse to utter it. The supportive listeners would ask for criticism, and the hero would offer some, but he would hold back from speaking the insult that was on the tip of his tongue, because he’s more moral than that. And the same goes for the woman too. Cursing each other becomes a matter where friends must blackmail, and wait, and anticipate, just like when the two were preparing for their wedding. And so, they both restore part of their glow. Restraining from calling each other names becomes an indication of their personal exceptional morals… more admiration follows, then a round of applause.

I also know of a disastrous divorce, where my friend Zumurrud advised the wife – a mother – to stop cursing the father in front of their four-year-old. The mother, Zena, told Zumurrud that it was hard for her to restrain herself, considering what she had to go through with her ex, but that she would try. The main problem was her parents who began to spread more gossip than usual about the ex.

The kid would sit and listen. Then he would jump up and start to play hyperactively, as if he wanted to run away from the voice destroying his father’s image. After having witnessed one of these moments of madness, and after having given up on trying to restrain her parents, her providers, who are free to talk about whatever they felt like – Zena resorted to asking her parents to use a nickname for the father (whose original name is Mahmoud) whenever they wanted to pluck his feathers like a chicken, so to speak. She explained to them that her request was purely for the purpose of protecting her son’s emotional health and not to preserve the ex’s social image. And, she added, Zumurrud was the one behind these instructions, in order to bolster her credibility.

Two weeks later, Zumurrud visited Zena at her parents’ house, where the family gathered in the living room, including the little boy, Abd al-Latif (named after his grandfather,) who kept spinning around himself. The grandmother initiated the conversation laughing (within earshot of the boy): In order to please our psychoanalyst, Sitt Zumurrud, and to put our daughter’s mind at ease, we will refer to that piece of lard as “Tarzan.”

And they went on talking about Tarzan, and the conversation intensified and expanded, and Tarzan was sullied, and trampled on, and drowned in the mud, then in the toilet. Tarzan… Mahmoud, woops slipped out, I mean Tarzan… even his son, even his own son (gesturing towards ‘Abd al-Latif)… Tarzan’s son!

Ha ha ha.


By Sarah Mandour
translated, from the Arabic, by Nicole Fares

 
Nicole Fares
is currently completing her MFA in translation and creative writing at the University of Arkansas. She has translations and articles published in Jadaliyya, YouthLeader magazine, AUST Midwek, etc, and is is currently working on translating the novel 32 by the Lebanese-Egyptian writer Sahar Mandour.

Sahar Mandour is currently working in Assafir, and completing a fellowship at Oxford University, where she was selected for the Said-Asfari Fellowship within the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. She has published 4 novels.