- an excerpt from an unpublished novel
- HAMID ISMAILOV
Born in 1954 in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan, Hamid Ismailov is an Uzbek journalist and writer who was forced to flee Uzbekistan in 1992 due to what the state dubbed ‘unacceptable democratic tendencies’. He came to the United Kingdom, where he took a job with the BBC World Service where he worked…
Amber entered the living room, where all her dolls lay scattered on the floor – her collection that she had been assembling her entire life. She was going to sort them out, shake off the dust, wipe and arrange them, if not on the non-existent shelves in the living room, then at least on the dining table – the only furniture, not counting a nearby lonely chair, here in the living room where she never received anyone. And if they won’t all fit on there, then at least she could sit them down along the skirting boards. She was afraid to expose them on the window-sill, behind the bleached and never-opened curtains because of the prying eyes of strangers, so, of course, along the skirting boards it would have to be! But just like with winter clothes, she had neither the strength nor the will to start this work today…
Maybe the bunch of keys was somewhere here, among the dolls lying on the floor? She could not bend down though. She hesitantly stood around for a while until she felt that the weakness was giving way to shakiness in her legs and a slight dizziness in her head. Amber did not remember how long she stayed in this uncertain state, all she remembered was finding herself sitting down on a chair and habitually turning on the lonely dust-covered radio standing on the table.
‘…and it was while I was reading about various workshops in Auschwitz, I was looking at women’s lives in the 1940’s, and I came across mention of a fashion workshop. And it wasn’t just ‘Oh, we’re mending socks for the SS or we’re sowing uniforms for the Wehrmacht’, this was a workshop set up by the commandant’s wife to create gorgeous clothes, so that she could go to concerts and so she could have this wonderful social life in the middle of Auschwitz – a concentration camp and extermination centre’.
‘It’s that juxtaposition, isn’t it, between the absolute mind-boggling horror of that… the lives of the… of the people kept held captive at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the luxury lifestyle of the Nazis who ran it, and indeed their families and partners? Were you… were you surprised by that element of this?’
‘It’s something I’ve been looking at more and more that beyond the race hatred and that grotesque anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime. There was greed and the absolute indulgence in looting artwork, looting luxury goods, looting apartments and so on, and Auschwitz was the ultimate example of that, that you have trains arriving sometimes with 10,000 people a day being processed, by which they mean murdered, and their belongings tipped to these enormous warehouses that were known as the ‘Land of plenty’, and in these warehouses about 3000 prisoners trying to eke out their life a little longer by sorting through the clothes of murdered deportees, and in these warehouses the SS come shopping, and they pick out perfumes that they want and children’s toys, and whatever tools, whatever clothes, and the rest gets sent back to Germany, and is handed out to German civilians as an example of, you know, how Hitler looks after his people here. Have clothes when you’ve been bombed.’
‘Now, your main character is a little girl called Ella. She is 14. Is that real, would there have been teenage girls working in this place?’
‘It is very difficult to find out the exact age of the women working in as it was known as ‘The Upper Tailoring Studio’, but it is well known that youth has a much stronger chance of survival in the concentration camp system. So yes, if you’re a teenager you’re going to look healthy, have more energy. And as long as you say you’re 16, that’s fine. Otherwise you classed as a child. So yes, very much teenagers and very young women working. The name Ella for the heroine actually comes from my grandmother, who was a young woman in the 1940’s, Lukkily safe in England, but she was a dressmaker, and so I’ve woven a lot of those memories of my grandmother’s dressmaking studio and her treadle sewing machine and everything into this story…’
‘…Lukkily safe in England…’, ‘Lukkily safe in England…’ – she repeated mechanically several times, as if trying to remember something distant from all those years back, the past, about which she was hearing, while half-asleep…
…She did not know when and how Lukki got his cobra, but all she remembers is that Lukki always had it with him, just like Uncle Rumo always had the monkey named Sam with him wherever he went. The cobra had no name at all, to them she was simply – ‘ahi’ – a snake, and Lukki was ahikuntaka – a snake charmer. This, in fact, had been the name of their entire camp, which at that time was situated at the foot of the hill, next to the rainforest, although no-one had ever had a snake nor a flute to teach it to dance. Maybe that’s why none of them were afraid of this snake, which Lukki would feed in the evenings, mercilessly beating it with his flute on days when he did not take it to the shows. No one except for her.
She was terribly afraid of snakes. Whenever their Mama, Enga, told them – the children lying under a patchwork quilted blanket – stories about the serpent goddess, she would recoil in terror, and cling with her tiny little body to her older sister Lili. But later, at night, when all the children, exhausted by the day and by the endless tale, finally fell asleep, she was left alone to face her fears, in which Lukki’s cobra was out of its basket and crawling towards them, reaching under the blanket and brushing against her, disguised as Lili’s leg brushing against her foot, or suddenly touching her cheek as the hand of her other brother Raji briefly landed on her face.
In the all-pervasive darkness, everything turned into snakes: every rustle, every sound, every moving shadow. There was nothing in the world that she was more afraid of. Why? She did not know. Even when she held her fists up to shield her eyes with them, cowering, snakes would swarm on the back of her eyelids, wriggling with their radiant colours. She did not give away her fears to anyone, not even to her older sister Lili, who seemed to know everything about her, for she had perfected her palm-reading on her tiny hand for days. But Lukki, who in turn knew everything about snakes, had apparently been notified by these creeping creatures about her incredible fears, so whenever he stayed home to train his cobra, he would find any excuse to call on her help – either to wipe and empty out the snake basket, with the snake first removed, or to bring over from the hut yet another pumpkin flute, with which he would gather up the cobra, hissing and wandering in its aggressive stance. He even made her touch its slippery belly – to know if it was swollen, while he himself would hold the cobra with both hands just behind its head and by its tail.
Oh, how she feared all this, how she disdained it! It seemed to her that the sticky slime was forever stuck to her fingers, and she herself was definitely going to turn into either a snake or bait for other snakes, and so, in secret, for hours, she would rub her hands with mud, unable to swallow the lump stuck in her throat. And as if to tease her, Lukki would show her a tiny scar between his thumb and forefinger, saying: ‘Do not be afraid, this cobra never bites, it just scratches…’
And yet one day the worst did happen. One day, when her Mama had left her in Uncle Rumo’s care and went out along with Lukki, Raja, and Lili, over to the other side of the hill, Uncle Rumo got drunk and fell asleep at midday, so she decided to climb up the hill to look at the other slope where her siblings were heading. The hill began with a loose mound, as some small pieces of coal and some Lukkish pebbles crunched beneath and hurt her bare feet. She then came across tree roots that emerged from the ground, and for some reason were slippery, as she discovered when she stepped on one, just when she was getting tired of having pebbles stuck between her toes. She slipped on one, and began to avoid them, not wishing to step onto yet another. The roots – small and large – became increasingly bigger in size as she walked on, and the very tiny ones stuck to the skin of her feet and clung to her like leeches. There, higher up the slope, where these clingy roots were interspersed with grass, upon finding a rough patch of grass, she stopped to rub her feet against it, fearing that this Velcro-like layer would stay on having lodged itself into her skin, but fortunately, the root pieces began to drop off. As she continued, the grass became thicker, and higher up the slope, in the distance, she could make out the beginnings of the forest, yet the stubborn mucous roots did not disappear from her path, rather, now they were hiding in the grass, though pebbles had finally given way to clumps of dense soil. Now, as she had stopped to wipe her feet against this soil, her heels cleaned off easily, but the clumps of earth remained stuck to the rest of her foot, peeling off with more reluctance.
She remembers stretching out her foot, as she tried to get rid of this sticky mass, scrubbing it with all her might against a patch of tougher, taller grass, and the hard ground beneath it, when suddenly her foot came in contact with something soft and tense hiding in this very spot – and that was the last thing she could remember, before a sharp, double-pronged pain pierced her ankle, as it occurred to her that it must have been a snake, and she collapsed on the hillside…
(An excerpt from his unpublished new novel ‘Amber or Good Morning, Midnight’ is published here with his permission.
Alephi expresses his gratitude to him.)