IN MEMORY OF THE BOSNIAN GENOCIDE 1992-1995
Visiting Srebrenica was not a journey I undertook lightly. During my time in Bosnia, I traveled to many of the villages and towns where war crimes had been committed—their present-day loveliness standing in sharp contrast to the horrors these places had witnessed. During my graduate research, and later when writing The Unquiet Dead, the names of these towns would flash up in survivor testimony, in war crimes reports, or in desperate statements made before an immovable Security Council. It was strange, then, though only to be expected, to find that life had gone on, and that these communities had tried to move forward.
Under the bright glare of the sun, I couldn’t see how it had been achieved. Without reconciliation, with denial by the aggressors—with so little justice for these crimes, what could life be like in Srebrenica now?
The countryside was incongruously beautiful, the genocide memorial and cemetery a quiet oasis. The tombstones stretching into a boundless distance, starkly white against a green horizon, made the number etched in stone difficult to comprehend—8372 murdered in a matter of days, more than two thousand bodies still missing. And this number is not a final count. When asked about the missing, the woman who led our tour defiantly told us, “They aren’t missing. We know what happened to them. If someone hasn’t come back, he isn’t coming back.”
She described the difficult work of recovering the remains. One of her family members’ remains had been scattered over six different burial sites, and recovery still wasn’t complete—an attempt by the Bosnian Serb Army (the VRS) to cover up its crimes. A recent reburial was of a man whose remains had been identified at thirteen different locations.
And the work of identification and dignified reburial will continue into the future. I’m reminded of this by a billboard I see in the town of Ahmici.
In 1993, the Croatian Defense Council (or the HVO) joined the war against Bosnia, the carving up of Bosnia on behalf of a Greater Croatia and a Greater Serbia, the subject of the “deepest mutual understanding” between Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman and Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, a full two years earlier. In the spring and summer of 1993, two armies now attacked an arms-embargoed Bosnia, each perpetrating war crimes that defy human understanding—as we see in Syria today.
I didn’t write about this pincer movement of the HVO and the VRS in The Unquiet Dead—I had too much material as it was—but I mention it now because I visited Ahmici—site of an HVO massacre in Bosnia. Its small cemetery is full, its mosque was strategically bombed, its minaret toppled. A billboard with the faces of the dead has another side as well: the names and faces of thirty men and boys whose bodies have never been found.
With Bosnia’s official tripartite presidency—the office rotating between a Bosnian Muslim, Croat and representative of Republika Srpska every eight months—a national memorial on the genocide that encompasses places like Brcko, Visegrad, Prijedor, and Banja Luka, along with the concentration camps—is unlikely to be sponsored by the state. The Bosnians I interviewed said: “It’s impossible. There is too much denial that these crimes took place. We’ll talk about the war if you ask, but those who committed the crimes won’t. There’s an ongoing silence.”
This proved true in Croatia, as well. Those asked about the Greater Croatia project went silent, unwilling to talk about the past. No one was easy on the subject. I asked a Bosnian friend who is a professor at the Faculty of Islamic Sciences, about the publication of The Bosnian Book of the Dead—an official tally of war dead on all sides, and whether he accepted the finding of approximately 100,000 dead compared to the previously circulated and generally accepted figure of 200,000. His face solemn, he said to me, “I accept the methodology, the names, the conclusion. Is one hundred thousand dead not enough?”
I talked to men who fought in the war or whose fathers had, on the side of the Army of Bosnia Herzegovina (the ABiH)—Bosnian Croats and Muslims alike, and heard similar sentiments. Those I spoke to said the people had never wanted this war. They called it a war with no winners. They had always lived with others and would gladly do so again. They believed it was a war waged for economic motives, and they were certain they knew who’d benefited from waging it. A Bosnian Croat who’d commanded a platoon of Muslim soldiers in the ABiH spoke frankly about war crimes. “If we committed them, we must be tried. If others committed them, they should be tried. Whoever is guilty is guilty and must answer for it, it doesn’t matter who they are. But we were prepared to die to defend a country where we could live together.”
Every Bosnian I spoke to about the war made sure I understood that not all Serbs had wanted this war, not all Serbs had waged it. Serbs had weathered the siege of Sarajevo together with other Bosnians, Serbs had participated in the city’s defense. But that was Sarajevo. In “safe area” Srebrenica, cut off and besieged on the eastern border, the story was painfully different.
Visiting the town of Srebrenica after I visit the genocide memorial at Potocari, I'm struck by how small it is, how empty—how divided, though the tiny new mosque and the Orthodox church stand within easy distance of each other. The flag of the self-styled Republika Srpska flies in the breeze. The town is heavy with unspoken sorrow, the faces of its inhabitants deeply lined. No one smiles, no one greets visitors. And looking at the surrounding hills, I ask myself, “For this? To fly this flag and inhabit these few streets, the VRS killed eight thousand Muslim men and boys?” And I wonder who among the faces in the streets, if any, participated in the killing, as so few have answered for the crime of Srebrenica.
One of the Bosnians I interview has a Croatian mother and a Muslim father, an inter-mixed family like many Bosnian families. He has a Croatian name and dual citizenship. His brother and father with Muslim names do not, another of the Balkans’ post-war realities. As he drives through Republika Srpska—he calls it “an oil-stain that has spread through every corner of Bosnia.” Viewing a map of the post-Dayton Bosnian Federation and Republika Srpska, I’m hard-pressed not to agree.
The much-lauded and deeply flawed Dayton Accords of 1995 rewarded the genocide with the territory “ethnically cleansed” to achieve it—a ratification of genocide—with Srebrenica now part of Republika Srpska. The memorial recognizing the victims was made possible only at the insistence of an implicated international community.
The cemetery is a devastating place to visit. What is there to say about the sight of so many gravestones and so many grieving families? The former UN base at Potocari is just as haunting, the deserted factory converted into a memorial. Several scenes in The Unquiet Dead are set at this base. It is empty of everything save memory—pockmarked, shelled, the fence that was the dividing line between life and death now in good repair. My memory populates the field and the base with thousands of desperate refugees, and dozens of hopelessly inadequate UNPROFOR troops: the infamous Dutch battalion or Dutchbat. I see the abandoned buses that were used to deport Srebrenica’s women and children. And in the base itself—among the graffiti left by Dutchbat and others—a small exhibit. A series of black cases hold personal items recovered from the execution sites: spectacles, cigarette lighters, ID cards, Qur’ans and rosaries (tesbihs) that must have been desperately thumbed in those final hours. I ponder what it means that when you flee with nothing—doomed because of your religious identity, you take with you the keepsakes that mark that identity plainly.
I am able to keep my composure throughout, numbed by the graves and the long list of names memorialized in stone, until I see the ragged, recovered tesbihs. My mother uses hers after every prayer, my father’s use of his is etched in my memory. These men of Srebrenica were fathers, grandfathers, sons, brothers, husbands—they were beloved, just as my father, husband and brothers are beloved to me.
I pray—of course, I pray for the dead and their families—but I can’t find answers that make sense of the violence. All these years later, I haven’t. As I walk through the cold halls of the former UN base, staring at the photograph of the young woman who hanged herself—a photograph that inspired scenes in The Unquiet Dead—again I think, for this? How could so many men be killed for a flag that now stands only for their murder?
On the road into Srebrenica—the same road traveled by the Bosnian Serb Army during the days of the fall of the enclave—a single brave Serb whose house can be found along the way has painted a bold sign in tall Cyrillic letters. It is translated for me loosely as: “Even God finds us difficult to deal with.” The young Bosnian who drives me past it tells me he finds it reassuring. He laughs as he says, “This guy has guts.” And he recounts episodes from his life as a child refugee. Another Bosnian man speaks of living in his basement as a child to escape the bombardment of Sarajevo—confined there by his mother, desperate to escape into daylight, even if daylight was filled with artillery fire and snipers picking off people waiting in line for bread and water. I’m reminded of a Bosnian statement before the Security Council: “On Tuesday, there will be no bread in Sarajevo.”
And of Srebrenica, a Serb soldier once said: “In fourteen days, Srebrenica will be gone.”
Visiting the town, you realize it’s true—the old Srebrenica is gone. Walking the base at Potocari, you understand the how of it—how it was done, how it was achieved so quickly and with such finality. But the why of it remains as elusive as ever.
Later, I will visit Mostar, southwest of Sarajevo—once heir to a lovingly preserved Ottoman heritage. As Srebrenica was besieged by the Bosnian Serb Army, Mostar fell prey to Croatian forces—the HVO. Driving along the back roads into this part of Bosnia, Croatian flags fly, the letters “HVO” can be found spray-painted along the way, the entry into the town itself is quiet, and to me, Mostar—though thronged by tourists—seems shuttered and unbearably sad.
The Old Bridge that spans the Neretva River gorge—Stari Most—the city’s architectural treasure was destroyed by the HVO in 1993. Built in 1566, it was the last of Mostar’s seven bridges to fall. Mostar’s Muslim population traversed the bridge at night in search of water, during the siege of the city. It was rebuilt in 2005, but for the price of one Euro, you can watch a short film showing the destruction of the bridge, stage by stage. I was remarkably detached throughout my tour of grave sites and memorials, but here in a crowded store filled with tourists, watching the bridge fall again and again, I feel the grief of others catch at my throat.
If our culture and our heritage represent who we are—what does it say when that heritage is destroyed? How do we begin again? And why would we trade a generous and peaceable co-existence for this?
I ask myself these questions because of what’s happening in American politics today, and because of how often I hear my community, my friends and myself reviled, alongside other demonized groups. And I’m reminded that the genocide in Bosnia didn’t begin with the Srebrenica massacre—it began with the instigation of propaganda that targeted and dehumanized the Other. It’s a salutary lesson, and one to remember when any community is singled out for unworthy distinction.
I dig out my old war crimes reports, rereading the history of what happened in Mostar, and how it remains an unofficially divided city today—Muslims on one side (the east), Croats on the other (the west)—and I realize I can’t tell which side is which. There seem to be minarets and crosses on both sides of Stari Most. How and where are these invisible lines drawn? But Bosnians tell me they know. One man despairs of a place where families won’t let their children know each other.
“We don’t drink in their cafés, they don’t drink in ours,” he says.
Throughout the trip to Mostar and back, I don’t see a single Bosnian flag. And though we ask, we can’t find anyone to tell us the official Croatian narrative of the assault on Bosnia. In Dubrovnik, we tour the Homeland Defense Museum, and find an admirably succinct account of the Greater Serbia project as it pertains to Serbia’s war against Croatia, and Serbia’s concomitant war crimes. But on the Greater Croatia project, nothing. Our guide, a young Croatian woman, is troubled by these omissions. “There are no heroes,” she says. “This was a war where nobody won. What happened during the coordinated attack on Bosnia—no one likes to talk about it.”
First the crime itself, then the denial of the crime, then the silence. This happens in other places too—my parents were taught nothing about the Partition of India in their respective schools (at least a million dead on either side of the Partition lines), and I’m told that some schools in Bosnia simply don’t teach history because there are three different versions of history—so better to say nothing at all. But that classes can still be entirely segregated by ethnicity or religion doesn’t bode well for the future.
Somewhere at the back of a souvenir store in Mostar, I find a dusty t-shirt with the old Bosnian flag—the white and blue one with the Bosnian lily, and I feel a quick lift of my heart. My husband wore a similar shirt every time we organized a protest as student activists. This was before Srebrenica had fallen, when silence and inaction seemed abysmally criminal, as they always do to the young.
Twenty-four years later I’ve come full circle—relieved to find the Bosnian enlightenment still in existence despite everything done to stamp it out. For the Bosnians I speak to, there is nothing grand or defensible about the war. Or as David Rieff once called it, the slaughter.
I’m humbled by the frankness of answers to probing and sensitive questions. And I respect the silence of those who choose not to speak at all, for reasons a decade of research has made apparent. As happens in Pocitelj, when we ask questions about the destruction of the mosque. The vendor in the mosque’s courtyard shakes his head and looks away.
On a small hillside at Pocitelj, where the destruction of the Hajji Alija mosque is narrated by a poster, I see a sight that always heartens me. The Imam is seated in the forecourt, chatting warmly with a group of Bosnian women who have just performed ablutions before the call to prayer. There is a 500-year-old cypress tree from Lebanon in the courtyard, and in this tranquil communal space, I am made to feel welcome. The same vendor loans me a headscarf, and I enter from the main door and pray in the main space without being redirected.
In so many places, I meet people with my name or the names of my family members and we share a smile of recognition—brushed by the same sweep of history. At the Gazi Husrev Bey Mosque in Sarajevo, I’m offered a scarf by a young man with a wide smile who gives me the “believers-enter-free” discount. It reminds me of a similar encounter in Jerusalem, many years ago. Someone who comes to pray from a different part of the world is welcomed as a member of the ummah. My prayers include photography and no one seems to mind.
In Jajce, I posed with my husband in front of a sparkling waterfall, surrounded by schoolchildren on a tour, but I thought of a letter written by the Bosnian presidency to the UN Security Council in 1992: “The besieged city of Jajce has fallen to the aggressor.”
Ahmici, Travnik, Bihac, Vlasenica, Han Pijesak, Kladanj, Zenica, Bratunac—all names gleaned from war crimes reports—are now towns and villages I travel through or by, searching for signs of what has been lost. Places I don’t visit are mentioned again and again in terms that become definitive: Prijedor, Brcko, Visegrad. Every Bosnian I meet asks if I’ve visited Srebrenica—but more than Srebrenica, they reference the killing in Visegrad like a touchstone.
The cousins Milan and Sredoje Lukic were convicted of war crimes in Visegrad for, among other things, locking Bosnian Muslim men, women, and children in a house, and burning them alive—but in addition to Visegrad’s 3000 dead—killed in the early months of the war, three years before the fall of Srebrenica—there was also widespread torture and rape. A local hotel and spa, Vilina Vlas, was used as a rape camp by Bosnian Serbs. Victims of the camp allege that some of the perpetrators still work at the hotel. Milan Lukic—who was implicated in sexual assault but not charged with it—was arrested in Argentina in 2005, his cousin turned himself in a week later. But many perpetrators of atrocities at Visegrad remain at large, a deterrent to the re-integration of survivors.
There is a documentary on the “ethnic cleansing” of Visegrad that some have likened to a horror film. The words of the Head of the Republika Sprska’s Special Police are telling: “I was in the war and I saw a lot, but the information and stories about the Lukićes were such that even I was appalled by the things they did during the war. Nobody talks about the fact that these men killed hundreds of innocent men, women, children, and who knows who else, in a cold-blooded and brutal way.”
And of Srebrenica, even a figure like Milosevic said, “I cannot find words for what happened there.”
My thoughts return to Srebrenica. In his Statement of Guilt before the International Tribunal, Dragan Obrenovic offered these words: “I apologize to the victims and their shadows. I will be happy if this contribute[s] to reconciliation in Bosnia, if neighbors can again shake hands, if our children can again play games together…”
A genuine answer to this would be to repudiate the flag that symbolizes the killing, admit the truth about the genocide, and tell the families of the dead where the bodies of their loved ones are buried. Many are still searching. There are unmarked gravestones in the cemetery at Srebrenica, waiting for those who have yet to be found. I walk from Parcels 9 to 13, an effective numbering system for those who come to visit their dead, but one that is emblematic of horror.
As I cross the memorial complex, a Bosnian family traces the list of names, searching. A teenage boy hugs his brother, and tries to get him to smile. In the kiosk across the road, I find a CD of Sura Yasin, a chapter of the Qur'an recited for the dead. And at the Srebrenica exhibit in Sarajevo, a young woman cries silently in a booth that runs a short film on a loop. When you are a visitor untouched by tragedy, these are the small things that break you.
I write books to make sense of a suffering I can’t quantify, but there are some things I have no choice but to leave with a higher Power.
There is never real peace without justice, so a reckoning is owed to the people of Bosnia. I say this despite the war crimes trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Trials that have left too much pain unaccounted for, when the wound is still fresh, and the injury repeated by decades of genocide denialism.
Inside Bosnia and around the world, there are those on the side of the angels, who continue to work for justice. A formidable advocate for refugees, my Bosnian-Syrian friend in Ireland has now suffered the depredations of war twice. I pray for those like her not to lose heart...or hope.
And I think of the former soldier and erstwhile adventurer, who greeted the sight of a beautiful girl in Bihac with a proclamation of love for the city she came from. The last thing he told me was this: “We want to live together. It’s what we’ve always known.”
Ausma Zehanat Khan
Updated from June 9, 2016
It's publication day for A DANGEROUS CROSSING. The book is like a ship setting sail into the world, and I ran a contest using several of the most significant lines in the book. This one reflects the book distilled to its essence. And now as A Dangerous Crossing sets sail, I hope it will relieve the weight on my heart--the ever-present weight that was the reason I wrote it. I hope that the people who were courageous enough to speak to me about their experiences on all sides of the crisis will feel that the book treats their stories with clarity and respect. I hope that the book will make a difference to people's perceptions of the refugee crisis and the dire need of refugees around the world--particularly in Syria. I hope for a free Syria one day, with peace and dignity and freedom. I hope for an accounting at the Hague.
The Language of Secrets is due to be published in the UK very soon, and I thought I'd share the amazing job No Exit Press/Oldcastle Books does with the proofs for this series. Every time I see their brilliant design team at work, I'm taken aback that it's actually the same book that was published here in 2016. I love how the same work can inspire such different approaches. I also felt a little chill as though I was the one under INSET surveillance. That's how you know it's great work.
Secrets as a book is very much a tribute to my undergrad years when I was more focused on reading and writing poetry--the ability of poetry to communicate our fears and desires is one of the underlying themes of the book. Much of the poetry in Secrets, I discovered in the stacks of the University of Toronto's Robarts Library, sitting cross-legged on the floor, inhaling clouds of dust as I discovered names like Adonis, Mahmoud Darwish, and Nazik al-Malaika for the first time.
There's also a little nod to past history when I was an occasional contributor to my university's newspaper and contributed poems like 'Haifa Dream', and a passionate but uninformed op-ed on the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Perhaps the thing that is dearest to me in the book is a scene where Esa is having a personal epiphany about his identity as a Muslim detective in and of the West.
He thinks of this line:
These Lebanese children are wreaths on bits of firebomb debris.
This is the second line of a poem I wrote for a creative writing class in undergrad called 'Sestina of Lebanon'. We were asked to experiment with the form, which I got completely wrong, but the poem remains one of my favourites, opening with this pair of lines:
Crimson coffee is the morning cup
These Lebanese children are wreaths on bits of firebomb debris.
Politics, poetry and secrets. These are the keys to this book.
Gnu Books was undoubtedly the favourite book store of my teen years. I used to browse here all the time with my siblings, back when my sister and I collected X-Men comics, and my brothers a whole list of titles that included Alpha Flight and the Fantastic Four. My sister and I used to drive all around the greater Toronto area -- well, truthfully, she did the driving, and I did the scouting in those pre-Internet, pre-smart phone days -- in search of used bookstores where we could snatch up our favourite Harlequin authors, and where I also assembled an impressive collection of truly beat up Martha Grimes' paperbacks. The covers didn't matter, all that mattered was that I read and re-read those mysteries as desperately needing to know the identity of the murderer in question as the previous readers must have done. I'd also find Doctor Who novels, Star Trek novels, and a wide spectrum of fantasy on these quests. We'd check out old stores in Cobourg, Port Hope, Ajax, Whitby, Oshawa, Pickering, Scarborough (which had a treasure trove of used books), and less frequently the west end. Whenever we took a trip anywhere, the first thing we'd do is check the phone book for a used bookstore. Those outings were filled with episodes of the two of us getting lost, shouting directions at each other, taking buses to places we'd never been, sharing our money at Dairy Queens across the GTA, but always keeping the lion's share reserved for the books we wanted to buy. One of the nicest things about books for me is how closely I associate them with the best times I've ever had with my siblings. We traded books, talked books, copied books, learned to write our home-theatre plays and adventures from reading them--engaged, had we but known it, in some early iterations of fan fiction. When we moved into our our own homes down the years, we traded our X-Men and Star Trek novel collections back and forth, although somehow my sister has ended up with both, which reminds me that negotiations need to be re-opened again. Even after we all moved away, if we ever ended up in Ajax, we'd drop in on Gnu Books for old times' sake, and to snag another paperback we never knew we wanted. It's possible we spent more time at that 190 Harwood South location than we did anywhere else except school. Didn't hurt that the local arcade was in the same plaza. Kid brothers could be offloaded there without protest and met up with again in time to go home. Now the Ajax location has closed, but I'm glad to see Gnu Books is still thriving in Oshawa, where my Dad practiced medicine for thirty years. I hope that somewhere in their hearts they know how many hours of endless reading pleasure they gave to kids like us. And I'd be more thrilled than I can express if any of my books turn up on their shelves one day. Here's to you, Gnu Books.
I'm a week away from third anniversary of my debut novel's publication. By now, it's started to feel very real--as if Esa and Rachel are old and dear companions, along with the crew of friends and strangers who are drawn to them individually, as well as to the partnership they've formed. It's nice to know I can settle back into their lives, as if no time has been lost between meetings. But it's also nice to know that there are still storytelling possibilities that take me in new and unexpected directions. Working on the fifth book in the series, I'm thinking constantly of the first--which is not The Unquiet Dead, but a simpler story I told of the murder investigation where Esa and Rachel first work to solve a case together. Well, simpler in some ways but not in others. I've begun to think of that first book--Summer's Lease--and this fifth one as a pair of companion novels. Everything about them feels similar...the season, the atmosphere, the idea that something small and dark can lurk within our hearts unknown to us, until the darkness takes the shape of action and regret. I've been trying to name the themes of this fifth book to myself, and I think this might be it: how we make peace with the choices that we've made.
Speaking of nostalgia, I've been trying hard to remember concrete events in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, the Gateway to the North, and one of the places I grew up. I lived there somewhere between three and four years, and while there, changed houses three times. Before that I lived in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. Two things I remember vividly about that prairie life: we did our trick-or-treating in highly unmanageable but entirely necessary snow pants. And a lot of birthday parties were organized around a roller skating rink that I thought was called Good Times. I used to love roller skating, nearly as much as ice skating, though I'm only passably talented at either. Now in my memory, those family days and birthday parties often took place at Good Times. But searching PA archives, I can only come up with a place called Wheel-A-While, which strikes absolutely no chords of memory whatsoever. But there was a picture in one news article that looks so familiar that I think it is the place. The mystery persists. Does Good Times exist only in my memory or is it real?
Recently, I've been having a longing for books I read in early to late childhood and have experienced both the desire to reclaim them again, and the fear that they won't be the same as they are in my memory. One of the earliest stories that hooked me on mysteries was Peggy Parish's Key to the Treasure, but now of course, I'll read it with an eye to how it interprets and represents native American culture and history. I once read an extremely creepy story called The Tibetan Box, but I can't recall the author's name--I only remember the nightmares, and the desire to be scared like that again. Why? What was in the box? I can't remember! And then there was a story about a dollhouse that came to life and the characters who lived inside it. I could never get the story quite right in my memory, but after a gap of decades (!) I remembered the author was Andre Norton and the story (book?) was called The Octagon House. Wrong. It was actually Octagon Magic. I've tracked several of my old favourites down through Abe Books, and I'm about to find out whether childhood is better left alone. Wish me luck!
I spent a cold couple of weeks in Toronto, hearing news about how cold it was in other parts of the country and around the world. The famous frozen bubble experiment was conducted in the prairie province I grew up in - Saskatchewan. I was once accustomed to bracing prairie winters, but the mildness of the Colorado winter has eroded my ability to face those once-familiar temperatures without complaint. I swallow my complaints as I think about winter coming to the refugee camps I wrote about in A Dangerous Crossing: Souda, Moria, Kara Tepe. The UNHCR stretched to the limit as it attempts to winterize tents and inadequate shelters, tents catching fire from camp stoves used for heat. And families waiting in the cold for a future that promises only uncertainty and greater suffering. And as Esa and Rachel discover on the Greek islands, the welcome that waits for refugees around the world is as cold and brutal as the winter. That's the story I tell in A Dangerous Crossing.
Image is of Petra camp at the foot of Mt. Olympus, taken by Paul Carr in 2016.
UNHCR efforts in Greece
I was a teenage fan of the band U2, and this was the first U2 song I fell in love with, but certainly not the last. I remember the New Year's Day video, the cold, blunt, wintry landscape, and I lived in the Ravenscroft house where the nearby park suggested something similar. I had teenage angst to spare and even then was more likely to look back than forward. I think this comes of having moved so much. You're always looking back at the place you left, as a means of settling into the place you've now arrived at. I lived in the Ravenscroft house longer than I've ever lived anywhere and many of my happiest memories are memories of growing up in that house with my three siblings. A tv show called The New Music had just launched and U2 was all the rage, and New Year's Day had that wonderful solidly pinging piano that felt like it was knocking against your head and your heart at the same time. Without having the slightest idea what that song was about, it became about my own life. I associate it even now with a time and a set of circumstances I can never get back. Instead of resolutions and vaulting ambitions for myself, New Year's Day -- the song and the time -- always makes me think of the Ravenscroft house. And the view from my sister's window looking out at the snow all the way down to the neighbourhood creek. It's something that Esa might have felt in the silent snowbound vastness of Algonquin Park in The Language of Secrets. I try to make myself -- and Esa -- turn the page, move on, accept the forward motion of life. But I love the intangible, bittersweet happiness that New Year's Day recalls. And sometimes, there's a quiet grace in looking back.
What sad fate awaits you, haunted by Palestinian ghosts.
Once seen, a matchstick to memory.
Once known, an eternal embrace.
Where I, too, have wept
at the outskirts of Jaffa Gate.
I’m at a beautiful moment. The first day of work on a new manuscript when the words have yet to take shape. At this moment, the book can be anything—a love story, a puzzle, an exploration of xenophobia in our world, or all these things combined. With Rachel and Esa, that’s usually how things turn out. I begin with one story in mind and other stories intrude, eager to make themselves heard. The research I’ve been compiling over the past year lends itself to three different projects—a Khattak/Getty novel, a work of literary fiction, or a television script. Each suggests intriguing possibilities. I am faced with the dilemma of what to write next—and to escape the rigor of producing a manuscript on deadline, I often long to write anything other than the book at hand. I conquer this by returning to the things I love about writing Rachel and Esa. He’s complicated, thorny, surprisingly sensitive and needlessly mysterious. She’s bold, clever, easily wounded, and searching for a place of refuge. They strike sparks off each other. They continually teach each other—and me—the value of empathy. So I’m asking myself what road I should send them down this time. The themes I’ve masked in the last five Khattak/Getty stories—should I bring them out into the light—without ambiguity? Even though I love ambiguity and thrive on resolutions that leave things unresolved? It could be time for Esa to face head-on the conflict between who he is and what he does. And it may just be time for Rachel to stand on her own--without him. This is what I say on the first day. But I know it will be different on the last.
Love Letters for Twelve Days
When you leave, the house becomes substance and shadow. I see things I never notice when you are there, and I realize how much of the space you occupy—both in the rooms around me, and at the forefront of my mind. There is a Persian endearment I think of--khubi/khubam. With imperfect knowledge, I try to reconstruct meaning from bits of language I glean from overhearing and over-reading, sketching our part of the world with words.
Khub—in Urdu, a word that modifies other words as well as standing on its own. Khubsurat—beautiful, but literally two words: khub—excellent/good/a great deal/enough and surat—face. To have a good or excellent face is to be beautiful in this clumsy translation of meaning. There will be much, there will be everything, there will be enough. As a Persian endearment, I ponder the possible implications of Khubi. My good one, my excellent one—my everything, the one who is enough for me.
I like to think that language can take these brilliant, dazzling turns—to provide a word that means so many things, that casually transforms an endearment into a description of everything someone is to someone else.
The house is enough when you are here. Khub he meray liye. Urdu.
When you are gone, khubam/khubi, because you are everything, the house feels like nothing at all. Persian.
Our two languages, you and me.
And you are always enough.
Silence. Every moment is so silent. We have endured these separations many times over the years. Sometimes you forget me as soon as you board the plane, sometimes I am so preoccupied with work that I don’t see the exact moment when your cab pulls away and I forget to raise my hand in that final farewell. But later when the house is quiet and Shiloh comes to visit from our neighbor’s house, I pick her up and hug her close and tell her, I know you miss him as much as I do. I know the house is empty without him. I know he is the source of all the joy and animation within these walls, and when he is absent, my heart conducts a funeral. Though I am from the West, the East is within me and my tradition is given to these elaborate emotions. I am married to the most prosaic of men, yet every day I rewrite our Layla-Majnun love story. Every day I make you count out loud all the different ways you love me. To hear it again now, I must wait.
I wait and wait and wait.
Knowing that when you come home, Shiloh is the one you’ll want to kiss first.
Even that, I love.
I wrote this for our wedding day because I love the idea that we can be rooted in a history we don’t intimately know, and its seeds can still bring us joy.
is an unknown city
from which has sprung
a garden of joy.
When you are gone, I write much more, because when you are here you take up all my words. All the words are for you—and how well you understand them. You don’t have time to read fiction, yet there are hundreds of books on your bookshelves, and thousands more in your heart. Strange then that you take these words of mine, you make these words, and you shape them all in your way. Just as we have been shaping each other in these years of our marriage—I have shaped you into a feminist, you have made me examine my cultural affinities more rigorously. Whenever we speak of the voices of women, and the casual, daily sexism women encounter, I remind you that you have eight nieces whom you love. When I cling to everything I was brought up with, you tell me to look harder, think harder, be bolder—I remember how in the early days of our marriage, we argued about when to break fast, and I look back at our younger, foolish selves with so much tenderness for the little battles we fought that meant nothing at all. But all the time they were teaching us and we were growing, reaching for the understanding that we hold now. Aware that our world is on fire, burning down around us and that we both have so much more work to do. We must be there to support and nurture each other’s gifts so that when we pass into the infinite everlasting, we can receive our records in our right hands and ask for each other’s company in the life to come—partners now and always. You will trade me in for a beautiful houri, I tease. And you say in return, there is no houri more beautiful than you.
Today is the day of the #CanYouHearUsNow campaign. You know that I am always the cautious one, the one who says ‘don’t go there, it’s too dangerous,’ ‘don’t say that in public, you don’t know who around here might not like us or be carrying a gun’. I have done my work in the shadow of truly courageous activists—I’ve written letters, called politicians, posted news on behalf of those who’ve been in prison for journalism/poetry/filmmaking/teaching at universities or standing up for basic human rights. They are the brave ones, I just observe and learn from the sidelines, and try to do my timid part. But on the day of the campaign, I venture my modest offerings and receive the merest fraction of what real activists face, and I am frightened. A woman I don’t know and try to engage as a human being demands proof of the hate I’ve been writing about, proof that I’ve been threatened. She hasn’t read or understood the spirit of my words. She doesn’t imagine—having seen the messages and cartoons I was sent—that I might wish to deter others from threatening me further. Or that someone doesn’t have to say “I’ll kill you” for me to be frightened of their implicit violence. No matter how many charts and statistics I pile up, she can’t be convinced I deserve to speak of the realities that affect my life. I’m afraid she will invite others to join her in this bilious fray, and I withdraw. She demands to know where I am from because if she can exile me with her words, she will have destroyed my access to my own humanity. She won’t comprehend that I can be from many places, belong to many countries, many traditions, and believe in our shared humanity. I imagine she hasn’t engaged before with a writer who has never been comfortable with categories.
I don’t sleep well, and I can’t write that day. The voices that keep me company dry up. I look around the house for you. I page through the albums, looking at photographs of our last trip. I see your smile, I see my smile. This is where I belong, I think. This is where I am from. The country of your love, the safety of your understanding.
You are gone, I lock the doors, I set the alarm. And I remember that while I engage in these polite affirmations of my inalienable human rights, you’ve been missing for twelve hours in a country far away, determined to do your best to change the course of the world.
It’s a beautiful country, utterly safe—its people are decent and good. It was the civil society activists who invited you to speak on your important work. But you warned me before you left—you gave me a list of names and numbers to call, you registered with our embassy, in this beautiful, safe place you were going. Even you—you who believe you would suffer no risk in Iraq—even you were worried. You said if you were detained, it would be at the airport and they would send you back to me.
But we know from a list “that lengthens like a bloodstain”, someone in your line of work is always at the mercy of the arbitrary rules of authoritarianism and never truly safe. I don’t know what to recite, so I recite Sura Falaq. I seek refuge from the black darkness when it is intense.
And I add to myself, “and when it covers the world.”
God bless you and keep you, my love. Please come home to me soon.
Also, today on the "Behind the Book" feature for AMONG THE RUINS, I'd like to introduce you to the Siosepol bridge in Esfahan. Esa Khattak meets the young dissidents Ali and Taraneh near this bridge that spans Iran's Zayanderud River. "They disembarked at the south end of Siosepol Bridge, a Safavid construction mounted on a series of pontoons. Its thirty-three arches burned like the embers of a giant's torch, an auroral glow reflected in the river. If a sorcerer had flung open his hand, so might the arches of Siosepol have sprung up."
Today on 'Behind the Book', I'm skipping ahead in AMONG THE RUINS to the part where Rachel joins Esa in Iran. They meet in Tehran but soon Rachel finds herself on a group tour visiting the Nasir al-Mulk or Pink Mosque of Shiraz, where she's forced to confront her preconceived notions of Iran. In the Pink Mosque, she finds "ample tranquility, an amphitheater of joy", and she asks herself what such celestial beauty has to tell us about the culture and civilization of the Other. Here's a rendition of the Pink Mosque's unique architecture. If anyone recognizes the photographer, I'd love to include a proper credit.
Today I’d like to inaugurate a ‘Behind the Book’ feature , where I talk about certain moments, themes or places in each of my books. Given that an election is taking place in Iran, it’s the perfect time to chat a little more about AMONG THE RUINS, the third book in my Khattak/Getty mystery series. As RUINS opens, Khattak is in the city of Esfahan in Iran, a breathtakingly beautiful, former imperial capital. There’s a saying known to all Iranians, and possibly to all speakers of Persian/Farsi: Esfahan nesf-e-jahan…or Esfahan is half the world. In fact, it is with these words that RUINS begins. As Khattak seeks peace in the city’s gardens, he receives a mysterious letter urging him to read the poetry of no less a personage than the revered figure of Hafiz. Khattak’s correspondent observes that instead of reading Hafiz, Khattak has a different book. He's traveling his own ‘closed circuit.’ This is a reference to a book of poems by the Iranian poet, Shadab Vajdi. I was given this volume of poetry by a friend when I was in law school, and the haunting beauty of those poems has stayed with me. Though the poems in Closed Circuit reference a previous era in Iran, their themes of exile and oppression translate to the present moment Khattak finds himself in, and to the murder he’s asked to solve. Here’s a look at the Naqsh-e Jahan square in Esfahan, where Khattak passes his days.