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This Is Not Civilizationby Robert Rosenberg
The idea of using porn films to encourage the dairy cows to breed was a poor
one. Anarbek Tashtanaliev, the manager of the cheese factory, had been
inspired by a Moscow news broadcast. From Russia the television signal
crossed the Kazakh steppes, was beamed to Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital,
and then relayed up and over the Tien Shan range and into desolate pockets
of the new nation. If the Central Asian weather was favorable, the forgotten
village of Kyzyl Adyr–Kirovka received the world news. As a result, one
Wednesday Anarbek discovered that the Chinese had successfully used
taped videos of fornicating bears to coax pandas to breed. The possibility of
increased productivity based on a regimen of bovine erotica seemed
promising. And the scheme had the single merit of all brilliant ideas: it was
Anarbek purchased dated Soviet video equipment across the
Kazakh border in the Djambul bazaar. He kept factory workers on a twenty-
four-hour watch to record, on tape, the next time the bulls went at it. But the
workers had no luck that fall. In the spring he sent his employees up the
shepherd hill next to the reservoir with an order to film copulating sheep.
Thirty days later they had recorded over four and a half hours of tape. The
following summer they projected this film each night, in color, onto the
factory walls, for the enjoyment of the cows.
The animals were indifferent to the lusty films, and the scheme
cost the failing cheese factory a month's wages. By the end of the winter
only eleven Ala Tau cows and two bony Aleatinsky bulls remained.
Production had ceased.
Anarbek managed the only collective in the mountain village.
During the lean years of glasnost and perestroika, and the optimistic but still
lean years of independence, Anarbek had watched his veterinarian pack up
for Russia, the feed shipments dwindle, the wormwood climb the concrete
walls, the electricity fail, the plate coolers rust, the cows die, and his workers
use their lunch hour to hawk carrots and cabbage in the village bazaar. The
cheese factory no longer produced cheese. Yet every week in the factory's
old sauna, raising a glass of vodka, wearing only a towel wrapped around his
bulging stomach, Anarbek told his friends, "We're still making a profit."
He was well aware it was false money. Amid the collapse of
Communism, in the extended bureaucratic mess of privatization, the new
government continued to support the state-owned collective. A sudden
change in the village name had caused the oversight. With a burst of post-
independence pride, an official had decreed Soviet Kirovka henceforth be
called by its Kyrgyz name, Kyzyl Adyr. Now nobody knew what to call it
(Kyzyl Adyr? Kirovka? Kyzyl Adyr–Kirovka? Kirovka–Kyzyl Adyr?). The
capital could not keep up with such details. The village appeared by different
names on scattered government lists, and the factory had yet to be
privatized. The machinery had stopped, but the Communist salaries kept
Kyzyl Adyr–Kirovka was a cosmopolitan village isolated in the
mountains of northwestern Kyrgyzstan. Anarbek's neighbors were mostly fair-
skinned Kyrgyz, but also included Russians desperate to repatriate, and
Kurds, and Uzbeks, and the Koreans whose grandparents Stalin had exiled
to Central Asia. Everyone benefited from the government oversight. For
Anarbek was generous; he knew the money was neither rightfully his nor the
factory's, so he kept on his original thirteen workers, whose families
depended on their continuing salaries. The employees showed up at the
factory each morning, sat, chatted, and drank endless cups of chai.
Everyone in the village understood that the cows were barren and
dying and that the cheese factory produced no cheese. But what good would
come of reporting it? Money that did not find its way out of Bishkek would
sink into the pockets of the minister of finance, an official rumored to drive a
Mercedes-Benz at excessive speed through the streets of the capital,
weaving between potholes, honking at donkey carts, trying to run over the
poor. A Mercedes- Benz! While the people of Kyzyl Adyr–Kirovka suffered!
For the village, money mistakenly sent from the capital was money they
deserved. Anarbek, after all, was a modern, educated Soviet man— he had
studied management one summer in Moscow—and the village had
confidence he could still turn things around.
On a Wednesday evening, in the heat of the factory sauna, he
defended his fertility scheme to six of his neighbors and coworkers. The men
nodded in complicit agreement. Only Dushen, the assistant manager of the
cheese factory and a man too practical for his own good, broke the spell with
a question grounded in reality: "Maybe the quality of projection was bad?"
The men clicked their tongues and shook their wet heads; two of
them leaned over and spit onto the hot stones. The spit sizzled into thin
wisps of steam. Anarbek sighed. Independence should have been a time of
optimism, yet it seemed that brave ideas for improvement were consistently
ruined by such complications.
Radish, the head doctor of the village hospital, opened the sauna
door, and a stiff gust of air, fresh as a cool river, flowed into the room.
Entering, the doctor banged the door behind him, turned his bare jellylike
chest around, and announced, "News, my friends! News! The minister of
education, from Talas, came by this morning."
"That son of a bitch," said Bulut, the town's appointed mayor, its
"Screw the whole lot of them," said Dushen.
"Send them back to Moscow," Anarbek said. "Who needs them!"
He and his friends continued abusing government officials until
Radish yelled over them. "Listen. A word! A word! He has offered the village
"An American?" the men exclaimed in chorus, and burst into
"An organization called Korpus Mira." The glint in the doctor's
eyes quieted Anarbek. "The government of Kyrgyzstan has ordered thirty
Americans. They'll distribute them across the country. To hospitals. Schools.
Factories like yours."
"What do they want from us?" Anarbek asked.
"How much do we have to pay them?" Dushen demanded.
"This is the thing," Radish explained. "They don't want any money.
It's a humanitarian organization."
The words humanitarian organization, pronounced in Radish's
halting Russian, sounded like fancy foreign machinery. Nobody in the village
had ever used words like those before.
"American spies!" yelled the town akim.
"Thieves," said Dushen. "They'll take us over."
The men shook their heads in doubt, but Anarbek was intrigued.
He mused on the inconceivable idea of America—of William Clinton and his
friend Al Gore, of the war in the Persian Gulf, of Steven Seagal breaking
necks, of the busty Madonna who sang "Like a Virgin"—this America, their
new provider. He stepped down to the rack of hot coals, grabbed a cup of
water, and, using the tips of his fingers, splashed the rocks over and over
until they hissed. A wave of steam swirled into a choking cloud and raised
the temperature in the cramped room. The men stepped down to the lower
wooden benches. Bent over, covered in sweat, they rubbed their legs and
shoulders, and two of them moaned pleasurably, "Ahy, ahy, ahy," at the heat.
In the center of the floor Anarbek crouched on his haunches next
to Radish. "Did you accept this American?"
"I cannot accept," the doctor explained, snapping his
undershorts. "We, our village—all of us must demonstrate our willingness to
receive this gift."
"Maybe," joked Dushen, "she will be a beautiful long-legged
blonde." He too squatted on the tar-stained floorboards and hawked a gob of
mucus between the wooden beams. "Like Sharon Stone."
"There's a thought," said the akim. "Or maybe it will be some
wealthy man who will marry one of our daughters and take her to America."
"Owa!" the men agreed, and some of them repeated, "America."
Radish said, "They want you to find a place to house the
American. When she gets here, she will work at the factory, teaching us
English. Think! The economic journals. Communication with businessmen.
From any country. From around the world. New machinery you can order.
New products." He was waving his arms and turning from man to man. "This
World Health Organization sends the hospital a new piece for the x-ray, and
we cannot even attach it. The instructions on those damn things come in
Anarbek leaned forward into the steam and belched. "I will find a
house for the American."
The head doctor smiled at his offer and nodded twice. "But that's
not all," he added. "We must appoint one of us in town to be the Kyrgyz host
family. They will—in a way—adopt her."
One by one the men lifted their chins, and the eyes of each, in
turn, settled on Anarbek. This was his factory, this was his sauna, they were
his guests; they were yielding to his decision. He stood up.
"I will be the father of the American," he said, and patted his wet,
hairy chest. The ripples of fat absorbed the blow in a slapping sound, a note
"An American," someone mumbled. The men leaned back, and for
the first time any of them could remember, there was silence in the sauna,
deep and pure. For two minutes nobody moved. Stomachs rose and fell in
the thinning steam.
Dushen spoke up. "Who could have imagined?"
"The world is changing," Anarbek said, thinking of his dying cows,
of faulty video equipment, and of fornicating pandas in China.
The next evening, in the shaded courtyard of his home—.anked by two long
buildings, the tea bed, the stone wall, and the high steel fence—Anarbek
fanned the flames of his grill, waiting for Lola. The coals had reached the
perfect temperature for the shashlyk: the ashes gleamed red when he waved
the sheet of cardboard at them.
"Lola!" he shouted. "Lola, they're ready!"
He could not get used to her delays. In twenty-one years of
marriage, Baiooz, his first wife, had mastered the art of anticipating his every
need. She had always been a step ahead of him. How many times had he
asked her to do something, and she had told him, with her feline smile, that it
had already been done? Anarbek fanned the coals again, this time more
violently, then stopped and swallowed. He still could not believe Baiooz was
It was true what his friends said: no good can come from a
beautiful woman. He dropped the cardboard, lifted his heavy frame from a low
squat, and stomped toward the kitchen door. Just as he opened his mouth,
Lola appeared in the doorway, carrying the silver tray of marinated mutton
cubes, speared on metal skewers and covered in slivers of onions.
"Where were you?"
"I was slicing more tomatoes," Lola said. "I thought they were not
enough for you. I know how much you eat."
He looked at her face, her fresh soft lips: twenty-two years old,
less than half his age. An Indian scarf he had bought her covered her dark
hair. In the mornings she tied her hair up into a ball and covered it, like this,
but at night she brushed it out in long straight strokes. She was tall, as tall
as he was, and her lithe body seemed capable of great athleticism. She
always smelled of exotic fruit— her shampoo, her soap, perhaps. He hardly
"The grill's ready. The coals are red. We have to cook now, before
we lose the heat."
She answered him with her haughty silence but brought the tray of
skewers over to the tea bed. Their floppy-eared mutt, Sharyk, rose from his
guard position next to the gate and scuttled toward the meat. Lola bent and
smacked him on the behind. "Git!" The dog sprawled out, his head between
"Make sure he doesn't eat these," she warned.
Even in warning her voice was soft, so much softer than Baiooz's
had been. But he missed his first wife's flutter of activity—her noise, her
endless haranguing, her stubbornness. Lola listened to everything he said,
did everything he demanded. What kind of wife was that?
He placed the first six skewers on the grill, one by one, reminding
himself how well Lola took care of Baktigul, his younger daughter. That was
the important thing. And he was lucky to have a wife so soon. He leaned over
the grill and closed his eyes in the smoke, shaking his head. As hard as he
tried, six months into the marriage he could not reconcile this life with the
Lola was his older daughter's best friend. She and Nazira had
grown up together. Anarbek could remember the two girls at Nazira's eight-
year name-day celebration. The family had picnicked on kielbasa and melons
near the Kirovka River, cooling the fruit in the glacial water. He remembered
one May Day festival when he had bought them both ice cream and had paid
the village photographer to take their picture in the square by the statue of
Lenin. They still had that photo: the two girls in flowery cotton dresses, ice
cream running down their arms, Lenin's hand extended above them saluting
the mountains. Anarbek remembered a later summer, when he had worked at
the Kara Boora region's Young Pioneer Camp, in the foothills halfway to
Talas. He had taught the girls how to ride horses. Nazira had climbed on
readily, but Lola, at that time so short, so timid, could not get onto her horse.
He had helped her, lifting her from behind, and she felt no heavier than a
He opened his eyes and turned the shashlyk.
When Baiooz had died last year, just after independence, the
village mourned with him. But how long could a man with an eightyear- old
daughter manage alone without a wife? By October a feverish search began
for someone to replace her. With the news of her mother's death Nazira
returned from university in Naryn and took over the management of the
house, displaying a maturity and expertise beyond her twenty years. She
looked after Baktigul and did much to console Anarbek, but he had remained
unsettled. He felt an urgency to give his daughter her own life. She must
marry soon enough; she could not take care of them forever.
Six months after Baiooz's death, Nazira herself had proposed the
solution: Anarbek should marry her oldest friend. Lola was twenty-one and
had never left Kyzyl Adyr–Kirovka; she was waiting to become a wife and
mother. In an emotional plea, Nazira convinced Lola. They were almost
related anyway, and what could be better than marrying the wealthiest man
in the village? When Nazira informed Anarbek that Lola was willing, he was
shocked. He could hardly tolerate his own daughter playing his matchmaker.
He refused and, two weeks later, refused again more forcefully. By
November, though, his loneliness, combined with Lola's youthful beauty and
Nazira's stubborn insistence, changed his mind.
"Why don't you steal her?" Nazira had asked playfully.
He had considered. Once their nomadic ancestors—the ancient
Kyrgyz horsemen—had rampaged villages and stolen women. If the bride
spent a night in a captor's yurt, she belonged to him and could not return to
her home. After the fall of Communism and with the rise of Kyrgyz
nationalism, the tradition of wife stealing was resurfacing.
"But those are old traditions," he had finally told his
daughter. "We're a modern nation now. We did away with those ideas
seventy years ago."
"It's not a silly tradition," argued Nazira. "It's our heritage. Many
people are doing it. Also, Ata, it's romantic."
So Anarbek had followed his daughter's advice. One wintry
afternoon he spotted Lola walking back from the bazaar, carrying two
kilograms of potatoes in a plastic sack. He pulled up to her in his tan Lada
and cut the loud engine. She wore a long brown skirt that hugged her slim
waist and a striped polyester blouse that showed off her broad shoulders.
Without a word he grabbed her elbow and pulled her into the back seat of the
car. She struggled. It occurred to him to let her go, but he reminded himself
she was supposed to fight, that this was a sign of her honor. Before he
slammed the door, he heard her gasp. His heart sank. But when he climbed
into the front seat, he was uplifted by her muffled giggles, by the way she
folded her arms across her chest and stared with calm resignation out the
window. He promised himself he would treat her well. He brought her back
along the dirt road, half a kilometer, to the house, avoiding the potholes
hidden in the mud, driving as slowly as possible, as if the young woman were
a delicate tea set he might break with a bump. At home he led her to the
bedroom, where Nazira had prepared a meal of manti, a bottle of champagne,
and the silk platok.
Lola wore the scarf and spent the night. From then on she
belonged to Anarbek: his captured virgin bride, his prize, his consolation. He
offered her family a two-thousand-dollar kalym—his ten-year savings—more
than enough to uphold his reputation in the village.
Anarbek had nearly burned the last round of skewered shashlyk.
His dog sniffed at his side and cried two plaintive notes. The smell of the
grilling meat swirled around the courtyard, over the fence, and up above the
village, where it mixed with the evening scent of burning dung and alpine
poppies. Anarbek lifted the skewers, examined both sides, and held them
close to his face, savoring the smell and color of the mutton. He realized Lola
had not brought the bottle of vinegar and pepper, and he roared for her once
again. Before she appeared, he turned, and there, on the tea bed, next to the
plate of onions, the vinegar was already waiting for him. He laughed at
"What do you need?" Lola asked from the doorway.
"Come, it's time to eat. Get Baktigul."
"Shouldn't we wait for Nazira?"
"The shashlyk's ready. Get Baktigul."
He tossed two burnt cubes of meat to the dog, who gulped them
down in a single swallow and wagged his tail. Lola fetched his daughter from
the street. Baktigul appeared with her ponytails swinging, a young friend in
tow. The four of them sat cross-legged on the platform, tore off pieces of
Lola's fresh flatbread, and alternated bites with chunks of mutton, onions,
and grilled tomatoes. Here, Anarbek assured himself, was the picture of a
contented household. The man feeds his family, the wife prepares delicious
bread, the daughter comes to eat with her little friend, honoring the house
with a guest. Elusive happiness lay in such simplicity. Life would take care of
him; it would take care of them all. He watched his young daughter tear with
her teeth through a strand of sinew, and he lifted his chest with pride.
But before they had finished dinner, the two girls at the table cried
out and gave startled jumps. Nazira, his older daughter, burst through the
gate and slammed it shut behind her. The metal clanged. Nazira's chest was
heaving, and her hair, usually straight and shining, was a tangled, dusty
mess. On her face—the face of his first wife—dirt stains shadowed the bright
red flush of exertion. Her skirt was torn. She stumbled two steps into the
courtyard, the dog bounded to meet her, but then she collapsed to a crouch,
her head bent. Anarbek dropped his skewer of meat, but Lola was already up
and off the bed, running to her old friend.
"Nazira," she whispered. "Come in. Come, sit. Nazira, dear."
Lola kissed her forehead, but Nazira's shoulders arched in
spasms as she wept. In two steps Anarbek was standing over her and lifting
her by the shoulder. With Lola's help he walked her to the tea bed. Baktigul
gasped again. "Don't cry, Nazira," she said.
Anarbek handed each of the young girls another skewer of meat
and ordered them to play in the street.
"What's wrong with Nazira?" Baktigul demanded.
"Quiet now," he said. "Leave us for a little. I'll come and find you in
a few minutes."
He started to tell Lola to bring some chai, but she had already
returned with it, and was pouring. "Drink, Nazira," he said. "Be still, kizim.
You're okay, aren't you?"
Lola rubbed Nazira's neck, and they sat in silence for a few
moments while Nazira composed herself. Her sobs abated, then rose and fell
again. She pulled her hair behind her ears. Lola wet a cloth under the
samovar and wiped the dirt from Nazira's cheeks.
"I was returning for lunch this morning, after classes," Nazira
began, and then broke into tears again. She taught English at the Lenin
School. She was a steadfast teacher; it hardly bothered her that the students
immediately forgot what she taught them, or that they were the sons and
daughters of shepherds and would never have use for a foreign language.
Nazira was famous around the village for her lovely voice, and her English
classes eagerly followed her in daily song: "May There Always Be Sunshine"
or "I Can Clap My Hands, Thank You!"
She collected her breath. "I was walking just past the flour store.
A car pulled up. There were three men inside. Big men. I have never seen
them before, Ata. They ran out of the vehicle and grabbed my arms. There
was nobody around to help. They got me into their car."
She fought back another round of tears and nearly gagged.
Anarbek waited for her to compose herself. When he could no longer wait, he
tried to soothe her with a soft question, but instead his words rushed out in
uncontrollable anger. "Where! Where did they take you?"
Over her sobs Nazira explained that they had driven all the way to
Talas. In a concrete microregion, in a dark, cold apartment, they forced her
into a bedroom. There the mother of one of the men brought her bread and
strawberry jam, which she refused to eat, and tea, which she refused to
drink. The woman even opened a bottle of vodka, poured two glasses, and
raised a toast.
"To my beautiful new daughter. My son could not have found a
wife more worthy." The mother had then reached over and tried to wrap a
beige platok around her head.
Nazira fought her off, ripped the scarf from the lady's hands,
crumpled it, and tossed it into the corner of the room. In a soft voice the
mother tried to assuage her fears. "It's an honor, my daughter. You were so
pretty; you were the one he chose." She showed her cracked photographs of
the family that would be hers: her new brothers and sisters, an aging wrinkled
grandmother, her mustached father.
"They all had the eyes of a wolf, every one of them," Nazira
explained. "The entire family held one single expression: a sneer."
She told the woman she would never be her son's bride, no matter
what tradition dictated. After that she refused to speak. The mother grew
angrier, drank the vodka alone. For a half-hour she raged at Nazira's silence
and rained abuses on her.
"Finally she lifted herself from the floor. I wouldn't look her in the
eyes. I was staring at the bottom of her dress. She called me the worst kind
of donkey. 'Aren't you ashamed?' she said. 'Aren't you a real Kyrgyz
woman?' She slapped me here, across the face. When she left, I thought I
was free. But it was only starting."
The dark room filled with women: relatives, friends, neighbors, and
young girls all brought in to console her. They urged her not to revolt too
much. "Don't deny your destiny," one old woman said. "You should accept it.
You should try to find joy in it." Another said, "It happened to me too. You
may not love him now, but you will learn to love him." One of the sisters
urged her, "You are here already. You have crossed the threshold of this
house. If you leave, you will never find another husband. Don't shame
Nazira asked only one question: "Atam kaida?" Where is my
father? She knew they had to bring him to negotiate.
"Write him your letter. We will bring him here to name your price."
And she understood: writing the customary letter would be an
admission of complicity. She was trapped. She tried to steady herself, but
the tears rose. As the ladies stood to leave, the mother leaned toward her
and in a voice as harsh as the breaking of glass, quoted the old saying, "A
woman who comes crying into her future husband's house will lead a happy
The room had emptied. Nazira took in a long breath, but then the
man entered. He was the largest of the three who had pulled her into the car,
and he was dressed in the formal clothes he had worn for the abduction: a
gray wool sweater, pressed gray slacks. He had combed his brown hair so it
reached across his forehead in waves and had doused himself in barbershop
witch hazel. The smell choked Nazira each time he leaned close, and in that
sealed space it made it hard for her to breathe. The man sat directly across
from her on a purple and red tushuk and poured two overflowing glasses of
He told her how he had seen her three weeks before, when she
had brought a class into Talas for the middle-school English Olympiad. He
spoke with a husky voice, full of confidence and menace, even more
frightening when he lowered it to a whisper. He said, "You were walking
across the street from School Four, and I had every intention of stealing you
then. I would have, but I did not know what to do about your students. Instead
I stopped one of your boys from the fourth form. I asked him your name,
where you were from. The boy told me all about you, and he asked if I loved
you. He must have seen it in my eyes. Even a fourth-form boy! I told your
student, 'You see that mountain? The tallest one? I think she is more
beautiful than that mountain.'"
He rambled on like this for an hour, professing his love.
"Nonsense," Nazira explained. "He was talking complete
"Okay now," Lola whispered.
"Go on," Anarbek demanded.
He said his name was Traktorbek, and that he had been named
after his grandfather, who had been named after the tractor (a machine of
wonder the Russians had brought to Kyrgyzstan in 1948). He told her how he
had given up school to sell meat in the bazaar. He told her how many men he
had beaten up in the past year. He told her how much cognac he could drink
in one sitting, how women who came to buy his mutton fell in love with him
and he gave them discounts. He had not planned to marry so young, he said.
He had wanted to make his fortune first, then find an apartment in the
capital—he had been there once—where he had dreams of opening a gas
station. But he had seen Nazira, and his plans had changed.
All the time he spoke, he was drinking. Nazira hardly listened.
She asked herself how she was going to escape, and if it were possible, and
if she did, what people would say about her.
Traktorbek then squatted beside her and pulled over two thick
mats. Before she knew what was happening, he grabbed her face with his
callused palms. He was kissing her, pushing her down.
Anarbek listened now with pain. He looked up through the rustling
leaves of the courtyard at the darkening sky and then back down. He fingered
a piece of meat, lifted it to his mouth, then threw it onto his plate. His wife
looked away. Neither could face Nazira.
"I kicked him so hard between his legs that he shouted," she
said. "I've never heard a man yell so loud." She laughed at the memory, but
the laugh brought on a fresh round of tears. "Then he hurt me," she
murmured. Her head sank. "After, I pushed my way out of the room, through
the mother and the father. All the other people were there, as if it were some
kind of holiday mayram. There was music, and they were clapping and
dancing in the sitting room. They were calling my name and saying the worst
kinds of things. But I grabbed a pair of shoes at the door, and I've never run
so fast. I asked my legs to carry me like the wind. I was barefoot, and I ran
out of the microregion and into the park by the Ferris wheel, across from the
cinema. I hid behind the memorial statue and put on the shoes. They weren't
mine. They were the mother's high heels! Too small for me. I stumbled to
Prospect Chui—but look at me!—I must have looked sick. No cars would
stop. I was afraid to stay on the main road. I went off to the stadium and
hiked five kilometers along the river, through the Talas forest, all the way to
the otovakzal. A truck was parked between the buses, and the driver was
heading past the village. I begged him to take me home."
Anarbek sucked in a deep breath, astonished at her
courage. "You were stolen. You were stolen and you ran away." He was
trying to assess the extent of the damage—what, in these times, her escape
actually meant. He unfolded his legs and refolded them. In his chest a rough
pride swelled at his daughter's hardheadedness, but then a sharp dread
pierced his stomach.
Lola had misunderstood him. "How can you say such a thing?"
she burst out. "Look at her. Think of what she has been through."
"Soon the village will know," he said. "The bad tongue will begin.
This man, he was not the kind you could have married?" Both women stared
at him with open mouths. He was trying to think practically. If Baiooz had
been here, she would have known what to say, what to do for their daughter.
Now he imagined the excuses he would have to give in the sauna, the rumors
that would consume the town, the impossibility of Nazira's finding a husband.
He knew by custom that he was not supposed to accept his
stolen daughter back into his home—it was his duty not to. She had crossed
the threshold, and now she was spoiled. Still, they lived in a modern world;
these traditions hardly mattered anymore.
He stared at the table. He could eat nothing else. For minutes
they sat in silence and swirled their cups of chai. Above the courtyard the
branches of the plum tree swayed. Shouts flew over the high fence, sounds of
the children playing on the street.
A sudden pounding on the metal gate—too rough to be Baktigul —
startled them. Nazira half stood, then glanced at him, panic in her eyes.
Anarbek raised himself off the tea bed. He strode to the gate and
behind him heard Lola say they should go inside. The metal hinges creaked
with a high-pitched screech, like the call of a buzzard. Framed in the light
blue gateway was the very picture of shattered youth. The young man had
thin piercing eyes, and his wavy hair was disheveled. But he was wide-
backed and powerful, with a wrestler's build so thick, his shoulders stretched
the sleeves of his striped gray sweater. He did not bother with the customary
formalities: no salamatsizbih, no asalaam aleikum, no ishter kondai.
"Where is she?" he demanded, and staggered forward.
Anarbek's ingrained sense of hospitality told him a visitor must be
invited into the home, seated comfortably, offered bread and tea, and fed a
meal before he was questioned. Now, for the first time in his life, he stopped
a stranger at the door. He stretched a tremulous arm to block the entrance.
"You are not welcome in this home," he said. The impropriety
disturbed him. He was certain no good would come of breaking tradition. Yet
Nazira must not see the man again.
"I know she has come here," Traktorbek said. "The children told
me." He pointed down the dirt lane where his Lada was parked. Next to it
Baktigul and her friends were gathered in a circle, chattering around a boy on
a fallen bicycle.
"Nazira is here. This is her home. What would you like?"
"I would see her, agai."
"It seems you have already seen her. She would not see you."
Traktorbek searched past him into the courtyard. Anarbek shifted
to his left, and from pale desperation the youth's face turned to red anger.
The muscles in his neck flexed, and he stared up into Anarbek's eyes, only
then comprehending his entrance was blocked. For a long moment they
stood face to face.
"It is your obligation to return her to me. Your duty, and your
family's duty. You know the ways."
"These are old ways, Traktorbek."
The young man started at the sound of his own name. He
collected himself with new energy and glared, his eyes calculating. Nazira
had been right: the face—the eyes—held the menacing sneer of a wolf. "Do
you know anything about honor?" he demanded. "Do you think of your
family's name? Do you think of your factory's name?" His choppy voice grew
louder, and Anarbek could smell the vodka on it. "I will see her. I have made
my decision. She will come back with me. She has spoken with my mother.
Arrangements have been made."
"Arrangements will be forgotten." Anarbek fought to keep his voice
calm. Like this young man he too was prone to passion. He knew how
quickly, how often, he lost control of himself. But passion would not quiet
passion. He was guarding his home from an invading presence, but the
invasion felt larger and more pervasive than this simple lovesick youth
standing before him.
"I do not have to tell you again," Anarbek said. "You must leave
her alone now. She will not be your wife. She's made it clear. She will not
"She! She is a woman!"
"I will not have it either. I have other plans for Nazira." The word
America flashed like lightning across Anarbek's mind. He had no idea where
it came from. Quickly he refocused.
Traktorbek's body had stiffened. "You are obligated, yet you won't
give me back your daughter." He clenched and shook his fists. He reminded
Anarbek of the costs of this decision, of the shame he was bringing on
himself, and ended with a volley of grave threats, vowing revenge.
To his own surprise Anarbek remained calm. "Leave now," he
said, stepping back from the gate and pulling the door. The young man
clutched the swinging metal with his fingertips and cried out, "If you shut this
gate on me, you can't know what it means to be in love!"
The outpouring drew an unexpected feeling from Anarbek. He
nearly liked the boy for it. He respected the fervor of youth, its steely nerve,
its determined siege before a closing gate. How men suffer in the name of
women! Yet this Traktorbek was too young, too brash. He refused to face
reality, and Anarbek could not approve of the animal violence he exuded. He
would never have done for a husband; Anarbek could see that now.
"Son," he said, "you don't know what it means to be a father."
He pulled the gate harder, and the final image of rejected youth
was trans.gured into complete despair. Traktorbek's fingers slipped from the
door. The gate clicked, and in a single massive blow the full force of the
young man's body crashed outside, rattling the metal. Anarbek stood still.
He waited for the slow shuffling of feet, the quieting of the children, and the
angry growl of the car engine.
In the kitchen Lola and Nazira were seated on low stools. His wife
was kneading dough for tomorrow's leposhka on the flat wooden table. As he
entered, both women straightened up and watched him, unblinking. From the
sink, rinsing his hands, he glanced back at his daughter. Conjuring the image
of his dead wife, he prayed inwardly, "Baiooz, tell me I have done what is
He turned and reached for a towel. Their faces were set, awaiting
"You'll come with us tomorrow," he said into the sink, drying his
hands. "Two days from now the Korpus Mira inspects the house I've found for
the American. We must beat out the rugs and hang the curtains."
Copyright © 2004 by Robert Rosenberg. Reprinted by permission of
Houghton Mifflin Company.
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