Adnan's a member of my writing group, the mighty Fiction Forge (we haven't perfected a secret handshake yet, but we're working on it). He describes himself as a Bosnian Swede - he left Bosnia and settled in Sweden in 1993. He's just finished his PhD in English Lit and he teaches a course on love and its discontents at Stockholm University, plus he's spent many years working with people with disabilities. On top of all this, of course, he's a writer - his short stories and non-fiction have been published all over the place and he's the author of [Refuge]e, Illegitimate and the book we're hearing all about on this tour, Thinner Than A Hair. If that isn't enough talent for you, Adnan's also a film-maker (check out his website for more info) and he blogs here.
Intense, yeah? So I bet you're wondering what's the deal with Thinner Than A Hair. Well, it won Cinnamon Press's novella competition, and it's about Fatima, a young Bosnian girl who gets caught up in the escalating tensions when war breaks out. She's in love with Aziz, a man who's got his own problems, what with his male AND female genitalia. Fatima's got to work out her feelings for her lover while deciding whether to stay in Bosnia or flee, leaving her family behind. The book's about refugees, gender roles, trauma, genocide and prostitution - and plenty else besides. It's harsh stuff - the choices Fatima has to make are brutal - but it's fascinating to read an insider account of the Bosnian war. It's not an autobiographical text - though Adnan did himself leave Bosnia as a refugee - but this is still a war that hasn't been (I think) very well documented (yet) in English-language literature.
So what I'm going to do here is to post the first two chapters of Thinner Than A Hair, so that everybody who's been following the blog tour gets to sample the goods. Then, suitably tantalised, you can go out and buy the thing. Right? If you want to catch up on the previous stops, click over to the blogs of these fine people: Paula Phillips, Kathryn Magendie, Caroline Davies, Clare Dudman, Tom Vowler, Joakim Jahlmar, Tania Hershman, Nik Perring and (last week) Rachel Fenton. Next week, Vanessa Gebbie will be wrapping up the tour.
And now - drumroll! - here are the first two chapters of Adnan Mahmutovic's Thinner than A Hair.
Even dew is heavy in Dachau. When water drops roll down the strands of grass and disappear in cracked soil, the grass vibrates like strings of my father’s shargija, which he used only when singing old Bosnian songs of love and religion. Every morning, I’d follow my father’s tradition to step out barefoot across our lawn, stand squinting in the cold sunshine, then collect the dew in the deltas of my palms, and wash my face as if performing the Muslim ritual before the first prayer.
I press my palms against the damp cellar wall, trying to feel the dew and hear the singing grass. This morning, I hide like I did in 1993 in my motherland, my ears cocked for the sound of barking German shepherds, and police sirens. The immigration officers are coming for me today. I can feel it; it’ll happen today, on Valentine’s day.
To stop thinking about handcuffs and boisterous German voices, I break my nail clipper carving my name in the wall: Fatima. I speak out loud, but not too loud, ‘Mum, Dad, Aziz, please forgive me. I should never have left you. I have been the worst daughter, the nastiest lover.’
Daughter, lover, illegal immigrant, and now, a broke prostitute. How in God’s name have I managed to do this? As if I’m a pebble that a boy once flung across a river and it only touched the water in four places.
My mind seems to have packed and hidden away most of my growing up and my innocence, as if there never was any, as if I’ve always been twenty-six. At this moment, thinking of where I am and what I do for a living, it’s hard to believe that a whore could once have been a child, a virgin, a different person altogether. Or perhaps not altogether, perhaps just a little bit different. Can I revisit another time and place without bringing along who I am now? Can I rerun some past love in my head without, at the moment, being in the mood for love?
I can’t decide whether everything I went through was a long preparation for who I am. Our local imam once said, ‘Everything’s written and if God plays dice with us,’ here he whispered words of repentance, as if for a sin committed, ‘then they might be loaded.’ But fate’s a different kind of writing. It’s getting the whole package delivered at birth that makes my life one grand project of opening all the small boxes inside the big one. In the end, when I’ve unwrapped everything, all smells, paints, tints, textures and gestures, there will hardly be enough left of me to scare all the stray crows come to pick at my bones when I’m dead. I know how I was born. Father must have told me a thousand times in his strong mild voice. Mum gave me her version too, but I like Father’s better.
Every Woman is a Faith
A woman’s bones go out of joint in labour, my mum used to say. In Bosnia, tradition prescribes that a woman rest for forty days and nights before jumping back to her chores. Minding the baby is quite enough. That worked well for my mother back in 1974, in the Bosnian countryside. She followed the tradition, even though she was a damn houseproud woman. She’d whitewash the inner walls of the house every couple of months. Even her friends with heavysmoking husbands said anything more than twice a year was nothing short of madness, especially in wintertime. Mum would look at the impeccable walls, her skin pores full of lime, proud like a patriot before a flag, chanting her favourite proverb, ‘The house rests on a woman and not on the ground.’
I didn’t fall into the world on some politically significant day or night, at a cut in the country’s history like that Indian boy Saleem I read about in literature class. I was born on Midsummer Day 1974, through an incision made to enlarge my mother’s opening. I was not washed by patriotic tears, but by maternal tears caused by terrible labour pains, because I was coming out butt-first. She never stopped reminding me of that, saying to me, ‘I thought I was going to explode. You took twenty hours to come out. They cut me and pulled you out with this metal thing. I screamed. I thought your head was going to fall off.’ But that wasn’t the whole deal. I was pulled out first, and my twin brother fell victim to my urge to be first. I paved his way yet cut off his breath with my umbilical cord. The nurses took me out of the room and washed me with hot water. I still have burn marks, map-like patches of slightly darker skin on my neck, back, and behind. Then they wrapped me in cotton nappies and tightened my entire body with a long linen belt to make my body straight and strong. Finally, they separated me from Mum for three days. Once Mum had recovered enough for breastfeeding, they brought me back. I looked like a well-wrapped loaf of bread with a reddish, burnt crust in white paper.
It would take seventeen years for Mum to tell me about my Gemini. I wonder what he was like? Perhaps he was the mirror image of me.
‘You were the most beautiful baby in the world, little rainbow,’ Father always said. He told me other things too, which I put together in my head like a short film. I was only a few weeks old, but my parents’ stories were so vivid that it was as though I had my own magical memories. My mind filled in details, things I imagine must have happened, my parents’ feelings, the subtle movements of their faces and bodies, the smells in the air. Everything is there, and it feels great, imagining my own origin, re-inventing that single moment of innocence. I’ve earned the right to some nostalgia.
On a cool August dawn, after my mother’s forty-day period, I was suckling her. As she lay beside me, I imagine she was thinking of the first thing she’d have to do the following day. Two months earlier, in anticipation of the babe, my father had whitewashed the whole house and it had the uncanny smell of home.
That morning he pushed open the screen door to the veranda. A cool draught brought in the thick, bittersweet smell of painted wood from the newly painted fence Father had put up so I wouldn’t fall out once I began to walk. He yelled out to my mother, ‘Come on, Safija! You have to see this.’
Mum rose up, nagging as much as her early-morning, pre-coffee energy levels allowed, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m coming. Don’t you see what I’m doing? I got up three hours before you. This girl’s just hungry all the time, but she won’t take the nipple. Maybe I have no milk left. I just don’t know…’
She wanted to show that Father wasn’t the one who gave the orders. Even if she always did as he said, she at least made sure she was still in charge of the spoken word.
She pulled up her black silk skirt, straightened her tired back, pinched the nipple that I’d let go of with her thumb and forefinger, and stuffed it back into my mouth, pressing my head against her breast. She went out to the veranda, looked down at me and said, ‘Just like that. Stop wriggling and grab it.’
The veranda was like an extra room, but roofless, with a thick trellis over large peacock-cushions and a low table.
Mum shuddered. ‘It’s suddenly getting rather chilly out here. I should’ve wrapped a cardigan around my back. You know how my kidneys are when it breezes cold outside.’
‘Stop talking and look up.’
She opened her mouth, as she always did when stunned by something. It was the largest, clearest shimmering rainbow she had ever seen. I began to cry and Mum kissed me on the forehead and caressed my blond, curly hair to make me stop, never for a second taking her eyes off the sky. Father turned back and his eyes squinted at the sight of a tuft of glistening hair sticking out from the blue-white baby cover. He closed in on me, kissed my hair and cheek, and smelled the faint scent. My ear was folded, the cloth on my head pressing it from behind. He set it right and kissed it.
‘Leave her be!’ Mum moved back from him. ‘Can’t you see she’s eating?’
The rainbow wheedled other people out of their homes as well. Whole families from the smallest to the biggest houses on the slope were gathered on their verandas or in their yards, looking at this marvel, which erased doubt, fear, discontent, and downbeat sentiments. The all-embracing enchantment was interrupted by laughter. Impossible to say from which direction the peals echoed. The words, ‘Look, Nisveta’s trying to walk under the rainbow!’ sounded sonorously from all kinds of voices. The mute dawn became a nonsensical chattering.
Nisveta was an old, childless, epileptic woman who had a stone-deaf husband. She had burn scars all over her face, arms, and even breasts. When Nisveta collapsed with spasms while carrying a cauldron of smouldering laundry, or fell on hot iron plates, it could take hours before her deaf man found her. Nisveta was testing the old Bosnian myth that walking under a rainbow would change the sex of the person who does it. I don’t think she believed it. Rather than becoming a man, maybe she just wanted to be something other than who she was.
To the people watching, to strive for the irrational was a sign of a withering mind and an inflamed heart. Fools, they can’t see the rain for the water, let alone the rainbow for all the colours. In those telephoneless times, the news of Nisveta’s desperate measures travelled faster than Nisveta’s bandy legs could carry her. Then a self-proclaimed tell-all, an old-fashioned tidings-bringer, ended up under our veranda, yelling himself hoarse, broadcasting in an oldfashioned way, ‘Nisveta’s trying to walk under the rainbow! Silly, silly woman! The heat melted her brain!’
‘Oh, shut up!’ Father cried at him. ‘You’re making a fool of yourself!’ Father’s seven-foot stature and his scornful gaze, topped by a pair of black and bushy eyebrows were not threatening to the man, who just leered back. The man pulled up his scuffed trousers, which were tied with a piece of rope, patted his green cap backwards, sniffed over his moustache, and dashed away, indulging his newly discovered talent.
Father turned away and came close to Mum. He embraced her and kissed her on the lips.
‘Your moustache is wet.’ She pressed her lips together, handed me to him, put her breast back into the blouse, and wiped her mouth dry with her sleeve.
He bit his lip. A line crossed his forehead and he squinted. He turned away and hoisted my little body. ‘Look, Fatima, a rainbow! You see the beautiful colours? There are seven of them, you know.’ Father, such a romantic.
‘Don’t bother,’ Mum said. ‘She’s too tiny to see anything. Babies can only see their mothers and nothing else. Especially not their fathers.’
‘She can see me all right.’
I yawned. He lowered his gaze from me and saw a panting woman leaned on a pile of chopped wood under the veranda. ‘Safija, look, there’s Nisveta.’ Nisveta looked up. He said, ‘Come over here. Safija will make us a pot in a moment.’
Mum rolled her eyes.
Nisveta said, ‘Don’t bother, my dear. I’ve already had a cup with Suljo. He gets up so early he even wakes the cock.’
Father said, ‘Let’s have another one then. Such a nice morning. Shame to run for work right away.’
Nisveta took another look at the shimmering bridge, which seemed to have moved farther away with every step she’d taken closer to it. ‘You’re right.’
Mum said, ‘Rasim, let her in, I’ll put the kettle on.’
Nisveta came up the outdoor stairs that led to the upper part of the house. It was built into the slope of a hill and the rear windows of the second storey faced the woods. Those in front were turned to the open space of the valley, so my family could see the whole town, and the small river Bobas speeding down into the slow flowing river, Vrbanja. Nisveta supported herself on the red façade bricks. It was a new countryside vogue, instead of a cement façade. She faced the heavy front door, and a half-opaque, round window through which she could see the contorted shadow of my father. She sighed. The door opened. ‘I’m sorry for bothering you this early_’
‘Don’t be silly. Come on in.’ Mum greeted Nisveta with a big smile, but was a little anxious to remove me from the sight of the tired woman. ‘Let me just put this little nuisance to bed. She can ruin your coffee break before you know what hit you.’
‘She’s a beauty, mashallah.’
‘She is, but she’s giving me trouble already. God knows what’ll happen when she gets older.’
‘I’m sure she’ll be fine, inshallah. Can I hold her?’
‘She’s a nuisance, really.’
Mum was actually afraid I would be affected by the evil eye of the unexpected visitor, afraid that the fate of the troubled woman would transfer onto the fragile little me. Still, she knew it’d be rude to refuse a childless mother. ‘I’ll put her here on the sofa and you can keep an eye on her, will you? I’ll be right back.’ Mum put me on my special quilt and disappeared behind the oak kitchen door. Father was on his way into the room, but he stopped and stood silently watching Nisveta. She grabbed me, held me up against her face and pressed her half-burnt lips on my forehead. Father went out to give her a moment. Raindrops hit windows. I shrieked. Mum and Father ran back in. Nisveta was lying on the floor next to me.