Life among Them, with a Dead Cat in the Chimney

 
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Tamanna Mehrzad

Art by Mohsin Taasha

The following story is the second in a series of seven stories by Afghan women writers from the GOAT Pol (the Geopolitical Open Atlas of the Polity of Literature).

 

I wake up with the remnants of last night’s grudges. I put on my clothes and get ready for another day. I want to take a walk. My legs are heavy. I wear a black loose-fitting coat and a niqab. The streets are emptier these days.

Most of the shops are closed. Maybe the shopkeepers, like me, are waking up with the remnants of last night’s grudges. And now they’re lethargic. I walk in the street. Sometimes my feet sink into the potholes, which are full of stones and garbage. No one has cleaned the streets for a long time.

A little further up the street, right in the middle of it, there is a hanging body. I look at it. My hands and feet are shaking. Yes, it is a corpse.

It seems to be not unrelated to the sound of gunshots last night. Some women are looking at the corpse and chattering. I tell them, “Why did you bring your children? Look, they’re scared!” They say, “No! They’re young children. They don’t understand!” I heard another woman’s voice: “They say he is a former police officer.” Another woman interrupts her: “No, he was a hostage-taker!”

Some passersby walk around the corpse with a smile.

I ask myself, did they kill that body with the remnants of last night’s grudges?

I get away from them and continue on my way. I cross the street. This year, there is no fish vendor. My mother and I used to buy fish from him every year. He was a tired old man. When you looked at him, you felt that he had woken up with the remnants of the previous night’s grudges.

 
 

It’s New Year’s Eve. This year is not like previous years. I am sitting alone in my room. My mother calls me to come watch TV with her. My mother’s heart is like mine, bleeding. And TV seems to be a bandage for us both. They are gone. I do not know where they are. I know that it is very far from here. And that we cannot visit them during the holidays and go out for a walk together at two o’clock in the afternoon and laugh. When the shopkeepers see us they mutter something under their breath. Schools have been closed. Secondary schools. It’s clear that all young women are being forced to stay at home. They. The news is disappointing. It’s deadly. It’s like smoking ten packs of cigarettes and falling asleep with a packet of alprazolam. I haven’t written a poem for days. I am really a poet. I’m a poet? I do not know. When I published my book, they came. They invaded. I don’t know where they sell my book. But I know it is a collection of poetry.

My head is heavy. The walls of my room are closing in.

I close my eyes. I always swear at them before I go to bed.

Many days have passed, and still I cannot write. But now I feel blood flowing in my fingers once again.

Yesterday I went to a private school on my mother’s advice. I will teach there from now on. Fourth- to sixth-grade children. They have not yet allowed girls in the seventh grade and higher to return to school.

And more than ever this frustration crumples and swallows up my brain.

These days my mind is buzzing. I am busier. I have met my new students. They are good girls. They love me, and I love them.

They are very afraid. They do not say of what. But I assume that they fear them. I too am very afraid of them.

One of my students, Maryam, is a beautiful girl with big black eyes. She is sitting alone in the corner of the classroom. I sit next to her and start the morning with her. She says she does not sleep at night for fear that they might enter the house and take her father. She says that they have taken most of her father’s friends. Because they were police, or they were in the army. She says that she is not sure if she will be able to attend school for the rest of the year. They may emigrate to Iran.

When I came home from school today, I was tired and made myself some tea. I go outside but turn back every time. Seeing them makes me feel sick. History passes before my eyes. I can smell blood. And I want to return home as soon as possible.

My father came home earlier today than on previous days. He was happy. He said we were going out for dinner tonight, somewhere with a nice terrace. I was delighted because I had spent the whole week preoccupied with countless issues, above all my strong hatred for them.

It’s dark out, I’m ready. I put on my prettiest dress and pale red lipstick.

At the entrance to the restaurant, a man rushed towards us. He said to my father: “You go in the men’s section, and the women go in that section, on the right—the women’s section!” Surprised, my father asked, “Is this a wedding hall or a restaurant? Why don’t we have the right to eat together? Can you tell me why?”

“It is their command,” the man said, annoyed.

My father was angry but did not say anything after hearing their name. He did not want to say anything.

We returned home. My younger sister was crying. My mother went to the kitchen.

I went to my room and opened the window. The sky was dark, and the wind was blowing stronger than ever, as though it were slapping the trees with its old hands.

I closed the window and lay on the bed. I was thinking about myself, my mother, my father and sisters… Why were we here of all places? Why were we forced to endure so much pain?

Why do our people have to endure all this wickedness in silence? How can they suffocate people using their hands and bigotry with such insolence and shamelessness? Are they human? These and many other questions rushed through my mind. It felt like something was dripping from my head, something that smelled of despair. The foul odor that you smell after a cat dies in the hot water pipe.

I wipe off the pale red lipstick with the edge of my sleeve and close my eyes, even though I know that my dreams will be filled with memories of the war. I relive those days of fear and terror in the labyrinth of my brain. The days when they had not yet attacked our city. Our previous home was located in one of the first regions they occupied. We went to my aunt’s house every night because of the sound of their gunfire. My sisters’ school had become their military base. My sisters are still afraid of their school.

 

I wake up and take a deep breath. My breath smells of fear and despair. My throat is like a hot water pipe with a small dead cat in it.

At night, a long black skirt is spread across the sky. The sound of the wind gently comes through the window. Something is rattling around in my head. It wants to fall out: into the room, onto the pillow, onto my clothes… It wants to be released from all the blackness pressing against my brain. Go out the window and walk through the alley. Talk to the blackness. Dance with the night. Be sad with the sky. Something is rattling around in my head, something that has been removed from me and is tired of me…

I turn to television and the news now more than ever. I know that the day will not turn into night if I don’t get the news from them.

And this time I see a strange sight. The TV presenters are wearing niqabs! Oh my God! How stupid! I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

I roam virtual space with more cannabis. A lot has been written about the niqab. Yes, it is the law. Female presenters should wear niqabs to prevent men from being provoked! It is painful to read! It is funny and deadly at the same time as it is painful.

Humanity cannot bear this weight of barbarism.

That niqab, that black niqab, has strangled thousands of voices, buried thousands of stars…

Ah, I don’t know… How can a niqab mock the entire history and culture of a civilization? How can a niqab evoke so many deadly memories? How can a niqab take a person back hundreds of years? I do not know. I don’t know and I don’t have to know. I have to be silent. Don’t shout!

I don’t know, and I’m tired of not knowing and being silent.

That woman is a prisoner behind that black niqab. It’s as if someone has placed shackles on her arms. It’s as if someone is holding the barrel of a gun to her head. And if she moves, if she makes a mistake, they will empty a bullet into her brain.

That woman… What is a woman really? Is a woman with no lips and mouth a woman? A woman without lips on the TV screen? Aren’t lips for kissing and talking, laughing and reading poetry?

Have you ever considered living without a mouth? Not me!

I come to my senses, I shake my head. All of these memories and recent bad events pass before my eyes. The hanging body, the fish vendor, my sister’s tears, my student’s words, the niqab… That black niqab! Every time I see it on the TV screen, it’s as if a piece of my heart falls to the ground and is crushed. On top of all the repressed slogans of freedom. On top of all the lies that politicians fed us with a handful of sedatives every night.

The wind is blowing louder, and the windows are shaking. It’s as if the glass is afraid of something, maybe of the wind, maybe of the night, maybe of me, maybe of the smell of the dead cat in the hot water pipe in my room, maybe of them.

 
 

Spring / Summer 2024



Tamanna Mehrzad

I am Tamanna Mehrzad, a poet and writer, born in 1997 in Herat, Afghanistan. Graduated from the field of Persian Language and Literature six years ago. I have been a member of Herat Literary Association and I write poetry and stories. The subject of my poems and stories are mostly romantic and social, and include issues such as poverty, war, and violence against women. My poetry collection, The city that cut off your hair, was published in 2019 by Herat Literary Association.



Mohsin Taasha

Mohsin Taasha (BFA, Beaconhouse National University, Lahore) is a visual artist from Afghanistan, based in Nice. His paintings, drawings, videos, and installations have been exhibited widely, including at Galerie Nikki Diana Marquardt (Paris); Documenta 13 (Kassel); the 56th Venice Biennale; NordArt (Büdelsdorf); Mucem (Marseille); Kunstmuseum Thun; and artgenève. Taasha produced the multimedia series “Rebirth of the Reds” following the 2016 Deh Mazang suicide bombings in Kabul, to which he lost many of his friends. A painting component comprised of forty pieces in four parts narrates the history and culture of the Hazara People. (Additional thanks to Art at a Time Like This.)



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