The Girl and the Slaughterhouse

 
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Parwana Amiri

Art by Latifa Zafar Attaii

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

 
 

A twelve-year-old child with a pink hat and pink cheeks. I hold the warm hands of my father, dry and rough in the cold air of the bazaar in Ghazni. An ancient city, almost lost on the high mountain plain between Kabul and cultured Kandahar. There are stands on both sides of the bazaar where the smell of summer fruits make you forget the heat. I would ask my father to buy frozen juice, but there is a crowd of people waiting.

In this noise you can’t even hear your own voice. Each stable calls out loud the price of bananas, oranges, apples, and grapes, the green lettuces that are continuously sprinkled with water to keep it fresh and the sour berries I love to eat with salt. I cannot take my eyes off the new colorful cotton fabrics and clothes brought to the bazaar, specially the colorful glassy bracelets.

The canaries are in cages. What if I could let them fly free? There are roosters, too, wild ones, and some men in pakols are asking the prices to make them ready for the monthly cockfights.

Among all in this crowd he stands still, confident, a mountain, in whose shadow I rest. But a child only wants to grow up, to climb the mountain and see further. I have my family with myself and warm bread every day on our table. What more would I want from life?

In our village we build houses with mud bricks and roofs are made of straw. The hot weather, even when it feels as if it might cook you instantly, is better than flooding rain or the dry snow in winter, which covers everything and takes a long time to melt.

My father has never made me feel like a girl; he’s always treated me as warmly and lovingly as a father usually treats his son. He bought me a hat instead of a scarf, a pink hat with yellow flowers that combined harmoniously with the color of my pants and the wide drape of my dress.

When we’re young we dream of growing older and seeing everything from on high. We grow taller to face life’s challenges, the loud shouting of grown-ups, the other kids reaching for fruit above a garden wall, the mountains surrounding Ghazni, until we overlook the gentle valley of our infancy, the safety of my father’s hand and the shopping bags, to face our future. By growing up I lost the warm hand of my dad and I leant him my shoulder, to lighten his responsibilities in life.

My pink hat and pink cheeks
A smile beneath my father’s black mustache
Dark black eyes, brown rotten skin
Long tied turban around his head
Whose hug has been my warm nest
Was wearing khamak clothes in Eid

He holds my hand, not to be lost I
Look up at him and smile, full of cheer
Afraid to lose me
Also many hundreds milling around
A thousand roaming eyes in the bazaar of Ghazni,
His hands were strong, I had no fear
Is it a dream, or will it yet prove real?

 

My father works at the slaughterhouse. He climbs the high-stacked rows of chicken cages, dizzy from the sharp ammonia stench. He is a skilled climber, opening the wire door to each cage, taking the eggs from under the chickens while they were fiercely pecking on his hands and the pain pierces his body. He shows me how he keeps his head shawl out of the way, tied around his waist, and wipes the sweat from his face and hands with a handkerchief. He shows me his good mood and persistence. My father knows all the tricks, the shortcuts, and he tells them to me.

Leaving work, his eyes smile to see the sky and light after hours in the dusty, closed slaughterhouse. The fresh air smelled like fresh bread after being in the sharp ammonia smell. He never comes home angry or complaining. He is always smiling, his eyelashes gray with dust, but his eyes still shining, hugging the three of us in his big arms. He covers the wounds on his hands with bandages to hide them from us.

My mother kept a basin of water on the flat roof, in the sun, to stay warm so that he can wash when he gets home. She only washes her own hands and feet after he is finished, and when she does it would help her, bringing the wet cloth to her feet where she could no longer reach.

How can I look after my younger siblings and ailing mother better? Her tuberculosis is weakening her every day. She also suffers mentally. Our life and future fills her with anxiety, sometimes panic. She does not want us to live the life she did.

Just feeling her fragrance in the house is enough for us. I do not want to leave my father alone among all these responsibilities, I want to walk beside him and help him to handle our life together. They’ve put all their hopes on me. While I still carry them as a responsibility, the time has come to prove what I am capable of achieving. It strengthens me to use the gifts that I’ve been given. I will ask to work at the slaughterhouse, too.

Now that I am grown up all
Lost among people, left on my own
I see things from high up
Remembering in the valley of my mind alone
The sweet dream of never growing up
My mind in clouds that block the valley
Where the child I was remains.

I lost the warm hands of my dad
Holding mine among the bazaar crowd
Afraid that I might get lost or teased
Kissing my cheeks, laughing at me

I lost my pink shall, pink cheeks
That warm hug, I could have in bed
Now, alone exposed to a thousand eyes
No hold hands, no one behind my back
No more strong hands on my shoulders

 

Yesterday was my first working day, and today the second. In this big stinking container with two windows up high and a single door, I am here, yet surrounded by a thousand “friends,” the chickens, whose enemy I am. For I take care of them only to have them killed or to sell their eggs and thus prevent them from bearing offspring, destroying their natural life cycle. Yes, I take care of the chickens, I feed them and they trust me. They know nothing of life, of what awaits them, only slaughter. They do not see the light, the sun, the meadows, the green grass. And no matter how much I reflect on what happens every day, there is nothing I can do to change their lot. For their lot means my family’s survival. And I wonder whether this is the only way. We are jailed together, the chickens and I, for wherever freedom is repressed, there is a jail. My mom’s burqa is also a jail. She cannot see easily when she goes to the bazaar. Infants in burqas laid in their cradles have prison bars on every side, preparing them for life.

I think of the chickens all the time and I am tormented by all sorts of complex thoughts and feelings I have about them. Yet, I can claim they are the only friends I have in my life—the only ones who listen to me, who do not become angry with me for talking about harsh realities, for keeping them in the dark every few hours so that they lay more eggs. They keep them under their wings and bellies, but I always force my hands underneath and take them away. And the question haunts me: “Why don’t they escape?” When we slaughter the others in front of them how will they react? Will they rebel?

My days are bleached of color
Every day is the same
As yesterday and days before
Every day in this slaughterhouse

Am I a chicken or are they?
No difference, we are both in a cage
Are they first a chicken or an egg?
NO difference, both are now in boxes

No one but chickens to talk to, no one to complain to, my body feels tired from work and the smells of this shitty place. When we turn the light on and off in the sealed building to make the chickens believe that night and day are each only a few hours long, the make-believe makes me believe the same. My days of work are doubled, tripled. And the regular rhythm of their movements, the forced repetition, intensifies my sense of repetition and stagnation. The jailer and the jailed live together.

I used to read the stories of people who took part in boiled egg competitions. In these competitions, the one whose egg would break the other eggs would win. It is a lot of fun during the Eid festivals. I will take permission from my mother to participate this year, not to compete as a girl, but to watch from a distance. The experienced competitors keep their boiled eggs under straw for a day.

Work is lonely and hard, but I’m proud to come home with money for my family. The wages are low, but I will never let anyone know my pains. I wash in the basin after my father has washed. I eat the fresh bread my mother bakes and I sleep heavily. In the night there is complete darkness until the moon shows its light, and this darkness is exactly like my days. I just hope the darkness will not stay long in our life and soon the light will brighten my days. I wake each morning with hope in my heart. At sunrise I open my eyes every day, donning my working clothes, tying my scarf around my hair and at the end of every day I think, What about me? Why don’t I escape? Will it be better for me and worth it if I do? I can only answer No!

 

My mind has many question marks
But, no answer, no one to ask
My body has many wounds
But, not important, no one to cure

We are all in boxes, the chickens and I. The only difference is that theirs are small, while mine is bigger and permanent. And I have school. Even on workdays, when school is just a memory or a hope I look forward to the few hours on my off-days, the open room full of kids, the straw voices of teachers, I hear their lessons even as I work. The chickens do not see the world outside, but I do. With all the complexities of my life, school gives me strength. This is a place where I can feel normal, where I can be one as other, where I can be a child and not a worker, where my brain will be trained and my body will not be used for work.

For school I’m released from boxes
I leave the cage of work
On school days I’m welcomed to a new world
My books greet me at school

Looking back at the cages I see a long
Dry road running deep into an endless desert
But near the school there are trees
A stream with limpid water and fishes

The school is far from home but near to the slaughterhouse. It’s on the other side of the river that runs between home and work. On my off-days I walk the same six kilometers to reach school, almost an hour to go and come back, but it’s worth it. It is not an easy walk, but the meadow by the river makes it pleasant. A small chicken farm along the way makes me think of the slaughterhouse. But the farm-chicken’s meat is more delicious and of course their eggs too. My friend Shaima walks to school with me. She brings her sister, two years younger. She doesn’t know how to wear a scarf properly, like me years ago, so I show her how. At school I am who I want to be, a normal girl to pick the responsibility of learning, getting acknowledged and stepping beyond life on a farm with chickens and making my family proud of my life. Here I am simply a student with a bag. I can renew my energy, I play and learn and sometimes take the chalk from the blackboard to make puzzles in the cement schoolyard where I play with other kids. The only hard part is the long walk and the pain in my feet as I go to sleep. Why can’t we have a school in our own village?

 

I escape from work to breathe at school
Where I can find peace, hope
My friends know only this me
But we laugh, we speak, we discuss
A joke, a smiling face is enough

I sit here sometimes, talk to fish every time
I sit here and talk to myself on this mirror
I sit here to be released from the slaughterhouse,
My work and chickens

On workdays I have much to do and can only study after my sisters have gone to bed. I want to build a better life and future for myself. I want to become a mother in my future life, but I will never let them think they’re “less” than other children. Life is getting tougher for us day-by-day. I am learning a lot from my father. I believe that I will never learn the same if I were a boy. A girl has all the senses of being a mother from the first years of her life, this is an unspeakable part of our life, a clear truth.

I am taking care of the chickens as a mother does for her children. This is thought to see them go under bladed every day and their eggs are taken away.

I am learning from my father how to run the work better, but I also learn from the chickens. They teach me to live, but not by offering any logic for it. The chickens show me how to really enjoy the life that’s in some seeds or the drops of water we give them.

In the factory
Among chickens and eggs
My eyes, ears, nose, and mouth
Crammed with the chicken smell
I feel dizzy every day

My eyes rimmed in black
Wishing for a long night’s sleep
I am imagining change—growing up?
Where to grow, if “up” works this way?

This chicken factory, where thousands of chickens are kept in cages tight-packed one row above another, will be our new house. The old house is too far away and too hard to keep up. We asked the boss if we could live in one of the clean containers and he agreed. Inside this slaughterhouse I am fooled by the false change of light. All day long in this sealed hell with no break, no breath! I feel pain in my feet when I wait to collect eggs from other rows. Why do I feel pain when I’m standing still, not while running from one place to others?

Some nights I can’t feel my knees. I long to be part of all people’s life living in the village. Above all my sisters give me hope and energy. They are the only values of my life. My mother shares what she hears with me, while we drink tea with a cube of white sugar. “You support this family,” she says. “May god give you so much prosperity in your future.” My sisters bake when I come home and our container is sweet with smell of tandori breads.

My days are bleached white
Like eggs every day the same
As yesterday and all the days before
Day and night in this slaughterhouse

Am I a chicken or are they?
No difference, we are both in a cage
Are they first chicken or eggs
NO difference, both are now in boxes

 

One day I left work and returned to the container, but my father wasn’t there. Nor my mother. “She went to the clinic,” said Somaya, my ten-year-old sister. “They told us that the father is injured.” In another wing of the slaughterhouse that day a three-wheel cart that picks up the cages to transfer them picked up speed coming down a ramp and our father was running in front of it to catch some more chickens and put them in the cart to take to slaughter but the man pushing it did not see him. The wheel caught his foot and pulled him down and the full weight of its load fell onto his back. It happened in a second, but so far away from my wing that I didn’t know of it until I came home and could not find my mother.

Two days passed and we had no news from the clinic. I had to take care of my siblings and as parents do while my mother sat with our father in the clinic. The days were okay, as we could all go to school. But the nights were sunk in the dark smell of fear while we tried to sleep. As always I am trying to fall asleep counting the rain start sky, to omit the gaspy smell of the factory.

I will never forget the dark shadow that fell in the yard where we sat one morning as my mother came down the path alone and fainted, staring silently at the three of us. It felt as if our house became roofless or the pillars of the house broke down. We buried my father before I’d grown up, then we buried ourselves in grief and recovery. My small brother held the taboot with my uncles, he had to put soil on his grave and I was staring at how our life went down to the ground without the shadow of my father.

I now feared that I would become him, and not me, in a job as hard and flat as the dirt he was buried in.

You can’t know where I am or where I live—no vistas to share, no colors to sketch, no rhythm to pattern my steps, no passions to organize space and time into harmony of deepest desires, my hidden talents, all still hidden. I work in a slaughterhouse, where chickens in cages are gathered and disappear.

Where is my home?
Nowhere
My house full of shouts
I work in a chicken factory.
Both are jails

I can’t find peace
Among cages
I can’t breathe
In chicken air
I can’t find hope
Boxed in with eggs

I want to transfer to another part of the factory, where I would be expected to only put the eggs in boxes, not to collect them from the cages. And not to climb to the higher cages like my father did. I don’t like picking eggs from under the chickens higher up; they peck and injure my hands, sometimes

opening real holes.

Peck, peck, peck….
Let me take your eggs

My hands in the nests of chickens
Clutching my hands, collecting their eggs
This pain goes all around my body
But still more eggs to cluck

Standing on two feet, every day
The pains penetrate my brain
No more tolerance, so tired
Longing to let my dreams free in sleep

One day while taking eggs from the highest cages a row of cages fell on me and threw me to the floor below.

Screams, the dull thud of a body
Hitting ground, falling from up high
Like my father. Stars around my head
Crushed fallen cages all around me

Talking to myself, shouting loudly
Stand up girl, it is too early
To give up and lose your courage
Your way is tough but keep your hope up!!

 

Five days have passed and I was still in bed, unable to walk. The boss of the slaughterhouse asked my sister to do my job instead of me. I can’t let that happen. I was just getting used to it…. but the storm of life will never slacken if we all continue down this path. “There will always be another spring after cold nights of winter and autumn,” my mother says. But in a slaughterhouse with no real night or day this won’t be true.

Yesterday my uncle came home. He argued with my mother to claim some material things that belonged to my father, even though it is all that we have. He won’t give up. My mother reminds him, “We respect the soul of the one who dies, and till forty days we do not talk about the property belonging to that person. It hasn’t been even a week, his grave is still wet. How can he be this much unrespected?” These few belongings are the only reminder of my father and the only shelter for us.

My mother rests and refuses to speak to my uncle. “If we need to leave the country,” she says, “I’ll do it. But I will never give him what we have left.”

Tomorrow we will leave, as if we’d never lived here. We will leave and another page of our life will begin. My life will turn its tune from being the jailed jailer of chickens in a slaughterhouse to my flight as a migratory bird.

From the day I was born, formed of blood
For nine months in the womb of my mum
I was not told I would leave my home one day
Who knows of the next day, of our fate?

 
 

Spring / Summer 2024



Parwana Amiri

I am Parwana Amiri, known as a refugee activist, author, and poet from Afghanistan. My journey in Europe started in 2019 when we arrived in Moria refugee camp and I started writing there. I am the author of the books, My Pen Won't Break, but Borders Will: Letters to the World From Moria (published in four languages), Suspended Lives: Letters From Ritsona, The Olive Tree and the Old Woman (an illustrated pamphlet), and, We Will fly higher, a collection of poems written in the camps. My life story inspired the documentary film, "Mother of Freedom," which won a prize from the EU Documentary Films in 2021. 



Latifa Zafar Attaii

Born in 1994 in Ghazni, Afghanistan, Latifa Zafar Attaii’s journey took her from Quetta, Pakistan, where she lived as a refugee, to pursuing fine arts at Kabul University. She was awarded the UMISAA scholarship and continued her artistic endeavors at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, graduating from the School of Visual Arts and Design in 2017. Latifa has showcased her work in numerous global exhibitions, from China and Switzerland to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, India, and Pakistan. She was the second-prize winner for the Allegro Art Prize 2021. She currently resides and works in Tehran.



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