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Where does being in the middle take place? Perhaps between novruz and christmas, different geographical places, between two languages where one of them brings literature but first after cutting up the other one like a butcher cutting up meat. In Egana Jabbarovas lyrical essay the reader is invited to the sense of being out of language, a place somewhere between the impossible and the not needed.

Credits Egana Jabbarova Translation: Tatiana Bonch-Osmolovskaya April 30 2024

And so we lived like tennis balls between ’bala’ and ’child’, ’ana’ and ’mum’, ’ata’ and ’dad’, between ’baci’ and ’sister’, between ’qardas’ and ‘brother’, between ’ev’ and ’home’, between ’dil’ and ’language’, between ’men’ and ’I’, between ’Rusya’ and ’Azerbaycan’, between normatives and necessary. We left our home and entered the world where next to the entrance a butcher cut off the language of our mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers. Those tounges lay on top of each other like warm pies mixing together creating a choir of the oppressed. The tounges shouted not yet cooled down words. Then the annoyed butcher chopped them again into halves. And again. And again.

We quickly understood that we should learn the language of the butcher – to grow, to re-grow a new tongue, so that the world would not be a hot tin between our fingers, but reborn into warm white fluff in the face during a spring walk. The world of privileges, a good job and high education could not stand our languages, they were of no use there. And I studied it, I studied the language of the butcher with great zeal and diligence, unlike anything else I finished high school and immediately chose the faculty: phi-lo-lo-gi-cal, from the love of words and finished it with honors. But every time I went to a new place, for example, a hospital, I got in my face: do you speak Russian? Where do you come from? How long have you been in Russia? And the gaze – the same gaze as when they look at strangers: a mixture of disdain, superiority and arrogance with hidden anger.

Even when we learned the language of the butcher, we remained strangers, remained enemies, foes, haters, second-class people. There was only one kind of words for us in the dictionary: “swearwords”. We were ashamed of our home languages, of our mothers in their wornout dressing gowns, our tired fathers with their sad eyes, and now we are ashamed of our shame. Now we will forever be “qərib – yabancı”[1] in our native land, we hide reddish accent, burgundy wound of loss, and black mark of homelessness under our skin. Now we grow sad eyes ourselves, and we’ll live with them for the rest of our lives. We ride the same express train, that doesn’t know its final destination, we look out the window where our own childhood lives, is flashing before our eyes. And we want to say, wait, do it in a different way. To say, do not cut your arm off, your legs, your face.

When did it happen? When did you cut off your own language? Why did you cut off your own language?

For the first time in my teenage years: we came to our relatives in Baku from our “russia-moscow”, since my parental brother and sister only knew one Russian city: Moscow, they believed that Russia was one big Moscow. They didn’t know of any other Russian cities and didn’t want to learn a new strange word: e-ka-te-rin-burg. I speak Azerbaijani, and my mum and dad mock my accent, and I decide to never speak it again. Instead I take some books with me and I read them. The books are almost always in Russian. And I start to love this language, because it gives me literature. It gives me Virginia Woolf, Marina Tsvetaeva, Ursula Le Guin, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Warsan Shire, Athena Farrokhzad – they speak and their fancy Russian words hit me with an arrow of recognition. I read all letters by Tsvetaeva in one gulp, as people drink vodka, and would forever remember a phrase she wrote February 25, 1931, in a letter to Anna Teskova:

Here I am not needed. There I am impossible.

It’s not by coincidence I remember it, the time will come for my body to understand it, but it’s not yet. I will grow into understanding it as other people grow into understanding Dostoevsky and Chekhov. Russian language-guide gives me a writing tool, the possibility to write words, weave a carpet of syllables, words and phrases, where ordinary becomes personal, personal becomes general, and general becomes eternal.

When did this happen?

When did you realize that your language is your loss?

I grew and every year I had to buy new jeans, dresses, skirts, shirts and t-shirts, but they were all one size churka[2]. I finished school with straight As and I was churka. I finished university with honors, and I was churka. I received my master’s degree with honors, and I was churka. I did my doctoral research, and I was churka. I got my PhD on Marina Tsvetaeva, and I was churka. I was one of a hundred best university alumni, and I was churka. I’m a teacher at the university and I am churka. I left Russia, and now I am ’yabanci’ with the red passport. And now I am so unbearably longing to return to my motherland where I would not be rus bala[3] where women in scarfs and long skirts make ’kutaby’ with their own hands, where carpets tell stories, where it smells of seawater, where my parents and I eat breakfast in a restaurant they love. It smells of grilled meat, and I dip warm lavash into ’suzma’, and put white salted cheese and spring onion on top, and afterwards we would go to the sea, and my father would cut red flesh of a Baku watermelon. We would eat and look at the water surface, and we would need no language, as love would be the language. And I would understand that I want to pass the language of my mother’s mother and my father’s father to my children.

But here I am impossible.

The only thing left from my father’s house are the ruins of the foundation, and from my language, there are only scraps of home words left, from prayers settled like dust or like pebble stones on the bottom of a river: salam, necesen, ana, xala, bibi, dolma, day, ehtiyyatli ol, bala,, get yemək ye, ne oldu, canim, Allaha Emanet Ol.[4] Food and my dearest ones have been bottled in me, like a splint under the skin, inevitable for any loss. My parents homelessness has been inherited by me, and now I am looking for shelter in the small hope of finding a home. Similar to my father, who came to Russia one day, similar to my mother, who came to Russia one day. I enter a cheap grocery store to buy some food, just enough to survive, and envy every little kid there. They know their native languages, their language is their spring, their homeland and their clan. My language is a hostel with shared kitchen and bathroom. They have real homes that belong to them, not just by the right of the law, but by the right of blood. I have dormitories, rooms, rented apartments. My homelessness and being out of language is eternal, like the inevitability of life and the unavoidability of death. I stand there like the little match girl from Andersen’s tale, between two houses, I turn left and there are Russian words, I turn right and there is my mother’s and father’s language. Eternal celebration of Christmas and candles burning in one house, voices and sounds at full volume. The sounds are voluminous and fully colored, they are large, with intonation notes, highlighted by home lighting, they are fancy, beautiful and sophisticated. However complex the construction of a thought is, you can express it. It smells of a mixture of incense, fish pie and pine needles.

In the second house there is ‘Novrus bayram’, fancy plating with ‘samani’ and ‘baklava’, wrapped with a red ribbon. Mouths are moving, people are speaking, resolutely putting down ‘armud’ glasses on small plates and deliciously suck on a piece of sugar, while drinking bright amber tea. But I can only hear pieces of it, as the large part is covered by silence, absence of sounds, black and white, flat and narrow. Here you can express hunger, thirst, greeting and farewell, but you can’t say anything more complicated. It smells of baklava, and almost ready pilaf and saffron, and the hands still testify about the presence of cumin. But here I am not needed, and there I am impossible.

I leave the house, for the first time in a week, I decide to buy ice cream like when I was a child, and eat it sitting on a bench. I think about something, until a register girl grabs me from my path of thought: nakit kart? Nakit. The Russian inside me smiles, suggesting ridiculous links between cash and cape[5]. Finally I get to a bench near a broken tree to greedily open the ice cream like a little child. In this corner of eating there is neither time nor sorrow, there is no language here, everyone eats, have always been eating and will always eat. How many like me in this very minute eats ice cream, imagining they are not foreign at all and soon will go home to eat dinner with their families, to pat their pets, dogs and cats, and open carefully stored wine. Maybe food is the only language capable of absorbing. I eat slowly, not rushing, I am tired. Children and former children walk past me, women discuss what they are going to make for dinner tonight, time stretches, like an Istanbul cat on a car’s hood. Seagulls laugh at the strange language of the people not dressed for the weather, the minarets mourn their belongings and houses left behind: their presumptuously bought carpets, candles, candlesticks, wine glasses, libraries, curtains, statues, pictures, their hopes for the future, a firecracker set off on New Year's Eve. The time to mourn has come, time to bathe, time to rewash, time to wash off the time we-were-left behind with the keys home.

Mourn, cry, tears, an executor rises an axe to chop the house-in-which-to-live to splinters-of-arbitrary-rooms-and-someone else’s apartments, so that even ‘y’ fells from ‘you’ leaving only ‘ou’ of night groans. A woman asks me how to get to Gülsuyu, and I answer her taking a couple of Turkish phrases from the storeroom of my conscience, suddenly realizing that Gülsuyu is a flower water.

Can you describe your flower water?

My Russian flower water consisted of thin lace of poetic voices and strong stitches of prosaic seams, and I put strange words to the wounds on my knees and elbows. They were connected like necklaces from different beads, from tenderness and caring words said by my loved ones, from the teachers’ words bestowing real knowledge, from the lines simultaneously knowing everything and not knowing anything:

like horseshoes, he grants his every decree poking some in the groin, in the brow, in the eye (lines from Osip Mandelstam’s poem ‘We live without feeling our country’s pulse…’ translated by Ian Probstein) – alone I come out on the road the stony way glistens through the mist (lines from Mikhail Lermontov’s poem ’Alone I come out on the road...’ translated by Dimitri Oboblensky) – already madness with its wing has half consumed my soul with dally I drink its wine of fiery sting invited am to its black valley[6], Ill run out – Ill throw my body into the street[7]yes, I refuse to be in Bedlam of non-men yes, I refuse to see how wolves of squares do slain yes, I refuse to wail [8]

This water had everything: from ducks to water lilies, fish swam in it, from time to time palms of passers-by tired of the sun appeared in it, there were those who lived there, there were those who looked into it. It, this water, seemed to be a pond, but turned out to be an ocean, deep and containing almost everything. Everything settled down there, everything bore fruits, faded, fell apart, nothing passed without a trace, and everything continued. The ocean-storeroom, the ocean-winter refrigerator, the ocean-basement, the ocean-attic, an eye.

Mənim Azərbaycan gül suyum sevgidən, anamın sözündən, atamın göstərişindən, qohumlarımın zarafatlarından və isti Bakı axşamlarından ibarət idi[9] atana qulaq as, yolun açıq olsun, Allah səni qorusun, hər şey Allahın iznidir, qurban olum, bala[10]

My Azerbaijani flower water seemed like a pond, but was more like a small aquarium in our house, it required work, efforts, it was limited only to the words of the loved ones at home. Aquarium-album, aquarium-shoebox for various papers, aquarium-piggy bank in forms of animals, aquarium-vacuum.

I no longer have a place to store my Russian flower water, my Azerbaijani water, it is impossible in the language – not safe: they walk there, they rearrange things, from time to time they forcedly search for something. Only inside the crevice between the world of ones and the world of others there, in the void, in the warmth similar to a mother’s womb, and in texture similar to any brick ruins. There, where the words heal, the words caress, the words love, the words hug, the words encourage, the words do not mean anything, do not love anybody, do no caress any one, deprive of strength, shock with electricity, beat with a baton, the words mark, the words execute, the words die, between ‘not needed’ and ‘impossible’, between I (do not) speak Russian, mən azərbaycanca danışı(mi)[11] ‘I ram (‘I do (not) speak Azerbaijani), ‘ben Türkçe konuş(m)[12] uyorum’ (I do (not) speak Turkish), I (don 't) speak English.

[1] stranger, foreigner in Azerbaijani

[2] Russian offensive word for people from the Caucasus or Central Asia

[3] Azerbaijano for ‘Russian child’

[4] ”hi”, ”how are you,” ”mum”, ”aunt on the mothers side", ”aunt on the fathers side”,”dolma”, ”uncle”, ”be careful”, ”child”, "come eat”, ”what happened”, ”my dear”, "be entrusted to Allah”.

‘nakit’ sounds like ‘nakidka’, a ‘cape’ in Russian

[6] lines from Anna Akhmatova’s poem ’Requim’ translated by Rupert Moreton

[7] lines from Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poem ’To Lily, Instead of a Letter’ translated by James Womack

[8] lines from Marina Tsvetaeva’s poem ‘O, tears that in eyes freeze!..’ translated by Yevgeny Bonver

[9] my flower water consisted of love, my mom’s words, my dad’s guidance, my relatives’ jokes and warm Baku evenings

[10] listen to your father, may your way be clear, may Allah protect you, everything is the will of Allah, my dear, my child

[11] Suffix of negation of action in the Azerbaijani

[12] Suffix of negation of action in the Azerbaijani

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