RenovationsPosted: January 15, 2014
Listen to Deonna’s cinematic radio reading of this piece.
Sveta was my neighbor in Baku, Azerbaijan in late 2001. I was married at the time to my ex-husband, Zalmay, a landmine removal expert whose skills brought us to the country to assist the Azeri government in clearing explosive ordinances left over from the 1990s Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
We lived in a luxurious rented top-floor apartment that had one blue marbled bathroom and an intermittent, calcified water supply. Our penthouse was located in an older brick building on Seferoglu Street in Baku’s downtown, an area rumored to be part of the old Jewish Quarters. The walls and floors hosted pelts of wool Azeri carpets and Soviet-era art. Our back door opened to a walkway that connected to Azeri neighbors’ apartments and looked over a common courtyard. A tiny, communal kitchen — one Sveta said really belonged exclusively to her — rested right outside of our kitchen door. She often sat in her kitchenette to have chai in clinky Turkish teacups while she smoked pungent cigarettes. This is also where her elementary-aged children, Shamhal and Jameela, had their meals.
Sveta was in her late thirties, a bleached blond Russian woman always in makeup, with children fathered by a partner/husband/lover – we were never sure, for she was vague regarding the matter and her English was poor – who was serving time in an Azeri prison with an incurable heroin addiction. She cleaned our apartment twice weekly. Her salary allowed for renovations to her sparse living quarters, a two-room affair that she kept immaculate and proud.
The overhaul arrived one morning in an obtrusive, aggressive way; every knock shook our apartment. It was most annoying to me as I was well into my first pregnancy with little to do except to remain fairly housebound. I spent my days doing nothing but dealing with an extraordinary slow Internet connection trying to keep abreast of developments in the weeks after September 11th. I was scared and unsure of what the future held for America and Afghanistan. My son, Ibrahim, grew in my womb, a proud combination of both cultures, and I had no idea what type of world awaited. George Bush had just declared world stood with Americans or with the terrorists. This statement could not account for the sorrow and confusion of those in between multiple, conflicting spaces. Meanwhile, my late pregnancy discomfort recoiled every time a hammer hit Sveta’s walls. I wanted the world quiet.
Baku, only ten years into independence from the Soviet Union, rattled in the early stages of an American-style retail culture. No Target or Starbucks equivalents existed. English was uncommon in the bazaars and souks. And, most disturbingly, I had no maternity clothes and did not know where to have them stitched. I was a very fat, increasingly pregnant Muslim woman in a society devoid of modest clothes for the well-endowed.
Azeri people were gracious and enthusiastically grasped for a post-Soviet identity. The young women were often thin, a fate that would disappear later in life after years of vodka and bread. Now unchained from Soviet Bloc garments, they enjoyed the freedoms of unencumbered fashion, and sometimes in shocking immodest ways. These pleasures included extraordinarily high heels and mind-boggling tight clothes that even the not-so-thin women loudly adorned. For a portly, pregnant American Muslim woman, the fashion and social scene of Baku seemed too thin, too Russian and too complicated.
I knew Sveta’s renovations were for her children, but still, her residential face lift, made possible by her employment with us, girded misery into my already anxious days. She would smile apologetically when she came to clean, as if to indicate that she understood how invasive the whole procedure was to my gestational confinement. “You need to go walk in Fountain Square,” she would insist. Of course, if I did go walk in that direction, I’d end up at MacDonalds for an American-flavored cheeseburger. I hated MacDonalds, in general, but those days I longed for the familiar taste of home.
Weeks earlier, Sveta had arrived to clean looking forlorn with cheap, Chinese manufactured mascara smeared across her face. She had recently learned that her imprisoned lover had succumbed to his addiction. She and her children were purposefully uninvited to attend the long-passed funeral and, therefore, found themselves effectively erased and obscured from their father’s family and legacy. There was nothing left for Sveta to do but to reconstruct her inner dimensions. In this mournful aftermath, the entire apartment building heaved with her production, mostly procured by her brother, until the inevitable visit came: Baku city officials arrived for their bribe.
They appeared in the form of a tall, man-like lady with two, small-like men who insisted Sveta obtain a permit and pay a sizable sum for it. This would be the first of a series of visits intended to supplement their own meager civil servant income. In Baku at that time, nothing happened without a bribe. No one knew how to do anything legally. Transparent paper trails did not exist. Of course, Sveta did not have money for a bribe and paying one would ultimately lead to disbursing additional kickbacks. She would have to decide if she wanted to reconstruct her rooms or pad the pockets of Baku city officials; there would be no money for both.
I was alerted to this circumstance by a series of arguments occurring on the outdoor walkway. By the time I materialized from my kitchen, the scene included the neighbors who perched out of their doors and angrily gestured as the man-like lady smugly suggested all work come to a halt if no payment ensued. I was in an oversized Arab-type muumuu, with a large, Pakistani chador around my head as I bellowed out the door adjacent to Sveta’s kitchen.
Here is what they saw when I emerged on the walkway: a fat, pregnant Arab-Pakistani-looking white American Muslim woman. I appeared as a crazed, multiethnic, English-speaking cow. I bellowed, “What are you doing here? She has no money to pay you. Get out!”
I am certain the bribe clan had only a vague idea of my utterances. Yet, I waved my arms frantically under the yards of Pakistani fabric, as if I my anger provided sufficient propulsion for me take flight.
And then, I said,”I will tell my husband, and he will tell President“. I uttered Aliyev, the President’s name for good measure.
This was a lie, of course. Zalmay had no relation to the President, but it evoked an urgent reaction from the small-like men. I suppose, as an oddly dressed Westerner, knowing the President was within the realm of possibility. I continued with my rants and started repeating the President’s name: Aliyev. Aliyev. Aliyev.
The tall, man-like woman seemed to shrink and furtively glanced about. The neighbors were now quiet. It was as if I had injected magical authority into the situation through my utterances and big-bellied hand flapping. The man-woman apparently said something like, “We will be back in a few days,” took her entourage and exited.
The neighbors turned to me and said, Thank you, in awkward English. Spaceeba, they expressed in exhausted Russian. Sveta came forth to hug me. Her tears dotted my chador.
I returned to my private kitchen shaking in disbelief over what I had done. This was merely a few weeks after September 11th. American troops were entering Afghanistan. This was precarious global moment. In another situation, another country, another juncture in history, my brazenness may have issued a dangerous liability to the safety of my family. It would be years — years — and in very different circumstances, before I would learn how to assert myself like that again.
We moved from Azerbaijan when my son was six months old. Zalmay’s post took him to the United Nations headquarters in New York. I now navigated my world as a new mother with three stepchildren in tow — no longer as a single Muslim Woman in the City, like I had been when I lived in New York before. Life passed by navigating our post September 11th world; cautiously watching events in Afghanistan and Iraq between trips to Jackson Heights for desi food, Flushing for Afghan cuisine, and Friday prayers at the United Nations.
Years later, Zalmay would return to Baku for a meeting. Aliyev, the father, had passed away but not before installing Aliyev, the son. The President’s name remained the same, as did Seferoglu Street.
Zalmay dropped by to visit Sveta and joined her family for tea. She was still bleached-blond yet with improved English — she was working as a maid with a Western family. Her children were teenagers; the apartment remained small and proud. Sveta’s son, Shamhal, walked Zalmay to the corner Kodak shop to print out the pictures he had taken with the family. When they returned, Zalmay gave Sveta a little bit of money. “For your children,” he said, as she taped the pictures up on her soundly renovated walls.
Music used in the podcast:
“Nari, Nari,” Azeribajani music
National anthem of the former Soviet Union
Mariusia, “Oci Ciorni,” Irina Perzeva Russian traditional Songs
Azerbaijan national anthem
Deonna Kelli Sayed is a Love, Inshallah contributor and a LoveInshallah.com editor. She is a published author and an emerging digital storyteller. Her work is also found at altmuslimah.com and Muslimah Media Watch. Deonna is currently working on a memoir with support a Regional Artists’ Grant from the North Carolina United Arts Council. To learn more, visit her website, and join her on Facebook and Twitter.