Not Like My Mother by Azra Alagic - Read Online
Not Like My Mother
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Summary

Not Like My Mother is a powerful story that tracks the spirit, the love and the pain of three generations of women and their families over two continents, as well as examining the divide between three religions that has torn a country and its people apart. It's a meditation on the Balkans, its people, its politics and its colliding differences.
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ISBN: 9780987291516
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Not Like My Mother - Azra Alagic

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1947

Samira

1

Samira lived in the palm of a valley. In the winter, snow clouds blew white dustsheets over the battered Balkan lands. The river slowed its rhythm as plates of ice formed, glistening under brief spurts of sunshine. Icicle chandeliers hung in the trees. In the mornings, wolf prints circled the houses.

Lying in bed, Samira could hear the preparations beginning. Her mother sang praises to Allah for the blessed day, as her aunts bustled around in the modest kitchen preparing lamb. They had little to work with, but each had brought something—a few cloves of garlic, the last bit of dried rosemary, a cube of lard and a couple of lemons. They pooled the ingredients, applying their seasoning to the lamb in ritualistic fashion, not mourning their sacrifices but instead allowing themselves to finally hope, in the knowledge that soon they could once again plough their fields in safety. When they were done, the men took the lamb out to the spit to roast it over hot ashes.

Samira still had doubts. An arranged marriage didn’t seem right, even though it had been done that way for centuries. Her father said marriage wasn’t about love; it was a business union that would lift the family’s social station in the small community. Samira knew her father loved her, but when he had told her of the match she had felt like a piece of meat being sold off or the sacrificial lamb now being roasted on the spit. Her soon-to-be husband’s home was two villages away, in Kamenica. Samira was surprised the house still stood. Germans and Serbs had spent weeks there, gnawing the guts of the village, feeding their insatiable hunger for blood. It would take them a whole day to get there and she would hardly ever see her mother again.

The doubts in her mind rang out like bells, but she threw back her old feather quilt, deciding to make the most of the situation. She leapt out of bed, opened the windows, closed her eyes and leaned out to breathe in the palette of smells collected by the forest breeze. For a moment she wished her wedding could have been held in the spring, when she would have picked wildflowers for her hair, but she quickly chastised herself, thanking Allah that she would not be dancing to the distant beat of gunshots. Samira glanced down to the tree where one of the neighbours had been hanged during the war. The branch had snapped when soldiers tried to hitch two brothers to the same spot. They had been suspended for a moment, wriggling like the snakes they were accused of being, when a loud crack sounded and they crashed to the ground as if Allah himself had intervened. Samira had watched as the soldiers finished the job nature could not do. She had been so young. Now, the killing had ended and once again the Serbs, Croats and Bosnians walked together down the street, though sometimes on opposite sides.

The wedding celebrations had been going on for three days. Family and friends had travelled to take part in festivities; across regions as vastly different from each other as the people that inhabited them. Her relatives were scattered from the flat plains of the north near Hungary, to the sparkling Croatian coast and the central hinterland of Bosnia. All of it had been marred by the war. In some villages, there were only remnants of dilapidated machinery, but others were a tip yard of ruins. Most people tried to avoid the large mounds of dirt encasing the dead, but there were some, either curious or victorious, who were drawn to the graves in the knowledge that at least one person they knew lay beneath their feet.

Today was Kina, the last day of celebrations. The men competed in traditional races and games, each of them trying to prove their manhood.

Today, Samira would see her soon-to-be husband for the first time.

Are you ready to become a bride? called her brother, Omar. Samira opened her eyes and burst out laughing. He was wearing a pair of dirty old pants with mud up to his knees—chest bare. His sandy hair was plastered to his forehead.

You’re not coming to my wedding like that, Samira yelled, flashing him her famous grin. She was renowned, much to her father’s despair, for her outspoken manner, Samira knew he feared her new husband would take his cow and run home the moment Samira opened her mouth. Her father had told her over and over: women are not meant to answer back or challenge men, but the proud expression in his eyes had said otherwise. She’s a wild filly, that one, he said whenever she argued with her mother over the tedious household chores. All her brother did was lie around in the paddocks watching the goats. It angered Samira that women were treated so differently to men, but she could never stay angry with Omar for long.

I think I’ve got a mud-splattered shirt that will match these beautifully, Omar joked. He dodged the hairbrush Samira threw at him and ran off, chuckling.

Just wait till I tell Majka, Samira called.

Samira’s mother led a flood of female relatives into the room. It’s time to get ready for your big day, they called.

As the women helped Samira dress they sang an ancient Jugoslav bridal song in nasal tones.

Samira laughed despite the unease in her stomach. Her breakfast did not feel safe. She stepped into the dimije that had been worn by her mother, and her grandmother before that. Seven metres of rich green fabric were draped around her ample hips. A white blouse was slipped over her head. Samira fingered the jelek, an embroidered jacket, wondering how her mother had felt the day she had worn it. Had she been nervous, or excited? Had she been scared? As scared as Samira felt now? Samira wasn’t sure if she would make a good wife. It was only a few years ago her mother taught her how to cook. She hoped she would fall madly in love with her husband the moment she saw him, love evaporating all her fears. The day seemed like a game she would play with her dolls, her children; she would be the matriarch who ruled the house with benevolent grace.

Samira’s eldest aunt wrapped the marama over her long auburn hair before placing the sef, a little velvet hat, on top.

"It’s time for the sedefi," her mother announced. The women gasped over the precious family heirlooms she lifted from an old, velvet-lined oak jewellery box. The jewels embedded in the gold sparkled like stars in the sky as her mother fastened it across Samira’s forehead. Throughout the war her mother had kept the heirloom hidden in the lining of her dimije, refusing to sell it for food, knowing this day would come. Next, each of the aunts and cousins placed gold bangles on Samira’s wrists, which jingled lightly as she twisted her arms, admiring them.

Samira went to the window to see the guests. Outside, the men gathered around the horses hitched to the carriage, which they had decorated in ceremonial splendour. Each guest tied a gift to the horses: a pair of chickens was slung over their necks, handmade blankets, doilies and knitted slippers over their backs, together with a sack of fine flour, sickles and pots—everything Samira could possibly need to set up her first home.

It was time.

She followed the women downstairs as they trilled their tongues to announce her arrival. Samira turned to look at the man she would marry. Her body went numb, her heart seemed to stop beating; it was as if the clouds had dropped from the sky, blurring her vision. He was so old! At least ten…twelve years older than her fourteen years. A tall, stern man with cool grey eyes and coal-black hair, dressed in an SS uniform. How many men had he killed? Azis looked hollow, as if everything inside him, everything that had made him who he was, had been sacked from his being. Compassion, empathy, love and hope were nowhere to be seen in the hard face. She wanted to blurt out, ‘What happened to you?’ She turned betrayed eyes to her father, did not hide her disappointment.

He failed to see.

Samira felt Azis scan the length of her body, as if he was assessing his purchase, before his gaze finally rested on her face. She offered him a timid smile, but Azis didn’t react, his eyes were devoid of any warmth or flicker of emotion. Samira’s stomach twisted. She felt no love. She desperately wanted to turn and run, high up into the mountains behind her, reclaim the lightness of childhood. This was not a game she could end. A gentle shove reminded her she had to stand next to Azis for the ceremony.

Samira’s mother passed her husband the poga a; he broke the bread over Samira’s head and threw it to the children gathered around her. Some were the same age as Samira. Omar, who was Kum or best man, handed over the ring. Azis slipped the simple gold band onto Samira’s finger. It was cold. Hard. Final. His hands were as frigid as his eyes. When she flinched, Azis glanced at her before quickly releasing her hands. Her head began to spin. She felt hot and wanted to rip off the thick dimije crushing her waist.

Finally, her father threw lollies and chocolates over their heads to seal the vows; they rained down like winged birds. The children dived for the ground, stuffing their pockets full of sweets.

With this union, we strengthen our ties to Allah. May he bless you both with many children, said her father.

Samira took a deep breath; she could see the pride in her parents’ eyes, the smiles on people’s faces. She forced herself to be happy with them. She did not want to shame her parents.

The women trilled; the band struck up. The whole village danced around the bride and groom, celebrating their union. Azis smiled, bent down and kissed Samira, his lips like pieces of cool slate. Samira danced one kolo after another, holding hands with her guests. Her feet drummed against the ground, her body rapidly bounced up and down before she skipped to the right briefly and repeated the steps. Sweat accumulated on her face. Her father led the line, waving a white handkerchief in the air with his free hand, swirling it back and forth. He twisted and turned, crouched to the ground, and leapt into the air.

Eeeeeyeeew, he yelped joyfully.

When the music stopped, the men cut slathers of lamb. Platters of salad and pita were brought from the kitchen. The guests ate greedily, their appetites amplified by the dancing.

Samira took her plate and sat next to her mother. Behind her, two women were talking loudly, not bothering to hide their venom.

I heard they had to marry her off to this man because there were no Muslims left in the village.

What a shame.

A shame? It’s a pity they didn’t kill them all is what I say. Look at what the Partisans did to my house. With my husband dead, it will take my poor boys months to rebuild that wall, and in the meantime I have to live in the stable like one of my cows. Yet their house is virtually untouched, and they say the Muslims were the ones who fared worst. Hmmpf.

Samira’s back tensed and she turned to snap at her neighbour. Her mother’s hand clasped her arm.

"Nemoj. Dosta je bilo." Don’t. There’s been enough.

Are you going to let her talk like that in front of you?

She’s nothing but an ignorant woman. This is your day: focus on the good around you and not the bad. Her mother leaned in and kissed her gently on the forehead.

After the festivities, Samira’s parents led the couple to Samira’s bedroom. A single candle had been lit and her mother’s best nightgown was laid out for Samira to wear. Kissing them both, her parents quietly left the room. Her mother indulged in one last peek before shutting the door, her eyes still holding the secrets she was meant to pass on to a new bride. Samira had no idea what was expected of her between the sheets. Nervously, she walked to the dresser, fingering her childhood treasures.

Undress yourself, ordered Azis.

Momentarily startled, Samira dropped the hand-made doll she had fashioned when she was five. She did as Azis asked, standing before him naked, feeling anything but a woman. She hid her private parts with her hands—not that there was much to hide. Walking toward her, Azis undid his belt and dropped his pants. Samira’s eyes widened like a growing moon. Instant panic set in. What was he going to do with that? Azis grabbed her roughly; whipped her around.

"Majka," Samira screamed.

Azis slapped her across the back of the head then covered her mouth with his hand.

Shut your mouth or I’ll horse-whip you, he threatened.

Samira tried to fight him off, hoping her mother would come to her rescue. His strength easily subdued her.

Within minutes it was over. Azis left her leaning on the dresser, sobbing, blood smeared between her thighs. He threw himself on the mattress, rolled over, and began to snore. Her mother’s nightgown lay crumpled on the floor.

In the morning, Samira woke to see Azis standing half naked in front of her. Terrified, she inched herself to the back of the bed.

It will get better with time, he said and turned to finish dressing.

Long scars striped down and across his back like chicken wire. Pity flickered inside her, though it did nothing to quell her fear.

From the war. They beat me because I didn’t want to kill my own people.

Really? So brave…

He turned, his face screwed up in scorn. I still killed them.

Samira dropped her head; not wanting to see the hatred in his face. Why?

They made me. The SS dragged me from my home when I was seventeen and forced me to fight with the Chetnicks. They measured me with a tape—my height, my feet, even checked my teeth. I wasn’t brave. I wanted to run away. When I tried to resist they hit me in the head with the butt of a rifle and knocked me unconscious. Don’t think I’m some kind of hero, because I wasn’t. Azis turned away. Get dressed; we have to leave.

*

When Samira leaned forward to kiss her Mother goodbye, her Mother grabbed her face between her hands and pulled her close. You may not like it, but it’s a wife’s duty to please her husband. Never deny him or he will send you packing home and you will bring shame on the family.

Samira could not believe her Mother knew and approved of what Azis had done, or that she should subject herself to such treatment again, but she nodded. Her father sprinkled rakija over the horses’ backs to ward off evil spirits during their trip; the strong scent of the plum brandy spooked them briefly. They shifted and showed the whites of their eyes, their nostrils flaring before they settled again. Samira’s brother and father embraced her warmly; she wondered why some men could show love and others couldn’t. Her childhood home faded behind a soft snowdrift, as if it had been nothing but an illusion.

2

Old men sat on the sides of the street, their eyes vacant, faces sagging with disappointment and sadness. The women went about their tasks with heads down, occasionally stopping to whisper to each other and glance suspiciously at Samira and Azis. Even the children, usually so resilient, were joyless. It was the first time Samira has seen how the soldiers had plucked the land. The colour had been drained from the village—the people, the buildings, the animals—leaving behind fractured souls, grey with defeat.

A few of the villagers approached their laden carriage, salivating at the sight of Samira’s wedding gifts. Some of the women began to cry, begging for something to eat. Samira told Azis to stop, she got down from the carriage and handed one of the chickens to a mother with three children, she gave a blanket to an old man and the remaining sweets to the children. It was the same in each village. She would have given everything away if Azis had not stopped her.

Samira’s new home sat nestled on a hill looking down over its neighbours. Snow was piled in mounds on the tiled roof, giving it an odd comical appearance, as if it was crooked. On the top floor were the living quarters. Underneath, the cow moaned miserably as she stretched her neck, trying to reach the feed in the storage room. The render had dulled to an off-grey; bullet holes still dotted the front and side of the house. Two front windows were intact, but one was missing a brown shutter. Wide, concrete stairs led to the living quarters.

Samira was appalled at the mess. Filthy clothes lay in smelly mounds in the two small bedrooms; stacks of pans and plates balanced in uneven piles on the tiny kitchen sink and the cupboards were nearly bare of food. In the corner leaned several rifles. She threw open the windows to air the house, but the rancid smell of the outdoor toilet floated toward her. She smothered her nose with her hand.

By Allah! How can you live like this? What are you, pigs? she cried.

Azis slapped her. Samira’s face flushed with indignation.

Don’t you dare speak to me like that again, said Azis.

From a dark corner in the lounge room, under the stairs that led to the attic, an old man chuckled wickedly.

See, I told you I’d get you a strong one. She’s young and will live a long time, he croaked.

He dragged his body out of the darkness on his knuckles. His empty pant legs stirred up dust as they trailed behind him.

This is my uncle, Ivo, said Azis.

What are you staring at? It’s not like there aren’t plenty of limbless men in this country now. Or were you one of the lucky few who got out?

No… stuttered Samira.

Ivo grabbed some dirty clothes and threw them at Samira’s feet.

You can get started on washing these down at the stream, there’s more in your lover’s room, he smirked. "Then you can cook me some grah. I haven’t had a good bean soup in a long time."

Samira gathered as many clothes as she could carry. Tears steamed down her face. She felt a savage urge to scream, but headed outside, down the hill toward the mountain-fed spring, following the sound of running water. Snow crunched under her feet. She gulped huge breaths of icy air, willing the beauty and energy of the valley to calm her. Earlier that morning, as they had travelled to her new home, Azis had told her that his family had once owned most of the land in Kamenica. Only fifty acres remained. The old man had gambled the rest away after the war. So much for being a good Muslim.

The valley was surrounded by towering ranges dotted with cottages in various states of destruction. Snow layered everything, creating abstract sculptures from the wartime ruins. A pile of tin and timber arms poked from beneath the snow, a former shed destroyed by a grenade. An abandoned jeep rusted on its side. Down the road, a cluster of homes had been bombed. Their gaping hulls clawed the sky, windows smashed and the contents long since hauled away.

Water trickled from an underground spring, pooling in a small pond before spilling into a narrow stream. Empty bullet shells littered the edge. Further down, the water had already begun to freeze; it wouldn’t be long before the wash pool was a plate of ice; Samira would have to melt snow over the fire. She plunged her hands into the icy pool, and gasped in shock. It felt like a thousand knives slicing her. She gritted her teeth, threw some clothes in, and scrubbed away the grime, bitter tears mixing with her new family’s dirty washing. She hated her parents for doing this to her. She knew her father had married her into a family of distinguished heritage, dating back to the Ottoman Empire, but he should have known all good bloodlines were eventually corrupted.

By the time Samira finished the washing her knuckles resembled the skin on the feet of the old rooster in the barn, blistery pink and frozen into claws. Unable to straighten them she used her arms like chopsticks to carry the laundry back to the house. There was no clothesline, so she threw the washing over the barbed-wire fence between the barn and the house. It had stopped snowing and the sun was beginning to peek out through pillowy clouds. Hopefully, the washing would dry.

Samira held her stiffened fingers in front of the wood-burner. It took some time for the colour to return; sharp pain shot through her fingers as the blood moved.

She searched the cupboards for the ingredients she needed to make grah, finding some smoked meat, and a cup full of kidney beans. She added some of the spices and flour given to her as wedding gifts. She prepared the meal in one of her new pots, not even fully aware of what she was doing. Next she prepared the dough for the morning’s bread. When a cold breeze shot through the small holes where bullets had ruptured the house, she pulled bits of dough from the mound and shoved them into the holes, sealing them against the wind. It would have to do until she could get Azis to repair the wall.

While the meal cooked, Samira set about cleaning the house: washing dirty dishes, dusting, putting unused blankets away in cupboards, sweeping and scrubbing floors. In one corner she found a stack of papers, left behind by the Partisans. They were detailed maps of the area and plans for raids and attacks against the Chetniks. Samira threw them into the fire.

When the meal was ready she served it to the men with small bits of stale, left-over bread. They crumbled these into their bowls; the soup penetrated the hard layers, turning the bread soppy. They slurped it up greedily. Samira went to her bedroom, her gnawing hunger gone.

A small, low-set bed dominated the middle of the room. There was no bedhead, just a mattress. What if he followed her? What if he wanted to bed her again? She should have stayed up and kept working until he had gone to sleep. She turned to leave, but Azis slipped into the room behind her and gently closed the door.

*

The mysteries of love escaped her. There were no secret, knowing smiles between Samira and Azis. No long, sweet kisses behind the barn door as she had childishly imagined. Her heart did not fill her throat, bursting to call out ‘I love you’ when Azis walked into the room. Instead, Samira’s skin prickled in disgust when he brushed past her. The sound of his voice sent her into hiding.

She watched the neighbourhood girls playing in the street. Carefree smiles flitting across their faces like butterflies serenading the sunlight. Occasionally, Samira joined them, and her cheeky smile would find its way home to her face. She craved the innocence she had lost, but became humble whenever she saw her new neighbours. Both were older women hardened by war and tough times, and they rallied to support Samira in her new role. They brought her fresh eggs and cheese. Helped with her washing. Fata had lost her husband and son, while Leila only had her husband left. Her daughter had been raped and killed, her son tortured to death after he tried to seek revenge for his sister’s death. Over coffee, they told Samira how Ivo had lost his legs.

Azis tried to stop them—the Germans and Chetniks—but he was part of their regiment. They forced him to fight on their side. When they brought him back here, to his village, they told him to bomb his own home, said Fata.

What sort of bastards would do that? Make a man destroy his own home? Just goes to show how sadistic some men can be. Azis bombed his house all right, but he made sure his aim was off. Only the corner of the front roof and stable were damaged. Killed the cow, but he repaired the roof as soon as the war was over, Leila explained.

You’re getting off track, Leila. After they bombed the house…

Hang on, why did they bomb his house? Samira asked.

Oh, because Ivo had let the Partisans use the house as their headquarters. I’ve never heard anything like it. I thought the world had come to an end; it was so loud. One of my windows broke from the shrapnel, said Fata.

Is that how Ivo lost his legs? From the bomb?

"No…Ivo and some of the other Partisans managed to get out and run down to the river. Ivo jumped off the bridge like some madman. The river swept him downstream,