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Polina Zherebtsova’s Diary of the Chechen War – Part 4

08/11/2009 5 comments

[This is the final part of the translation of the extracts of Polina Zherebtsova’s Chechen Diary, originally published in Bolshoi Gorod.]

2 November

I argue with Mum. I tidy up. I get ready.

Yesterday, in passing, I saw Aladdin in the distance. He nodded at me. He wasn’t alone; he was with an older man and a young fellow.

In the evenings, I narrate to the kids the fairy tales of Wilhelm Gauf. He died so young, and yet gave the world so much! Everyone listens to me attentively. The kids are called Zara, Waha, Alissa. Alissa is a niece of Tamara, from the fourth floor.

In spring, I’ll turn 15. Of course, if I’m still alive.

Mansour, who lived with us with his family as a refugee in 1995, during the first war, told everyone in the yard that I was his bride. He explained to me, “I did it on purpose. So that they wouldn’t insult you or pester you.” And then he said, “But will you wait for me?” I nodded quietly. Such an idiot!

In the absence of his father, Mansour is like the elder in the family. He resolved conflicts between all of us in the military hostel more than once during that hard winter of 1995. We often quarrelled because of the cramped, closed quarters. We had had to sleep in turns – we couldn’t all have slept at the same time in our one-room apartment.

In 1995, we temporarily housed several more refugees in our apartment. I remember we had a neighbour, Olga Stepanovna, in our own entrance. Later, through snow-covered paths over a mountain pass, from the city of Vladikavkaz, her son arrived. An anti-war miracle! Whenever the reds or the whites, thinking he was a spy, wanted to execute him, he would repeat, “Guys! My mum is old. She’s all alone. It’s war. I’m going to my mum.” They’d then let him go.

And I can barely communicate with my mother. We are constantly arguing, quarrelling. Her nerves are shattered because of the crossfire. We managed to sell all the papers, except for four that were missing.

The bombing continues nightly. In the daytime it pretty much stops.

7 November

Yesterday, my ‘elder brother’ came by. He offered to teach me Arabic. He showed me the interesting alphabet – like drawings. I agreed.

No school now. As for History, I’ve read the textbook already. Twice!

The elder brother is, of course, Aladdin. He gifted us two frocks. One, a light blue one, he gave to me. A similar one, but green in colour, he gave to my mother. In addition, he brought me a large white scarf, imported from Mecca! I dreamed about such a thing for so long! The wealthiest women among us cover their heads with scarves like this! It is white, with white embroidery.

Aladdin brought books. Different ones. Many of them. He said, “You love to read books, and time passes faster when one reads. Here are some thrillers.” He is so … unpredictable!

These are events of yesterday. Today, I took out a notebook where I practise writing – and there was money in it! It all spills suddenly over me. I barely managed not to faint! All of 160 roubles! But what for? We are thrilled with him as it is. And we’ll be grateful all our lives to him for saving us. But this is unnecessary!

Can it be that he doesn’t love me at all? Aladdin treats me like I’m little. He is friendly, but that’s it.

There was bombing yesterday. Mum and I ‘went walkabout’ for bread. We came under fire. Came home safely. We started to tidy up the house. The painful fragment in me quietened down, gave me a moment’s peace.

Today is November 7, the revolutionary holiday of the former USSR. Maybe that’s why everyone is happy!

Budur of the terrible tales of the town of Grozny.

8 November

Yesterday evening there was a terrible fire fight. Missiles and shells flew into the yard. Thumps from mortars and machine-guns. The walls shook constantly. Everyone’s window panes blew out. We had sealed our panes with paper crosses, and so they remained intact.

When we were gluing the crosses on, some of the neighbours laughed and said maliciously, “Crosses, just like the Russians have on their graves!” Mum didn’t react. She tried to advise them: “Didn’t you see the films about the war with the Germans? For safety, everybody glued on the crosses. You should do the same.” All that happened was that everybody started referring to the Russian military as the Germans.

Aladdin came in the evening and began to teach me to read. He was amazed at how quickly I learnt all the letters; I write them easily under dictation.

Aladdin was covered in clay. He explained that as he was walking, our ruined district began to get shot up. He ended up lying in a trench with a gray cat. The cat was struggling to get away. She scratched him. It turned out that that was my tomcat – Chips! Aladdin was hiding with him?

We heated up some water so that our guest could clean himself up in the kitchen. We washed his clothes. Mum said that they were wet and that she wouldn’t let him leave at night. He declined initially out of decency, but his face lit up, and he stayed! Mum and I had to jostle for space on grandma’s bed, and we arranged the sofa for our guest.

Elder brother confesses, “My friends do not understand me when I tell them that I am looking out for a Russian family. I tell them of my friendship with you. That you are normal. But they do not believe me.”

Princess Budur.

9 November

My elder brother Aladdin spent the night at ours! We talked long into the night. He fed me candy, which he fished out of his pockets.

Aladdin made himself comfortable in the apartment, and generally behaved like a real brother or cousin. I learned a lot about him, about this childhood, his mischief at school, his friends.

Then he got fed up; his attitude changed dramatically. He started to scold me for not eating properly. I wasn’t wearing the headscarf correctly. I was putting the letters together far too slowly when I read. I understood. And my Slavic blood boiled.

Mum intervened. She announced, half in jest and half-seriously that he was pompous. “When a guest starts to criticise the host, it’s time to throw him out!” Aladdin was offended. He didn’t have any breakfast, and left. But I know that he will come back! He doesn’t want to get used to us, but still he does. Mum feels sorry for him.

In the morning I again went over the rules of the Russian language. Mum gave me a dictation. Mum is asleep now. I am sitting quietly. I found several old newspapers and am reading them.

A woman leaves Rais’s house, next door. She offered to sell some cigarettes (“Astra”), the cheapest and thinnest. In all, 96 packets at 30 kopecks each.

10 November

It snowed.

No, I wrote wrongly. It was a snowstorm like in February! All the trees are white. Mum’s heart is not doing well. She took some medicinal drops and went to bed.

There’s no bread, but there’s yesterday’s leftover dumplings with grass from the garden.

A man from our building stopped by to say good-bye. We don’t know him. He has a singularly yellowish pallor. He is missing a hand. He has fine, painfully thin facial features. Everyone calls him the Black Glove. His attention had been drawn to us several days earlier. He had chanced to see how I was carried out of the car, wounded.

He introduced himself, said he came from Greece. Black Glove learnt from the gossip of our neighbours that we did yoga. That we unravelled dreams. He wanted an explanation for what he saw: “Dogs chasing me! Big ones and small ones. They want to tear me limb from limb. I try to run, but can’t. There are many dogs, an entire pack!” We understood his dream as follows: “Enemies abound. To remain means death. One must depart quickly. The hunt approaches!” This man informed us that he works in Greece. My favourite country!

Bidding us farewell at the door, the man whispered, “I will come back. Maybe in five or six years. My family is there…” On the table, we saw a few bars of chocolate.

I am filled with a giddy hope that all will be well! This is like the hope of kids awaiting New Year’s presents from Santa Claus. Or the hope after a ship sinks when, through the veil of rain and storm, people espy the shore. It is not far! Just a little effort and everyone will be saved!

Mum’s heart is bad. It is 2:35 now. Mum took her tablets, but they do not help. Her lips and hands and legs are cold. I keep telling her that she needs to sleep. I give her a hot-water-bottle in place of a heater. Before my eyes is an imaginary Aladdin. I am having an imaginary conversation with him.

I’m sitting on the sofa. Gunfire from afar. Near the factory ‘Grad.’ It’s the third time it is being strafed. The weapons used are like the Katyusha rockets of the Patriotic War in 1945. We didn’t go out for bread.

I hear the howl of aircraft. The sound is approaching us.

Icicles drip outside the window. Small stalactites. The sky is clear, blue.

At night I had a dream: in a dark basement I am fighting a battle with Death. She is black, in a long coat with a hood; in her hands is a mace. Beneath our feet is a swamp. And so many people are already in the swamp to their chests; they cannot escape and save themselves. I swing and hit Death with a cane on the head. It was a palpable blow, as though I had hit something real, alive. She recoiled, and I managed to escape from the cellar.

I described the dream to Mum. She laughed and said, “This clearly means that in this war you will certainly not perish!”

Princess Budur.

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A Review of ‘Mamale of Cannanore: An Adversary of Portuguese India’, by Geneviève Bouchon

31/10/2008 3 comments

[I recently came across this review of a seminal work by a French Indologist on the maritime and military conflicts between the Portuguese and the Moplahs of Kerala. The tract came out in 1975, published by Droz, as part of the Islamic and Oriental Studies in Comparative History; the review below was published in French, in 1977. What follows is a very loose translation.]

For several years Ms. Geneviève Bouchon has been working on the Portuguese sources regarding the Indian Ocean, to seek information on Asian societies and the commercial networks that animated them long before the Europeans arrived. Her latest study, Mamale of Cannanore, covers the reaction of a Muslim community of Malabar to the impact of the earliest Portuguese arrivals: it is inseparable from two articles published in the earlier Mare Luso-Indicum, dealing respectively with the trade with the island of Ceylon of the same period1, and with the Muslims of Kerala at the dawn of the sixteenth century 2.

In contrast to the few ancient sources, Indian, Arab (e.g., the story of Ibn Battuta), or Chinese (e.g., stories relating to the maritime exploits of Zheng He), the earliest Portuguese documents demonstrate the important role of Muslim mercantile communities in all ports of the Indian Ocean, especially in the ports of Malabar: Cananor, Calicut, Cochin, Kollam, exporters of pepper and ginger, importers of horses and necessary produce for the great Vijayanagar empire that controlled almost all of the Deccan, especially relying on the great oceanic routes that carried spices and other products from the Far East, from Malacca to Aden and Hormuz.

The routes were certainly very old – and G. Bouchon points out inscriptions from the IX century that tell us of the merchant guilds, the Anjuvannam and Manigrâman, and of the positions occupied by the Jews and Christians – but they were to attain prominence in the XIV and XV centuries, with the spread of Islam in India (following the invasions of the Tugluq Sultans) and the arrival of Chinese junks at Calicut. The sources of the time allow us to limn, alongside other communities also participating in the great trade, the Mâpilla Muslim community, particularly well established in Cananor, but also found elsewhere, from the Maldives islands to Ceylon. Married for generations to the local women (originating from the most humble castes), the Mâpilla were relatively well integrated into Indian life, and while they did live on the margins of Hindu society, enjoyed the favour of the king, whom they served as advisers or sometimes as soldiers. They maintained as well a monopoly on the great maritime trade that was prohibited by religious decree to the upper castes. The court, which needed them, favoured them, and they had no reason to want any brutal political change which would bring on the establishment of an Islamic state.

The Mâpillas traded rice and imported cinnamon from Ceylon; they enriched themselves especially in the trade that brought horses from Hormuz for the armies of Vijayanagar. Directly threatened by the arrival of the Portuguese who sought to confiscate the profitable trade of Malabar, they attempted to curb this competition by any means. Not being able to unify the various ports to resist the Portuguese together (the rivalry between the rulers was too bitter), they tried several times to seek help from the naval expeditions that the Mamelukes in Cairo, equally concerned at the Portuguese manoeuvres, sent into the Sea of Oman. But mostly they plied their trade further to the south, relying on transoceanic fleets that directly controlled the Maldives, which was also rich in coir (the coconut fiber necessary for naval ropes and cords), in cowries, in ambergris, in bonito, and slaves.

After the presenting to us the theater of the first confrontation between Portuguese and Muslims – the region of Cananor – the ancient kingdom of Eli – and the “Islands” (Maldives), the author follows the stages of the conflict chronologically. It all starts with the pitiful story of the arrival of Vasco da Gama in Calicut, where he is surprised to find Moors able to speak the language of Spain (they, in fact, serve as interpreters for him) – and to find the gifts he brings disdained as barely worthy of the poorest merchant from Mecca (twelve pieces of striped cloth, six hats, two barrels of oil and honey …). But the “restoration” is done soon, a fortress is built at Cananor (St. Angelo’s Fort) and Duarte Barbosa learns Malayalam … (Chapter III).

Then ensues the long history of the fortress that stands firm in 1507 in the face of an epic siege led by the local Hindu king but on the initiative of Muslims (Chapter IV). Chapter V, entitled “Mamale and Albuquerque” tries to reconstruct a vague figure who, for a dozen years until one loses his trace in 1522, appears to have embodied the struggle of the Mâpillas against the Portuguese. Chapter VI traces the final stages of the struggle for control of the Maldives after the death of Albuquerque in 1515, and the progress of Mamale, whom the Portuguese sources refer to with the title of “Regedor do Mar”.

Behind all these maneuvers and these clashes is a social group who, contrary to classical tropes of triumphant conquista, remained intact; and the author deservedly emphasizes the power of the Mâpilla of Cananor, whose success throughout the sixteenth century provoked the breakup of the Hindu kingdom and the advent of the only Muslim dynasty that ever reigned in Kerala, that of Ali Raja.

Denys LOMBARD

1. “Les rois de Kötte au début du xvie siècle”, Mare Luso-Indicum. t I. Droz Genève- Paris, 1971, pp 65-96;
2. “Les musulmans du Kerala époque de la découverte portugaise”, Mare Luso-Indicum t. II. 1973 pp 3-59

Lombard Denys. Geneviève Bouchon, Mamale de Cananor. Un adversaire de l’Inde portugaise (1507-1528), Annales, 1977, n° 4, pp. 711-713.

Categories: history, india, islam, portugal