شیرین SHIRIN SHIREEN
The trees that stood guard on each side of the road that led to the house where شیرین and Farhad now lived had in recent weeks been stripped of their green girth, pared down to their brown skeleton, their branches stretching up to the sky in a plea for the sun to reappear.
شیرین left the house, immediately feeling her face grabbed by the icy palms of late October, her breath emerging visible in smoke-signal bursts. The few remaining leaves that hadn’t already been reduced to a mushy paste were scattered like the victims of a great battle over the winding bicycle lanes, amputees crushed under her boots, boots more utilitarian than anything she had purchased in a decade. Soon it would snow, the air had that singular electricity to it. Chilly pastels that hung lower than she was used to seeing in a sky threatened to erupt in a glorious display of technicolor.
شیرین and Farhad had been living in Sweden for seven months.
It had been hard at first, of course it had been hard. It wasn’t just the language, it was the mannerisms, the body language.
Thankfully she had her brother Sardar there who translated documents for them, Sardar who would come by every now and again and brighten her day (not often enough, but he was so very busy with work). He had been the one who had told her about the Madina grocery store where one could buy Middle Eastern ingredients and foodstuff, it even had Arabic writing in green around its camel and palm tree logo, and in its window the 10 kg sacks of rice and 5 kg boxes of laundry detergent she was used to seeing were stacked, not the thimbles that Swedes purchased, as though they were feeding small wounded birds. The owner of Madina, a Kurd himself from Turkey, and the two young girls he had working there were also very knowledgeable about what their traditional herbs and spices were called in Swedish so that when she was in the Swedish supermarket close to their new home she knew what was what. Even so, just knowing what things were called wasn’t enough, one needed to know how the Swedish things tasted too: their salt, for instance, was much more salty than the salt they got as part of the rations back in Kurdistan. She had learnt this the hard way: Farhad’s face became raisin-like, a grimace of simultaneous disgust and disappointment. “Is this how you intend to cook for me now that you are abroad?” he had said as she apologized and made another batch of rice, a nice basmati the good people at Madina had suggested would be like the Kurdish rice. When she put the new rice on the table, however, Farhad said he was not hungry anymore. As for Sardar, for this had been at the time they were still living with her brother, he didn’t eat rice, he was afraid of something called “kolhydrater”, which sounded like wet lettuce but was apparently something that Swedish people feared and that could be found in anything: rice, bread, potatoes. “ ده چی ئهخۆی؟” she asked her brother. “Protein,” he replied, another alien-sounding thing that she found at the supermarket one day. It looked like chocolate bars but she bought her brother some and offered them to him next time he was over for dinner. He had laughed (at her) and kissed her.
Sardar had taken a day off work one day – one had to do that here, call it a holiday every time one wanted to do anything – to accompany her to the doctor for her leg. The Swedish doctors, colder even than the regular Swedes, refused to coddle her the way a Kurdish doctor would, but saw after only a few minutes that her prosthetic device was the wrong size entirely. Sardar translated their questions, most of which seemed to revolve around how she had been able to have such a contraption strapped to her leg for so long and sustain the pain. شیرین shrugged. It was what it was.
Eventually, after many documents Sardar had filled in and that she had signed, she and Farhad received their residency documents. They had to go to an interview where Sardar spoke a lot, Farhad spoke a little and شیرین spoke not at all, but it seemed to have gone well. Sometimes she liked to take out the ID from her wallet and stare at her name, now frozen on that piece of plastic. The latin transliteration of her Kurdish name شیرین had always been fluid, being mostly transcribed as Shirin but she had also seen Shereen, Shiryn and Shireen. It was this last one that now adorned her residency document, she had now shed the other personas and was no longer شیرین, only Shireen. Her father’s name, one she had been chained to since birth had disappeared and was replaced by her grandfather’s. Her birthdate, which had been written down in a Qur’an that had since been lost, had now been specified as the first of July. Not because it was a date close to her real birth (in fact, the only information she had was that it was around the year of the flood, and that it had been cold outside) but because that was the date Iraqi judges assigned to you when you weren’t sure of the exact date. Millions of Iraqis had the first of July as their birthdate, to the extent that they nearly broke the Swedish personnummer ID system when they mass-emigrated to Sweden in the late 80s.
Farhad did not have a job yet, but he loathed leaving the house. She would go out and get groceries while he stayed at home and caught up on the news on an old computer Sardar had given them. She shopped mostly at Madina, even though it was far, it was where she could get the lentils and vine leaves she needed. However, گهزۆ, the sweet that Kurds claimed to be the Biblical manna, could not be purchased in Sweden. The store owner said that he had tried to import some but that the logistics were too difficult. They did have sumac, however, and one of the girls lifted a small vial of red powder so as to prove her prowess in scoring ingredients vital to Kurdish cuisine. Elated, Shireen bought the sumac and brought it home to show Farhad but all it did was make him angry because it reminded him of the kebabs back home, and where was he going to get a grill in Sweden? Swedes did not understand kebabs. For them kebabs were identical to döners, that Turko-teutonic offspring in a pita second only to the taco in difficulty to eat. They even put döner meat on their pizzas and called this “kebab pizza”. Farhad said that she had become lazy since coming to Sweden, that she didn’t spend as much time cooking.
Sardar offered Farhad a custodial job but Farhad had his pride. He would rather remain on welfare, he said.
Shireen would stand in front of the yellow tabloids presented outside the stores, not understanding the words but pronouncing them, slowly, repeatedly. She was tasting syllables and words like a precocious child taking their first sips of coffee, determined to like the taste.
After many months of sleeping on the floor in Sardar’s apartment, Sardar came home having found them a place to live, a house that belonged to a friend of his. Shireen began crying the first time she saw it. Farhad shrugged. He didn’t like the furniture much.
The first thing that they brought into the house was the Qur’an, which they both kissed and placed on top of the highest bookshelf in the house. They then brought blue eyes to ward off the evil eye that they put on the front door as well as in the main hallway of the house. Then came their clothes. She couldn’t believe that their cumulative money from the state covered the rent, but Sardar assured her that since the house belonged to his friends, they were charging her only the bare minimum.
Sometimes the way that Farhad looked at her scared her. In less than a year the skinny clothes-hanger frame of his had padded to a corpulent mass, his face now beginning to sag around the cheeks. He hated noise. He berated her for swallowing her food too loudly. For listening to music too loud on her headphones. For mentioning the boy’s name. And yet he did not hear, or pretended not to hear, when she missed home so much she cried. He would misunderstand the point of stories. She would talk about the odd sight of seeing a man give away hugs in the main square for charity. The Swedes had it so well that all they needed were hugs, wasn’t that fascinating? “تۆ بۆ قسه لهگهل پیاو ئهكهی ینجا؟” he’d say and squint at her, something resembling both jealousy and fury deep in his eyes.
Actually, no, that example made him sound merely protective when he was really not. Not more so than any other man. Rather, say, she’d see on TV that there’d been an earthquake in Iran and they would show the rubble and she’d cry watching scattered shoes and toys amongst the debris and he’d first be worried, then relieved it was Iran, then ask her if she knew anyone from there and when she’d say no, he’d shrug and ask why she was crying. Yes. That was a better example.
She often felt that they used words differently.
And then there was her own temper. Most of Farhad’s quirks she shrugged off but every now and again, often when he’d announce they’d have guests in a few hours when the kind of meal expected took several hours to prepare, she would complain and tell him to take them out to a restaurant and he’d say do you think I’m made of money, an idiom that translates curiously well between languages, and she’d rip her night gown like the old wrestler Hulk Hogan that she had seen on TV as a girl and soon they’d both be on the floor panting amidst pieces of defrosted chicken. And though these outbursts would take over an hour to get over she somehow always managed to clean the house and cook something. The guests would profusely laud her cooking, as though she had managed to whip together fifteen different dishes, and Farhad would smile and she would giggle.
When the guests would arrive, acquaintances of people he knew back in Kurdistan, friends of distant relatives, even complete strangers that just happened to be Kurds from the same region with the same political beliefs, the conversations were always about politics. Which politician had done what. Which politician was a thief, which one was corrupt. What the solution was. A glass or two of diluted whiskey later (whiskey was had as though it were Arrak: ice cubes and water to the brim) volumes would rise to the point that a neighbor had called the police once, thinking a fight was taking place. Their language always sounded like fighting to the Swedes. Kak Sarbast, a fairly fluent speaker, confronted the uniformed men at the door while the others feared the worst: that those who were there illegally were going to be sent back, that even those who were there legally would be arrested and deported. One never knew, did one. Shireen stood by the door listening, trying to understand the exchange as Kak Sarbast was talking to the police.
No bråk. We bara talk politics.
Ja. Inte bråk. Talk only.
Okej, but i fortsättningen, do så quiet. Grannarna klagar, understand you.
Ja. Ja. Thank you så very much.
Her parents called, their stories of life back home in Kurdistan suddenly both alien and magical now that she was snowed-in and saw nothing but the white of snow and the black of night. Aunt بهدریه for instance, a highly superstitious woman who had not done the hajj (she had gone to Saudi Arabia, but began menstruating on the day she was meant to arrive to Mecca so could not go; Shireen still remembered how embarrassed she was when she had to tell her family why the honorary title of Haji was not applicable to her) but who had gone to Oman as a child to visit the black magicians, had an immortality prayer sewn to her veil. As long as the veil was on her head she would live, she believed. And so it was to Shireen’s mother’s great amusement (بهدریه was Shireen’s mother’s sister in-law and particularly loathed) that she had dropped dead in the middle of the street when a gust of wind took her headscarf.
Another aunt on her dad’s side (there used to be three more but they had died in Anfal) had somehow gotten her number and called her up while Shireen was stuffing vegetables. Aunt پیرۆز offered her condolences and cried for a very long time. Then she hung up, leaving Shireen stunned, her hand in a hollowed-out aubergine.
Aunt پیرۆز had gone With Aunt بهدریه to Oman to visit the black magicians and claimed to be one herself. She was only thirteen when she set fire to her own face to get “wisdom and power” and had told Shireen as a child that in order to make sure that her husband didn’t cheat on her she should put two drops of her urine in his tea at night.
His family didn’t call as much. His brother called once a month or so but his parents, still disappointed that he’d left for Europe, still blaming Europe for what had happened to them, only had silence for him.
One of the first things that Shireen asked Sardar was how one said I am lost in Swedish. It was, he said, “Jag är vilse”. How was that different from I want to see? “Jag vill se?” He laughed that it was completely different, as Shireen tried and failed to distinguish between the, for her, identical sounds. Sardar then told her that the word disoriented came from “turned away from the East”. It was true: ever since she’d turned away from the East, she had been quite disoriented.
Farhad was supposed to go to Arbetsförmedlingen. The Swedes and their long words: they did this on purpose, Farhad told Shireen, to throw off immigrants. Why couldn’t they just call it what it was? The job centre. Short, easy to remember. Once he got there – the job centre – they had a Kurd working there who helped him fill out the forms. He came from Hawler so back home they would have had jokes about one another but here, outside Kurdistan, they were all brothers. The woman who greeted them was toad-like, grey with oversized plastic frames.
Bored of unemployment and unable to spend his free time with anyone he liked or knew (the few Kurds that he knew in Linköping were hard at work), he enrolled in a Swedish course and took it very seriously. Svenskundervisning, it was called. Again, on purpose. He would come home and tell Shireen all about the Swedish authors he had discovered and how close Swedish and Kurdish were. Shireen loved seeing Farhad passionate again, it reminded her of who they were before what happened on the ship.
Shireen also wanted to go to the Swedish course but Farhad said she wouldn’t have time for things like that. He was probably right.
The doctors told her that the pain that she felt in her leg, the missing leg, whenever it was cold was psykosomatisk. Shireen had Sardar write that down on a piece of paper while he explained to her that it meant “in her head”. Such a beautiful word for something so simple.
The new prosthetic that she had was much better than the previous one, but there was no denying the fact that Swedish winters seemed to have a detrimental effect on her leg.
On their way back from the hospital, Sardar explained it probably reminded her of when it had happened.
Shireen had laughed at that, because Sardar knew very well that she couldn’t remember it herself, so how could her body remember it? She had been told the story enough times that she had something in her that resembled a memory, but it was frozen, depending as it did on external accounts and not the echoes of fluctuating emotions. She was with Sardar and their neighbors, playing football during a picnic on the mountainside. It was too cold to have been eating outdoors, they all agreed afterwards, but it was after Newroz when the temperature should have allowed it. It was getting dark, the sky the dark lilac of an oncoming night, and one of the boys – here stories diverged too much to see his face clearly – kicked the ball too hard so that it fell off the cliff and landed on the plateau downstairs. The argument amongst the children to get the ball she needn’t remember: she could imagine it all too well – a ball was a prized object and to return without one would lead to severe parental admonishment. So someone had to get it. Shireen was the youngest so it fell on her to climb down the cliff to where a road had been carved during the Iran-Iraq war, the Kurdish north gaining most of its infrastructure at this time due to the need of two warring nations to have a battlefield. Beyond the road was a patch of grass where the ball had rolled to, stopping before the stoop fall down the mountain. She hurried down, scratching her knee against one of the rocks, and crossed the road to where the ball was. It was by this time so dark the grass was less green than it was black. She picked up the ball and turned to get back to the again when her hand hit something and she froze.
The UN had, in the years after the Iran – Iraq war, planted signs where they suspected mines had been buried. They had not removed the mines, but they had planted signs. Metal red downward-pointing triangles with a white skull and crossbones on them stuck in the ground with a metal rod. The shape, the color, the image, all things screamed danger. When Shireen’s hand hit it she didn’t move, couldn’t move. Sardar shouted at her to come back up when she explained what the situation was. Adults were called over, Shireen’s father calmly explaining to her that she was going to be just fine, all she had to do was retrace her steps: she hadn’t stepped on a mine when she got the ball, so as long as she walked the same way back she would be fine. Kak Taha calmed down Shireen’s mother by explaining that most of the mines buried here were Italian-made and needed a car or a truck to pass over them before they detonated: a little girl like Shireen would not weigh nearly enough.
And that’s where all the accounts of what happened end: with everyone above her, trying to get her to move, to come back, and her frozen, terrified, ball in hand, the whites of her eyes shining through the darkness (this last description was only mentioned by some, usually the same people who pointed out that the sky was a ‘dark lilac’). Either nobody remembered what happened next or they spared her; either way, it was presumptuous of the Swedish doctors to equate the pain in her leg with her memory or lack thereof of a decade-old event.
The drill, connected to the wall outlet by way of three cord extenders, was performing surgery to an old house, the fittings rattling, the walls throbbing. A new appendage was now protruding from their living room window, the round metal ear of a satellite dish.
It would have been both easier and safer to install the dish on the front balcony but Sardar had told them that this would be frowned upon by the neighbors, that they weren’t allowed to deface the facade of the house that way. There would be no drilling.
“ئهو برایهت وا ئهزانێت ێمه له قهسر ێهژین” Farhad said once his brother in-law had left their house. It’s not like it was the neighbors’ house, after all.
Shireen almost quipped that neither was it theirs but she really wanted to watch Kurdish television and thus needed a satellite dish.
In the end Farhad had, in one of his rare but truly genuine signs of affection, told her that he would arrange Kurdish television for her if he so had to dig through the house’s walls with his bare hands. He went, on his own, to Clas Ohlson, the local hardware store, and found a metal plate upon which he could install the dish that only needed two screws in a wall to support the dish, it would barely be noticeable. He then realized that the drill they owned had a cable far too short to reach the plug from the window so he sent Shireen back to the store not get first one extension cord and then a second one. By the time Farhad had all that he required to perform the installation, the pot of rice Shireen had prepared for midday meal was already breathing, so it wasn’t until after eating, drinking tea and taking a short nap that Farhad plugged in the drill, took the metal plate under his arm and leaned out of the window.
Shireen uttered a ‘be careful’ each time Farhad’s position on the ledge changed, until Farhad told her to be quiet and leave him alone. She would then think ‘be careful’ instead.
They couldn’t get a good reception, every now and again the familiar tones of Kurdish music, or a string of words that evoked their home, would emerge from the darkness, only to sink back in and leave them with a black screen punctuated by flickers of distorted glitches.
“نازانم یتر، چی بكهم… ئهم شته سهگبابه قهناته قۆڕهكانت وهر ناگرێت…” Farhad sighed, leaning back in, his nose and forehead now covered with a film of sweat. “ده بژۆ خاوولیێكم بۆ بێنه!” he said, throwing the drill to the floor and dusting his hands off. When Shireen returned with the towel his voice was different, resigned.
“…سبهینێ محاوهلهێكی كه ئهكهم”
“گوێشی مهیهرێ…” she said, hoping he wouldn’t hear the disappointment in her voice.
“ئهش توانین به سهردار بلێین ئهگار كهس ئناسێت بۆمان بكات به پاره…”
As soon as she said this, Shireen regretted it. Farhad shook his head in disbelief at his wife and made that sound, a throaty Akh which was his main indicator of being annoyed with something. He stood up and asked her to make him some tea.
Once the water had been boiled and Shireen had put two bags of Lipton in the thermos they used, a Kurdish voice belonging to neither of them suddenly emerged.
Farhad looked up from his phone at the television screen which was now showing a Kurdish gameshow in progress, impossibly clear and defined.
They spent the night watching programming they had once mocked as provincial when they lived in Kurdistan, feeling that day that they had finally conquered something, built a bridge to somewhere.
Agri Ismaïl is an Iraq- and Sweden-based writer whose work has appeared in The White Review, 3:AM Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Al Jazeera, and the Swedish journal Glänta among other places.