THE MOUNTAIN AND THE WALL
The Mountain and the Wall
A novel by Alisa Ganieva
Translated from the Russian by Carol Apollonio
Published by Deep Vellum Publishing
Seeing a group of men and women on the square holding big posters with photographs on them, Shamil thought, “Not again,” and decided not to stick around. But something held him back; this was different from the usual demonstrations. There were more posters than before, and the people holding them seemed more aggressive. An unruly crowd had gathered around the poster-bearers, everyone was nodding, waving their hands, yelling. The women, practically all of them veiled, were holding photographs of naively smiling young men and shouting: “Bring back our brother!” or “Bring back our son!” There wasn’t a single policeman in sight, which was especially strange.
A man in a warm-up jacket, gesticulating, was talking into several video cameras: “My cousin’s name was Nazhib Isaev. He was killed in March of this year, right in front of my eyes. We were walking down Lenin Street toward the computer center, and suddenly this blue sedan with tinted windows pulls up next to us. Some guys in ordinary sweat suits get out and head our way, and as they’re walking they pull on masks and just start shooting, basically.”
“What were they shooting at?”
“Straight at us! So Nazhib jumps one way, and I jump the other.
And he just falls over, basically. And with me right there watching, they shoot Nazhib in the head, to finish him off. And then they toss something down next to him…”
“What was it?”
“An automatic rifle, this and that, ‘evidence’ to make him look guilty. Then they went into the store there, got a bag, came back, collected the empty shells in it, and took off…and that was it.”
Shamil walked on. In another group a man in a light linen jacket was giving a speech: “Murad was abducted this past winter when he was on his way home from the gym. They dragged him into a car and took him who knows where. They were wearing Special Forces uniforms. His parents have been trying to get him back for over six months…”
As Shamil listened to the scraps of stories and the coughs of the onlookers, a strange sense of boredom came over him, and yet wouldn’t let him leave. He walked between the groups, looking into the flushed faces of the yelling women, at the high chain-link fence in front of the moribund government building, at his own polished shoes, at the empty faces on all the posters.
Then he noticed Velikhanov, his former colleague from the committee and an old friend of the family, a tall man with graying temples. Velikhanov was explaining something insistently to a few old men in short straw hats who looked a lot like the ones Shamil had encountered in the seaside park after the Kumyk demonstration.
“Hey, Shamil, I’ve just been going over everything for these guys. Look what’s happening over here!” drawled Velikhanov, shaking Shamil’s hand. “I’ve always said that we need to take more advantage of young people. Remember that rally we organized in Mashuk? Vakh, so many people, it was great! We sang the national anthem, organized competitions, Tutkin himself came! This here is nothing, by comparison.”
The old men grumbled.
“Shamil! It’s a total breakdown in logic! And all because they wouldn’t let Alikhan and me organize any educational activities back when the time was right. And we already had this plan to invite guys here from other regions, to take them up into the mountains, to the reservoirs and waterfalls, to show them our trades, our traditional arts, our circuses, carpets…” Velikhanov lost his train of thought. “What else? Shamil?”
Shamil smiled. “Yes, sure, we could’ve taken them up there…”
“But no! All of those so-called journalists! Look at them over there, circling like vultures with their cameras. Just getting in the way! A handful of hired stooges show up — ” He nodded toward the random groups of shouting people. “ — and they’re already putting it on TV: ‘People are being kidnapped and murdered here, right on the streets! People are being murdered right in front of our eyes!’ The press can’t find anything better to cover! Let them come to my village, I’ll show them what they should be putting on TV. There’s a guy in my village who makes inlaid furniture with his own hands. Or look, they can film my mother, see how she spends her days. Why is it that they’re only interested in slobbering over filthy stories like this?”
“Who is it that’s walling us off, anyway?” asked one of the old men. “Who’s destroying the country?”
“So called ‘journalists,’ like them!” Velikhanov shot back angrily, jabbing his index finger into the stuffy air. “The crooks!”
Shamil turned away for a moment and caught sight of Madina’s beige hijab. She was standing half turned away from him, as though taking refuge among the shoulders of her new girlfriends. Some bearded guy was standing to her right and shouting.
“What’s he yelling about?” asked Shamil.
“Why waste your time with them?” snorted Velikhanov. “They’re all suffering and oppressed, they’re being dragged around various dark cellars by the police, they’re not being allowed to pray, they’re being maimed by hot irons, their chests are being branded with crosses, their beards are being plucked out with tweezers, you name it!”
The bearded man was indeed yelling something to that effect, but all Shamil could make out were fragments: “Alhamdulillah, praise be to Allah, the infidels have retreated…The cowardly murtads…without a functioning government…freedom of the Caucasian Emirate… everyone opposed to filth, injustice, moneygrubbing, everyone… Allahu akbar…soon those in hiding will no longer have to hide — now, inshallah, people will no longer be persecuted for their religion…”
At some point while Shamil was listening, Velikhanov and the old men vanished into the crowd. Shamil’s head was filled with memories. Here he is, a little boy in his cotton underwear on the shore with his father and Velikhanov, untangling fishing nets. Velikhanov is putting worms on hooks. They are alone on the salty shore. Tethered to an iron stake, slippery boats bobble on the water. Velikhanov is telling some joke that Shamil doesn’t understand; his father laughs, baring his silver crowns. Shamil reaches with his white palm for the jar of worms…
Then he pictured Velikhanov’s sons. The first was named Peak, in honor of Ismoil Somoni Peak, which had been renamed Communism Peak under the Soviets; the second was named Mig, maybe to sound good together with his brother’s name, or maybe in honor of the Mig jet fighter. Mig Velikhanov later worked at the torpedo production facility in Kaspiisk, had helped develop submarine weapons, and most recently, as far as Shamil could tell, was continuing his work in Petersburg. Gentle, kindhearted Peak had spent his whole life working at the Derbent cognac distillery and had never married.
Shamil brought himself back to the present day and dully surveyed the restless heads of the crowd until his glance snagged on a couple of his cousins. They were happy to see him, and the three of them launched into an animated conversation. They were all on edge, ready for something to happen, though they had no idea what. They talked excitedly for a half hour or so, then Shamil suggested that they go see Aunt Ashura, who lived nearby. For some reason they thought that there, in her small, one-story house behind its wooden gate, everything would become clear.
Her yard was bustling with activity as usual. Chubby Khabibula was adjusting something on the dairy separator; Aunt Ashura’s sons, who already had families of their own, were in the barn, tossing their babies up and down in the air — there were always a lot of children running around here — and talking with the women as they worked.
They ladled out some kharcho for Shamil and his cousins, showed them the new exterior doors that they had just installed, and argued about what they should do with the old ones. Someone suggested they sand and paint them and use them for repairs in the addition. Aunt Ashura, on the other hand, was leaning toward keeping them in the barn for the time being, and then giving them to one of their Kutan relatives, maybe Khabibula. Aunt Ashura’s younger son stubbornly insisted that they just throw the doors away.
Someone asked Shamil about his mother. Uninhibited, sharp-tongued Aunt Ashura placed her hands on her hips and snorted when she heard that Patimat had gone back to the village, as if to say, how can that be, here her son’s in trouble, and what does Patya do? Instead of heading for the hills as though nothing’s wrong, she should have been giving Madina’s family an earful. The Zakir branch of the family were always up to something like this…
Turned out not everyone there knew that Madina had become a devout Muslim and secretly gotten married. They were indignant when it all came out. Aunt Ashura’s son let slip that Madina’s husband was a distant relative of theirs named Otsok in honor of a distant ancestor. Recently Otsok had taken a more traditional Islamic name, Al-Jabbar, which means “redemptive force.”
The moment they started talking about “the former Otsok” and about what Madina had done, Aunt Ashura lost all sense of restraint and began to grumble and rant…She couldn’t understand Madina’s parents’ attitude; they were pandering to their daughter, maybe were even in cahoots with her. This Al-Jabbar guy had been providing food to the militants hiding in the woods, and had been spreading some particularly nasty gossip about Sheikh Gazi-Abbas. Madina would meet a miserable end, she said — like an accursed serpent.
Aunt Ashura’s daughter, sucking on a caramel, put aside her glass of tea and brought up the instructive example of her neighbor’s daughter, who had died last year after some kind of special operation against insurgents:
“He was talking with her on the phone while she was sitting right there in a building under siege. He told her that Allah wouldn’t forgive her for abandoning her children like a dog. He asked her to reconsider, to come outside. But she just bombarded him with quotes from the Koran. Ultimately he told her she wouldn’t be alive for long in any case, and after her death he wouldn’t even open the gate for mourners, much less let them into the house, and he wouldn’t recite a single sura in her memory. And he didn’t. She died, and they didn’t receive any guests or read a single prayer. As though she had never existed.”
“What a nightmare,” said the listeners, then went back to their routines. Aunt Ashura’s son, smiling, hauled some mechanical contraption out of the shed and started lubricating it. The daughters got into a spat about apricots, about where in the country they ripened soonest, about which ones were cultivated in one settlement and which in another.
Shamil left Aunt Ashura’s yard in a brighter mood. He decided to go home on foot. He walked faster than usual, thinking about his friend Arip, who would be back from Moscow any day now. The trains were unpredictable, but Arip usually came by bus anyway. Shamil decided to take a cold shower, then go work out. After that he’d go to a café with his friends…
“Salam aleikum!” someone called to him from the sidewalk.
A disheveled, unshaven man staggered up to him. He looked about fifty, though it was hard to tell.
“Vaaleikum salam,” answered Shamil, with a grin.
“Got a couple of rubles on you, brother?” asked the man, slurring.
“To dry out?”
“To create a bright, good, eternal future,” the man said, enunciating with difficulty.
Shamil scooped up whatever change was in his pocket and dropped it into the drunk’s dirty, calloused palm.
“Barkala,” mumbled the man. “Call me Vitalik. And think, up there in the Kremlin, they’re just sitting around, those…” Vitalik cursed.
Shamil made a fist and shook it in the air in a joking sign of solidarity, and then hurried on his way.
ALISA GANIEVA, born in 1985, grew up in Makhachkala, Dagestan.
Her literary debut, the novella Salam, Dalgat! won the prestigious
Debut Prize in 2009. Shortlisted for all of Russia’s major literary
awards, The Mountain and the Wall is her first novel, and has already
been translated into seven languages. Ganieva lives in Moscow, where
she works as a journalist and literary critic. Her second novel, Bride
and Groom, was published in Russia in spring 2015.
About the Translator:
CAROL APOLLONIO is Professor of the Practice of Russian at Duke
University. Her most recent translation is German Sadulaev’s The
Maya Pill (Dalkey Archive, 2014). As well as an accomplished translator,
Dr. Apollonio is also a scholar specializing in the works of Fyodor
Dostoevsky and Chekhov and on problems of translation. She is the
author of the monograph Dostoevsky’s Secrets (2009).