About the Author
Gunel Movlud is a prominent author of contemporary Azerbaijani literature. Her poetry, publications and prose are called “The Literature of People” because she has not put borders between literature and politics and between her activity as a writer and her activity as a citizen.
Gunel Movlud (Imanova) was born in Karabakh, Azerbaijan in 1981. Four years of her childhood were spent in Russia, where she began elementary school. In 1991, she returned to Karabakh with her family, but in 1993 she had to leave Karabakh because of the occupation. Gunel moved to one of the refugee camps in central provinces of Azerbaijan with her family and lived there for four years.
She entered the University of Culture and Art in 1999 and started to cooperate with the local media as a reporter that same year.
Gunel was engaged in translation along with her journalistic activity and translated contemporary Russian literature – Alexander Soljenitsin, Victor Pelevin, Tatiana Tolstaya, Vera Tulyakova, alsoOne Hundred Years of Solitudeby G.G. Marquez, The Red and The Blackby Stendhal, and The Magic Mountainby Thomas Mann – from Russian to Azerbaijani.
Because of her familiarity with art, Gunel was invited to play in movies, such as Lie (Ramiz Azizbayli), Chameleon (E. Adigozel and Rufat Hasanov) and Aquavirium (Orkhan Eip) by her contemporary producers.
Between 2006 and 2013, Gunel’s three books of poems were printed – Darkness and Two of Us, 5 XL – This is a Body Sizeand The Answer to the Evening. The last one – The Answer to the Evening– was dedicated to seven young oppositioners who were arrested that year. The literary generation of 2000s, to which Gunel belongs, is known for its novator direction, bringing the novelty of meaning to literature, as well as ‘Oppositioners of Art’ because of their criticism of conservative traditions.
Gunel was engaged in blogging in the Baku office of the Radio Liberty in 2012-2017 and was famous for her sharp critique of the mentality, religious fanatism and corruption of the army.
Gunel Movlud was also known for her opposition to patriarchal values and sexism in her society and as a defender of women and LGBTI rights. For these reasons, she was a target of hatred and threats by religious fanatics and conservatives.
In 2012, she had to leave Azerbaijan for Georgia and then for Germany because of the pressure of the government and conservatives. That same year, she joined the project of Meydan TV, which was founded by Azerbaijani asylums in Germany, and she has been continuing her journalistic activity there.
Gunel’s priority in her writing are women rights, LGBTI problems in the South Caucasus and human rights violations. She also writes about taboo topics for all society, even for journalists in the region where Gunel grew up, together with her colleagues from Armenia and Georgia, in the frame of ‘Taboo topics of the South Caucasus”.
Because of the conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh between her native Azerbaijan and Armenia, Gunel Movlud works with her colleagues from Armenia against the propaganda of both countries, demonstrating that she stands for peace and objectivity as a writer. That is why she was called as ‘a traitor of the country,’ and Azerbaijani parliamentarians called several times to revoke her citizenship.
Gunel is currently living in Norway as an ICORN guest writer. We are publishing her political novel in Shuddhashar in several stages. She wrote her novel in her native Azerbaijani, and it has been translated into English by Lala Alieva. The first part of her novel begins here.
Sex under Dictatorship
When a country is ruled by dictatorship, sex goes beyond the boundaries of people’s private life. It becomes more than merely a way to satisfy a natural need, to perform love’s duty, taking on other functions as well, turning into an instrument of blackmail, intimidation and control.
The regime affects people’s motives for having sex. Some go to bed with a stranger because they feel lonely or desperate, others to protect their loved ones or save their own life.
Sex under Dictatorship is a novel about this kind of people. People whose love life is no longer a small cozy world of intimacy they share with their lovers. People whose life has turned into a kind of panopticon under the eye of real or imagined surveillance cameras.
People who no longer trust their partners, who see in them secret service agents.
People who live in the world of total fear…
Our editor-in-chief’s secretary told me that “Ma” wanted to see me immediately. When I stepped into her office, I saw her popping some two-color pills, her usually pale face almost purple. Her hands were shaking violently; her lips were pressed into a thin line. “Ma” spotted me, and her face formed a smile, the one that always greeted her subordinates. But the tension in the room did not go down one bit.
“Is something wrong, Ma?”
“Ma” was how the people from our special creative department called her—she set it up for young journalists, writers, poets, painters and bloggers who always needed money.
“Things aren’t going so well for your Ma. Two fellas have just been in. Fromthere,” she folded her fingers and brought the improvised spyglass to her right eye. I realized she was talking about the secret surveillance service, SSS. “They had a video. Of that journalist from the Radio. They… they made me watch it.”
“Not that video?”
“That video. She was… with her friend. They said to blur over the genitals but leave the faces visible and publish it.”
“What?! On the home page of the news portal? Are they completely out-“
“No, I said no. They sat here almost for four hours, threatening me, saying if we don’t publish it, they’ll shut our holding down before we can blink.”
“So what did you do?”
“I’ve been in this business for ten years. You know, if they want to shut the holding down, they will anyway. And it doesn’t matter whether we publish that video or not. And if they don’t care about the holding, my refusal won’t mean a thing. But I am not publishing that video. I don’t take order from the secret service. Our boss is the president’s right hand man. If such a publication was necessary, he would have asked or ordered it. Seeing that he didn’t, this wasn’t an order from higher up but a private initiative. Although the instigator of this mess is an important and dangerous person too.”
“I see. So why did you want to see me?”
”The video will be all over the Internet by tomorrow. Probably even broadcast on a cable channel.”
“That’s horrible… what’s going to happen to Nuray after that?”
“I don’t know. This woman makes me sick. Not because she is in the opposition and I work for the government. She just disgusts me. Still, this is awful. So low, so vile… I hope everybody in her family is as open-minded as she is. Otherwise, I don’t envy her.”
“Well, what does this have to do with me?”
“Please don’t write anything about this video. I know you freelance for opposition websites, but I’m begging you, please, don’t touch this. I’m going to have a hard time protecting you if you do. I already report to the boss every month because of you and Tutu. I tell him, well, you know, they just love flirting with everyone, including the government, but there’s no way they support the opposition. I keep blaming it on your creative spirits. We’re lucky the boss is into music himself. If he didn’t write all these songs, he wouldn’t be so liberal towards you two.”
The “boss” was the oligarch minister on whose money our media holding had been living all these years. His was just one of a dozen of high officials who supported newspapers, websites, online TV and even entire media holdings incorporating several websites with different focus. Our holding was one of those. You could say that our “heart” was the first news project that served as the foundation on which the entire holding was built later. If you ignored the fact that the content was regulated from the outside, it was quite a decent news portal where professional journalists worked.
The minister who generously financed this media project had recently started showing a particular interest in music. Every single song he wrote became a hit, and the performers of his songs were insanely popular. He often organized all kinds of bohemian parties that attracted poets, musicians, actors and painters, and every party of his ended with a grand presentation of a new song. Sometimes he presented a new unknown singer to the public. No wonder people became famous after those introductions. There were whispers that the minister composer slept with those artists—women and men alike. Ma, however, swore that our boss was a most modest and decent person.
“…But you know this journalist. She is the president’s enemy number one. If you start defending her, the best case scenario is I will have to fire you.”
“And the worst case scenario?”
“There will be a video of you as well. And I can’t do anything about it. Don’t forget what they did to Tutu.”
She meant the recently published intimate video of the head of our art project. Tutu broke off his collaboration with his opposition paper a few months ago and came to work with us as the head of the art project, but his past views were not forgiven. In the video in question, the married twenty-eight-year-old head of the art project masturbated on the very opposition newspaper that published his famous column. No one knew if he derived particular pleasure in masturbating to his own writings or only used the paper for hygienic purposes. Still, it was not that bad for Tutu, because he was a man. Even his wife reacted to the incident with understanding—after all, he hadn’t cheated on her!
For the first time in my life, I was glad that we, women, can masturbate furtively, under the covers. Yet it doesn’t protect us from other dangers. In my mind, I was frantically going through all my recent dates that ended in bed. Luckily, there weren’t many of those, and it was just one person. I had no husband, no boyfriend, which logically meant that I couldn’t cheat on anyone. Nevertheless, if an intimate video of me appeared online or on TV… My father, whose friendship with vodka had long turned into daily drinking, would drink himself to half death. My brothers would hunt me down with knives to slit my throat, then turn themselves in to the police, do ten years and come out with “clear conscience”. My poor mom, this sickly chubby provincial woman, would put her head in the noose or take rat poison—the price she would have to pay to avoid barbs, insults and humiliation from other relatives, neighbors and friends.
The thought made my stomach churn.
I promised Ma that I wouldn’t write a word about the journalist from the Radio and headed for the partitioned office I shared with Tutu.
I could not write anything that day. The text I had been working on since morning felt completely pointless. All these interviews with the ambassador, with the famous painter, with the great musician recently declared a national treasure by all local TV channels—who needs them, what is it all for? None of these people spouting flowery speeches on lofty matters and the frailty of life and man’s place in the infinite Universe will comment on the video of that journalist from the Radio. None of them will point out the hideousness of the video, the vileness of the person who made it public. These people, pontificating to the public about morality, respect and ethics, won’t say a word about this vulgarity. There will be NOTHING! Deliberate silence. Because they have something to lose. How am I different?!
I wanted to pour this frustrated inner monologue into some column. But my editor’s words kept coming back to me, images flashing before my eyes. I imagined a video of me having sex with my ex-boyfriend broadcast on TV. Even if my parents miss it, the neighbors or relatives will kindly enlighten them. Definitely. They will never miss their chance! In their crazy desire to humiliate, they will even record the TV screen with their phone camera and show the record to their acquaintances who missed the program. Look, they will say, this is the true face of an opposition journalist. Peers, friends will sneer at my brothers, “What kind of men are you if your sister is a whore?” In this country, any woman going to bed with a man before getting married is labeled a whore.
It was getting dark. I turned into Torgovaya Street. I walked, thinking about the journalist from the Radio. Torgovaya brought me to the avenue leading to the sea. The avenue was illuminated by little-multicolored bulbs. The tiny specks of reflected light gleamed on the tree-shaped metal figures planted all over the city by our mayor. It had been a long process. On the mayor’s orders, the municipal workers cut down living trees and replaced them with these metal things and bulbs. It took only a few years for the capital city that used to be famous for its tall plane and maple trees to go bald. At first, people thought the mayor had gone mad. This schizophrenic, they said, plants metal trees and has them watered every week. Then we finally found out what really stood behind the dendricide. It turned out that the lush foliage of the big trees got in the way of the surveillance cameras watching people, while these scraps of metal allowed them to monitor balconies, streets, and courtyards with unprecedented level of comfort.
Soon I reached the boulevard. It was full of these metal ersatz trees and cameras. In addition to them, imported cacti and baobabs that had been purchased at exorbitant prices but did not fit in with the general architectural ensemble of the city were lined up along the boulevard. After that, I walked back to Torgovaya, where I called Murad.
As far as I knew, he was usually somewhere in the center at these hours. Two girlfriends of mine rented a one-bedroom apartment on Torgovaya. It was not uncommon for boisterous friendly get-togethers to stretch well into the night and I often could not make it to the metro before closing hours—that’s when I had to spend the night at my girlfriends’ place. Fortunately, I had already warned Seva. She was a cheerful young woman and never refused me accommodation. Seva assured me that I could come in at any time of night. And since she was taking a walk with her boyfriend along the seafront at this time, and the other girl, Lala, had gone off somewhere again with her guitar, I could enter their apartment any time I wanted without waiting for them to come home.
The good thing was that I had made, on a thoughtful impulse, a copy of the key to their apartment. I had also stashed a toothbrush at their place, just in case.
It was a sweltering summer evening that almost bled into the night. However, flocks of people were still scurrying on the main pedestrian street of the city. This was a different crowd: office workers, waiters, sales clerks, in other words, the working class, whose route to work ran through this street, had already completed their “missions” and trickled back to their dirty, bleak remote residential districts, to their stuffy apartments uptown. As the sun set, just as blood attracts vampires, Torgovaya attracted the so-called elite. Pot-bellied men strolled arm in arm with their wives draped in all the colors of the rainbow, sparkling, glittering like Christmas trees; luxury sex workers of both genders and in between offered their services to moneybags; sons of government officials walked their pedigree dogs in sweat suits or puffed hookah smoke in open summer cafes, or brazenly scanned the street for pretty girls and short-term casual relationships.
And scattered in this unforgivably rich and as unforgivably elite crowd, moved hungry young people—usually students of nearby universities who rented apartments together, as groups of friends. But there were others as well, somewhat like them. Just like students, they rented apartments in large groups; they were young too, but driven by reasons of esthetics rather than geography, wishing to feel like they were downtown residents, at least in name.
“The line of window-dressing happiness,” I thought, remembering the definition given to this place by Nuray, that journalist from the Radio, whose sex video was to become public on all national websites in the morning.
The lively mood of the street beckoned relentlessly and I had no desire whatsoever to go to my girlfriends’ apartment. I dialed Murad’s number again.
We agreed to meet by McBurger. For a moment, I felt proud at my shrewdness about Murad’s whereabouts. He had indeed been hanging around the main street. His father was a middle-ranking civil servant, which meant that his embezzled income did not number in millions but he had good connections in different areas and an apartment in the center. Murad’s social circle matched his social status. Most of his friends were children of government officials of the same mold—not the richest but not the poorest either.
To be honest, my humble person did not fit in with that circle at all.
I sensed some kind of creative spark in Murad. Well-read intelligent people appealed to him, and those who couldn’t tell Monet from Manet or Martin Luther from Martin Luther King bored him. Many people from his so-called circle had never even heard these names.
I don’t remember how we met. I can safely say that I didn’t have a foreign car or a D-cup size breast and I couldn’t boast inordinate erudition either. Still, surprisingly enough, Murad and I became fast friends.
He appeared, as always neatly and modestly dressed, smelling of expensive men’s perfume, clean-shaven, and holding a thick book. Murad was a tall and slender young man with a swarthy oval face. His big eyes were crowned with thin, perfectly arched, ladylike eyebrows. And his hands were always so clean and well-groomed that I sometimes was afraid to shake his hand. More than once did I have to stand up for him before our mutual friends when they dropped hints to his “non-traditional orientation”.
I gave him a friendly peck on the cheek and looked at the book. It was a Turkish edition of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. At that moment, a transgender woman walked by, shaking her silicon breasts and making enticing gestures at my companion, her tongue lolling between two fingers pressed to her lips. He ignored her and, as always, gently put his arms around my shoulders. I was shorter than him, probably by half a meter.
“Shame on you, reading Dostoyevsky in Turkish!” I said. “They have the nerve to edit his books, you know.”
“It’s not for me! You don’t think I’d read a Russian classic in Turkish, do you?! It’s for a friend. She is a film director. She’s hung up on nationalism. Her Russian is excellent but she reads only in Turkish.”
“I see you move in curious circles, Muradik. Nationalists and cosmopolitans, friends from the working class and from the high society. Now, to make your life complete, you only need to find social climbers from the ruling party to counterbalance your young friends from the opposition. Where are we going?”
“Nah, social climbers from the ruling party bring out my gag reflex. Their true nature stinks. They are revolting. Sometimes I think even their breath is foul. I just can clearly smell it, it’s so vivid. Let’s go to Three Bears. They’re open almost until morning and beer there is cheaper than in Otto. And it’s rarely crowded. We could have a beer and talk comfortably too.”
I have no idea who and why called this place “Three Bears” but I loved counting all the bear images and other bear paraphernalia in this pub. And I counted over fifty of them every time. There were bears on the cheap wallpaper, on the wooden floor, on the ceiling and on the stained wooden countertop. Bears in different poses, lying, sitting, standing… I wondered which three of them were the lucky ones that gave the name to this establishment.
The bar was tended by two very middle-aged, perhaps fifty-something, women in vulgar makeup and dressed in about as vulgar fashion. They were whispering to each other, now and then grinning at the table occupied by two foreigners. The foreigners talked between themselves in English. The men looked hardly over forty and were the only customers besides us.
The women did not look particularly happy to see us. Seeing that we settled at the table close to the door, one of them strolled to us lazily with the menu and, in a displeased, slightly annoyed voice, asked us to call her over when we were ready to order. The woman went back to join her friend behind the bar and they continued their interrupted futile endeavor to seduce the international tourists.
We ordered two beers in big mugs, two tequilas, lemon, smoked string cheese, pizza and cigarettes. You could buy cigarettes in pubs like this one, in packs or by the piece. Neither Murad nor I really smoked but after beer, lungs longed for tobacco.
The woman brought our order, still displeased and annoyed. We clearly were in the way of these two mature ladies trying to pick up the two foreigners. I knew it and I even sympathized with them in a way. Their faces unencumbered by intelligence bore traces of hard life. And now that fortune had crept up to their doorstep they hoped to hit the jackpot: to hook up with a wealthy foreigner, move to a faraway country and start a new life. I always tried to help people as much as I could, if they really needed help. Frankly speaking, I was particularly concerned with the problems of the working class. My desire to get the best ripest tomatoes at the market always gave way to the urge to do something good for the seller wearing the shabbiest clothes. I even broke up with my ex-boyfriend only because I saw him being rude to a waiter. He followed the tactics of consumer terrorism and believed he had every right to demand royal treatment for a standard fee. I just stopped returning his calls and never felt the usual breakup anguish—so low had he fallen in my eyes.
But here… How could I help here?! Was I to convince these women of the baseness, naivety, illusiveness and absurdity of their aspirations? Find good jobs for them? Lecture them on the highest ideals? Nonsense. Besides, all I could think of at that moment was the video of the young woman from the Radio. Nuray was a good acquaintance of Murad’s too. He probably didn’t know yet.
“Murad, have you heard, Nuray-“
“I have. It’s already on the Internet. Nightmare.”
“So you… does she…”
“I called her. She knows. She said she didn’t want to talk about it or see anyone for now.”
“She was at home?”
“No, at the office. A neighbor saw the video and blabbed to her parents right away. The bitch didn’t just tell them, she actually downloaded it to her phone and showed it to the mother, can you believe it?! Her mom is 79! The poor woman passed out on the spot, she’s at the hospital now. And the brother tried to break into the Radio’s office with a knife, but the journalists stopped him. They say he’s waiting by the office for her to come out. Imagine how Nuray must feel right now…”
“Should we maybe call the police? So they’d take her brother away at least for a while? Who knows what he can do with this knife.”
“Are you insane? The government sites will blow this up into a sensational headline, something like ‘Brother of opposition journalist wanted to murder her because of porn video!’ Just another excuse to share the video again.”
“Alright, let’s forget about this video for now. A word of advice, by the way—don’t write anything about it. Don’t defend her. It will do her more harm than good.”
“Well, see for yourself, if you write about it, even more people will know, many more people. It’s like plague! Jungle telegraph, you know. No, we should just act as if nothing happened. We should just be there for her, say, take her out, talk to her. I mean, not to leave her alone. I think this is the best course of action. She is our friend after all.”
“Fine. You know though, I don’t think I can call her a friend. Just an acquaintance. But if she needs support, I’m in.”
“Alright. Well, cheers!”
We downed our tequila, chased it with beer and looked around for our waitress to order more tequila. She was nowhere to be seen, while the other one was tinkering with a huge old laptop all covered with weird stickers. Quickly alternating fragments of various tunes wafting towards us suggested that she was looking for a particular track. She kept going through songs, throwing sidelong glances at the two foreigners who were engaged in an animated discussion. Our waitress came back to the bar. We nodded to our empty tequila shot glasses. She still looked resentful, as if she was doing us a favor, but took the order anyway, and our shot glasses were full again five minutes later. Suddenly, rhythmical music started playing in the room. Madame Grouch looked up at her colleague and smiled. We wanted to ask if they served pickles but the woman wasted no time shuffling off back to the other one before we had a chance to speak.
The women started smoking and I remembered about our cigarettes.
“Let’s have a smoke. We’ve already had one glass. About time.”
Murad pulled two cigarettes out of the pack. He put the flame of his lighter to mine first, then lit up his. I liked him a little drunk, because when he was sober he was unreasonably squeamish and priggish. The worst thing was that these qualities of his would rear their ugly head when we sat in one of those bohemian establishments where our people usually got together: activists or our friends from literary, musical or journalist circles. God forbid a waiter should say a careless word or there is a stain on the tablecloth, or his fork is slightly bent—Murad would take it as a valid reason to refuse to eat there. So we almost always ordered alcohol right away to make him relax.
We smoked a cigarette and emptied a shot of tequila each. Meanwhile, the matrons were already dancing in front of the foreigners’ table. Oh, how absurd they looked in their efforts to seduce the tourists. And their ridiculous skin-tight tiger print leggings! Their tops treacherously baring the rolls of fat around their bellies! The tasteless music they were dancing to did not help their case.
We started to discuss the new book written by a mutual friend of ours. Sam had recently had his eleventh book published. He was only thirty-six and Murad and I joked that this man had no pity for his friends—we had to read all his works! Sam’s last four books formed a series, My Struggle.
“Well, think about it, Hitler managed to outline his struggle in one book. Sam can’t do it in four. Even after the fourth one, I don’t get it—just what exactly is his struggle? What or whom is he struggling against? I think he’s trolling us. He can’t be serious with all this.”
“Murad, do you remember the book arcade on Torgovaya?”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“What about the huge bookshop by the Tower? Or the one on the parallel street? Do you remember how many bookshops, used book nooks, newsstands selling papers and magazines there used to be around the city?”
“I remember. They were all cleared away.”
“They were. Because it doesn’t pay those up there to let us read a lot. A book can put one’s mind into gear, steering it in a completely new direction. One starts thinking, building dreams, reflecting on something beautiful, pure and fair. Do you know in what conditions I was born and grew up? It was a remote village steeped in poverty; all my relatives and neighbors wore rags for clothes, only taking care of the animals and the garden. Our family home was the same; Dad drank, Mom beat us up on a regular basis for any tiny misstep. And that’s not even the half of it. When my mom was pregnant with her fifth child, Dad decided he didn’t want another baby. He said it was unbearable to support us as it was. Mom didn’t put up much of a fight, what with having enough to think about, with us children and the animals, and the fieldwork. So my father gave her an injection. He was a vet, you see. He shot her up with some dodgy stuff they use to induce labor in cattle. An hour later, Mom was writhing on the ground in the yard, bleeding out. She was in too much pain to make it inside the house and get into bed. Are you feeling nauseous yet?”
“No, no, go on…”
“…She started throwing up and urinating at the same time, and blood was gushing. She was convulsing in this horrible pool of puke, piss and blood. My three little brothers and I, all cuddled together, were shaking with fear. I was the oldest and the boys were only toddlers, they just bawled in unison. We couldn’t move, we were so scared to come near Mom. Dad was hastily boiling everything he had used for the injection, because he thought Mom was going to die and he would go to jail for giving his wife an unprescribed drug. He wasn’t concerned with our mother’s health, he was too busy destroying the evidence of his crime. At that moment, our black dog appeared and started lapping at the blood and the puke. Another few minutes later, a bloodied lump came out from between Mom’s legs. She quieted down a little. The dog sniffed at the lump and started chewing on it…”
“Wait, wait, stop, please, stop! No, no!”
“Yeah. Mom told all about it to the neighbors later, so calmly, without a single emotion, can you believe it? She even joked, telling them how scared Dad was. It was nothing out of ordinary in our village. Nearly all husbands gave such injections to their wives to save on abortion costs. Survival rate wasn’t that high, as you can imagine, but the procedure was dirt cheap. You see now in what environment I grew up? …And do you know when I encountered something humane, something pure, something good for the first time in my life? When I read my first book! I think those up there understand this too. The ability to read and the love of reading go against their grand plans. As for Sam… You know, it’s safe to say this man has devoted his youth to get people to read. This is what his struggle is about.”
…Murad pressed the palm of his right hand to his forehead and closed his eyes. He was terrified by what I had told him. When he opened his eyes again and looked at me, I felt something new in his gaze, something I had never seen there before. He was looking at me differently. It was not how one looks at a good friend or acquaintance. There was something peculiar about it. What was it—pity, understanding, perhaps admiration at his friend’s resilience? I couldn’t say.
The women had stopped dancing. Now they sat in the foreigners’ laps, talking to them in such terrible English that I wished I could throw a heavy dictionary at them. I suppose they would feel more comfortable if we were not there.
Murad suggested getting out of there and taking a walk along the seafront. We weren’t comfortable asking for the check when our waitresses were so comfortable in other customers’ laps but we still waved them over. One of them brought the check. Murad looked it over and said dryly that he would pay, as a son of a corrupt civil servant. I responded that I worked at the ministerial holding too. Thus, exchanging jokes and friendly jabs, we paid to the waitress, not forgetting the tip, and headed out.
The clock at the boulevard struck two but the open street cafes on the seafront swarmed with people.
During the walk, I intentionally steered the conversation to other topics. I wanted Murad to stop thinking about the dreadful story from my childhood and said that we should get some more chilled beer at the nearby kiosk and drink it by the sea. He bought two big cans and I opened mine while he was paying. The elderly vendor who wore a grey shabby jacket over a sweat suit made of cheap gaudy fabric looked at me intently, his lips stretching in a meaningful grin. I tried to imagine what he thought about me at that moment. Look at her, walking around with a guy at two in the morning, drinking beer! Of course, she lives separate from her parents—what kind of father would let his daughter out of the house at this hour? Definitely a whore! And I wouldn’t be wrong in assuming that any average resident of our city would think the same in his place.
After we finished our ember liquid, I said that I was going to my girlfriends’ place. Murad volunteered to walk me to the apartment. When we were by the entrance, he suggested I should call the girls and ask if they were home, which I did. Seva said she wasn’t yet. And the other one wasn’t expected to appear that night at all. Murad subtly hinted that he was wide awake and perhaps we should get more beer and go upstairs together to spend time in pleasant conversation until Seva came home.
“Sure, if you don’t feel like sleeping.”
“I don’t. Come on, let’s go stock up on beer. I know a place nearby.”
In addition to the alcohol, we bought cheese sandwiches, chips, pickled cucumbers and sour cream. We left the shop and hurried to the apartment in silence.
Drowsiness overcame me just as the last gulp of beer was taken and the last bag of chips was eaten and the windows blushed with the first timid light of dawn. We could still hear the screeching voices of sex workers coming from Torgovaya. They kicked up a fight, either with clients, or for clients. I told Murad I was sleepy.
“If you don’t want to go, I will make up a bed for you on the couch.”
The tenants of this apartment knew Murad and knew that he was neat. Besides, he and I had spent more than one night together here after parties. So I was not particularly worried about finding myself in an awkward situation when Seva and Lala the guitarist came home.
“Make it up on the floor. Your couch is too short for me.”
“Our mattresses are too short for you too.”
“That’s fine, at least I can stretch my legs on the floor!”
I did what he asked. I gave him a sheet to cover himself and was about to go to bed myself. But then…
“Stay with me. You can sleep next to me. I’m still wide awake. If you go away, I will be bored and plagued by thoughts. At least you’d be here to distract me.”
Seeing no glimpse of sexual innuendo in his words, I brought another mattress and another sheet and lay down next to him. I used one of Seva’s cotton sundresses as a nightgown and told Murad not to be shy and take off his jeans, as the room was very stuffy. He pulled off his jeans and shirt and folded them neatly. When we settled on our mattresses, he wrapped his arms around me and I held my breath. It wasn’t the first time he held me but it was the first time he held me while we were lying in bed together. All those other hugs of his were common, non-committal friendly greetings and I never felt an impulse of the natural attraction. But as we lay on the mattresses at dawn, I felt very uncomfortable.
“I’m so sorry you had to go through this, darling. When you told me about it, I even felt ashamed for my happy carefree childhood. You are such a strong girl. I’m proud of you and happy to have you as a friend.”
I forced out a small smile in response to his declaration. Then I fell asleep. But the stuffy air in the room did not let me sleep for more than an hour. When I woke up, Murad was lying with his eyes wide open. I nestled up to his side. He pulled me closer. I kissed him on the shoulder. He responded with a gentle kiss on my hair. Slowly, by degrees, our friendly kisses became something more.
We did not reach orgasm but then again, it was not our purpose. We held each other tight, not caring about the heat or the sweat that streamed down our bodies. Finally, thanks to the combined efforts of alcohol and fatigue, we fell asleep.
When we opened our eyes again, it was already noon. But there was still no whisper of Seva or Lala—or shame or awkwardness for what had happened between us in the morning. I hoped that Murad felt the same incredible lightness and a surge of energy.
I washed my face and went to the kitchen, while he put our “bed” away. The girls’ fridge was empty, the kitchen was dirty and the trash bags stank horribly of rotting food. Anticipating Murad’s reaction, I suggested we should have breakfast at some diner nearby—asking first if he had time. We got dressed and headed back to Torgovaya.
We picked a nice café not far away from my friends’ place. Barely concealing our languid playful content, we crossed the road. And there, on the doorstep, it hit us.
The bad news.
Someone told Murad over the phone that Nuray, the journalist from the Radio, had been taken to the hospital today in critical condition. At night, when everybody from the security guards to the journalists were convinced that her brother had finally gone away, the woman left the office and was going to hail a taxi. As the car was pulling over, her brother jumped from behind the corner and stabbed her three times.
Murad turned around at the door of the café and said that he was going to the hospital right away. He suggested us going together but I said no, not wanting to crowd the hospital ward. He nodded in agreement and headed towards the metro at a quick pace. I hurried to my office, on my way said hello to Tutu, sat down at my desk and turned my computer. The tremolo of my fingers hitting the keyboard filled the air. Words, sentences, paragraphs were flowing from my consciousness non-stop, in an irrepressible stream; never in my life had I felt such an overwhelming, unbridled urge to write. Having finished the piece, I e-mailed it to Will of the People, the opposition newspaper that published my articles rejected by Ma’s censorship. A few hours later, the piece was posted online, and by evening time, it was already setting records for the number of views.
I sat in my chair like a robot, staring blankly at the monitor screen, mechanically scrolling my social network feed. But the power of creative urge and the thirst for justice started to abate, and, little by little, completely different feelings took the center stage, those that appear when your mind is composed and free of emotions. Now I was scared. Once or twice I even refused to believe what had happened just two hours previously. As the number of views grew, so did the strong feeling of despair, even of doom. Vivid before my eyes, every tiniest detail magnified, were the scenes from the last night—reproduced in the imaginary future. Was it imaginary?
Ma’s secretary stopped by my office and informed me with dry arrogance that I was being summoned.
I stood up and dragged my trembling body along the corridor, barely feeling the floor under my feet. Walking on the brown hardwood floor, I looked at my reflection in the glass framing the paintings that hung all over the walls. Ma bought these canvasses from a poor painter as charity. I caught myself thinking that this black blouse with the pink summer scarf looked great on me. The dreadful realization that I had put an end to my old quiet life today was creeping up on me. I started this process with the first thought of justice, with the first whispered word, with the first lettered key my finger pressed. I buried this life under the heavy strokes of fingers composing sentences. This unusual lightness of being lay like an invisible corpse of regret in my office, while I was walking farther away from it along the corridor that became my Green Mile.
To my surprise, Ma oozed calm and efficiency. She nodded to the chair. I sat.
“You know, I’m not surprised you have written it in the end. To be honest, I found it hard to believe you would listen to my advice. You are you, after all. This is your thing, this is why I took a shine to you, Tutu and the other guys I involved in the art project. When we were just starting, many of your friends from the opposition accused me of bribing creative minds with good salaries. But neither you nor Tutu, nor anyone else can say that I tried to reprogram your passionate minds for the good of the government, to turn you into some kind of militant loyalists and bantering rams of propaganda. Never, not for a second, did I think to steer your thinking and writing to serve someone. I’m not going to lie, our boss saw an attitude in you. Again, I chalked it down to your age, saying you would grow up, wise up, be more pragmatic. But I never really wanted it to happen. It doesn’t benefit me to turn you into pragmatists. Believe it or not, that special thing I saw in you was, above all else, your critical thinking, your inner freedom, your conscience. However… I’m sorry, there is always a threshold of acceptable behavior and today, you have crossed the red line. This is unforgivable, for anyone. I don’t want other people, myself or any of our guys, to be punished by association because of your piece. I never thought I’d have to say it, but unfortunately, you’re fired!
“I understand, Ma.”
She sat up in her chair and leaned forward as if she was about to say something very personal.
“I’ve got something for you.”
I moved closer to her, expecting a new rhetoric about her personal resect for our opinion and her extreme regret at the filter of censorship that did not allow our art project to spread its creative wings and fly.
“You will be getting your old salary. From me personally, not from the accounting. This is between us friends.”
She pulled her desk drawer open, took out a thick bundle of euros and placed it in front of me.
“This is your salary for a year. If you don’t want to take it as a gift, you could write something in the art project under a penname. I think you are more than capable to radically change your style to keep it all secret. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Do this or don’t, it’s up to you. If you can’t find a new job in a year, I will give you a translation order for a book and draw up the contract in a different name. That money will keep you going for a little longer.”
“Thank you, Ma! You are so kind to me.”
“This is not me being kind. You are good at your job and I benefit from using your talent.”
“Ma, you said that if I do this, the worst case scenario…”
“Yes, your sex video. Let’s hope they don’t have one yet. Still, keep your eyes open. Try to avoid meeting with anyone for now. Especially with new people. With men paying attention to you. You know how it is… You meet a neat, well-educated, athletic, rich young man one fine night and he turns out to be a plant. I don’t want to shock you but that journalist’s boyfriend was one, he was planted on her on purpose. True story. So be very careful.”
“Ma, what if they already have this video…”
“Then you should leave the country for a while. At least for a year. You can work remotely. I will give you another job. For example, I need interviews with some authors from the Balkans. Again, the name on the documents will be another journalist’s. The pay will be enough to cover rent and food. Don’t worry, we won’t let your family cripple you. But you realize that staying alive in this country after the video is made public is a step down into the hell. Let’s hope they don’t and will never have such a video.”
I wrapped the bundle of notes into my scarf, because I did not have my purse on me. Ma rose from the desk and hugged me. I held her tight.
“Thank you for everything…”
“Thank you… deep down, I’m even glad you have written this piece. Goodbye, my girl. Take care of yourself and be safe.”
I left Ma’s office and knocked at Tutu’s door. He wasn’t in the room—probably went out to have a smoke on the balcony. I went back to my room, opened the drawers of my desk, gathered my things: my voice recorder, several notepads, the photograph of a late friend, an atheist writer slashed by religious fanatics on the street a few years ago. Everything fit in my big bag. I was going to turn my computer off and leave the building of the holding but decided to visit the social network site to take a peek at the comments to my piece. When I opened my page, I saw about fifty new messages. I clicked on the first one. Someone sent it from a fake profile. The message was short. “You’re next.”
I collapsed into the chair…
A few hours later, I sat in a summer café on Torgovaya. The street was crowded. Somehow, being in the midst of such an unsavory crowd gave me a sense of calm, albeit a phantom one. I sat at my table and nervously checked the newsfeed on the social network every minute, expecting someone’s post with the incriminating news about me to pop up on the screen the next time I refreshed the page. I was so afraid to look away from my phone, to turn off the Internet; I just sat there, gripped with fear, waiting for the fateful call, trying to prepare myself for it mentally.
So, I said to myself, they do have the video. I wonder where they recorded it. I rummaged in my memory trying to remember all my recent encounters and their outcome. No, none of them was planned. That is, the encounters were planned but not the sex they ended with. Not that it was possible to make plans to have sex in our country! Not at his place, not at my place, not at a hotel—cameras were everywhere. A few of my dates ended with a quickie right at the offices of minor papers for which my ex freelanced. But those were not political newspapers, no one would have thought to install cameras there in the hope to record opposition journalists having sex. As for Seva and Lala’s apartment, if I slept there, it was usually with the entire gang present, so there was not even a hint of sex. Except for the last night…
Wait! Murad! Could it be that he had planned on coming up to the apartment with me last night? He knew the girls wouldn’t be there. He knew I was drunk. And earlier that night, he kept saying I shouldn’t write about Nuray, shouldn’t defend her. He was Nuray’s friend too. And Seva’s, and Lala’s, and Sam’s. Why? Why does this son of a government official keep company with all opposition members in my circle, what is he doing among us? This squeamish, sleek dandy who reads everything and knows everyone. How could he be so genuinely interested in us?
Now to figure out how, assuming my suspicions were right, he had managed to capture our coitus on video. I saw him shoving his phone into his jeans pocket. So he didn’t use the phone. Had he set up a camera in the apartment in advance? There was one condition for such a venture: he had to be there alone. But he was usually the first to leave the party whenever we got together—he was in a hurry to take a shower at his place. It was only last night that we were alone, the apartment was always full of people. Why didn’t Seva and Lala come home? Could they… could they be involved as well? Why otherwise would they gather a dozen of opposition members in their apartment every day and tolerate their loud drunken parties all night long? Maybe they gather everyone there on purpose, to spy on them, to listen to their conversation and make discriminating videos? Even the modest combination of a slim cigarette in one hand and beer in the other could make such a video. Is it possible that Seva and Lala…
My phone rang and I jumped, startled at the sound. It was Lala’s photo on the screen. For a moment, I felt like blood had clotted in my veins. I summoned all my willpower to collect myself and hit the “answer” button.
“Yes, Lala, I’m listening…”
She mumbled something, weeping uncontrollably. It took me some real effort to make out the question through her heavy sobbing.
“Can you come to the LGBT office?”
“Why are you crying and what are you doing in the LGBT office?”
“Jesus… Jesus has hanged himself! We came in and he was there, dangling from the flag… He hung himself on the LGBT flag…”
Jesus was the chairperson of “We are LGBT”, a human rights organization. There were not many members in this organization, literally only three or four people who had come out and had been kicked out of their families because of it. Jesus was the youngest of them.
Gunel Movlud Imanova is an ICORN guest writer living in Norway.