My brother’s taking a nap in my bed. He likes to lie in the freshness of new sheets when mother’s changed them. Sometimes he’s like an old woman, and I let him sleep in my sheets because they’ll smell of him, they’ll take on the smell of an eight-year-old’s sweat; I spoon him, wrap my arm around him and hope he’ll be as strong as Younes one day. Baran’s the answer to mother’s prayers. After father left, she used to tell me, having no one to fight with, how much she hoped she was carrying a boy. Boys are uncomplicated, she said; you don’t have to worry, they suffer less, she said; and she kissed me on the forehead to wish me good night. I wiped my forehead with my sleeve after she left the room.
On the phone to father I told on mother, and asked when he’d be back, when he’d tell me stories from Alf Layla wa-Layla again, and he always answered with one word: soon.
I’m going to lose my mind if you don’t come back soon, mother threatened, rocking little Baran back and forth, her little boy cut off from the world in his little baby head. He only ever slept and when he opened his eyes he laughed. It was impossible to get the smile off his face, as if the best life awaited him, as if he, at six months, already knew God had reserved the best life for him. Mother named him Baran, rain, because he was meant to symbolize mother’s tears disguised as rain—the tears she hasn’t shed since father left because he’d be back, her tears for me being a Mowgli-girl, her tears for being a woman, because women suffer more than men. Baran knows none of this. He laughed an unusual amount as a baby, contradicting the meaning of his name. He made mother happy, and she kept saying, look how he’s laughing, Amal, look at him. And I answered that I’d like to eat him up because he was so cute, and I kissed him until his cheek turned red. No, no one’s eating my son, said mother, and took the little bundle out of my arms to hold him tight, as I’m doing right now. I hope he doesn’t wake up and push me away. But he’d never do that. Baran’s as well behaved as if he’d grown up with a happy mother and a caring father in the suburbs. The same smile still adorns his face, although he really has nothing to smile about. He’s never met my father. Father didn’t come back, and he won’t be coming back. He can finally wear black trousers, because he works in an office, because he has a wife and this wife has three daughters, and now father also has three daughters without having done anything for it. All he had to do was return to Kurdistan, and there the life he would’ve lived had he not gone to Germany waited for him. Life there had just waited for my father, on standby; father returned and pressed play, and Kurdistan pretended father had never left, no, even treated him better so as not to lose him again, and when you take a son out of Kurdistan, Kurdistan will strangle you with her long sleeves.
He didn’t divorce mother; officially they’re still married, officially he’s only in Kurdistan for work, as mother tells it, but the neighbors nod knowingly. Nothing matters when I hold sleeping Baran in my arms. Lately, Baran’s been asking about father, and my mother evades his questions and I do too because we’re both overwhelmed and don’t know what to tell him. When I see Baran’s room full of toys I want to tell him that I never had any of that. Father didn’t give me dolls, cars, coloring books and crayons; he gave me time, we played rough-and-tumble games and ran races—he was always a bit faster because he took me seriously. When he explained something to me, he didn’t do it offhandedly; he explained it as if I might understand, and he made sure that I did understand. But mother prefers to give Baran physical objects so he has everything, so everyone can see her son lacks nothing. No one in the neighborhood should feel sorry for Baran because his mother’s raising him on her own: our wardrobes were always full, our shoes always new. If a piece of clothing looked washed out, it wouldn’t take long for mother to use it as a cleaning rag. We had to look and still have to look as we do during Eid every day, our hair always freshly washed, our faces moisturized, making the tips of our noses shine. She never let us forget to brush our teeth. She bought us white sneakers and didn’t let us go outside without her inspecting them first. If any dirt was found, the shoe had to be cleaned with a rag and that’s how I noticed mother had cut up my favorite shirt into cleaning cloths. We were never supposed to wear a piece of clothing long enough for people to associate us with it. We were supposed to look like children out of a catalog.
At first everyone asked mother how my father was doing in Kurdistan, when he’d return, and mother repeated father’s one-word answer: soon. And soon was over soon but mother didn’t let on; mother pushed the shopping trolley along the supermarket’s aisles with her head held high, as if her husband had died a martyr by the prophet’s side.
Raffiq told everyone at school that my father has another family in Kurdistan, and that he left us because I’m a misfit. Mother told me to ignore him, but I couldn’t, and Younes and I beat up Raffiq when he was on his own, and then we were hunted down again, and later Raffiq called me a butch and egged on the girls to say I have a penis. I punched Raffiq in the nose, making him bleed, and then the girls demanded the PE teacher ban me from the girls’ changing room because they said I harassed them, and the teacher sat us down and asked me if it was true, and all the girls simultaneously answered that it was, and I didn’t say anything because I would’ve started crying. The teacher turned to Sanye, who’s always truthful because she’s so responsible, and the teacher asked beautiful Sanye, but Sanye stayed quiet because I’d scratched her face in year four. Although her face had healed well and she had no scars, she said nothing, and I was given detention. I didn’t think about why the girls were punishing me; I thought about why I’d attacked Sanye’s face that time, instead. I ignored the assignment I was meant to do during detention, and the teacher threatened me with further consequences, and I refused to do the work, it’s as simple as that, and she called my mother who had to pick me up from school every day from then on, and that was a good thing because it meant Raffiq and his gang couldn’t ambush me. All this happened because father left, mother said.
And because father disappeared, I befriended Younes and his mother, visited them secretly so mother wouldn’t tell me off. And because father was gone and mother had no one to talk to, she started speaking to the neighbors, who told her what they knew about father, what was being said about him in the neighborhood, what their relatives in Kurdistan were saying about him, and mother just listened. In the evenings she sat alone in the living room and pondered as intensely as I did during detention, and it still didn’t help her resolve anything—so she had to give in to her feelings and light cigarettes in the living room, which she placed in the ashtray so the cigarette stench would fill the room, just like the one father had always made, and which had always resulted in mother scolding him.
The first time it happened, I ran into the living room thinking my father was there, playing a trick and sneaking in very quietly as if in a dream and talking very quietly with my mother—and at the last minute, they’d let me know he was there; and I wanted to surprise them in the living room, and then mother surprised me with her loneliness, sitting there with her chai, staring at the turned-off TV. She didn’t notice me, and I didn’t want to disturb her while she was thinking and remembering, so I went back into my room and missed father some more. As if you could miss a person so much you could suffocate merely by your heart’s muscle power.
And mother remembered: father staring at the TV with a chai in one hand, a cigarette in the other, Arabs shouting at each other on Al Jazeera, discussing the state of Iraq. He complained he’d rather read a newspaper than watch dogs bark at each other. He sipped his chai, and mother, from the kitchen, answered his complaints with her own, saying at least he could drink his chai and smoke his cigarette in peace.
In Kurdistan he could choose between different newspapers. In Germany he only understood the local news. Me too. I’d taught him that much. Then when he opened up the FAZ and stared at the tiny print on the huge pages for over an hour, my mother was pretty happy to no longer hear him complain about the men on Al Jazeera, and I was proud my father understood articles written for grown-ups. Then he flung the newspaper on the table as if he’d read Iraq would never prosper again. And he just said: I don’t understand anything. He’d tried, I’d tried to teach him, but it didn’t work. He didn’t get the subtleties; he understood the local news, but he went on about correlations he didn’t grasp, hidden between all the big words, correlations the German language denied him. The German language felt like a conspiracy against my father.
But mother must be thinking: you don’t just leave a person because you don’t understand the newspaper. Every day mother wakes up alone in bed, and every day she’s been left all over again. But she claims to have never been left, only women like Younes’s mother are left; not her, who comes from a good family, who never disgraced my father, who gave up her career for her husband; her kind of women aren’t abandoned, mother believes, and every day she’s been left all over again. But Baran, mother’s tears incarnated, is the proof father didn’t leave her today or yesterday or a year ago, but eight years and two months ago. Whatever it was that had kept mother and father together, whether it was love, respect, or mere decency, nothing has been enough to get father to return, and mother thinks about this every day, and if she does speak about him, she always speaks as if he only left yesterday, and it hurts us. I squeeze Baran closer; he resists at first with the strength of a sleeping child and then he gives in, allowing himself to be smothered, not giving me the chance to forget father, and always the same question: Why hasn’t he come back? Were we not enough, neither mother, nor Baran, nor I? And after the first six months in Kurdistan and after our questions about his return, he sent us parcels as affirmations he hadn’t forgotten us and was still taking care of us. At some point, he told us he’d founded an architectural office with his brother, and he summoned mother to Kurdistan. They screamed at each other over the phone, and even then, mother closed the windows and the balcony door; even then she believed she could banish people from her inner world; and I felt bad for mother’s efforts, because there was nothing left for her to do but close the windows and the balcony door. And she didn’t cry, and mother never cried again, and none of us cried, even when father’s packages stopped coming—and with the packages, the spices you can’t get in Germany that are essential for Kurdish dishes, or else they’re not Kurdish dishes but seasoned food. When our biryani just tasted like rice with German supermarket spices, we understood he was gone. Mother spent a lot of time mixing different spices, trying to find the right combination, trying to unriddle the taste of biryani to deny father’s absence—we never enjoyed the taste of biryani again. Mother gave up biryani, and I forgot what biryani tastes like, and now biryani’s just a code.
Mother suppressed her longing. She didn’t ask the neighbor to bring spices from Kurdistan, because it would’ve confirmed she’s no longer in touch with her husband. Once a neighbor brought us a plate of biryani. We ate it, the spices tingled in the tips of our noses, and then, as if transported in time, we allowed ourselves to cry, and we remembered father, and I noticed it had been a week since I’d last thought of him, as if I’d got over him. And the neighbors always asked my mother how father was doing in Kurdistan, when he’d be coming back, and eventually they found out about father’s second wife, and they asked mother when father would return, they waited for her answer, and mother didn’t let on. I’ve started collecting father’s traces. Father left behind absence.
I must’ve fallen asleep; there’s a blanket on me and Baran isn’t here. I hear his and mother’s voices, they could be in the kitchen or in her bedroom; she likes to have him in her room, he got his own room very late. I find the two of them in the kitchen, eating rice with red potato sauce. My mother says I slept for a long time, asks if something happened at school. I could tell her about the after-school boxing club, the one I’m not allowed to participate in; I could tell her about Raffiq flinching, or about Sanye’s beautiful face, but mother wouldn’t remember these names. To her, Raffiq can only be grasped as a boy’s bloody nose and a broken leg; to her, Sanye is only memorable as a scratched face and a pulled-out ball of hair.
The boy with the bloody nose and broken leg flinched because of Younes, finally; and the girl with the scratched face and pulled-out ball of hair smiled at Younes, shit. And Younes evokes too many memories in mother, that’s why she doesn’t want to know anything about him—there needs to be space for other people.
I tell her I signed up for driving lessons, and she says nothing.
Baran says he wants to drive too, and she says, you will.
Im Bauch der Königin © 2020 DuMont Buchverlag, Köln. Published 2023 by V&Q Books, Berlin, an imprint of Verlag Voland & Quist GmbH. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © Grashina Gabelmann. All rights reserved.