by Maniza Naqvi

The nurse steps back after she finishes wrapping Danis’s head in a bandage of fresh white gauze. Danis is dying of brain cancer. He is dying gracefully despite the horrible pain. She takes a look at her handiwork and smiles as she strokes his head and thinks back to the thick mane of snowy white hair the kind that the men of his generation sport and which she had shaved off months ago at the time of Danis’s brain surgery. She sees the pain in his clouded blue eyes—which once must have sparkled before she knew him. There now you look like a Prince she says—from the Arabian nights! He winces and suppresses crying out in pain. She tells him that he has courage. He tells her that he has nothing of the sort, he has nothing to fear. Only those who fear need courage! He is confidant that God is waiting for him. She looks around her to see if the coast is clear—puts a finger to her lips conspiratorially, pulls a pack of cigarettes from her pocket. Then lights one and sticks it between his lips—letting him take a few puffs, while she readies the injection. Before each terrifyingly long needle he requests the nurse to say 'Bismillah' before administering the shot. He shuts his eyes as the nurse taps his vein on his wrist or his hand or in the crock of his elbow. Just as the needle punctures skin and moves further in a peaceful expression smoothens his yellowing and weathered pain-beaten face. For him God’s presence is evident in everything in his whole life—his birth, his health, his chances of survival—everything is based on God. For Danis, God is love and God is hope and against all odds God is present when there is nothing else to hold on to. Danis clings to hope. Reason, he says dismissively makes you want to die. Faith keeps you alive. Danis says this often. But then when the nurse leaves him to tend to others, he is quite capable of muttering that he is an atheist. He has to talk about God to the nurse—he tells others, so as not to make her lose her will for keeping him alive. Danis knows that hope is the most important and essential ingredient to human will and so it is he figures for those who are trying to save him. The least he can do in this worthy struggle is to do his bit of playing along. Atheists after all, respect above all, the human will.

Danis thinks back to the pain and hurt and struggles of his life so that he can cast upon everyone who has played a leading role in his life, a gaze of compassion. All those, who, with their absences and their cruelties made the presence of God an absolute necessity in his life when he was just a small child. Danis tells the nurse these discoveries that he is making while lying in this hospital with its smell of antiseptic and its gleaming pale yellow and white walls. We are all people of faith in the Balkans, he tells her. Loved by God. From time to time we’ve changed teams but never lost love. Bogomils—the Bulgar eastern Christian church—the heresy they may have converted to Islam perhaps as a rebellion against the Vatican but maybe because of the Ottomans—who-ever, what ever the reason, love, spite, or oppression, no one ever betrayed God here. Betrayed each other, betrayed Tito, a wife, a husband, a lover, but never God. Danis, was a communist, but was always a true believer in the purpose of God. When there seemed none at all he believed completely in love and hope. And by his own description by all accounts he should have been a delinquent destined for a madhouse had it not been his deep instinct for survival and his constant companionship with Allah. Fortified, so, he chronicles what he has endured and overcome. All the cruelty: the last war, the illness, the death of family. And none of it—not the daily ups and downs with all the surgery—nor the war and its aftermath, none can surpass the cruelty and ever present pain that he suffered in his childhood at the hands of his parents. His father left him, for the love of another woman. Left Danis, his mother and a baby sister. What followed in the aftermath was the agony of suffering and of misplaced resentments the beatings that Danis endured from his parents. Danis was separated from his father by a social worker and a system that insisted on rules and not feelings. Danis remembered as though it was a fresh memory, how his mother’s new husband had beaten him when his mother was away during the day. How he had run away from home to his father’s house only streets away and how he had banged on the window with his tiny fists his face red and swollen from the beating and begged his father to take him back. How his father had kept Danis with him and fought against the social workers and his ex-wife and had finally prevailed in keeping his son. And then how his father’s successive wives came through Danis’ life wreaking havoc. His father sank into silence and a sadness interchangeable with unpredictable bouts of sudden rage and more beatings for Danis. Beatings for Danis, by women, for whom, he was never a good enough child. Danis had been a five year old for whom war had begun early in life. And for whom the horror of ethnic cleansing and war at the age of sixty years would not be as cruel or as memorable as the pain suffered in childhood. Now lying in his hospital bed he forgave his parents because they were young and had suffered cruelty in their own childhoods.

Danis tells the nurse about his father. At the time of World War II, Haris, Danis’s father was nine years old and had fled from their village in Eastern Bosnia to Sarajevo in swaying farm carts whose wheels threatened at every turn and bump to break or fall off—and did—or even worse to plunge their frightened and miserable cargo down treacherous ravines but mercifully, didn’t. The family was separated and divided into several carts with other families mostly women and children. All the men were gone, dead or at war. Haris was in another cart separated from his mother and sisters and brothers. When they crossed the bridge at Drina, the cart carrying Haris’s mother had crossed over first. And then there was an explosion—the carts, in the confusion, separated from each other; some managed to cross the bridge, while others waited until things cleared up and it was certain that the bridge was manageable for a crossing. The cart carrying Haris and other children limped its way to Sarajevo over several days and nights and deposited its passengers at a refugee holding camp for kids located just beyond what was now the little hotel called the Villa Orient. The cart carrying Haris’s mother headed to the spot where today stands the Orthodox Church located in the old town. Here, Haris’s mother was put up at the holding camp for refugees. These two locations were less then a quarter of a mile away from each other. Meanwhile his brothers and sisters were taken to a youth camp— at Skenderia a few streets further down across the river. For three years they were here, without knowing of each others proximity or whereabouts. None of them were aware that they were located so close to each other, totally unaware of this. As though, absence alone created insurmountable distances. It was such a small place and yet people were very isolated and cut off from each other, though they were not interned.

The nurse who had listened to Danis’s stories wondered if people who lived in tiny villages and hamlets or even in tiny Sarajevo with their narrow alley ways and hundreds of year old neighborhoods—whether they had the same concept of space and distance as others who lived in vast cities and traveled long distances amongst strangers all the time. Her experience as a refugee in Germany, she felt, had changed the way she viewed distances. The world had grown smaller, while the ability of her eyes, she felt, to see more, had grown.

Danis’s father, Haris, and another little girl from his village were adopted by a couple in Slovenia who took them from Sarajevo away to Ljubljana. But it was not in their own home that the couple from Ljubljana kept these two small children; instead they had sent them off to their country farm to tend the pigs. The girl Zuhra, was the only child of her mother’s while Haris was one of many children. Zuhra’s mother was frantically searching for her child in Sarajevo and had managed to locate the children’s camp she had been in and had learned that her child had been taken by a family to Ljubljana. She journeyed to Ljubljana and found Zuhra and Haris. And having recognized Haris as her neighbor’s child she brought him back with her as well to the village to restore him to his mother. By this time, most everyone from the village had returned there from Sarajevo. Haris years later had told his son Danis the manner in which that reunion with his mother took place. Danis repeated this story to the nurse just as she was preparing his evening injection. Haris had arrived back to the home that they had fled in that village which had grown to become so beloved and longed for at the pig farm.. He was tired, relieved and excited. His arrival at his threshold coincided with dinner when the family were having—their one meal for the day of bread and spinach. His own mother took a look at him, but did not react, did not reach out to embrace him, did not cry out in joy, but instead seemed resentful to see him. Looking him over, Haris’s mother told him go sit in the corner. Little Haris reunited with his family, his mother, brothers and sisters, without receiving an embrace went meekly to sit in the corner shivering and watched hungrily and alone as his family ate their meager meal. After they had finished Haris’s mother came over to the corner and took him by the arm to the yard outside. She gave him a bath—in icy cold water. It was painful and turned his skin blue and set his teeth chattering. The listening nurse’s reaction was an outburst of outrage at this point in Danis’s telling of his story. 'What kind of a cold hearted creature was this woman?'

Her outburst had caused Danis to recoil with a look of resentment crossing his face as though the nurse had failed to understand. 'My grandmother was made of love!' Danis had replied coldly. He thought that the nurse was judging his beloved grandmother.' She had to do that–it was necessary to delouse me'. It was for him to recount his history—it was not for the nurse to judge his family. Danis loved that woman, understood her, the one who had failed to embrace his father. Danis loved her more than he loved his own mother. To him his grandmother was the kindest and most loving soul. His grandmother’s reaction to his father—to Haris’s, return was that of an impoverished and widowed mother of many children. For her, either Haris was dead,or had been taken by someone else. They were all terribly impoverished and she was a widow with nothing to support them. Now, that Haris was back, he was another mouth to feed, sure to starve in danger of not surviving. How else could she have reacted? The nurse tried to redeem herself by speculating that perhaps Dani’s grandmother was in shock, that she had given up Haris for dead and his sudden reappearance was too much to absorb or comprehend. The cruelty of misunderstandings, and of circumstances. Underneath all the cruelty, all the resentments and rage there was a deep love. It was betrayed and reclaimed when it was always too late. How could someone so trained in anesthetizing pain be expected to appreciate it? Would an economist or a sociologist explain this and approach this as being the incentives, and, disincentives, of love? Or love as an incentive or disincentive for survival? Or, the incentives, and, imperatives for the existence of God?

And decades later, Danis now at life’s end, was still surrounded by a love which was constantly emotionally cruel to him. To be around him and the family that visited him in the hospital, even at his deathbed was to be witness to a maelstrom of angry loud violent hurtful words—dramatic and final in their ultimatums: 'I hate you! I will never see your face again. You are dead to me from this day on'… and the next hour they were laughing, joking, smoking, spoiling each other. Unaware or perhaps uncaring of the listening and watching nurse, who, shaken and traumatized by the harshness of the words was struggling hard not to judge.

Also by Maniza Naqvi