There’s a scene stuck in my head from when I was 15 years old.
A fair – skinned, 16 – year – old girl with a short and neat haircut, white blouse, wide black skirt, black bag and shoes was walking on a dirt road with quiet but confident steps.
She passed by merchants and sellers sitting in front of their small kiosks – many of them dark – skinned and boisterous women. She passed by a group of girls around a well, and young boys bossing around their mothers and sisters while playing with beads and keys.
But everyone is looking at this girl, and whispering her name – Balakhanim (Child – Woman).
I never spoke to her. She didn’t even know me. She was the most beautiful girl of the ‘tent – city’ where I lived for 5 years. In reality, beauty is very connected to money, opportunities and conditions.
Beauty of the poor can only be a natural gift. Quoting one of Dostoyevski’s humble heroes from
Crime and Punishment
, Marmeladov, ‘beauty and cleanliness require a lot of money.’ Daily baths, manicures and nice clothes can save anyone, no matter how ugly they might be.
But poverty and desolation have a negative impact on even the most beautiful of women. It’s easy for wealthy women to be beautiful.
And so, having ironed, clean and nice clothes, Balakhanim looked like a heroine from a fair – tale in our ‘tent – city’, where everyone else had scanty outfits, and where formerly soft and white hands would turn rough and dark from work under the sun.
We used to observe Balakhanim’s “Malena – style” festival walk to school every day from the back of trucks, onto which school – aged boys and girls who didn’t attend school but who instead shared the grief of poverty with their family, would jump every morning at 8 and head out to the cotton fields. And I was among them. It was natural and normal for us girls to collect cotton – but it was considered an embarrassing job for boys. Only the poorest of mothers would take their sons to the cotton fields. Boys would hop on to the trucks rather embarrassed, and would wear their cotton aprons in just as awkward a manner.
And against this background of poverty and hard work, Balakhanim walked gracefully every morning in clean clothes, and was a symbol of happiness for all of us. Even though she lived in the same ‘tent – city’ as we did, and shared the fate of a refugee with us, she was happier. Her father was working in a humanitarian organization assisting and supporting the ‘tent – city.’ And so he had a good salary, and a car. Her family didn’t have the burden of collecting cotton.
Everyone envied them.
We all thought that we would become poor and unfortunate like our parents. That we would live the same life that they did. But Balakhanim walked almost ‘festively’ to school every morning to get an education, and to become a big shot.
Life seemed to have prepared this kind of fate for us, and a different kind for her.
One day, Balakhanim disappeared. We never saw her again. It was strange not to see her every morning, walking along the same road. There was something lacking, missing. The harmony of our lives had been disturbed.
After a little while, we found out that she had gotten married. I remember, my uncle said, nodding, “They always take the most beautiful ones, first.”
Balakhanim’s mother, replying to the questions of the neighbors, said, “What was I supposed to do with this girl in this ‘tent – city.’ There is a wealthy family in this region. They wanted her, and we gave her to them.”
But her husband didn’t allow her to attend school. Probably, it would have been embarrassing for Balakhanim as well to attend school, to sit behind a school desk.
I never saw her again after she suddenly disappeared from our lives. But that view of Balakhanim in the road has stuck in my mind, forever.
Yesterday, I recalled Balakhanim again. And I thought: marriage, in our country, is equal to disappearance, non-existence. An activist gets married, and disappears. A former manager marries, and disappears. A student gets married, and is gone forever. They change their phone numbers, cut their contacts with their friends; her life is constrained to that of her husband and his family. Now her relatives. She is forced to refuse everything that formed her as a personality.
A formerly social being becomes a wifey.
And then it’s all over.