2023 Nominee


by Roberta Nikšić
published by (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Ajfelov Most
Manana, which means thank you in Pashto, describes the lives of young migrants who pass through the Rijeka station trying to reach European Union countries. Rijeka is a temporary stop for them while they wait for buses that will take them closer to the border with Slovenia. Article describes psychophysical violence they suffer on their way, and what happens when they travel for so long, and how they live, while they sleep under the open sky, and the platform at the train station is their only bed and home. In addition to their story, the article also brings the story of the author who helped them with their needs for a while.

Manana means thank you in Pashto. It’s one of the first words I learned among my friends at the railway station in Rijeka. They call themselves musafiri, or travellers. I know how to dress them in their language: butuna, jurab, patlun, banin, jemper, jaket; I know when water is yakh, cold, or hot, gerem. That’s quite enough for us to understand each other. Likewise, we realise we can’t tell each other our life stories in English because it’s alien, foreign and impoverished, garib, not sufficient for all our experiences. Each of us therefore sticks to the foundations of their native language, and eye contact. The fewer words spoken, the better the eyes understand. Butuna are rare and precious, there are never enough of them – comfortable sneakers for walking. Saba, I tell them. Tomorrow. They laugh at these attempts because yesterday was a tomorrow too. Every day is tomorrow here. Butuna no. No shoes. Jurab no. No socks. That’s the way it is, they accept. Tea? There’s tea.

What I’m writing seems like a fiction, like the remote islands from Blaise Cendrars’s poem: “Islands where we will never alight our ships /(…) Unforgettable, nameless islands / I toss my shoes overboard, because – / Because I would like to go near to you.”[1]

The reality beyond these queues is so bizarre. When I poke my nose outside the station, I see passing city buses, swirling leaves, autumn-flecked trees and a clear, cloudless sky. And so the days pass. The rain becomes more frequent and runs from the roads, but the buses continue to pass. Leaves stick to the streets. Invisible people sleep on the platforms, trains pass, buses fill up, media arrive, musafiri leave. Three buses a day. Every day is the same as the one before – patlun no, but jurab – all depending on donations. The dilapidated station building faces the street. Behind it is an open-air musafirkhana, a caravanserai of the Pashtuns. Every day a leaf flies away. People carry umbrellas, which the Syrians with children call shemsiyas. The traffic lights are red, yellow and green. People rush to work. The buses fill up, three services a day, and the storeroom is filling up as people bring donations. Musafiri still sleep on the musafirkhana platform. Snow has turned the mountains white, and the sea is ever darker. The wind drives the rain, or vice versa, it doesn’t matter, and there’s no free space on the platforms. Nothing terrible has happened, the world hasn’t stopped, because people are rushing to work. Attractive young men sleep on that platform. There’s always something going on in front of the intermodal container, the storeroom; they don’t want to miss anything, and they’re always looking for another kampala, a blanket. If there’s no jemper or jaket, it makes do as clothing, home and bed. Someone with imagination, a person strong enough not to be broken by homelessness, thought of rugs, mattress covers and quilts, and brought them all here. The musafirkhana platform becomes more comfortable. A living room with a view of the tracks, empty carriages and seagulls that fight over food scraps from wrappers. Bare feet, platform trainers. They invite us to their place. Be my guest, Mum. We laugh loudly. Louder than usual. Deeper. Laughter warms the cold. Here you can howl at the moon very loudly. Freedom is freer here. No one will hear you because the fine folks are at home getting ready for bed. For well-established lives. For repeats of polite gatherings and shopping weekends. It rains steadily. Water pours down the gutters and drainpipes, it descends the stairs. They patch up the plumbing with plastic bags so it doesn’t start running down their backs. They sterilise old razors with a cigarette lighter. I don’t ask them much. Sometimes their age. They all look older. Hardened. I adopt that mimicry myself. I’m ashamed otherwise. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Every day, an older person greets me in the mirror. I look more and more like the dilapidated station building. How orderly the world beyond the platforms is. Everything shines in the shops, and the people queue with worried faces at the checkouts. The country has a sugar shortage, imagine. Tomorrow an old woman will be waiting for me in the mirror. This tells me that death is benevolent. I’ll ask it for a parting gift. Life is triage and you constantly have to make quick decisions about which wounds to treat first. Sometimes I ask them about their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. No more than that. I watch. That’s enough. Their movements while drinking tea. Gentle and elegant. Tea isn’t just tea. It’s a ceremony. A warm house for your fingers. The way they wrap themselves in a warm, colourful scarf. Gracefully. They love colours. They never forget to be attentive. They beam when they see a familiar face in the empty street. They wave from the bus. Like happy children. Because they are children. When in Rome, you do as the Romans do. That’s why I shuttle every day between the first container – the storeroom for the clothes and shoes – and the second, the hammam (our sterile description: a container with shower cabins). Sterility has been banished from here. The hammam is really the warm and fragrant steam of oblivion, which they emerge from even more beautiful, or they say: I was bad, now I’m strong again. Donations trickle into the storeroom every now and again, and that’s why we’re always there, so we don’t miss anything. And each one drains away quickly, like warm water after a bath. Then it’s lunch time, and, like them, I’m so hungry that I’d rather say in the language of the musafiri: I’m two person, and ask for two portions. I am two people. One is she who lives at the station with them. Who counts how many seats there are on the bus to Lupoglav near the Slovenian border at ten, two and seven o’clock. The fewer there are, the longer and more restless the queue is, and one intrusive word fills the space: Line, line! It’s full of aggressive exclamation marks that would turn to truncheons and thrash people if they could. A dangerous word, line. It instils fear and order. I delete it from my vocabulary. Let it rest from the shouting until it takes on another meaning.

The other me is the one who goes to bed in her room every night. But she can’t get to sleep without the first. And when she finally does, she dreams it’s time to distribute the donations, and a person asks her for water in the middle of the desert. There isn’t enough, she knows there isn’t enough, and she can only say nothing. Saba. Travellers come out of the blue and bring her milk in a goatskin.

Every day, lunch is at one o’clock. They’re as obedient as an army. One by one, in line. A plastic bowl. A fork. Two thin slices of bread. Through which the sky can be seen. An army field kitchen. They don’t like the word line either. It’s used often here. Not everyone understands it, especially when it’s too loud. They have their own word: katar. It reminds me of the Bosnian word hator, love and respect, and of my father, who used to say meni za hator, “for my sake”. And so, meni za hator – for the sake of this small woman – they obey me, and katar is restored without much shouting. They also mention saf, order. I still feel that our order and food result in aggression. We’re like police sometimes because we’re afraid of unrest. Even if they’re not always calm, they say sabur to each other, and when they quarrel the group makes them hug and settle their differences. They hold hands like children, or like my girlfriends and I sometimes. This closeness comes naturally to them, like the kajal on their lower eyelids. They ask me what I think about men who wear makeup. I tell them they’re like kings. The mood is good then, and the conversation switches to other topics. Just speak Pashto, it’s poetry, I don’t understand it, but I feel it. And they speak. There’s little difference between Pashto and Farsi: nothing would be notting in Farsi. And so our days pass, and I learn to look at myself. “We must leap into the mist and run / Through the blue in search of beauty,”[2] Mário de Sá-Carneiro tells me. I don’t have time to read here, so I recollect old quotes while watching the youthfulness on their faces. I ask less and less question, speak less and less. The kilometres travelled and their financial situation can be seen in their blisters, festering wounds and muddy clothes. The longer they are here, the less money they have. Some of the Pashtuns have curly hair, some wavy, some fine or bristly. They’re small of stature: boyish, wiry and tough. Some wear their hair long, some have extremely bright eyes, others have dark, almond-shaped eyes. And when they come out of the hammam, they’re even more beautiful. No one will yell at them now for getting on the bus dirty. They might not even recognise them.

It’s almost time for me to leave. A friend gives me one of the symbols of Trsat Hill overlooking the city– a kind-hearted dragon that became too attached to people and had to go away in the end. Every story exists to be rewritten, and mine rewrites itself without my doing. It’s raining. When I come to unlock the storeroom and the hammam, two travellers are there under a shemsiya. They can hardly wait. Six sparrows zip into the storeroom, rain dripping from their wings. A leaf drops onto the shelf. I stand there and we look at each other. Their feet are bruised and battered from the road, their fingers from barbed wire. Their pain is visible and palpable. I ask myself why I didn’t become a nurse. There’s something reassuring in the knowledge that the gashes and hollows in their hands, fingers and feet will soon fill with new tissue. That they’ll heal. At first, they’re afraid of what they’ll see – pus and blood as the improvised bandages are removed – and new pain fills the hollows. But now they’re protected with fresh bandages, and gratitude sets in. It will help heal better than antibiotics. I watch them endure the pain. The future belongs to them. We are just a dilapidated station building doomed to decrepitude, decay and soon demolition.

I can see the pain is very palpable. The sparrow, once yellow, has turned pale, so I tell it a story. I don’t know how much it understands, but my fingers speak to it in any case. All this was taught to me by my father, the kind-hearted dragon, and now my fingers are quick and light. They won’t hurt you. You have nothing to fear. He was a paramedic in the army and borrowed a first-aid booklet, which we keep in the house to this day. It was the first and most important thing my brother and I were given to read. He himself read little, but he knew it by heart. The booklet stated in solemn, bold letters: “Every cultured person should learn to administer first aid.” I tell the sparrow that my father had big hands and clever fingers, and he expertly bandaged our every wound and cut. There were always orange vials of Bactine, and he sprinkled the powder like snow on our playground wounds. Father didn’t have the calm to sit at classroom desks, so he didn’t finish school, but he was a cultured man and knew how to administer first aid. I ask how to say “father” in Pashto. Pashtun. My father – pashtun – bandaged you. He used to maintain the looms at the medical supplies factory. His strong hands unravelled the tangled threads of sterile gauze. While others tore, he would patiently wind. Sterile gauze, swabs and calico bandages are still his legacy in our house. And I say to him, Therefore, my friend, don’t be afraid, I’m at home here. And while his gash gradually fills with pain, and then gratitude, one of the sparrows has settled in and begun to make tea. We’ll drink tea in peace. Manana. One of them will clean the hammam for me. I no longer think of establishing order, but sabur. We’ll drink tea in peace. They put a cup in my hands. Manana.

[1] Translation by Victoria Le.

[2] Translation by Simon Park.

Translated by Will Firth / Voxeurop.

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