Short story by Tara Baltzley
Differences exist, but not in the city of love. Thus my vows and yours, I know they are the same. – Rabi’a of Basra, 8th century Islamic mysticI can’t decide which is more breathtaking – the Himalaya-like mountains which seem close enough to touch, or this Hyatt hotel. Nothing beats the two at once. Sipping a cappuccino, in a lushly upholstered chair, staring out the immense glass windows at the Tien Shan. (Did I mention the air conditioning?!) They are always white-capped, the Tien Shan, even in this blistering Bishkek summer heat. Once you’ve seen them, anything else is just a hill. I almost prefer viewing them from the pristine cocoon of the Hyatt, than hiking through them. This is my favourite escape. I suppose it’s my only escape, really.
After 7 years here, which seem more like endurance than living, we were thrilled when they finally finished it. Construction started about the time we came, built by Italians, who eventually ran out of money. For several years it stood, like much else here, half-finished. We joke that you can’t tell whether things are being built or torn down. They are half-way to something and wholly deserted. It was then bought (for quite a bargain, I’d imagine) by Hyatt Hotels and finished. It’s supposedly a 5-star. Though I recall a stuffy American businessman referencing a cigar butt which remained visible in an ashtray for ‘far longer than one would in a true 5-star hotel’. Still, for us, it has been salvation. An oasis in a desert of post-soviet architecture, food and culture. Glad I can get away and that I’ve got Rabia back home tidying the place, while I catch my breath here.
Where is her black skirt? Oh Kudai (God), help me find it quick. I’ve got to hurry to make it back before she does. She said she’s picking up the girls from school first, so I’ve got till 3:20pm or so. I’ll need a taxi both ways – if I take the bus there’s no way I’ll pull it off. Ah, here it is! It’s so wonderful that Elaine and I are the same size. She’s petite and thin. Not like most American women – especially after they return from a few months at home. I don’t know how she does it. She can afford anything she likes to eat. She’s always bringing home food from the import stores. Not shopping at the open bazaar like we do. She tries to put them away before I see. Like a child hiding a cookie for later.
I’m thin because my salary is all our family lives on with Nurbek earning so little, despite being a surgeon. His friend Sadat, attended a neurosurgery conference in Moscow with Americans. One asked what his monthly salary was and when Sadat told him, the man remarked that he spent at least that on lunch everyday! Elaine thought it was awfully insensitive for him to say that. Still, it’s prestigious here to be a surgeon. I can’t decide what matters more, money or dignity. I make at least $75 a month cleaning this apartment . . . but after so many years I can’t stand the shame anymore. Now that the girls are in school all day I can’t even pretend that I’m their language teacher anymore…I pray I don’t screw up this interview. I’ll make a lot less, but I’m desperate to get the job.
“Vood you like another cappuccino?” Natalia asks.
“No thanks. Could I just have a glass of tap water … with a slice of lemon? … oh yes, and shyot pazhaloosta , I mean, check please.”
“No problem” she says, smiling.
I used to just speak Russian to her, but I think she’s embarrassed to speak it in here. And the Kyrgyz waitresses slip into low, muffled tones when I use Kyrgyz. They’re thrilled that we’ve chosen to learn their language, which the Russians never bothered to do. But, still ashamed to use it in front of their Russian co-workers. So, I just use English when I come here.
All the wait staff have decent English. Where they’ve acquired it varies. Most have foreigner friends who’ve helped them improve to this level – probably helped them get their job as well. They’re also all nice looking. The cream of the crop really – capable of so much more – yet this is the best gig in town. Their uniforms are crisp and they fit right in with us, more than they would outside. Of course, they’re still subservient, just better dressed and polished.
Most the missionaries treat them respectfully – often conveying an unspoken, ‘good for you that you’ve gotten such a good job’. Not that I can say the same for the business and embassy people. They remind me of the men’s club in Out of Africa. Condescending. Superior. Suspicious. Like the woman inviting me to join the International Women’s Club telling me they keep their dues ‘a bit on the high side to keep the locals out.’
Sometimes I loathe the scene here, yet I need it. I often feel guilty afterwards. Especially when I arrive home to Rabia and make no indication of where I’ve been. Like a man who enjoyed a business-lunch tryst, greeting his wife after work.
Rabia. I never refer to her as my maid. Though I guess that’s what she is. When we first arrived here, I had no intention of having house help. Even when I found that the few other foreigners who were here then had ‘maids’, I resisted. I quickly found sweeping floors, and mopping by hand (no mops here then), while raising a 1-year old and studying Kyrgyz language full-time to be overwhelming. Not to mention the general level of culture stress. So, when my language teacher pleaded with me to give work to her sister, I finally let go of my pride and hired Rabia.
Her namesake was a famous Sufi mystic. She was surprised when I told her that. She hadn’t known there’s a Sufi past here in Kyrgyzstan. Never heard of Sufism for that matter. That’s what the predominant branch of Islam was before the Russians took over. I’ve actually read some of her writings. They say she had visions of Jesus. Of course, she called him ‘Isa’, as he’s called in Arabic in the Koran.
A lot of people, even Muslims, are surprised to hear Jesus is written about favourably in the Koran. The references to His followers, on the other hand, are mixed. And history from the Crusades to George W. hasn’t exactly helped.
But Muhammed seemed to have no problem with Jesus. So, I figure maybe he did appear to some of those early Muslim mystics. Like Rabi’a. There are others who wrote about Him too. There’s a poet from Uzbekistan. His name is well-known amongst the Uzbeks. I hear the government won’t publish his writings now that they’ve found he wrote about Jesus.
He’s ‘appeared’ to a number of our Kyrgyz friends – usually in dreams. People who’d never heard of him before. He reveals himself as ‘Isa’ like their Koran says. He’s never appeared to our Rabia, but she’s following him just the same. She says its as if a huge weight has been lifted from her shoulders. She feels free. She doesn’t have to worry about all the times she didn’t keep the Ramadan fast during the Soviet times. She’s forgiven. But, sometimes I worry about her future. What will happen to her after we leave?
A little of her hairspray should do the trick. And some perfume. I’ll crack the window so she doesn’t smell it when she comes home. It’s 1:30 p.m. My interview is at 2:00 p.m. I speed-cleaned the place and didn’t do the kitchen floor. I don’t think she’ll notice, though. Only if there’s a spill and she wipes it and sees those precious white paper towels she buys have some grime on them. I’ll wash it tomorrow. Can’t forget to lock the door. Better not walk too fast, lest a neighbour notice me and mention to Elaine they saw me leaving. I hope there’s a taxi waiting at the corner. Best to avoid the ones Elaine always uses. They might mention it to her. Might even tell her where they took me. That would shock her! I wonder if she’s ever been there. I doubt it. Although, she might not have told me. She can be so secretive. I’m never quite sure what they can afford. Why they’ve never bought a house and completely remodelled it like all the other foreigners is beyond me. I guess they’re not planning to stay forever.
Did I mention we only eat or have coffee here? Can’t really afford to stay a night. We’ve tried to live fairly simply. Unlike most ex-pats we’ve never bought a house here. It’s a dream our local friends could never afford. Though our apartment’s pretty nice. I’ve never actually even seen one of the rooms in this place. The restaurant and lobby’s paradise enough with its morrocon hues, plush carpets, and deep-seated armchairs. Deep-pile Turkish rugs hang on the walls. A vague nod to the local custom (was it Russian or Kyrgyz first?) only these are elegant and hang from black wrought-iron rods. Nothing like the gaudy, gold-hued synthetic ones in our first apartment that I left up for a year, until I finally thought of telling the landlords that I was worried our daughter (then 2) might try to crayon on them. A fairly ingenious face-saving way of having them removed.
Ah, there it is! I think I must have picked the slowest taxi. I know I got a better price though, since he’s a fellow Kyrgyz. I hope Elaine and Rob aren’t too hurt if I leave them for this job. I’ll miss their girls so much. I won’t miss the housework. Okay, walk in slowly, confidently. Like you belong here. Pretend you’ve at least been inside it before. This rotating door is something else. So the doorman didn’t greet me. He in his stiff, soldierly Hyatt uniform. Me in my ‘borrowed’ American skirt. We can see right through each others’ facades. Neither one of us really belongs here.
I’ve got to stop by one of the tiny ‘supermarkets’ to pick up some things before I get the kids from school. I’d better hurry. I’ll just leave the 100 som under my cup. Along with a large tip, of course.
“See you later, Natalia. Spaciba.”
As I’m nearing the door, I almost walk right into Rabia. (Is that my skirt?!) As the color drains from her face, I feel mine go flush. We simultaneously stutter, I in Kyrgyz and she in English…
“What are you doing here?!”