Image provided by the author. Modified for publication by Verena.
When I was eighteen, I was forced to roll dough every Saturday. A big circle of dough – thin enough to see the kitchen table’s fine grey cage pattern, or, as they say, “thin enough to be able to read a newspaper through it.” The dough would then be used for beshbarmak (a traditional Kazakh dish), for orama or for manty;— in that case, it should be slightly thicker, so that only the day’s headlines would be recognizable. I was forced into this traditional female labor by my grandmother because my uncle would come over every Saturday for lunch. My grandmother would wake me up around 9 o’clock in the morning and give me chores. I would probably still be drunk from the night before, after four hours of sleep (if I’m lucky!). My strict and reserved grandmother would never address my red eyes and pale hungover face. Only once would she ask me why I behaved like that. I explained to her that nowadays clubs are the places to find someone. In fact, isn’t she the one insisting that I find me a husband?
I started living with her right after my mother’s death. After, my uncle – while sitting at the head of the family dinner table – proclaimed that he was sacrificing his ability to continue living with his mother for me, so that I could now have an actual chance to become the real Shoshanova. He said it as if “the royal” Shoshanov family finally recognized the bastard that I was and decided to take in a stranger who just happened to have the same last name. What would that entail? To become someone real in regards to a random surname assigned to them at birth?
Anyway, here I was; standing in the kitchen and performing as a perfect ’Kazakh girl’ through a hectic dance with a dough roller, as close as I could ever be to what it means to be the real Shoshanova. But those were Saturday mornings, on Friday nights, however, one would normally find me at the gay club. At that point Almaty, a rather big vibrant city with typical Soviet architecture mixed up with ugly, newly erected skyscrapers made out of glass and metal, had a single gay club. One lesbian party happened once a month at the ‘Art Club‘ with a huge portrait of Leonardo da Vinci on the ceiling. The crowd was full of butches and femmes – the division was present, clear and in a way mandatory. I was hanging somewhere in between, not femme enough in the absence of makeup, long hair and high heels, and not butch enough in the absence of cologne, short hair, and a big wristwatch. The amount of alcohol that was consumed at those parties was dizzying, and there would always be a fistfight by the end of the night.
The amount of alcohol that was consumed at those parties was dizzying, and there would always be a fistfight by the end of the night.
Two years later my grandmother would give up in her fight with the cancer that she was living with for the last ten years. She planned everything. Together we went to “Kyzyl Tan” — one of the oldest trading houses of Almaty, an astonishingly beautiful 19th-century landmark of Russian wood-architectonics — and bought five meters of white fabric for my grandmother’s burial. She would be wrapped in it, with pieces of cloves between the layers before being put in the traditional Muslim carpet and then sent six feet under. The previous set, prepared a long time ago, was given away to bury her daughter. She planned everything. She called a remote relative to come and be her caregiver. Bakhty: a small, full- bloodied, earthy woman in her fifties with a big, red, weather-beaten face, high cheekbones and thin lips covering uneven teeth – one of them golden. She would curse in Russian like a sailor and laugh loudly. This would be the first and last time in my life that I would hear such cursing from an elderly Kazakh woman. “Where were you last night, nahuy blyat?”, she would ask me smiling. Her eyes, two thin lines, sparkling.
I would watch my grandmother’s gradual fading: not being able to walk, not being able to sit, not being able to eat, not being able to talk.
Around that time I would pick up, or rather let myself be picked up, by a butch-y dyke who was 10 years older than I.
Around that time I would pick up, or rather let myself be picked up, by a butch-y dyke who was 10 years older than I. It was my first time in giving up on feelings and love, and a start in fucking strangers. She was big, strong and full of life. Our sex was the most heteronormative sex one can imagine: she would shortly go down on me and then finger-fuck me for hours, desperately digging for what science used to call “vaginal orgasms”. She would be disappointed by my “clitoral orgasms” and would never get fully naked, always remaining in her underwear. For a while that didn’t bother me much; I took whatever salvation life would give me to reclaim my body back from the constant feeling of being drowned in the waters of death.
I remember how we brought my grandmother to the bathtub. Bakhty would take her back, while I would secure the legs and hold back the doors. A big, red, full-blooded body with a pale-white skeleton on top. My grandmother would sit in the water like an overgrown wrinkled child, while I would rub her back with a washcloth. She would always instinctively cover her right side with a palm, almost with a fist, where her breast before her mastectomy had been. My little old Amazonian, who survived her father’s raskulachivanie, his deportation to Siberia and death at the war; who grew up during this war, married a man-child at age 18, gave birth to three children almost in a row, then at age 24 buried her mother who died of cancer, built a family, lost her husband at 59, went through the fall of the Soviet Union, got cancer at 69, and buried her daughter at 77.
One of my friends told me how her mother, while explaining a perfect consistency of a dough, suddenly said: “Just grab your breasts! Do you feel it? That’s how the perfect dough should feel like!” I know how to knead dough. It should be as tight as your grand/mother’s breasts, as your own breasts, as the breasts of your lover. I know how to roll dough. It should be as thin and as white as your grand/mother’s burial cloth.
Throughout her last night, she screamed a lot into a feverish oblivion. I would enter her bedroom and lay down beside her to calm her down. Bakhty told me to use an old Kazakh saying that will ease her departure: “Kyidym seni, kyidym seni, kyidym seni,” which means “I cut you off, I cut you off, I cut you off.”
And I used it.
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Whether you’ve stayed in the same place, but the political system, and family relations, or the climate changed around you, or whether you live with the memory of a place or situation you have left a long time ago or just yesterday – there are certain aspects of past and present within you or shared with the people around you that come together in harmony, struggle, or somehow don’t come together at all. They are traditions in transition.
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