I am not one to break promises usually. Yes, I know these letters have to stop, but I can’t stop them. They write themselves, finding their way from me to you through secret underground tunnels. I have tried to block them off, but the words keep blowing great holds in the hatches I can’t hold down.
I will not try to scare you. I have nothing new to declare that will make you take flight. So stay where you are, leave the bottle of whisky alone and the door closed. All feelings are nicely under control thank you. I just needed to write. To tell you, you that understands what others refuse to.
The pain of the world is beginning to creep inside me. I can feel it. The townships. The oil wells. The children with dead eyes and guns in their hands. Like a cancer, and nobody wants to know. They want to bomb it out of existence, to normalise and categorise it. Put it in the drawer marked “too difficult to deal with”. If there is too much of it in their faces, then they call for military intervention and cloak it in the word humanitarian. But if you don’t know what to do with the mess after the invasion, don’t invade in the first place. Why arrange elections that end only in slaughter?
And it wakes me up at night, cramps that leave me shaking and gasping. Sitting like a giant egg on the seat of my fertility, full of blood that cannot find its way out. It will not kill me, it is not that kind of disease. But it weighs me down, bloating my belly like an unwanted child.
And you say yes yes yes when I tell you that the pack of cards that is my life is flying through the air, chucked up any old how, and I wait, wondering where and how they will fall. Should I stay or should I go now? Relax, you say. And I ask you, how? You know no better than I, other than reaching for the bottle. With that the pain is deadened for a while, but my tongue gets loosened and I look around for someone to tell, to share these visions of horror. There is noone there. Just blank looks and smiles that say – she is drunk. Tomorrow she will be normal again. But I will never be normal again, although perhaps one day I will have learnt to live in peace with my abnormality.
So when does the armed struggle begin and when does it end? Who will declare a ceasefire first – the first or the third world? Is there anyone in charge anymore that we can talk to, assuming we can get past his secretary? Who are these men who marched beside us in the past and now don’t want us in their offices, their consciences. All the doors are closed. We are waging a war of words that noone is listening to because they think we are all on the same side.
But I have no side to belong to. Wrong background and colour. Privileged, I have nothing to complain about. Those we try to support call us liberal lefty pacifists with contempt. After all it is not our struggle in the end. We have nothing to struggle for in our comfortable homes, able to choose out of the many brands of cat food. We can vote, go out for dinner, decide to do as the locals do. A world of unlimited choice. Our time is taken up with a multitude of empty choices – which car, which life insurance, which brand of cigarette.
And despite all this, I am surrounded by people who complain. About the poor service, the weather, the government, the cost of living. On the way home last night I thought about drunkenly crawling into the park to sleep, next to the homeless. Like crawling off to die like an injured animal, only I knew I wouldn’t. But I could hardly face the comfort of my own home.
* * *
Here I am again, up in the air, flying back to Mother Russia. The Moscow Times warns me not to touch suspicious plastic bags or speak to terrorist men with beards. Under “Tips for City Day” it says: “If a mine blows up five meters away from you, try not to panic. Figure out whether you can move, and try at least to crawl to the nearest passageway or on to the street to avoid being trampled.” Very encouraging.
The bombs of yesterday are almost forgotten, blown away by today’s new scandal, rumours of tomorrow’s resignation. How can the Russians avoid total cynicism, how do they retain their romance in the face of this exploding bomb they have for a country?
Life is so cheap. Why do I think mine is so damned expensive? The bomb could go off next to me any second, but its more likely to get someone else. I am not destined to suffer. Only the pain of this shame I bear from walking over the black faces buried in the soil of Africa.
Feeling bad about it is another privilege of the privileged. It doesn’t help. There is no way to redress the balance. All I can do is use what influence I have to address the even more privileged. To give my back and arms as a bridge to those who have no mouth to speak, no words to be heard.
Never whisper in the presence of wrong. Speak truth to power. Never mind that they turn away and hide their smirk behind their hands. We cannot take up arms and fight other people’s battles in the killing fields of this world. All the deaths are by proxy anyway. We have to knock on the doors of the offices in the halls of power and say what has to be said, over and over. Say it with books, with pictures, with diplomatic language.
* * *
And now I am here, landed, brought to this hotel in the silence of inability to overcome the language barrier, in the dark lit up by a thousand billboards. I am drinking a beer at exorbitant price in the pick-up bar of the hotel lobby and listening to the foreign men make ridiculous overtures to the whores.
I am here. Without you. I always miss you here in Moscow. I want to go and stand on the corner of Red Square and dream you up. To reconstruct the moment when you tipped the bottle of cognac to me and I drank. But that’s history now.
I was already lying in my room in the dark ready to sleep but the words kept coming. The hum of the workings in the bowels of this giant hotel never sleeps. I turned the TV up loud to hear the faint American voices hidden behind the monotone dubbing. All the channels full of American crime and shooting as though Russia did not have enough of her own. Downstairs a bar full of gamblers, businessmen and hookers. Moscow corrupted half to death. Pickled in its own alcoholic juice.
A woman asks me for a cigarette. Am I on my own? She asks as though I am the one to be pitied. No, yes, it doesn’t matter, I say. You are here with me all of the time. Always there to talk to when noone is listening.
* * *
The bomb went off on the last night of my stay. I blankly look at the TV screen in the hotel lobby while waiting for my next radio interview. Yesterday I was with the guy writing the government’s PR on Dagestan and I imagine what he will do with this bomb in the media war of non-information. An old friend, his soul is sold, going going gone. I was in the secret rooms of the Ministry of Defence, doors flung open to show me the hotline to the US, the encrypted messages of mutual warning. And we told them their shifts were too long, that people need sleep and light and air to work, to maintain the system of nuclear threat, to monitor the movements of the military.
However safe they think their system is the bombs will keep exploding in the heart of our cities, killing the young and the old, people sleeping in their unsafe beds. The world has become a giant minefield. People dragged out of their houses, their limbs chopped off with machetes. Their belongings are burnt. They learn how to hate like they have never hated before. They hate the man next door, not the General in his bunker who waves their lives away as collateral damage. Burundi, Kurdistan, Kosov@, Sudan, the list goes on and on, each name branded on the softness of my white skin, moisturised with non-perfumed French lotion, bathed with water mixed with anti-stress aroma therapy, clothed in silk and only natural fibres.
© Xanthe Hall, Moscow, 9.9.99