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I remember being five years old studying my mother’s hands. They reminded me of moon, white and tremulous. I was sitting on a cream coloured sofa, cutting up a sausage, dipping it in mustard, chewing, as she floated around our small apartment. She picked out items from my closet, one by one, unfolding and refolding each one before arranging it in one of two large red suitcases that sat gaping on the floor. The year was 1992 and Yugoslavia was at war, but those two facts, alone, meant little to me back then. Other facts, such as my father’s, meant a lot. I hadn’t seen him in months. My mother said that he was away in the mountains, but the children at nursery school, whose fathers were also absent, explained it to me in more detail. My father was fighting alongside other Serbs, protecting me from the Muslims who wanted to take away my country and kill me. It wasn’t long after my father left that I began to understand that the proper thing to do was to hate all Muslims. They were the bearded men in the mountains, chanting and pointing their guns. They were coming for me. My friend Milica told me that a group of such men burned her grandparents’ farm. They cut out her grandfather’s tongue. Crucified her grandmother and cut off her breasts, threw them to the dogs.
I had a best friend, Alma, who lived next door. We loved to play kitchen-kitchen and spent hours in the garden cooking our twig and mud meals, or running around the village collecting stray kittens, which we hid under our beds. I was shocked the morning I realized that Alma’s house was empty, but I was even more shocked when my mother told me that Alma was a Muslim, and that she had to leave our village because it was unsafe for her family to stay.
I was sitting on my grandparent’s balcony, eating fried trout.
“Do I have to hate Alma because she is Muslim?” I asked my mother.
Behind her the smoke from a nearby factory was adulterating the sky. Apple trees twisted in the wind. She looked at me with a threatening intensity.
“Never ask me that again,” she hissed. “You will never have to hate anyone.”
I looked down at my greasy fingers, separating the fish bones from the flesh. I didn’t understand.
It was my mother’s antipathy for the war that took us, and our two large red suitcases to South Africa. I remember sitting on the plane and imagining Africa. I pictured our new house in the jungle. A baby lion to play with. An elephant to ride. I was excited. I loved Tarzan, I wanted to be Jane, and amongst all that wanting I had no time to think of, much less mourn, the home I was leaving behind.
My first few years in South Africa are a blur. I remember the small, sunless apartments. I remember white bread with jam and butter. I remember strangers, all far too strange. I remember not understanding the language. I remember boredom. I remember hunger. I remember my mother crying. I remember, for the first times, seeing my father hitting her.
I was ten years old when my father opened a video store and we moved into a bigger apartment. Two years later he opened a small casino and we moved into a house, and, soon after that, he opened his first restaurant. By then he had also started staying out all night, drinking whiskey in the morning, and hitting me. My mother finished medical school and became a doctor. I rarely saw or spoke to her. She was always either working or studying. We were rich, I was told. The crossover is blurry to me. I couldn’t tell you what it looks like, but I imagine it to be a line of sorts, a line that stands between rich and poor. I know what poor feels like, and I know what rich feels like, I don’t remember how it felt to cross that line. Maybe you should ask my parents. I’m sure they paid more attention to it than I did.
The newly rich me spent many years being raised by maids in a large, beautiful house that echoed words and feelings alike. The maids came and went in rhythm to my father’s temper, but Precious was with us for the longest. Barefoot, I would often sneak to her room at the far end of the garden where, together, we watched Zulu sitcoms on her tatty TV. I loved chewing on the sugar cane that Precious brought back from her weekend trips home to Kwazulu Natal. I loved her loud laugh and the way she clicked her tongue in irritation whenever I would interrupt her with a question about one of the characters. One afternoon, my father came home early and found me in Precious’s room. He called me back into the house and told me that I was never to go into the maid’s quarters again. She was black and she was the maid. Another person I was supposed to hate. My father had a better understanding than most when it concerned the people we were supposed to hate. He must have learned it in that war, when I was five, when he was gone for months, in the mountains, fighting Muslims, the bearded men who wanted to kill me and take my country from me. I often try to recall what Alma’s father had looked like. I don’t remember a beard, but I’m sure he must have had one since he was Muslim. I don’t remember what Alma looked like either.
What do I remember then?
A house next to my house. In it, a girl I played kitchen-kitchen with. Then, one day, empty. I tried to play kitchen-kitchen alone, once, but I got bored and went back into my house.