Almira, Be a Good Girl
(Translated From the Serbian By: Natasa Miljkovic)
KARMIEL, GALILEE, ISRAEL (ALMIRA, 14 years old)
- Almira, it’s time.
Composure is the only visible thing on the wrinkled face of an old man who, below himself, on the branches of his luxuriant family tree, has seventeen children and more than fifty grandchildren. She is one of them. Six months before the action girls spend most of their time with their spiritual elders and they are completely isolated from their family during the last four days. It’s a rule, but in this case Almira’s spiritual elder is her relative as well. Today she feels it her duty to be composed herself. To be happy and alive at last, because she is already in heaven.
Two women take her to a special room, separated from the spacious cellar hall by white curtains. A few spasms unsettle her stomach and then her feeble hands, after they’ve taken her household garments off her body.
Lives, people, wars, all have the plural, all are hellish. Peace is one. Peace, she says to herself.
They bring close to her bare untouched waist a women’s belt, prepared in advance, four flat boxes attached on the inside, each filled with a hundred grammes of semtex, a plastic explosive which could, in this quantity, blow two passenger planes to pieces. The plastic has already been mildly warmed with hot towels, so it doesn’t cause discomfort to the young skin.
Almira shuts her eyes for a moment and then she quickly remembers that she must show wavering on no account, that she must have no qualms whatsoever, because she does not even know how to doubt, since no one has taught her so. She is more determined than ever.
Thin cables leading to the triggering mechanism pinch her in the region of the stomach. Skilful and experienced hands pass over her stomach and back muscles, connecting everything that needs to be connected. They touch her tenderly, blood rushes to her nipples, which become stiff. She begins to breathe deeper and faster. This kind of excitement is unfamiliar to Almira.
That’s it, she thinks. An invitation to heaven. That’s what my body is telling me.
One of the women orders her quietly and seemingly disinterestedly to get dressed and hands her a grey skirt and a white shirt. In the school uniform the girl appears again before her elder relative, who kisses her on the forehead, placing a leather bag with books on her shoulders, and with an unearthly authority utters a non-question:
- Do not forget. They are occupiers. All of them. You know what you’re supposed to do. There. Be a good girl.
She nods her head, rushes to her desk, taking a small toy from under it, a plush lemur, and goes out into the street full of children dressed the same.
This is her first day in a new, experimental, bilingual, mixed school, designed for common schooling of both Arab and Hebrew teenagers. Teaching is performed in both languages and history lessons are separated. The rest is the same for all students.
She enters quietly and occupies a seat in the third row. Beside her is a girl with a nose piercing, Sara.
After several lessons and two short breaks of awkward introductions, Sara gets to learn about Almira everything she has been taught in case she is asked about her family, what she likes to eat, listen, watch, read, wear. Almira’s Hebrew is modest but sufficient.
At the same time, Almira gets to learn about Sara all truths which would otherwise remain hidden if it were any other girl, because she talks about some things no one else would on a first encounter, about her being a child of rich parents, a year older than the others, intelligent, but a repeater, because she is undisciplined, going away on unannounced trips, on her own, in obscure company, a garrulous whore, which is how she jokingly calls herself, about where she goes out, about sleeping with a guitarist of the local band Hatred last year, about having an older boyfriend, and about them gathering and drinking and smoking weed in an empty, never-populated building. As soon as lessons are over, she goes right there and then on a further jaunt. Her new friend too must, simply must accompany her. Almira manages not to respond to the invitation and after the last bell she simply leaves the school together with Sara, walking by her side, wherever she would take her. Almira looks at the city as if looking at the world for the first time, in fear and hidden curiosity. Around them walk bodies, not people.
And one should feel scorn for the body and its calls.
One should feel. Scorn.
One should feel.
Almira foolishly follows her new guide. Almira finds herself in a two-room flat crowded with young people. The majority of them are in their late twenties. They hold cans of beer in their hands. Between their forefingers and middle fingers are cigarettes and marihuana. They grow longish curly or apparently sloppily cut hair on their heads. In their heads they nourish speculations about freedom. Some of them harbour some more talented and less stereotypical thoughts. There are a few foreigners there – Americans and Europeans. They use their longest, pre-university holidays for exotic journeys across Eastern Europe and safe regions of the Middle East. Smoke. This is a place where prejudices about youth consciously come true.
Fifteen minutes later, in a corner, Sara is kissing a boy who seems to be smiling for no reason. On the stage contrived out of small crates boys and girls appear in turns. Holding a small microphone before their mouth and clumsily following song lyrics on a fifteen-inch monitor, they sing current world hits. Tones are computer-generated, almost intolerably reduced. No one seems to mind this.
A shortish eighteen-year-old is verbally most dominant of all. Suddenly he approaches Almira. She hands her a sheet with a list of tracks.
Without questioning herself whether it’s obedience, which is only familiar to her, or something totally different, Almira points her finger at one of the songs.
The boy takes her by the hand. She brings her to a platform and tucks the microphone in her hand. Almira is a queen.
My loneliness is killing me...
She’s good, really good.
The crowd turns to listen to her. Even though most of them don’t like the chosen song, her rich voice is supported by mutual singing, whooping and jumping to the rhythm.
They sing along:
...I must confess, I still believe.
I still believe!
And she feels something akin to freedom. She starts to sing more loudly.
She lifts her hand, waving to the rhythm, as some of her predecessors used to do on this throne. She shakes her hips.
Precisely at the moment when she abandons herself to the surroundings, she feels something under her wide shirt detach itself from her skin. It starts to glide down her back and stomach.
Trying not to draw much attention to herself, halfway into the song she calmly leaves her performance and rushes out in light steps.
Dark descended over the earth long ago. It’s overcast. Sounds of crickets are intolerably dull. Almira walks towards a wide deserted street which seems to be leading nowhere. With the fingers on her left hand she forcefully clutches the small plush lemur.
From the flat she has just left the voice of youth can still be heard, accompanying the melody...
...I still believe!
The following day people woke up with coffee and newspapers, which said that on Golda Meir Boulevard a woman terrorist–suicide activated an explosive device and that there were no other casualties. The minister of the military stated that terrorist attacks had to cease and that the armed forces would take any necessary steps to let the masterminds of violence know that the state would not tolerate the slightest incident endangering its citizens.
Wars have the plural. Harb. Houroub.
Peace is one. Peace. Salam.
About the author:
Bojan Babic was born in Belgrade, Serbia, in 1977. He holds a master degree in Serbian and World Literature. He has published 3 books of short prose and 3 novels till now. He was awarded the Borislav Pekić award – the only literary scholarship in Serbia – for his omnibus novel Girls, Be Good (in which this story originally appeared). His short stories have been translated to Albanian, Swedish, and English.
About the translator:
Natasa Miljkovic, born in Smederevo, Serbia, in 1984. She graduated from the Department of English Language and Literature of the Faculty of Philology in Belgrade, where she is currently doing her PhD thesis on scientific and artistic truth, based on some of John Banville’s novels. She works as an English teacher and a freelance translator.