The Peddler of Neopousmenie
After the rain the earth was swollen with moisture and, when the wind scattered the clouds, it languished in the dazzling sunlight and streamed with a dove-grey haze. And it was through that haze that he came, his battered blue Kamaz truck rattling along the road that leads to Kamyshin and beyond that to Saratov and beyond that, to Moskva itself.
Before him lay the town of Neopousmenie, stretched out across the horizon, surrounded on all sides by the rich earth of the steppe. The grey towers of the apartment blocks, the concrete square of the municipality buildings and the large hulks of the EKVM Company, its chimneys filling the air with thick clouds of polluting smoke that melted into the haze of the afternoon and gave the breeze an acrid smell, all combining to create one great vision of urbanity, a symphony in grey. The peddler smiled, wrenched his Kamaz up a gear and lit a White Canal cigarette. He was nearing his destination.
I first saw him the following day as I made my way out of the municipality buildings with the Transport Commissar en route to lunch in a small restaurant that I always frequent when in Neopousmenie. He had parked his Kamaz on the broken paving slabs of Ploschtad Svetska and was busy setting out his wares. I didn’t think twice when I saw him then, after all gypsies are always setting up stalls illegally these days and selling junk imported with greased palms from Turkey and China. Why should I have noticed this peddler more than any other?
The first person to visit the peddler’s stall was Yulia Nikolalevna Poutilova. She had noticed the blue Kamaz with a strange registration plate and wondered if it might be selling something. When she went over she saw the peddler himself coming out of the back of the lorry and wondered where he could be from. He didn’t look like a gypsy, but then he wasn’t a Chechen or Georgian either. An Uzbeki perhaps? She didn’t know but wherever he was from, perhaps he had some bargains in that truck of his and she wanted the pick of them?
“What are you selling, mister?” she asked as she waddled over.
“Burqas, madam, I have a truck full of them in all the colours that you might want.” He gestured towards a pile of multi-coloured cloth.
“Burqas, what are they?” asked Yulia.
“What the women in Afghanistan wear, Madam. They keep them hidden.”
Yulia snorted. “What on earth would I want such a thing for?” she asked. To be truthful, Yulia knew nothing of Afghanistan or burqas, but did know that a gesture of contempt often lowered prices. The peddler however, did not reply and Yulia for her part did not walk off. Instead she fingered the cloth and found to her delight that it was good quality and the embroidery on it was exquisite. Perhaps it could be remade into a dress or tablecloth or something? “How much each?” she asked, trying to still sound contemptuous.
Fifty roubles! That was nothing, a snatch! “I’ll give you forty,” she grunted.
“No madam, fifty is the price.”
A peddler that didn’t haggle, now that was an oddity! Still, fifty was too cheap anyhow. “Hmm, alright then, I’ll take this white one.”
And as she handed over the money, the first snows of the winter fell on Neopousmenie.
Sometime later Kristina Sergeivichaya Tselikova came to the stall. She had seen the vivid orange, blue, green, red, yellow and purple of the cloth and wondered what they could be. When she learnt that they were Afghan burqas she felt momentarily horrified: she was a modern girl, such things were Oriental, from the past! Her horror however, was mixed with a tinge of curiosity: what were these things like that had travelled from afar? Here was a window onto a different culture, a whole other world! She picked one up and contemplated it: What would it be like to wear such a thing? Who had spent hours sewing that fine embroidery on the front?
“How much for one?” she asked, never seriously thinking of buying.
“Fifty roubles, madam.”
Fifty roubles, that was nothing! Not that she had any money to spare, but even so, she felt that she had to have one of these burqas. “Alright, give me an orange one please…”
Olga Ivana Komerovskaya knew what the peddler was selling the moment she saw his rainbow stall across the grey slabs of the ploschtad. She had read all about Afghanistan in Panorama and was appalled by how the women there were forced to live like dogs. “What on earth is he doing here selling such things?” she muttered to herself, thinking that he would be lucky to sell any of his accursed burqas in impoverished, Christian Neopousmenie. Nevertheless, when she finished her shift in the restaurant, she ambled across, just to look of course. Once there however, she became engrossed. The peddler, whom she’d expected to be pushy and overbearing, seemed not to notice her and stayed sat in his chair smoking a White Canal cigarette. This annoyed her. She’d half-wanted a confrontation so that she could tell him what he could do with his Islamic, women-oppressing, backward, Oriental burqas. Now however, she half-wanted one herself. What would it really be like to be cooped up in one of those all day long? What must it feel like to wear one? “How much?” she asked gruffly.
“Fifty roubles, madam.”
“I’ll give you thirty-five.”
“Fifty is the price, madam.”
She left with a green one.
Elmira Evgenina Dzhemileva saw the peddler’s stall through the grime-stained window of the elektrichka. When she had bought the vegetables, bread and meat that she had come into the centre to buy, she wandered on over to have a closer look. The colourful burqas arrested her eyes and made her want to possess one. They reminded her of her Tatar ancestors who’d come to this region centuries before, living a life totally alien to her own. She picked up a blue burqa and felt a bond with those exotic forebears. She paid fifty roubles and left carrying it in a yellow carrier bag.
All day long a steady stream of women – and a few men! – made their way to the peddler’s stall and purchased those strange, pleated, Eastern garments. Many had taken a look merely out of curiosity, some out of contempt, but all of them, each and every one, left with a bundle of coloured cloth under their arm. It was as if a kind of magic had taken hold of the city, a magic that forced even the poorest peasant woman to purchase. I alone did not buy one of his burqas. I saw the stall out of one of the offices of the Transport Department and I do confess that I had wanted to go over, but I was in a meeting that ran over and by the time that it had finished I had to sprint to catch my train back to Kamyshin. I was a little disappointed as I slumped into my seat as I’d fancied buying one of those coloured bundles of cloth myself, (at the time I did not know exactly what they were). ‘Still,’ I reasoned to myself as I gazed out into the snowflakes that were now falling fast outside, ‘I can always get one next time that I’m in town and besides, if the snow keeps falling like this, well, the town will be cut off before long and I certainly don’t fancy having to spend a night or two here, so it’s good that I caught the train out whilst I could.’
I had left but the peddler remained. For an entire fortnight he remained and each and every day a steady stream of women queued up at his stall to buy the burqas that kept appearing from the back of the Kamaz. Young and old, fat and thin, rich and poor, all alike wanted one of those garments and so long as people queued up, the peddler sold, that rusty blue truck being a veritable Aladdin’s cave stocked with an endless supply of burqa treasure. By the start of the third week however, all of the women of Neopousmenie owned one and the constant snowfall was making mobility difficult and so it was that the queues stopped. And when the queues stopped, the peddler packed up and left. As quietly as he had arrived, he climbed into the cab of his Kamaz, lit a White Canal cigarette and trundled off back down the road that leads to Kamyshin, Saratov and Moskva itself, a big smile across his eyes.
And as soon as he had left, the snow grew so heavy that the city of Neopousmenie was cut off from the rest of Russia.
Yulia Nikolalevna Poutilova got her white burqa out of the plastic carrier bag when she reached her mauve vinyl-clad apartment. She did not mean to put it on, only admire the embroidery and work out how she could cut it into a respectable tablecloth. However, once she had it in her hands, an irresistible curiosity spread over her and she ached to feel what it would be like to wear such a garment. She slipped it over her head and adjusted the skullcap so that her eyes were behind the mesh. Inside the burqa things felt different; the cares of the grey world outside – her money worries, rumours of EKVM closing down and Andrei losing his job, the arrival of winter and their daughter’s poor school report – all seemed to fade away and instead she was safe inside her little cocoon, protected from the woes of the cruel world outside. She drew the folds around her and smiled. Then she walked to the window and watched the snowflakes tumble down, creating a white world to match her white burqa.
Kristina Sergeivichaya Tselikova felt equally happy when she pulled on her new orange burqa. Like Yulia she had only meant to take it out and look at it, and like Yulia something incomprehensible had compelled her to put it on. Kristina was a pretty girl, boys stopped and stared at her slim figure when she walked across the college, but whilst they all saw the outside, none ventured to discover the inside, the shy, caring girl that so wanted to be loved. Inside the burqa all that outer beauty was hidden but in its place a new beauty was revealed, the beauty of the embroidery and pleated cloth that reflected the exquisite inside beauty of the wearer. Like Yulia she saw the snowflakes falling outside and they filled her with joy. On an impulse she ran outside and under the dull yellow streetlamps of ulitsa Gagarina she danced like a dervish of old. As always when she was in the street, the people stopped and stared, but this time their stares were neither lewd nor unwelcome, for this time, for the first time in her adult life, they were staring not at her body but her soul.
Olga Ivana Komerovskaya had always intended to put her green burqa on when she pulled it out of her canvas bag. She had wanted to place it on her head and feel first hand the oppression of the women of Afghanistan and in doing so, perhaps forget a little of her own misery. What she had not expected was to put it on and enjoy it, feel comfortable with all that cloth hiding her body. However, when she looked through the mesh of her burqa, she thought not of oppression and hardship, but of safety and happiness. She went outside trying to convince herself that to do so would give her an even more accurate impression of the sufferings of the Afghan female, but the lie was to herself alone. Like Yulia and Kristina, the peddler’s burqa had weaved its magic on Olga Ivana Komerovskaya also and she danced down the unlit ulitsa Kuibysehva.
And now we reach the Tatarka, Elmira Evgenina Dzhemileva. She had put her burqa on with some vague hope of connecting with her long-gone ancestors and incredibly, beyond any of her realistic expectations, that hope was realised! As she pulled the material over her face, she felt exotic, Oriental, Muslim and Tatar, and a million miles away from the dull, grey monotonous reality of the ruined Russia that had been born out of the carcass of the failed USSR. She was a newer and freer person, made new by retreating into the past and freer by wearing a garment of oppression.
Everyday following the peddler’s arrival, snow had fallen on Neopousmenie and since the town had become cut off, it had just piled up, layer upon layer. Never before in living memory had there been snows like that and the people of Neopousmenie began to wonder when they would regain contact with the outside world.
But as the snows fell hemming them in, the people of that grey city did not fear. They are Russians after all and more than used to a little bad weather. Their kitchens were well-stocked and their stoves warm. The women pulled their new burqas around them and retreated into a different world, a world of colour and safety, a private space of their own. And whilst they did so, their menfolk were pleased, pleased at seeing a spot of colour and pleased at the change in their women who no longer nagged and lamented about the poverty, the freezing cold, the uncertainty of the future and the sheer hopelessness of life in godforsaken Neopousmenie. During that long, cold winter, a strange calm descended over the city and in that most mundane of cities, for once, all was good.
The first outsider to reach Neopousmenie came five months later in the form of a teenage army conscript who jumped first out of the helicopter that took advantage of the first snow-free day to land in Ploschtad Svetska and check that anyone had survived. What confronted him and his comrades was a strange site indeed: a city half-buried in snow filled with a crowd of multi-coloured ghosts who floated around the square and hardly noticed these new arrivals from the air.
A week later the army managed to get a convoy of half-tracks and tanks down the road that leads to Kamyshin, Saratov and Moskva itself. They had heard the strange reports of the helicopter pilot and soldiers, (several of whom were now seeing psychiatrists), and were understandably alarmed. Had the Uzbekis, Pakistanis, Iraqis or Saudis invaded the city perhaps? Or were their soldiers all on hallucinogenic drugs? Or was it the populace of Neopousmenie that was on the drugs, imported perhaps from Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Iraq or Saudi Arabia? That alarm however, turned to confusion when they approached one of those ghosts who informed them in a very Russian voice that her name was Natalya, that she was quite happy, that it was nice that the snow had stopped and could they please excuse her, but she was going to the market to buy some meat and bread as she had just ran out.
The following day a grave meeting was held in Kamyshin City Hall. All the military and government notables were there to discuss the Neopousmenie situation, myself included, though my remit only covered the transportation ramifications of course.
“I am sorry to say this gentlemen, but some sort of madness seems to have taken over the womenfolk of Neopousmenie,” announced General Zaitsev, conveniently ignoring my female presence in the room.
“And the men, General! I talked to the Housing Commissar and he told me that his wife and daughters were also wearing these burqas and that he was quite pleased about it!”
“I fear an infiltration of Islamic fundamentalism!”
“We must act! They shall take these burqas off!”
“But what if they don’t want to?”
“Gentlemen, we are Russians and so we must act as Russians always have done and provide a show of strength. Like in the days of the revolution in central Asia, if the women do not remove these burtas…”
“Whatever, if they do not remove these Oriental costumes voluntarily, then we shall remove them by force. The army will enter the city tomorrow with explicit instructions and this rebellion will be quashed.”
“Declare war on Neopousmenie!”
“It is for their own benefit, in this instance war means peace!”
“Gentlemen, to peace!”
And so it was that the army rolled down that road that leads to Neopousmenie from Kamyshin, Saratov and Moskva itself, with a column of tanks at its head. The citizens at first did not know what to make of it, but they soon learnt their intentions when the soldiers started to order the removal of the burqas. “These garments are a symbol of ignorance and repression!” General Zaitsev boomed into his megaphone as he stood on the turret of the first tank.
“Our ignorance is our strength!” shouted back Olga Ivana Komerovskaya.
“They are backward, they are Oriental!” continued the General.
“I am Oriental!” declared Elmira Evgenina Dzhemileva.
“These burqas are a symbol of the enslavement of women but in Russia women, like all citizens, are free!”
“Russian freedom is slavery! I prefer the burqa!” retorted Kristina Sergeivichaya Tselikova.
“You must all remove them now and place them here in the ploschtad so that they may be burnt. Any non-compliance will be seen as an act of rebellion against the state and will be punished severely!”
“Sod off back to Moskva and leave us to live how we want to!” shouted back Yulia Nikolalevna Poutilova.
Not one woman wanted to lose her burqa, but when the conscripts started ripping them off by force and doing much more than simply freeing the females beneath them, they soon realised the futility of resistance. Most simply took off their burqas and threw them onto the bonfire that now burnt fiercely in the centre of ploschtad Svetska, but a few sneaked them back to their apartments and hid them in the back of a cupboard or under a bed. Within hours the remarkable Burqa Rebellion of Neopousmenie had been crushed, the female of the city freed and life returned to its normal, mundane, monotonous, depressing self.
That was thirty years ago and today little remains of those extraordinary events of the winter of 1993. They are written in no history books or recorded on any memorials because in Russia only the victorious live forever and no one is encouraged to bring past defeats to light. It is true that a few of the women talk about that mysterious peddler and his wares amongst themselves and occasionally bring their burqas out of hiding, but this happens less and less. Kristina Sergeivichaya Tselikova’s daughters cannot understand why their mother ever wanted to wear such a horrible thing whilst
Olga Ivana Komerovskaya is ashamed that she ever did. Elmira Evgenina Dzhemileva has now moved to Dusseldorf and married a German named Uri so her Tatar heritage is even more buried than ever and indeed, only Yulia Nikolalevna Poutilova wears her experience proudly – for as she had originally intended when she walked over to that peddler’s stall three decades ago – her dining table now sports a fine, embroidered, Oriental tablecloth.
And on a final note I, Natalya Simeonovna Dorozhkina of the Transport Department am pleased to report that the Burqa rebellion of 1993 caused no damage or disruption to the transportation infrastructure and services in the city of Neopousmenie.
And the peddler was never seen again.
July 2007, Smallthorne, UK
Copyright © 2007, Matthew E. Pointon