Growing up in the speechlessness.
They call us ‘the diaspora.’ The word ’diasporā’ comes originally from ancient Greece and means ’to spread about.’ They say this word stands for the movement, migration, or scattering of people away from an established or ancestral homeland. But they do not take into consideration that it is not only the population which is fragmented — it is first and foremost the individual.
I do not know where I belong.
I come from a place that was ravaged. I was born in a house that was burned down. I heard lullabies in a language that was forbidden. When people ask me ‘where do you come from?’ I want to say ‘from the speechlessness.’ War absorbed my childhood, war corroded my memories. So, what is left to say if everything around you gets lost in dead embers?
I adore the letter ‘I’ because it stands there so stable, so solitary, so confident, so autonomously. In the massed ranks of sentences it overtops every other word as if it possesses all the other letters, all their meaning — always worthy of being written in capitals, no matter in which place it stands. I envy the letter ’I’, I envy that rectilinearity, its magnitude and how it seems to be a given that it never gets lost in the entwined labyrinth of words.
I have always swallowed my words. It seems that they never could hold my soul together, that they can never get to the heart of the matter. When it matters, I fall silent, because my words have fallen into ruin in my mouth.
There was no voice to raise, because there were no words that could have fixed my brokenness. Far too early I learned that one thing can be named with this or that term; that there is no natural relationship between the state of the world and the designation, that there is no law of continuity.
I cut my tongue up.
Once a friend of mine said: “Your German is remarkable. You speak it like a voice actor. Your pitch, your pauses, your precise articulation, the way you put emphasis on some words reminds me of the dubbed female voice of anime characters.”
There was a double truth in this incidental statement. I told him that I acquired this language by watching TV for hours. I sat all alone on the floral carpet and my face was only centimeters away from the screen. I observed closely the contortions of the mouths on the TV while the dissonant tones reached out to my ears.
I initially came across this language in a world of fiction. In the overlap of moving images and alternating voices I found my entrance into a new field of words. But it remained an empty field, my language never really broke out of fictionality.
A few months later, when I had entered kindergarten for the first time, I perceived the vaguely familiar tones from real mouths. I was wonderstruck. And as my mother, whose hand I held, asked me: “How do you like it here?” I replied in disbelief: “Nanë, këta njerëz po folin si ata në televizor” — “Mom, these people speak the same language as the ones on television.”
I initially came across this language in a world of fiction. In the overlap of moving images and alternating voices I found my entrance into a new field of words. But it remained an empty field, my language never really broke out of fictionality. Even today speaking means mimicry for me; a reordered re-sounding of what I have heard or read before. I brought my mode of expression to perfection. But how much essence lies in your words when shadows on a screen have taught you how to speak?
My name means ‘echo’ and as with the nymph in the myth, my voice breaks off. After a curse is put on her, Echo is only capable of replicating the last words that were addressed to her. Unable to produce her own sound, she is forever imprisoned to stay silent. It might be that she did not only leave me her name, it might be that she bequeathed me her fate.
I learned too early that I have to hush as soon as we arrive at the Serbian border. Your mother tongue could lead you to the brink of death if you spoke it in the wrong places. We hid the Albanian cassettes under the car seats and buried the books deeper into our bags. We kept quiet long before the policeman ordered us to open the window.
My father was the only one who spoke. He had learned Serbian in school like everyone else back then. I did not understand a word but I sensed an insecurity in his voice. He chose his words carefully and did not hesitate even for a blink of an eye when answering the policeman’s questions.
I listened to the harshness of my father’s tone. If he sharpened his voice, if I heard that distorted sound, I knew that something bad was going to happen. I learned too early how to listen to the silence, and it speaks in a merciless way.
I remember my mother’s trembling hands when my father urged her to give him the passports. She could not open the zipper of the red leather bag where she held all the documents. My father yelled at her and she gave him the unopened bag with her head bowed. On this borderline I faced humiliation. This line crossed out my childhood innocence.
I was sitting on the patterned mattress while looking upon all the faces I had not seen for years. I tried to read the scars on their faces, I tried to decipher which worries, which fears had the force to draw such deep lines.
I was maybe eight or nine years old when we visited my mother’s house after the war. I did not understand what had happened in all the years I stayed away. Sometimes, at home, I heard my mother cry while she waited for the telephone to ring, sometimes I saw those pictures in the news. I was certain that something had changed, but I did not know what.
That evening we sat all together and drank black tea with sugar — as we always did. I was sitting on the patterned mattress while looking upon all the faces I had not seen for years. I tried to read the scars on their faces, I tried to decipher which worries, which fears had the force to draw such deep lines, but I couldn’t.
The entire time I waited for one missing face: the face of my grandfather. Time and again I looked at the door, waiting for him to appear, but he did not enter. When I went to the toilet I crept to the other rooms in the house. ‘He probably fell asleep,’ I thought, ‘and the others just forgot to wake him up,’ but all I found was emptiness. I don’t know why I didn’t ask for him.
We said goodbye to all the relatives in the darkness and got in the car to drive back home to my father’s village. I hoped that grandfather would forgive us that we left before seeing him.
Nobody said anything. My brother stopped the car after a few minutes. He parked right in front of a memorial plaque and I remember the grey faces and engraved names that vanished in the dazzling light. My father and brother got out of the car and I saw the back of their heads and how they followed the carved letters, I saw their long shadows cast on these stony faces.
After a quarter of an hour they returned and my brother said: “He is not listed.” The only thing I heard on the way back was the car engine. Years later they searched for bone fragments but they have never been found.
When I entered my classroom on my first day at school I was surrounded by that language that steadily reminded me that I did not quite belong to this place.
The Bible says that a person with the gift of interpreting tongues could understand what a tongues-speaker was saying even though he did not know the language that was being spoken. My tongue was immovable, but God let me understood the untold.
“You also experienced war,” said my cousin, when she visited me for the first time in Germany. “You experienced it in a psychological way and this is unbearable, too. War has an ugly face, thank God that you just had to see it from the distance.”
When I entered my classroom on my first day at school I was surrounded by that language that steadily reminded me that I did not quite belong to this place. The words came out like waterfalls from these black mouths, from these abysses, and I was not able to see of how many drops they consisted of.
For at least four years I never raised my arm even though I knew the right answers. There was this desire that my dumbness could lead me to invisibility. I remember the very last sentence of my verbose school report: “You are such a smart and friendly girl, dare to say more. There is no reason to be afraid.”
My class teacher had no idea, that there were so many things to be afraid of.
My words became shadows. They chase me wherever I go, they remain with me — but they always remain anonymous. My words became my shadows, they break depending on how the light falls in. At times they are one step ahead and other times they run far behind me.K
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.