How she got to the top - author renga

openDemocracy authors
5 March 2007

Otto was holding her chandelier as if it were a skirt. He was looking under it for loose wires. "Antiques are complicated. This won't be easy."

She could smell his fresh sweat and the cotton smell of his dark blue overalls, as he stood over her on the stool. He was a typical Scandinavian hard-working man, six feet tall, blond, quiet, looking down at her.

"Would it be too expensive to fix?"

He let the chandelier hang freely. Screwdriver in hand, he caught her gaze and smiled.

"How about an old-fashioned exchange of goods?"

More collaborative story-telling in openDemocracy:

Reader renga: "How she got to the top"

He continued looking at her and smiling as she felt her palms turn into the Dead Sea, wet, salty and hopeless: this was not the way things worked in Scandinavia, but she was dark, and had learnt that rules and "culture" didn't include her. Quick, think, think, quick.

Multiple alternative escape routes suggested themselves to her, as always. Would he rape her on the spot? Did he think that "foreign women" sold their bodies, even if they owned antique lamps? Was he simply trying to show her her place?

Her hands went slowly to rest on her waist. She forced a smile and asked:


"That's goods you're talking about? Not services?"

For fuck's sake, woman, no need to spell out to him the idea of servicing her. He probably mistook that quavering whisper for a come-on, though it was caused by that old dread clutching the top of her throat. Better lose the smile.

The tobacco on his breath suddenly turned her stomach. If only she hadn't left her damn mobile in her briefcase. A rapid jab with her elbow was all it would take, and Otto would fall. But Granny's chandelier might come down as well, and such a move would anger him, and then he would hurt her.

The crystals kept clinking in the awkward silence, and mini-rainbows mottled the bare brown skin exposed by her low-cut trousers. Otto dropped his gaze, and her eyes darted back to the screwdriver. Fierce as she was, this muscle-bound Scandinavian could overpower her with ease. To spare herself some injury at least, she swallowed her revulsion and made ready to submit. Just get it over with.


She woke up with a jerk. Sweating, she realised once again that he was everywhere, in her absurd nightmares, under her skin. She screamed out loud, frustrated, angry and scared. The nightmare had been so vividly real. He had been there again. Zina wanted nothing else but to bury him, bury him under six feet of hard concrete. Bury him away from her breath, her conscious, her unconscious. Her bed felt too soft, she was sinking, being swallowed by him and all that he had left her with, the memories, the injury.

She had decided over and over again she would not let him conquer her completely. In her staggering fierceness she had made a pact with herself, when it happened, that she would fight for herself, for her dignity, for her right to be.

She tossed the bed sheets aside, in a violent movement, as if tossing the nightmares, and him, away. Making her way, in the dark, to the kitchen, she could hear the street, the crazy street life, from just outside. She would always love these city streets.


As she ran cold water from the tap, she remembered the city streets she used to love. In the middle of the day she would go with her sisters to the market, buying spices for the pilaf her mother would cook next day. "Uzbek or Azeri pilaf?" Murat, the dealer would ask, because the spices were different for both as she later learned. When you live only in one place, you can only imagine what a difference means. So, already as a child, she had a vivid imagination. She had the feeling all her sisters had their own, when they were singing in the evenings in their Buhara summer house, or dancing on a wedding in the neighbourhood. Men and women had their meals and danced separately so it was not very often that she could talk or touch or smell a man.

Men were in films and in songs in abundance. On the market it was the only place where it was real – she could ask Murat for spices, gaze him openly in the eyes for seconds and even touch his hand.

Why was she remembering all this now? The streets out of the window were different one, she was different. Why did these Buhara streets with Murat's spices suddenly come to her?

Just for a second, she felt desperate.


She reached out for the oval-shaped blue-white glass hanging at the window. It was a gift from her littlest sister 'to ward off the evil eye'. She held on tight to the time when simple faith and innocent curiosity prevailed, the place where aspiration and desire were nurtured. Deep down, she knew she drew her strength from that.

She pictured her father beaming around the assembled company as she presented her high school diploma. The arguments they had over supper about her future: whether he understood it or not, he never had a doubt about what she could achieve. Those sweet teenage dreams of erotic love, the magic touch that would reveal her to herself. As a temporal substitute, political discussions in late-night basement bars behind the market. She had, in fact, always wanted to be different. Later, the adoring doe-eyed glances of the second cousin brought in as a potential fiancé to redeem her. He wasn't half bad. But was that all life had to offer?

To be honest, what had she expected after she left? The whole family told her it was going to be tough out there on her own.

Fortunately, the phone rang. It was her best friend on the line.


"Zina," Isabel whispered through the line. "Zina. Otto's dead."
"What? What are you talking about?"
"Someone killed him, Zina."
Zina felt her body freeze, then go blank. Did he die in the nightmare? She seemed to peel apart and watched from above as she held the phone. Dead? Then she watched as her arm reached out, grabbed the glass amulet, and pulled. It shattered on the floor.
"I ran into Murat on the street. He said the body was found in the river last week by fishermen. There's rumour that this was political. He was poisoned. Polonium they think."
"Poisoned?" He'd had food poisoning. Polonius foolishly hides behind a curtain and dies. Did she mean that?
"Did Otto ever tell you his background?"
"I knew where he grew up." That first day he'd asked for her spice box, wryly calling it a good exchange of goods. Slyly, he said he liked spice. She should have told him spices are dangerous.
"Did he say what he did when he left the country?"
"What are you talking about?"
"It seems he led a double life."
It was a mystery, she'd thought - the furtive smell, the shielded gaze, the sadistic distance in his touch. A challenge. Now she was freefalling. She pulled the veils of status and secular reasoning around her like a shroud. She had come from the streets of Buhara to this life; she would stay in control.


Zina looked up at the chandelier and saw, in her mind's eye, Otto again, standing over her on the stool. Sweating slightly, he gave off an unfamiliar smell. There were many unfamiliar aspects about him. His skin, under his overalls, was so white. But she had got used to it, just like she had slowly got used to the unfamiliar ways in this strange land. Seemingly a simple workman, you could see through him like a piece of glass. Poisoned? Murdered? And political?

As Zina eyed the amulet on the floor - rather, the many broken pieces of glass - she started to shiver as if running a malarial fever. What did it mean to her, his death? Stay in control, she urged herself.

Zina had a sudden desire for some pilaf. She still got spices from Buhara. While boiling the rice - not quite the right type for a good pilaf - she started to chop onion into small pieces. Otto was dead? How come? Why didn't Murat tell her? The onion's pungent smell brought tears to her eyes. She wiped her eyes with her sleeve but more tears came.

The doorbell rang. She rushed to the door. There in front of her stood Murat, vacant-eyed as if he had lost his soul.


"Selam alekum Zina", he said exhaling heavily like he was letting out his last breath.

She ushered him in, too surprised to say anything, slightly embarrassed by her teary eyes.

"Tea," she said to cut the silence and create a sense of routine.

"Only if you are making some for yourself?" he said quietly, gazing emptily into the photo of the Kalyan minaret on her kitchen wall.

Why is Murat here? Her mind was racing. No...it can't be...he wouldn't...he couldn't...

"How is your mother?" This time Murat broke the silence, before it became too heavy.

They drank tea, exchanging pleasantries about the weather, relatives and acquaintances, between long silences - not unpleasant, rather necessary - to take a breath and exhale the sadness for places and people far away, and times that would never be again.

Zina was painfully aware how she was slipping into her old self, the one that no longer existed in this city and life obsessed with speed. The good old self that was now awakened in between long sighs, sips of tea and in...Murat.

Why did she remember him today? Where did that craving come from? And why did he show up at her door today?

Questions were torturing her when, in his soft way, Murat said: "Zina, I came to tell you something..."


She put up her hand. "Murat, I already know. Isabel called me. She told me about Otto. And I think ...I think I understand why you did it."

He started to speak but she shook her head. "Murat, I know." She stood up and stared out the window. "He always used to say how those years in Buhara and Tehran were so precious to him. But whenever I asked him what he did there - and why he still sometimes went to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, even Iraq - he was always so evasive. How could an electrician afford all that travel?"

Murat's voice was cold with anger, "He was no electrician -"

She turned and looked sadly at her old friend. "I know that. I saw his house. A rich man's house. Full of antiques. So many beautiful things, of stone, of wood. A chandelier almost identical to my grandmother's."

"He was not in the market just for old chandeliers, Zina. Antiquities. He was a scavenger! A looter. The last holy Koran he sold went for one hundred thousand pounds. It was probably two hundred years old. From Iraq."

"But Murat. Murat! Do you know who bought it?"


Murat went quiet and looked at the floor. He was not in a hurry to tell Zina who had bought the Koran. "Otto used to look for antiquities from everywhere and sell them off to the highest bidder."

Zina was shocked that Murat knew so much. "You know a lot about Otto's work?"

Murat sipped his tea. "In fact, most of the antiques in his shop were stolen. Remember when war broke out in Iraq and all the antiquities in the museum were raided, Otto got hold of some of them and sold on the black market." In a distracted angry stutter, Murat spat, "He got what was due to him ... he deserved to die for what he did to you!"

Zina was bewildered and confused at the same time. Her mind spiralled, wondering what he knew and how he had found out. But her thoughts came to a sudden halt with a knock at the door. She was surprised to see Isabel come in, waving a document in her hand.


"This landed on my desk, my sources at the....Murat!" Isabel stumbled.

"Murat? What are you...? Zina, I don't think it's..." Breathing deeply Isabel steadied herself. Zina prayed her friend would be calm enough to ensure she didn't betray anything - and catching this thought, shook her head ruefully, wondering when she had become a politician even around her friends. Murat was a still a friend. Just.

"I came to tell her the truth. You, or those leaches surrounding her since this charade began, have never given her that."

"Zina, I need to speak with you, alone. Excuse us Murat." Taking her elbow Isabel ushered Zina into the Kitchen. "Otto was involved in..."

"I know, Murat just told me." Zina grimaced, wondering if she would ever be rid of him.

"He had help, Zina, close to home. This proves it." Isabel pushed the paper at Zina. "We have to be careful, but if we play this right...your campaign..."

Knocking first, Murat stuck his head through the door. "Zina, I am going to go. I do need to talk to you though, please. Khudahafiz."

Mumbling her goodbyes to Murat, Zina stared at Isabel with bewilderment. Was her friend really suggesting what she thought she was?


Murat and Isabel - both vital to her existence, both capable of tearing her apart. Murat folded her childhood, the smell of the spice bazaar, her flight from Buhara, all in the wrinkle of his smile. Isabel was as close as she had come to the warmth of family in cold, dark Copenhagen. Murat wanted her to retain her roots. Isabel opened a world where she could forget who she was. Here, Zina was feted by intellectuals, activists and journalists: ‘a unique confluence of Cleopatra, Simone de Beauvoir and Indira Gandhi'. Her body - no longer fleeing from herself - presided over evenings filled with the buzz of quiet, controlled voices and clinking wine glasses.

Murat relished the buzz. His word was important because of her. People would circle to hear his stories of how he helped Zina escape marriage to her second cousin, their secret meetings in the bazaar, his plan to escape and her pleas to let her accompany him.

Isabel was "more hers and less his", he often said ruefully. A language teacher assigned to new arrivals, she was also an underground political activist. Now fired with ambitions of making her mission public, she needed a fresh face people would readily take to: Zina became the turf over which Isabel and Murat struggled for influence.

But with Otto's death, everything would change.


"There's no time to lose," Isabel said, jogging her out of her reveries. "With polonium poisoning involved, this is going to be very big." She looked her in the eye. "I've got a friend in television I want you to talk to. It's time to go public, Zina."

But by going public about Otto, would she not expose Murat? Murat: Otto's murderer. With a shudder, Zina remembered all those times her hands had touched Murat's in the spice bazaar of Buhara....

"Zina," Isabel said. "You have to act fast."

Zina made an effort not to bridle. "I'd just like to think over things alone for a while, Isabel."

"Well, don't take too long."

After Isabel left, a new calm came over Zina. Mulling over multiple alternate escape routes, she swept the broken glass of the shattered amulet from the floor. The rice pilaf was done by now. She ate slowly, savouring the familiar spices. And she thought: Isabel was right. There was no time to lose. There was never any time to lose in this city....

She would bury Otto, finally.

As for Murat....

As for Isabel....

Nowadays, when Zina thinks back to that day, she feels only satisfaction.


In the solitude of her chamber at the Christianborg Palace, taking a break from working on a proposal against racial profiling for presentation to the security committee, she recalls that decision-making day vividly. She laughs at the wisdom of her father who had once told her to watch out for the turning points. "That's where you get lost, Zina," he had said, flagging the keys of his old light blue Simca as if he were talking about something more serious than the road to Samarkand where her mother was awaiting her. Exhilarated with the freedom of driving for the first time, Zina had ignored her father's words until now, more than five years after having taken the most important U-turn of her life.

"This is what he meant," she thinks, looking over the narrow canals. Her fourth year at the Folketing, and she still hasn't got used to the beauty of those sky mirrors. Those years have allowed Zina to understand that she had not so much buried Otto's ghost as tamed it. But that was not really the most important thing that had happened that night. While Isabel was waiting for her answer, Zina had made a promise to herself.


While she was composing her lines to say before the gathering television crews, a deep voice on the TV in her office announced a ‘breaking news' story - "murder of antique smuggler solved...confession video sent to TV stations...man surrenders at the police station... agrees to a signed judicial confession". She woke up from her reverie to witness Murat's confession being played on the television screen. Murat against the blue wall of his sitting room was speaking to the camera, "I, Murat Zinati, killed Otto Madsen last week following a disagreement over the sale of antique Koran...motive...quarrel over profit sharing..." It was surreal. Murat in his first ever television performance, a bit hesitant, eyes downcast, barely looking up, but clearly owning the murder. Not a word about rape, not a whisper about revenge. Zina had been placed out of this televised frame.

She knew very well what Murat was doing. In time-honoured tradition, he was avenging Zina's dishonour in the only way he knew, that is, killing the man who trespassed Zina's body. Men settling feuds in open duels. Old fashioned. Honourable. Male ritual. It was all very familiar. She could hear the revolting sounds in her stomach, ready to spit out her disgust. Murat was trying to control her in this last desperate attempt. He wasn't telling anyone, but she knew it. This is what he wanted her to know when he came here this morning, that he was sacrificing his life for her honour, that he would protect her always in his silence. It was time to break this very controlling silence. She had to write her own narrative, not of a victim but of a resilient survivor. She had to cross her boundaries of shame. Isabel was opposed to her plan, "public image would be marred", she said. But Isabel's plans had stopped being of consequence to her long ago.

Zina calmly stepped out before the television crews. She read her prepared script that spoke of her association with Otto, her discovery of his illegal antique trade, her gruesome rape, and his attempts at blackmail. It was all out in the open. She owed him nothing anymore. Her shame was her own at last.

Author names: Umayya Abu-Hanna, Zrinka Bralo, Karen Connelly, Patricia Daniel, Sarah Gharbi, Diana Ivanova, Ravinder Kaur, Juanita Leon, Jan McGirk, Ann Murphy, Bano Murtuja, Kemi Ogunsanya, Manjushri Thapa, Lijia Zhang

Want to know more? Read the inside story on our collaborative storytelling experiment from openDemocracy's Sarah Lindon


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