In the cloister of Saint-Victor in Paris, inscribed upon a deathstone from 1130:
What we were, you are. What we are, you will become…
Last night at nine exactly I put away my things from dinner, plates and a bowl, my cup, and found the dark blue fountain pen that was given to me from the hands of my uncle Fedeh who I never met. I sat down to write him a letter, which I have done every year on his birthday, January 28th. I have all of them, more than twenty now, here in the bottom drawer of my desk, each one in its own envelope and each envelope unopened.
My immediate family, mother, father and younger sister, were all born in the Ukraine. But Fedeh, who was twelve years older than my father, was born in Afghanistan and was left behind there (we’ll send for you) with an uncle of his own when my grandmother and grandfather began the travels that saw them, after the second world war, as good as trapped in the Soviet Union. They never did send for him.
In 1980, and more than 50 years old, he fought with the mujahideen against the Soviet troops and was one of 90,000 comrades (yes, and I can see the irony of that word, but they were comrades together, these strugglers who defended their land so fiercely) who were to die before Moscow managed to disentangle itself from the folly and atrocity that it had made. And then, after some time, and by way of a strange route, for it was no easy thing to send a mujahid’s few personal effects via the mails from Zaranj on the Iranian border to a small village outside Uzhhorod in the Carpathian mountains next to what is now Slovakia, I received his pen.
What is a little strange is that when I use this pen, and I only use it once in the year for it is too precious to me to risk it being lost or stolen, I feel as though I am Fedeh himself, writing to himself with his own pen. I know I am not, but now that I am the same sort of age that he was when he died, I increasingly feel myself reassuring him that he is remembered and all that we do he does also.
I use turquoise ink which I clean out once the letter’s completed, to make sure that it doesn’t get clogged or leak during the year it sits in my old pencil tin. As we know turquoise is a pale blue-variation, but still it’s translucence on the paper, the way one can somehow see through it, makes me think of the capillaries and veins you can see under the skin of very old thin people.
It does not comfort me to think how many of those 90,000 might have, by now, died anyway, from old age, disease, accidents, other incidents, at the hands of the Taliban perhaps who were already coming but no-one knew. How many proud warriors would have been rounded up for having a wife not dressed modestly enough or for a lack of sufficient beard?
Fedeh would be seventy-something if he’d have made it. When all the walls fell, that first one and then the others, when the bloc broke up like an old berg cracked by the icebreaking ships of history into its constituent pieces (mostly), I wrote to Fedeh and said: “Come to our home now. Come ride the ferry to Sevastopol, come climb Hoverta!” And I believe that he did and has. I believe in my blind unread heart that if I write these things to him that he is at least in the limbo of the dead who are dreamed alive and, after all, that may be more living than many here yet choose to do.
Of course, finally, as an offering, some communion or Kaddish beyond denomination, I write each year to mark him, and all of those who were caught by history and used by it, consumed by the times. And to remember too, that until today at least, we are here remaining and with breath in our lungs, food on our tables, love in our possession, and when it feels that life is futile, we still have hope. Hope for change. Hope for love. Hope as much for those to come as those we loved who have already now so soon gone sad before us.