Thursday, April 5, 2012

In Pursuit of a Visa II

Eskender, a grizzled older man I estimate to be in his late 60’s, owns an apartment building--of sorts—more of an overgrown house--in Kamenka, one of the five compact Crimean Tatar settlements on the fringes of Simferopol. I had heard of Kamenka but had never been there, as it is on the opposite side of the city from Ak Mechet and a long bus ride from the center. It took us a while to get out there and then it was some time before we actually found Eskender’s apartment building. We wandered around the unpaved courtyard looking for him, trying not to bother a woman who was washing her clothes at an outdoor spigot (no water in the apartments?) and finally gave him a call. He pulled up in a beat up old Soviet car and escorted us down to his “office,” which turned out to be a dirt floored room underneath the building that you had to access through something that looked like a coal chute. We sat down at a makeshift table, and I looked around, trying to make sense of the place. Someone, at least some of the time, seemed to live there. Whether or not that is Eskender, I don’t know. There was a cot covered with old blankets, a hot plate, the little table we gathered around, several rickety chairs, and stacks of papers, books, boxes, foodstuffs, cups, and all kinds of other odds and ends everywhere.

Eskender and Nadjie proceeded to totally converse in Crimean Tatar so I was left out of the conversation even more than I usually am. But this wasn’t deliberate, I’m sure. As I learned more about his life, my guess is that Eskender always communicates in Crimean Tatar if that is a possibility. Yes, Nadjie translated, he would serve as my landlord and had the proper documents. I didn’t realize exactly what he was agreeing to, because, as it turned out, his being my “landlord” meant that he had to make at least four trips to the government offices with us and had to deal with the not-too-friendly workers in these offices—more on that aspect of my adventure later.

A couple of days after our visit to Eskender’s office, he showed up at the library with the documents we needed, and he also brought the book he wrote about his life to show me. It was not a polished looking, publisher- generated book, but rather a collection of many papers which were clearly not typed on a computer, loosely bound into an oversized folder. He wanted me to read the two introductions that someone had translated into English. They were obviously the work of an internet translation program because, as usual, the translation was very awkward and sometimes made no sense at all. But it was possible to extract the basic facts of his life, and what a story he had to tell.

I didn’t have enough time to really absorb all of his story, but the gist was that he was part of what is called the “National Movement” among Crimean Tatars—the movement while they were in Uzbekistan to return to Crimea. Petitions were circulated, letters written, trips taken to Moscow to meet with officials from the Soviet government, and nonviolent protests that resulted in movement leaders, including Eskender, spending years in prison. He lost both his son and daughter—his daughter murdered at age 19 by some thug he knew in prison. He came to Crimea in 1967, over twenty years earlier than when Crimean Tatars were officially allowed to return, and was deported several times.

That is as much information as I could gleam from the introductions and what he told me, but it made me want to know more of his story. And perhaps I will have that opportunity, because he very much wants to have his book translated into English, and I offered to help him. I have since been back out to his place in Kamenka to return documents he had given us, and I offered once again, but I know it might take a long time for him to trust me enough to work with me. But I will be going out there once a month to give him the 100 UAH tax the government requires for my “apartment,” so perhaps we will get to know one another and slowly we can start making his dream a reality. For me, I would love to have a project such as this—I think it would help me with my language and also further my understanding of the history of the Crimean Tatar people. And I just think his story, among many other Crimean Tatar stories, needs to be told. If I can help do that, it will be time well spent.

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