In the years before the drought, it was a joke. The river was sweet, the lake was salt. Heaven to the west, hell to the east. We were caught in the middle.
But as the drought deepened and the river died, we began to look east toward hell for our salvation. Lake Urmia is full of sodium, potassium, bromine and lithium, but it is also full of water. When the river was running and our well was full, we would never have considered drinking from the lake. Now it seemed like our best hope. We built a desalination plant with a guard shack and a tin roof, and we ran the plant on fossil fuels for as long as we could. Methane, propane, kerosene, diesel. Always the price was rising. Each day we grew poorer and poorer, thirstier and thirstier.
My sister Tamilla, visiting from Nakhchivan, suggested a solution. In the old days the Russians were mad for atomic energy. They used it to power cities and ships, submarines and lighthouses. It poisoned the land and the water and the people. But it also powered locomotives. Imagine it! Years of power. Years of water.
Tamilla sent word to her husband’s family in T’bilisi. They in turn spoke with business associates in Grozny. After months of silence the associates reported that they had found an engine powering a distillery outside Argun. They suggested that we take it by force.
Theft is of course a very great sin, but the drinking of liquor is forbidden as well. We would be stealing the mechanism of sin from the merchants of sin. A sin for a sin, may Allah forgive us.
I gathered my sons.
To Alihusein, I gave my guns. To Emin, my maps; to Elman, my jewelry; to Fuad, a potato-sized glob of Semtex left over from the last war. Each kissed his wife and children and climbed on board the northbound bus.
Without the men, Selma, Nara, Leila, Guiz and I worked like donkeys to run the plant, mind the garden, tend the animals and feed, clothe and water the children. Seventeen grandchildren! They are my wealth and my poverty; my joy and my struggle. When they tired of cabbage, we fed them potatoes. When they tired of potatoes, we fed them turnips. On Eid al-Adha we slaughtered a sheep, ate the organs and salted the meat. The weather was already very cold.
Out of the dawn we heard a whistle. The children ran through the dust, with their mothers and me trailing behind. Emin was driving, Elman was watching the instruments and Alihusein was manning a gun turret made of flimsy metal with fresh welds. Fuad was nowhere to be seen.
Fuad’s wife Guiz fell into Selma’s arms and began to wail. Alihusein climbed down off the engine and spoke to me in a low voice. Fuad had not died by the gun, the knife or the bomb, but had been struck by a car crossing the street in Argun. The police had found the Semtex and arrested the remaining three brothers. Elman, ever the cunning one, had hidden the gold and was able to negotiate a favorable outcome. The police arranged to detain the distillery’s head of security for the night. In return the brothers would empty the warehouse of vodka and deliver the gold and the spirits to the police, who would then return the Semtex and clear the rail track from Argun to the border. The fate of the distillery’s remaining guards and workers would be between the brothers and Allah, and of no interest to the police.
Emin’s wife Nara was gazing at her husband and caressing his arm where his hand used to be. After killing three guards (may Allah forgive him) he was clubbed with a bottle and struck by a shotgun blast. Elman at this time was operating a crane and could not come to Emin’s aid, and Alihusein was engaged in a firefight. Emin bled white before Alihusein arrived to apply a tourniquet, and the two of them stumbled aboard the locomotive as Elman worked the throttle and tried to force the rear wheels up and onto the rails. The engine was under heavy fire and bullets pierced its steel shell and thudded into its shielding.
At last the wheels jumped onto the track and the locomotive accelerated out of Argun, hitting and killing a young boy as it went. Alihusein lit a cigarette and stared at his own ten-year-old son Jafar. Killing the boy, he told me, was his greatest regret.
The police were waiting just outside Shali with guns drawn and an ore car parked across the tracks. Alihusein, fearing treachery, remained inside the locomotive and called out to them.
“Show us our property,” he said.
The police lieutenant held up the Semtex.
“As we have promised,” Alihusein called out, “you may take the gold and the liquor. Please return our property and remove the car from across the tracks.”
The police, intending to keep the locomotive and the Semtex as well as the gold and the liquor, opened fire.
Elman (did I not tell you he was clever) pressed a button he had been carrying in his pocket. The detonator he had concealed inside the Semtex fired, and the police and their guns were dispersed.
“The vodka,” Alihusein told us, “we traded to the border guards. So it is,” and he drew deeply on his cigarette, “that something evil is made into something good.”
But I wonder whether good and evil can so easily be exchanged. Each night as I lie sleepless on my bed I ask whether the uranium that sustains our family may not in fact be haram. Surely such a poison cannot truly be halal? And so it is that our lives fall somewhere in the middle and Allah shakes his head at his wayward children.
It is the drought that forces such compromises upon us. As engineers we remove the salt from Urmu’s water and make it sweet–surely this is blessed. But as merchants we sell the sweet water to the thirsty rather than giving of it freely–and surely this goes against mercy. But if we were to give the water without charge we would surely starve–so selling it must be darura–a dire necessity–and thus allowed. Mercy gives way to necessity. The truly blessed gives way to the merely tolerated.
Today Adila brought home a sack of hamsters. Tabrik slaughtered them and I roasted them over the engine. The children licked their fingers and gave thanks for the first meat in many days. I said nothing to them but again I worried: Is a hamster a rabbit and thus halal, or is it a rat and thus haram? Day after day I take refuge in darura: the darura of the drought.