In my Senior year, I did many things, but by far, the greatest and most exhausting project I threw myself into has been working on a definition of hope. My deconstructivist friends would protest that definitions cheat and bruise. In most instances, I would agree. But hope to me sometimes feels so abstract that, no joke, the little frown on my forehead breaks a sweat in an attempt to dissociate hope from ignorance, hope from privilege, from romance, from the next big narrative the big corps are marketing, and from indifference so deep that it affords optimism. I came to hope (pun intended) that jolting a definition would build a cage for that abstract fluttering force that keeps slipping out of my palms.
This is what I have so far.
Hope is about finding a way to reconcile with the present by embracing that the present is temporary and malleable. Hope is also about refusing to swallow the words the meta-narrators put in my mouth on what the future is. Hope is about reclaiming creativity and imagination. Hope is also about reclaiming joy. Hope inherently stems from love, whatever your source of love is. Hope is the ultimate act of resistance and kindness.
There are many things to dislike about Abu Dhabi, but when I first got here, I was most bothered by the noise. Somehow, the dust that saturates the local air found its way into the sound. Somehow, standing in the middle of Hamdan Street at 3 am, nė gyvos dvasios aplink (not a soul around), not a person, not a lonely cab, not a lost cat, there was still no stillness. The city takes deep breaths in through its concrete lungs and buzzes as it exhales. I felt restless.
When the city is such a violent socio-political construction, at the least, I hoped it would not be loud. I expected it to lower its face in contemplation and give toiling people some room to breathe. True, I wanted Abu Dhabi not to be loud the same way I erred not to be loud about myself.
I have lived in this Neringa’s-dunes-colored skin my entire life with a quiet aloofness. One connecting flight, one suitcase haphazardly packed with well-worn clothes, two poetry collections in my mother tongue, as if I feared of forgetting that we write too, a promise I will call, and I became acutely aware of the politics my body bore.
Although I could not afford the spaces silently demarcated as light, although no one really knew what or where that Lithuania place is, although the flashy cars on the streets put my parents’ life-long labor to shame — a gesture for guilt to make an appearance that would never quite leave, and although I was light, my centuries-old occupier was too, I metamorphosed into a whisper floating on Abu Dhabi’s sandy breeze.
I fretted that my body would alter the spaces that felt safe.
Still, I embarked on trips to the cradle of the city. I ordered dal tadka in cafeterias, which I could not believe tasted ex-act-ly like my favorite kindergarten soup. I indulged in freshly baked zaatar manakeesh. I plopped on the sidewalks with barefoot workers for a paper-cup of karak. I wandered through the plant souq, date souq, and vegetable souq, reenacting the trips to turgus accompanying Motule to get fresh meat for her stews, earth-textured duona for our breakfast, select seeds for her brilliant garden, in which bull’s heart tomatoes and fist-size berries grew. After the dark sneaked into the city, I rode a bus to sit in parks that were tightly squeezed in protest between the shooting skyscrapers as if saying: you see, we are also here. In Abu Dhabi, love was always a membrane away.
The build-up was slow, but recognition pierced me suddenly on one of my outings. Curled on a bench absorbing the pensive light of the street lamp, past the iron sights of Abu Dhabi tired of the ever-lasting becoming, past the electrical growls, I heard it. No, no. Abu Dhabi was not loud about itself. The people were.
One second that was nothing like the prior, I knew Abu Dhabi was wreathed in echoes of sutartinės (Traditional Lithuanian multipart songs). My chest flared up in laughter, kindled part by disbelief and part by the load that finally slipped off my shoulders.
Listening long and hard, I now could discern the matured voices of people who came here from across the Middle East in the ‘60s to mold a country from a sketchbook leading the verse. They were fortunate to have their welcome extended, but the line is thin between hospitality and neglect, so they sing.
Their words then echo in a bubbling plethora of languages birthed farther East through the invisible lips of people summoned here next. Their shadows have stayed behind in the backstreets of the city to contemplate the fruits of their hard-won labor long after the physical bodies have left. Upon request.
Saturated with longing and willpower, the voices make love in dusty Abu Dhabi corners — a compelling generational saga.
In my fourth year of listening, I picked up a sound I thought to be a distraction. If you continue to play with the city’s soundscape, one by one unfolding the layers, you can notice that Abu Dhabi’s sutartinė bursts with archaic refrains hummed in the tongues of my people. Their meanings can only be presumed, for we have not yet dared to speak.
The linden had, lioj sudijoj
Nine branches, lioj sudijoj
All the nine, lioj sudijoj
The tempest tore apart, lioj sudijoj
Leave just one, lioj sudijoj
To lay floor in my villa, lioj sudijoj
Sudijoj sudijoj sudijola tatoj
The old mother had, lioj sudijoj
Nine daughters, lioj sudijoj
All of the nine, lioj sudijoj
Matchmakers sent away, lioj sudijoj
Leave just one, lioj sudijoj
To scrub dirts of my floor, lioj sudijoj
Sudijoj sudijoj sudijola tatoj
And so I listen now to the hums, whispers, and chants of Abu Dhabi at night with great curiosity. Sharp intervals of dissonance create harmony — harmony that is considered a paradox in musical theory. With its full gravity, it sinks to me why sutartinės are inscribed into an intangible heritage of humanity.
I think of Senelis.
Part I: Lost
When Russia invaded Ukraine, Lithuania went still.
I cannot account for it - I was not there. I just know that my phone was quiet. My family was offline.
Later, I will find out that my parents scouted family belongings collecting anything and everything to load into the first aid trucks that crossed the border that same evening. Whatever had too much sentimental value to be discarded in all those years —post-Soviet people have their own special way of hoarding things — all of a sudden bore no sentiment at all. That evening, people brought more stuff to send to Ukraine than the arranged trucks could fit. Whoever planned for it clearly did not do assigned readings from the Lithuanian Literature curriculum.
Ever since, in my kin, on birthdays, anniversaries, and Christmas, in each other’s name, we send sleeping bags, men’s shoes, woolen socks, and transfer money we know can buy food, medicine, guns. Hard to top freedom as a gift — we have reached an unspoken consensus. We donate without an occasion, too. Last year, Lithuanians crowd-funded a bayraktar for Ukraine. We were all really proud. Maybe glad even. Undisturbed it will kill. War does these funny things to you.
In the next few days, my parents patiently checked family documents. Most families I knew now had an escape plan. My parents arranged for the kids of our family friends. They would be sent to Denmark, where my sister is, to the UK, where my cousin is, to Germany, where some relatives of someone’s relatives are, and to me, wherever that is. The thought of mothering someone at the age of 22 felt, well, absurd. Once that was settled, those with a spare room in their flats cleared up space for people who would soon change the soundscape of our cities. For the first time, I regretted protesting learning Russian. It was not any of our languages, of course. Still, it would help.
But back then, I didn’t know any of this was happening, I only sensed it.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, I lived in Washington, D.C. By sheer coincidence, three of my Lithuanian friends planned to visit me that weekend. Two based in New York, and another one in Philly. We had tickets for a music show for that Friday, where Eastern European DJs lined up to play their sets.
Of course, we never went.
For two days, we mostly sat in silence, occasionally sharing whatever news we stumbled upon on our feeds. Telegram was now the social media platform — Ukrainian channels shared updates here quicker than they would drop in the news. Any attempt at catching up inevitably broke down, as one of us mid-sentence would give up on this role-play. Having them around, albeit in quiet, was deeply comforting.
When my friends left. That was when it started to sink in. I started to wear that look on my face, which carried centuries of disappointment with a man in power.
My soul was a lonely mountain peak in a city of political fog. Unsure where to find peace, for a week, I skipped classes and joined Ukrainians in front of the President’s House. The crowd wasn’t extravagant. Someone brought a hand-made doll of half-naked Vlad joyriding on a pony. I knew exactly the picture that it was based on. The PR campaigns of Vlad showcasing his undeniable masculinity are a real amusement. Sarcasm and irony are other genes we, post-Soviet people, share. In a silly way, the doll exerted so much power.
Photo Courtesy of the author
After a few days of hanging out in Lafayette Square, without any effort, I learned the Ukrainian anthem and cried, finally. I just knew that Russia overlooked the kinds of people who made dolls of Vlad on a pony and sang Ukrainian without trying.
The following summer, I spent working in Madrid. My parents found comfort in knowing I would not return home, although Ukrainians were the ones bleeding in this war. My mom was speaking about becoming a guerilla fighter.
War did not exist in Madrid. Then I came back to Abu Dhabi. Here, talking about the war was outright taboo. Depending on whom you converse with, it could be dangerous too. The big bear won, I thought.
I think of Senelis.
Part II: Lost and Found
My earliest tool of processing life was offered to me by my grandad, who narrated to me tales about the grandpa bear, the grandma bear, the little granddaughter bear, and all her cousins.
“Seneli,” I would smile to him as he came back from work, his rusty scent curling into the corners of their apartment with three windows, each facing a different side of the block, a fortune of Seneli’s job in the Railways, Motule always reminded, and his amicable spirits that appealed even to Moscow. “Mažyle,” he would beam back at me, hanging his sea-foam-coloured overcoat, a relict that is still resting in that same spot shielded from the passage of time in two layers of plastic. Senelis would not hug me.
I would wait patiently until he was ready to sit down. His perfectly ironed oversized slacks, now traded for an older but just-as-well-ironed pair, cheap coffee steaming in a mug, Senelis would entertain me. “Spėk, Mažyle, who I met at work today.” I have never seen eyebrows longer than his. “Who?” I would marvel partly at his white eyebrows and partly at the beauty of these moments. “The grandpa bear.”
Senelis would go on to tell me how the grandpa bear spoke to him about how much he missed his anukėlė. He took his tales up to the clouds and down the bottoms of the oceans. His lips close to my tangled hair, Senelis whispered the grandpa bear was just so proud of the bear his anukėlė was growing into. It did not matter that she wasn’t anybody yet. She was kind — that was all that counted.
Rooted in half-truths, Senelis’ tales brought life forward when it stood still, with people living it dog-tired and so close to giving up. I still carry tales within me when I move, narrating them on the canvas of new cities and finding my way back home.
Senelis would chain-smoke cigarettes, Marlboro Red. April through October, he would sit on the little porch of their garden house with a thinker’s expression, gazing into the road far ahead, cigarette fading in his hand. He would loan me a gentle smile as I sat by to watch him and then return to his thoughts. Senelis finished his Marlboro pack in three days in the good times, on a day when things would get harder. Despite the wholesome presence that he was in my life, archiving empty cigarette boxes was the only mirror I had into his dūšelė (soul, in diminutive, word originating from Žemaitija region’s dialect).
Later, I was looking for Senelis in my romantic partners. As if the presence of familiarity was a guarantee of kindness. But most of them were not kind. I did not quite blame them, for it is hard to be kind to someone who is always teetering on the brink of going. I think by departing, I reminded them of their own loneliness.
I know from the ripped stories my mom brings up in moments of hurt that Senelis also had not always been kind. Late nights, having spent the day entertaining Moscow with Motule’s homemade food, with samanė, and jokes told in fluent Russian - all in the hope of a budget increase to the Railways of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic - Senelis would roar. Not in the way grandpa bear might roar, but as the red Soviet propaganda bear would.
Senelis never talked to me about the fifteen years he spent in deportation.
Back then, I was too young to really wonder; besides, I was certain when the right time came, he would come along. “Anukėle, did you ever wonder who the grandpa bear was before he became a grandpa?” Except it never happened. Later, I learned that my mom barely knew those stories too. It took me eleven years to stitch together some kind of an image. It helped me see why Senelis was a lonesome oak patiently aging and nourishing us through his roots. His trunk was ripe with pruning cuts, open wounds, and decaying matter, and wild animals had sucked on his sap for years without restraint.
But Senelis would laugh, wholeheartedly.
His big white teeth, cushioned by swollen pink gums are what stuck with me, even if the sounds of my memories have rusted. Through jokes, he weaved everyone around him into an invisible love net — he could build connections between two strangers in a room in an instant.
In all honesty, I do not remember a single joke he made.
Lovingly, Senelis would laugh at my seriousness. Somehow, laughing never seemed appropriate to me. My mom said I was born frowning. “Seneli, nejuokauk,” - I always replied to his jokes with deep skepticism. His smile would stretch even wider: “Mažyle…”
Sometimes I think I was the old one and he was the little one. The skepticism I carried as a child could only be matched by the ghost grannies. They grew old in a Soviet-occupied country and were too tired to get to know free Lithuania. And so they set out to spend their days staring at the parking lot through worn-out windows of their Khrushchiovka blocks. Thirty-three years later, they have outlived death, and I still see their silhouettes resting by the windows whenever I visit Motule. They are a dreadful public security institution.
When I try to make sense of it, I think that perhaps my skepticism is ancestral.
While my mama and tėtis,
pro-pro-pro-proseneliai - all lived occupation, I was born free.
A hundred twenty-six people who made me could only laugh at its face, having no other option, but to build their lives from jeans smuggled in through Poland’s borders, then from smuggled toilet bowls, because no one could afford denim jeans, from greenhouses ripe with bull’s heart tomatoes, from work at the railways, reclaiming the moment when an animal wagon brought you 5000 kilometers away from your childhood, from Napaleoni cakes — best in town, I hear, from fresh cow milk and warm eggs, from books hidden under the planks of the floor. And so, perhaps, I carry within me all the skepticism they could never afford to let in — I am the baby who was born to frown back at life.
I no longer try to trace the contents of Seneli’s jokes. I think he was incessantly laughing at the irony of it all.
And although I am still struggling with having a sense of humor, I like to think that, incrementally, I am getting better at it.
I have learned to laugh each time someone in Abu Dhabi presumes me to be Russian. “Vy russkiy?” “Net, ne ponimayu,” I giggle, responding immaculately. They think I am making fun of them. I usually am.
“You have such beautiful hair, are you Russian?” I laugh back at the lovely Ethiopian woman behind the counter and return her a gentle smile. “I am not, dear. But I do hope you still think my hair is beautiful.”
I laugh so hard, rotating my hips and mimicking Brittney in Al Yousef Centre. “This is in Tagalog”- the woman at the thrift store takes my hand and leads me to the middle of her 5-square-meter store, gesturing to me that it is now our stage.
I laugh making faces at little kids in Corniche, or Capitol park late at night, in utmost wonder how the kids possibly find it funny.
Laughing, I feel stronger than the war.
Photo courtesy of the author
Gustė Gurčinaitė is a contributing writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.