(Éditions de l’Observatoire, 224 pages, 2019)
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Alice Zoubaieva is a Russian teacher at a high school in The Hague, Netherlands. Her real name is actually Alissa, a name she is hiding along with her origins for fear of xenophobia, as she is from Chechnya. As she gets ready to teach, a bomb explodes in her school, killing twenty-four people. The authorities institute a manhunt, suspecting one of Alice’s students, a Chechen boy named Kirem, to be the terrorist. They arrest his older brother Oumar, as well as their cousin Makhmoud. Feeling helpless and afraid, Alice offers to help with the investigation by translating Oumar and Makhmoud’s conversations.
Through Alice’s translations, the police learn that Makhmoud and Kirem were radicalized by Islamic extremists. Oumar, conversely, integrated into Dutch society when he emigrated to the Netherlands and strayed from Islam’s principles. Just as Alice did, he changed his name, and became Adam, his gay alter ego. We learn of their violent upbringing in the midst of the war in Chechnya. In his new country, Oumar/Adam lives with Hector, his boyfriend. Taissa (Kirem and Oumar’s mother), Kirem, and Makhmoud follow after a few years. When his family arrives, Adam strips away from what his life has become and returns to being Oumar—at least during the day. The night before the attack, he meets Alex, a young man he supposedly went on a lunch date with when the bomb goes off at the school.
As the investigation progresses, Alex confides in the police. He was indeed with Oumar that day, but Oumar arrived late, leading Alex to believe that he was used as an alibi. In the light of this discovery, the police leak the story to the press and reveal Oumar’s secret to the world. Oumar remembers when he first found out about homosexuality on television and explains how indecent it is in the Islamic and Chechan culture. There are not even words in Chechnya for it: they use “gay” from English or “golouboï” from Russian (“sky-blue”). As his secret explodes, Oumar understands that he is safer in prison than out fearing for his life, and pleads guilty to being the terrorist.
Sky-Blue Men is a gripping and captivating novel with an unexpected plotline, filled with endearing characters full of humanity. They give a deep and full spectrum of opinions to express the lucidity of the oppressed. This powerful novel explores many important and current themes: immigration, assimilation and integration, specifically the difficult balance between maintaining one’s identity while adopting a new culture; terrorism and radicalization, where the person to blame is difficult to find; and gay rights and the fact that homosexuality is still punishable by death in many countries.
Anaïs Llobet is a journalist. In Moscow for five years for Agence France Press (AFP), she covered Russian news and particularly Chechen, where she denounced persecutions of gay people by local institutions. She also wrote Les Mains lâchées (Plon, 2016).