In a Chechen city, where violence is no longer visible, and signs of the destructive post-Soviet wars are covered by recent reconstruction, a man disappears. Although witnesses have seen law enforcement agents take him, no one can say where he is. Family members receive contradictory messages about his status and gather scant information as to his whereabouts, which turns out to lead nowhere. While the family continues to search, to wait, and to go about their daily chores, their lives remain suspended by the absence.
As time passes, the truth about the fate of the disappeared becomes even more uncertain. The differences between fact and fiction, as well as between the validity of official replies from state representatives and the advice of diviners, become indistinguishable. Consolation and help come only from neighbours and relatives or chance meetings with strangers – people who themselves live with the loss of their loved ones, or who are those that have returned from where “no one returns”.
A neighbour waits for her son and sees him in dreams almost every night even though more than five years have passed since he was kidnapped by the military. She returns time and again to the prosecutor’s office – the state representatives who are supposed to be in the charge of the investigation . However, all she gets is the answer that her son is alive and will soon return. No information on his whereabouts or on the reasons for his detainment is provided. She does not have her son alive and nor does she have him dead. Her only solace is in prayer. Her relative, who helps in the search, continues to advise others who have the same fate and helps to write letters and complaints to state officials, as well as meeting those who might be responsible for the kidnapping and torture. These tasks he carries out just before his colleague is assassinated, and he barely escapes an attempt on his own life.
The gray-haired man without an ear and with a burned hand who came out of the torture prison still cannot think of life outside the cell. He goes on living by telling the tale of his ordeal. He goes back to the parts of the basement of the torture prison that are no longer in use, where the families of the disappeared rummage for any clues about the fate of their loved ones. The diviners themselves appear to have sons who are missing, and their rituals, self-healing processes, are a part of daily life. So is the play with the cloth rope that the neighbour’s adult son engages in – the son who is still dependent on his mother and sisters for most of his daily needs.
What is it like to live in a city where grand mosques lie next to torture prisons, where official statements are less valid than those heard at divination sessions, where pronouncements of death are occasions of joy, where streets are full of the ghostly presences of the dead and the missing; where the laughter of pain, a prayer, and a dream are the only solace? Barzakh, as Sufi wisdom holds, is a threshold between the living and the dead – a threshold that separates these two worlds but is neither of them. Those who find themselves there are not people of this world who can eat or drink, nor are they in the hereafter where they could be rewarded or punished for their deeds. Like an invisible barrier where two bodies of water, salty and fresh, meet but do not merge, like a line guarding shadow from sunlight, like a reflection of a human being in a mirror. A realm that people enter in dreaming, where they can perceive things that otherwise remain unknown.