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Authors: Camilla Gibb

Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Fiction - General, #London (England), #Women, #British, #Political, #Hārer (Ethiopia)

Sweetness in the Belly (19 page)

BOOK: Sweetness in the Belly
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W
e’ve dressed up so the children can feel just as proud of us as we do of them. Yusuf is wearing a silk tie he bought from a car boot sale and the new navy blue pea coat Amina picked up for him for twenty-nine pounds because the lining was slightly torn. His hair glistens with Afro Sheen.

The three of us file into the school gymnasium, and Amina throws our coats down on the seat beside me. “Reserved,” she says confidently. She scans the audience, then waves both her arms wildly. “Up here, up here!” She lifts the coats and buries Yusuf. Robin slides into the seat beside me.

“I was afraid I’d be late,” he whispers as the lights dim. He’s still wearing his scrubs, though he’s changed his shoes. I can’t believe Amina invited him without telling me, without asking me. I pinch her elbow. She pulls her arm away and smiles coyly, raising her finger to her lips.

A young woman stands onstage, her bottle-blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. The microphone squeals and she recoils, wincing. She taps the microphone once she’s recovered and welcomes us all in her thick Kiwi accent to Kennington Road Primary’s annual pageant.

As soon as the children fill the stage, Amina is shaking her hands above her head. Sitta smiles and waves back from the stage while Ahmed stares down at his bare feet. They’re dressed up as Maoris, wearing paper outfits painted red, black and white. It’s both endearing and absurd. Their blond teacher plucks a ukulele, and the children make waves with their hands.

Robin puts his hand on my knee and keeps it there. I feel the heat of his palm tempting its way up my leg until an hour of performances later when the audience erupts with applause and everyone stands up and his hand falls away.

Sitta and Ahmed jump up and down in front of their parents.

“Was I good, Mama?” Ahmed asks, his arms around her waist.

“You were the best,” she says, kissing the top of his head.

“What about me?” Sitta cries, squirming out from her father’s embrace.

“I could hear your voice singing like an angel above all the others!”

This exchange is echoed throughout the room in twenty-four different languages. It’s an audience full of saris and hijabs and kente cloth, a United Nations of proud mothers. The men are few and far between—at evening classes, on assembly lines, driving taxis, frying fish or behind bars in faraway prisons.

The conversation spills out onto the street. But here the noise of the crowd subsides, and the voice of one man dominates. A beefy Englishman with a shaved head is poking a small Nigerian man in the shoulder.

When the Nigerian man steps backward, several other men rush forward. Punches and accusations start to fly, and Amina and I pull the children back.

“Come on, kids.” We tug as they stare.

But Yusuf remains standing there. Immobile at the edge of a fight in which all men in the vicinity are now engaged with their fists.

“Yusuf!” Amina calls, but he is fixated on the spectacle of falling bodies, unable to move or speak.

Robin takes him by the elbow. Yusuf allows himself to be led away.

I
thank Robin for escorting Yusuf back and say goodnight.

“Look, I’ve seen the building now, if that’s what you were worried about,” he says, no doubt fishing for an invitation up for a cup of tea.

I’ve tried to picture him inside—walking down the concrete corridor, entering my flat, sitting down on the sofa and sipping tea, putting his cup down on the floor, reaching to take my hand, pulling me close, kissing my mouth—and it all works for about a second but then I open my eyes. It’s the wrong man. At the wrong moment. In the wrong place.

This building is for men like Yusuf, easing their way back into the world, and men like Aziz, whose absences haunt the halls, and the women who love them. It’s the only place we can define as our own, where we can give up the language, the reserve, the protocol, the niceties that England requires. Where we are protected.

“But how can I get to know you if you won’t even let me see where you live?” Robin asks, and quickly apologizes, reaching out and gently squeezing the back of my neck. “I just want to get to know you better,” he says.

It sounds so simple. To want. To want what is before you in the here and now.

“I really like you.”

But you know so little about me, I think, overwhelmed by his directness. He must look at me and imagine something whole.

“I like you too, Robin,” I manage to say.

I do and it feels absolutely terrible.

Y
usuf retreats inward again. I’m not sure he is a man who would use his fists; rather, it’s the loss of his voice that seems to have broken him. And he has a beautiful voice: lilting and mellifluous. I have no doubt he was a poet in the world of agricultural economics. He was renowned as a teacher, Amina tells me, and while the primary language of instruction at the college was English, Yusuf joined the campaign to codify Oromiffa in the early 1970s, giving a script to an oral language with more than thirty million speakers. He even produced a couple of pamphlets about pesticides in Oromiffa, but with its liberal definition of propaganda, the Dergue condemned these as incendiary tracts designed to rouse counterrevolutionary sentiment among those who tilled the land.

It became clear fairly early on that the relations of power in Ethiopia had not fundamentally changed with the revolution. The Dergue is dominated by Amharas, just as Haile Selassie’s empire was. Adopting their language and culture remains the only way to get ahead.

I wonder if Yusuf will teach his children to write in Oromiffa one day, but right now he can’t even tell them bedtime stories. Amina is losing patience. She tells me that the other day a car backfired in the street below and Yusuf hurled himself on the floor and tried to crawl under the sofa. The children had laughed.

Amina has boundless empathy for everyone but her husband, it seems. How is it that disappointment arrives as soon as what you have desired for so long steps over the threshold? It’s like finding the end of your wedding train dragging behind in the mud.

Y
usuf is watching children’s television with the curtains drawn. He holds a cold cup of tea in his hands. I should get to work, but I take the cup from his hands and place it on the kitchen counter. I wash my hands and cover my hair, take the Qur’an from the shelf, kneel down on the floor and begin the story of the child Moses—Musa, as we know him—raised in exile among the pharaohs.

The message I mean to impart, of the many messages the story of Musa offers, is that God sometimes puts us in alien and difficult situations, and in time, the adversity of our situation may be revealed to be a blessing in disguise. It occurs to me I should remind myself of this more often.

Yusuf takes the book from my hands, about to continue from where I left off.

“The children are good with the Qur’an, aren’t they?” he says bittersweetly.

I nod. “They are.”

“I’m grateful to you, Lilly. It is as if you are doing my job in my absence.”

part six

harar, ethiopia

MARCH-JULY 1974

a crack in the holy armor

T
here was comfort in the order and predictability of our world. Ours was a city of ninety-nine mosques and more than three hundred saints, their shrines organized along seven concentric circles. There were five gates punctuating the city wall and five raised clay platforms in Harari houses, just as our days revolved around five daily prayers and our lives were governed by the five pillars of faith.

The certainty of our world was reinforced at the beginning of every new day as we woke with the call to prayer. Every day, that is, but one. One strange Wednesday in March of 1974, Sheikh Jami Abdullah Rahman, feared and revered community leader and spiritual guide, descendant and disciple of the city’s patron saint, mentor of generations of men pursuing the mystical path, all-powerful patriarch and husband of Fatima, Zehtahoun and Gishta, father of twenty-two children and grandfather of nearly fifty, did not wake up for the first time in sixty-seven years.

The sheikh was attuned to waking to a particular chorus, the certain density of a hundred voices less one, but that morning one less muezzin made the call to prayer. Sheikh Jami did not rise, and as a consequence, no one else in the household did either.

Gishta told us she awoke to a silence so eerie she wondered if Judgment Day was upon us. She put her ear to her door, listening for the sound of the sheikh sliding the thick bolt across the adjoining wooden doors that separated him and his sons from the women and their daughters in their houses on the other side of the courtyard.

Gishta listened for the sound of her husband relieving himself in an empty bucket behind the woodshed, the familiar ting of his urine pelting metal. She braced herself for the blistering screech of the sheikh shifting the heavy lid that covered the oil drum before he scooped out water for his ablutions. She waited for the sounds of her husband snorting and spitting as he washed, but there was nothing that morning, only silence.

None of the wives opened their doors, for it was customary for them to do so only after Sheikh Jami and his apprentices, Hussein and Idris, had finished. But by the time the women finally heard the sheikh, it was too late for them to make the trek to the farmlands. The waxy qat leaves would have already lost their early-morning tenderness. To pick them that late in the morning would have been to waste them, to leave them wilting in their hands while brokers and customers made snide remarks and handed their money to others.

The Oromo farmers who awaited the sheikh’s wives every morning eventually realized the women weren’t coming, for rumour had it that they decided to chew the equivalent of a day’s haul between them, getting so high that they forgot to weed and water instead, and spent the day engaged in their second-favorite pastime: discussing their fantasies of peasant revolt. The brokers who usually distributed the sheikh’s wives’ qat to the sellers stomped their feet and threatened never to do business with these three women again. The girls who sold for these brokers suffered the brunt of this, being harassed by the increasingly wild-eyed and squirrelly addicts who had been waiting for their qat all morning.

Because the women did not go to market that morning, they didn’t buy any meat or vegetables for dinner. They watered down the remains of the stew from the day before, and the children complained they were still hungry. The women, who were never restrained about meting out physical punishment, gave more than one child a few rough slaps to stop their whining.

But not everyone could be silenced with a slap. There was nothing to leave out for the hyenas that night. The hyenas were used to being fed well in the lane in front of the shrine. Feeding the hyenas was incumbent upon each of us. This was an unspoken and highly ritualized agreement. The hyenas paced back and forth all night, refusing to disappear. No one in the compound enjoyed the relief of the retreat of their anguished cries as the sun rose the next morning. Gishta said she could hear them circling, their breathing thick with anger.

She and her co-wives were afraid to leave the compound. Their fears were confirmed by the discovery that the Somali girl who brought them fresh camel’s milk early each day had been mauled to death and devoured in the lane.

Gishta’s failure to turn up at our compound was one of several clues that something was not right. Three of my students did not show up for class for a second day in a row. Anwar came back empty handed from the market where we’d sent him to buy some milk from the Somali women. And then that Thursday night, en route to the shrine, we didn’t hear drumbeats. Some people stayed home, sensing it was a bad omen; others, Nouria and I among them, carried on, only to find the door to the compound locked. We heard rumors that the shrine had been closed all day—the first time this had happened in living memory. We turned back and headed for home.

When Gishta finally turned up at our compound on Friday, she told us of the mother who had brought her sickly newborn to be blessed the day before. The woman had interpreted the locked door as a sign that the child was possessed by the jinn and had taken him to a spiritual healer to be exorcised. There were stories of pilgrims who had walked thirty-six miles from the countryside and had had no choice but to walk, unblessed, the thirty-six miles back home. There was a rumor that a young man had come seeking a blessing because he had lost an eye in an accident. He went home believing he was destined to be blind and poked out his other eye with a stick. Every visitor that day had been forced to question whether they had offended the saint, whether they had fallen out of God’s favor.

Rumors spread from Sheikh Jami’s compound to neighboring compounds, from muezzin to muezzin, from the peasants who worked Uncle Jami’s land to the peasants on neighboring lands, from the qat sellers who normally sold qat brought by Sheikh Jami’s wives to all the other sellers in the Faras Magala, from the pilgrims who returned unsatisfied from Bilal al Habash’s shrine to their families and neighbors, and in a town where there were only two degrees of separation between the most beautiful girl and the ugliest man, the current of whispers had washed over the entire city in a mere three days.

When Gishta finally came to see us, our suspicions were confirmed. Somehow, over the course of those few days in March of 1974, in a city that had survived for centuries, enduring war, famine, pestilence, foreign invasion, destruction of an emirate and incorporation into a Christian empire, everything had begun to unravel.

It was as if the guardian spell had finally been broken; there was a crack in the holy armor that protected us.

BOOK: Sweetness in the Belly
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