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Authors: Camilla Gibb

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

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part one

london, england

1981-1985

scar tissue

O
n a wet night in Thatcher’s Britain, a miracle was delivered onto the pockmarked pavement behind a decrepit building once known as Lambeth Hospital. Four women standing flanked by battered rubbish bins looked up to a close English sky and thanked Allah for this sign of his generosity. Two women ululated, one little boy, shy and tired, buried his face in his mother’s neck, and one baby stamped with a continent-shaped mole tried out her lungs. Her wail was mighty and unselfconscious, and with it, she announced that we had all arrived in England. None of us had hitherto had the confidence to be so brazen.

I was one of those four women. I trained in this godforsaken building, a gothic nightmare of a place, a former workhouse where the poor were imprisoned and divided—men from women, aged and infirm from able bodied, able-bodied good from able-bodied bad—each forced to break a daily quota of stone in order to earn their keep. Adjacent is the old infirmary, which once had its own Register of Lunatics, among them a woman named Hannah Chaplin, diagnosed with acute psychosis resulting from syphilis while in residence there with her seven-year-old son Charlie, some eighty years ago.

I don’t share this history, though I’ve moved within its walls. In the places I have lived, the aged and the infirm and the psychotic are not separated from the rest of us. They are part of us. I don’t share this history, but as a child, I did see a Charlie Chaplin film in a cinema in Tangier through the smoke of a hundred cigarettes. I sat cross-legged between my parents on a wooden bench, a carpet of peanut shells at our feet, the audience roaring with laughter, united by the shared language of bodies without words.

Amazing that humor could ever be born of this place. The building now stands condemned, slated for demolition, and I work at South Western, a hospital largely catering to the poor from the beleaguered housing estates in the surrounding areas: the mentally ill, the drug addicted, the unemployed white, the Asian and Afro-Caribbean immigrants and the refugees and asylum seekers, the latest wave of which has been rolling in from torn parts of East Africa, principally Eritrea and Sudan.

Many of these claimants avoid the hospital, overwhelmed or intimidated as they are by the agents and agencies of the state—the customs officers, police, civil servants, lawyers, social workers and doctors—with their unreadable expressions and their unreadable forms. I know this because they are my neighbors. I encounter them in the elevator, in the laundrette, in the dimly lit concrete corridors of high-rises on the Cotton Gardens Estate. I’ve lived in a one-bedroom council flat on the fourteenth floor of one of these buildings since the autumn of 1974—compensation for the circumstances of my arrival.

My white face and white uniform give me the appearance of authority in this new world, though my experiences, as my neighbors quickly come to discover, are rooted in the old. I’m a white Muslim woman raised in Africa, now employed by the National Health Service. I exist somewhere between what they know and what they fear, somewhere between the past and the future, which is not quite the present. I can translate the forms for them before kneeling down and putting my forehead to the same ground. Linoleum, concrete, industrial carpet. Five times a day, wherever we might be, however much we might doubt ourselves and the world around us.

I was not always a Muslim, but once I was led into the absorption of prayer and the mysteries of the Qur’an, something troubled in me became still.

I was the daughter of two solitary renegades who’d met at Trinity College Dublin in the 1950s, freaks pulled by the magnet of shared disenchantment into an inseparable embrace. Alice and Philip, so convinced they had enough love, intelligence and language between them to make their way around the world that they took a leave of absence from university and obligation that would last the rest of their lives, setting off on foot, with me nothing more than an egg in my mother’s belly.

Nomads, my father called us, though there was no seasonal pattern to our migration. I was born in Yugoslavia, breast-fed in Ukraine, weaned in Corsica, freed from diapers in Sicily and walking by the time we got to the Algarve. Just when I was comfortable speaking French, we’d be off to Spain. Just when I had a new best friend, the world was full of strangers again. Until Africa, life was a series of aborted conversations, attachments severed in the very same moment they began.

There was a familiar pattern to the leaving speech. “You put roots down and they’ll start growing. Do you know what I mean?” my father would say, poking me in the ribs.

“But why is that so bad?” I remember asking as we lurched and bobbed our way toward Yet Another Unfathomable Destination.

“It just makes the passage between places too painful. It’s all about the journey. You don’t want to spoil the journey by missing what you’ve left and worrying about where you’re going” was his standard reply.

For them, the journey ended in Africa, while for me it had only just begun. After several months in Tangier, where I’d played in the streets of the medina while they lay about naked and high in the unbearable heat of our room in a crumbling hotel, we made our way south, to the Sufi shrine of Bilal al Habash on the Moroccan edge of the Sahara. Their friends in Tangier had suggested it: the saint was known as one who could bless pregnant women and their unborn children. My mother had suffered a miscarriage the year before, and she was willing to try anything this time, whatever lotions or potions or blessings might guarantee she carry this next baby to full term.

The saint’s disciple, the Great Abdal, received us with some initial reservation, but softened once he’d placed his hand on my mother’s stomach. It was too late: the baby lay still. She turned away, she turned inward, and I’ve always felt she blamed me somehow, as if I had robbed her of the capacity to bear more children. Some weeks later my parents told me they had business they needed to finish up in Tangier and they asked the Great Abdal if he would mind looking after me for the weekend. It would only be for three days.

I was not unused to being minded by relative strangers, and the Great Abdal seemed keen to use their absence as an opportunity to introduce me to the Qur’an. I’d already expressed some curiosity about his big green and gold book and the woolen-cloaked Sufis who mumbled and swayed in the courtyard surrounding the shrine. I had always envied children who went to school and so I welcomed the Great Abdal’s lessons. My father had bought me a notebook in Tangier, and I’d already filled several pages with Arabic words I had learned in the streets of the medina. I began a fresh page for words from the Qur’an.

Three days became three weeks, my anxiety eased somewhat by the repetition of new words, before the arrival of a friend of my parents’ from Tangier. Muhammed Bruce Mahmoud was a large English convert with a white beard and algae-green eyes who had lived in North Africa for decades. We’d spent many nights in his company in overlit sidewalk cafés and dimly lit bars.

He did not mince his words as one might with an eight-year-old, though he did feel responsible as the messenger. My parents had been killed in an alleyway in the city. He did not say how or why. He and the Great Abdal conferred and decided it would be best that I remain at the shrine rather than return to the city. I had no home to be sent back to—no relatives that I knew of, no England that I knew. The Great Abdal would be my teacher, my guide, my father in senses both spiritual and mundane. Muhammed Bruce would be my guardian, visiting me regularly and paying for my keep. And I would be absent and haunted for a long time while together they worked hard to fill the hollow and replace the horror with love and Islam. And so for me, the two have always been one.

Faith has accompanied me over time and geography and upheaval. From Morocco, to Ethiopia, to England. A faith that now binds me to my Muslim neighbors in this country my parents referred to—despite calling it a dark and oppressive place where the sun never shone and the English (Dad’s people) hated the Irish (Mum’s people)—as home.

In this country they called home, I became a nurse and began, fairly early on in my career, to bring my work back to the estate, to administer tetanus shots, treat head lice, sew stitches, mete out pain-killers and counsel wives on the sofa in my sitting room in my off-hours. I hold my neighbors’ children, listen to their stories, reflect in their silence and, in the most serious cases, insist on the hospital, accompany them there: men with fractures and hernias, women hemorrhaging from botched abortions, even one poor boy who’d lost the tip of his penis while his parents argued about whether or not he should be circumcised.

In all honesty, I’m not licensed to do half the things I do, but there is a need, both theirs and mine. Treating my neighbors restores my humanity after laundered and sterilized days of rounds spent injecting person after pain-riddled person with morphine, days when “nursing” feels more like a euphemism for euthanasia.

I’m certainly not licensed to deliver babies, but by the time I ran through the rain down the dark February streets after the two Eritrean women from my building who came to fetch me on that auspicious night in 1981, Amina’s baby was well on its way.

They pointed at the Ethiopian woman squatting under the partial shelter of an eaves trough. It was too late to move her. I turned her chin toward the light. Her face was contorted with pain: a blood vessel in her eye had burst, her bottom lip, quivering with prayer, held the imprint of her teeth, and sweat ran down her cheeks and plunged into the tunnel between her breasts. For all the strain, though, she made no more noise than the rain tapping gently against the eaves trough over our heads. A young wide-eyed boy stood at the woman’s side, hand burrowed deep in his mother’s hair.

One of the Eritrean women took off the veil she was wearing, wiped the woman’s twisted brow with a corner and then suspended it like an umbrella over this unlikely cluster squatting on the pavement. The other Eritrean moved to massage the woman’s stomach but I held her back by the hand.

“She needs no help,” I whispered.

And she didn’t. I held my hands under the woman’s voluminous skirt while she bit down on a scarf to stifle a cry. She arched her back with a blue surge of pain and out swam a puddle of black-haired girl.

“Alhamdullilah!” the two Eritrean women exclaimed.

Seven pounds, I guessed, as I lifted the girl up before her mother’s face. Ten fingers and ten toes and one large, irregular mole on her cheek.

I cut the umbilical cord with the razor blade I’d packed along with a towel and a bottle of rubbing alcohol. I’d feared I might have to use that blade for something else. If the woman had been infibulated, the baby might have been in distress, might have even suffocated by the time we’d moved her into an operating theater. In that case, I would have had to cut through her scar tissue to open up the birth canal, at the risk of injuring the baby, at the risk of the woman hemorrhaging or going into shock. But we were lucky; it was just a minor circumcision: clitoris and labia minora.

Amina took the baby in her arms and touched the girl’s cheek in wonder. “Masha’Allah,” she wept, her tears now following in the tracks of her sweat. “Africa!” she exclaimed, outlining the mole with her finger.

The mole did indeed have the shape of a continent. We agreed to call it a miracle, even though, truth be told, it had a tail that made it look slightly more like South America. But that is the thing about miracles: it is perception that determines them as such, not facts.

alive and kicking

S
itta spent the first few weeks of her life in my bedroom. It is customary for mother and baby to rest for ulma—the period of seclusion after birth—baby feasting on milk, mother feasting on honey, both concealed out of range of heat and flies and the evil eye. We do not have heat or many flies here, but still, Amina sits ulma because the evil eye is everywhere. Even in England.

We draped sheets from the ceiling to enclose my bed, the bed in which mother and baby would lie for forty days. The Eritrean women had honored Amina’s request and buried the placenta at the base of a tree in the nearest park. I wonder how many placentas are buried in Kennington Park, how many drunken neo-Nazis fall asleep under those trees and whether they dream life-altering dreams when they do.

We lined the walls of my sitting room with pillows to accommodate the neighboring women who came to visit Amina and her baby. For weeks, the flat was flooded with the smells of ripe bananas and garlic and incense smoldering on aluminium foil held over the flame of the gas ring in my kitchen. The rooms buzzed with spontaneous song, regular prayer and the constant chatter of women taking on the role of Amina’s family and friends. There weren’t many other Ethiopians in London yet—almost none living here on the estate, anyway—but with the help of the Eritrean and Sudanese women, and other Muslim friends like Mrs. Jahangir from down the hall, we managed to make it feel like a real ulma.

Amina had left a refugee camp in Kenya for a hostel room in Brixton so crowded the women had to sleep in shifts. Her husband, as far as she knew, was imprisoned somewhere in southern Ethiopia. I offered her a bridge, but her presence in my flat, her body and soul kneeling and praying beside me, gave me a way back to the life that I’d left behind. For the first time in years, I felt part of something. For the first time in years, I felt happy.

I’d had seven hard years here before Amina’s arrival, years during which I could not even risk sending a letter. Whomever I might address could be indicted, if not specifically for their connection with me, then more generally for their association with the West. I carry the guilt of the specific and the mixed burden of the general. I ask questions in the hope of relief. Every time I introduce myself to a new neighbor or a patient I presume to be Ethiopian, I watch their faces soften, distrust yielding to uncertainty as they listen to the white woman with the Semitic tongue and peculiar accent reveal pieces of an Ethiopian history. I invite them to drink coffee, caffeinate before asking: Did you know a doctor there, by any chance? In the refugee camp? Dr. Aziz Abdulnasser from Harar?

On the eighth day of ulma, as I held Amina’s baby while she dressed in the mismatched patterns of clothes donated by neighboring women for the occasion, I could not help but wonder. Not a word for seven years, not a single sign, yet I’d managed to keep the fantasy of our future together alive. But the reality of this wide-eyed caramel-colored wonder was arresting.
This
was the future, alive and kicking in my arms.

The day before the naming celebration, our Bangladeshi neighbor, Mr. Jahangir, went in search of goat meat. Tradition demands a trek to a shrine on the eighth day of ulma. In return, one is supposed to offer a goat. There we were, as we are with most things, forced to improvise. Mr. Jahangir wheeled his wife’s carryall to the Brixton Market and argued with the Jamaican women who refused to reveal their source. Then, so he reported, they demanded “a bloody greedy fortune” for the scraps they usually wrap into their take-out rotis.

“But I am no fool!” Mr. Jahangir said, standing on the threshold of my flat, shaking his head, hands gripping the handle of the tartan carryall.

I waited for the end, where the good Bangladeshi man always wins. It’s the way of all stories told by immigrant men: encounters end in victory because in the bigger scheme of things they feel (and justifiably so) powerless.

“Back and forth, back and forth, I’m playing with them,” Mr. J said, drawing circles in the air with his hand, “and just when they think they have beaten me, I pull out what is called the trump card!” he shouted, his whole body an exclamation mark as he stood on his toes and paused for effect.

“What was that, Mr. Jahangir?” I asked.

He shrank then, adopting a demure posture. “Well, I said: ‘Oh, dear ladies, perhaps I have misrepresented myself. This meat is not for my own personal consumption; no, it is for my dear Ethiopian friends, beautiful people who love the great Emperor Haile Selassie.’

“ ‘Jah Rastafari!’ the women shouted as if their lord had just entered the room. ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of Jah—take, take this meat to your friends, brother.’

“You see? From a bloody greedy fortune to take, take. It pays to know your history. Lucky thing I am an educated man!”

The next morning, Mrs. Jahangir helped me with the stew. We stood side by side, frying garlic and onions in ghee, and debated spices.

“But it’s a wat, Mrs. J, not a curry,” I insisted, replacing the mustard seeds in her hand with those of fenugreek. “Not better, or worse, just different.
Please
.”

“Yeah, yeah, okay,” she finally gave in, waving a tea towel at me, “I’ll make your smelly wat not.”

I kissed her on the cheek.

I heard the pop of the mustard seeds as soon as I turned my back.

Amina sat on the bed behind the curtain, thanking each woman who filed into the room for coming. She engaged politely, remarked on her good fortune, exchanged pleasantries in Arabic and English, the languages of religion and exile shared among the women. But despite the smile, she was remote. I wondered how she must have been feeling: apart from her son, Ahmed, she had known none of us for more than eight days.

When everyone had arrived and crowded into my tiny bedroom, I asked Amina what she was going to name her baby. She turned to her son, who, although only four years old, was (so the Eritrean women teased him and only half jokingly) now the man of the family.

“Obboleetii,” he whispered shyly.

“Sister?” I asked, not sure if I’d heard correctly.

“Sitta?” he repeated, intonation and all, posing his first English word as a question. The women erupted with laughter and applause, and Ahmed buried his face in his mother’s lap.

A
fter the naming day, Amina’s formality began to ease. When I returned home from work each day, I’d make us tea and sit down on the end of the bed while Amina breast-fed Sitta and Ahmed stared intently, eyes like wide-open windows, taking it all in—the sunshine, the inclement weather, the birds—as we talked.

Her English was good; she used to teach it, she told me, to Red Cross workers in Ethiopia. She spoke matter-of-factly about the circumstances that had forced her to flee. Her husband had been linked to the Oromo Liberation Front, an underground movement the dictatorship deemed counterrevolutionary. All the Oromo at the agricultural college where he taught had been placed under house arrest. One by one they were taken in for interrogation; one by one they had disappeared.

“There are only two feelings left in Ethiopia now: fear and paranoia,” Amina said, speaking of the horrors that had befallen the country since Haile Selassie had been deposed in 1974. The papers had reported the emperor dead of prostate cancer the following year, though no one believes he actually died of natural causes. There were rumors that he was suffocated with an ether-soaked pillow during an otherwise successful operation. We don’t expect we’ll ever know the truth.

Amina offered me a firsthand account of the violence I’d only gleaned since Mengistu had come to power. “People dragged from houses and gunned down in the streets in front of their families. Or they lined them up in city squares—yes, even in Harar—and in less time than you can say a prayer, the ground is covered with red.” Qey Shibir, they call it, without subtlety or apology—the Red Terror.

And those who were merely sent to prison? I’d seen reports by Amnesty and Human Rights Watch: nearly one in fifteen Ethiopians was in prison by then, and prisons were notorious as houses of torture where men were hanged by their testicles and women were raped and sodomized with red-hot rods in order to elicit “confessions.”

I don’t look at his photograph anymore. I can’t bear to think of what might have happened.

O
n the fortieth day, we made a thick sorghum porridge and carried Sitta outside, where we showered her with rose petals under a brooding English sky. It was the end of ulma, and in two weeks’ time, Amina would have a two-bedroom flat of her own in the building. Ethiopians had suddenly jumped to the head of the housing queue. It was the beginning of the decade of the Ethiopian refugee.

The night before she moved, I rummaged through the drawers in my kitchen, trying to match an old set of cutlery for her. Amina sat at the kitchen table and poured us each a cup of tea. She spoke to my back, asking why I had been so kind to her these past few weeks.

I am drawn to Amina because of what we share. Not only is she from Harar but we are the same age—twenty-seven we were then, fifty-four years of life between us stretched across an African canvas, one lip of which is permanently stapled to the wall of the Ethiopian city that once circumscribed our lives, the other lip flapping loosely over the motley tapestry that is London. One side is permanently hinged, even if only in our imaginations.

I slowly pulled out the other chair and sat down across from her. I picked up the cup of tea in both hands, put my elbows on the table and sighed. “Because you remind me of people … people I love,” I finally said. “And none of them are here.”

She leaned forward and wiped a tear from my cheek with her thumb. Then she, who had not cried since the day her daughter was born, pulled an arsenal of toilet paper from between her breasts and handed it to me.

“Maybe they will come,” she said with a gentle smile.

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