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Authors: Camilla Gibb

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

Sweetness in the Belly (8 page)

BOOK: Sweetness in the Belly
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the education of girls

N
ouria had started to listen, even allow herself the odd smile. As Fathi and Anwar progressed further through the holy book, their fluency evident in greater speed and precision, their mother unconsciously slowed down. Her strokes,
swoosh swoosh
against the side of the metal tub, became an accompaniment of brush and brown water.

As she softened, I found myself warming to her. It was hard not to: she was not inherently dour; she just had a very difficult life raising four children on her own. When she asked me if I would begin teaching the girls as well, though, I hesitated. Bortucan had recovered fairly quickly after her stay in hospital, though she had still to begin speaking. But then, elements of this education are wordless. Bortucan could hear the rhythm; it was obvious from the way she sometimes swayed from side to side when the boys and I recited. So lessons with the girls began, Bortucan in my lap, the two of us swaying together, Rahile repeating each line after me, swelling with the pride of someone who, though new to water, instinctively floats.

There was something remarkable about Rahile. She had a self-confidence there was no earthly reason for her to possess. She exerted a subtle influence on the family that in any other environment might have been construed as manipulation. She’d had her absuma exactly when she wanted it, and I’d seen her weasel a new dress out of Gishta with flattery and a reasoned argument—she had aspirations, this girl, even at five years old.

It was Rahile who took my hand one Thursday night and insisted I come with them to the shrine.

“But I can’t, Rahile,” I objected. She grabbed my wrist with both hands, dug her heels into the ground and tugged. “The sheikh doesn’t like me very much,” I said, not knowing how else to explain it to her.

“Rahu! Leave Lilly alone,” Nouria chastised.

But Rahile wouldn’t take no for an answer. “If you love God, you will come,” she said.

People moved through the streets: small groups merging, individuals being swallowed up by the dark cloud that rolled through the market and down the steep road on the other side where drumbeats, thumping with the rhythm of a human heart, became audible, and the pace quickened, and one mass of humanity squeezed itself through the green arch into the compound surrounding the shrine.

I was well covered for this outing, but still, people commented. I heard the whispers: “The farenji, the farenji.”

“How can they see me when it’s so dark?” I asked Nouria.

“It’s your skin,” she said. “White shines.”

I wondered if I should turn around, for surely the sheikh would notice me, but fortunately he had not yet made his entrance. Hundreds of people were already crammed into the courtyard and still more were streaming in. And there was Hussein, standing where the sheikh would soon stand, his apprentice, his proxy, keeping his place warm. I resisted the urge to wave and hung my head instead. I left Nouria and wound my way to the far back of the crowd, past the murmurs about the farenji in their midst.

The drummers announced the sheikh’s impending arrival with a dramatic crescendo, followed by abrupt silence as they muffled the resonating skins with their chests. With the sheikh’s entrance, I sank, my spine compacting, my guts crushed. Now nobody commented on my presence; they had much more important business to attend to. They clapped and offered the refrain after the sheikh bellowed the chorus, and they passed qat my way. I accepted politely, plucking a few leaves and grinding them between my teeth, sticking the masticated green into my cheek. I was doing my best, but it was an acquired taste. Even the best qat leaves were bitter and had to be chewed for hours.

I scanned the crowd for Dr. Aziz, though knowing how unlikely it was that I might find him there. I suspected he who preferred intellectual to spiritual reasoning wasn’t much one for saints and their shrines.

I’d seen him twice since Bortucan had left the hospital. The first time, all he needed was one quick look beneath her bandages to declare her healing well. The second time, I held a candle for him in the dark room while he removed her stitches. Nouria hovered in the doorway, wringing her hands. She didn’t have the courage to challenge the doctor, but she’d confided her disappointment to me. “The hole is too big,” she’d complained. “She has a hole like a sharmuta.”

“Dr. Aziz said it would be better, less chance of infection—”

“Lilly!” Nouria had said gruffly. “Who knows best? A mother, that is who.”

In his presence, though, she said nothing.

“I want you to continue to wash this whole area with water and soap every day and then apply this cream,” the doctor said. “It’s not enough just to pray. And I want you only to use this cream, okay? No more butter, no more of that herbalist’s oil, just this, and not too much.”

He stood up, but he was too tall for the room. He crouched through the doorway and into the courtyard. He must have known he’d just insulted us both, dismissing the things in which we believed, particularly prayer, but I couldn’t help admiring his certainty, how it even seemed manifest in the fullness of his height as he stood there in the sun, his white shirt so bright against the mud of our surroundings, against the velvet darkness of his face.

I caught myself staring and blushed. It felt like a swarm of bees had just been let loose in my stomach. Perhaps he could hear them buzzing, because he looked at me, and for no reason at all, he smiled. For all his self-assurance it was such a humble smile, with a hint of sadness around the edges: it was a smile to cup in one’s hands. He was looking at me, looking for something, though I couldn’t imagine what it was he was after.

“I have to thank you,” he finally said, breaking this strange spell that had had us staring at each other.

“Thank me? For what?” I asked.

“I’ve been thinking about something you said at the hospital. About how we as doctors can diagnose an underlying illness. You were right; it’s not unlike this search for batin that you explained. But you know, we don’t really have that luxury. Not here. We don’t have the resources to test all that we might, or to analyze the results. You saw how it was—we barely have a blood supply—so all we end up doing is treating the symptoms, never the cause. We forget we can do anything more.”

“That’s a shame,” I said.

“That might be, but it’s the reality. Still, I am grateful to be reminded of the possibility of something deeper, even if we are too poor to do anything about it.”

His presence lingered far longer than his visit had lasted, like the smell of incense in a closed room, the residue crystallizing on the ceiling. It lingered in me as I wondered about the distance between all his conviction and his faintly troubled smile. I fed every piece of injera I dipped into the stew that night into Bortucan’s willing mouth, thinking about his provocative statements. I couldn’t bring myself to eat a single bite.

“She is much better,” Nouria observed as Bortucan reached for the piece of injera in my hand. “But that farenji medicine has no power. She is better because God wills it, not because the doctor wills it.” The previous morning the faith healer had come and written a verse for Bortucan on a slate. He’d washed the slate and collected the chalky water in a cup, which Nouria had put to Bortucan’s lips throughout the day. By evening, her appetite had returned.

I
scanned the hundreds of faces that night at the shrine, but none of them were his. I could imagine him saying of what we did there: it is culture, local culture, which people attribute to Islam. Orthodox imams were known to say such things, dismissing our traditions as rooted in superstition, but if you look deeply for the inner meanings in the book, you will find God’s friends, the saints, hidden there.

Whenever I tried to meditate beyond the page these days, though, an image of Dr. Aziz came to mind. Of his brown eyes made clear in sunlight. Of the uncertain corner of his mouth. Then the bees would awaken, rush into my throat and dance on the tip of my tongue, depositing pollen between my teeth, making it difficult to recite anything at all. Nothing in my life up to that point—not grief, not illness, not dislocation—had ever interrupted my religious practice. But then no one had ever challenged it.

affliction

I
now taught Fathi and Anwar just after breakfast and Rahile and Bortucan just before lunch. Between these two sets of lessons I tended the stew over the slow fire and helped Nouria with some of the larger pieces of clothing, twisting one end while she held the other, squeezing out all the water we could before heaving it over the washing line to drip, drip and eventually dry.

Except during the rainy season. For two months it was cold and the clothes would not dry, but the qat was so soft and plentiful and cheap that people complained less than they might have and simply chewed a great deal more. For two months we did not see the sun, and qat lifted the malaise caused by the thick, dull, gray blanket of low cloud that did not move and shed little rain despite the name of the season.

But the euphoria we should have felt the morning the sun reappeared was stolen. Nouria awoke with a rash of red blisters running across her chest and down her arms.

“An allergy?” I suggested. “Maybe spiders?”

She shook her head with conviction. “Somebody,” she said, wagging a finger, “has cursed me with the evil eye.”

Throughout the day, the rash crept up her neck, itching, biting at her jawline. She anointed herself with a poultice of sour milk and ash from the fireplace while I introduced Rahile and Bortucan to the next chapter of the Qur’an.

After five days of itching and many variations of poultices, Nouria consulted a diviner, a toothless woman with several white hairs growing out of her chin. They sat together in the courtyard, the diviner drinking tea and consulting the entrails of a chicken laid out on the ground before her.


That
is your problem,” she eventually hissed into Nouria’s ear. She was pointing across the courtyard at me.

I glared at the woman. I’d worked hard for my place here: I taught Nouria’s children, helped her with the housework, the cooking, the shopping, went to the shrine on Thursdays and the mosque on Fridays and sat for berchas with her on Saturdays. How dare this woman try to unsettle this hard-won balance.

The old woman cracked three eggs and rubbed the whites over Nouria’s rash. For this privilege, Nouria had to give her the chicken whose entrails pointed in my direction, payment she certainly could not afford.

The next day, one of Nouria’s neighbors brought her ragged-looking daughter and son into the courtyard. “Will you teach them Qur’an?” she pleaded.

I’d made such progress with Nouria’s children that I didn’t really want to have to start all over again. “Maybe when I get through with Rahile and Bortucan,” I tried to say politely, though that would be years, and the woman knew it.

As soon as the woman shuffled dejectedly out of the courtyard, Nouria threw herself on the ground and grabbed the tops of my feet.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Please, Lilly. I beg you. You
must
teach her children.”

“But why is it so urgent?”

“The women are jealous,” Nouria cried. “They will curse me again.”

Suddenly it made sense. I was teaching her children and not theirs. I was the cause of Nouria’s rash. Nouria would have to share the good fortune, correct the imbalance, regain parity with her sisters. I would have to teach their children.

And so it was that one by one, the poorer families in the neighborhood began bringing their sons and daughters to Nouria’s compound in the mornings to join in what seemed to be emerging as a local school. I sat the children in three circles on the ground based on the knowledge they brought with them. The two new children, who had had some schooling and could read, joined Nouria’s boys. That group of four had the tools to progress with the book shared between them, and could, to some extent, lead the several others who, though they could not read, had the first few chapters memorized. Rahile joined that second group even though they were much further ahead, but Bortucan would remain with the youngest, the easiest group in some ways because they brought to it nothing but their open hearts and mouths.

Eventually, I would begin drawing the letters that give shape to the words for the younger ones, etch them into dirt if we had no other option. I would establish a routine that would allow the three groups to make progress simultaneously. It is how we’d learned when I was a child at the madrasa in Tamegroute: not just three groups, but ten, verses bouncing off walls and greeting us from every side.

Within a couple of weeks, my class had settled at eleven students, seven of them girls. In addition to Nouria’s four, there were five other poor and dusty Oromo children, and two Hararis, scrubbed and much better dressed than their classmates. In addition to these regulars, there was the occasional, irregular appearance of two Somali boys from the countryside who turned up whenever their mother had something to sell in the market.

It was good for Nouria; the parents agreed to pay a small fee—the Hararis in cash, the Oromo in kind—and they did so not a moment too soon. One morning we’d lost an entire washing line of clothes to a hungry goat, causing Nouria to pull a chunk of her hair out and rub dirt into her eyes.

“If you take me for the lover of Satan, then so be it! Kill me now!” she wailed.

I came up with a solution. Between the cash and the money Nouria made by selling the qat brought by the Oromo parents, we were able to replace the clothes within a month, not only placating four irate co-wives but leaving us with enough material to have new dresses made for ourselves.

The first time I tried on my new dress, I ran my hands over the silky sheen, thinking it the neatest I’d looked since once, a long time ago, when Muhammed Bruce had taken me to Marrakech. That had happened twice. Eight hours on a bus stinking of cooking oil and petrol and cigarette smoke. Did he really make this journey once a month just to visit me? Perhaps I should dissuade him in the future, I remember thinking. He seemed very happy in Marrakech, after all. He owned a flat in an old French building on a wide boulevard outside the medina, with an elevator man and big marble ashtrays in all the hallways. A young Arab boy cooked all his food and washed his feet with warm water and slept like a cat at the foot of his bed. The flat was full of birdcages, and in the evenings, Muhammed Bruce let me close the balcony shutters and open all their cages so that they could flutter about the rooms. He didn’t seem to mind them dropping white splotches onto the sofas, but it was the Arab boy who had to follow the birds from room to room cleaning up after them. I could tell
he
was looking forward to the end of my visit.

Muhammed Bruce took me to restaurants where we ate crepes, and we went shopping, not in the suq but in a glass-fronted shop with a French name, where he bought me a pinafore and a pair of shoes, which were very nice but didn’t alleviate my feeling of homesickness.

I was about twelve the next time. On that occasion, too, we went to a French restaurant and he bought me a new dress. The old Arab boy had been replaced by a new one, and Muhammed Bruce took us both for a ride on a Ferris wheel and then we had ice cream, but although I was older than the last time, I still missed the shrine the whole time.

He could tell I wasn’t happy. “I just wanted to make sure you were aware there were alternatives,” he said. “To help you make an informed decision.”

I didn’t ask what decision I was supposed to be informed about.

I
was enjoying the feel of the blue silk against my thighs while I moved around the courtyard arranging my students when the fence parted. Dr. Aziz cleared his throat and I lost all memory of who should be sitting where and what the little girl with the plaits was called, and “You, you,” I said, “sit over there beside Rahile,” trying to regain composure, when he asked: “Do you have room for one more student?”

He stood with his large palms on the shoulders of a black girl in front of him. His father’s cousin’s daughter, he said.

“Will you teach her?” he asked, rephrasing the question when I failed to answer.

“But how did you hear about our lessons?” I stammered.

“I live just over there.” He pointed. “You know the house beside Sheikh Khalef’s shrine? That is where I live with my mother.”

My heart plunged into my stomach, bobbed in that morning’s tea. I was dizzy with the sudden self-consciousness that he might have seen me en route to the market or the mosque, witnessed the shouts of “Farenji!” as I traipsed along the broken streets in flip-flops, with my dirty hair peeking out from under my veil, quite possibly muttering some new vocabulary to myself.

“Yes, of course I’ll teach her,” I said, recovering. “Has she had any schooling at all?”

“Just the verses her father has taught her. He doesn’t read, so he can only share with her what he remembers.”

“We’re only doing Qur’an,” I thought I should clarify, “nothing more. Not any math or science like some of the madrasas.”

“Of course,” he said, matter-of-factly. “It is just the beginning.”

It was a beginning, but not just. Perhaps one day there would be an occasion for me to show him the science in the Qur’an. And the math in its numbers. I had heard it said that the wall surrounding the city was 6,666 arms’ lengths long—the exact number of verses of the Qur’an. There was as much spirit in the architecture of this place as there was science. Perhaps that is true of anywhere if you look deep enough.

At lunch that day, when I was quite sure Dr. Aziz was far away at the hospital beyond the city wall, I went to the market to fetch a cone of salt. I passed a set of metal doors I had passed nearly every day, this time counting the footsteps between his compound and mine. One hundred and two. So close. He must fall asleep to the same sounds, I realized. Metal doors being scraped shut, babies crying and hyenas whooping as they roam the neighborhood scavenging for scraps. And if he were to listen closer: Bortucan blubbing, Nouria comforting her, Fathi’s mouth falling open, catching flies, and me lying awake with a pounding heart wondering if that was him I could hear breathing in the distance.

BOOK: Sweetness in the Belly
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