Authors: Camilla Gibb
Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Fiction - General, #London (England), #Women, #British, #Political, #Hārer (Ethiopia)
in the blue glow
r. Aziz’s father’s cousin’s daughter proved to be an extremely bright girl. Not only did she memorize without apparent effort, she asked surprisingly perceptive questions. Why does this chapter end here? she asked. Why does the voice in this chapter feel so far away? I could not afford to risk alienating the rest of the class by veering off into exegesis, so I tried to steer her back to the text, to get her to open herself to it, to trust in it. You will come to understand in time, I told her, if you just focus on repetition and memorization.
I did not have answers for all her questions. I was not a Sufi philosopher like the Great Abdal or Sheikh Jami: I did not possess the wisdom and gifts that they both did as descendants of saints. I was nothing more than a dedicated student who, through sheer necessity, had been forced to become a teacher. But I relished this new role. And I was enchanted by this new student with her keen curiosity and her vague resemblance to her father’s cousin’s son.
“If you want me to try and answer some of your questions, you’ll have to ask your father’s permission to stay after class tomorrow,” I told Zemzem. “But during class try and stop your mind from interrupting the rhythm. Do not think; experience.”
Rahile was not about to let me offer a private lesson to the new girl. She began interrupting at the end of every verse with questions that were far less relevant than Zemzem’s.
“I have questions too,” she declared when Zemzem remained behind after class the following day.
“You’ll have to take turns, then,” I said. “So why don’t we begin with the question about revelation that Zemzem brought up yesterday.”
“Because I don’t want to begin there,” Rahile said.
“Who is the teacher, Rahile?”
“You are the teacher.”
“That’s right. And the teacher says where we begin.”
I spoke about revelation, how the verses were revealed to the Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, through the angel Gabriel over a period of twenty-three years. This is why some of the verses feel different from others.
“Why twenty-three years?” Rahile asked.
“Because God had a lot to impart,” I said, growing impatient with her.
Just then, a man pulled back the fence and entered the courtyard, and Zemzem leapt to her feet.
“Zemzem!” he said gruffly. “What do you think you are doing?”
Her father, I assumed. I introduced myself, apologized for delaying her.
“You are the teacher?” He blinked repeatedly as he stood before me, his legs apart, his hands on his hips.
“I am. And your daughter is my best student,” I said truthfully, hoping to flatter.
Rahile harrumphed and kicked the ground.
“She has to work, she knows she has to work!” the man exploded. “I agreed with Aziz she can come for this class in the mornings, but now she is late. Who is going to clean the house? Who is going to go to market and do the cooking? Should we live in dirt and starve?”
Bortucan, as she always did whenever she heard a man yelling, burst into tears. I pulled her into my thigh. “I’m sorry,” I said to Zemzem’s father. “She had some questions which were a bit too advanced for the rest of the class, so I offered to answer them after the other children left.”
“Oh, paah, paah, don’t tell me this! It is a curse to have a girl who is advanced.” He yanked her by the arm, wrenched back the fence and pushed Zemzem ahead of him into the street.
“What about my turn?” Rahile bleated, tugging at my sleeve.
“School’s finished for today, Rahile.”
“It’s not fair! You gave a turn to the black one but the red one is better,” she said, pointing at herself.
Poor Dr. Aziz, I thought. He will never prove to them that he is worthy. Even a child sees only darkness. A poor child who is relatively dark herself.
stepped out of the compound and slipped out of my flip-flops. I had bought a pair of shoes in the market, but I was trying to keep this from Nouria lest she think I was developing pretensions. I pulled them from my rucksack and put them on. The shoes felt clumsy, but I ventured forth determined, counting to one hundred and two.
I immediately regretted being so bold. I peeked into his mother’s compound, found him out of uniform, wearing a loose white galabaia, shaving his chin with a straight razor, eyes wide and boyish as he peered at his reflection in a broken mirror.
“Good morning,” he said with surprise, dropping his razor into the bowl at his feet.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” I said, gripping the edge of the metal door.
“No, no,” he said. “It’s a nice surprise. Come in. My mother will give you tea.”
“No, thank you,” I said. “It’s just that Zemzem didn’t come to class yesterday. It’s my fault—the day before I kept her late and then her father was angry. I wondered if you could speak to him. I won’t keep her late again, but she’s very bright and it would be such a shame if she didn’t continue.”
“I see.” He nodded. “She is the only child, so it is difficult for him to spare her for school.”
“I appreciate that, but it’s essential to learn Qur’an.”
“Essential,” he repeated. “Making sure you have enough food to feed your family is essential.”
It was no use trying to explain it to him. “I’m sorry for interrupting you. Insha’Allah, Zemzem will return to class,” I said, stepping back into the lane.
“Wait,” he said, and came up to the doorway. “I will speak to him. It’s no problem. I was the one who insisted it was important she have some schooling in the first place.”
He of near-perfect English carried on, stumbling a bit, back-tracking—something about how difficult it can be to see the importance of other things when one lives hand to mouth—then asked if I might like to come to his uncle’s house that Saturday for a bercha. Berchas were how all Hararis and Oromo in the city took their leisure, from the time they were adolescents until the time they were toothless and mashing their qat leaves with a pestle. On the Saturday afternoons that neighborhood women did not gather in Nouria’s compound, she went elsewhere, often taking me with her, to do the same in the whitewashed clay houses of wealthier women with their red floors and raised red clay platforms and shining Meccan souvenirs.
“I don’t know,” I said. I was taken aback: men and women did not sit for berchas together.
“I’ll draw you a map.” Dr. Aziz bent down and grabbed a stick.
I smiled while he etched the shape of the wall into the ground, rubbing out sections with his palm, correcting himself, striving to convey its irregular shape accurately. He suggested the road adjacent to but outside the circumference of the wall and then he erased all evidence of the map from the ground.
“I bought some shoes,” I said, still looking down.
“I noticed,” he laughed.
n Saturday the women from the neighborhood arrived with qat and hookahs and set down their blankets on the ground in front of Nouria’s house. I was squatting in the kitchen stirring coffee leaves into hot salted milk. Coffee beans were too expensive and mainly reserved for export, but nothing was wasted, not the husks or the leaves. I stared into the eddy of hot milk, thinking it impossible, a trip to the market, perhaps, but I couldn’t justify an absence from the compound of any longer than half an hour.
A young woman I had never seen before stepped through the parting in the fence. She wore footless striped leggings, a modern variation of the trousers her mother’s generation wore, under a short dress of purple silk. A veil of loose lavender chiffon floated about her delicate face. She was flower fresh and about my age.
“Sadia!” the women greeted her. “How is your mother? My, how you have grown. So beautiful like your mother. Have you come for bercha? Lilly, is qutti qahwah ready?”
“Thank you, Aunties,” said Sadia, bowing politely, “but today I’m taking Lilly for bercha.”
“Lilly?” Nouria asked curiously.
I stood stunned in the doorway of the grim kitchen holding a wooden spoon.
“Every girl needs girlfriends, no?” Sadia said brightly to the women. “Lilly and I were chatting at the market and I told her this: why do you have no girlfriends? Even a farenji must have girlfriends. So I made a promise and here I am!”
“Yes, yes, of course,” they all agreed. “Go!” they shouted at me. Murmurs of approval all round.
Such a good girl. And from such a good family.
They were clearly surprised I was able to make such respectable friends.
Nouria nodded. “Go!”
I smiled at Nouria. She was wearing my shoes.
Sadia and I slipped out the gate at the bottom of the hill and walked in silence, traveling left for a quarter of a mile along the dusty road that runs adjacent to the city wall. Only Oromo and Somalis travel this road: men leading animals by thick rope, women bent double under the weight of firewood, children carrying water from the river—people, in other words, for whom there is no day of rest.
We slipped back into the city through the next of the five gates in the city wall. This was the route Aziz had scratched into the dirt. The key, apparently, to moving around the city undetected. Aziz’s uncle’s house was right there, immediately to the left of the gate.
We entered the compound and Sadia waved at an old man sitting cross-legged inside the main room with the Qur’an in his hands. “Good afternoon, Uncle.”
“And good afternoon to you,” he mumbled toothlessly. There followed a series of inquiries about his health, each of which he answered, “Thanks to God.”
I nodded politely and followed Sadia up a wooden staircase to a narrow balcony. It was a very old Harari house, one with an upper floor traditionally used for storing firewood and tobacco leaves. From the balcony there was a stunning view of the farmlands in one direction, the dense matrix of the city in the other.
We took off our shoes and entered the last room, a place of discretion, dark and small, without windows. I felt burlap beneath my feet and could barely make out faces, but I could see the forms of several people, both young men and women, reclining against pillows lining the walls. In the middle of the room was an enormous pile of qat amassed on a scarf, and beside it, a tray with two thermoses of tea, a jug of cold water, plastic cups with daisies printed on them and the ubiquitous clay pot for burning incense.
Dr. Aziz greeted me from the floor, patting the pillow beside him, but he did not introduce me. I sat beside him as he recited a du’a, distributing the qat as he did this, passing a bundle of fresh twigs to each of us in the room and keeping a tenth aside—the Prophet’s share, it was called.
“These are the best leaves, the sweetest,” he said, passing me a few pale stalks.
Once the qat had been passed round, he threw incense onto the coals in the clay burner and we said our thanks to God. Now chewing could officially begin.
The men were all wearing sarongs, leisure wear, and sat with their left arms balanced on their left knees while they stripped the twigs quickly from top to bottom between their thumbs and forefingers. Their cheeks grew as they stuffed more and more leaves into the sides of their mouths. They chatted away in a mixture of Harari and English. I thought this must be for my benefit, even though nobody but Dr. Aziz addressed me directly. I didn’t want to change the language of this or any other room.
I wanted to tell them,
I even dream in Harari now. And Harari dreams are not like Arabic or English dreams: there are always a great many more people involved.
I listened to the men talk about waterborne diseases and some recent decision made by the council of elders concerning alcohol. They talked about pollution in the river from a factory in the nearby town of Babile, about the price of electronics on the black market, about a musical group that was using an electronic keyboard. Their talk was alien to me. If they had relayed legends of the saints or debated the best method to teach Qur’an, I would have had much to say. If they had discussed how best to sort grains, how to diagnose affliction with the evil eye or how to keep flies at bay, I could have contributed.
Even the girls offered occasional comments, and while mostly spoken quietly to the men they sat beside, they clearly had their own opinions about whether the elders should be allowed to ban the electronic keyboard, about alleged banditry in the foothills of some nearby mountain, about water, about a corrupt imam, about the inflated prices of imported goods.
How strange it all seemed. Men and women in the same room, people speaking English. And then, when the conversation subsided, Dr. Aziz making great ceremony out of getting up and unveiling a sacred object in the corner of the room.
I hadn’t known there were neighborhoods with electricity.
A small white dot in the center of the screen ballooned into a picture, not of a football match, as I expected, but of the emperor greeting the officers of the Imperial Guard. He was a tiny man packaged in a neat suit with a regal robe hanging from his shoulders. His head, with its trim salt-and-pepper beard, appeared to sit apart; a distinguished face, like that of a statue, perched atop the neatly packaged body of a boy.
The palace loomed behind him, though the small black-and-white picture did not do it justice. Standing before those gates, Muhammed Bruce’s letter in hand, I’d felt utterly daunted by the begging mass of humanity there, the women wailing as they waved notes at the stern row of guards. Ours was but one of a thousand letters, I’d realized, crushing the paper in my hand.
“You go,” Hussein had said, nudging me forward. He insisted I had a much better chance of attracting the guards’ attention since the emperor had a notorious love of foreigners, especially the English. “And besides, my English is terrible,” he said.
“But look at me!” I’d said, fed up with his excuses. “I might look like a foreigner, but I’m filthy.” I’d been wearing the same dress for months. We’d done our best at a public bath, but the unmistakable smell of camel had worked its way deep into our skin.
In Ethiopia, television seemed to be devoted nearly exclusively to broadcasting the events of the emperor’s day. We watched a convoy of cars push through crowds of people. A royal hand passed bills out of the window of a Rolls-Royce and people kissed the bonnet in gratitude. We watched the emperor emerge from the car and tour a school.