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I felt there was something afoot as soon as I opened the door to my apartment, something to do with an alien aroma. I had scarcely crossed the threshold when a pageant of odors invaded my senses, odors reminding me of Taj, the Ethiopian honey-beer. Also I was struck by the odd presence in the flat of a fly, whose helicopterlike drone taxed my frail nerves.
An instant later I encountered the startled expression on the face of my elderly housekeeper, who, meeting me in the shadowed half-light of the corridor, placed her forefinger close to her lips in an effort to hush me. But what was she doing this for? I was a bachelor, I lived alone, I had no children and, so far as I knew, no guests. Don't ask me why, but the thought uppermost in my mind as I stared at Lambar was to run a comb through my unkempt hair, suspecting that, in any case, the clue to this urge lay elsewhere, something to do with the pectinal nature of a number of matters coming to a head. My housekeeper Lambar whispered as she approached, "Why didn't you warn me of your visitor?" I felt there was a touch of blame in the tone of her voice.
It was quite some time before I knew what to say. In the meantime I heard the drawn-out cooing of the telephone ringing with the quality of a homing pigeon calling to one of its own. Temporarily nonplused, I went past my housekeeper in inelegant haste to answer the phone, and as I did so bumped against two chairs placed upside down. In all the years that she had worked for me this was first time I had returned home to find her job undone to my full satisfaction. From what I could see, it seemed she had not finished mopping the floors. With my mind opening a parenthesis, which housed both a thesis and a counterthesis, I reached the telephone in its last breath, just before it died. I panted "Pronto?" and waited, convinced that I had arrived too late.
In the inventory of voices stored in my memory I couldn't for the life of me place my mother's, which was rather an odd thing to happen. But there was something agate-hard about her voice, and that wasn't how I remembered it. "Are you all right, Kalaman?" she said.
Before I was conscious of it, I had gained entry into another universe and there was no turning back: my mother's confederacy of demands, her legion of requests, of pleas, her do-be-carefuls, on account of the possible violence on a large scale, as she predicted the federations of clan families taking on one another. She could date the day when she became certain that there would be civil strife in Somalia. It was two o'clock in the afternoon, right in the heart of Mogadiscio. She was driving her pickup and, it being a hot day, had all the windows down. She stopped at a traffic light, waiting for the green to come after the yellow. Before she knew it, she had two gunmen in civilian clothes in the cab of the pickup, one of them brandishing a revolver and asking her to stop the vehicle, get out, and hand over the keys. She did no such thing. She drove on and on and on, faster and faster, confident that one or the other of them would get dizzy and plead for her to let them go. In fact that was how she saved her vehicle and her life. When asked how she thought of doing what she did, she simply responded, "The man's accent told me he was not familiar with cars and how they worked, and would be frightened of speed."
Already there had been intimations of a civil war erupting and of civic society collapsing into total anarchy. But whereas many of us thought these were early days yet, my mother held the view that we were approaching a collapse, what with the rumors reaching us that armed vigilantes were in the outskirts of Mogadiscio. It was as if someone had sold an idea of doom to her and she bought it as offered, wholesale. And she started to acquire all manner of weapons, preparing herself and her family for the worst. My mother did not wish our family to be caught by surprise, following the inhumane destruction caused to the people and property in the northern regions. The second largest city of the land was bombed by Siyad's regime, its residents massacred, almost all its buildings razed to the ground. From the day we received the news of the massacre, my mother remained on edge, a suitcase packed, and herself ready to depart at short notice. She would call me every now and then on the phone and inquire as to my preparedness for the approaching collapse. So what did she want today?
"Why do you never return my calls?" my mother said.
"I was going to come and see you," I lied.
Did she sense the proverbial limp in my walk: proverbial as the Somali adage in which it is said that a lie has a lame leg, truth a healthy one. I would have been the first to concede that my voice was wanting in firmness, its quality unsteady, that it was comparable to a limp in one's gait.
"Why do you lie to your mother?" she asked.
"Where are you?" I said.
"You should be ashamed of yourself, lying!" she said.
I derived comfort from remembering the proverbial black pot with the additional spout which, being tongued, called the other kettle all kinds of mean names. I said, "Mother, you have no reason to accuse me of wrongdoing. Because when you rang me at the office three or four times earlier today, I was busy with clients with whom I was tying the loose ends of a contract worth a lot of money to the firm."
"Are you still planning to take a week's holiday?"
If my mother approved of my planned trip to Nairobi, it was because she hoped that once I was out of the country, I might decide not to return to Mogadiscio. She urged me often enough to leave, suspecting that the civil strife might start any day. I kept postponing my date of departure, giving my workload at my computer business as the reason.
"I am planning to go, but I haven't a date yet," I said.
"Is anyone going with you?" she asked.
The question wrong-footed me. "I'm not decided. Why?"
I could hear a touch of hurt feeling in her voice as she said, "There you are, my thirty-three-year-old son Kalaman. In spite of your grown years, you have never stopped lying through the gaps of your teeth, cozy as a whirl of wind entering a keyhole."
We say, in Somali, that you don't ask someone whom you know to tell you about themselves. I knew where my mother was coming from. Maybe by calling me a liar she hoped to club me into a tight corner, so I would tell her everything she wanted me to, no secret withheld. I knew what she would do if her strategy did not produce a satisfactory result: appeal to my sense of filial loyalty.
She said, "I know you're not going away alone."
"I wish you wouldn't provoke me," I said.
Having completely forgotten about the alien aroma which greeted my senses upon my reentering my apartment, and having for the time shelved away my housekeeper's worries somewhere, I made myself as comfortable as I could under the circumstances. But then Lambar entered my peripheral vision and I began to see myself as a victim of my women's proclivities, of their wish to look after me better than I did myself.
"Who are you going with?" my mother said.
"Do you never tire, Mother?"
"How could I tire thinking of you?"
My housekeeper was hanging about me too, wanting to tell me something. I wondered if what she had to say might have any bearing on my conversation with my mother.
"I'd hate to hear about your news from a third party!"
My mother had a way of denigrating my women, whom she turned into a subject worthy of being celebrated in a limerick. Not that she was religious, but she didn't approve of seeing me with a woman I had no intention of taking as my lawful wife, proof enough that I intended not to offer her a grandchild. When she liked one of them, the poetics of her enthusiasm would entice her into a rapturous intensity. The words 'Give me a child' were starting to haunt me. And in my memory I am a child and am requesting that my parents give me a sibling! The words may have changed, possibly the speakers too; it wasn't I repeating the give-me plea, it was now my mother, who had never given me a sibling. Presently things were so quiet I thought my mother had hung up on me.
"Mother, are you there?"
"I am here, at your maternal beck and call," she chanted.
I had asked Nonno if he knew what caused my mother's exuberances. He said, "People with secrets have such an overabundance of energy for which they must find an outlet. My suspicion is that your mother talks unceasingly to hide her worries, whereas your father's silence is a tunnel in which he finds solace."
And then all of a sudden my nose felt clogged with the sweet scent of as pure a potful of honey as you were likely to find anywhere. Meanwhile my mother spoke on and on. And Lambar's shadow spread itself right before me, hovering in the attitude of a vulture in the vicinity of an abattoir.
"You're not getting married, Kalaman, are you, my darling?"
"Not that I know of. What makes you ask?"
"For several nights now I've been having dreams in which you get married. I just thought I should ask."
"You hear of all-out war between the autocrat's army and the militias wanting to overthrow his regime," I said, "and you have night visions which have to do with the impending disaster. I am thinking that these nightmares are brought about by an individual's private, un-thought-through reaction to a major crisis which is likely to disrupt the life of the whole society."
"In one of the dreams," she continued, "you are a mere child in every aspect save the fact that you invite us to your wedding, but your wife-to-be stands you up. In last night's dream, you slash open a vein of your middle finger and make a pledge of trust with your partner, a woman whose face bears a striking resemblance to Xusna, once your favorite pet, the vervet monkey." She paused. "You remember Xusna the monkey, don't you?"
"How could I forget!"
"But the weirdest thing is that Sholoongo's name is repeated by everyone I talk to in all these dreams. Have you any idea where in the world she is or what she is up to?"
"No," I said and, discerning the quiet movements of a short afternoon's shadow, which I assigned to Lambar, I resorted to the strategy of appeasement. I said, "I'll come and see you soon, because I must go now."
I held the dead receiver in my hands, not certain who hung up first. Anyhow, my eyes were misted over with a dejection of spirit. I was contemplating the idea of ringing her back, if only to apologize to her, when my entire world became all smells: putrid invasions of undomesticated odors, alien scents everywhere in the apartment, as if a cat had brought in a mouse and abandoned it, the rodent rotting under the sofa or the kitchen sink.
I hoped Lambar would explain the origin of the odor.
I found Lambar sitting in a huddle at the dining table in the kitchen, wrapped up in lengths of sorrow. She got up when I entered, her shadow as tight as a mean person's fist. I said, "I'm sorry, but did you mention something about a guest I hadn't warned you about?"
I occupied a first-floor two-bedroom apartment in one of Mogadiscio's most sought-after residential zones, and seldom entertained anyone claiming to be from either side of my parents' extended families, clansmen and clanswomen whose demands would range from being put up and fed for months to having their medical and their children's school bills footed. I had no time for them and didn't hesitate to show them the door. I would remind them that I was no member of a clan, that I was a professional. I had never had any of them come and stay as my guests, fearing what their nimble fingers might remove between the time you went into the shower and the moment you got out. To me they were pickpockets who arrived empty-handed but whose departures were as lucrative as corruption money. And social blackmail was their ploy!
"I have no idea how to explain," Lambar now said.
She was in her early fifties, and had been with my parents for years before coming to work for me. She had known me since my early teens, and I had always been impressed with her orderliness, her diligence, and her self-pride. She was from the River People, two villages farther down the Shabelle from Nonno's estate, and had a bedridden husband whose condition had remained unaltered until his death several years ago. And although she received full pay, she worked for me three half days, mopping the floors once a week, dealing with my laundry likewise, and preparing the traditional specialties cooked in the lean-to kitchen in my backyard. We got on very well, Lambar and I, and I loved her cooking, even if it was a bit too oily, with the vegetables overdone to the point of death.
When she didn't speak, I asked, "What gender is my guest?"
Her lips moved. If they managed to formulate the faintest of sounds, I didn't hear what she said. Lip reading is as difficult as deciphering hand signs drawn in the air. I am good at neither. I requested that she repeat what she had said. It took some time before I worked out that I had a female guest, who was not Talaado, my current woman-friend, whom, in any case, Lambar knew only too well. What's more, my guest had apparently let herself in, with her own key.
We were becoming more tense by the second, especially because Lambar was having difficulty getting her words out. I wished I knew, and learnt soon, what was causing so much discomfiture. Now we were nearly touching, and as I listened to her halty breathing, almost that of an asthmatic, it occurred to me that I was inhaling an odd mixture of odors with histamine caution, my nostrils gradually flaring, my lungs turning into a pair of bellows in expansive flames. I stood rock still, my head inclined backwards, as I held back a sneeze. Whereupon Lambar sneezed. This inspired me with an uncanny feeling. I blessed her. A moment passed, then another. Then the alien smell insinuated itself again and started to interfere with my thoughts.
"Where is she, then?" I asked. "My guest!"
Not a word out of her. She was the darkness of a tropical night filling one's eyes with dusky obliteration, her eyes wide open but unseeing. For an instant I took hold of the lower portion of her bony elbow in the attitude of a drowning person grabbing a watery foam, only to let go of her arm abruptly, all the more because I couldn't work out the meaning of the scent, or if my guest had something to do with it. We were now in the part of the flat which received more sunlight (how we got there I had no idea), the afternoon's brightness shining in and the contagious allergy of worry abating temporarily.
"Did you see her come in?" I asked.
"I didn't let her in, and didn't see her enter either, I swear." And the brown of her eyes became a shade paler, as if she had sighted an ethereal being.
"You must have been out of the flat when she got in?"
"I was in," she said, "from when I came in, working."
In my impatience, I walked away from her toward the corner room where I presumed my visitor to be, some poor clanswoman from some famine-stricken region of the land, out to make proprietorial demands of some kind. If I stopped in my tracks, it was because I thought of other possibilities, such as that the woman might be not a relative but a former lover, come to rekindle a romance that was dead.
Lambar lowered the volume of her voice to a near whisper as she came closer. "I thought you supplied her with a key. Not that I heard her enter, I repeat. But anyway," she said, and then lifted her shoulders in a meaningless way. I knew from previous experience that she was no good at lying or hiding her fear.
"You insist you were here all the time?"
"I was engrossed in mopping and other chores and then she was here." As if I failed to follow her meaning, she corrected herself by looking in the general direction of the corner room, and she rephrased it thus: "Or rather she was there between one instant and the next." She invested a variety of significances in the word "there," a concatenation of linked associations with space, time, and place too. With her arms wide apart you might have thought that she had at that very instant brought the cosmos into being, and along with it a sense of mystery and an attendant enigma.
Lambar's pupils were like the eyes of needles, as if the sun shaft joined them with the dark threads of my imagination, in and out, fast as a sunbird swooping across a pond. I stood right in the center of an open parenthesis, in a time without past or present or future. Then I felt something scratchily pulling at the hairs inside my nostrils, and sneezed so loud the world shook on its stilts. My nose was runny with mucus, my lips were wet with saliva and the palms of my hands moist with a motley of discharges; I thought, what histamine inelegance!
"It could be that I hallucinated," she said.
As I dried my hands, mouth, and nose with a handkerchief, her lips stirred. This put me in mind of a bird frightened in its sleep. An instant later Lambar's eyes fluttered with the pained slowness of a fledgling lacking one of its wings but attempting to fly. Lowering her whole body into a crouched position, she now inserted her head in the embrace of a bracket which she formed out of her own hands. Was she fearful that I might hit her? I took a step away from her.
"Wait, Kalaman, wait," Lambar said.
When I turned around, Lambar's eyes flickered like those of an animal vaguely conscious of approaching peril. "Be very careful," she advised.
A dangerous woman? An armed woman from one of the other clan, the enemy clan -- how stupid can you get? -- ready to make me do her bidding, prepared to put a gun to my forehead, in my own apartment and in broad daylight, to order me to empty my bank savings, make me sign on the dotted blood line, arguing my clan had been robbing hers blind for centuries? (My mother would say, "Serve you right," and in an I-told-you-so wisecrack after the fact, she would point to the animalness of these people!) Surely she couldn't belong to one of the militia groups using women to infiltrate the dictator's corrupt citadel? If so, why me?
Not only could I discern a change overcoming me, but a sudden feeling of fear was beginning to play all manner of tricks on my perception. I was seeing a cow in the semblance of a woman; I was seeing a woman in the ethereal flimsiness of a ghost which entered my apartment, in broad daylight, without being heard, seen, or suspected by Lambar. Suddenly I knew who my visitor was.
When I put it to Lambar, she appeared to support my thesis. She said, "Your visitor has the quiet, confident look of someone who has chosen to be, if you follow my meaning. It was as though she chose to be a woman today, but that she could as well have been a man in another life, or a ghost or a goat."
And no sooner had her gaze steadied itself as burning wicks do after the breeze has ceased blowing than she added, "When I last went in, she was sitting quietly, head bent over a piece of paper, drawing ugly things."
There was no need to engage in a whispered conference anymore: my guest's composite face called on my consciousness in bursts bright as shafts of lightning, in fits and spasms intimidating as doors opening in the squeaky dark of a Hitchcock horror film.
"Please ask her to join me for lunch," I said to Lambar, who moved to do just that, but hesitantly, as if struck with fresh fear. "After that," I went on, "you may leave us alone. We can set the table and serve ourselves."
My housekeeper stared at me in disbelief.
"I won't be needing your services for several weeks," I said, "so I suggest you see my assistant at the office, for your pay. She has instructions to pay you a full month's salary and bonus."
For the first time since entering my employ, Lambar was on the verge of disobeying my command. I saw this behavior as a most inauspicious omen, and I got very close to unsaying all I had said.
She pleaded with me, "Let me be here, please!"
"Do as I say," I ordered.
"Let me feed her with my own trusted hands," she said.
Firm, I said, "Please. Leave!"
Posted October 25, 2000
Somalia is present in all the novels by Nuruddin Farah, and in his latest work the country, and its culture, is the only very character. The author tries to make his country still alive through his writings, and he succeeds, once again, with his beautiful prose and narrative.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 30, 2000
This is rather consequential book for everyone who likes to read about fiction. Although the author included his book couple of remarks that are not orthodoc Islamically, other than the book is magnificent.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.