In January 1991, when civil war came to Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, two-thirds of the city’s population fled. Among them was eight-year-old Asad Abdullahi. His mother murdered by a militia, his father somewhere in hiding, he was swept alone into the great wartime migration that scattered the Somali people throughout sub-Saharan Africa and the world.
This extraordinary book tells Asad’s story. Serially betrayed by the people who promised to care for him, Asad lived his childhood at a skeptical remove from the adult world, his relation to others wary and tactical. He lived in a bewildering number of places, from the cosmopolitan streets of inner-city Nairobi to the desert towns deep in the Ethiopian hinterland.
By the time he reached the cusp of adulthood, Asad had honed an array of wily talents. At the age of seventeen, in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, he made good as a street hustler, brokering relationships between hard-nosed businessmen and bewildered Somali refugees. He also courted the famously beautiful Foosiya, and, to the astonishment of his peers, seduced and married her.
Buoyed by success in work and in love, Asad put twelve hundred dollars in his pocket and made his way down the length of the African continent to Johannesburg, South Africa, whose streets he believed to be lined with gold. And so began a shocking adventure in a country richer and more violent than he could possibly have imagined.
A Man of Good Hope is the story of a person shorn of the things we have come to believe make us human—personal possessions, parents, siblings. And yet Asad’s is an intensely human life, one suffused with dreams and desires and a need to leave something permanent on this earth.
JONNY STEINBERG was born and bred in South Africa. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Three Letter Plague, published by Vintage (also published under the title Sizwe’s Test), as well as Midlands and The Number, both of which won South Africa’s premier nonfiction literary award, the Sunday Times Alan Paton Prize. Steinberg was also a recipient of one of the inaugural Windham Campbell Prizes. He teaches African Studies and Criminology at Oxford University.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
In describing his childhood there is really only one place for Asad to begin. It was early one morning; he is not sure of the day, but the month was January 1991. This he understands from collective memory; nobody who knows Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia, is unaware of what happened that month.
He believes that he was eight years old. Whether he knew before that he was Daarood and that others were not is irretrievable now, but he certainly came to know it on that day.
In January 1991, militias began to attack the northern parts of Mogadishu. The men in these militias were Hawiye, and they wanted to overthrow the government of President Mohamed Siad Barre, who was Daarood.
“The militias were based in the countryside outside the city,” Asad tells me. “They controlled the north of the country. They would come into Mogadishu to attack and regroup, attack and regroup, in waves.
“They came at night, and their target was all Daarood men. As far as they were concerned, Daarood men were government men. So, at night, the Daarood would leave their homes and gather together in government buildings for protection. They would leave women and children and the elderly at home. In Islam, one does not kill civilians—that means women, children, boys under fifteen, and the very old. Daytime, the men came back to see their wives.”
Asad’s father was sleeping away at nights, coming home during the day. Then one morning he did not come back. Or the next, or the next. It had been five days.
“When I look back now, I see that if I had been more focused on my mother, I would have been aware. There were three women staying in the house. I see now that my mother was hiding them. She must have discovered that some neighbors who were not friends had seen these three women. She must have known that she was going to get finger-pointed. I can see that now. Back then, I could not grasp that a person as solid as a parent could feel fear.
“I woke in the morning and found my mother pressed up against the front door, staring through the cracks. I came up next to her and looked too. There were five militiamen on our property. They were moving around the yard. I had no fear. I wanted to look at them closer, not through cracks. I tried to open the door. My mother grabbed me and pulled me to her. I was right up against her leg. I still did not share her fear. I find myself thinking now: Where were my brothers and sisters? I don’t remember. In my mind it is just me and my mother. We were watching the militiamen. Three of them came up to the door and knocked very hard. My mother did not want to let them in.
“They pushed against the door and she pushed back. Then they started kicking, thumping the door. My mother pushed herself heavily against it. The door started breaking. I saw a pair of hands come through. They tore a hole out of the door, big enough for a person to climb through. My mother just stood there, as if there was still a door to push against. Still, she held me to her leg. The first militiaman just stared at her. She stared back. Then the second militiaman pushed the first one out of the way and shot my mother in the chest.”
I wonder what the militiamen did when they entered the house. Did they slaughter the women hiding there? For how long did they remain? How much time elapsed between their departure and the arrival of the first friendly adults, for between those two moments the children were, I presume, alone with their mother’s corpse. What did they make of it? What happened to their world during those minutes or hours?
Each time these questions find their way to the tip of my tongue, they stop and turn around, and I swallow them back down. I do not have the courage. I simply record what comes from his mouth.
And so I know only that he spent one further night at his parents’ home and that the following day his aunt—the wife of his father’s brother—whisked the five children across the city to her house. Later that evening, Asad’s uncle appeared, the first adult male Daarood he had seen in days. He does not recall for how long he and his siblings stayed there. “When I say ‘a few days,’ ” he advises me, “that could mean anything from two nights to two weeks. In any case, after some time, we split up. Rahma and I went with my uncle. The other children went with my aunt. We walked out of Mogadishu and kept walking. I think that that was the last day it was possible for Daarood people to sleep in Mogadishu.”
As I picture Asad heading farther from home, I think, more than anything else, not of what he left behind but of what he took with him. He would never again be firmly moored to any particular adult, to any family. He would become a child whose connections to others would dissolve and re-form and disappear again. And yet he says with certainty that on his great journey through childhood and across the African continent he took his mother.
He has no memory of her face, or of the sound of her voice: her place inside him is more ambient than that, more powerful. It is indistinguishable from his sense of himself, of why he is a man who works hard and is kind and finds things funny; indeed, why he is the sort of man who can share such memories and keep his composure.
“If there is such a thing as a best mother, mine was it,” he says. “My father was working all the time. It was she who was with us twenty-four hours a day. She was very, very kind. I do not remember her raising her voice or beating us. I remember calmness and gentleness. I remember that she enjoyed being with us. If we were naughty, she would tell us that our punishment would come when our father got home. But then, in the evenings, she would protect us from our father.
“I last saw her at such a young age. The way she taught me, although I grew up an orphan, I still feel that what she was I am today. I did not lose her despite her death. I am not sure that words can describe what I am trying to tell you. I mean that by the time I was seven, she had already made me.”
I press him to attach these feelings to particular memories of her. He thinks silently for a long time.
“Her hair was very beautiful,” he finally offers. “Some women had many plaits. My mother did not. She parted her hair in the middle into two long plaits that went halfway down her back. We children played with her hair, sometimes all of us at the same time. I remember my hand touching my sister Khadra’s hand while we both played with our mother’s hair. Khadra’s skin was so sticky, my mother’s hair so smooth. I remember taking Khadra’s hand away and running my cheek across the smoothness of my mother’s hair.”
When I ask him to describe his home in Mogadishu, he smiles and says he remembers each detail. But as soon as he begins talking, he stumbles and, in frustration, grabs my notebook and begins to draw.
He mumbles softly as he works, his cadences patient and singsongy, as if he is taking a small child through an exercise. Then he puts the notebook back in my lap. “Aha,” he says.
As I examine the geography of his first eight years, he points a finger to the very center of his drawing, the colored-in dot representing the hindi tree.
“It reminds me of my brothers and sisters,” he tells me. “When the hindi tree is big, it grows tall and wide, and everyone sits under it. But ours was still small, so the only people interested in it were the ones who did not mind the sun—the children.”
He closes his eyes and tells me that he is picturing his siblings one by one, each under the hindi tree, each wrapped up in his own game. I ask him to describe them to me. “My older sister is Khadra,” he says. “She was much whiter than us. She was almost like you. And her eyes were not like my black eyes. She had the eyes of a goat. The color was quruurax, like glass: not black or brown, not red, but like glass.”
And then he describes his other siblings—his younger sister, Rahma, and his brothers, AbdiFaseeh and HasanAbshir—and I am startled as I listen, for he remembers them all, it seems, by their teeth.
“Hasan Abshir’s were red,” he says. “Khadra’s were red with white dots. Mine are long and straight and very white. And yet we had the same mother and father. It is strange.”
He curls his upper lip right up to the base of his nostrils and taps the nail of his index finger against his front teeth. Like his hands, they are long and well shaped.
I store this oddity in my notebook, not quite sure what to make of it. It is only later, after several weeks of conversation, that I come to understand what he invests in his teeth—they are his most vital connection to his father.
Asad refers to him as Aabbo, “Dad” in Somali. His memories of Aabbo take two forms.
The first is a medley of recollections, some of them images, others just disembodied ideas. Aabbo left early in the morning and returned very late, after the children had eaten dinner. In the first sequence in the medley, the children are summoned to the living room in the evening where their father receives them in the manner of a patriarch, quizzing each child about his or her day “top to bottom,” Asad says, like a stern inquisitor.
Aabbo was often away. “He traded somewhere in the Arab world,” Asad recalls, somewhere on the other side of the Gulf of Aden. On some days Asad says he does not remember what his father traded; on others he talks about animal skins bought from the nomads who came into Mogadishu, and sold on to Arabs in Yemen or Saudi Arabia or Dubai. He remembers that his father was once arrested and jailed in connection with his work—something to do with taxes or duties.
“My memories of this are not concrete,” he says. “It is just a piece of knowledge that floats in my head. I don’t remember the adults talking about it. I don’t remember whether they were worried. Maybe they were worried; the regime could keep you locked up a long time.”
Asad’s other memory of his father takes the form of a single, vivid image. It was early evening. Asad heard footfalls in the yard. He stepped outside to find his father standing there, a bag over his shoulder. He had been away, somewhere, on business; Asad had not been expecting him. “Aabbo,” he said.
In reply, his father put down his bag, flashed the broadest smile, and opened his arms. Asad ran to him and found himself lifted up to his father’s face. They were so close that their noses almost touched. He inhaled Aabbo’s breath; it was fresh, it smelled of a sweet herb. He observed the pores in the skin of his father’s cheeks above his thin beard: they glistened; the skin was a little oily. But what remains with him most vividly is the smiling mouth into which he stared: the wide, pink tongue; the teeth so long and so perfectly shaped they seemed like narrow ivory tombstones.
“I have his teeth,” Asad tells me. “When I look in the mirror and examine them, I think of the evening I looked into his mouth.”
I think of Asad examining the smiles of the many Somalis he has met on his journey; he is judging his distance from them by what he sees in their mouths.
And then there is the madrassa. It was quite literally across the road from his home, as he remembers it. The journey from his front gate to his classroom took less than a minute.
That the making of ink is his most cherished memory of school is no surprise, for the rest, it seems, was not very nice. He remembers his teacher Dahir by his ceaseless voice and by his thrashing stick. Dahir had been reciting both books of the Koran for so long that he could shout passages of the Holy Book in rotation to twenty students at a time, each student at a different place in the text.
That is what Asad remembers. He clutched the handle of his loox in one hand, his pen in the other, and waited his turn. His cup of ink lay ready at his feet. The sound of Dahir’s voice, hurling holy passages at one student after the next, would grow closer. Then it was Asad’s turn. Dahir would shout; Asad would write on his loox. He kept his writing small, for if both sides of the loox were full before his passage was complete, he would have to try to remember the remainder of the passage by the sound of Dahir’s voice.
As soon as Dahir moved on, Asad would begin to memorize what he had just written, for the clock was ticking; in the late afternoon, he would have to wash the ink off his loox with a damp clod of grass. The following morning, he recited what he had learned to Dahir. How much Asad failed to recall determined how heavily Dahir beat him.
Asad was six when he started at the madrassa. Learning both books of the Koran was meant to take another six years. He should have begun learning other subjects when he was twelve, like the Latin alphabet so that he could write Somali, then geography, history, and mathematics.
On the morning he describes the madrassa, I drive away from Blikkiesdorp thinking of what he has said, and I see his mother and the learning of the Koran as opposite poles of his childhood. His time with her was what he lived for, it seems, while his time at school was so cold and drab. Then I blink and think again, and now I see that mother and madrassa share something important. They were the two pieces of Mogadishu Asad took with him into exile. His mother he felt inside him all the time. As for the learning of the Koran: wherever he went, no matter how far or how strange, somebody was always starting a madrassa. Wherever he found himself, the Holy Book would open in front of him until he knew the whole thing by heart, as he does now, and as do the one hundred sixty or so Somali souls who bed down each night in Blikkiesdorp, each of them many years from home.
Excerpted from A Man of Good Hope by Jonny Steinberg. Copyright © 2015 by Jonny Steinberg. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Descrizione libro Jonathan Cape, 2014. Hard Cover. Condizione libro: New. Condizione sovraccoperta: New. Brand new copy. Dispatched within 24 hours of receiving the order. Size: 8vo - over 7¾" - 9¾" tall. Codice libro della libreria 051360