The window of the one bedroom in our tiny house looked out onto the street. Opposite, on the other side of the street, there was a large building known as “the kids’ house.” It was a long, two-story yellow building with green door and windows, where a mix of foreign teenagers lived. The Italians called them “deviant kids,” meaning problem kids that risked turning into delinquents. But we called them “our kids from the big house.”
In the house there also lived a series of tutors chosen by the local health authority. Their job was to stay with the adolescents and “give direction to their activities.”
Two of the teens that lived in the house, Moroccan brothers called Yousif and Abdelkader, were considered by us foreigners “the neighborhood boys.” We had raised them. There wasn’t a house they hadn’t entered to get something to eat or drink or to get some money to buy trendy clothes at the Saturday market.
The foreign community, which made up almost the entire neighborhood, had lived together without any problems until the previous year, when a group of Albanian teenagers, four boys and a girl, had been put into the “kids’ house.” That was when the trouble began.
The Albanians and the “neighborhood boys” got into fistfights. Every morning. And every morning the tutors, still half-asleep, went down into the street to wait. A short time later a police car would arrive at top speed, its siren shattering the air. It would stop up short in front of the green gate and two policemen would get out, armed with nightsticks and all the rest, and would separate the boys with their fists.
These episodes were becoming habitual and had stirred up the whole neighborhood, for two reasons. The first was a natural anxiety for the “neighborhood boys.” Everything possible had been tried to get them to confess the cause of those early morning fights, but no attempt, even if it was made by the old people they called mother, like my grandma, had produced positive results. On the contrary they’d made things worse. Every attempt had made the dark cloak covering the cause of those fights even denser.
The second reason lay in the fact that no one liked seeing the police in the neighborhood. Who didn’t give a slight jump of fear on seeing a policeman? Who didn’t feel that strange itch in the legs that leads to a lively, accelerating movement that takes you somewhere else, somewhere as far as possible from his line of vision? To be honest, as honest as possible, in front of the police you can’t shake off another crime, and the most indelible one—the crime of being a foreigner. From the Southern hemisphere.
Unfortunately, instead of melting away under the mild autumn sun the cause of those morning fights grew more and more bitter, until they became a daily routine which we had to get used to in the end. Every morning, almost on the dot of seven, or at most ten minutes before or after, the neighborhood quiet was shattered by the flying-squad siren cutting through the air like a knife slicing through an entire length of fabric.
This happened so punctually that the neighborhood people had stopped setting their alarm clocks. Winter passed, and on the threshold of Lent the neighborhood alarm was still the flying-squad siren. And the situation was the same on the eve of our Easter, which as the stars would have it coincided with the Catholic Easter that year. And thanks to that favorable conjunction, Grandma Berechtì had decided to invite—or better, to screen—my Italian boyfriend on Easter day. As usual, the evening before the great day none of us had set the alarm clock.
The next morning Grandma Berechtì woke up feeling well-rested and thought it was still early, since the usual shriek of the siren hadn’t been heard. She turned to her right to see if my mother, who slept next to her in the double bed, was still sleeping. Then she turned to her left, where I was asleep in my single bed. Then she got up and went to look out the window. What she saw was so incredible that she couldn’t help letting out a surprised yelp, “Woi Gheta! Woi Fetarì! Come and see. Get up, come and see.”
On the street in front of the courtyard of the big house was the usual police car. The driver’s door was closed. Through the window you could just see the driver: he was almost lying down, with the seat back. The other door was open. The second policeman had got out and was standing in front of the fence that surrounded the house. On the other side was the girl from the group of Albanians. The policeman was stroking her face with a rose he’d passed through the fence. The two of them were softly talking while their eyes met.
They were courting.
On the opposite side of the courtyard, their backs leaning against the wall of the house and their bums on the ground, the Albanian boys sat in a row, along with Yousif and Abdelkader. They were laughing as they observed the strange couple. Yousif and one of the Albanian boys were nudging each other with their elbows.
I think everyone in the neighborhood who had a window nearby was watching the scene. Everyone was as amazed as we were. Grandma Berechtì took her eyes away from the lovers to look for the eyes of her friend in the window next to the big house. And her friend did the same. The eyes of the two women met in a dialogue of gesture. Grandma Berechtì raised her eyes to heaven. She meant that this happy event was one of the great and small miracles that the Lord enjoys performing on the day of his Resurrection. Her friend nodded assent.
Then Grandma Berechtì turned to me and said in a warlike manner, “Today the Lord is in a good mood. Who knows—maybe there’s something good for you, too. Go get your white boyfriend and we’ll see….”
“What have you made to eat?” I asked, trying to hide my anxiety.
“The usual Easter food: dorœ wot, yebeg wot, and then the sliced onions with hot pepper for the tibs that we’ll fry just before we go to table.”
“Did you make it very hot?”
“No, Miss, just right,” she answered, but I didn’t believe her. By now I was used to the way she would use the hot pepper to test and put to flight all of the few Italian boyfriends I’d had.
As I went into the bathroom I glanced at the pan that held the onions prepared for the tibsi. A surge of anger gripped me. Usually tibs is sautéed on a bed of onion with a few pieces of hot green pepper, but that stuff was a sea of green where the gold of sautéed onion wasn’t even visible.
“Grandma!” I shouted.
She didn’t come out of the bedroom. I reached her, furious. “The bed of vegetables for the tibs is all green pepper!”
“So what?” she answered seraphically.
“So what? So it wasn’t enough for you to use so much pepper, you had to choose the little Pakistani ones, the ones even you can’t eat.”
She turned toward me, in all her magnificence. “A man who cannot resist something hot on his tongue will not be able to resist the spicy character of an Ethiopian woman,” she said. I didn’t answer. It was useless, anyway. I went into the bathroom clutching the idea that He was used to hot food. Hadn’t we met at the African restaurant? And hadn’t Kidane, the owner, told me he was a real Habescià, who ate food as hot as and even hotter than we do?
With these thoughts in my head, I got washed and dressed and went out banging the door behind me, anxious about that sea of hot green floating in the pan.
We had arranged to meet at the San Felice Gate. From there we would go to the center to meet Taifur, Awet and Titti, and then when the morning was finished we would go to my house for the fearsome test.
When I got to the San Felice Gate, he was waiting for me at the bus stop. I got off.
“So,” he asked, hugging me, “is today the day when I have to pass the fearsome test?”
“Don’t joke. I’m worried. My grandmother is terrible. I don’t know how you’ll get through it. You know how she made the base for the green tibs? It’s all hot pepper.”
Still hugging me, he tried to get me to laugh, “Hey, don’t worry, you know I’m used to hot food. Don’t I have you to bite into?”
“Go away, idiot!” I laughed; I would have added something more, but the bus was coming and he pulled my hand, “It’s the number 13, let’s get on.”
On the bus we stood near the exit, next to an elderly couple. After a few yards I realized that the two old people were as bright-eyed as children scouring a new territory. Their eyes plumbed the shops under the portico.
At a certain point the man, short, thin and well-dressed, almost gave a euphoric little hop, saying to the woman: “Look, the old Amore pizza place is still there.”
The woman, who was just as short, with a halo of bluish hair and a lightweight red coat, replied, “There’s no doubt the owners have changed. Maybe their grandchildren are running it.”
“Maybe they’ve sold it, but the name is the same as it was back then,” he said and added, after a moment’s thought, “who knows if the pizza is still as good as in the old days. Do you remember, Anna?”
“Of course, how could I forget? A small pizza and so fragrant!”
And he, “I remember the rush for the last glass of grappa at two in the morning when we shut up the shop on Saturday night. And Mimmo, the owner of the pizza place, would give us a few slices of warmed-up pizza because at that time of night grappa by itself makes a hole in the stomach, he used to say.”
“Huh! You were still a bachelor then. I never let you drink at that time of night when we were married.”
The bus gained a few yards in the chaos of via San Felice and the two old people, Anna and the husband, went on dipping into the past like a little sailboat appearing and disappearing in the waves of the ocean.
“There,” he said all of a sudden, “there’s where my shop was. That is, the shop where I was a salesman. The best shop for gloves, hats and walking sticks in all of Bologna. Ah! Those were the days.”
A few yards further on she pointed to a small shop almost at the end of the street, “Carlo, look, there’s an Indian shop. Look at the colors…. It used to be a stamp-collectors’ shop, gray like the skin of its owner.”
“I don’t remember,” said Carlo.
“I’m telling you. It was a stamp-collectors’ shop.”
“I’m sure you’re right, Anna. You were the woman from the city center. I was the man from the suburbs.”
By now the bus had arrived at the traffic lights. Two more stops and we’d get off in Piazza Maggiore. He and I smiled all through their conversation. Smiled at the openness with which these two elderly people revealed the emotion of their memories of when they were young.
At the traffic light the husband, Carlo, turned toward us. His eyes fell on our interwoven hands, on the contrast of brown and white skin.
“My dears,” he commented, “when you grow old you see the world change. When I was young I had the choice between a woman from the city or from the country. Or, at the very most, as in my case, you could come from the suburbs and aspire to a woman from the city center. But now you can choose between different worlds.”
Our stop arrived. We got off to meet Taifur, Awet and Titti. We spent a few hours with them at the Café Asmara, and then we took our bus to the neighborhood of Corticella.
The last stretch of via Corticella, where the presence of us foreigners was most dense, looked like a half-bombed city. Buildings clearly showing the precariousness of their erect position looked onto streets with caved-in asphalt. We lived in those buildings, which were just as shaky as our residence permits. And we paid through the nose to be able to live in them.
More than once my grandmother had tried to report to the municipal authorities that while removing a spider’s web from the bathroom ceiling with a broom, she’d seen a mildew stain and had scraped it with the broom handle. A piece of plaster fell in. She’d pushed the handle up as far as it would go. Then at a certain point the Filipino who lived on the floor above us had yelled, “Lady, get broom out of my bathroom.” The authorities had only laughed.
The whole neighborhood was in the same condition, but the building belonged to a bigwig, and so that was the end of the story.
A few years later, in the middle of the night, the kitchen floor of an apartment caved in. The two tenants, an Iranian couple who were political refugees, became the guests of a young Sicilian living in the neighborhood. The building was evacuated and collapsed a few days later. The one we lived in collapsed some time later still. But these events occurred three years after that fateful Easter Sunday, and by then we weren’t living in the neighborhood any more.
We got off at the last stop, in front of the big “kids’ house.” He squeezed my hand to give me courage. I smiled at him gratefully.
When we walked into the house, the hot pepper smell was so strong that it made me cough. “Grandma, it’s impossible to breathe in here!” I said. She ignored me, and simply introduced herself to Him with a polite smile. The mesob already sat enthroned in the center of the small dining table. We would eat there, according to tradition, all dipping our hands into the same dish.
My mother arrived and she also introduced herself to Him, then my grandmother uncovered the mesob and we sat down around it.
“Umm! Good!” he exclaimed, breathing in the aroma.
She, the fearsome warrior who had routed all my previous Italian boyfriends, lifted an eyelid to throw him a doubtful look. Without paying attention to her glance, he pulled off a piece of ingera and dipped it into the sauce. He wrapped the ingera around the meat, forming a perfect cone, a big masculine mouthful, with the center between his fingers and the point of the cone touching the palm of his hand, then he threw it into his mouth. Without a word or a breath, and without even asking for something to drink, he continued to eat, pulling off pieces of ingera and making big masculine mouthfuls. He tasted all the different sauces, following the instructions I’d given him: always take the food in front of you, never reach over into other people’s space. At the African restaurant he’d never learned to eat from a common dish.
After the red sauces, Grandma Berechtì, who was still not satisfied by that show of resistance, sautéed the tibsi meat in its bed of hot green pepper and served it. None of the three of us got beyond the first mouthfuls. It was a mouthful of flaming hell. He, on the contrary, continued to eat it. Grandma Berechtì was now staring at him out of both eyes, and her look had changed. From doubtful it had taken on the veining of marvel. Once he’d finished his portion, she got up to serve him another spoonful from the pan. I complained, “Grandma, that’s enough!” His eyes silenced me and then, turning to Grandma Berechtì, “Thank you, ma’am. It’s really good.”
“Bravo, my boy,” she responded. She was starting to be won over. When he’d finished that second serving, Grandma Berechtì began to ask him questions about himself. She inquired about his family, his work, his life.
After lunch we moved on to the coffee ceremony. Grandma Berechtì prepared the brazier, toasted the coffee, put the ground coffee powder into the earthenware coffee pot and waited. When the coffee was ready she poured it into small cups without a handle. She filled them almost to the rim, leaving the space of a grain of rice laid sideways between the border and the dark liquid. She picked up a cup and, without setting it on a plate, offered it to him.
He picked up the cup and gripped the rim between his middle and little finger, leaving the ring finger slightly lifted in an extremely elegant gesture, and began sipping the boiling coffee. Now my previous Italian boyfriend wasn’t able to stand the heat of the cup on his skin and had asked for a plate to put it on. But not him. He gripped that little cup and drank like a real Habeshà.
After the third cup of coffee, Grandma Berechtì gave a look that was filmed over with emotion. “You have a thousand shades of green in your eyes,” she said, “just like Alem’s father,” that is, my father.
It was done. He had passed the test.
As a sign of her total blessing and assent Grandma Berechtì told him that if he wanted to rest up in the afternoon he could lie down on the bed with me. He accepted her generous offer.
While He and I were dozing in the one bedroom in the house, I could hear my mother and grandmother whispering in the sitting room. Their words circled around an old topic of discussion: the ceremony of Teskar had never been performed for my father.
“His soul,” said Grandma Berechtì, “is still waiting for the Teskar. No one ate at a banquet in his honor after the six months following the death. No beggar was invited to bless the soul of your late husband. And you know, without Teskar the dead are like a car without gas. They haven’t the strength to reach their final destination, because they haven’t received the blessing of the poor who have eaten thanks to them.”
“But you know why we didn’t do the Teskar: it was because he was white.”
“That’s what you say. I never said it or thought it. He may have had white skin, but he was one of us. One of our people. A real Koblalit, and there aren’t many like him.”
“All right, maybe you’re right. We should have made the Teskar for him. Kill an ox, do the cooking, make the tela and the tegh, invite all the poor people of Addis Abeba, or of Debre Libanos, give them food to eat…, but we didn’t do it, so the topic is closed. Now we’re in Italy and it’s no use talking about it.”
“You’re totally irresponsible. You don’t understand that we have to do something. Why do you think your daughter can’t find a boyfriend who lasts more than six months? Exactly the time needed for the Teskar? It’s her father’s soul that’s still attached to her and wants to be remembered…!”
“What are you talking about?! You’re the one who made at least three of them run away.”
“Them? You can’t mean to say that they could have made husbands for her. They were white, of the sort that have an anchor on the foot and don’t go any further than the courtyard of their own house. You daughter needs a Koblalit.”
“So, what do you want me to do about it now?”
“All you’d have to do is open your heart, and the answer to that question would come by itself. My daughter, we can’t run the risk of seeing this boyfriend disappear like the others. Did you see him? Out of all the boyfriends she’s had, I’m telling you this is the right one, no, the perfect one for her. Just think, he has eyes of a thousand greens, like your husband, and then his work is to study the wind. Imagine, the wind. You’ll see that someone who studies the wind will know what it means to be a Koblalit.” Then I heard the front door bang shut. The rest of their conversation continued outside, beyond the reach of my hearing.
That evening, after He had left, declining the invitation to spend the night, the three of us went into the bedroom. Under the blankets, I closed my eyes to listen to the sounds that always come on the evening of a holiday. Grandma Berechtì took off her white dress, undoing the long zipper up the back, and then took off her earrings and her pendants, putting them on the bedside table with a sharp sound like a knock on the door.
I waited a few minutes, my eyes shut. Then, not hearing any sound, I opened them again. Grandma Berechtì was staring at me.
“What is it, Grandma?”
“Alem, I think that soon you must make a journey,” she said.
I am the daughter of a nomadic breath. My whole family belongs to a line of nomads, the Koblalit. When I was small I had to learn by heart the litany of the names of my ancestors, going all the way back to the founders of the lineage: the Yemenite woman Ewan and Gebre Sellasè, the man from Tigris.
Ours was a strange people. To belong, you had to have the soul of a nomad. That was why my father had been accepted, to the point of losing the nickname of “the white Koblalit” and taking on the name of “the Koblalit come from beyond the sea.”
For our people to move from one end of the country is an ordinary event, completely ordinary. To cover tens, or even hundreds, of miles to go to a baptism or a wedding or even just to visit a relative you hadn’t seen for a long time; to stop along the way with relatives living in the villages you passed through—all this was nothing out of the ordinary for us. For us moving is a fact of nature, and moving is not the same as making a journey.
A journey is another thing altogether.
For our people a journey is a cure. When a person continues to repeat the same mistakes or to encounter the same destiny even though he’s tried to change, he is brought in front of the elders and they recommend a journey. A return to certain places from the past so you can emerge yourself in old emotions and search for the one that has caught your soul on its hook, is holding on to it and keeping it from following its path.
When Grandma Berechtì pronounced those fateful words, I felt a thrill up and down my spine. I knew what she meant. Soon I would leave for Ethiopia.
From the novel Two Men with Eyes of a Thousand Greens. Copyright Gabriella Ghermandi. Translation copyright 2008 by Brenda Porster. All rights reserved.