Igiaba Scego’s Adua, translated by Jamie Richards, is out now from New Vessel Press. Adua emigrates from Somalia to Italy to escape an oppressive regime, and dreams of becoming a film star. After her father’s death decades later, she is torn between her life in Rome and her homeland. In the following excerpt, she recalls a turning point in her childhood.
During our history lesson I was called into the headmaster’s office.
That had never happened before.
I hadn’t done anything wrong, at least not that I could recall.
It was a hot day in 1976. I think it was November. In Magalo, the sun blazed. Rain, a distant memory. “There will be terrible shortages,” the elders said. My legs trembled.
Drops of sweat beaded on my oval face. I looked right at the headmaster. A plea in my eyes: “Be quick.” But the headmaster didn’t speak, he just looked at me and shook his head. Then he began fiddling with a pen and paper. He made a few doodles. I didn’t look away, it was as if I was frozen. I was supposed to look at the floor, show more humility. But my eyes locked with his. He had strange green eyes. I held my breath.
“Your father has been arrested,” he said solemnly. I looked down. Now there was really no sense in staring at the headmaster. I didn’t want to see the expression of triumph on his face. The headmaster hated my father. All the men in Siad Barre’s new regime did.
My father didn’t hide his aversion to the dictator or to the new direction Somali politics had taken. “These Communists will lead us to ruin,” he kept saying. Hajiedda Fardosa begged him to keep quiet. But he continued to speak out. “Trash,” he’d say, and let out a big wad of spit in demonstration of all his contempt.
“Don’t you think of your daughters?” Hajiedda Fardosa asked him. “Don’t you think about their future? They’ll be the ones to pay if you keep acting this way.”
“They can handle it. They’re big now. I can’t think about them. It’s my conscience.”
I’d been expecting the arrest. We all had. I stood there, silent, waiting to be dismissed. But the headmaster didn’t let me go. He kept playing with his pen, with his doodles.
“Your father,” he said, again breaking the bitter silence, “has been accused of insubordination. It’s a very serious charge.” I nodded, tired of the bad comedy. “Nothing to say?”
I was berated, and I quickly mustered: “Yes, Headmaster, it’s a very serious charge.” What was I supposed to do? Apologize? Kneel at his feet? Did he expect me to tear my hair out? What did he want? Then he looked at me with his unmoving eyes, black and empty.
“I’ll be keeping an eye on you. You know what they say, like father, like daughter.” I was dismissed and I returned to class. No one asked me why the headmaster had called me in. No one talked to me after class, not even Muna Kinky-Hair, my dearest friend at the time. Not even you, Muna, will talk to me anymore? You, who have been outcast by everybody because you’re a nappy-headed jeerer? You, who are considered to be from a lower caste, a Bantu Somali with a big nose and wide backside? Even you, Muna, would betray me like that? I had suddenly become a pariah. Someone to avoid.
When I got back home, there was Hajiedda Fardosa with a face more glum than usual and yellow cheeks that clearly attested to the failing state of her liver. “We can see him this afternoon,” she told me. Malika didn’t come along. She wasn’t well. She had thrown up, unable to take the news. I didn’t feel sorry for her. You could never count on Malika, not even in a time of need.
The temporary detention center was in the Affissione Est district. Far from home. Hajiedda Fardosa and I walked for kilometers between twigs and hot sand. There was no sea there. The landscape was dominated by the lunar solitude of the African periphery. It went through your eyes and affronted your heart. Once we arrived we waited at a green gate for an hour. Hajiedda Fardosa had sandy feet and dirty nails. I stood off to the side with my legs crossed. I looked at my hands. I was harboring the biggest of secrets. The week before, thanks to Omar Genale, I had met some Italians. Omar Genale. What a character! He was fat when no one else in Somalia was. Now everyone is fat, especially those of us in the diaspora like me. They drown their homesickness in heaps of mustard and fried meat. But during my teenage years, Omar was the only fat one in the city. He had a pointy mustache, a flat chin, piggish eyes and sweet little dimples like a baby Jesus. He always had a bunch of smiles handy, especially “for big beauties like you, Adua.” The prematurely aged child really made me laugh. His walk, I remember, was especially funny. He scampered on his toes like a rabbit. But his was a hop full of fat, a tired hop from the notable bulk of flab that he was carrying.
Omar trafficked in all sorts of items. You wanted butter and he had it brought directly from Nairobi. French cigarettes, there they were. Italian magazines, no need to even ask. Housewives relied on him for flour. And big beauties like me asked him for contraband cassette tapes. Gianni Morandi, Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Omar had everything. He knew how to navigate the intricate network of illegal trade. No one imagined that such a big, heavy man could go as light as a dragonfly between the narrow clefts of a despotic regime. He was good at his job, Omar. It wasn’t particularly commendable, but it was what a depleted city like Magalo needed. “Good job, Omar,” the Italians told him. “You brought us the right girl.” Someone else in the group: “She has nice legs, this Negro girl.” Naturally he was compensated. And he was given the task of taking me to the airport on the agreed-upon date. “Bring her to us; the rest, the exit documents, we’ll take care of that.” And so the deal was sealed. More money was promised to Omar Genale. And I literally felt like I was in seventh heaven. They were Italian, they wanted to make movies, they would turn me into a Marilyn and I’d leave that sewer Magalo forever.
But now I was standing at a green gate with my legs crossed waiting to visit my arrested father in jail. Italy was still too far away. A strong wind began to ruffle our clothes. Sand blew into our eyes, Hajiedda Fardosa teared up. I squeezed my eyes shut as hard as I could. Meanwhile, my mind wandered. What would I say to him once we were inside? We never talked. What did he expect me to do? I didn’t know how to love him.
And he didn’t know how to love me. And meanwhile, the wind kept pounding us. It hit hard.
I squeezed my eyes shut again. When they opened the green gate I almost didn’t notice. Hajiedda Fardosa tugged me and I straightened up like a newly bloomed flower. In front of me was a man in uniform but without a hat. He wore glasses. He said nothing. He motioned for us to follow him. The man was bald. He had a large, pockmarked face. A cruel face I could have gladly done without. He put his hands on my bottom. I looked toward Hajiedda Fardosa for support, but she was looking the other way. Blood shot to my brain. I wrung my hands. Luckily, I thought, I was about to leave all this behind. In three days I’ll be out of here. I already pictured myself in Rome, a city I knew from books. In my head I recited the names of its streets and its squares: Via Sistina, Via Giulia, Piazza di Spagna, Piazza Navona, Via Veneto . . . How wonderful! I already saw myself wrapped in a black Givenchy dress like Audrey Hepburn, ready to climb the ladder to success. The Italians liked me. They were going to have me make a movie.
They would make me immortal. No more Magalo, no more troubles, no more headmasters calling me or best friends betraying me.
Hajiedda Fardosa and I were led into a room with turd-colored walls. The police officer escorting us said “Wait here,” and then shot me a nasty, mean look. It didn’t register. My imagination was elsewhere. I was in Rome, on Via Margutta, on Via del Corso. Then a man in a trapezoidal green uniform appeared. He introduced himself as the director of the institution. He was nicer than the policeman, less vulgar. He had a translucent mustache that put anyone around him in a good mood. “He’s a stubborn one, your husband,” the director told Hajiedda Fardosa. “Talk some sense into him and he’ll be out of here soon.”
“I’ll try,” Hajiedda Fardosa said, biting her lip.
Then Papa was brought in.
He was smiling, in contrast to the atmosphere in that turd-colored room. The blue turban he always wore was sloppily wrapped. My father was thinner. His eyes more intense. He seemed happy. Satisfied. I looked at Hajiedda Fardosa. She hadn’t expected that smile either. I wanted to kiss him on the cheek. I’d never done it before. How does one kiss one’s father? No one ever taught me. No one touched at home. Let alone kissed. I took a step toward him. I reached out. I should at least shake his hand. A manly gesture, one that he would understand. I took one step, two, three—then I tripped over a chair I hadn’t noticed. I fell flat on my face. A ridiculous fall. Like in a silent film, something out of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton.
Everyone laughed and the tension melted. “I have a clumsy daughter,” my father said.
© 2015 Igiaba Scego. Translation © 2017 Jamie Richards. Excerpt by agreement with New Vessel Press.