Short Story by Ilwaad Yusuf
Mogadishu, Somalia 2001
“All passengers, you may now un-buckle your seatbelts, we have arrived at our destination.”
Everyone was standing, shuffling through the cabin, trying to be the first one out. The exit was not a conventional one that connected the door of the plane with a long tunnel leading to a gate inside the airport. We had to exit down steps leading to the tarmac itself, which I could feel was hot under the soles of my sandals. The heat bubbled through rubber with each step. I made my way past security, trying my best not to look at the rifles strapped to their backs. The faces of the soldiers standing guard were solemn and grim. Each man looked weathered and worn. Each man looked as if he had lost something in this over a decade-long fight that had yet to end.
The airport was not entirely busy for a Monday afternoon. By the time I got through immigration and grabbed my bags, it had only been just under an hour since I landed. I waited at the passenger pick-up area, eyes scanning the crowd for a vibrant eighteen-year-old girl with big eyes and a huge laugh.
A few minutes later a black sedan pulled up next to me. I was hesitant at first. I had heard all the stories about female travelers with international passports getting kidnapped and held for ransom. I took a few steps back from the vehicle and waited for whoever was in it to step outside. The window rolled down and my anxiety levels lowered considerably, because sitting inside was my seventy-five-year-old father. The driver came around and took my luggage, but not before he opened the door and motioned for me to get inside.
I smiled at him. “Assalamualaikum, Aabo.”
He turned and kissed me on the forehead. “Shunkaroon,” was all he said.
We held hands but sat in silence for the majority of the ride back to the compound. As soon as we reached our street, I couldn’t contain my hysteria. I should have known nothing would be the same, but somehow I still hoped that I would be able to recognize the place I’d grown up in.
“Where is everything?” I asked him. “Where are all the neighbors?”
I scanned the dirt roads that were once paved, the houses that were once gated now complete and utter ruins. The shops lining the street were boarded up. Children stood half-naked by dirty streams of water leaking off rooftops; others walked along the side of the road, putting on shows for the people driving by in expensive vehicles, hoping to make a few shillings.
My father didn’t answer me at first. He just let me take in the state of my neighborhood, the place I spent the first eighteen years of my life.
When we first drove up to our compound I relished how much it still looked like home. But as we got closer I began to see just how much damage it had sustained during the war. The gates had huge dents in it, almost as if cars had tried to ram it open. They were also extremely rusted. The colour of the house was fading. I remember back before the war my mother used to paint the house every year to keep it looking new.
The garden had completely died. The trees that lined the front of the house had been chopped down right to the stumps. The windows looked like they were one rainstorm away from being blown in.
The second I stepped out of the sedan I was attacked by a very tall human being. She wrapped her legs around my waist and her arms around my neck and screamed incessantly in my ear for five minutes.
“You’re here! You’re here! Oh my God Ayah, you’re home!”
The last time Mariam greeted me at these gates it was under much worse circumstances.
“Mariam, you’re choking me.”
She let go immediately and I finally got a good look at her face. She was stunning. Much prettier than I had been at eighteen. She had long black curls that fell to her waist, her eyes were light brown, her skin a caramel hue, and her cheekbones were so high they were enviable. I was so glad that she wore niqaab outside; if any man saw her the way I did now, she’d be married off in a matter of days.
I held onto either side of her face and fought back tears. “Yes, love. I’m home.”
“They’re beautiful,” Mariam said as she held the photographs of my two sons. “How old are they again? Four?”
“Three. They’ll be four next April.”
“What about him?”
She raised an eyebrow. “How is it like being married to an cadaan guy?”
I tried to recollect the day Aiden and I first met. It had been a Sunday, and I was sitting at the library on Yonge Street, studying for my Early American Lit exam. I was in the middle of thanking God that my parents had the ability to not only give me and my siblings a formal education, but also to put us in private English lessons so that we were fluent by the time we graduated high school. If it hadn’t been for those lessons I likely wouldn’t have made it to Canada, let alone university.
I was deep in thought when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned and took in a big burly man behind me, with ivory skin and golden hair. He held three stacks of books in his hands and a backpack precariously balanced on his shoulder.
“Do you need some help?” I asked.
He smiled and shook his head. “I’m good. I just need you to move from my study carrell.”
“Your study carrell?”
“Yeah. I reserved it at the front desk. You can go check.”
Dumbfounded, I immediately packed my things and made my way down to the front desk to reserve another spot. The librarian cocked her head to one side. She began laughing and pointed to a sign that said in bold letters:
NO RESERVED OR ASSIGNED SEATS ALLOWED
I looked back at the devil spawn sitting peacefully in my seat. “Aabaha iyo hooyatha ka….” I stopped myself. No, this is not you Ayah. You are better than curses… I think.
“Why did you lie to me?” I demanded, after making my way towards him.
He looked up at me for a moment, from over his spectacles, and then back at one of the many books he had been carrying. “Because anyone stupid enough to actually get up deserves to have their seat taken.”
“Did you just call me stupid?”
He scanned the room for a moment. “I don’t see anyone else here with that look on their face.”
I stared at him incredulously.
Breathe. I shook my head and remembered what my mother had taught me to do whenever someone tested my patience or character. I recited my adkaar and began making my way to another study space. But before I could, I felt him grab my hand and stop me.
“What did you just say?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I tried to worm my way out of his grasp.
“No, tell me.”
“Let go of me you dick. You wouldn’t even understand.”
He stood up and for the first time I realized just how big he was, 6’4 maybe 6’5, definitely over 200 pounds. I was miniscule compared to him. He took me by the shoulders and – to my utter shock – gently sat me down in his seat.
“I’m sorry for what I said earlier. Now, explain to me what you said in Arabic.”
I sighed and told him it was a prayer said to protect oneself from evil.
He was smiling as I explained it to him.
“I’ve been studying Islam for the past six months,” he said. “But I’m not really friends with many Muslims, and so I don’t get much exposure to the people or the religion.”
“There’s a mosque just a few blocks away. They have Friday prayers there and it’s a good place to meet people who would be willing to help you learn more.”
His eyes lit up at the mention of it. “Will you be there?”
“He sounds like an ass to me,” Mariam said, biting at her nails.
I suppressed a laugh. “He was an asshole, but he’s not that person anymore.” I tried to remember the last time Aiden did anything remotely rude or mean to anyone since his conversion to Islam. The most I could come up with was when he stole Adam’s – named after my favorite brother – pop tart while he was too engrossed in the latest Spongebob film. When Adam finally noticed, Aiden just assumed a dumbfounded expression and told Adam to ask his mother for another one.
Mariam was examining her cuticles.”Would you ever bring them back? I’m sure Aabo would love to see them.”
I sighed. “I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. Maybe when the country has a stable government, and the tribes aren’t still fighting for land. God knows I’ve been wishing for that for years.”
“You know that will never happen. No matter what new government comes into power, it will never end. It’s a disease Ayah, the Somali people have a disease within them. All this talk of Qabil is what caused the war to begin in the first place, and none of the tribes will stop holding bloodline above religion.”
Mariam stood up from the cobblestone pathway that lead to the living area. She offered her hand to me and I took it. As we began walking, her grip on me tightened. “There is no white flag coming, Ayah. If that’s what you’re waiting for you’ll be waiting forever.”
“Aabo?” I walked into his study. He was sitting on the floor, in his macwis, chewing khat.
He waved me in and told me to have a seat. “Aabo, how many times do I have to tell you not to chew that stuff. It’s not good for your health.”
He laughed a little, then took a sip of coke. “What do you need shunkaroon?”
My father used the familiar Somali proverb – “better than five girls”– to address me only when he was in a good mood. I assumed it was the drug making him much calmer than usual.
“Do you remember Safiya Hirsii, my old high school classmate?”
“Where does she live? I want to go see her.”
He called for Hodan, our maid, and told her to bring a piece of paper and pen.
“What do you need that for?” I asked.
He looked at me curiously. “I’m drawing you a map.”
“I don’t need a map, Aabo. I know this neighborhood.”
He stared at me for a moment. “No shunkaroon, you do not.”
I was more than pleased to hear that Safiya had gotten married a few years after the war had begun. When I arrived at her house I was even more pleased to see she had done well for herself. Her home was just about the size of mine, but in much better condition. As the maid opened the front gate to let me in, I could see one of her many children running about looking healthy and happy.
Safiya met me at the front of the house, arms opened wide and tears already streaming down her face.
“I’ve missed you,” she said. Her grip around me was tight.
I held her for a few minutes. Then, still holding her hands, I stepped back so I could look at her. “I’ve missed you too, love.”
She smiled at me. “Welcome home.”
“Do you remember when we used to steal all of Fathiya’s diraacs? We would mess up her make-up drawer and she would come after us with a broom stick.” Safiya’s face lit up at the memory. Her laugh echoed through the room.
“The worst part was she was always ready to break that broom on us too.” I chuckled at the thought of my eldest sister, who stood at 5’2, breaking anything on anyone.
Safiya smiled. “No, your mom would never have allowed that.”
I felt the weight of her remark much quicker than I thought I would. Safiya stopped suddenly and looked at me. “I’m sorry. I never got to tell you how sorry I was about your mother.”
I shook my head, trying to stop the flashbacks as they began to emerge. It was as if the mention of her name drew me back to the moment in time when I realized we would never breathe the same air, laugh at the same joke, or that she would never make me malawax or shax for breakfast ever again. The first image was of myself curled up in a ball on the living room floor, cradling my belly as Adam and Abdel had four more weeks inside me before entering the world. And there was Fathiya’s distant voice on the other end of the phone, screaming for me to answer her, to tell her I was okay. The next was the instance of panic I heard in Aiden’s voice as he came down the stairs to find his pregnant wife lying in the fetal position in the middle of the living room floor. There was also the pain and shock I witnessed on Aiden’s face when he laid me on the sofa, picked up the phone, and listened to Fathiya re-tell the moment my mother had been hit by a stray bullet to the chest while she was walking to the market, leaving her dead on the street almost instantly. Finally, there was the recollection of a month-long struggle for me to find happiness in anything; the struggle for Aiden not to break down when I needed something to hold onto, which all in some part ended when I held my children in my arms, and saw that they both had her eyes.
“Ina lillahi, wa inna ilayhi raji’oon,” I said to her.
She grabbed my hand. “Yes. To God we belong, and to him we shall return.”
Safiya promptly changed the subject, asking about my siblings instead. I told her of Fathiya’s grueling job as a surgical intern at a hospital in England. I told her about Isaac and his graduation with a degree in architecture, and how he plans to move from England to Ireland with his wife and daughter. Just as soon as Adam and I had set up a place in Toronto, Layla and Ismael emigrated to Canada. Layla ended up marrying a man she had met while traveling across the Gulf to Yemen on the night the civil war began. I told her how Adam and Ismael wound up starting a trucking company together, and how with a few investments, they turned it into an extremely profitable business. Both are married now, with four kids between them.
“SubhanAllah,” she said. “It seems God takes away only to give. May he continue to give you more.”
My lips curved into a smile. “Ameen.”
After a few hours, I left Safiya’s house with the promise that I would be back tomorrow, but only with pictures of Abdel and Adam, because apparently she was already tired of my face. I took no offense to her meager joke because the boys were cuter than me, and anyone who said different was a liar.
The walk back to my compound was a short one; the dirt road took me home with more ease than it took me away from it. As I turned the corner onto my street I heard a humming. It was soft and low, but there. I followed the sound as it carried in the warm wind. It left me breathless and wanting more. After a few moments the humming stopped. I could no longer hear the voice. I waited and waited but nothing came except Mariam’s words, telling me again that I’d be waiting forever. Soon, I picked up my pace; moving fast along the small dirt mounds, humming my mother’s song all the way home.
It was almost daybreak. The athan ripped through the silent streets of Mogadishu. Multiple mosques called men and women to rise from their beds and submit. After offering my salah, I climbed the railings on the side of the compound and made my way to the rooftop. I dialed a familiar number on my cell and waited for the ringing to stop and for a voice to appear on the other end.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
For a few minutes we sat there on the phone, listening to each other’s breathing. The sound of him made my heart calm. It made my decision easier.
“The boys?” I finally said.
“Do they miss me?”
“More than they’d miss me.”
I smiled. That’s my boys.
“Aiden, we need to talk. I’ve been thinking—” I tried my best to find the right words, to tell him exactly what I had been feeling, but every time I felt like I had them, they would slip from my tongue, as if they never belonged to me at all.
“Ayah?” he said.
“My father is getting old,” I began. “Mariam has grown up without her siblings. The boys, they don’t know half their family. I just—”
“I know they’re young,” I continued. “But I just want them to see, Aiden. I want them to feel the love that I felt when I was here, even if it’s just for a summer.”
“Ayah, it isn’t safe, not yet anyway. I had a hard enough time letting you go.”
I paused for a moment.
“It’s my home, Aiden. Besides, my father still has connections to the military. If anything here is probably the safest place for them in the whole world.”
Aiden was silent for a long time. “Say yes.” I pleaded. “Just say yes.”
Finally, he let out a deep breath. “I go wherever you go,” he said. “And our sons go wherever we go.”
This. I thought. This is why I married him.
A few more minutes and we said our goodbyes after I had promised call in the morning for them to speak with Abdel and Adam.
The sun had just touched the horizon, turning the sky a kaleidoscope of colours. Silence surrounded me. I sat on the roof of my home for a while longer and tried to remember the last time I had felt so at peace. I looked down into the garden below, and saw Mariam digging small holes in the soil. She was humming a tune as she worked. I slowly laid down against the concrete and listened to her voice until it was everywhere.