the ones I left behind – Titanics 1/5

This is a series of five stories I wrote inspired by the lives of tahribs I met in my childhood. I started writing them two years ago so some of you might have already read the first two ones. I decided to repost them on this new blog because I finally finished the collection and I’d like to share it. I’ll post one story per week, hope you’ll enjoy them (:

Desclaimer: In somali ‘tahrib’ is the term used to describe those who leave their land to reach Europe or western countries by sea. Until some years ago, tahribs in Turin used to called themselves ‘titanic’ – I never really asked why but I guess it’s to express how they escaped a very dangerous journey. I’m not sure if they call themselves the same way even in other parts of Italy/Europe, but that’s how we refer to tahribs in Turin hence the name of this short collection of stories.

I.

Don’t strike against the soil, don’t fly abroad!

I only asked questions when I wasn’t enough interested to observe.
But I was interested now, and I was quiet and there was something in that person that made my thoughts swim in curiosity. I sat rigidly on the sofa, legs crossed in my oversize baati, ready to hear a story that would surely numb my mind.
“I left Baidabo when I was fourteen. ” started the woman, and laughed at my surprised expression. “Oh, don’t make that face. It’s true that I looked younger than I was because I didn’t get proper meals, but I knew much more than any girl raised in Europe now could imagine. Children back home where little adults, not like here. Even my sister’s daughter, who was only five years old, knew how to take care of herself – in fact, if only she wanted to, I bet she could’ve sold your younger sister at any market: that’s how much she knew.”

She spoke with a low voice, not giving any strength to her words, and yet I couldn’t help glancing at my sister who was sleeping soundly in her tiny bed, wondering about how much could a five year old child know and what circumstances could’ve possibly caused such knowledge.

I had an older sister, Shamsa” she resumed, “She couldn’t bear the life in our hometown. Everything bothered her. Not being able to study, not knowing when things would get better, having to pay mooriyan to cross certain roads. And worse, she couldn’t stand not having the resources to cure our sick parents. Even when everything was alright she complained about how we were just getting used to the bad conditions and forgetting how a proper life was. I didn’t forget anything, honestly, because I had nothing to forget. I was born in 1997, the way of living we were in currently was all I’ve ever known. But she was different. She was older than me fifteen years and all her childhood memories were full of people and buildings that were no longer there. And I remember her anger worsening after they opened an internet point in town. She got more and more resolute after contacting some relatives that lived in Kenya and learning about new routes to arrive in Somalia. That was all she needed.

“My sister always had a strong character and some terrible madax-adeeg (stubborness). She could literally talk you into anything, and knowing that she went to our mother and said: ‘We have to leave, hooyo’. And we left. Then once in Kenya she sent me and my sisters to school and started visiting another internet point. She contacted some qaraabo in Italy – I didn’t know it was your uncle back then – and she told them she was considering paying someone to help us cross the sea from Libya. Her husband was desperate, Jamaal. All he ever wanted had been the possibility of living with her in a peaceful country, and he had found what he was looking for in Nairobi. He couldn’t understand her thirst for more, but her rethoric was hypnotizing and few words where enough to convince him. ‘Don’t you want your daughters to live without ever fearing rape like me and my sisters and your sisters did? Don’t you want them to walk in streets where no one cares disrespects them? Don’t you want your sons to study and work and afford a good life with their wives the way you couldn’t do?”. Such a beautiful future was something he’d never contemplated, and the more she talked about it the more he wanted to share that dream with her. So he started working harder to afford the journey.

“She found the man that everyone was talking about in town. He called himself Dr. Jurille, but he could hardly read the alphabet let alone be a doctor. He asked her for an unthinkable sum of money and talked about more payments to come in Sudan and Libya. I heard them talking from the kitchen and they mentioned Ethiopian passports and prison and the desert. I was tired by just listening. Since I knew that in other households men where leaving their families to look for fortune in Europe, I imagined that Jamaal was leaving. But he was not leaving alone. She went with him, because he told her he wouldn’t leave her behind in Eastleigh with no one to protect her. ‘Or we can just stay’ he said. But to Shamsa that was not an option. So they left.”

She stopped her narration for a moment, looking at me with a sad smile.

“They wanted to come here but they never even left the Libyan shores. They were both killed in a prison. Isn’t it ironic that I, who had never even wanted to leave Baidabo, am the one talking here with you?”
“I’m so sorry for your loss, habaryar” I said, still dwelling in curiosity. I wanted to know what happened in between, how she got to survive, how the journey on the boat had been. But I didn’t want to be insensitive. Thinking that it was safe to say that much and dreaming of how nice it would have been to be given a chance to prove myself as well, I murmured: “I wish I traveled as much as you, too. You must have seen some beautiful places!”
I was too young to understand how disrespectful my childishness was to the woman who shared her sufferings with me, but could innocence and lack of experience be a fault? The woman didn’t take it to heart, but a bitter smile sat on her condescending face and in her eyes displayed her memories of the non-living. Not having the strength to explain the sudden sadness that overwhelmed her, she put a hand on the girl’s shoulder and said: “The most beautiful places and times are the ones I left behind”.

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