15 May 2006, Mediterranean Sea
Once again, as they whispered silent prayers in the night, the splendid youth of many poor countries crossed the sea on a colorless boat, all wishing to successfully reach the land of their dreams. It wasn’t a long journey, but the sea was rebelling against their passage and every wave was a threat to everything they left behind.
As the wind blew quietly after the late storm, no one dared to count who was left on board. Everyone stuck with the ‘friends’ they made in the past hours and those who couldn’t find their acquaintances dared not to look around, fearing that the doubt may solidify into reality. Hours passed where the travelers waited with nothing but patience and fear in their hands, and as time went by they were visibly less, and more tired, and not as eager to reach the shore as before.
A young man was among the passengers, another soul with only hope and desperation to shield him from the unknown destiny.
His name was Jamal and as days went by he shivered under the rain and darkened under the sun. He was a believing soul, Jamal, one who couldn’t bear the thought of dying in the sea with no burial but these harsh waves, his people deprived of a grave to weep his death upon. So he spent the hours after the storm praying with his legs crossed, facing the direction that the driver had told him and asking for protection for himself and those with him. “Yaa Allah,” he murmured in his cupped hands. “let us survive through this. Let us all survive”.
And they survived.
Italian marines came and saved them from the boat, holding their arms as they helped women and children off the mortal vehicle. Then they let the men march off the boat and the driver was separated from them as soon as they reached the shore. As they were being welcomed in Lampedusa with shoes and finally not-salted water, they all saw the man being handcuffed and dragged away, his cries for help filling the listeners with helplessness.
“Tell them that I was forced into driving you!” he screamed, “Tell them that I’m one of you!”, but no one could help him. Not even Yahya with his perfect English, nor Jamal with his repeated: “Por fabore!”. Their pleads were left unheard and Ahmed, the underage driver who was forced to lead the boat because of his inability to pay the requested amount of money for the journey, was prosecuted for human smuggling.
“How can they think he’s one of them?” asked Yahya that night, as they slept in tends after having a full dinner. “What kind of criminal organization would send their agents on a journey that has such low chances of success?”
Jamal didn’t know how to express his indignation. All he could think about was what the agent in Libya had told them before their boat had sailed.
You left your homes behind, but is there a home for you ahead?
Jamal had faith, but seeing how Ahmed’s hopes of finding a new life in Italy were destroyed so soon, he didn’t know how to keep on hoping for the better.
What Jamal knew was that he hadn’t crossed the sea to rot in Lampedusa.
He had his family’s hopes and future on his shoulders, and when the first group of somalis left the camp he was among the ones who lead the way. He walked until his ankles were swollen, stopping by at a xawaalad to receive the money his mother sent him. Chased from a train because he was ticketless, he slept in mosques during the day and in parks and under magnificent Italian porches at night, not distinguishing between an important monument and a pretty house. He met people and made friends and tried to leave this unfamiliar country that smelled like Somalia and tasted like Somalia and was just as poor and messed up as Somalia. But every time he attempted to fly away he was sent back and told that, according to the Dublin Regulation, asylum seeker’s application had to be examined by the first European country he sat his foot on, in his case Italy. He knew that many people before him managed to enter countries like Sweden and Danmark without facing much problems, but every time he tried his luck the government’s server found the fingerprints that were taken from him upon his arrival in Lampedusa, an undeniable proof of Jamal’s passage in Italy. Fortunately he was never arrested for his attempts, and by the third time that his fingerprints were found, his reasons to leave diminished. And then one day he could no longer find the resolve to risk his relatives’ money anymore, and he gave up the dream of leaving Italy.
It was right then, by his tenth month there, that Fadumo Hassan entered his life.
He met her under the porches outside the Questura of Turin on a rainy day, and she came to him in all her beauty and wit, long fingers holding a navy umbrella. He greeted her, trying to hide his stupor and thinking of a way to approach her, but he hesitated one second too long and eventually she was the one who started the conversation.
She told him she arrived on the same boat as him.
“I didn’t notice you” he said.
“I did” she answered, and when Jamal returned home that day he sat at the table with his eyes closed, trying to recall the details of that journey for the first time since he arrived in Italy. Trying to remember Fadumo.
He slowly fell for her. For her joyful laugh and her strength and for the way he felt hopeful and blessed when she was around. He admired her willpower, because even if they had arrived in Italy at the same time, after six months she already worked with a cleaning company, earning a full salary that she used to rent an apartment with other somali tahrib girls – tahrib, illegal immigrant. She had stopped receiving food and bus tickets from the government two months after she settled in Turin, and this made him consider his past choices. The more he got to know her, the more he felt the need to be a better man; so day after day he worked more and put his every effort into gaining more independence from the government, until he found a job at a construction site and started saving up money.
One day after work Jamal went to her favorite spot, the somali Internet Point in via Baretti, secretly hoping to meet her there. At first he had wanted to pull his presence there as a coincidence, but Fadumo wasn’t a woman who allowed things to be left unsaid for long and as soon as she saw him she asked with a knowing smile: “You don’t live in this area. Are you after me Jamal?”.
Jamal hesitated, but didn’t think of lying: “Yes, if you allow me”.
Fadumo nodded with a small smile and glanced at Rahimo, her best friend and shop’s owner, who smiled brightly in return. Jamal wondered if she’d been waiting all along for him to be sincere about his intentions. With things clear between them, from then on Jamal went to meet Fadumo at the Internet Point after work every chance he had. Then in the summer, with the haste that was typical of tahribs who had risked their lives on the sea, he called her father in Kismayo and asked for her hand.
I met them for the first time on their marriage as it was celebrated by my father. I was thirteen then, and after hearing the story of how they met I remember thinking that they were the sweetest couple. With the naivety of those who are too young to understand adulthood, I was sure that they both had the happy ending they deserved.
Little did I know that as long as one lives, the cycle of hardship and relief is never-ending.
Ramadan 2009, Turin
“I didn’t mind being poor.” said Jamal to my mother, biting a sambus and wiping his mouth right after. As I was washing the dishes, I could see his lips trembling from the mirror on top of the sink. “Somehow I was rich in happiness”, he added.
But Fadumo thought otherwise. They had a child who was named after her father, Hassan, and who was now two years old. He was their greatest source of comfort in the small land of Italy where life was tough and no one gave nothing for free. Every month they had less and less, struggling to find even just a few euros to feed Hassan, and unfortunately Fadumo still couldn’t get used to their condition. She was blinded by her needs and she wanted to earn more money in order to move to a bigger house.
“I hate hearing the neighbors when they use the bathroom” she would say, but Jamal still remembered vividly how they used the bathroom on the boat, and couldn’t find in himself the same repulse that she felt. When their second winter together was about to start, Fadumo left for Kenya and came back without their son. Jamal couldn’t believe his eyes.
“I left him with your mother” she said, trying to calm him. “She will take good care of him, and he won’t have to suffer hunger or thirst. Let’s work our backs off, habibi. Let’s go get our Hassan back next year.”
The first night without Hassan in their bed was a nightmare.
Jamal cried and Fadumo lulled him to sleep. The second night she was the one crying and him the one lulling. The nights went on like that. Winter and Spring came and went, and they managed to save some money. They both worked like crazy, not noticing that they were slowly drifting apart from each other. They were so tired and nervous that they couldn’t bear the touch of one another, nor could they hold a conversation without ending up raising their voices. Jamal was slowly becoming numb to her laugh or beauty, and some days he wondered why they even got married.
After one year, they had no desire to live together anymore and they had both grown intolerant of each other. Especially Jamal, who couldn’t yet forgive her for abandoning their son in Kenya when they didn’t even have the money to fly there if anything happened to him. Without telling her, he used most of the money he had saved to get Hassan back.
The day he returned home with their child, Fadumo looked at him with no surprise in her eyes. Her eyes got filled with tears and she stretched her arms to hug her son, but he hid behind his father and started crying uncontrollably. The hurt in her eyes cannot be described with words.
“She was the one who asked me to divorce her” said Jamal, wiping his face. “I blamed her for what she did, maybe I even hated her for some time. But I didn’t want to divorce her…Well, I couldn’t force her to stay with me either, could I?”
Not being able to refrain my curiosity, I asked him if he had used the three opportunities for divorce that were given in Islam.
“No.” he said, his eyes glistening as he stood up. “Me and Hassan are still waiting for her to come back.”