It is Monday, July twenty-fourth of 1989. I am twelve years old, and I am excited about discovering many things: the fascination of girls, my desire to raise hundreds of pigeons, my plan to sneak into Mogadishu’s Cinema Equatore and sit among adult movie watchers, playing soccer in the dusty field until the sun drops behind the houses, skipping school, fighting with the boys from distant neighborhoods, curling my hair and practicing my dance moves to Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, and memorizing poems and metaphors so I can talk to grownups like Dad. I so much want to be my own man so I can decide the journey of my life.
As the darkness of night lifts, I hear a man clearing his throat and coughing. I open my eyes, pull my body forward and sit on my bed, shirtless. As the man’s coughing returns, I stretch my hands, rub my eyes, kneel on all fours on my bed and stare out of the window into the courtyard of our modest compound surrounded by three detached rooms and a stand-alone kitchen. The grasses around me are lifeless, dry and gray. The branches of our tree are leafless. The soil is dry. On the left side of the house, two dead butterflies decay in our tiny garden, and beneath the butterflies the soil is thirsty. This morning, the earth smells of decay.
My father is stumbling out of his room and towards the open-sky bathroom near the edge of the low fence surrounding the compound. Putting on a white v-neck t-shirt and Adidas shorts, I walk past the shade of the tree next to the bathroom. Dad stands at the bathroom door, grabs the door handle and turns the knob, but the door doesn’t open. The t-shirt falls from his shoulders onto the sand. He bends down to pick it up, but he wails “awgh” with pain. I hold the bathroom door for him to enter. He turns to me with a silent grin. I sit in the courtyard outside the bathroom where the air is calm, the soft sand touching my shorts is cold, the trees are silent, but the birds are singing sporadically. Now Dad is standing cheerless in the bathroom near the slightly open door. His gray t-shirt is hanging over his shoulders, and his chest hair is showing. He has been sick, but today there is something awful about his posture. His light-skinned face is dark with pimples around his mouth, and his lips are dry and cracked. His shoulders are hunched and illness leaks the confidence out of him.
While I am there, the door of one of the stand-alone rooms stretches open, and Mama steps out rubbing her eyes. Mama is young, and her silky brown skin is smooth against the light of the lifting sun. Her teeth are white. Her eyes are clear as a baby’s. Like other women of her generation with their long hair, Mama’s long hair reaches below her butt. She wears a dress with red, yellow and blue patterns. The slow morning air is flooding her hair.
“Where’s your father?” she asks.
“In the bathroom,” I answer.
“He didn’t sleep last night,” she says.
“Oh,” I react. “Dad isn’t doing good.”
“Stay with him,” Mama says to me, reminding me that that is my filial duty. She walks back into her room and closes the door. Then, I lift my eyes to the gray clouds that looked about to rupture like a belly hanging in the sky.
I hear Dad groan. At first, I do not react. But when I hear him groan again, I rise, take a few steps, grab his toothbrush, and stand at the bathroom door. I lift his t-shirt from the ground and sling it around my neck. I love how the t-shirt holds the aroma of his aftershave. When Dad pulls his shorts down to sit on the toilet, I walk out of the bathroom and sit on the sand outside again.
As Dad lingers in the bathroom, I return to my room and lie in my bed. After a few minutes, I hear him call out to me, “Come here!”
Rubbing my eyes with my hands, and with frequent yawns, I amble over to where he sits on a low, four-legged chair covered by red, white and black animal skins. He looks at me as I sit down, cross-legged in the sand. And then I turn away and look up and over the yellow morning of Mogadishu’s sunrise. Several “cock-a-doodle-doos,” mingling with other low-and high-pitched sounds from the neighborhood roosters, cut through the calm air.
“You are my son,” Dad says in a hoarse voice. He takes a drag of his cigarette once, twice, three times, and a plume of smoke hovers over his face. Turning his head first towards the sky and then towards me, he takes another drag on his cigarette. I watch the smoke rising and falling and covering his face. If there is anything I imagine for myself when I grow up, it is to sit down in the shade or stand beneath the morning sky and smoke cigarettes while holding conversation in poetic verse with other grown-ups. Staring at the way he inhales the cigarette, I imagine a fantastic feeling travelling down to his lungs and a magic taste on his lips, tongue and throat. My mouth waters with joyful saliva. From that moment, I wish for a cigarette, and I do not understand why Dad does not want me to smoke.
“You are my son. Do you understand that?” Dad asks forcefully, with smoke hovering over his bushy beard and pointy mustache.
I don’t. I don’t understand what he is trying to tell me. I keep looking at his mouth and the way he moves his cane in the sand. Digging my fingers in the soft sand, I feel cold permeating upward from my fingers, through the palm of my hand. When he notices that I am a bit confused, he speaks: “God planted us in this harsh land of Somalia.”
With a coastline that extends about 1,800 miles, Somalia is about the size of Texas. In June of 1960, when it became independent from the Italian and British colonial powers, Somalia was established as a republic. In 1969, the army took over and Siad Barre became president and renamed the country the Somali Democratic Republic. With an iron fist, Barre ruled the country for over twenty years. As I listen to Dad on this Sunday morning in 1989, the Somali people, who belong to one tribe with different clans, have organized those clans in their regions as rebels fighting Barre’s government. Mogadishu, the seat of power, is waiting for war.
“My mother died when I was two so I grew up without a mother. Then in my teens my father got ill, so I took care of him until he died. He was the tallest man in the city, and he was close to fifty when he died. He was buried in the coastal city of Eyl where we lived. I moved to Mogadishu and met your mother. When we had you, it was the happiest day of our lives. You were my first son, and I expect a lot from you,” he says and grabbing his cane draws a mountain-like picture in the sand.
Moisture gathers in his eyes, and he clears his throat against the soft emotions. Dad has never talked to me about his family before. He coughs again once or twice. I get up, enter the kitchen, fetch a silver glass, pour water, walk back, put it next to Dad and sit back down. Dipping my fingers in the cold morning sand feels good. I lift some up and release it into the air.
“My brothers died at young ages and while my sister was watching the herds in the valley, she was abducted by the British army,” he confesses the family history that resides inside of him.
“I didn’t know that.”
“I did everything I could to prepare you for the harsh reality of this earth where only the strongest survive. I am an old man, and an old man often knows his time of death. My time of death is getting closer,” he says, lowering his gaze.
“Yes, Dad, I understand,” I whisper. My ears belong to him for he is my father, so I pretend to understand him. In reality, I have no clue what he is talking about. Here in Somalia, reverence for parents and elders is as heavy as the moon in the sky, and everything about you belongs to them: your life, your love, your wealth, your children, your attention, your obedience.
Putting his tongue over his lower lip and biting it softly while staring at the empty sky, Dad puffs on his cigarette and coughs. He clears his throat and spits gray mucus onto the sand.
“You are my son,” Dad keeps repeating in a low voice while rocking his head and letting me hear the rhythm of his words. I glance at his face. A red blanket is wrapped around his waist, and spikes of hair are poking out from his bare chest. His long, dark, uncombed hair with gray on the sides is covering parts of his dried face. An unknown illness makes him look as if he is eighty years old, but he is still in his forties. Protruding veins cover his face. His eyes used to be handsome, but this unknown illness has created a playground of tiny red spots in their ovals like scattered ants. Two deep dimples on his cheeks are still visible.
“Mmm,” I murmur, still not knowing how to reply.
I wish for the empty sky to split into two so it can swallow me. It is as if there are two of me. One part of me belongs to my father—to his words and his cane drawing on the sand—and the other part of me is not interested in being here. I want to escape.
“You are my son,” he repeats.
“You already told me that.”
“I know,” he says. Dad coughs sporadically and simultaneously clears his throat twice.
I have developed a headache so I grab Dad’s burlap bag filled with all his medications. I dip my hand in, pull out two aspirins and gulp them down with water. Dad looks woozy, and his mind is floundering. He doesn’t see me swallow the two aspirins, or maybe he does, but he does not have the energy to dictate to me what I can or can not do. His eyes are fixated on me, and I remain as silent as the empty morning blue sky.
“You will be the man in the house. Be a good role model and help your mother. I know you refuse to stay in school, but remember it is to your benefit that you get an education.” He has never spoken to me this long, and never about his past or his family.
He thinks I am a child, and I am his child, but I think of myself as a little man-in-the-making. To be a man is to be strong, but to remain a child means to be weak and to become the responsibility of others. There is nothing I want more than for Dad to have an adult conversation with me. Instead, he wants to force me to love school, but I want to do everything to defy him and do what I want to do—play football with friends, flirt with girls, steal pigeons from kids in the adjacent neighborhoods, wander around picking up rubbish, and getting into fights and sometimes getting beaten up. And occasionally, I roll in the gray grass with Bella and Billan, our two adorable goats. But I also yearn for freedom and for a love less confined by Dad’s gaze and his words. Above all, I want to write my own history in the way a twelve-year-old boy understands his world. I do not yet realize that there is wisdom in the progression of time. I still carry a bouquet of regret for not fully listening to my father on that early July morning in 1989 under Mogadishu’s yellow sun.
“I pushed you hard and even beat you to make you go to school, so you could get an education, but you refused,” Dad says in a low-pitched voice, which seems to carry his disappointment. He places his fingers inside my Afro hair, and my glance switches between the sand and the pigeons waking up and flapping their wings for the first time in the morning. Resting on top of their tiny birdhouse above the kitchen, the pigeons seem to stare at us. “Remember, getting an education or becoming a doctor will only benefit you.”
Dad tells me to study math and science, which he emphasizes to me are the most important subjects. Math and science are not my favorite subjects, but I do have a certain affinity for word construction. Some say that if a student does not excel in math and science, they are dumb. So, I cannot reveal my secret love of language because I do not want them to look down on me and cast me aside as an intellectually inferior teenager with a rebellious attitude. I am fascinated by how words turn into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into two or three paragraphs and finally into essays and eventually into books which ignite and spread the revolution of ideas and civilization throughout the world. What baffles me is how words can initiate action. In fact, before I came into this world, my journey began with a glance and a timid flickering in the eyes of two young individuals. With an avocado tree separating them, they first utter a word, perhaps only “Hi”, followed by more glances. More words float between them like two rivers merging and floating into each other and then separating. That word turns into another—”love”—which sparks intimacy, and then I am conceived. Almost everything begins with a word or words. Words, language, poetry ignite in me the magic of intimacy.
“My time is nearing, and soon I shall not be here,” Dad confesses. My trembling lips remain sealed, but tears seem to want to burst from my eyes. I suppress them. One rolls out of my eye and down my cheek and hangs from my chin. I cannot let Dad see my moist eyes. I am not a boy, but a man capable of carrying his honorable blood into the future. He rubs my head and wipes the tear hanging from my chin. He releases his cane and holds my hand. He kisses my hand and forehead. That single kiss remains my only memory of affection between us.