‘Who will tell our story? We, who walk upon this night, driven out of place and myth. The myth that could not find a single one among us to testify that the crime had taken place.’— Mahmoud Darwish, In the Presence of Absence
Did you hear anyone mention roots? I just said ‘back to purity’, that’s all. I swear, if I had a puff for every time black folk drone on about ‘roots this’ and ‘roots that’. I’m more worried about my branches, you know. It’s the branches that bear fruit and tilt for the sky.’ — Diran Adebayo, Some Kind of Black
I guess it was an uneasy arrangement to begin with. Until it wasn’t. A month spent working at a cultural institute that coincidentally faced a papaya plantation. Inside, air conditioning units and the desperate posturing of expats; all surrounded by acres of lushness. At first, I felt out of my element. The quiet unnerved me. This wasn’t Dubai, or even Muscat’s sweltering hum. This was an altogether more assuming, even intimidating, place. Though, soon enough, I fell into the routine of early mornings and heavy afternoons. A new day now began with the camel milk I’d seen teased out of a geel’s teat on a farm now flatulent in our small fridge. Shredded khobz, pitted olives and a handful of dates on the plate, left for me.
I would slip into the elevator towards the ground floor, greet the friendly Bengali porter in the patterned lungi and leave for the day. In each outing, I revelled in that invisibility I enjoy every time I visit a country where my every breath isn’t considered a disruption. Sometimes, my father would take another route; drive us past the mass of fish markets and slick-skinned men with blunt knives. I still remember the almost tangible breeze, my sticky fingers pressed against a rolled down window as we cruised past the beachside. A tide so close it made liquid craters out of the many potholes ahead. In those moments, I sensed the beginning of our unbreaking.
Home has never been more than a signifier to me. Nothing more concrete than that. From a young age, it’s been rare to spend more than three years in any given house, city or country. You could say it’s hard defining what’s constantly slipping out of my fingers. Still, I refuse to subscribe to Nostalgia™ and all its revisionism. Going back is never an option, until it is. For now, let’s call it a discursive splitting, or a Third Space. Meaning, I prefer to think through it with theory; my chosen anaesthetic. Meaning, I am trying to articulate whilst breathless.
Maybe home is a body? Or a cup of shaah with hayl seeds congregating at the bottom? The crackle of gabay cassette tapes and a welcome rug stained with too much language. My father’s definition: the absence of daily humiliations. Somewhere where he could be more than a black man from a wound disguised as a nation state. He is still looking for that place. I am still looking.
I remember being a guest at the house of third and fourth generation Somali family friends who spoke a thousand year-old dying tongue. There was enough of the Horn on our faces to connect us, just not enough in our throats. A local taxi-driver wants to know what tribe I belong to. I reply and he begins to trace its lineage across the Gulf of Aden. I cringe inwards at this man who knows more about my blood than I do. To this day, I haven’t figured out whether this was comforting or sinister. My status as a pin-up perpetual Outsider, with all its romantic angst, had been revoked. No-one had told me this would be a homecoming of sorts. Or rather, somewhere where I wouldn’t be the one doing the explaining.
The countdown to the monsoon. Al-Haifa Corniche. A coconut in each hand. There is the picturesque and then there is the intimate; namely cartons of Suntop Orange bought from the neighbourhood baqaalah. I hand a note of 100 baiza to the niqaabi at the counter, catch her pearled finger wink back at me. It is a Summer (isn’t it always?). I am travelling towards this southern tip with my aging father, a man defined by his absences. Not by the shattering kind, the kind of leaving that closes the door on a life. But by a more necessary brand of distance; the sacrifice of an immigrant breadwinner by another name. My childhood years were a blur of riyaal bills left on countertops as he made the daily drive to work from Dammam’s winding highways to Khobar. Each single note meant a leavened roll during recess or a choc-ice from the Yemeni grocery store next door. Either way, I inherited his sweet tooth. We’ll have to wait and see about the diabetes.
It took us a relocating of more than 4000 miles to have the most honest conversations of our lives. Should I be surprised? I don’t know. All I know is almond xalwa and echoing prayer calls provided the backdrop. We discovered the liberatory potential of admitting we didn’t really know each other.
I pushed against the guilt I’d always felt as the daughter who never went hungry, who never had to live through her father’s skull shattered by a Kalashnikov. The One Who Was Born To Get Away. The One Who Never Brilliant Enough to Make Exile Worth It. I think it was the thick air that did it. Or at least the condensing mist on the car bonnet as we overlooked the valley. Something forced us into an overdue naming of all the ways we had disappointed each other. London would have been much too sterile a place, our lives there too inwardly. I finally had enough legroom to stop running.
For this, I am grateful.
Mostly for sand granules clinging to each ankle, gathering in my father’s koofiyad as we faced the horizon of his birthplace. Together, we watched the birds all fly towards the same direction.
For this, I remain grateful.
Momtaza Mehri is a biomedical scientist, poet and writer who remains unsure which world came first. She has been active in the zine/journal underworld for some time and is the co-editor of the digital space Diaspora Drama. Her heart yawns in three continents, London being its current owner.