ADEN, YEMEN, OCTOBER 1935
The muezzin's call startled Jama out of his dream, and he pulled himself up to look at the sun rising over the cake-domed mosques, the gingerbread Adeni apartments glowing at their tips with white frosting. The black silhouettes of birds looped high in the inky sky, circling around the few remaining stars and the pregnant moon. The black planets of Jama's eyes roamed over Aden--the busy, industrial Steamer Point; Crater, the sandstone old town, its curvaceous dun-colored buildings merging into the Shum Shum volcanoes; the Ma'alla and Sheikh Usman districts, white and modern, between the hills and sea. Wood smoke and infants' cries drifted up as women took a break from preparing breakfast to perform their dawn prayers, not needing the exhortations of the old muezzin. A vulture's nest encircled the ancient minaret, the broken branches festooned with rubbish, the nest corrupting the neighborhood with the stench of carrion; the attentive mother fed rotting morsels to her chirruping chicks, her muscular wings unhunched and at rest beside her. Jama's own mother, Ambaro, stood by the roof edge, softly singing a song in her deep and melodious voice. She sang before and after work, not because she was happy but because the songs escaped from her mouth, her young soul roaming outside her body to take the air before it was pulled back into drudgery.
Ambaro shook the ghosts from her hair and began her morning soliloquy. "Some people don't know how much work goes into feeding their ungrateful guts, think they are some kind of suldaan who can idle about without a care in the world, head full of trash, only good for running around with trash. Well, over my dead body, I don't grind my backbone to dust to sit and watch filthy-bottomed boys roll around on their backs."
These poems of contempt, these gabays of dissatisfaction greeted Jama every morning. Incredible meandering streams of abuse flowed from his mother's mouth, sweeping the mukhadim at the factory, her son, long-lost relatives, enemies, men, women, Somalis, Arabs, Indians into a pit of damnation.
"Get up, stupid boy, you think this is your father's house? Get up, you fool! I need to get to work."
Jama continued to loll around on his back, playing with his belly button. "Stop it, you dirty boy, you'll make a hole in it." Ambaro slipped off one of her broken leather sandals, and marched over to him.
Jama tried to flee but his mother dived and attacked him with stinging blows. "Get up! I have to walk two miles to work and you make a fuss over waking up, is that it?" she raged. "Go then, get lost, you good-for-nothing."
Jama blamed Aden for making his mother so angry. He wanted to return to Hargeisa, where his father could calm her down with love songs. It was always at daybreak that Jama craved his father, all his memories were sharper in the clean morning light, his father's laughter and songs around the campfire, the soft, long-fingered hands enveloping his own. Jama couldn't be sure if these were real memories or just dreams seeping into his waking life, but he cherished these fragile images, hoping that they would not disappear from him like his father had. Jama remembered traversing the desert on strong shoulders, peering down on the world like a prince, but already his father's face was lost to him, hidden behind stubborn clouds.
Along the dark spiral steps came the smell of anjeero; the Islaweynes were having breakfast. ZamZam, a plain teenaged girl, used to bring Jama the mealtime scraps. He had accepted them for a while until he heard the boys in the family call him "Haashishki," Trash Can. The Islaweynes were distant relatives, members of his mother's clan, who had been asked by Ambaro's half brother to take her in when she arrived alone in Aden. They had done as promised but it soon became clear that they expected their bedu cousin to be a servant: cooking, cleaning, and giving them the appearance of gentility. Within a week Ambaro had found work in a coffee factory, depriving the Islaweynes of their new status symbol and unleashing the resentment of the family. Ambaro was made to sleep on the roof, she was not allowed to eat with them unless Mr. Islaweyne and his wife had guests around; then they were all smiles and familial generosity, "Oh, Ambaro, what do you mean 'Can I?' What's ours is yours, sister!"
When Ambaro had saved enough to bring her six-year-old son to Aden, Mrs. Islaweyne had fumed at the inconvenience and made a show of checking him for things that could infest or infect her children. Her gold bangles had clanked around as she looked for nits, fleas, skin diseases; she shamelessly pulled up his ma'awis to look for worms. Even after Jama had passed her medical exam, she glared at him when he played with her children and whispered to them to not get familiar with this boy from nowhere. Five years later, Ambaro and Jama still lived like phantoms on the roof, leaving as few traces of their presence as possible. The neatly stacked piles of laundry that Ambaro washed and Jama pegged out to dry were the only banners of their existence to the family.
Ambaro left for the coffee factory at dawn and didn't return until dark, leaving Jama to float around the Islaweyne home feeling unwelcome, or to stay out in the streets with the market boys. Outside the sky had brightened to a watery turquoise blue, and Somali men asleep by the roadside began to rouse, their afros full of sand, while Arabs walked hand in hand toward the suq. Jama fell in behind a group of Yemenis wearing large gold-threaded turbans and beautiful, ivory-handled daggers in their belts. He ran his hands along the warm flanks of passing camels being led to market, their extravagant eyelashes batting in appreciation at his gentle stroke, and when they overtook him their swishing tails waved goodbye. Men and boys shuffled past ferrying vegetables, fruits, breads, meats, in bags, in their hands, on their heads, to and from the market, crusty flatbread tucked under their arms like newspapers hot off the press. Butterflies danced, enjoying their morning flutter before the day turned unbearably hot and they slept it off inside sticky blossoms. Incense lingered on the skin and robes of the hammals as they pushed their wheelbarrows through the narrow, potholed alley, each man cocooned in the perfume of his home. Leaning against the warm wall, Jama closed his eyes and imagined curling up in his mother's lap and feeling the reverberations of her songs as they bubbled up from deep within her body. He sensed someone standing over him, a small hand rubbed the top of his head, and he opened his eyes to see Abdi and Shidane grinning down at him. Abdi was the nine-year-old, gappytoothed uncle of eleven-year-old gangster Shidane. Abdi held out a chunk of bread and Jama swallowed it down.
The black lava of the Shum Shum volcanoes loomed over them when they reached the beach. Market boys of all different hues, creeds, and languages gathered at the beach to play, bathe, and fight. They were a roll call of infectious diseases, mangled limbs, and deformities. Jama called "Shalom!" to Abraham, a shrunken Jewish boy who used to sell flowers door-to-door with him. Abraham waved and took a running leap into the water. Shidane's malnutrition-blond hair looked transparent in the sunlight and Abdi's head jiggled from side to side, too big for his paltry body, as he ran into the surf. These two perfect sea urchins spent their days diving for coins. Jama wanted them to take him out to sea, so he collected wooden planks washed up on the shore, and called the gali gali boys to attention.
"Go and find twine so we can go out to sea," he ordered.
Jama sat on the seaweed-strewn sand while Abdi and Shidane tied the planks into a makeshift raft. Together they pushed the rickety contraption out into the undulating sea. "Bismillah," he whispered, holding on desperately while Abdi and Shidane propelled him forward, kicking up masses of foam and spray. When the boys tired, they clambered on, panting beside him, their faces upturned to the rising sun. Jama turned on his back and smiled a contented smile, they floated gently on the young waves and linked arms, water droplets scattered over their skin like diamonds.
"Why don't you learn to swim, Jama?" Abdi asked. "Then you can come pearl fishing with us. It's beautiful down there, all kinds of fish and coral, shipwrecks, you could find a pearl worth a fortune."
Shidane shifted position and the raft spun around with him. "There aren't any pearls down there, Abdi, we've looked everywhere, they're all gone, taken by the Arabs. Look at those stupid Yemenis, they don't deserve a boat like that," he sneered. "If we had a gun we could take everything those fools have."
Jama lifted his head up, saw a sambuk hurrying back to port with crates piled up on its deck. "Get a gun, then," he dared.
"Ya salam! You think I can't? I can make one, boy."
Jama pulled himself up onto his elbows. "What?"
"You heard me, I can make one, I've been watching the soldiers. Some people are always active, always thinking. It's simple for someone like me to make these Ferengi things, you get a piece of hardwood, make a hole all the way through, get gunpowder, stuff it into the hole, then fill one end with pebbles and in the other put a lit string, then blow fools like those into the sea."
"More likely you would blow your burnt futo into the sea."
"Laugh all you like, you big-toothed Eidegalle donkey, I will be the mukhadim, if you are lucky you can be my coolie."
"Yes! We could be shiftas of the sea, covered in gold. Wallaahi, everyone will shake when they see our ship," Abdi said, firing imaginary bullets at the sun.
Jama felt water against his skin. "Yallah, yallah, back to the beach! The twine is loosening," he cried as the planks fell apart.
Abdi and Shidane sprang into action, grabbing his arms and bearing him aloft like two well-trained dolphins.
Walking out into the dust and scorching heat, Jama instinctively headed for the warehouse district. He kicked a can down the streets of Crater, a town in the heart of a volcano. Sunlight reflected against the tin roofs of the warehouses, blinding him momentarily. The smell of tea, coffee, frankincense, myrrh swept up the hill and swathed him in a nauseating, heady mix. As Jama reached the first warehouse, bare-chested coolies chanted while they pushed heavy wooden crates onto the backs of lorries. After standing outside Al-Madina Coffee Stores for a moment, Jama walked through the stone entrance and peered into the darkness. Sunlight splintered through the roof, illuminating the dust rising from the coffee beans as they were tossed to loosen the husks. A field of underpaid women in bright, flowery Somali robes were bent over baskets full of beans, spreading them on a cloth and removing stunted ones before the coffee was exported. Jama weaved around them, looking for a woman with smallpox scars, copper eyes, canines dipped in gold, and inky black hair. He found her in a corner, working on her own with a sky-blue scarf holding her hair back. She brought his head down to kiss his cheek, her soft, freckly skin brushing against his.
Ambaro whispered in his ear, "What are you doing here, Goode? This isn't a playground, what do you want?"
Jama stood in front of her, legs entangled like a flamingo's. "I dunno, I was bored ... do you have any change?" He hadn't been thinking of money but now he was too embarrassed to say he just wanted to see her.
"Keleb! You come to my place of work to hassle me for money? You think of no one but yourself and may Allah curse you for it, get out now before the mukhadim sees you!"
Jama turned on his heels and ran out the door. He hid behind the warehouse but Ambaro found him, her rough dry hands pulled him against her. Her dress smelled of incense and coffee. He let his tears soak through to her skin.
"Goode, Goode, please, you're a big boy, what have I done to you? Tell me? Tell me? Look at the life I'm living, can't you take pity on me?" Ambaro asked softly. She pulled his arms up and dragged him to a low wall facing the sea. "Do you know why I call you Goode?"
"No," lied Jama, hungry to hear of the time when he had a real family.
"When I was pregnant with you I grew incredibly large, my stomach stuck out like you wouldn't believe, people warned me that a young girl of seventeen would die giving birth to such a child, that you would tear my insides out, but I was happy, at peace, I knew I was expecting someone special. Following camels around is terrible work and I got slower and slower. I was often separated from my father's large caravan and would hobble with my swollen ankles until I caught up with the family. But maybe in the eighth month, I was so exhausted I had to stop even though I had lost sight of the last camel. There was an ancient acacia in a savanna called Gumburaha Banka, and I sat under the old tree to rest in the little shade it provided. I sat and listened to my heavy breath fall and rise, rise and fall. I was wearing a nomad's guntiino and the side of my stomach was exposed to the sun and breeze. Then suddenly I felt a smooth hand caress my back and move toward my belly button, I looked down in shock, and hoogayey! There was not a hand but a huge mamba curling around my belly. I was scared its heavy body would crush you, so I didn't move even one inch, but it stopped and laid its devilishly wise face against you and listened to your thumping heartbeat. All three of us were joined like that for what seemed like a lifetime until, having decided something, the snake flexed its sinews and slipped down my body, and with a flick of its tail it disappeared into the sand. I wanted to name you Goode, meaning Black Mamba, but your father just laughed at me; he liked Jama because it was his best friend's name. But when you slithered out with your beautiful dark skin and your smell of earth, I knew what your name was meant to be. I kept it as my special name for you."
Jama melted in the warmth of his mother's words and he felt the liquid gold of love in his veins. He was silent, not wanting to break the spell between them, and she carried on.
"I know I'm tough on you, sometimes too tough, but do you know why I ask things of you? Things that you don't understand are good for you? It's because I have such high hopes, you are my good luck baby, you were born to be somebody, Goode. Do you know the year you were born became known as the year of the worm? Fat worms poked their noses out of the earth during the rainy season and came out to consume the grass, the trees, even our straw houses, until, finished, they suddenly disappeared. Everyone thought it was a sign of the end but the elders said they had seen it before and it was barako, as the rains would be plentiful afterward and our camels would breed fantastically. One old woman, Kissimee, told me that as my child would be born in the thick of that plague he would have the most beautiful luck, as if he had been born with the protection of all the saints, and he would see the four corners of the world. I believed her because no one knew that woman to ever make a false prophecy."
Despite the beauty of her words, Jama felt his mother threading pearl after pearl of expectation into a noose that would sit loosely around his neck, ready for her to hang him one day. He pulled in close to her for an embrace and she wrapped her golden brown arms around his mahogany back, rubbing her fingers along his sharp spine.
"Let's go back home to Hargeisa, hooyo."
"One day, when we have enough to go back with," she said with a kiss on his head. Untying a knot at the bottom of her dress, she pulled out a paisa coin and gave it to Jama. "See you back on the roof."
"Yes, hooyo," Jama replied and stood up to go.
Grabbing his hand, his mother looked up at him. "God protect you, Goode."
Mrs. Islaweyne had a problem with her unwanted houseguest, and she didn't inconvenience herself by concealing it; rather, in the mother's long absences she went for the cub. When she realized in her lengthy sickly sweet interrogations that Jama would never speak badly of Ambaro or let slip embarrassing secrets, she volunteered her own criticisms. "What kind of woman leaves her child alone to roam the streets every day?" and "I'm not surprised Somalis have a bad reputation, the way some of these newcomers dress, all naked arms, with their udders hanging out the sides." The resentment was mutual, and Ambaro and Jama mocked her behind her back. When Ambaro saw Mrs. Islaweyne wrapping her nikaab around her face, she would raise an eyebrow and sing in a bittersweet voice, "Dhegdheer, Dhegdheero, yaa ku daawaan? Witch, oh witch, who will admire you?"
Dhegdheer was a strange, vain woman, with short plump limbs always oiled from head to toe, her eyebrows drawn on thickly with kohl, a fat, hairy mole on her cheek blending into a luxurious mustache, small, swollen feet squeezed into shoes that Ambaro could never afford. Sometimes Dhegdheer would appear on their roof, glaring at them for no particular reason, marking her territory, and when she returned downstairs, Jama would copy her signature waddle and squint to perfection. "Go eat yourself, witch!" he shouted when she was safely out of earshot.
"The one thing that woman is good at is breeding, she must have a highway between her legs, she gives birth to litters of two and three as if she were a stray bitch," Ambaro would say, and she was right, Jama had counted eight children but behind every door there seemed to be more sleeping or crying. The older Islaweyne boys went to school and chattered away in Arabic, even at home. Jama had learned a rough street Arabic which they mocked, mimicking his bad grammar and slang in slow, imbecilic voices. Although ZamZam was not the most alluring of girls, Dhegdheer had her eye on one of the wealthy Somali men who imported livestock from Berbera and wanted her daughter to appear a delicate flower, cultivated in the most refined setting. Jama heard Dhegdheer complaining to her husband that Ambaro and her guttersnipe son lowered the honor of their family. "How can we be first class when we have people like that in our own home?"
Excerpted from Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed.
Copyright © 2010 by Nadifa Mohamed.
Published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.