My white face and white uniform give me the appearance of authority in this new world, though my experiences, as my neighbors quickly come to discover, are rooted in the old. I'm a white Muslim woman raised in Africa, now employed by the National Health Service. I exist somewhere between what they know and what they fear, somewhere between the past and the future, which is not quite the present. I can translate the forms for them before kneeling down and putting my forehead to the same ground. Linoleum, concrete, industrial carpet. Five times a day, wherever we might be, however much we might doubt ourselves and the world around us.
I was not always a Muslim, but once I was led into the absorption of prayer and the mysteries of the Qur'an, something troubled in me became still.
I was the daughter of two solitary renegades who'd met at Trinity College Dublin in the 1950s; freaks pulled by the magnet of shared disenchantment into an inseparable embrace. Alice and Philip, so convinced they had enough love, intelligence and language between them to make their way around the world that they took a leave of absence from university and obligation that would last the rest of their lives, setting off on foot, with me nothing more than an egg in my mother's belly.
Nomads, my father called us, though there was no seasonal pattern to our migration. I was born in Yugoslavia, breast-fed in the Ukraine, weaned in Corsica, freed from nappies in Sicily and walking by the time we got to the Algarve. Just when I was comfortable speaking French, we'd be off to Spain. Just when I had a new best friend, the world was full of strangers again. Until Africa, life was a series of aborted conversations, attachments severed in the very same moment they began.
There was a familiar pattern to the leaving speech. "You put down roots and they'll start growing. Do you know what I mean?" my father would say, poking me in the ribs.
"But why is that so bad?" I remember asking as we lurched and bobbed our way to Yet Another Unfathomable Destination.
"It just makes the passage between places too painful. It's all about the journey. You don't want to spoil the journey by missing what you've left and worrying about where you're going" was his standard reply.
For them, the journey ended in Africa, while for me it had only just begun.
Copyright © 2006 by Camilla Gibb. Excerpted by permission of Penguin USA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.