by Maaza Mengiste
Tigist sits in a cramped jail cell that the Libyan smuggler uses for an office. It is a block of hollowed out concrete stuffed with a desk and two chairs. She is trapped in a large prison smashed into the middle of the Sahara desert, surrounded by armed men who pace like predators.
“Make the call,” he says, waving his cell phone in her face. “Tell them you’re in Kufra and once they wire the money, we’ll take you to Tripoli then put you on a ship to Italy.” He wants her to call her parents and ask for the ransom for her release. It is twice what her parents make in a year.
Tigist stares at Kufra on the map and shakes her head to sharpen the blurring lines. How long has she been in this place? She can’t remember when her mornings stopped ebbing to afternoons. It is one long hour turning on its own solitary orbit. An endless circular journey marked only by the rise and fall of the stinging desert sun.
She doesn’t know how to ask for money when she didn’t even say goodbye. It had been so hard then to explain the hopelessness of unemployment, the fear of working hard and getting nowhere, the guilt of having more than some and wanting as much as others. It had been easier to simply look in the horizon and say, ‘I will call them when I get somewhere and they will understand.’
“Do it now,” the smuggler says.
Tigist dials her parent’s phone number in Addis Ababa. The phone rings. She pictures her father sitting in his favorite green chair with the crooked leg, reading the newspaper and grumbling to himself. Her mother is humming and roasting coffee beans in the kitchen. They have the curtains open in the sitting room and the gentle sun is falling in the same place it has been falling for the last nineteen years of Tigist’s life, just on the edge of their flowered sofa, the bright magenta roses now a dull, soft pink. Possibly, her mother will look from their tiny kitchen, swipe aromatic smoke from her face and say what she’s always said on those sunniest days: When will we get a new sofa? And her father, always frugal, will shake his head and say,“Fikir, my love, it still works.” Somewhere in the foggy distance, a monk’s tender voice will push through the din of the growing traffic and prayers will weave like a thread into their home. Her mother will make the sign of the cross and both of them will bow their heads and give thanks. Or maybe all routine has been broken by her absence and they are praying for her in tears, jolted out of each other’s arms by the shrill telephone that her father always lets ring three times before answering.
She stands in the cell that is the same size as the smuggler’s office. This one is filled with forty-five damaged women, six children, and one broken toilet. Tigist tries to swallow the bitter taste of the phone call. She can hardly remember what her parents said, only her father’s steadfast reassurances and her mother’s shuddering sobs. She didn’t ask how they would get the money but she imagines this: her father, the fastidious civil engineer, dressed in his best suit and polished shoes, walking to save petrol, begging the Chinese boss he distrusts for more hours, another project. ‘I’ll work every day without a break,’ he says. Her mother will knock on every door in their modest neighborhood and point towards Libya and say, ‘Anything you can spare. I’ll do anything to pay off the loan.’ Her father will go to the bank and take out all his savings. Both will come home and stare at the small pile of cash. They will struggle every day to get the money, and Tigist knows they might not make it.
It should have been an easy journey, a series of connecting dots navigated by guides who would take her and her friend, Helina, from Ethiopia to Sudan then into Libya. But they were arrested by Sudanese police who led them out of the holding house in Khartoum at gunpoint. There had been an exchange of money with smugglers, then they were forced into a metal box crammed with other desperate men, women and children begging for water and air. The truck had rattled through the Sahara and when they stopped, those alive had let the dead tumble out first.
“Sit here, Tigist.” It is Helina. The one who said: I know the way to a better life. “Think of something good,” she tells her now. “Think of something good and pray.” She wants to push Helina away but then she realizes that Helina, too, had to make the same call the day before. She, too, is waiting. She, too, is ashamed.
Tigist takes her hand instead, and that simple gesture sends her back to their high school graduation day and the shy smiles of the boys one row ahead of them. She’d been proud of her cap and gown, its shade like the clearest sky on the brightest day. She hadn’t been afraid then of boys verging on manhood. Back then, she could say, ‘No,’ and they wouldn’t. They simply held your hand and smiled and asked you to have coffee at Kaldi’s café or go dancing at the latest club or watch a soccer match from the big screen at Meskel Square.
But this isn’t back then and this isn’t Ethiopia. She is in a place where it is normal to point to a man you do not know and say, ‘Yes, he is my husband,’ and hope that this will save you from what has happened to every other woman. She is in a place where women are being pulled apart slowly, left in pieces in the dirt and filth, collapsing under the weight of their own dark, inescapable skin. She is in this place called Libya, but Libya is for the Libyans, not for black dogs like her, the guards say. You are Jews, some guards also say, even when the prisoners show their crosses or some plead: we are Muslim just like you. But the guards insist: you are all Jewish spies who come disguised in black skin and crosses. Sometimes, she doesn’t know what she is except an excuse to extort money from humble people whose only crime is to be her parents.
As she waits, she writes letters to her parents. When she has the money for paper and a pen, she will put them into real words and send them. She skips formalities and begins at the heart of every matter. Do you remember those leaning shanties just past Saint Gabriel’s church, the ones Abbaba said were held together by mud and stubbornness? Do you remember the incense you burn every Easter morning, Emama? Abbaba, I wish I could count the rain drops tapping on our roof with you again. She reminds them of her annoying morning chores and the drudgery of homework; the dusty roads full of labourers on their way to work, one of them her handsome, proud father. She wants to gaze from Entoto Mountain at the pockets of dug-up land and dream of living in the latest housing development. She wants to buy candy from Sissay at the kiosk shaped like a giant Coca-cola bottle. Even the constant sing-song shouts of scrappy boys calling the next bus stops, she misses them now, very much. She leaves out many details: that there is nothing steady in this prison but the stench of human waste, that there is a kind of fear as solid and thick as human flesh, that almost every day trucks unload more prisoners and others disappear, that this place is a revolving door of bodies. In her most honest moments, she might say that their cell door opens often and a flashlight roams over the crouched women. She might allude to what happens next when she says they pray often before falling asleep. She might say that the women take care of each other, that on certain days, they all gather around one or two and become each other’s mothers. Because you are not with me, Emama, she might say, some women have been kind to me. She ends every letter with a promise to see them soon, to send them the money to pay off their loans.
She doesn’t know why she says it when she is still waiting for the money to arrive, when she is still in this prison, but she does: “Helina, I want to go home. I want to go back.”
She would risk the suffocating ride through the Sahara, the smugglers and the random killings. She would tolerate the slow dying in those burning metal boxes and swallow her own spit for nourishment. She would do all this just to hug her father and kiss her mother. To go home. To stand beneath their orange tree and touch green leaves, to pick yellow daisies wet with morning dew. She wants to look at the smuggler’s map again and memorize every road that branches like a broken vein towards her country.
“Tigist, there is no way but forward.” Helina shakes her head, as tough as the warrior grandmother she was named after. “Every road we’ve traveled disappears as soon as we pass it. There’s nothing to mark where we’ve been but the bones of those who died along the way. It’s an invisible map. We just have to be strong until the money comes. We have to pray we will live.”
Tigist knows Helina well. When she says, “There is no way but forward,” what she really means is, “We’re stuck.”
She dreams. She hears a telephone ringing and it is her father. He doesn’t say hello. Instead, he reminds her: There is room for you here. Aren’t you crowded there? Another time, it is her mother who calls by sending spasms to her heart. You’re not eating enough, she says. Ask for a few more grains of rice. In another, the quiet boy in her class who once asked her out stares at the flashlight beam hovering on her thighs and tells her, You’re not new anymore.
Sometimes, she wakes just before morning and listens to the ragged breathing of the other women. She imagines the sun, burnt by the strength of its own rays, burrowing into another cloudless sky. She dreams Helina builds her a ladder made of bones. She climbs to the sun and says, “In Ethiopia, our day starts each time you appear, at 6am. But in Libya, a new day begins in the pit of darkness, at midnight. What does this say about my chances of escape?”
DAY follows NIGHT follows DAY follows NIGHT follows DAY follows NIGHT follows…
Then it happens. The flashlight finds her and she knows it’s her turn to be one of those night women. She closes her eyes and grabs Helina’s hand, but Helina is pushing her away.
“Stand, Tigist,” she says. “Get out. Go. Don’t you understand?”
It is the Libyan smuggler this time, not one of the guards. “Hurry up,” he says.
Tigist pulls Helina with her to the door and they both push against the smuggler’s hands, two silent women with a single beating heart. If they could have found the voice to speak, this is what they would have said to him: ‘We have made an oath never to leave each other’s side. I am the steady hand that holds her up. And I sing the songs she needs to fall asleep. We have promised to help each other until we get to Tripoli, until we board the ship to Europe, until we land, until we pay our debts, until we fall in love, until we marry, until we can sing again. I can’t leave her. Yes, I cannot leave her either.’ The smuggler pushes Helina back and pulls Tigist forward and soon she is grasping onto nothing but air.
Later, the guard slams the two creaking doors of the container, cutting the sun in half then snuffing it out altogether. It is crowded and the people are moaning, but even with the rumble of the loud truck, even in the cacophony of men, women and children begging for water, for mercy, for God, Tigist can hear her name floating on a feeble breeze and she knows it is from her friend, who is a sister, who is swiftly becoming a memory.
28 June 2016
She begins every letter the same way:
The sea is a kind of blue you have never seen in your life, Helina. I am in Rome. Where are you? People who have come out of the prison say you are not there anymore. My sister, forgive me for leaving you in a country cracking open and getting worse. Only part of me lives here. The other half is wherever you are, on an invisible map, trying to gather bones and build a body. At night, I hear you telling me not to scream, but Libya comes alive in the silence. Maybe noise is what keeps us human. Maybe that is why we cry. I will keep looking for you. I will never give up.
About the Author:
Maaza Mengiste is a novelist and essayist. Her debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, was selectedby the Guardian as one of the 10 best contemporary African books and named one of the best books of 2010 by Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe and other publications. Her fiction and nonfiction can be found in The New Yorker, Granta, the Guardian, the New York Times, and BBC Radio, among other places. She is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship and was awarded Runner-up in the 2011 Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Maaza writes fiction and nonfiction dealing with conflict, migration, and the relationship between photography and violence. She was a writer on the documentary projects, GIRL RISING, and sits on the boards of Words Without Borders and Warscapes. Her second novel is forthcoming.