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By Nuruddin Farah
Arcade. 246 pp. $23.95

  Chapter One

Chapter One

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In which Duniya sees the outlines of a story emerging from the mist surrounding her, as the outside world impinges on her space and thoughts.

Duniya had been awake for a while, conscious of the approaching dawn. She had dreamt of a restless butterfly; of a cat waiting attentively for the fretful insect's shadow to stay still for an instant so as to pounce on it. Then the dark room lit up with the brightness of fireflies, agitated breaths of light, soft, quiet as foam. Faint from heat, Duniya watched the goings-on, supine. The butterfly flew here and there, movements mesmeric in its circling rainbow of colours. As if hypnotized, the cat's eyes closed slowly, dramatically, and it fell asleep.

Fully awake, Duniya got out of bed.

Knowing she had to walk to work, she left home long before her children were up. She had timed herself on previous occasions: it would take forty-five minutes at a luxurious pace, allowing time for exchanging elaborate morning greetings and yesterday's gossip with any neighbours or colleagues she might meet.

In the event she only nodded a few times, acknowledging salutations without pause as if she did not know those who spoke them. She averted her eyes from several men in the side street, men in sarongs, towels draped round naked chests, men gargling gregariously, chewing on rumay sticks to clean their teeth. Duniya needed no reminder that the half-mud, half-brick houses in front of which these men stood had no running water, no wash-basins, no proper toilet facilities. She lived in one of the few houses in this district of Mogadiscio that boasted such amenities.

Wherever one looked, people were pouring out of opened doors. The streets were alive with activity: women chatting volubly with neighbours; groups of uniformed children on their way to school; infants, too small to carry their satchels, being led to kindergarten. Here and there someone was busy siphoning petrol from one vehicle into another. Most cars had an abandoned look, their bonnets up, engines cold. Occasionally one was driven past and everyone would stare, first at the vehicle as if seeing a miracle, then at the person at the wheel, perhaps hoping for a lift. The one time a taxi stopped, crowds converged on it and there was a scuffle, whereupon the driver sped off, safe in his securely locked car.

Contrary to expectation, there was a touch of gaiety in the air, with total strangers willing to engage in conversation on any topic, though uppermost in everyone's mind were the scarcity of fuel and the increasingly frequent power cuts. Some people spoke knowledgeably about the politics of commodity shortages, guessing how long this would last. A man claiming to be in the know spoke of a government delegation going on a mission to the oil-producing Arab countries in the hope of returning with tankerfuls of petrol.

Duniya crossed an asphalt road which, though not sign-posted as such, was the boundary between two districts, one poor, in which she herself lived, the other middle-class if not well-to-do. From the nature of the conversation and the accents, she knew she was in Hodan. She entered a dirt road linking two tarred streets, a broad road that was quiet as a cul-de-sac. Suddenly, she felt violently upset; the surrounding silence disturbed her, making her breathing erratic. Seized with inexplicable fear, she sensed a chill in her bones, as if she had ventured into dangerous territory. She halted, not wanting to go further.

It was then that she spotted a cat resembling the one in her dream, crouched fearlessly before her, waiting to be picked up and cuddled. But Duniya did neither. She and the cat stared at each other and this increased her awareness of inner stress.

A few seconds later she saw in the hazy distance what at first seemed to be a butterfly with colourful wings revolving like spinning-tops. To her delighted surprise, it turned out to be a red-and-yellow-striped taxi, empty.

She got in, speaking not a word, and made herself comfortable in the back seat. Something told her not to interrogate her luck lest it should flee, but she did wonder if hiring the cab on her own might prove an exorbitant affair on a day like this. A discreet look in her wallet reassured her. But why wasn't the man moving? Had he spotted other potential passengers wanting to share? Then she realized she had not closed the taxi door. She clicked it shut and the car moved.

The driver touched the peak of the golf cap he wore, asking, "Where would you like me to take you, Madam?"

"Maternity Benaadir Hospital, please."

"At your service, Madam."

Duniya tried to dismiss a lurking suspicion: the man didn't talk, act or look like a taxi-driver. Phrases like "At your service, Madam" pinched his tongue in the way that new shoes press tightly on one's toes. He drove hesitantly, cautious with the controls, as if more accustomed to automatic transmission than manual gears. He reminded her of an inexperienced rider in the saddle of an unbroken horse. Several times the car stalled and he got out, apologizing, opened the bonnet, pulled at its wiry intestines, then got back in, only to repeat the process. He did not appear anxious, nor behave like a professional driver whose livelihood depended on the vehicle functioning. Rather, he was like a man condescending to cook for you while his maid and wife were both away: not wanting to be remembered for the ill-prepared result but for the humility with which he served you, the effort put into the task.

Moving at cruising speed, he said, "As you may have gathered, I'm not familiar with the idiosyncrasies of this taxi."

Then Duniya saw her face and his framed in the mirror, as if they had both waited all their lives for this one instant when their visages shared the space, sealed in a common fate. He was grinning, his jaw strong, his face shaven smooth as oilcloth, shining a friendly smile. It gave her an eerie sinking feeling, as if the earth were falling from under her. All of a sudden she did not want to be alone with him. Concurrently a realization came to her that she knew this man, knew his name.

"Why pretend to be someone you're not, Bosaaso?" she asked him.

"I'm afraid I've no idea what you're talking about," he replied.

"Disguise comes in handy to you men as soon as you run out of your natural masks. Men," she trailed off, as if the word described a species for which she had nothing but disdain.

She looked up at the sky. The sun seemed held in place by thin stilt-like strands of cloud, white as the branch of a deciduous tree without bark. Below the sun were two tiny dark clouds resembling footrests.

She and Bosaaso knew each other all right. She had been on night shift when his late wife spent a few laborious days in intensive care at the maternity hospital where Duniya was a senior nurse. Besides, they had a mutual friend in Dr Mire, principal obstetrician at the hospital and a boyhood friend of Bosaaso's.

     "If I had known this was not a taxi I wouldn't have flagged it down, I promise you," she said.

"But it isn't a taxi when I'm driving it," Bosaaso said.

"Why are you driving it anyway?"

"Because my own car is being serviced, that's why."

"None of this makes sense to me."

Bosaaso tried to explain: "I bought this taxi for a poor cousin of mine, who drives it so he can raise money. All income from taxiing is his, though the car remains mine and in my name." He sighed, sensing that he had been long-winded.

"In that case, I'd like to pay."

"Pay?" He sounded offended.

"You may choose to give the money to your cousin." She paused. "Would a hundred and fifty shillings be enough for a town trip, given today's fuel shortage?"

"Sure," Bosaaso said.

But she sensed that he did not take her offer seriously. To counteract her hurt feelings, she gave a theatrical chuckle, pretending to be amused.

"What's so funny?" he said.

"The thought that one defers to money," she replied.

He hung on her words like an angler to a rich catch. But he couldn't frame her face in his mirror, however much he adjusted it. She had gone very quiet in the back. He looked over his left shoulder and then his right, but saw no Duniya. Impervious to what he was doing or that he might meet other vehicles, he impulsively turned his head right around. Still he could see only a small part of her; her body was bent over—maybe she was picking up something from the floor. Then he lost control of the steering-wheel. The car swung, its tyres bumping against one kerb and then another, nearly colliding with the bumper of a vehicle that was parked off the road. Finally he came to a safe halt.

Suddenly the two of them were exaggeratedly conscious of each other's presence, aware of their physical proximity for the first time. Disregarding a small crowd that out of curiosity had gathered around the car, Duniya and Bosaaso touched, marvelling at having shared a life-and-death experience, at having stopped in good time before crossing a threshold.

Without him suggesting it, Duniya got out of the back of the taxi and went to sit with him in the front. He removed his golf cap and threw it out of the window. They started to move.

Duniya noticed how his smile emphasized the handsomeness of his features. And he had a habit of tilting his head to one side as though leaning against something; and he wrinkled his forehead, like someone in private trouble.

Duniya remembered the night she and Bosaaso had been together longest. While his wife, then in labour, was asleep in the private ward, they tiptoed outside for some fresh air. He didn't say much; and his head, she recalled, had inclined like the tower of Pisa.

     He was now saying, "About your paying for this journey, if I may ...," and he fell quiet.

"Yes?" she said, and waited.

"Do you ever go to the cinema with your daughters and son?" he asked tentatively.

"Now and then," she lied.

"What kind of films do you see?"

Wondering where it was all leading, she said, "The odd spaghetti western, or an Indian or kung fu film; there isn't much choice. Why do you ask?"

He didn't say anything immediately. Entering a difficult lane he concentrated on his driving. His indicator was not working, so he stuck his arm out of the window to show that he was turning right. However, first he braked in order to let a pedestrian cross the road. Duniya noted he was a careful man, considerate too.

Changing gear smoothly, he said, "I suggest you take me to a film with you and your children, instead of paying anything today."

"But I don't know when I'll next be seeing a film," she said.

"There's no hurry," he replied.

Was this some sort of male trap that would be impossible to undo at a later date, like links of an invisible chain?

"Perhaps you don't have time," he said, "what with grown-up twins and a young daughter to look after." He added as an afterthought, "And your work at the hospital. It must all be extremely demanding. Plus other engagements, I'm sure."

Surprising them both, she said, "I have plenty of time."

He didn't speak for a while. Then: "Perhaps I'm too slow. Or is there a catch? Is there something you haven't told me yet?"

"To be frank, I'm not sure I want to take anyone to a film."

"Fair enough," he said, as he turned a corner.

She hoped she hadn't been unnecessarily off-putting. From the corner of her eye, she watched him switch on the car's hazard light which blinked red, in time with her heartbeat. He was looking at her intently, wondering if he dared interrupt her thoughts.

In fact she spoke first. "I hope I haven't been rude."

"You'll be forgiven the instant you invite me," he said.

"I've no way of reaching you anyway."

"On the contrary," he said. "You're a very resourceful woman; you'll know how to get in touch if you want to."

Too tense to think dearly, she remained silent.

"One way of reaching me," he went on, "is through Dr Mire at your hospital. I see him a great deal, almost daily."

"Wouldn't he be put out by being asked to carry messages?"

"He'll be only too delighted, I assure you." He grinned, dividing his attention equally between Duniya's face and the road, which was full of pot-holes and pedestrians.

He brought the vehicle to an abrupt stop. "I am afraid I can't go beyond this point. There's a sign that says `No taxis.' I forgot I'm not driving my private car. I'm sorry."

Sitting up, she prepared for the difficult task of saying something wise or neutral, managing, "You've been very kind."

"My pleasure," was all he said.

Murmuring something that was a cross between a "thank-you" and a "see-you," she stepped out of the car, confident they would meet again. She closed the taxi door without looking at him.

Having arrived early, Duniya conversed affably and at length with the three cleaning women, even offering to help them tidy the Outpatients' Clinic where she was to work that day. But they wouldn't hear of it. She did all she could to keep her mind busy.

But when the cleaners left and she was alone in the echoing hall, her mind kept replaying scenes from the chance encounter with Bosaaso. To while away time, she unearthed an old newspaper in which she discovered an item of interest:


The Secretary of Agriculture and Livestock today warned of impending disaster and famine in Somalia unless immediate action is taken to terminate the breeding cycle of the desert locust. Mogadiscio residents recently witnessed huge swarms, 25 km wide and 70 km long. He said the government is launching a campaign to eradicate the pests but this can only be achieved with the help of insecticide and light aircraft for spraying, which are not available. A grant towards the campaign has been promised by the governments of the USA and the Netherlands. However, this was not enough.

The Head of State, Major-General Mohammed Siyad Barre, has invited the ambassadors of the Federal Republic of Germany, Britain, France and Italy to consider what assistance their governments can offer Somalia to cope with the disaster. Last night five light aircraft belonging to the East African Locust Organization were grounded in Addis Ababa through lack of spare parts and fuel.

Quoting a senior official of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the Secretary of Agriculture and Livestock said efforts to fight the plague throughout Africa had cost at least $100 million and that additional funds of over $145 million will be needed in the coming year.
© Copyright 1999 Nuruddin Farah

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