Mama grabbed the cat from the floor and put him across her lap. The animal didn’t object, knowing that any resistance would be futile.
’Nagib, Nagib, good cat!’ she stroked his fur, and then added, turning to me, ‘In Somali language, cat means bisad.’
‘Bisad – cat,’ I wrote down and repeated.
Mama would come back to the tent every night around 7, light up her water pipe and sit there, puffing aromatic fumes, cooking food and stroking the cat. And teaching me Somali and Arabic.
The family had to flee Somaliland during the civil war and emigrate to Dubai, like so many others. Dubai was not the worst option, of course, and the family was getting on pretty well and even travelling abroad with the father on business trips.
‘Young daughter was 1 year old, we went to Sweden,’ mama told me and her face turned nostalgic. ’Sweden was good, not hot, not like here.’
‘Actually, Sweden tends to be extremely cold and gloomy,’ I remarked.
’No, no, we went in summer. Sweden very good.’
‘How did you come back to Hargeisa?’ I asked.
‘Ooh,’ mama just waves it off.
Her middle son invited me to stay with the family after he’d met me for half an hour on my first night in town. I said that I had a tent and was looking for a place to pitch it nice and safely and maybe have some source of water nearby to smell like roses every day.
‘We live in a tent, you can stay with us. Put your tent nearby. All our neighbors have tents, like traditional Somali tents,’ Y. said.
In the subsequent week and a half I came to know his brothers and sisters, hilarious mum and Nagib the cat.
‘Do not set your tent, why?’ mama said worriedly. ‘No good for girl sleep outside alone. Sleep in our tent. Boys in one half, women in the other. No problem!’
So I became part of the family. More like a pet, really.
‘I teach you some useful Somali words,’ Y. declared and I wrote down as he pronounced:
Waryaa, wamahaai!? Wolahei, waan kudilia! – Man, what’s wrong with ya? I swear I’ll punch you!
Very useful in the streets of Hargeisa, indeed. Mama and the sisters were dropping dead of laughter each time I said it, accompanying the words with a typical Somali hand gesture (sort of like what Italians do when they yell Ma che cazzo, but instead of shaking your palm try turning it left and right and spread your fingers… well, actually, it’s nothing like the Italian one, hm).
At first, my appearance caused some stirring among the neighbours. I assume none of them has ever met a foreigner face-to-face, and most of the inhabitants of this low-income area probably did not have education or necessary foreign language skills to communicate, while my level of Somali was, unfortunately, too basic. Which made mama and whole of Y.’ family even more interesting. How did they learn to speak English? Why did Y. approach me in the street and offered help? Why did I feel like I could trust him? Why did the family feel so at ease having a foreigner around?
‘Father married another woman and divorced our mother. So our father is rich and has his own business in Bura’o, but our mother is poor, and we live with her. We tried to live with our father but his new wife doesn’t like us at all,’ said M., the elder sister.
’Father’s new wife is so unpleasant! She pretends that she is so young and pretty, but she is already over 30 and not beautiful at all. But she always yelled at us, and was never happy with what we did. So we packed our bags and went to live with mama,’ added B., the other sister. She braided my hair ’Somali-style’ on my last night in town. She had the most amazing wavy black hair streaming down her shoulders when she was taking off the scarf indoors.
’This tent is very small and we do not have much money, but it is better than live with the father and that woman. They have other children now,’ Y. concluded.
It seems to be a common practice in Muslim societies across Africa: when a man suddenly finds himself in financial difficulties, he has one certain way of fixing it. Marriage. The bride’s family pays for the wedding and grants him a big dowry. However, he certainly has better chances of scoring a rich and young wife if he un-marries the previous one. Now, as I understand the nuances of the divorce, the woman does not really have a big say in expressing her agreement or disagreement. Provided that the husband is the initiator of divorce, the wife usually gets back her dowry, but her now ex-husband has no legal obligation to provide for their children. Children normally stay with the mother until they are old enough to attend school, and then move in with their father since men are usually more resourceful and able to provide for their education.
Still, no matter what the laws are, women in Somaliland are rarely aware of their rights in a male-dominating society.
‘My former husband lives in another city. Has another family. I don’t care,’ mama said, puffing her sheesha and pouring me some mango juice she’d got from the market. ‘I have my babies here, I have my cat, I have a roof above my head. I do not need more.’
Five times a day mama was praying in the middle of her tent, facing Mecca. She could recite whole verses of Quran and was eager to teach me while her daughters were out at neighbour’s watching soap operas on TV.
I could see that she wished more for her children. Every now and then she would start reminiscing about the years she spent in Dubai, in a proper apartment with a washing machine, and the trips they all made to Europe. Somaliland is a new country, unrecognized by the rest of the world, with some dodgy neighbors all around and unemployment on the rise. With no connections and no money young people can barely rise above their circumstances and make something of themselves.
‘Our father tried to smuggle khat into Dubai and was arrested. He stayed in prison for a while,’ A. told me.
Y. and B. took me to the hill late in the evening so that I could see the panorama of Hargeisa at night. It was not the view that left an imprint in my mind, but the sounds. it was around 8pm, I suppose, when the mosques from all around the city started the call for prayer. On the hill where we were standing, I could only hear the wind and Y. and B. chatting with a group of girls we met. But down in the yellow lights of Hargeisa there was only the sound of azan from all the corners of the city, like an invisible choir.
‘I tried to leave the country,’ Y. told me. ‘I got a visa to Ethiopia, travelled on trucks and buses through Ethiopia, then went to the border with Sudan, me and some other men. The police caught us, I stayed in prison for a month or so. Then was deported back to Somaliland.’
His brother was thinking of doing the same in a few weeks, in order to get to Italy and find employment there.
We cooked food on their clay stove together, exchanged music on our phones and I taught the girls how to play ukulele a little. They both go to work and want to continue their studies in medicine. They are fluent in Arabic and Somali and have good skills to improve their English. So many times in that country I felt that many people live out of place. Many talented guys and girls with great potential just do not know where to start. Young people with aspirations trying to leave their home and embark on a long and dangerous journey to the European shores where dreams come true.
‘You know that if you get to Italy no one will really help you there? No one really needs you there and local people can treat you like crap?’ I asked the youngest brother while he was walking me to the car that would take me back to the Ethiopian border.
‘I don’t care. Can’t live here anymore. It will be better in Europe.’
We would say: ‘Grass is definitely greener on the other side, meh!’ Where mama and her children live, there is no grass at all. Hargeisa is just full of sand.