An excerpt from Ubah Cristina Ali Farah’s novel Il comandante del fiume (The Commander of the River), translated from the Italian by Hope Campbell Gustafson.
More than a month has passed since the day of the concert. That night, after the bouncer told me to leave, I’d started smoking like crazy, one cigarette after another. But even that wasn’t enough to calm me down, and since I didn’t know who to take it out on, I started kicking the wall. It was dark and people didn’t seem to notice me and my outburst. Until a guy separated from his group and came towards me. I immediately stopped—a bit out of embarrassment, a bit out of curiosity—and nodded hello. He had his hair divided into thick braids—in the semi-darkness, his head looked like a sea urchin—and oblique eyes circled in black.
“Got a light?” he asked, then introduced himself. His name was Ghiorghis. He must’ve been about ten years older than me.
Hearing his name, I was reminded of a painting Zia Rosa was very proud of. One of her Ethiopian friends had given it to her and it depicted San Giorgio—Ghiorghis in their language—killing the dragon. The saint was very important for the Ethiopians and, as the legend goes, he’d killed the dragon because it was tormenting the inhabitants of a city called Selem, thus restoring peace among the people.
Ghiorghis’s face, upon closer look, was the spitting image of the saint’s—in the painting his eyes are so big and bright they shine in the dark.
After lighting his cigarette, he looked at me with a worried expression, and placing his hand on my shoulder, asked: “All good, brother?”
I was still angry about being left outside the centro sociale, so—partly to surprise him, partly to provoke him—I responded: “Why are you calling me brother when you don’t even know me?”
Ghiorghis first stared at me, incredulous, then burst out laughing, and waved his friends over. Some had dreadlocks, others shaved heads, still others were wearing hats with green, red, yellow, and black stripes—the colors of Rastas.
“Little brother, what happened to you?” another one asked me while everyone gathered around. They all had black hands and they seemed to have one voice that came out of their eyes. I repeated: “Why are you calling me brother when you don’t even know me?” and they, like Ghiorghis, also burst out laughing as if I’d said the strangest thing ever.
“What do you mean why? Where are you from little dude? Who do you think you are?” said one with a certain defiance, after which Ghiorghis signaled for everyone to go away.
He was wearing a white short-sleeved shirt, rather tight, and an African necklace with colored beads. He was shorter than me, but being older, intimidated me.
“I’m sorry,” I told him, “my friends just ditched me. And, by the way, I can’t stand it when people ask me where I’m from.”
Hearing these words, Ghiorghis smiled at me and sat down on a parked moped.
“I know it can be annoying but between us it’s completely different.”
It wasn’t very clear to me what he meant by “between us” and, without my even asking, Ghiorghis explained that for him “between us” means that “you don’t have to play any part, you can be yourself, while everyone else always has certain expectations. If you go to a centro sociale, for example, they expect you to be someone who does more drugs than other people; if you go to a church you must need something. All fabrications that missionaries, colonizers, and anthropologists came up with.”
I really liked the word “fabrications,” but still didn’t understand—in fact, for me “between us” meant between Sissi, the Sybarite, and our families. Nothing could divide us, even though in that moment they were performing in the centro sociale and I was outside.
Thinking about my two friends I got choked up again and, in an almost angry voice, said to the guy: “Alright, but what does this have to do with the inevitable question? Why do people always have to ask you where you’re from? Why don’t they mind their own business?”
Instead of losing patience, Ghiorghis began telling me a story from when he was a boy.
He was thirteen and was going to school in the Città dei Ragazzi, where he had an Italian-American gym teacher. All the kids admired him and hung around him. One day the teacher asked Ghiorghis: “Where are you from?”
“Ethiopia,” he simply said.
Not happy with the answer, the Italian-American pressed him again: “Where were you born?” and when he heard that Ghiorghis was born in Rome he flipped out. He inundated Ghiorghis with a river of words, a mix of American English and Campania dialect, telling him that he was Italian, not Ethiopian, because Italy was where he was born, received his first maternal caresses, made his first friends, attended school. Ghiorghis emphasized this word, “caresses,” because his teacher had kept repeating it, but he pronounced it in a strange way, rolling his r for twice as long.
“Then and there it didn’t seem like anything important, but over the years,” Ghiorghis went on, “I’ve really reflected on that story—I might even say it’s become my favorite parable.”
Ghiorghis hadn’t yet finished with his reasoning, he still wanted to tell me that recently he’d happened to accompany a friend to look for a summer job at Caritas, where he’d met the priest on duty. The man had looked at him sympathetically and—can you guess? —asked him: “Where are you from?” “From Rome,” Ghiorghis responded but the priest had persisted: “Ethiopian, Eritrean?”
“My parents are both Ethiopian.”
To this the guy had commented disapprovingly: “I don’t care for your denial.”
“Can you believe it?” Ghiorghis repeated, shaking his curly head—how dare he say he was rejecting his own origins? That he was denying being Ethiopian? The Italian-American gym teacher had properly explained that your place is where you have ties, friends, it’s where you know the streets and the smells.
I agreed with him completely about this, but there was still something that didn’t make sense to me so I asked him: “If that’s what you think, why did you choose friends who all look like you?”
Ghiorghis seemed to be enjoying himself again: “You’re a tough nut to crack, you know?” and he gave me a slap on the back.
“When I was your age more or less, I’d already been hanging out at the legendary Big Burger in Piazzale Flaminio for a few years. That’s where my crew gathered, well actually, that’s where almost all the black kids of Rome gathered. That piazza was the only place we felt was ours—we were free to say whatever we wanted, we weren’t forced to play any part. We stopped being what other people saw us as and we were no longer ‘the beggar,’ ‘the junkie,’ ‘the loser,’ ‘the well-endowed guy,’ ‘the athlete,’ ‘the dancer’—we were no longer black, we were simply ourselves. The kids in the crew could’ve been the children of immigrants or ambassadors, Italians or foreigners, living in the periphery or the residential neighborhoods, and the thing that bonded us was a love of hip hop, which is our universal language.”
Ghiorghis got excited while speaking about Piazzale Flaminio, his eyes seemed to light up even more, and from a distance all his friends watched him making large gestures with his hands.
“It was a beautiful experience, but not even the piazza was enough to make us feel at home. Rome felt constricting and many of us wanted to leave for one of those places where the people are more mixed. Some left for England, to London, others chose spots even further away and, in the end, the time to leave came for me too.”
Hearing him mention London, I remembered that my departure was nearing so I asked him how long he had lived there and how it’d been.
In the beginning it was great and exciting, but with time he realized that, outside Italy, it was even harder to respond to the inevitable question, he didn’t have the right words to tell his story, and so even abroad he ended up meeting up with the people who’d been his friends in Piazzale Flaminio. When they were together they spoke of the past with nostalgia.
“After seven years,” he said to me, “I swung by Rome—I had to deal with some things. Because I’d gotten Italian citizenship, I can’t tell you all the trouble I went through—I’d gotten the draft card and, apparently, since I hadn’t shown up, was committing a crime. So many headaches, but when I walked out of the airport it only took me a second to realize that I had come home, bathed in the light of the city.”
“What’s the difference between swinging by and returning?”
Ghiorghis responded without hesitation: “For seven years I hadn’t seen Rome—seven years is an eternity but a cappuccino was all it took to find love again, stronger than ever, not because Rome is how it is, but because with the first cappuccino at the bar I found myself.”
While saying these things Ghiorghis got almost emotional, meanwhile I wondered what it really meant to be nostalgic.
Nostalgia is when you miss something, but if you’ve never actually had it, can you still feel nostalgic? Perhaps nostalgia comes when that thing is something others have and you don’t.
Ghiorghis came back to Italy and his crew is still the same—though before they’d hang out in Piazzale Flaminio, now they no longer have a set meeting place but they’re always together, and they all have hands that are black like mine.
While Ghiorghis spoke, raising and lowering his hands, one of his friends came up to us. He was very black, his body long and skinny, his face narrow, and a little triangular beard sprouted from his chin.
“So, little brother, all good?” he asked and, winking at his comrade, stuck out his hand to introduce himself: “nice to meet you, I’m Libbaan.”
The whole “little brother” thing was turning into the catchword of the night and it irritated me that they were all laughing about it behind my back, so to get even I told him: “Do you even know how to say your own name? It’s pronounced Libaan, with only one b.”
The guy suddenly grew serious and asked: “How do you know that?” Meanwhile Ghiorghis watched me very closely, because I still hadn’t revealed where I was from, but now the language had spoken for me.
The boy who doubled the b in his name told me I was very lucky, because he didn’t speak Somali, not even a word. “No one has ever told me how to pronounce my name, or if they have, I’ve forgotten.”
“My mother speaks and sings in Somali all the time,” I replied, “but I have problems with it too—I think I understand everything, but I can’t speak it.”
I’d warmed up a bit and then, I don’t know how, between one thing and the next, I began telling them about the time some Somali women came to see us, many years ago, when I was in first grade. Mama had them sit in the living room. She came back with a thermos of cardamom tea and a blue tin of Danish cookies. They spoke seated on the couch while I played silently nearby, because at the time I was still a calm child and didn’t seek out adult attention. I even remember that there was some music on in the background. Many weeks had passed since we’d heard from my father, he’d spent long periods away before but had always kept in touch with us. Mama had dark circles under her eyes and was trying to hide her worries from me.
She abruptly stood up and went to the stereo to turn up the volume. The women asked: “Why are you turning up the music if your son doesn’t understand Somali?” and she replied: “He understands, he understands everything.”
They began speaking intensely and part of me could barely follow along, part of me didn’t find what they were saying very interesting. Until one of them raised her voice at my mother: “We told you not to trust your husband—those wild dogs raided our homes, killed our men, and they still haven’t had enough.”
Hearing these words, my mother yelled at the women to leave and to never speak like that in front of me again. She repeatedly told them that my father would never kill anyone. The women looked at her, taken aback, and told her to calm down. But my mother couldn’t calm herself and, after showing them out, she shut herself in the bathroom. I pulled on the door handle so she’d open the door and asked her over and over: “Who are the wild dogs? Who killed? Where’s papa, aabbe?”
Since that day my mother made a habit of turning up the volume of the music when she spoke on the phone or someone came to see her—she was afraid of what I might hear.
Naturally this only increased my curiosity, and that’s how I discovered mama was desperately trying to convince my father to come back and that she feared for his life.
Unfortunately—but I only understood this later—aabbe was too tangled up in the war to come back and live with us.
While I was saying all these things out loud that sounded strange even to my ears, I realized it was the first time I’d spoken so openly about certain family matters and I’d only just met them. Who knows what had gotten into me.
Libaan, moved by the story he’d just heard, began telling me his own. He also, at first, lived in Somalia with both his parents. He was ten when the war broke out and his parents decided to seek refuge in Italy. Unfortunately, they were not able to obtain a visa for his mother, so he and his father left without her, in the hope of sending her documents and a ticket at a later date. Months passed, his father was buried in bureaucratic hassles, there was never enough money, and, at a certain point, he decided to put Libaan in boarding school, promising he’d be back for him soon. But things went different than planned. After some time, he forgot about both his wife and his son, who he never went back to find. As he grew up, Libaan, in turn, forgot everything he knew—even how to pronounce his own name—because there was no longer anyone to correct him. He learned Italian and the new words cancelled out the old. His mother’s voice, though, he’d never forgotten. My father, too, for all I knew, had forgotten about me and my mother, but at least the two of us were still together.
When he was eighteen Libaan had also been part of the Flaminio crew and, having finished high school, he’d left the boarding school and set about searching for his mother. He went to the Somali consulate in search of information, but no one listened to him. Libaan knew the names of his mother and the village where she lived, but they explained to him that the name of the person was not needed, not even that of the place in which they lived—if he wanted to find his mother he had to know the name of the clan she belonged to. Libaan didn’t remember it, or maybe he’d never known it.
Twenty years had passed since the last time he’d seen his mother when, out of the blue, his father showed up. It couldn’t be a coincidence. Libaan insisted so much that the man finally got him his mother’s number. Libaan was so excited he ran to call her straight away. But his mother didn’t speak his new language and Libaan no longer understood the old. At one point someone tore the phone from her hand—an uncle, a relative—and in the confusion Libaan only recognized one message that they kept repeating to him in Italian: “Money, money, to you mother send money,” as if after so many years the only thing she wanted from her son was money. But he didn’t even have enough to live on. He hung up, upset, but he still remembered the phone number.
When the story was over, we were so shaken up no one said anything for a few minutes, until Ghiorghis, jumping up from the moped, had an idea.
“Listen little brother, I really don’t think we met by chance. I mean, your friends ditched you, you stayed outside, and there just has be a reason that we’re here together tonight, talking.”
The story had moved me so much that I no longer felt like provoking. Then again, I couldn’t repress a vision—Zia Rosa’s face attached to Ghiorghis’s body: How come certain people think that ordinary incidents hold some deeper meaning? His idea was that we could all go together to a nearby call center and ring Libaan’s mother. I tried to explain to him that I’d only pronounced a name correctly and I didn’t feel up to speaking in Somali on the telephone.
The two of them soon were in league. Ghiorghis was the pushier one: “You said you have to go to London, no? This way you’ll start practicing—what language do you think you’ll be speaking there? Come on, it doesn’t cost you anything!”
“But it’s late, at this hour they’ll all be asleep. It’s about two am in Somalia.”
“Even better, this way we can be sure they’re at home.”
They were so insistent that, in the end, I had to give in: “Alright, I’ll try.”
It was almost midnight when I went with Libaan to call and even though it was far from hot out, we were both sweating heavily. I was sweating because I felt like I no longer remembered a word of Somali, he because he’d be speaking to his mother for the first time in twenty years.
The call center was a cramped little store with many glass booths inside. There were signs in various languages and through the transparent walls you could see people talking—each of them moved his mouth in a different way but you couldn’t hear their voices, they were like many fish inside an aquarium.
As soon as we walked in the manager, a man with a white beard, asked us: “Where do you want to call?” and we explained the situation to him so that he’d give us a phone with two receivers, since Libaan and I needed to both talk and listen.
After a few minutes he lets us into a booth with two handsets—the space is very narrow and it’s hot as hell. We’re sweaty, the air is boiling, the phone number endless, the calling code endless, and the time it takes them to pick up endless. I feel like I’m in a damp cave and I picture the telephone at the other end also in a place like this—a boiling hot cavern like ours with Libaan’s mother inside who’s been waiting for twenty years. The phone rings, I wait for a voice, and Libaan stares at me because he’s afraid of my silence. He tells me “you got this!” and from the other end I hear: “Halow, yaa waaye?” Hello, who is it? They’re speaking in Somali and I understand everything, but until now I’ve only ever transformed Somali into Italian, I don’t know how to transform Italian into Somali.
From the other end of the line they say “halow,” and Libaan says “you got this!” again, and I see the words line up in my head, I feel and see all of them, they kick and take shape like whole walnuts, and I push with my forehead and my eyes to get them out. The words are hard, they cut through my head, like when it’s hot out and you drink something icy cold. I feel a stabbing pain between my eyes and catch my breath. But the pain still doesn’t stop, so I start pushing again, pushing hard, and now I feel the words come to my throat and I touch their shape with my tongue. I push air out and the words spill out whole from my mouth.
I see Libaan smiling at me and saying, “mama, it’s me,” his voice cracking, and I repeat, voice cracking, the same words, “hooyo, waa aniga,” and the words “mama”, “it’s” and “me” sound the same in the new language, maybe just a bit drier. Libaan is frantic and he wants to talk about too many things at once: about how much he searched for her, how much he’s missed her, how much he’s thought of her, but he’s only able to say simple words and his mother repeats the same things, and I’m the mother and the son at the same time.
We’re in the cave and the air is boiling, Libaan and I are both all sweaty and we’re each holding a handset attached to one cord. The voice of his mother reaches both of us and our voices reach her together. I feel the words whole in my mouth, it’d been a long time since I’d felt them, and these words are the words of the son and they’re also mine—Libaan and I together say “hooyo,” mama, and “waa aniga,” it’s me.