I cried a little as the bus started to fill up with people in Charing Cross Road and passed the stone lions in Trafalgar Square. It was not the West Indian conductor who checked my pass that day but a young boy who looked bored. The West Indian conductor is very friendly with me, he tells me I look like one of his daughters and that he wants one day to visit Sudan, to see Africa for the first time. When I tell him of our bread queues and sugar coupons, he looks embarrassed and leaves me to collect the fares of other passengers. I was crying for Taha or maybe because I was homesick, not only for my daughters or my family but sick with longing for the heat, the sweat, and the water of the Nile. The English word ‘homesick’ is a good one. In Arabic my state would have been described as ‘yearning for the homeland’ or the ‘sorrow of alienation’ and there is also truth in this. I was alienated from this place where darkness descended unnaturally at 4 in the afternoon and people went about their business as if nothing had happened.
I was in a country which Taha had never visited and yet his memory was closer to me than it had been for years. Perhaps it was my new solitude, perhaps he came to me in dreams I could not recall. Or was my mind reeling from the newness surrounding me? I was in London for a one year contract with the BBC World Service. Each day as I read the news in Arabic, my voice, cool and distant, reached my husband in Kuwait, and my parents who were looking after my daughters in Khartoum.
Now I was older than Taha had been when he died. At that time he was ten years older than me and like my other brothers he had humoured me and spoiled me. When he died, my mind bent a little and has never straightened since. How could a young mind absorb the sudden death of a brother on the day of his wedding? It seemed at first to be a ghastly mistake, but that was an illusion, a mirage. The Angel of Death makes no mistakes, he is a reliable servant who never fails to keep his appointment at the predetermined time and place. Taha had no premonition of his own death. He was fidgety, impatient but not for that, not for the end coming so soon. It was too painful to think of what must have been his own shock, his own useless struggle against the inevitable. Nor did anyone else have foreknowledge. How could we, when we were steeped in wedding preparations and our house was full of relatives helping with the wedding meal? From the misty windows I saw the words ‘Gulf Air’ written in Arabic and English on the doors of the airline’s office and imagined myself one day buying a ticket to go to Hamid in Kuwait. It seemed that the fate of our generation is separation, from our country or our family. We are ready to go anywhere in search of the work we cannot find at home. Hamid says that there are many Sudanese in Kuwait and he hopes that in the next year or so the girls and I will join him. Every week, I talk to him on the telephone, long leisurely conversations. We run up huge telephone bills but seem to be unable to ration our talks. He tells me amusing stories of the emirs whose horses he cures. In Sudan, cattle die from starvation or disease all the time, cattle which are the livelihood of many people. But one of the country’s few veterinary surgeons is away, working with animals whose purpose is only to amuse. Why? So that his daughters can have a good education, so that he can keep up with the latest research in his field. So that he can justify the years of his life spent in education by earning the salary he deserves. And I thought of Taha’s short life and wondered.
In Regent Street the conductor had to shake himself from his lethargy and prevent more people from boarding the bus. The progress of the bus was slow in contrast to the shoppers who swarmed around in the brightly lit streets. Every shop window boasted an innovative display and there were new decorative lights in addition to the street lights. Lights twined around the short trees on the pavements, on wires stretched across the street. Festive December lights. Blue, red, green lights, more elaborate than the crude strings of bulbs that we use in Khartoum to decorate the wedding house. But the lights for Taha’s wedding had not shone as they were meant to on that night. By night time he was already buried and we were mourning not celebrating. Over the period of mourning, the wedding dinner was gradually eaten by visitors. The women indoors, sitting on mattresses spread on the floors, the men on wobbling metal chairs in a tent pitched in front of our house, the dust of the street under their feet. But they drank water and tea and not the sweet orange squash my mother and her friends had prepared by boiling small oranges with sugar. That went to a neighbour who was bold enough to ask about it. Her children carried the sweet liquid from our house in large plastic bottles, their eyes bright, their lips moist with expectation.
When Taha died I felt raw and I remained transparent for a long time. Death had come so close to me that I was almost exhilarated; I could see clearly that not only life but the world was transient. But with time my heart hardened and I became immersed in the cares of day to day life. I had become detached from this vulnerable feeling and it was good to recapture it now and grieve once again.
Taha’s life. I was not there for a large part of it but I remember the time he got engaged and my own secret feelings of jealousy towards his fiance. Muddled feelings of admiration and a desire to please. She was a university student and to my young eyes she seemed so articulate and self-assured. I remember visiting her room in the universiey hostels while Taha waited for us outside by the gate, hands in his pockets, maxing patterns in the dust with his feet. Her room was in lively disarray with clothes and shoes scattered about and colourful posters on the wall. It was full of chatting room-mates and friends who kept coming in and out to eat the last biscuits in the open packet on the desk, borrow the prayer mat or dab their eyes with kohl from a silver flask. They scrutinized my face for any likeness to Taha, laughed at jokes I could not understand, while I sat nervously on the edge of a bed, smiling and unable to speak. Later, with Taha, we went to a concert in the football grounds where a group of students sang. I felt very moved by a song in the form of a letter written by a political prisoner to his mother. Taha’s bride afterwards wrote the words out for me, humming the tune, looking radiant, and Taha remarked how elegant her handwriting was.
In the shop windows dummies posed, aloof strangers in the frenzied life of Oxford street. Wools, rich silks and satin dresses. ‘Taha, shall I wear tonight the pink or the green?’, I asked him ‘See, I look like-like a watermelon in this green’. His room was an extension of the house where a verandah used to be, a window from the hall still looked into it, the door is made of shutters. He never slept in his room. In the early evening we all dragged our beds outdoors so that the sheets are cool when it’s time to gaze up at the stars. If it rained Taha did not care, he covered his head with the sheet and continued to sleep. When the dust came thick, I shook his shoulder to wake him up to go indoors and he shouted at me to leave him alone. In the morning his hair was covered with dust, sand in his ears, his eyelashes. He sneezed and blamed me for not insisting, for failing to get him to move inside. I see him now: he smiles at me in my green dress, his suitcase half-filled lies open on the floor, he leans against the shutters holding them shut with his weight. Through them filter the hisses and smells of frying, the clinking of empty water glasses scented with incense and the thud of a hammer on a slab of ice, the angry splinters flying in the air, disintegrating, melting in surrender when they greet the warm floor. Someone is calling for the bridegroom, an aunt cups a hand round her mouth, tongue strong and dancing from side to side she trills joy cry. When others join her the sound rises in waves to fill the whole house. Is it a tape or is someone singing this ridiculous song, Our bridegroom like honey. Where can you ever find another like him? He tells me words I know to be absurd but want to believe. Tonight you will look more beautiful than the bride.
The bus headed north, and we passed Regents Park and the Central Mosque; all was peaceful and dark after the congestion of the shopping centre. I was glad that there were no more coloured lights for they are cheerful and false. I had held others like them before in my hands wiping the dust off each bulb and saying to Taha, ‘How could you have taken them from the electrician when they were so dusty?’ And he had helped me clean them with an orange cloth that he used for the car because he was in a hurry to set them up all around the outside of the house. I had teased him saying that the colours were not in an ordered pattern. We laughed together trying to make sense of their order but they were random, chaotic. Then Hamid who was his friend arrived and said he would help him set them up. I asked Taha to get me a present from Nairobi where he was going for his honeymoon and Hamid had looked directly at me, laughed in his easy way and said without hiding his envy, ‘He is not going to have time to get you any presents.’ At that time, Hamid and I were not even engaged and I felt shy from his words and walked away from his gaze.
It was the lights which killed Taha. The haphazard, worn strings of lights, that had been hired out for years to house after wedding house. A bare live wire carelessly touched. A rushed drive to the hospital where I watched a stray cat twist and rub its thin body around the legs of our bridegroom’s death bed. And in the crowded corridors, people squatted on the floor and the screams for Taha were absorbed by the dirty walls, and listless flies, and by the generous who had room and tears for a stranger they had never met before.
My mother, always a believing woman, wailed and wept but did not pour dirt on her head or tear her clothes like some ignorant women do. She just kept saying again and again, ‘I wish I never lived to see this day.’ Hamid maybe had the greatest shock for he was with Taha when he was setting up the lights. Later, he told me that when they buried Taha he had stayed at the graveside after the other men had gone. He had prayed to strengthen his friend’s soul at its crucial moment of questioning. The moment in the grave, in the interspace between death and eternity when the Angels ask the soul, ‘Who is your Lord?’ and there must be no wavering in the reply, no saying ‘I don’t know’. The answer must come swiftly with confidence and it was for this assurance, in the middle of what must have been Taha’s fear, that Hamid prayed.
I had been in London for nearly seven months and had told no one about Taha. I felt that it would sound distasteful or like a bad joke, but electricity had killed others in Khartoum too, though I did not know them personally. A young boy once urinated at the foot of a lamp light which had a base from which wires stuck out exposed. And a girl in my school was cleaning a fridge, squatting barefoot in a puddle of melted ice with the electric socket too close. The girl’s younger sister was in my class and the whole class, forty girls, went in the school bus to visit the family at home. On the way we sang songs as if we were on a school picnic and I cannot help but remember that day with pleasure.
With time, the relationship between my family and Taha’s bride soured. Carefully prepared dishes ceased to pass between my mother and hers. In the two ‘Id festivals, when we celebrated first the end of the fasting month of Ramadan and then the Feast of Sacrifice, our families no longer visited. Out of a sense of duty, my parents had proposed that she marry another of my brothers but she and her family refused. Instead, she married one of her cousins who was not very educated, not as much as Taha at any rate. Sometimes, I would see her in the streets of Khartoum with her children and we would only greet each other if our eyes met.
In Taha’s memory, my father built a small school in his home village on the Blue Nile. One classroom built of mud to teach young children to read and write. The best charity for the dead is something continuous that goes on yielding benefit over time. But, like other schools it kept running into difficulties; no books, costly paper, poor attendance when children were sometimes kept at home to help their parents. Yet my father persevered and the school had become something of a hobby for him in his retirement. It is also a good excuse for him to travel frequently from the capital to the village and visit his old friends and family. What my mother did for Taha was more simple. She bought a zeer, a large clay pot and had it fastened to a tree in front of our house. The zeer held water, keeping it cool and it was covered by a round piece of wood on which stood a tin mug for drinking. Early in the morning, I would fill with water from the fridge and throughout the day passers-by, he and thirsty from the glaring sun could drink, resting in the shade the tree. In London, I came across the same idea, memorial benches, inscribed with names, placed in gardens and parks where people could rest. My mother would never believe that anyone would voluntarily sit in the sun but then she had never seen cold, dark evenings like these.
It was time for me to get off as the bus had long passed Lords, Swiss Cottage and Golders Green. There were only a few passengers left. After dropping me off the bus would turn around to resume its cycle. And my grief for Taha comes in cycles as well, over the years, rising and falling back. Like the appearance of the West Indian conductor, it is difficult to predict. Perhaps he will be on the bus tomorrow evening. ‘Like them Christmas lights?’ he will ask, and, grateful to see a familiar face amidst the alien darkness and damp, I will say, ‘Yes, I admire the coloured lights.’
- By L. Aboulela
- Category: Issue 12 (October - December 1995)
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