Living with Ghosts
I wanted to name you Aya. Both the poets and the prophets would have protected your every step had we stayed behind. But I, your mother, met a fate far worse than your drunkard father who they found foaming at the mouth near the barracks. I am writing to tell you, I am sorry I brought us here to live forever between worlds. The first song, the only one I ever sang to you, Aikedollie, was a song schoolgirls sang about love. I could only remember parts of it, so I clung to the chorus, and named your heartbeat after it. Aya.
Abdel-Rasul, the eldest fisherman told us to pack our belongings and meet him behind the abandoned pier, to trust him to take us somewhere we could seek refuge in after part of our city sank underwater. Yet, he did not step onto the boat that brought us to this place. I am ashamed I cannot remember you leaving my body, only that they brought you to me, your perfect skin, eyes and nose – all mine. I cried, and when you started to cry, I never felt lonely again, except for that time I saw someone, a woman who looked like us, who only spoke their language at me. I touched her hands, asked if she knew where my parents lived. She was too afraid to answer, only repeated Stop, Please. Words that meant danger, words that brought men who came in blues and reds ready to make us disappear.
I long to describe this place as I see it, this body I have here, but it slips past my fingers, past my tongue. I see death everywhere, even in the bread sold in mounds, like graves of children. The letters I write have missing fingers, and bodies curling away from each other. I am writing because I want you to know about the women who came before you. Important families came from all over the country to listen to our voices but could never touch our land. In the most elegant tobes, we entered into the privacy of homes with our flat drums. We were given the best silk and perfumes, doted on by the guests and families as they prepared the bride for the seven-day wedding ceremony that would ensue.
I apologize about memory because it is our birthright. Though we carry the four names of our patriarchs behind us, we are taught remembering by our mothers. Our drums and fingers mark the arrival of visitors; our voices announce the names of guests as they arrive. Between choruses of ululations we sing while each bride dances, guests showering us with coins we count late into the night and knot into scarves.
Sometimes I remember those scarves, patterns draped like veils as I dream about whether life here would be different, had I smuggled currency from the past. The woman who brings us food now, Sally, also brings children’s books and magazines full of women who resemble her, and I sometimes cry when she leaves. I repeat the ninety-nine names of Allah under my breath as she reads to you in her language, smiling like the missionaries back home who drove cars like men but told lies like children. When you start to cry, I come to bed to nurse you. Sally closes her book and sits there listening as I tell you a story my mother once told me when I let go of her hand in a busy souk. The tale was set in the city of Suakin in Port Sudan, a city most famous for the congregation of cats that outnumbered local inhabitants. Over centuries, the city submerged and resurfaced so many times, rumor was that the cats who wandered the seafront and demanded fried fish at tables with fearless authority, were lingering ghosts of generations, lost forever in the Red Sea.
“One summer evening after the Maghreb prayer, Hamza and Osman, the twin sons of Fatima and Idrees, snuck out of their house and through the fields to the shore, where they wet their feet and played make-believe games with debris they found near the waterwheels. As they strayed further from shore, Hamza, the frailest of the two, went underwater to retrieve a marble and never resurfaced. Some neighbors gossiped, when his body was never found, that a crocodile had devoured him; others claimed a strong current had ushered him back to the protection of Allah. Over the years, Osman’s family grew again with new siblings. Some nights, Osman could swear he heard his brother Hamza’s voice following him as he played football with neighbors in the fields. He could hear Hamza’s laughter near the well at the marketplace, dazed and dizzy at midday, buying bread and dakwa.
On his sixteenth birthday, Osman gathered with friends to celebrate, drinking coffee, playing cards and smoking hashish late into the night. As evening came to an end, staying behind to roll up the mats, he became aware of the sound of whistling from the shore. As he edged closer, the sound became more and more distant. He leaned to the edge of the water to wash his face and felt a gentle tugging against his fingers. Jumping back, startled, Osman recited verses from the Quran aloud. A beautiful set of teeth, followed by a glistening face and shoulders, emerged from the water and spat a glass marble at him which jumped into his shirt, and plunged into darkness.
They stared at each other in disbelief. Then, Hamza reached to steady Osman’s trembling body and they shared stories until daybreak. Osman begged and pleaded with Hamza “to return home”. It broke his heart to hear that Hamza now belonged elsewhere. He spoke of the community of souls who never age, how no one else could see them or believe they live amongst creatures underwater.
When he returned home, Osman found his mother sound asleep. As he placed the mats under the stairwell, his mind buzzed with the secret of Hamza. The month of Ramadan passed. Osman’s uncle, Nefrawi, the local spice dealer, died a few days before Eid. Since Osman was young, the family encouraged him to try his luck at the business.
A few weeks later, the next time Osman reunited with Hamza, he complained of his aching back, the long hours and boundless sacks of cumin, lote leaves, arabic gum, blackseed and acacia pods he struggled to sell. The following month, Hamza resurfaced bearing frankincense and rosary peas found on a boat that had sunk on its way back from the Far East. Osman spent a week blending, and began selling this powerful mix as Bakhoor Al Tayman or ‘The Twin Incense.’ Word spread about this remedy, potent against the evil eye, the presence of djinns and black magic. Soon, the remedy was found in every home across the delta.”
I look up in the darkness and hear you, my precious daughter, breathing, fast asleep. Sally’s eyes, still fixed on me, I wrap you inside my arms and look away holding my breath until I am sure she is gone. The next time she comes, she points at the white tobe I found in the house and smiles. She sits down and opens a different children’s book; I listen to words exploding from her mouth and repeat the ninety-nine names of Allah aloud until she stops reading, stands up, and dances like spirits are leaving her. I begin to laugh, and she does it over and over again.
One afternoon Sally brings Asmaa to the house, a woman wearing hijab who speaks Arabic. We cry together. She tells me I am safe, that she will teach me new things, that we have a future. I am too embarrassed to confess to her I had roamed for months, convinced that you and I, like Hamza, were trapped in a place where no one saw us anymore. Asmaa promises to bring me gowns to wear around the house, explaining that the stiff tobe I have been wearing is called “a sheet.” Sally says something. They both laugh. Asmaa translates, “It’s about time you stopped living with ghosts.”
Bio: K. Eltinaé @keltinae is a Sudanese poet of Nubian descent, his work has appeared in World Literature Today, The African American Review, About Place Journal, among others. A selection of his poems were shortlisted for the 2019 Brunel International African Poetry Prize. Besides writing he loves reading, the oud and kora, handmade foutas, old school rap, and Sarah Vaughan.
website: http://k-eltinae.com facebook: https://www.facebook.com/eltinae
Banner & Image: Fatima, Bride Baby. A photo of the author’s sister dressed in the gold from a Nubian bride, taken by the author’s grandmother.