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Boeke | Books > Rubrieke | Columns > English > African Library

Abdourahman A Waberi: The Land without Shadows (2005)

Annie Gagiano - 2008-12-19

Title: Land without Shadows
Author: Abdourahman A Waberi
Publisher: University of Virginia Press
Translator: Jeanne Garane
ISBN: 9780813925080
Pages: 86

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Subtitled "Stories", this collection by the Djiboutian author (now based in France) could be described as a collage of images - sketches, tales, reports, evocations - of his native land (or rather, region, since some of the later pieces depict Somalia and give us a wider impression of the Horn of Africa). Djibouti is, by international standards, a tiny country; arid, boiling hot (with temperatures of 45ºC for five months of the year!), and oppressively ruled. Abdourahman Waberi considers himself a "transcontinental" (xv) and writes in French; he has won a number of awards in France, where the original of the present text (titled Le Pays sans ombre) appeared in 1994. The English translation, by Jeanne Garane, was published by the University of Virginia Press.

Waberi writes of his "land without shadows" in prose that is sparse, erudite and elegant. While the observer's gaze is utterly unsentimental, one discerns beyond his unsparing comments no mere cynicism or pitilessness, but passionate feelings of anguish, fury, or compassion, alternating with sardonic or mocking moods and moments. This is an immensely sophisticated collection which, for all its unorthodox design and variations in style, works effectively to convey an indelible and complex image of Djibouti as a society in which ancient nomadic ways coexist with urban decay. The text reminds one of a musical composition in the sense that there are recurrent motifs as well as an underlying, unifying thread of meaning and feeling, while the different pieces succeed one another in a pleasingly rhythmic alteration of mood, tone and "tune".

Waberi's first piece evokes urban despair and boredom in a slum community where addiction to the plant stimulant khat (which is chewed) induces "zombification" (9). Yet there are forms of social health and vitality even in this unpromising context, where gainful employment is so scarce that being a "madman" (or "madwoman") is considered a legitimate social role, comprising a number of variations of insanity. One cannot help guessing that the author describes something of his own purpose when he writes of his final "class" of "madman", the "demystifying" type and the sworn enemy of "opportunists", that

This lunatic knows the individual value of each person [and] in a society that is collective and stifling for the individual, he rewards the virtuous - more and more scarce - and he punishes in his own way the malevolent, the vain, the oppressors, the disloyal, the thieves, the cheats, the overly ambitious, and, last but not least, the tribalists. That is why his enemies are more numerous than the beads on a chaplet. (16)

After the opening story with its contemporary setting in the lower depths of the city, the second piece addresses the supposed primordial origins of the society, recounting the local legend that the name Djibouti itself records the fact that an "ogress" ("cruel, hairy" and "saurian") who was "an accomplished predator of men" is the founding figure of "this disparate country" (17). With this awful image, Waberi suggests how non-nourishing and unaccommodating both the Djiboutian landscape and society are (in his view). Because of this heritage of ruthless cruelty, "famine and anarchy, war and division" (19) dominate the area, accounting for the tendency among the poor and powerless to seek escape into khat-induced lethargy - the only commonly available relief, it seems, in "this blasted country" (8).

A type of grim humour and fierce wit play through and enliven what would otherwise be merely dreary or horror-inducing descriptions. One narrator quips: "Aden is across the way, but it is not Eden either" (19). The same fierce mockery permeates a sketch that represents Djiboutians as cave-dwelling Troglodytes; again Waberi suggests that his people's ancient origins irretrievably doomed this society to poverty, lassitude and submissiveness. It was, another observer writes, "the insidious silence that favored servility and deafness during two hundred years of colonization" (21). In this piece, too, khat addiction is blamed for intensifying the people's (supposedly) predominantly "sullen", "complaining" attitudes (22-3).

One strangely erotic, surreal piece titled "Braised Bodies" gives us a glimpse of normal youthful erotic pleasure shared by a gorgeous and androgynous-seeming young couple. Their glamour and mutual delight seem to be the "reward" earned by their politically daring outspokenness. Although there is much else they might attack - "the necrosis of the state, the corridors of torture"; the "confiscat[ion]" of the "space" of the nomads - at least these two condemn tribalism as the root of evil in their society and point fingers publicly at the prostitution of their people by leaders who want to please foreign powers (25). Perhaps they are of different Djiboutian ethnicities and their lovemaking itself an act of rebellion against oppressive cultural compartmentalisation.

In a tongue-in-cheek-style story, "The Dasbiou Mystery", the author pokes fun at the inability of revered traditional leaders - "the forty-four Wise Men", all "sport[ing] handsome beards dyed reddish with henna" and commanding "inexhaustible knowledge of custom and tradition" (28-9) - to elucidate the mystery of a young Bedouin suddenly afflicted by a complete inability to speak his mother tongue while turning out to have acquired (in his sleep) complete fluency in Caribbean Creole! He even sings in it ("Matinic sé peyi mwen" meaning "Martinique is my home", 33), but is abandoned to his own devices when no one can come up with a cure. Presumably the story is a mocking, mythic manifestation of the way globalisation is eating into even the remotest corners of the world.

The authorial mockery is much fiercer in the next story, in which a Djiboutian narrator records his bemused observations of his employer: a boastful oaf; a French provincial who sees himself as having brought cultural enlightenment and technological skills to Djiboutians and glory to his home village in France, where he proposes that a statue (for which he will pay) should be erected in his honour.

The next sketch combines mockery and melancholy in its emphasis on the futile endeavours of unappreciated artists in a context of civil war (probably the conflicts of the early nineties), sneeringly but accurately renamed "the uncivil war" (38) by the narrator. While the musician wants to compose "a requiem for the country's fifteenth anniversary", the sculptor "labors as he waits for peace" (39). Within their present apocalyptic context, however, painters and writers and sculptors find themselves merely discussing the banal discomforts and the ugly dangers of a terrified society - in "the third world of the third world" (42).

An impressionistic account of the building of the Franco-Ethiopian Railway which, while it coursed through Djibouti and devastated lands and lives, ignored, placated or eradicated all native resistance and was triumphantly completed in 1917, after twenty years, comes next. This sketch is called "A Ferrous Tale". Waberi based it on a journalist's article, but his account has the flavour of legend. His narrative of railway-building contains poetic refrains, such as "It will cross the real country/ It will cross the dream country" and "It has crossed the sunburned land/ It has crossed the haggard land" (45), and it ends with a Bedouin song about the Ibliss (devil), which is the railway that can do terrible and "magical" things.

The first half of the collection (of which the above piece is the final component) is called "DETOUR: Pages Torn from the Novel of the Imagination", while the second and final section bears the title "RETURN: Pages Torn from the Land without Shadows". Perhaps the pieces in the second half are more readily recognisable and less oblique accounts of social and political conditions in Djibouti and its environs (particularly its large southern neighbour, Somalia). It would be inappropriate to consider them "realist" in contrast with the surreal effects employed in the first half of the collection, however, since in the second part we are shown (in the later pieces, especially) a sort of "surrealism of the real" that takes over when conditions are horrific.

The first piece in the second half, titled "A Woman and a Half", reminds one of Nuruddin Farah's first published novel, From a Crooked Rib (1970), in that the protagonist, a young woman called Marwo, flees her family home because she, too, cannot bear the idea of being forced into marriage to an old man. (Incidentally, Waberi, who is a Djiboutian Somali, wrote his doctoral thesis on Farah's work; Farah in turn wrote the Foreword to the present collection.) The story opens as follows:

Marwo, a young woman worn down by life, flees the shanty-town, a large chunk of humanity living in sludge and rustic ennui. Marwo flees her degrading father who wants to give her away to a toothless old man. She flees hatred of the old goat, she flees harassment from Chireh, her elder brother, henchman of the political police, conquistador of naked violence, reveler in the marcescent bodies of victims and great aesthete of torture. (51)

Unlike Farah's protagonist, however, Marwo is fleeing from the city to the deep countryside to go and seek shelter with her uncle, a former askari, whom she knows to be a "word seeker with a constant appetite for meaning" (52). Even though the hard camel men in whose company Marwo travels (the narrator says of one of these: "For a camel, he would kill her without batting an eyelid", 53) warn her that as a "flower of the faubourg" (52) she will not flourish in the bush, she knows she has made the right choice in going to join her enlightened uncle. Old and a countryman he may be, but in a society where so-called "female circumcision" is a matter of course (a practice designed to control female sexuality) and women are severely repressed, old Haybé (her uncle) declares roundly:

For a long time, men had been sealing female orifices, sewing mouths and
genitals shut. And yet, without their mothers, daughters, or wives, men are the dwarf palms of the shriveled oasis; men are the scum of the dust, while women are the humus of the earth.

In such an environment, Marwo will flourish; her uncle being "the teacher" who "clears the way ... for the silken future of children yet to come" (54).

The next story shows how destructive of precious young life ancient marital practices can be. A dashing young blade, Bogoreh, makes his plans to snatch (as custom dictates) a proud, lovely young woman for his bride from among the jealous guardianship of her four fierce brothers. So smitten is he with her beauty and grace that he behaves imprudently; his attempt fails and the youth's body is taken to his father with the hard comment that "he only got what he deserved". Equally unfeelingly, the father responds with the Somali proverb: "A dead man is not worth the sandals on his feet" (59).

From this nomadic environment, the author returns us in the next sketch to the book-inspired musings of a strange young Djiboutian intellectual who depicts himself as being imprisoned while also imagining himself walking freely and disdainfully along the city streets among his compatriots, whom he describes as "the ruminants of routine" (a recurrent phrase, and also the title of this story). In its weird, dreamy way, this story is another piece full of blistering social commentary, denouncing the "parsimony" and hypocrisy of the leaders; the khat-chewing urban poor; "the singers condemned to be silent to the end of their days"; and "the young girls who prostitute themselves" (61). But he himself, accomplishing nothing beyond reading and ruminating on the African novels he reads, is surely merely another feckless "ruminant".

Equally sad and pathetic are the youth depicted in the next piece, who are besotted with the unattainable West and described as "funambulists on the wire of Far Away" and who intone the mantra of "Canada-United States-Australia-America-Europe-Holland-Switzerland-Scandinavia-USA" (64) - all evidently countries they have no reliable knowledge of and will never reach. But the narrator shows some sympathy with these youths' inability to accept the "hibernation"-inducing teachings of "the mosque and the Party mike", which instruct them that their destiny is "the great Elsewhere", and so they twist the meaning of that expression (65) to allude to modernities practised in other societies. Even the name of the Canadian town Saskatchewan becomes a "trophy" the youth feel they have captured in defiance of the powers that be and as a talisman against their dreary surroundings - "ashen gray dunes that tire the eyes and legs" (66).

The following piece suggests by means of a single, vivid example that those who take action to improve conditions will end up broken - like the body of the beggar known as "Filthy Askar", crushed by a truck at a dangerous crossing after years as "a quiet - often mute - tramp" (70). Yet this same social derelict had once been a brilliant student, a courageous political activist who stood by his principles despite many spells of incarceration from which he nevertheless emerged as heroically vigorous and determined as ever. Yet then he sank imperceptibly into "indifference and sweet insanity" (71). Poignantly, though, his poorest compatriots remember his sacrifices for the hoped-for common good and celebrate what he was while mourning his death - a brief moment of recognition.

The final four pieces in the collection concern social upheaval, military devastation and political oppression in the area including, but not exclusive to, Djibouti. The first recalls the civil war that raged in especially the north of the country, when in the early nineties there was a popular uprising against the cruelty with which they were ruled. "The populace had dreamed of taking over the halls of power", the narrator tells us, but the title of the piece ("A Faint Hope") pre-empts any likelihood of their success. Instead, the rebellious feelings are terrorised into hiding yet again: "A fortress of fear seems to have closed in on them" (73). Torture and official fury combine victoriously. Communists are seen as futile would-be insurrectionists, as the narrator declares: "Stalin's mouthpieces sound off in the hinterland. But who will heal us of our despair?" (74). In such a climate, only an "idiot" can still believe that "This country is not a whore" (75).

Waberi's next piece is titled "Vortex" and it examines the collapse of the state in Somalia. It is clear that for a person who (like the author of the collection, and perhaps also the narrator of this very piece) shares language, culture and ethnicity with the inhabitants of Somalia, the notion of that being "another country" can only be a myth and that he cannot but be profoundly affected by its plight. This piece is constructed by means of a series of French newspaper reports on the ruination of Somalia, to each of which the author then adds a brief impressionistic piece evoking actual experience of the reported atrocities. For instance, after citing a report that "mercenaries from the former Rhodesia had bombed northern Somalia", we read concerning an unknown youth: "He is separated from his brother, he saw his father and elder sister die. His family carried away by the vortex of destiny" (76). The author's constantly recurring theme in so many of these pieces, of the silencing of voices of protest or honest witness, recurs here when we read: "Even the dogs are quiet" for, like the human survivors, "they must walk, walk, all the way to the aid stations". The narrator describes himself as "dis-patriated", so perhaps he too is a refugee, albeit one of the more fortunate ones who can lend assistance to those unluckier than himself, even though the strain on his feelings is so intense that he has to "[reason] with himself to remain stoic" (77). He is so diligent and so empathetic that, while lending aid at clinics and refugee stations, he even feels eventually that "he had done far too much work" and, emotionally exhausted and despairing, "one sepia-colored morning ... he took his own life" (79).

"Nabsi", the title of the next piece, is a Somali word meaning "misfortune", "ruin" or "death", and it is appropriate to the surreal evocation (in this piece) of Mohammed Siad Barre's tyranny and the social disintegration that followed his downfall - even though he is never named, but referred to as "the general". Succinctly, the narrator conveys in two paragraphs both the nature of his oppression and the consequent failure of its defeat, if we consider sequential sentences such as "The general poisons the air"; "the general eats a puree of testicles (of dissidents)"; and "The general had said, ‘If I go to hell, we'll all go together.'" Now, Somalia is "a defunct nation" (80). The narrator provides us with terrible snapshots to confirm that remark - of a starving child eating sand before collapsing in sleep, "an arachnid's weight on the earth", or of a woman who tries to rise, only to collapse "on top of her child", or of a man who opens his mouth to let a tooth drop out. Waberi fittingly inserts, here, a citation from a poem by Soyinka including the line, "Now we pay forfeit on old abdications" (81). Like a terrible ocean, the arid landscape now appears as follows: "death froths here and there, reefs of bare bones in the flatness of the plain". Although the "Ubuesque dictator" has been expelled, it is now the "mad Maxes [who] are in command of the country". Presciently (given recent piracy shocks), the narrator observes that "The country has become a Barbary Coast", one in which "internecine war" has become a business venture - "prosperous and highly respected" (82). In such a context, with "Death trumpeting from atop a pedestal" and "no one to mourn life as in the old days", it seems as though this country has "signed a pact with Satan" (83).

The final, brief piece gives us glimpses of fragmented souls, fragmented families in a social context of disintegration. Wives search for missing husbands who turn out to have been assassinated by Siad Barre's men or are living as refugees in Kenya. A John Coltrane quote ("What is unreal today is real tomorrow") precedes the horrifying observation that "only the serenely insane feel secure" in this setting (85). With unmistakable fierceness, the narrator states that "those responsible are just the very ones ... who would like to hide behind the fig leaf of their ignorance". The concluding paragraph of this piece (and of the entire collection) is described in its heading as either "a monologue or agony"; asking "where is the suicide room". Waberi uses as his final sentence the statement: "A long silence unfurls con-ti-nu-ous-ly" (86).

While the author decries the many and clearly (in his eyes) culpable forms of silence that protect and beset the criminalities, failures and horrors which have occurred in his region, his own text, in its vivid testimonies and rage (sometimes mixed with compassion) refuses to let such silence go unchallenged. This is a powerful and brilliant collection and a moving, fierce lament for a region and its people.