Flights have never felt so tedious. Just in the year alone you boarded four planes. On the 45 minute flight from Kuantan to Kuala Lumpur you were in the window seat of a three seat row when an elderly Malay woman sat next to you. Bright pink baju kurung with matching tudung, she turned her head and said her salaams, asked you “Where is home?” You stumble over your thoughts. In your mind, Thoughts In The Process Of Forming An Answer always swerve and curse past each other to avoid collision on a highway before reaching your mouth; your face is a scrunched up paper ball. “I don’t know Auntie, I’m heading to KL then I have a flight to Dubai.”
When you were a teenager, knee deep in diasporic unbelonging, you came home one day complaining of feeling like flowers torn apart after a lover’s loud argument. Hoyoo sat you down and said, “Home is where your family is, so home for us isn’t permanent. Home follows wherever we decide to set up camp.” Makeshift canopies sure, but at least it’s something.
You tell sweet Malay Auntie you miss your family. Auntie looks at you with kind Grandma-full-of-worry eyes, clasps both her hands creased with lines in between yours and wishes you well. And health. And love. The plane is landing and your body lurches forward into runway. You and plane are both racing and racing and racing before coming to a screeching halt. A lot like life. We live, and then we die.
You are in Kuala Lumpur International Airport. In a booth at Burger King eating fries and reading The Lacuna. Four hours left before you board; Al Ain isn’t so far away now. It’s been eight months. You miss Hoyoo the most. Hoyoo with the always maroon henna for nails, Hooyo whose daughter you are first. So much so that whenever you think of her you want to sob. English is not a poetic language, ‘I love you’ is flimsy and weak, and it is a simple torch to a burning sun. You look in every country for language Sun enough for Hoyoo macaan, even in airports you are still looking.
Hoyoo learned to be a mother through you. What an abrupt transition women make; women turn womb into home for you. What an underappreciated task, this raising of flesh. In Toronto, with the apartment in Scarborough, Hoyoo met Canada’s merciless winter for the first time. Grocery shopping in No Frills with layers and layers of unfamiliar clothing, skin never imagined being weighed down by so much; cotton baatis in the sun in Xamar is no coat, is no glove, no boots. Carrying bags and a baby on the subway, on the bus, then another bus, then the long freezing walks to the apartment, up the never-ending stairs crying when the elevator breaks to the 26th floor.
Toronto and its snow and its cold and its loneliness, never imagined not in a thousand years you would end up so far from home. In a country that swallows people who look like Hooyo in cramped apartments. Thinly veiled contempt from white faces in banks that smell like the way white people smell. Hoyoo tries to speak English, but they laugh.
Three hours left to board. Ya Rab, the monotony of travel. We joke that Somalis have family everywhere in the world, but it’s true. We pack just to unpack in a home of relatives you love but must leave after a prearranged time, usually around eight to nine weekends of delirious, glorious turn up. On the low shit with cousins who will never snitch since you’re all in the same boat, got the same cover story so you come back home hiding glow.
It’s hard to explain to your friends all of the Life. You’re like, listen banat - all the Habaryars gather in living rooms with fadi carbet propped up against walls with artwork remembering Allah. The room smells like uunsi and caatar. The colour of mothers animated and beautiful in the diracs iyo gambasaro they wear; small peeks of elaborately designed gogarad whenever they cross their legs. Sipping Somali tea in ornamentally engraved cups, laughter as musical as a concert in a grand hall. A painter could make a mural so wide it stretches the wall of an entire street and still wouldn’t find enough paint to materialize the scene. These are the women you come back to after your late night escapades with your cousins, you sit and join them and untie your hair.
Somalis visit family and stand in long lines at the airport and clutch passports and wonder at the questions. Wondering if being too Somali, too Muslim is going to get you pulled aside into those dark rooms you hear about and pray you never see. Pray for those who have seen those rooms, and disappeared into cells for being too Other; pray they see justice, see freedom. Ameen.
There is always a relative to visit. Civil war does that to a country. Tragedy strikes and it is like a million cannons boom families to all parts of the world. Human cannon balls who rise from the ground after impact, in a daze, all of a sudden in cities where people speak languages they do not understand and point, calling them refugees. They say it like it is a dirty word.
But you cannot visit all of the relatives. There is always one more Abti, one more Habaryar, one more unknown shared blood in winding veins existing somewhere on this earth that you will never see. So they live instead in photo albums meticulously arranged to contain time. You will never meet Abti Abdirahman but in those trips to the basement to open photo albums into history you go back in time to visit him there. You see a man with long legs and big afro sitting in white couches with Aabo, heads thrown back in laughter somewhere in Rome.
“So what happens next?” your friends ask. Well, it is the end of what is another magical vacation. You are about to pass that congregational space in airports where there is a tide of those who wish farewell to the travelers. You cling to your Habaryar at the airport who reminds you of all the ways your Hoyoo is a woman, joyous. Mother as woman first is a way to evoke Forgiveness – I love you in spite, I love you because. You cling to your cousins, promising to stay in touch – It is time to go. You cry, they cry, and then you board a plane again.
Back to now. There are no more hours left to board, you are already in the plane, watching the map in between listening to Nostalgia-Ultra on the little screen to determine how close you are to the big house in Al Ain. Does the pilot know how many times you enter sky with one of them? Maybe they too will feel pity for you for the many hours that add up into months, into years amongst the clouds.
You are home again. Sisters run up screaming, brother jokes he didn’t even miss you, but fits you under his arm like ‘Here Is Your Safe Place Sis’. Father looks at you with eyes that grow a little more tired every time you return. Mother holds you like maybe this time you won’t leave again. You are a missing piece back in its place.
We are all fragmented. We seek other pieces to fill the empty. We all want to be whole.
Your heart is in every city you have ever left behind, so everywhere you go there is a stabbing there – the pain of someone you love but cannot see. Always missing someone. Always housing souls inside your chest. Can you see me in the darkness? With all of these souls, there is a city of lights inside this body. Whenever I am lost they carry me home.
Wherever home is.
by Najma Mahdi