An excerpt from Franco-Somali writer Patrick Erouart-Siad’s memoir “Villa Shamis” about his mother Shamis Siad, the daughter of Somali parents kidnapped by Catholic missionaries at the turn of the 20th century.
Translated from the French by Eliza Nichols.
What will be left of us?
My Somali name is Warsama. It means “good news.” Everybody calls me by it: the numerous cousins, aunts, and uncles belonging to my mother’s clan. Everybody: male and female neighbors, the household servants of Sea Breeze, our neighborhood by the Red Sea. No identity crisis then. I am Warsama around the public fountains with their rusty taps and in the dust of the playgrounds.
I am Good News from Sea Breeze.
I speak Somali with everybody except my mother Shamis. With her I speak French and answer to the name I was baptized with: Patrick. She was baptized Jeannette. A name she hated. She prefers Shamis, the name her mother gave her. It means “sunshine.”
We are in 1961, in Djibouti, French Somaliland. I was born in France, brought to Djibouti as an infant.
We lived in a modest city neighborhood bordered by Sea Breeze beach and the tracks of the venerable Addis Ababa-Djibouti train line that takes you from the colonial port to the legendary plateau of the Abysinian terminal at Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The ghosts of Arthur Rimbaud and Haile Selassie the King of Kings linger. Such imposing legends influence my childhood.
I am six years old. On the sandy beach, a woman from our neighborhood screams and pulls her hair out. She howls from sundown to sunrise, screaming again and again into the void: “Give him to me, give him back to me.” From the edge of my bed on the other side of the tracks I can see her quite distinctly,the water wetting the bottom of her dirih, her long muslin dress. A family member tries in vain to rip her from her despair but gives up. The mourning woman declares her pain to the sea that stole her son as he was returning from school. “Give him back to me. He was my last ray of sunshine,” she begs in Somali.
To our great surprise, the mourner is not afraid of the “djinns” and the other evil spirits who wander along the sea coast at night. In the morning a neighbor leaves her a thermos full of cardamom tea. We find it nestled in the sand untouched.
I go to a nursery school taught by the Franciscan Sisters of Calais, a catholic order where Shamis was educated before me. My name there is most definitly Patrick and my mother’s is Jeannette. Shamis takes me there in her little gray-blue Citroën two horse-powered car. She is the first Somali woman in the whole territory to obtain a driver’s license. She is quite proud of this. I am too, especially when I see how the market women stare at her each time she drops me off. They are crouched in the dust at the foot of the cassia trees selling sweets, nougatines and peanuts. They look suspiciously at this driver, a woman of their own blood, of their red desert earth, but clearly of another time, the time of the “whites,” the time of the Gauls.
On her way to work she drops me off at her friend Marie-Ange’s house. Marie-Ange, like my mother, is a “child of the mission” – a Somali who belongs to the tiny Christian minority of Djibouti. Marie-Ange and Shamis met at the orphanage of the Franciscan Sisters of Calais when they were children. Both had lost their fathers.
After a warm greeting, my mother speeds off to the port where she works as a stenographer. A modern woman. There was even a photo of her in one of the coffee table books from this period. She also modeled for her brother, William, who opened the first Somali-owned photography studio.
At Marie-Ange ‘s and at school with the Franciscan nuns, I encounter Jesus Christ and also a very annoying man called “Pirouette Cacahouète” or Monsieur Peanut. He is a character from an insidious and intoxicating cradle song: “Once there was a little man who lived in quite a strange house. His house is made of cardboard, and the stairs are paper thin.” I sing it to Sticky, the stray mutt who lives under our house, which was built on stilts. I think the two should have the same nickname. And sometimes I sing “Pirouette Cacahouète” when I am alone waiting for Sirad, our housekeeper, or for my mother’s blue-gray car. Shamis isn’t aware of the toxic meaning of this song for her son.
“Pirouette Cacahuète” sticks to my brain, even after all these years, like mental chewing gum.
Whenever the dog hears me sing this catchy song she invariably frowns her dark furry eyebrows like two commas over her questioning caramel eyes. Truth be told, “M. Peanut” fills me with anxiety because it is Marie-Ange’s favorite song and it was while singing it that she first delivered the brutal news, singing as if it was consoling, singing as if it was part of the song: “You have no dad, my poor little one.”
In her courtyard where we have to be careful not to trip on the knotty roots of the Yemeni laurel and cassia trees during our games of Hide and Seek, Marie-Ange, full of Christian compassion, sings quietly to me: “You have no father, my poor little one…That is just the way it is.”
In this year 1961 my days have not yet invented a father for me. I see men dressed in blue or khaki uniforms, with bright blue eyes staring at me from under their regulation military caps. In my six-year-old mind, black-eyed men, with high, curved foreheads and night-time skin, who call me Warsama, can be uncles or tribal cousins not fathers. Marie-Ange keeps poisoning me in little homeopathic doses with her countertruth:”he keeps singing it to the refrain of “M. Peanut” as my gaze, I imagine, reflects a dark childish melancholia. I now hate this “Pirouette Cacahuète.” I don’t know how to get rid of him.
My grandmother lives in a small wooden bungalow on Boulevard du Général de Gaulle. The boulevard is very busy. The sidewalk tables of the restaurants flood the working-class neighborhood called Boulaos. The tables are decorated with multicolored lanterns meant to lure the sailors of the seven seas or the idle legionnaires on temporary leave. At dusk, the family and neighbors drag lounge chairs to the middle of the sandy sides of the avenue for evening conversation. Somebody orders a round of cokes and Fantas to grease the jaws of the chitchatterers. The older kids are allowed to stay up to listen. The storytelling lasts late into the night. There is no television. One night a legionnaire is violently stabbed coming from the not so faraway brothels of downtown Djibouti. When he collapses in front of us, I stand up, my bottle of Fanta in my hand. I am determined not to miss one bit of this spectacle: the blood on the soldier’s khaki shirt, spilling onto the sandy avenue; his stiff hands gripping the wound around the midriff; his face convulsing in a multitude of expressions translating pain, fear, stupor. Luckily for him, “men of our tribe,” as my mother calls them, come to the rescue. They put the wounded soldier onto the back of a truck they have flagged down. The Italian driver takes everybody to the hospital. Earlier, Uncle Hassan had been describing to his mother, my grandmother, the terror of the Blue Night in Algeria.** These words and others such as “OAS secret army,” “put terrified me just as much as the sight of the legionnaire’s blood spreading across the sand. I felt in my gut that these words were all related to me, to my history, I didn’t know how. They frightened me. A taste of hate and war. Hassan seemed very worried. My grandmother listened carefully.
My ayeyo, the Somali word for grandmother, was a baker. During World War II, when the British blockaded the Port of Djibouti, she fed the local population bread pudding. The Somalis of Djibouti were hostage to the Vichy government fighting the British forces based in Aden, on the other side of the Red Sea. During the blockade, my ayeyo arranged for her nomadic relatives to smuggle flour by camel across the desert. Until the end of her life, she fed the people of the poor neighborhoods. She was famous for her acts of charity.When she died, a few days before the declaration of independence in 1977, the whole city of Djibouti came out to walk behind her coffin and pay their last respects.
On de Gaulle Boulevard noisy and drunken marine infantry soldiers yell to each other from both sides of the street. Ayeyof Chinine and Minine, two black-maned lions known for their bravery in the Somali legend where they jump out of a tomb to rescue a princess. I think of calling the two lions to get rid of Marie-Ange and her awful “Pirouette Cacahuète” who poisoned my joy when she told me I had no father.
My younger brother, Claude, whose delicate health meant he couldn’t take the extreme heat of Djibouti, spends the whole of 1961 in the green pastures of the “Metropole”– the homeland of the French empire. He is with our grandparents who showed no kindness to our mother when she was in France but who accepted her mixed race children.
In the schoolyard, the kids are not known for their kindness. They call me an orphan. “You have no dad anyway,” one says scornfully after I win a game. Most of my classmates repeat the insult. It is a vulnerability they can bring up at any point under the Yemeni laurel trees in the schoolyard. about the taunts from my playmates and Marie-Ange’s stinging song. Shamis talks to Marie-Ange, who shrugs and says, “How was I supposed to know? You came back from the Metropole with two kids, and they had no father.” To settle the dispute, Marie-Ange is summoned to share a drink on Boulevard De Gaulle. My ayeyo is her “auntie.” After all, they are all “children of the mission.” Bottles of sodas appear by the rocking chairs on the sandy avenue at dusk. The assembly of women reaches their conclusion. There will be no more insults. In this melodrama men hold only secondary roles. It is a matriarchal society.
My mother lost her father when she four. That is why she was at the orphanage where she met Marie-Ange. Shamis always talks about how she overcame her sadness thanks to her older brother, William, the future Somali poet. He came to the orphanage while their mother was away in Somaliland to bury their father. William would bring a jar of fresh goat milk for his sister from their pet goat Oubah –“flower” in Somali– which he milked himself. One day as he leaned over the fence to kiss her goodbye on her forehead, the nuns discovered the transgression and forbade the two of them from meeting.
The nuns’ indiscriminate discipline made Shamis into a rebellious soul. When her mother, my ayeyo, died, Shamis converted to Islam.
One day my mother says calmly: “Your brother and your father are going to come back from the Metropole for Christmas.” I jump joyfully inside of my head; The whole majestic mystery of the phrase runs through my brain. I have a father, and I can already imagine my brother going to bed with the shades drawn out of fear of the shrew mice that wander outside our bedroom at night so blind they bump up against the walls.
I’m not afraid of Abdi, the madman, who sometimes crawls slowly and ceremoniously over the fence and into our backyard so he can enjoy the view of a real home through the windows. We all know him, Abdi. My mother, at this time living as a single woman by the edge of the sea and the railroad, is not afraid of him In those days in Djibouti, deranged people roam freely rather than being confined to an institution. Ayeyo warns us to be careful around Sara, who throws stones at kids because she lost hers to a long-gone husband. We are told not to blame Sara. She is part of our folklore alongside Joseph the monkey who also throws stones at passersby and hikers on the Arta mountains, not far from downtown Djibouti, because he could never pass as human. The authorities are said to submit him to the test once in a while, but he never passes. Joseph has to stick to his red-assed baboon identity. Another passed the test. His name is Djembel. He is completely out of his mind too and takes advantage of this state to walk around naked, clothed only in air and space. He goes all around Djibouti in the nude. For us kids, he is a lesson in anatomy. For the veiled Yemeni women, he is a devil. They flee like whirlwinds when Djembel approaches. The golden dust of their flight settles down on the branches of the cassia trees. The Yemeni ravens fly away crowing.
Djibouti is the creation of Yemeni masons. They carved it out of the coral reefs and then imported their magic, their crows, their black muslin veils for their women. I am not surprised to see these women covered from head to toe on the streets. When we have tea with the Yemeni neighbors on De Gaulle Avenue, in the intimacy of their living room, the women take off their veils.
One day, as we are playing after school, Djembel the naked fool approaches the fence of the Franciscan Sisters of Calais in the full majesty of his visible attributes. The commotion of the kids prevents the guards from noticing him. Suddenly Djembel appears in front of Sister Marie Josephine and Marie-Ange who is holding my hand. No one warned them that he was approaching. Everybody runs. Sister Marie Josephine holds her nun’s habit with one hand, the other one covering her mouth. The Muslim women moan “Subhan Allah.” Marie-Ange remains stunned and out of breath when we stop running. I am full of joy at her distress. I jump and sing “Pirouette Cacahuète,” a big grin on my face, not ashamed one bit by my revenge. Thanks to the nudist Djembel Marie-Ange never sings “Mr. Cacahuète” ever again. It is my first big victory.
Under the stilts of our home in Sea Breeze Sticky the mutt had a new litter of puppies. All of them were wormy and disgusting. One month later they were taken away by a flood along with Sticky. The city was regularly flooded because it was built under sea level. The colonial rulers did not mind putting up sub-standard buildings in the place they helped create in order to facilitate the movement of their navy to and from Indochina and other parts of the French Empire. In 1961 tragic events were taking place in another corner of the colonial empire, in Algeria, which had consequences in metropolitan France. That year, Djibouti was shaken by a natural disaster–the tremors of a small earthquake, which fortunately did not occur at the same time as the floods a few weeks before.
At the beginning of December, while the muddy waters of the flood and the relative chaos it brought are receding, the rocking chairs come back out on Boulevard de Gaulle. The Expats are getting ready for Christmas. We feel it in the air. Will they have snow in the Metropole? We go to the local airport to check on the big planes delivering their French hordes. I drink grenadine and look with astonishment at the pink-cheeked and elegant stewardesses.
At the harbor, huge ocean liners cross the Red Sea via Port Saïd and the Suez Canal, escorted by numerous gray dolphins. I still have no father despite setting the record straight with Marie-Ange and the other inhabitants of de Gaulle Boulevard. Maybe Santa Claus will bring him back? My father could be one of my Christmas presents. He would come from this fabled country called Algeria where he went to war with no weapons. He is a radio technician. My classmates from the school yard still don’t believe me. They also don’t believe that my father was sent into the Sahara Desert, around Reggane, where the French conducted the first nuclear bombs tests. My classmates laugh and shrug me off without listening to me.
One afternoon I wake up from a nap at Sea Breeze in the middle of a gathering of Somali women. They are all lying on mats, busy discussing the end-of-the-year parties. Incense floats in the air. The sea murmurs on the other side of the railroad tracks. In town, Chinese lanterns decorate the restaurants catering to the foreign legionnaires. Downtown Djibouti looks like a crowded military barracks. In the poor neighborhoods, the free- roaming goats are searching for cardboard or khat stems to munch on.
The same evening I go to bed and am awakened by the murmurs. My father wakes me up: “I’m here.” He brings me the good news of his presence. He has lapis lazuli eyes. His presence makes me happy. For me, Warsama of Sea Breeze, he is all good news. My father has returned. My younger brother sleeps next to me behind the closed shutters.
Years later as my mother is leaving her office at the presidential palace she calls to ask me if I want to go “smell the horses.” I know what this means. She needs to get rid of the stress of her job. We are going to go to the equestrian club at Ambouli, the oasis neighborhood on the outskirts of town. The engine of her car is idling. A light afternoon breeze caresses the foliage of the Yemeni laurels in the yard. Two ravens crow on the roof of the night guard’s little house. Of course, I want to go. I jump into the car, and she drives off.
The smell of the horses is code for the complicity between mother and son. The equestrian club is no random destination. It’s where she gets in touch with her younger, rebellious self: far from the compromises of politics. When she was 20, before the independence of Djibouti, she was taken to the police station because she refused to stand for the French national anthem and salute the flag in this very same equestrian club. The colonian authorities had jailed her pro-independence friend Mohamed Arbi, and she wanted to raise public awareness of the injustice.
Arbi became a national hero later. He was released at the time but not before being tortured in the infamous Villa Christophe. Arbi died later in a mysterious plane accident on his way to Cairo.
In these times of activism, Shamis’s nickname is “chili pepper” in Somali. I still can remember how her nostrils would flare proudly at the mention of this name.
Her car flies over the past like a Pegasus. The reality of independent Djibouti surrounds us. At one point Shamis and her car forget to stop at a stop sign. A driver from the Coubbèche factory has spotted her. Coubbèche has the Coca-Cola and ice manufacturing monopoly. The driver is the cousin of Jean-de-Dieu, the Armenian mechanic who lives not far from her mother, my ayeyo. The two families know each other. The driver honks joyfully with a huge grin as we pass. It makes me proud and happy to see how popular she is. Everybody belonging to the long-ago Djibouti knows who she is. She doesn’t notice. She has not one bone of narcissism in her body, but she does have a strong backbone of pride when it comes to her tribe.
She is so proud of her lineage that she always says “we” instead of I: “We are Darod sons and daughters of Jama Siad.” She goes on and on without this meaning much to me. She does not mention her tribal connection at all when she is around the president Hassan Gouled who happens to belong to another tribe: the Issas. All the Darod people in Djibouti know that one of them is working in the Gouled government. She is the first Darod woman who dared to take the driving test in Djibouti!
In the South of France, the last quarter of 2014 plus the beginning of 2015: When will the night fall for good on this soul I love so much? My mother is dying.
The village of Cabris in the Alps Maritimes…lovely setting to end one’s life in I tell myself. To say good-bye to the world.
The cassia tree still has no foliage. Its branches are like the image of my mental state: all twisted. They wave and turn around in the depths of space. Tuesday rain reboots the greenery. Everything is green and my enthusiasm returns.
Behind this window, there is a dilemma: how to remain a son without turning into a nurse? Real nurses come twice a day. Since Shamis came back from the hospital her decline has been evident. She leaves her hospital bed only to be taken to her armchair in front of the television.
I pick roses in the garden. I describe to her how they have grown up all along the facade of the villa, in a glorious show of beauty and vitality. Shamis cannot go outside any more. I give her different varieties of lavender to smell. She smiles. It used to be her mother’s favorite fragrance. Through this scent she returns to Djibouti.
She does not seem to be in pain. The whole medical community around her and I agree on that. Soon everything will be over. Pascal the blind physical therapist; Miss Nagy the speech therapist; Dominique, Sophie, Laurence and Anais, the nurse’s aides–all of these people devoted to Shamis will disappear.
It is the end. Words are going to disappear. The familiar characters in her story, too. Zanat, Razavillo…all the tribal and Somali vocabulary that infused our daily conversation. French and Somali stories and history. Family complicity through language. I already long for these idioms. It means losing the winds of the monsoons, losing Djibouti, Aden and Mogadiscio and even the coasts of Madagascar where my father was stationed and where we lived together as a family.
Shamis was a part of the whole world. She was a woman from everywhere.
I discovered when I lost her that she was like poetry without a country. Her poetry was a daily, almost banal occurrence. She was no one’s daughter but rather the daughter of a mythical clan from a region of Somaliland called Las Anod (literally translated as the “Milk Hole”). It was a place she had never visited and from where her mother and father had been stolen when they were still small children by French Catholic missionaries. As an adult I visited this place for her and told her all about it.
When I was 11 years old, Shamis gave me a copy of Rimbaud’s poems. I devoured the book. I lost myself in it. Was this gift the source of my desire to go back to my ancestral home? My mother is linked to eternity through words. She is the mother of words, a vast and deep sea of words.
After the week of bedsores– my mother starts to vomit blood at breakfast. The vomiting goes on and on. Clots of a dark liquid. She had awakened with her eyes turned off, like a somnambulist, unable to stand on her two legs. A day without control of her functions. We had to carry her to the bathroom. The blood never ceases to flow. My tears too. She will die before me, humbly, like a cat in a bush. The plum- colored liquid bleeds into the slices of kiwi that we had given her to eat. This is called hemoptysis … spitting blood originating in the lungs.
Long ago in the bush country of Djibouti, we went with Alain David, a doctor based in Ali Sabieh, to the rescue of an old woman who had been left at the edge of a trail by her family. She was spitting up blood and seemed to be dying. Dr. Alain noted hemoptysis on the record sheet.
My mother dies on May 19, 2015. Her Somali nieces and nephews come to mark her passing. We cremate her remains and my father takes her ashes to Djibouti to spread them on ayeyo’s grave.
Mother and daughter are united.
**The term “Blue Night” refers to a series of bomb attacks in Algiers the night of August 16. 1961. The attacks were perpetrated by the Organization of the Secret Army (OAS) during the French-Algerian War. The OAS was an illegal political-military organization created in 1961 for the defense of the French presence in Algeria by all means, including large-scale terrorism.
About the translator
Dr. Nichols holds a doctorate in French Studies from Yale University. She is a former Dean of the School of Fine and Performing Arts at Columbia College Chicago where she has worked since 2007. Previously she served as Vice Provost for Academic Affairs at The New School in New York City and Assistant Professor in French and African Studies at The College of William and Mary.