Yemen, 1935. Jama is a “market boy,” a half-feral child scavenging with his friends in the dusty streets of a great seaport. For Jama, life is a thrilling carnival, at least when he can fill his belly. When his mother—alternately raging and loving—dies young, she leaves him only an amulet stuffed with one hundred rupees. Jama decides to spend her life’s meager savings on a search for his never-seen father; the rumors that travel along clan lines report that he is a driver for the British somewhere in the north. So begins Jama’s extraordinary journey of more than a thousand miles north all the way to Egypt, by camel, by truck, by train, but mostly on foot. He slings himself from one perilous city to another, fiercely enjoying life on the road and relying on his vast clan network to shelter him and point the way to his father, who always seems just a day or two out of reach.
In his travels, Jama will witness scenes of great humanity and brutality; he will be caught up in the indifferent, grinding machine of war; he will crisscross the Red Sea in search of working papers and a ship. Bursting with life and a rough joyfulness, Black Mamba Boy is debut novelist Nadifa Mohamed’s vibrant, moving celebration of her family’s own history.
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Nadifa Mohamed was born in Hargeisa, Somalia, in 1981 to a merchant marine father and a mother from a politically active family, and was trapped in exile when civil war erupted. She studied history and politics at Oxford, and has worked as a film researcher and scriptwriter.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
ADEN, YEMEN, OCTOBER 1935The muezzin’s call startled Jama out of his dream, and he pulled himself up to look at the sun rising over the cake-domed mosques, the gingerbread Adeni apartments glowing at their tips with white frosting. The black silhouettes of birds looped high in the inky sky, circling around the few remaining stars and the pregnant moon. The black planets of Jama’s eyes roamed over Aden—the busy, industrial Steamer Point; Crater, the sandstone old town, its curvaceous dun-colored buildings merging into the Shum Shum volcanoes; the Ma’alla and Sheikh Usman districts, white and modern, between the hills and sea. Wood smoke and infants’ cries drifted up as women took a break from preparing breakfast to perform their dawn prayers, not needing the exhortations of the old muezzin. A vulture’s nest encircled the ancient minaret, the broken branches festooned with rubbish, the nest corrupting the neighborhood with the stench of carrion; the attentive mother fed rotting morsels to her chirruping chicks, her muscular wings unhunched and at rest beside her. Jama’s own mother, Ambaro, stood by the roof edge, softly singing a song in her deep and melodious voice. She sang before and after work, not because she was happy but because the songs escaped from her mouth, her young soul roaming outside her body to take the air before it was pulled back into drudgery.Ambaro shook the ghosts from her hair and began her morning soliloquy. “Some people don’t know how much work goes into feeding their ungrateful guts, think they are some kind of suldaan who can idle about without a care in the world, head full of trash, only good for running around with trash. Well, over my dead body, I don’t grind my backbone to dust to sit and watch filthy-bottomed boys roll around on their backs.”These poems of contempt, these gabays of dissatisfaction greeted Jama every morning. Incredible meandering streams of abuse flowed from his mother’s mouth, sweeping the mukhadim at the factory, her son, long-lost relatives, enemies, men, women, Somalis, Arabs, Indians into a pit of damnation.“Get up, stupid boy, you think this is your father’s house? Get up, you fool! I need to get to work.”Jama continued to loll around on his back, playing with his belly button. “Stop it, you dirty boy, you’ll make a hole in it.” Ambaro slipped off one of her broken leather sandals, and marched over to him.Jama tried to flee but his mother dived and attacked him with stinging blows. “Get up! I have to walk two miles to work and you make a fuss over waking up, is that it?” she raged. “Go then, get lost, you good-for-nothing.”Jama blamed Aden for making his mother so angry. He wanted to return to Hargeisa, where his father could calm her down with love songs. It was always at daybreak that Jama craved his father, all his memories were sharper in the clean morning light, his father’s laughter and songs around the campfire, the soft, long-fingered hands enveloping his own. Jama couldn’t be sure if these were real memories or just dreams seeping into his waking life, but he cherished these fragile images, hoping that they would not disappear from him like his father had. Jama remembered traversing the desert on strong shoulders, peering down on the world like a prince, but already his father’s face was lost to him, hidden behind stubborn clouds.Along the dark spiral steps came the smell of anjeero; the Islaweynes were having breakfast. ZamZam, a plain teenaged girl, used to bring Jama the mealtime scraps. He had accepted them for a while until he heard the boys in the family call him “Haashishki,” Trash Can. The Islaweynes were distant relatives, members of his mother’s clan, who had been asked by Ambaro’s half brother to take her in when she arrived alone in Aden. They had done as promised but it soon became clear that they expected their bedu cousin to be a servant: cooking, cleaning, and giving them the appearance of gentility. Within a week Ambaro had found work in a coffee factory, depriving the Islaweynes of their new status symbol and unleashing the resentment of the family. Ambaro was made to sleep on the roof, she was not allowed to eat with them unless Mr. Islaweyne and his wife had guests around; then they were all smiles and familial generosity, “Oh, Ambaro, what do you mean ‘Can I?’ What’s ours is yours, sister!”When Ambaro had saved enough to bring her six-year-old son to Aden, Mrs. Islaweyne had fumed at the inconvenience and made a show of checking him for things that could infest or infect her children. Her gold bangles had clanked around as she looked for nits, fleas, skin diseases; she shamelessly pulled up his ma’awis to look for worms. Even after Jama had passed her medical exam, she glared at him when he played with her children and whispered to them to not get familiar with this boy from nowhere. Five years later, Ambaro and Jama still lived like phantoms on the roof, leaving as few traces of their presence as possible. The neatly stacked piles of laundry that Ambaro washed and Jama pegged out to dry were the only banners of their existence to the family.Ambaro left for the coffee factory at dawn and didn’t return until dark, leaving Jama to float around the Islaweyne home feeling unwelcome, or to stay out in the streets with the market boys. Outside the sky had brightened to a watery turquoise blue, and Somali men asleep by the roadside began to rouse, their afros full of sand, while Arabs walked hand in hand toward the suq. Jama fell in behind a group of Yemenis wearing large gold-threaded turbans and beautiful, ivory-handled daggers in their belts. He ran his hands along the warm flanks of passing camels being led to market, their extravagant eyelashes batting in appreciation at his gentle stroke, and when they overtook him their swishing tails waved goodbye. Men and boys shuffled past ferrying vegetables, fruits, breads, meats, in bags, in their hands, on their heads, to and from the market, crusty flatbread tucked under their arms like newspapers hot off the press. Butterflies danced, enjoying their morning flutter before the day turned unbearably hot and they slept it off inside sticky blossoms. Incense lingered on the skin and robes of the hammals as they pushed their wheelbarrows through the narrow, potholed alley, each man cocooned in the perfume of his home. Leaning against the warm wall, Jama closed his eyes and imagined curling up in his mother’s lap and feeling the reverberations of her songs as they bubbled up from deep within her body. He sensed someone standing over him, a small hand rubbed the top of his head, and he opened his eyes to see Abdi and Shidane grinning down at him. Abdi was the nine-year-old, gappytoothed uncle of eleven-year-old gangster Shidane. Abdi held out a chunk of bread and Jama swallowed it down.The black lava of the Shum Shum volcanoes loomed over them when they reached the beach. Market boys of all different hues, creeds, and languages gathered at the beach to play, bathe, and fight. They were a roll call of infectious diseases, mangled limbs, and deformities. Jama called “Shalom!” to Abraham, a shrunken Jewish boy who used to sell flowers door-to-door with him. Abraham waved and took a running leap into the water. Shidane’s malnutrition-blond hair looked transparent in the sunlight and Abdi’s head jiggled from side to side, too big for his paltry body, as he ran into the surf. These two perfect sea urchins spent their days diving for coins. Jama wanted them to take him out to sea, so he collected wooden planks washed up on the shore, and called the gali gali boys to attention.“Go and find twine so we can go out to sea,” he ordered.Jama sat on the seaweed-strewn sand while Abdi and Shidane tied the planks into a makeshift raft. Together they pushed the rickety contraption out into the undulating sea. “Bismillah,” he whispered, holding on desperately while Abdi and Shidane propelled him forward, kicking up masses of foam and spray. When the boys tired, they clambered on, panting beside him, their faces upturned to the rising sun. Jama turned on his back and smiled a contented smile, they floated gently on the young waves and linked arms, water droplets scattered over their skin like diamonds.“Why don’t you learn to swim, Jama?” Abdi asked. “Then you can come pearl fishing with us. It’s beautiful down there, all kinds of fish and coral, shipwrecks, you could find a pearl worth a fortune.”Shidane shifted position and the raft spun around with him. “There aren’t any pearls down there, Abdi, we’ve looked everywhere, they’re all gone, taken by the Arabs. Look at those stupid Yemenis, they don’t deserve a boat like that,” he sneered. “If we had a gun we could take everything those fools have.”Jama lifted his head up, saw a sambuk hurrying back to port with crates piled up on its deck. “Get a gun, then,” he dared.“Ya salam! You think I can’t? I can make one, boy.”Jama pulled himself up onto his elbows. “What?”“You heard me, I can make one, I’ve been watching the soldiers. Some people are always active, always thinking. It’s simple for someone like me to make these Ferengi things, you get a piece of hardwood, make a hole all the way through, get gunpowder, stuff it into the hole, then fill one end with pebbles and in the other put a lit string, then blow fools like those into the sea.”“More likely you would blow your burnt futo into the sea.”“Laugh all you like, you big-toothed Eidegalle donkey, I will be the mukhadim, if you are lucky you can be my coolie.”&#...
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