In Search of Amal: Chapter 1

“Are you listening to me?” Mom was repeating it as she dressed me with those hideous school uniform of  short blue trouser and short-sleeved white shirt. ‘I hate these lousy uniforms’ I was thinking or perhaps it was the instruction Mom was giving me that I was really annoyed with. Mom finally pinched me on the left arm after receiving no response from me. “Tell me what I just told you?” she demanded. I replied, grudgingly, ‘I’m to look after Amal…but Mom that’s not fair!’. “What you mean that’s not fair? Isn’t she your little sister? Who’s suppose to look after her?” she demanded. Then, sighing and in a gentle voice, she continued, “You know you’re the man of the house now until your father gets back.” Unlike me, Amal is excited and running around with her new notebook and pencil. It is her first day of school but I don’t remember being this excited my first day of school. Why is she so excited? I call her to lay the ground rules: “Look, Amal, when we’re at school please don’t bother me when I’m with my friends ok?” She nods her head and runs after Mom into the room. By that hurried response I know my warning is futile, thus I’m resigned to my fate at school social life.

*****

I feel a tender touch on my right arm and as I slowly wake up, I see the smiling Air Malaysia flight attendant with a cart full soda cans and bottles asking me if I want anything to eat or drink. I’m too sleepy. I ask for an orange juice only. My seat-mate, who’s from Latvia, is happily eating his chicken salad. In a heavy accented voice, he tells me this is one of the finest chicken he has had in a long time. I tell him maybe it is the hunger and lack of good oxygen at this altitude that is making this chicken salad so tasty for him. He says, “No, my friend this is good – try it.” I tell him, “No, I’m good for now.” I return to my sleep after I finish my orange juice.

*****

The boys have been asking me a lot of questions about Amal at school. “Isn’t she too young to start school?” comes up often. At lunch, I go with my friend Bakar as usual except today Amal is coming along. “Only until you make friends,” I tell her. She hands me two Somali Shillings. “I’m not hungry, you take it,” she says. “Mom gave it to you for a reason, Amal. You will need it if not today, tomorrow” I explain to her. “No I want you to have it,” she says firmly without hesitating. Then adds, “You’ve been nice to me today so I want you to have this money, Aboowe.” “If you don’t want it, I will take it,” says Bakar.  “Shut up you thief,” I say to Bakar and we all laugh as if it is the funniest thing ever. I take the two Shillings from her and give one back to her. “Save it for tomorrow or if Mom asks you about it.” Walking back home after school on the rocky road we start talking about Dad; it seems Amal has many questions about his absence while I’m merely content with the occasional gifts and phone calls. I miss him too, but I guess I’m more stoic than her so I try to explain to her as simply as I know why he’s away but I don’t do a very good job because she keeps finding new questions to ask. We hear a distant ululation and we run towards where the sound is coming from. It’s one of the houses that we pass by everyday on our way to and fro school. The husband has taken a new, younger bride and his relative womenfolk have come to congratulate him. The first wife, whose kids we go to school with, is not present. We go inside the house and start mingling with the other neighborhood kids. We’re given xalwa and cake. Amal wants to stay but I drag her away and we head home. God, she still has a lot of energy to skip and sing-along all the way home.

*****

As the plane slowly descends into Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport, the Red Sea appears and to the right, the vast Lake Assal meanders gracefully. ‘I’ve finally come back to Africa’, I remind myself. I’m nervous and terrified of what’s out there, yet my purpose for being here could not be more clearer at this very moment. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain and I would like to welcome you to Djibouti…” comes on the intercom as I stare through the window on an exquisite sunny day. As I pass through the various immigration lines, a Sammy Davis Jr. lookalike immigration officer stops me for a secondary screening. “Sir, are you a Djibouti citizen?” he asks me and I tell him no I’m not but I am from Somali originally. “Okay, I understand now. Do you speak Somali?” he asks me. I tell him yes I do but not good, only enough to understand. “Please come with me,”  he instructs me. I follow him out into a narrow, quiet hallway with bluish doors on both sides. “Is there a problem, sir,” I inquire but he just nods silently. Eventually we reach our destination – a small room with no windows. “Please come and sit” he says. I feel uneasy but I sit in one of the chairs facing a desk and place my backpack on another chair. He sits behind the desk with stacks of papers and an aging computer monitor facing me directly. I feel thirsty terribly so I ask if I could have a mineral water. He says “sure no problem. Just a minute okay?” He goes out to get the water for me. I sit there what seems like an eternity. I look at my watch but it has Eastern Standard Time; I look at the analog clock on the wall next to a portrait of the president of the republic and it is 1:13pm. Finally Mr. Immigration comes back with a cup of water that I’m hesitant to drink for a second. He reassures me that it is indeed a mineral water and not to worry of getting sick. I drink and he starts asking me the same routine questions I have already answered before. “What is your business here sir”? he asks me and I tell him I’m only in transit. “If you look at my ticket and passport, you will see that I’m going to Addis Ababa,” I reply. “I know that sir but why are you going to Ethiopia?” he continues. I feel a bit nausea and sleepy, perhaps from the jet-lag I tell myself. “I don’t see how where I’m going matters to you sir,” I tell him, with a little bit of frustration in my voice. “Mr. Hassan, I’m only doing my job. Can you answer my questions,” he replies. “If you put it that way, yes, I will answer your questions. My business in Ethiopia is to find my missing little sister,”  I tell this stranger something I haven’t told anyone since I left home. Then I feel my eyelids getting heavier and heavier; the front of my head explodes with a sharp pain. “I don’t feel well sir,” I tell him “and I need to go to the restroom.” I get up and take few steps and collapse on the concrete floor.

****

Chapter 2 will be posted soon.

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