Transit is a succession of monologues by each of the characters: Bashir, a very young veteran of Djibouti’s civil war; Harbi, a Djiboutian intellectual and an opponent of the regime; Harbi’s French wife, their son, and his grandfather. The novel starts with Bashir and Harbi in the Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport and the rest of the novel tells us how they got there. Its end is its beginning.
The interlocking voices of the characters tell their stories and the story of their country, giving us Djibouti’s recent history, politics, and physical, economic and moral landscape in their own language, their own style. Voices in Harbi’s family are often lyrical. The grandfather, particularly, gives us poetic evocations of Djibouti’s past, bitter for the colonial period and nostalgic for the nomadic past and the customs of its people - themes that appear again and again in the Waberi’s work.
The character of Bashir, the poor, adolescent ex-soldier, carries the narrative, from the history of the war to the murder of Harbi’s wife and son. His monologues are delivered in a slangy, comical language very much his own (and hard to translate!)—a mix of naiveté and sly, often cynical, observation. He reveals the true condition of the country and the horrors of the civil war and its aftermath: child soldiers, arms trafficking, drugs (the ever-present khat and “pink pills”), random killing, hunger… And exposes France, the former colonial power, as a hypocritical arbiter between the warring camps.
Abdourahman A. Waberi is one of the leading francophone writers of his generation, the recipient of many literary prizes, one of the writers to whom the French novelist J.M.G. Le Clézio dedicated his Nobel Prize in his acceptance speech. He was born in 1965 in what was then French Somaliland; it became Djibouti when it gained its independence in 1977. After winning a scholarship to study in France, Waberi lived, studied and worked there until 2009 when he became a Fellow in the Humanities at Wellesley College and entered the American academic world. He spends his time between the United States and France, and remains a nomad at heart, as he likes to say. He has written four novels, three books of short fiction, a book of poems and numerous articles and essays. Waberi’s work explores the themes of migration, colonial and post-colonial suffering and resistance with great linguistic invention and originality. In his satiric In the United States of Africa, Africa is rich and bloated, while the wretched of the earth live in war-torn Euramerica and desperately try to immigrate to Africa (1); he received lavish praise from the major literary journals in France for his latest novel, Passage des larmes (Passage of Tears) (2) a grim dialogue of the deaf between two brothers in Djibouti, a fanatical Islamist and a North American exile who works for a private international intelligence agency. We are delighted that Indiana University Press is now publishing his second novel, Transit, one of Waberi's most important works.
by David & Nicole Ball
I’m in Paris, warya (3) - good thing, huh? OK it’s not really Paris yet but Roissy. That the name of the airoport. This airoport got two names, Roissy and Charles-de-Gaulle. In Djibouti it got just one name, Ambouli, an I swear on the head of my departed family, it’s much-much tinier. OK, this trip here, everything went all right. I gobbled the good food of Air France. Went direct to the war film before I fell into heavy sleep. I was stocked, no I mean scotched—taped—in the last row of the Boeing 747 where the cops tie the deportees up tight when the plane goes back to Africa. That’s true, that the way they do it. Moussa he told me that a little while ago. Moussa, you know he can pray the good Lord sitting down without lifting his behind from the seat of the plane, believe me faithfully. He travel a lot, Moussa, helps guys discovering travel like me. He calm all the time. He talk so soft-soft you’d think he got sore tonsils. Wait, I’m gonna follow Moussa, pick up baggage. My bag blocked between two big boxes of French military, label says it: “AD 188” I know what that is, it Air Detachment 188, navigation base right next to airoport in Ambouli as a matter of fact. I pulled the bag hard. A white lady looked at me, you know, with her eyes in the air like white marbles. I picked the bag up hard like we did with our gear when I was mobilized in the Army. I put my bag on my back. I looked right-lef. I see Moussa, I walk behind him. Act dumb with the cops, Moussa he confirm it to me. Main thing, don’ show you speak French. Don’ mess things up, so shut your trap. Or cry, to fish pity from French people. French in France nicer than French back there, Moussa don’ say that, I know by myself. I stocked the esperience. OK I don’ say nothin cause Roissy’s danger, they might say Africans, pains in the ass. I look right-lef again, I walk behind big Moussa. Shut up. Nod head yes, shake head no, and that’s it, OK? Shut trap, waggle head, or cry a lot an fish pity. That’s it. Period. I walk forward a little, follow Moussa.
Oh yah—I dropped my real name Bashir Assoweh. For six months now my name been Binladen, Moussa he choked on his coffee in plastic cup they give you. Never say that again here he say. That get the French fierce, and the English, and the Americans and even the nice Norwegians who pay the NGO’s for us and keep their traps shut. But me, I like that, you say Binladen and everybody drop dead with panic like I’m real kamikaze they stop in fronta barbwire and sambags of the American Embassy in Djibouti. Binladen, dunno who he was before but anyways he look hansome. Bushy white beard with black thread, white horse not like the gray camel of our Bedouins and specially that Kalashnikov on his shoulder. His beard real-real nice but hey he not really prophet cause true prophet has no photo. In Djibouti, they said, yell “Long live Binladen” everywhere, that’s how I know his name, then stop right away or else it Gabode prison for everybody, mamas, uncles, kids, everybody. But that still secret. I didn’t say a thing, right? Djibouti over, Roissy here, gotta watch out sayin anything come into my head.
Roissy. Air France. Daily flight to Saint-Denis de la Réunion via Cairo and Djibouti. The overbooked, overwhelmed airline is transferring some of its passengers to other airlines like Air Afrique. People willing to switch can make up to a thousand francs on the deal. OK? OK! You did the right thing. New situation. The line there is ten times longer. A mountain of luggage. Huge crowd. Everybody chewing gum with great energy. I spot Kaba Something-or-other, a guy with the look of a Sahelian Mafioso; he’s knocking the whole line about with his cumbersome bags and wants to charm me into giving him a hand. Boarding time for the Africans being deported “of their own free will”. A dozen or so scheduled to be transported the usual way; three male individuals will be locked up in the cramped space of the restrooms, piled in and immediately incarcerated quick as two whiffs of a cigarette. A man wearing a glaring yellow vest with the word “technician” on his back, helped by three PAF agents (Police de l’Air et des Frontières) has stuck a thick roll of grey tape on the restroom door so the passengers who happen to have missed the caging or whose eyes had avoided it won’t venture into those restrooms. Strange how the same scene keeps being repeated almost every day on other flights always bound for some African destination. Each time, the unfortunate deportee tries squealing like a tortured whale just to stir the conscience of the ordinary passenger, usually a tourist. Today’s deportee is Congolese, supposedly a shopkeeper from Pointe Noire, and his fate seems sealed. A few moments later on the Airbus, there are some angry reactions among the passengers, followed by a nauseous feeling culminating in a widespread urge to throw up. And considering the passenger’s extreme state of agitation, the captain finally gives in after some heated negotiations and the troublemaker is taken off board, returned to his cell and put back into the retention center in a waiting zone of the airport. At least he’s alive, luckier than the ones who die of dehydration in the Arizona desert or freeze to death inside the undercarriage of some cargo plane.
I’m alone now, alone without Alice, my dear wife, without Abdo-Julien, our only child, without my father Awaleh who used to travel along with us in spirit. Lost in the bowels of Roissy airport. I went through them often when I was a student, or on business trips or, more frequently, when visiting Brittany. I have an old debt of memory to settle with France; people think migrants arrive naked in a new land at the end of their odyssey; yet migrants are loaded with their personal stories and heavier still with what is called collective history.