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.
That shrinking land of ours is crisscrossed with people in perpetual motion. Not a week goes by without some African team back from a sporting competition unanimously asking for political asylum in Frankfurt, Athens, or Glasgow. There are glorious sunrises, happy times ahead, bursts of light that turn, alas, into water and mud. Happiness? Don’t make me laugh! It all makes me dizzy. For now, I’m going to take a rest. It’s like the silence of the desert here, the hours go by in neutral. Nothing to do except think, rehash the past, obsess over it endlessly, come up with projects that may or may not see the light of day, not to mention that little voice whispering you have no right to forget the ones who’re still in jail, how can you drag your body around without feeling guilty? I left my heart at home, I only have my body to care for now, and for that, I’ll have to find some good soul to help me apply for political asylum and guide me through the bureaucratic labyrinth, like that damn OFPRA (Office de Protection des Réfugiés et Apatrides), the open sesame for any aspiring candidate for exile. For a long time now, I’ve accepted the idea that I’m going to die like everyone else and I’m not about to change my mind. I cannot wait to find peace of mind and body again. To tame my mind where morbid, incongruous ideas keep running wild, and snuff out that snickering little voice. Glue the pieces of my dislocated being back together. In short, get used to my new identity. A memory anchored deep in the nest of my brain is coming back to me. I must have been a child of four or five then, and I can recall the frightened look in my eyes very clearly. One day, as I was walking with my aunt along one of the avenues in our neighborhood, I passed by a military patrol. Like a chrysalis about to burst, the question popped out instantly:
“Who are those people?”
“The French, our colonizers.”
“Why are they here?”
“Because they’re stronger than we are.”
My country was born more than two decades ago, wrapped in the flag designed by Mahmoud Harbi (4). I was young, handsome, and strong. I’d been back home for three years, equipped with a big diploma, big for that time at any rate, and accompanied by a young, touching, stubborn woman I’d met when I was a student in France. In 1977, Djibouti was stepping down from the high solitude of being the last colonial stronghold. My country was brought into the world wrapped in its flag (blue, green, white, and red star), and I was in my prime, hardly thirty.
1. BASHIR BINLADEN
I was born yesterday, I’m just sayin, I mean I was born not so long ago, and even for this little chick of a country I’m not too-too over the hill, see. We’re the same age, this country-here and myself, so believe me faithfully I snoop and look everywhere, men an animals like fine clean dressed-up dogs, stuff natural like women’s thing. Rocks an flowers too. Oh lord, I kinda lost Moussa an I got so-so scared. I’m talkin all alone to buck myself up, I look overhere or overthere and I can’t see nothin… I’m at Roissy, in fronta the paradise of the Whites, gotta keep cool, act like professional military. I stare everywhere and name everything I see in the rush an crush of voices an destinies. I do love sniffin out people; gotta sniff em up, sort of like them clean well-groomed dogs. That way you avoid problems an bullshit, little sonsabitches think they’re Tintin’s Captain Haddock. I hate soft old chewngums with no taste. I’m not afraid of nothin, not even foreigners (oh no! am I off my rocker or what? the foreigners, that’s us now, the natives here, it’s them). That’s what we learned in the school of the streets cause real school way-way past. First I was born in tiny little village, Damerjogh its name. After that we came to the big city for my daddy’s job. For he always like that, always at port being that longshoreman-there. So me, I cut out quick into the street, to look an look, an learn real-real good. School wasn’t my thing, sure I finished fourth grade like everybody else, but school-there back home it’s total pyramid. If you lucky you get big diploma, or else it’s the street for you, like me. When I finish fourth grade they tell me fit for active work (we call that AW, active work.) What you gonna work, little like that? So my whole neighborhood AW. After AW, I did everything in s treet. That’s what I did to get by. Today my mom an dad not around no more to explain me things I can’t understand. I’m not so lucky, I’m all alone with no brother or sister in a country where every family can be a soccer team all by itself or send an emergency brigade straight to planets like Startrek.
Before, there was war back home, the war kinda over now cause the Big Foreigners they say: better stop that war right away or no foreign aid. The president he said OK before anybody else. Open little parenthesis. If I was president of the country of course I’d change my name. I’d call myself Moi like the president of that Kenya-there. Moi, it’s best president name I know. Moi, it simple, an beautiful too, right? OK, close parenthesis. So the ministers who wanted to go on with war were pushed outta the offices. The president signed peace with first group of rebels, Frud 1 it’s called. Today two years after the war, we’re up to Frud 4 (Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy, it said that on the big sign in fronta Palace of the People.) Restoration is very correct word too, they even say that in real French from France. Politicians, they never stop eating, stuffing their face, gobbling, suffocating on the leftovers. Fill belly fat as Port container. I’m sayin Port cause Port’s just across the way. People who know that, they not gonna say Binladen’s a lie an a liar. After the war, end of the line, Sargent Houmed yelled every day. We demobilized. You can leave this minute if you want. War’s over. They gave us demobilize sojers 40,000 DF and it’s bye-bye front, gunpowder an thirst. So I gave a lot-lot to the family an the tribe. The cousins who been unemployed ever since they could stand, they party with my money. A weeklong bash, two thousand francs a day, what with the khat, the girls, the taxi I paid for with a girl once cause I was being class, man. I was still wearin my American jeans an my wide belt I kept. We all kept a little somethin from the army. And anyways OK, war over. Ayanleh, he still wear his big army shoes. Aïdid he walk around with his commando helmet on his head. Warya, they say that rifle he hid, he sold it to a jealous husband to rip the heart of the guy always after Naya, his honey who bleach her skin. Naya, she so so strong for love. She volcano-love her honey says.
Oh, the army was big mess. Holy moley! We killed the Wadags, screwed their daughters, poisoned wells all the way to Moussa Ali, you don’ know Moussa Ali, it’s border. After that it’s Eritrea, careful, don’ mess around with Eritrea like our president doin now cause Eritrea stronger than Zidane for war. It’s Ronaldo the Brazilian. They fucked Mengistu an all the Ethiopians with fifty times more harms than them. Ethiopians they got so much harms, right after Chinese, Japanese, Hindis and so on-so on. So, Wadags they wanted peace right away. Pretty natural—they don’ all wanna die. Frud 1, Frud 2, Frud 3, Frud 4, all the same and one. Lotta bullshit, yah. From now on, just to kid around we call that Frud-there Scud like Iraqi missile not always effective. Restoration, OK, that’s good. Democracy, that hotair of politicians who take bread from whoever givin it.
After the war, for a few weeks it was a free-for-all. We did whatever we want. Ate in restaurants without paying, pirated big Arab and Hindi shopkeepers, even small shopkeepers native like us. Grabbing merchandise quick as chameleon gobbling flies. Even from mamas sellin vegetables an khat on Place Rambo. When I say “Place Rambo” it’s funny, sounds like real French name Rimbaud, right? Reminds me of singing in school Alaclairefontainééé, menononproméné, jaitrouvélosiclair quéjémisuisbaiyé… “Attaclearfountain, zahwenwokin, ahfounwattasocleah ahswimnit.” After the war, we did whatever we want. Beat up on people in the street for fun, robbed Arab and Hindi hardware stores. Drilled girls day an night. Goverment don’t say nothin. There’s still chaos, the situation will soon return to normal, said Morning Hyena, the Minister of Police on DRT. DRT, you don’ know what that is yet, right? Djibouti Radio Television, it’s written in big gold letters on the building, next to the Presidential. The asshole general who screwed up his coup d’état so bad, well, he got all his men together at the DRT. Thinks coup mean only TV, radio, in other words DRT. The loyola tanks—or whatever, I forgot the word—anyway the president’s tanks they left from Camp Sheikh Osman, went through all of Ambouli. Went through the traffic circle that go into Port road. Then, they go behind Arhiba and the asshole general’s base right next to it. They don’t shell police base of the asshole general. They come straight to DRT. Fourteen rounds of mortars, bang, bang, bang, the coup guys they sure cried loud for their mamas. Twelve down. The troublemakers, quick-quick prisoners without they hurt a government fly.The asshole general he left to hide in the French naval base, on the Plateau du Héron. The president came quick-quick outta his hiding place in Sheikh-Osman military camp, the one the asshole general spared. He get his troops together. I have triumphed he yell loud-loud. They all on TV a couple hours later. Morning Hyena, Stuffed Hyena, Pushy Hyena, Toothless Lion, etc., all there. Still shaking with fear. You could see the sweat flooding their faces on the color screen TV. Then, the president left with head of diplomacy to get the asshole general that used to be his true-true friend before, when they making restoration together. Together they knew how to conjugate the verb have, not the verb to be.
What do you think the French did with the president’s request and the so-rich words of the head of diplomacy? I say request, that a very correct word, they say it on black-an-white TV even, like at Samirah’s our neighbor the shopkeeper. The French they say we are presently handing over the general (only they don’t add asshole, like me, Binladen) if you respect the rightsaman too like in our country. The general has the right to be assisted by the lawyer of his choice before he even open his mouth. He has right to a fair trial, insisted the ambassador in a shirt with red-white-an-blue flowers before presently handing over the asshole general. President happy as a clam, he busted the asshole general. Heck, he together again with his lieutenants in the terriblific Gabode prison. The motherfucka now with the little Ethiopian thieves he used to bust himself, I say little cause the big ones they still out there, makin restoration with the president’s wife.
Worst off in this whole business is regular little sojers, that’s what City say. I don’ agree. Little sojers, they used to be little darlins of the asshole general (no way he deserves a capital G) they did anything they wanted, selling off gas ration coupons, stealing the refugees’ bags of food, borrowing people’s cells, drilling girls—even the girls of their neighborhood got diarrhea when they saw them. Besides, little sojers, sure thing! They’re all sargents, second lieutenants, lieutenants. No draftee like us under them. There’s even a colonel, I obliterated his name—I like to use big fancy words like the French, in my own personal language. City a hypocrite, double hypocrite. They forget to say people-there all cousins of the tribe, so same cousins same aunt same uncle, I say. And tomorrow if the president fired the asshole general City’d say so-so-unfair etcetera etcet. Me I’m tellin you City don’ know what they want. One day they cheering real loud for the president specially when a boat comes into our port with liquidities (yes, liquidities the word, in fact very correct word). Next day, they say: we support the opposition. Our bold, active opponent, the Pele of the opposition, he was journalist an sojer before, so, he sick of City, believe me faithfully. He better off leaving for France like me Binladen, like all the others I see here at Roissy hugging the walls, like the intellectual genleman who lost his French wife and his rich-kid son. Matter of fact, president will get out too, when there nothin lef to eat. Restoration over. That man there, he like ole empty battery can’t start up the country no more. So, everybody’s salary ten months overdue. Not one head of a boat in port, not a tail of a plane stopped over with white tourists sayin Reunion, Mauritius, Malagascar, wow! it’s too-too hot. And the stupid idiots come to Djibouti for a breath of fresh air!
Now I’m gonna show you the poem Monsieur Djama our principal recited to us in elementary school of District 6. That’s where I live in Djibouti, actually. My buddy Ayanleh found it in his small little brother’s things. Monsieur Djama, he’s a funny one. He been givin same poem to all his pupils for ten year or what? I don’t get all of it, no big deal, right? I’m gonna show it to Moussa who’s coming back loaded like a Yemenite donkey (donkey rub donkey, that a naughty proverb of ours.) Yemenites strong for business, Yemenites king of commerce right after Hindis who sad like a day without khat. Hey, Moussa gonna read it to you:
In Djibouti it’s so hot,
Metallic, bitter, brutal,
They grow palm trees of metal
The others die on the spot.
You sit beneath the scrap iron
While, grinding in the desert breeze
They pile up to your very knees,
the iron filings.
But under palms that sound like trains
Luckily, inside your brain
You’re free to fantasize
A trip worldwide.
OK poetry fine but hey, what I wanna do is tell you more about my life. I can tell you right away I never got one slap in the face from my daddy. Papa he wasn’t very old when he died, too-too broke down by his longshoreman job, but gentle like little lamb fresh from its mama’s belly. He’d piss blood like that for no reason before he checked out. Me, I’m still running. When I was a baby I was already running a lot-lot. I also liked the games kids play like soccer. Not so many soccer games around no more. The city going through a difficult period, maybe Papa could’ve esplained you the how and why of all them problems. Veterans, the handicapped an disabled from civil war, they all demonstrate yesterday fronta presidential palace (beit al wali (5) the old folks say, that Arabic) axing for their puny pensions not paid for months. Hey, what you think goverment did? They fired on the crowd of cripples, with real bullets. Lotta corpses, lotta wounded on the boulevard to presidential palace. An guess what, no one lifted a finger. The crowd run away like scared little chicken. The wounded more or less taken care of and the dead buried in dead bush silence.
Same evening, City clapped regular as a broken toilet at the president’s endless speech. So’s not to think of their pain, everybody get giddy on rumors. They go like this: yah-yah we gonna get revenge this time, yah, arright… . Our bellies grumbling with the noise of rising waters, the noise of a fast-moving stream over stones. Like we’re wolfing down the bitter mango, bitter mango even ants and little insects won’t eat it.
(1) University of Nebraska Press, 2009. (Translated by David and Nicole Ball.)
(2) Sea Gull Books, 2011. (Translated by David and Nicole Ball.)
(3) warya: Guy, man
(4) An important figure in Djiboutian resistance to colonization.
(5) beit al wali: Governor's palace, his present residence.
Together or separately, David and Nicole Ball have published nine book-length translations from the French, including three novels by Abdourahman A. Waberi, and many of his shorter pieces. Nicole is the translator of Maryse Condé’s Land of Many Colors, David of Darkness Moves: An Henri Michaux Anthology 1927-1984, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu the King and poems by James Sacré and other poets. Both have translated stories in Haiti Noir and Paris Noir (Akashic Books.) Their most recent translations of Waberi and others have appeared in Words Without Borders: The Online Magazine of International Literature. Both have retired from the faculty of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.
This excerpt has been published with the permission of Indiana University Press.