Excerpt

“Zero”

Stella Gaitano (trans. Sawad Hussain)

May 1, 2024 
The following is a story from the new issue of The Common. Stella Gaitano was born in Khartoum in 1979 into a South Sudanese family. She studied English and Arabic at the University of Khartoum and trained as a pharmacist. When Sudan was partitioned, she moved to Juba, the capital of South Sudan. She writes in Arabic and published two short-story collections and the novel Edo’s Souls. She advocates for democracy and education from Germany.

I am completely alone, even though I’m not by myself. Here, filthy chickens scratch at the earth around me in search of worms and kernels. Next to me sits a pile of tatty newspapers—old news that I chew over when I’m beset with a yearning to read. I also keep a lot of family photos. Pictures of my children at different ages, from birthdays and other occasions, as well as pictures of work colleagues. Life that we have lived, frozen on these rectangles of stiff paper; how quickly we are ushered into the past by just glancing at one.

Often, the cold, rainy weather here is cruel to me; when I say “here,” I mean the refugee camp that we were thrown into, after we lost our civil rights in our country. We were forced to make our way to our other country, which had become independent.

Refugee camps are tough. People are directly exposed to the elements. Cold, damp: they seep into your bones. In those moments, I wish—if only—I were back in my old house that I had to leave behind, after selling it for a pittance because they would have seized it anyway. I imagine myself closing the windows and shutting the doors, taking refuge in the warmth of the fabric of my imagination. How I miss the windows and the latches, the doors and the walls. It’s not natural for someone to miss doors, windows, and walls, but people in refugee camps miss such things intensely, perhaps even more than their home country.

I have spent more than two years out in the open. I am guarding a pile of worn-out furniture that anyone could steal—I don’t know why we cling to objects when we depart. It’s not just a departure; it’s a scattering. I have traveled from one country to a new one, and so these things aren’t just things; they are a part of me. Maybe it’s a clinging to the past, to every piece of furniture that held a special comfort, had a special purpose, a special place in one’s heart; to the special savings plan that made acquiring such items a possibility and the joy that would fill the self at possessing them in the first place. And the looks of pride that we direct at such things while we say to ourselves under our breath, “Didn’t have two coins to rub together, but I made it happen—even with all the other expenses on my head.” Furniture is no different from a family member: you should never let it go. You’ve got to guard it, protect it, treat its different ailments.

At times, I shake with fury. Is it because of this pile of furniture that I have spent three years waiting, waiting to make my way to a more familiar vicinity deep down in the South? Is it because of this junk that is no longer useable after the fierce seasons of autumn have left it damp to the core? After the burning sun of summer has charred it? And mold has eaten away at it, cloaking it in dirt? Is it because of this moldy pile of rusted furniture that I have been separated from my wife, Theresa, and my children? Left perpetually in limbo between borders? They must have started a new life by now without me, with new furniture filling their home in the new country that I still have not reached. How many times I’ve thought of leaving all this behind and going to be with them. Yes, that’s all that I need, but I’m afraid that I’ll break Theresa’s heart. Furniture is of the utmost importance to women, and she would say, “You’ve been away all this time, and here you’ve come empty-handed. Where are my things?” Of course, I won’t be able to respond. I promised her when we were separated at the border between the North and South, and the NGOs decided to send the women and children ahead while the men stayed back with the furniture till they opened the border—I told her I’d keep an eye on everything. I’d be patient… yes, I have to be patient. There are so many who have to be patient: women who have had to sacrifice themselves for their husbands and male children because our villages and cities are far from safe, our forests pulsing with battles and fighters, those who don’t hesitate to kidnap the young, adolescents, to forcibly conscript them to fight wars, which are in whose best interests, really? When I see the courage of such women, I become even more resilient.

The unemployed have appointed themselves guards of other people’s furniture, those who have moved ahead and left everything behind. What cruel wisdom! Those who have moved on pay the guards small fees that are sent from distant cities, and when such fees are late, these “guards” sell off a piece or two of the furniture to make ends meet, or they use the profit to buy wine and satisfy women. Even though there are so many of us here, and there’s furniture wrapped in burlap sacks as far as the eye can see, I’m still not used to any of it. I am hopeful, though hope is the sworn enemy—whenever I get ahead of myself in hope, an enormous disappointment crashes down, falling on my head like a half-ton rock. Maybe if I gave in like the rest, if I accepted reality, I’d be better off. But it is out of the question, for my incurable disease is the hope that one day I’ll pack up my luggage, falling apart at the seams, and we’ll travel, the group of us together, toward the South’s borders, and rejoice with our families—the very thing that never happens; what has sickened me, made me suffer all these years.

I’m still stuck between the North and South’s borders, and every time we make our way a little farther southward, we never arrive—our camp as fluid as the flow of the White Nile. The northern road announces our journey has ended with the termination of the asphalt: a sudden, harsh ending, as if the road complied abruptly with a decisive order to stop. The beginning of grasses and tree trunks is the start of another journey, a more arduous one.

The paved road suddenly ended in a place known as Zero. An evasive name, one without meaning and with many meanings all at once. The beginning of a new life but also a vanishing. The disappearance of northern asphalt and the beginning of rutted southern paths. The name was as clever as it was wily; zero isn’t just any old number. It at once indicates the completion of something, and nothing. This land called Zero has morphed into a black hole that has swallowed my hopes and dreams. I may be on the verge of madness—

Here is where we have left our luggage, far from the residents of the area, so that no fighting would break out—after all, we are southerners, the best at getting into it over trivial matters, and taking lives for absolutely no reason.

This distance from the local residents—it’s the same distance that we covered between our camps as displaced people in the cities in the North, and now between our returnee camps and the cities in the south—is tolerable as long as we live in peace. We’ve got to steer clear of the arrogance of the original residents of this place, stay away from the hatred and brokenness of those returning to the South. People who left everything behind them, and didn’t get a thing once on the other side.

We’ve got to flatten the ground to set up our tents once more, and we’ve got to get used to these emergency neighbors of ours. We’ve got to cooperate with them in catastrophes, because we are a lonely people, just one from each family trailing after furniture, waiting for the agreement between both governments and the International Organization for Migration to allow us to cross the closed borders between Sudan and South Sudan. I have two female neighbors, one to my side and the other behind me. Plus a drunk neighbor, and a young man watching over furniture belonging to three families. He gets paid for it each month but doesn’t even look after it. We, the elders, look after the furniture he should be keeping an eye on, but he’s the one who, whenever he gets paid, makes his way to town, which is half a day’s walk away, or hangs on the back of one of the cars going back to the city, kicks up a racket around there, and comes back empty-handed. On occasion, he comes back with a bag of flour, a veiled thanks of sorts.

My two female neighbors are affectionate in a maternal kind of way, an affection that has lost its way and landed with me instead. In time, we formed a kind of family: the women, the boisterous young man, me, and my dirty chickens. Finally, I have started to talk to people instead of to chickens the whole time. We have stood together in the eye of the storm and rains, in the face of fear and food shortages, staving off the yearning for our children, wiping each other’s tears when phones couldn’t help us to hear their news because the networks were so poor, no matter which hills we climbed or roofs we scaled in search of a string of comprehensible words. That’s why I cried silently that night after a call with Theresa, where we didn’t get past “Hello… hello… HELLO,” then beep… beep… beep, then the call dropping. I kept trying one more time, as she did too, but it was no use. Enraged, I dashed the cell phone on the closest rock.

My female neighbors and I would chat on the moonless nights, in order to keep away the pot thieves and furniture thieves, who would undoubtedly sell such things for a glass of arrack. We hoped that tomorrow would bring good news in the voice of that camp crier:

“Kabara, kabara! Those going to Bor, get ready!”

“Kabara, kabara! Those walking to Wau, get ready!”

“News, news for you! Those on the way to Juba, get ready to move!”

And that is exactly what I do. I take off my pants and put them on, and before I can fasten the button, they pool around my feet. What in the world? How have I lost so much weight? I’m forced to wind the belt round my waist twice. I go to gather up everything, although actually Theresa and her helpful neighbors had already packed it all up before we were separated. I search for my chickens in the camp and pick them up one by one, to then place them in the cage; these chickens are my family. This is the second generation—or is it the third? These chickens have retained their black-and-white speckled feathers; although the plumage of some is now tinged gold and brown, as they have been sired by a few of the filthy camp roosters. All the same, they are still my chickens, everyone knows—I was the only one who came with chickens and chicks. Okay, fine, they aren’t just my chickens: they are also my family, my food, intent listeners to my words without ever interrupting. I may boil some, eat a few. When I get too attached to some of them, my heart won’t let me slaughter them; but, in the end, hunger trumps all relationships, as is well known.

These chickens have filled the gap of the gnawing desire I feel to take care of a family. I am preoccupied with them every day, making sure they are back in the cages at sunset, and if one of them goes missing, I turn the camp upside down. I get into fights because of them, ready to choke anyone who tries to gobble them up. I am attentive to their comfort, their health, and their lives in general. But all this doesn’t stop them from becoming prey for the hungry, the hungry who twist their necks and secretly grill them over reed fires. These chickens fill up my life, after it has been emptied of Theresa and our children. I speak to these chickens with great tenderness; I give them names.

“Kabara, kabara”—finally, the news comes: finally, I will meet my family. I’m eager to the point that my heart swells with pain—how will they receive me? I wonder, how tall are my boys and girls? And Raheel, the little one; how I’ve missed them all. I wipe a tear away from my sunken cheek—but I am smiling.

I return to Juba as birds flutter back to their nests. Their chirping is an irritant. Some of the women ululate to welcome the returnees. In my bones I feel a vulnerability, trapped. I hug the chicken cages, seeking strength and support. I stand near the truck that carried my furniture, piled up chaotically, like fish bones that have been wolfed down. Just a scrap heap—I know this deep down, but I still had to come back with it all so that I wouldn’t break Theresa’s heart. Might I be that someone who has dug up bones of a beloved to bury them elsewhere in a beloved land?

I suddenly feel disoriented, and try to get a grip. Will they recognize me? I feel a tender hand on my shoulder and turn—it is Theresa standing there, carrying Raheel and weeping. Several embraces grab me until I start to feel dizzy, the air around me thinning out. I cling to the chicken cages as I try to slip out of my family’s arms. Their warmth is hardly any good for my current condition, the warmth of my wife and children, my children whose shoulders are now in line with mine. Raheel, the youngest, gazes at me strangely.

Nothing is the same: the city, the people, my children. Even Theresa—she has toughened up, no longer second-guessing herself. The boys have become young men, calling me “Baba,” except for Raheel, who calls me “Uncle”—a respectful term of address for any strange man. I’m not yet out of the circle of torturous alienation, and she makes me feel sharply the boundaries of our relationship. It is painful. There is no greater exile than your own child not recognizing you.

In the following days, everyone is busy in their own way: the children with school; Theresa teaching at a miserable, fenceless school, instructing children with snot-filled noses. I find myself once more with the chickens, preoccupied with sorting out the crumbling pieces of furniture in the corner of the house; conjuring up my life in the camp; missing my neighbors and their stray motherhood; missing the cornstalks and the sesame, long and fine, like the teenage Dinka girls in the fields of the fertile city of Renk, fields so lucrative they yielded earnings to rival those of one who’d traveled to Saudi Arabia to work. I’ll never forget the joy the harvest season would bring us, earning us some money and some comfort in companionship. I miss a life for which waiting was pregnant with a thousand meanings of a happy ending. I didn’t think returning would leave me with all this yearning for another place. We human beings are so strange—do I even know what I want?

While I am engrossed in this moment of contemplation, Raheel pokes me. I stare back at her with the same unwelcoming gaze, treating her as she is treating me—a stranger. I don’t know how to treat a child like this any differently.

“Uncle?”

I grit my teeth. “Yes?”

“Please, can you get that papaya for me?”

I follow her little fingers, outstretched skyward. Where did this tree come from? Towering over us, weighed down by ripe fruit that has started to yellow. The sunrays that manage to sneak through the branches prick my eyes. I finally take my eyes off my chickens and the pile of furniture and look around me. More than six tall papaya trees, laden with fruit, envelop the house. Two mango trees with slowly ripening, large, green fruit; a shady guava tree tossing its fruit on the ground whenever the wind caresses it; and neem trees with enormous trunks providing shade for most of the land around. When did all of this grow?

I must be thinking aloud, my voice full of wonder. Raheel responds, holding out a long bamboo stick with a curved wire on one end that allows one to pluck fruit. “They’ve always been here!”

I pluck the fruit with a trembling hand, and hand it to her. I pluck another, and another, and another. She brings a dish. I cut the fruit into big slices while Raheel looks on, salivating. We sit in the shade and munch on the sweet, tasty papaya. Raheel starts to gulp it all down without raising her eyes from the piece that is in her hands. Juice streams through the spaces in her fingers, which are stuck in the fruity flesh.

“Good?” I ask her, my mouth curling upward.

“Really good, Uncle Baba,” she says, her face stained. She stops chewing and holds what she has bitten into in her mouth until the juice dribbles out the side. She is looking for tightness in my expression, because she called me “Uncle.” But I laugh this time at her cleverness at tagging on “Baba,” and in that moment the stiffness in her mouth softens—and she keeps on chewing, while I feel my soul finally making its way back from Zero.

*

Translator Sawad Hussain is a translator from Arabic whose work in 2023 was shortlisted for The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation and the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, and longlisted for the Moore Prize for Human Rights Writing. She is a judge for the Palestine Book Awards. Her most recent translations include Edo’s Souls, by Stella Gaitano, and The Djinn’s Apple, by Djamila Morani. Her upcoming works include the co-translation of The Book Censor’s Library, by Bothayna Al-Essa.

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From The Common. Copyright © 2024 by Stella Gaitano. Trnalsation copyright © 2024 by Sawad Hussain. Used with permission of The Common.




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