The attempt to locate one’s home, or to make a place one’s home, has now become a staple obsession of several genres of writing. But in Passage of Tears (Seagull Books, 2011), Abdourahman A. Waberi writes refreshingly and unapologetically about the tragedy of the prodigal son who cannot find his home anywhere—neither in the land he has adopted nor in the land which he had left and has now returned to. Waberi’s protagonist, Djibril, returns to the country, Djibouti, which in his words ‘would not or could not keep’ him to undertake geographical and anthropological research for a company that wishes to know whether mining in Djibouti would be profitable. Djibril shares with Djibouti a part of himself he cannot extricate—Djib. In his adopted country and in the firm in which he works, he is called ‘Agent Djib’. It is this history that pricks him and makes him acutely aware of his past in spite of his efforts to forget it. ‘The past is dead, long live the future,’ writes Djibril. ‘Call me Djib!’ he also writes, ‘In North America, I learnt to be short, smooth and effective.’ It is this past that not only haunts Djibril’s future but also creates it, a future which he often celebrates by thinking of his blue-eyed, pearly skinned girlfriend; the ‘satin skies’ of Montreal appear as ghostly and as haunting as the past. Waberi’s brilliant prose portrays this future, this other land where Djibril lives, concrete in Djibril’s incantations that periodically summon up the ghostly Canadian shores. We hear about the people and the city with the slight touch of resentment (which the italics further underscore) and it all manages to paint Djibril as a man nettled also by the persistent apparitions of his future.
The complexity of Djibril’s character, whose past and future are both haunted by each other, rendering both familiar yet uncomfortable to inhabit, whose home is neither in Djibouti or in Montreal (where he has tried to put down roots) has perhaps a synecdochical relation to the moment Waberi captures in all its intricacies. His narrative eludes any easy reading of scenes and dramas that are playing in our world. As a foil to Djibril’s homelessness appears his brother, Djamal. But Waberi gives Djamal a set of ghosts to deal with as well. The novel takes the form of multiple overlapping notebooks and thoughts of not only Djibril but also Djamal. We have Djibril’s thoughts, the notes he takes during his research. Almost every alternate chapter has the thoughts of his brother who is languishing in jail, thoughts which do not allow the reader to set up a simple or melodramatic binary between the religious fanatic and whatever his counterpart is supposed to be; and—this probably is the central theme of this book—where is that space between the fanatic in the jail and the uranium-mining companies of Montreal? This feeling of betraying both the spaces, at home nowhere and, more important, turning away from the illusions of a home, or of being-at-home, is what Waberi talks about, citing in his epigraph a poet equally obsessed and disillusioned with the idea of home—Mahmoud Darwish: ‘The way home is more lovely than home itself.’
Apart from the multiple notebooks that Djibril and Djamal keep, from the window of the jail fly in scraps of paper that at first appear to be blank but, on scrutiny by Djamal, has words that cannot be ignored. The words are addressed to Walter Benjamin, a man, along with Darwish and Djibril, even more aware of the illusions of home and the fragility of it. Ultimately, perhaps we can read Djibril’s failure to find a home as ‘tragic’. But the cracks in everyone’s home in the novel—notably Djamal’s, which widens as he reads the letter to Benjamin—makes Djibril’s failure a ubiquitous futile hunt that we all pursue to find a home.
Vaibhav Saria, Department of Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD.
Passage of Tears by ABDOURAHMAN A. WABERI
Translated by David and Nicole Ball