Five a.m. Too early to eat. There is hardly any light, perhaps just enough to distinguish a dark thread from white, but Kawsar washes her face in the basin inside her bathroom, runs a caday over her teeth and slips into the day's costume without wasting any paraffin. She feels her way into her underskirt and red shift dress, squeezes thick amber bangles over each elbow and smoothes a heavy silver necklace over her sagging chest, then arranges the sheets neatly over her single bed. She finishes the glass of water on her bedside table and shakes out her leather sandals in case spiders or scorpions have sought shelter in them overnight, before finally locking the door leading from the bedroom to the kitchen. She knows that the day will be long and that she should force a little breakfast inside her, but her stomach is a closed fist. With the sandals on her feet and a long shawl over her shoulders, Kawsar opens the exterior door to find her neighbours, Maryam English, Fadumo, Zahra and Dahabo, mingling in her courtyard.
'What took you so long, saamaleyl?' Dahabo swishes the flask in her hand at Kawsar.
'I was oiling my knees,' Kawsar replies with a smile, linking arms with her childhood friend.
The men and women of the Guddi, the neighbourhood watch of the regime, have spent the night shouting orders through megaphones of what to wear and where to meet. The women have all dressed in the same traditional outfit and Zahra has torn down branches from a miri-miri tree, which she hands out to the women to wave at the stadium – another instruction from the megaphones. The narrow, sandy street ahead is filled with women in similar dress, and behind them even more follow languidly. They pass Umar Farey's eighteen-room hotel, each window blind and shuttered as if the building itself is sleeping; no Hindi songs or Kung-fu sounds come from Zahra's video hall; and Raage's corner shop is just a corrugated tin shack rather than its usual Aladdin's cave.
'See how early they drag us out of bed. Nothing is too much for them, the swines.' Maryam English tightens the strap holding her baby to her back; she has had to leave the two older children locked in at home.
Kawsar rubs the sleeping baby's back and wishes it was Hodan's instead, her child returned as an infant with the chance of a second life ahead of her.
'Look at us, we are the same woman over the ages,' laughs Fadumo, her cane weaving in front of her.
It is true: they are identical except that Maryam English is in her late twenties, Zahra in her forties, Dahabo and Kawsar circling their late fifties and poor Fadumo a hunched-over seventy-something. They look like illustrations in a school textbook, everybody equal in the same garments and just a few lines on the face or a stooped back delineating age. That is the way the government seems to want them – simple, smiling cartoons with no demands or needs of their own. Now those cartoons have come to life – not tilling, weaving or working in a factory like on the shilling notes, but trudging to a celebration that they are forced to attend.
They walk through the backstreets, the sky above slowly getting paler and paler, until they reach the sports stadium. The Guddi activists in armbands are asking what neighbourhood they belong to and counting them as they enter the gate.
'There's Oodweyne watching over us,' yells Dahabo, pointing up.
'Shush!' whispers Maryam. 'They'll hear you.'
Kawsar turns back to the Guddi to check, but they are preoccupied by the throngs of people pushing through the gate. The mothers of the revolution have been called from their kitchens, from their chores, to show foreign dignitaries how loved the regime is, how grateful they are for the milk and peace it has brought them. It needs women to make it seem human.
Beyond Dahabo's pointed finger is a mammoth painting of the dictator, hanging over the stadium like a new sun, rays emerging from around his head. The painters have tried to soften that merciless, hangdog face but have succeeded only in throwing it off balance – the chin too long, the nose too bulbous, the eyes asymmetrical. The only accurate part is the short, clipped moustache modelled on that German leader.
Workmen hurriedly hang other paintings, slightly smaller, of his acolytes, the interchangeable ministers of defence, finance and internal security, their positions so insecure that by the end of the day new paintings might be commissioned. Fadumo leads the way to the stands and the rest follow, knowing that they will not be comfortable anywhere; there will be no shade, no rest, no sustenance for the next seven hours. Eighty-seven has been a year of drought and the morning sky settles yet again into an unrelenting, cloudless blue.
* * *
Filsan hasn't slept for the last three days. She has had charge of three Guddi units and they have created problem after problem for her; she could not have imagined a more cantankerous, ineffectual, gossipy group in her nightmares. In the end she sent one of the units back to Saba'ad refugee camp to train a group of children in traditional dance, but she doubts that they can even do that right. One unit is now stationed at the stadium's north gate while the other rounds up stragglers and clears rough-sleepers and debris from the route of the parade. The VIPs are not expected for another hour but the stadium still looks bare, disorganised; most of the participants are yet to arrive and when they do, God knows if they will be in shape.
This is Filsan's first October Twenty-first in Hargeisa and it seems ramshackle compared to what she knew in Mogadishu. It is now eighteen years exactly since the President's rise to power after a military coup, and the celebrations in Mogadishu show the system at its best, everyone working together to create something beautiful. The Military-Governor of the north-western region, General Haaruun, will be the President's avatar in Hargeisa and has arranged the military parade with a flyover to start and finish the day. The civilian part of the ceremony has been patched together by the Guddi, who are using it as an excuse to exhibit their amateur singing, dancing and oratory.
Filsan strums the teeth of the plastic comb in her trouser pocket and chews her lip; she looks at the empty dais where General Haaruun will sit with the dignitaries and imagines herself placed in the centre, not as his companion but as his successor, waving down to her subjects. Her boots are polished beautifully, her khaki uniform clean and sharply pressed, and the black beret on her head brushed and angled just so. She has lined her eyes discreetly with kohl and pressed colour onto her lips with her fingers. She looks herself but a little better, a touch more feminine; she has resisted playing these games until now, but if the other female soldiers get noticed this way, maybe she can too.
She shoves the comb deep into her pocket and straightens her tunic over her rear. As she rushes past the south gate, two civilian policemen salute her, looking to each other with smiles in their eyes. Filsan's face pinches with annoyance, knowing that they will stare at her behind as soon as they can. Beyond the south gate the military convoys are queuing up: tanks, jeeps, armoured vehicles, trucks carrying every type of rocket and missile, soldiers in metal green helmets waiting patiently inside and beside the vehicles. Filsan feels proud looking at them. She is part of the third largest army in Africa, a force that would have conquered all of Ethiopia, not just the Ogaden, in 1978 if the Russians and Cubans hadn't switched sides.
Filsan walks down the convoy, and here the soldiers don't stare at her or smile like the barely trained police; they show her the respect due another soldier. Her life has always revolved around these men, from her father down to her political science teachers at Halane College; it is their judgement that carries weight with her and she still feels small in their estimation. Filsan has volunteered to come north, hoping to show that although a woman, she has more commitment to the revolution than any of her male peers. This is the coalface of internal security, where real work can be done defeating National Freedom Movement bandits who persist in nipping at the government's tail. As she looks around her, she realises it is not inconceivable that members of the banned group are here now, filtering anonymously through the gates between the mothers in robes and uniformed schoolchildren. It is impossible to tell enemy from friend.
* * *
It was a hard way to earn a new pair of shoes but for Deqo it was worth it. A month of dance lessons has taught her the Hilgo, Belwo, Dudi and the overly complicated Halawalaq. She isn't a bad dancer but is better at improvisation than following the steps, and even now she turns left instead of right or jumps forward instead of back. They still haven't seen the shoes but that's all Toothless Milgo has talked about during the lessons. They have earned those shoes with sweat and tears and Deqo intends to wear them like a soldier wears his medals.
'Think of the shoes. Don't you want the shoes? Do you want to be barefoot forever? Concentrate then!' A sharp swipe over their feet with an acacia twig.
They have learnt to dance to the beat of Milgo's rough palm against the bottom of a plastic basin, but at the parade there will be real drums, trumpets, guitars, everything. They will be dancing in front of thousands, even the governor of the whole region will be watching, so they have to practise, practise, practise.
Now the day of the parade has finally arrived. Before dawn the troupe of five girls and five boys, all from the orphanage, are herded into the yard behind the camp's clinic and scrubbed half to death. Deqo's eyes are tinged red from the strong-smelling soap and she keeps rubbing them to ease the itch. A truck waits by the dispensary tent and they are dressed in traditional macaweis and guntiino and then loaded into the back. The truck starts up, a plume of brown smoke bursting from its exhaust, and Deqo grabs hold of the side as they pick up speed. It is her first time in a vehicle and she is surprised to feel such a strong breeze on her face, the edges of her hair whipped about as if on a stormy day. When the truck slows, the breeze disappears again and Deqo squints against the rising grit and clamps her lips together.
While the other children practise the songs they will sing at the parade, Deqo's attention is drawn back towards the refugee camp, the semicircular wooden aqals suddenly nothing more than speckles on the surface of the earth. The grain warehouse and various clinics constantly surrounded by milling refugees are invisible from here; the arguments, the bitterness, the sadness far away. The road snakes down towards Hargeisa, the landscape bare apart from the occasional aloe bush, animal bone and plastic shoe, the only difference from the camp being the freshness of the air. The horizon is all blue sky with just a streak of yellow leading them forward, and it is difficult to imagine anything of substance ahead. Deqo half-expects the truck to reach that yellow streak and then tumble over the edge of the earth, but instead it carries on the badly tarred road until it reaches the first military checkpoint outside the city.
* * *
Kawsar and her neighbours squeeze into the second stand; the stadium was made for three thousand spectators but today it is crammed with more than ten thousand. Corpulent women push along the narrow walkway, busy with their own conversations, stepping on Kawsar's toes and using her arm for support without so much as a glance in her direction. The temperature is still cool but will rise steadily until they feel like hides drying in the sun. Her knees are swollen and already she begins to shift her weight from one foot to the other every few minutes.
The October Twenty-first festivals are poor imitations of the Independence Day celebrations, Kawsar thinks – like a bad husband reminding his unhappy wife of the good times they once shared while knowing that they would never return. When the British had left on 26 June 1960, everyone had poured out of their homes in their Eid clothes and gathered at the municipal khayriyo between the national bank and prison. It was as if they were drunk, wild; girls got pregnant that night and when asked who the father of their child was, they would reply: 'Ask the flag.' That night, crushed within a mixed crowd as the Somali flag was raised for the first time, Kawsar had lost a long, gold earring that was part of her dowry, but Farah hadn't cared – he'd said it was a gift to the new nation. The party had moved to Freedom Park and lasted into the next morning, the sleepy town transformed into a playground, the youth of the country believing that they had achieved what their elders hadn't. People always half-joked afterwards that that day changed the women of Hargeisa; that they never returned to the modest, quiet lives they had known after that bacchanalian display, that the taste of one kind of freedom led to an insatiable desire for every kind.
A flutter in her womb distracts Kawsar from the marching band tuning up near her. It is a sensation that comes regularly now, like fingernails brushing the inside of her skin, a heartbeat pulsing deep in the sea of her. Maryam's daughter is fussing already, her chubby hands pulling at her mother's hair as she attempts to wriggle out of the sling. Maryam slaps the child's thigh to make her settle but it just infuriates her more. What an easy stage that was: when a child's only want was to walk around a little before collapsing back into your arms. Hodan had slept nestled against Kawsar's shoulder on days like this, when the people had still been gullible enough to celebrate the regime with real emotion, when the shine of independence had made everything magical – our first Somali textbooks, our first airline, everything a wonder. It was the star that caused all the grief: that five-pointed star on the flag, with each point signifying a part of the Somali motherland, had led the country into war with Kenya and then Ethiopia, had fed a ruinous desire to reclaim territory that was long gone. The last defeat changed everything. After seventy-nine the guns that were turned outward reversed position and became trained on Somalis instead, the fury of humiliated men blowing back over the Haud desert.
* * *
Filsan hates the squatness of Hargeisa. In Mogadishu the buildings soar and blind the eye with their whiteness; here everything clings to the earth, cowering and subservient, the cheap mud brick bungalows often left unpainted as if the town is inhabited by giant termites that cobble their dwellings together with dirt and spit. In Mogadishu the oldest residences are made of coral and have delicate wooden latticework and vaulted ceilings that give people a sense of wonder. In the centre of the city where the alleys narrow at points to the width of a man's shoulder blades, you can walk as if in a dream, never certain of what might appear after the next bend: a bare-chested man with a silver swordfish slung over his thin black back, a shoal of children reciting Qu'ran from their wooden slates, a girl milking a white, lyre-horned cow. The place has enchantment, mystery, it moves backward and forward in time with every turn of the feet; it is fitting that it lies beside an ocean over which its soul can breathe, rather than being hemmed in by mountains like a jinn in a bottle.
The Guddi marching band in indigo tunics and white caps stand beside her, old men tuning their old instruments. What they lack in ability they make up for in their willingness to please; they will squawk and stomp until they are told to stop. The musicians in Hargeisa are amateurs; those who couldn't make it in Mogadishu ply their trade here, in the solitary theatre or in the daytime weddings that take place in bungalows. It needs a real city to pound new rhythms out of life – the tick of the town hall clock, the scrape of a shovel, the whistle of a traffic policeman – it needs all of this for new, pulse-quickening styles to germinate and flower.
The foreign dignitaries step out from their motorcade on schedule, and Filsan recognises a couple from photographs printed in the October Star, the national paper. The US economic attaché leads the group, followed by the Egyptian ambassador and a man in flowing white robes and keffiyah. Maybe a dozen other officials line up along the blue and white dais to await the General.
The honk of car horns announces his arrival. A soldier clumsily spreads a threadbare red carpet from the gate to the dais, and then General Haaruun steps out of a black Mercedes. It is as if an electric current passes through the stands as he walks to his seat surrounded by bodyguards, the atmosphere tense, every sound magnified by the sudden, jagged stillness. Filsan turns quickly to monitor the situation behind her: the locals do not shout or throw missiles but their eyes are fixed on the tall, gaunt man in military dress. They crane forward in their seats and appear like an avalanche of bodies ready to fall onto her and bury the stadium beneath them.