A Man of Good Hope (Jonny Steinberg) (NF8)

BOOK: A Man of Good Hope (Jonny Steinberg) (NF8)
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The Number

Notes from a Fractured Country

Thin Blue: The Unwritten Rules of Policing South Africa

Three Letter Plague: A Young Man's Journey Through a Great Epidemic

Little Liberia: An African Odyssey in New York City



Copyright © 2015 by Jonny Steinberg

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC, New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, Penguin Random House companies.


Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Steinberg, Jonny, [date]

A man of good hope / by Jonny Steinberg. — First edition.

pages cm

“This is a Borzoi book”—T.p. verso.

978-0-385-35272-7 (hardcover : alk. paper)—
978-0-385-35273-4 (eBook)

1. Abdullahi, Asad. 2. Somalia—Bi
ography. 3. Refugees—S
omalia. 4. Somalis—South Africa—Bio
graphy. 5. Somalis—United States—Bio
graphy. I. Title.

74 2014




eBook ISBN 97803

Cartography by Mapping Specialists

Satellite view of Wardheer, Ethiopia, by permission of DigitalGlobe

Cover image: A view of Blikkiesdorp (“Tin Can Town” in Afrikaans) East of Cape Town, South Africa by Rodger Bosch/AFP/
Getty Images

Cover design by Kelly Blair



For two teachers

Sen Schonken and Peter Hudson


Asad Abdullahi sits opposite me at a table in the Company Gardens. Around us, elderly white men are playing chess.

My notebook is open on the table, my pen in my hand. I am asking Asad about the Kaaraan district of Mogadishu, where he spent the first eight or so years of his life. He says he remembers so little.

“It doesn't matter,” I say. “Instead of trying to remember, just tell me what comes into your head when you think of Mogadishu.”

The oddest thought comes to me. He is wearing a body-hugging yellow hoodie and skinny blue jeans, and, in this tight attire, he seems not just tall and thin, but elongated. Each part of him—his nose, his cheeks, his palms and his fingers, his torso—appears to have been ever so caringly stretched. The result is elegant.

It occurs to me that he is sitting at Cape Town's point of origin. The gardens around us were planted 358 years ago, almost to the day. Here is Asad, on very old ground, while he himself is so new and so decidedly unwelcome.

In his slender fingers is a twig. I think he found it while we were strolling up from the library. Now he snaps it in half and draws it to his nose.

His eyebrows rise with surprise. He smells it again.

“Amazing,” he says. “From the moment I saw it lying on the ground, I knew what the smell would remind me of.”

And he begins to tell me how he made ink. He was seven years old, he thinks, a student at a madrassa, preparing the charcoal mixture into which he would dip his pen in order to copy out the Koran. To bind the ink, he says, you need the sap of the
tree. You snap open a branch and with pinched fingers tease out the juice, allowing it to drip into the charcoal and water. While stirring the mixture, you absentmindedly put your fingers to your nose. You breathe in deeply. Ah!

The smile on his face is wistful and intense, and I think I have an inkling of where he has gone.

He knows that I am still here, that, at the table next to us, men are playing chess. But he is also elsewhere, and he is savoring it, for he understands that it can last only a few seconds. He has reeled back more than twenty years. With the twig he has found in the Company Gardens, he is reliving a forgotten high, for it is clear from the expression on his face that the sap of the
is narcotic.

I feel a whim rising. I know that if I think about it, even for a moment, I will find a reason to back off, so I do not think about it. A man who idly snaps open a twig and is transported back so vividly, so powerfully, to another world is a man about whom I ought to write a book.

There and then, I tell him that I will give him seven thousand rand to start his business.


A week earlier, I had driven out to his shack for breakfast. My diary records the day as September 24, 2010, a public holiday in South Africa. I was accompanied by Pearlie Joubert, a journalist, who had introduced us. I had had an idea for a very different book. I had asked Pearlie to introduce me to people who had fled Cape Town in the wake of South Africa's surge of violence against foreign nationals in May 2008. I had wanted to compare this episode to events that had happened fifty years earlier.

Asad came out to greet us wearing a turquoise
knotted around his waist and dropping to his ankles. Pearlie had told me that he was twenty-seven years old. He seemed more than that to me, perhaps because I associated the
with middle age.

The shack into which he invited us was covered everywhere in folds of delicate cloth. A dozen or so of them hung from the ceiling at the edge of his bed, screening it from the rest of the room. The tin walls, too, were coated in cloth, their colors dark and muted—maroons and deep greens. They dimmed the room, as if dusk were falling and nobody had turned on the lights, and it was with a start that I noticed his wife. She was on a stool in the corner, her chubby face staring out from a head shawl that covered most of her cheeks.

Asad invited us to sit, then crouched over a Bunsen burner. He would make us a Somali breakfast, he announced: pancakes. The batter was at his side in a plastic bowl, and the pan on the stove sizzled with strips of meat and onions and peppers.

Asad lives in Blikkiesdo
rp—Tin Can Town, in English. It has been described as Cape Town's asshole, the muscle through which the city shits out the parts it does not want. That is about right. Built by the city in 2007, it consists of sixteen hundred identical one-room structures laid out in sixteen identical square blocks. Erected to house people removed from homes they occupied illegally, it is a dump in which the city's evicted are mixed together. More than thirty kilometers from the center of Cape Town, it is separated from the city's economic heartland by a long and expensive taxi ride. It is the ultimate ghetto, its residents hemmed in by distance, by poverty, and by their own personal histories.

In early 2010, the city and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees decided, in their collective wisdom, to place thirty-four Somali and Congolese families in Blikkiesdorp. All had had to flee their homes in May 2008 with South African mobs at their heels. Each had spent the better part of the previous two years in makeshift refugee camps, too afraid to enter Cape Town again. Blikkiesdorp was the site of their reintegration. They could live rent-free in one-room shacks surrounded by the city's outcasts, people who could only possibly hate them.

Two months before I meet Asad, a rumor spread through Blikkiesdorp. It was the day before the end of the soccer World Cup, held triumphantly on South African soil. Blikkiesdorp, the rumor went, would celebrate by killing its foreigners. That evening, a crowd assembled outside Asad's shack and began to hurl rocks at its tin walls. Asad phoned Pearlie, who seems to know everyone in Cape Town, including somebody in the higher echelons of the police. A detachment of public-order police rushed to the scene.

Over breakfast, Asad told us how he was making a living.

He headed each morning to Mitchells Plain Town Centre, about ten kilometers away, a retail hub in Cape Town's largest township, taken over by Somali traders. He would hang around until he found somebody who needed a driver—to pick up stock from one of Cape Town's wholesale stores, to take some people to another town, whatever. For a fee, Asad offered to drive.

He said that it was unsustainable, that he was a trader, a businessman, that if he were to live he must open a trading store here in Blikkiesdorp, but that he did not have the capital.

“What is the very minimum you need?” I asked idly.

“Seven thousand rand,” he replied without hesitating.

“You want to run a cash business in this place,” I said. “What will stop your neighbors from shooting you and stealing your day's takings?”

He smiled. Not just with his eyes but with his whole mouth. His teeth were brilliant white and perfectly ordered.

“It is not for the gangsters to decide when I die,” he replied. “When you are still in the womb, Allah has decided the course of your whole life.”

He beamed at me mischievously. I had the feeling that he had told a private joke.


A week after giving him the seven thousand rand, I go to Blikkiesdorp to see him. He has cut a hole in one of his tin walls and covered it with wire mesh. Behind it is a stool and, behind that, ceiling-high shelves filled with cigarettes and crisps and tinned food and bags of mealie-meal.

I do not share with him at first what I am hoping for. I begin going to see him in Blikkiesdorp twice a week. We sit on his bed and talk for an hour or so. Then I leave.

At the end of my third visit, I ask whether he would consider the prospect of my writing a book about his life. I tell him that, were he to agree to this, I would ask for a lot of his time—two mornings a week, say, maybe for as long as a year. I would travel to the places he has lived—or at least to those to which travel is possible—and would try to find people who once knew him. I wish to see the houses in which he slept and to walk the streets he walked. When the book is published, I say, I will offer him 25 percent of the royalties; I give him a sense of the sort of sum this would probably turn out to be. I tell him not to answer me now, but to give it some thought.

As I drive back to Cape Town on the N2 motorway, my feelings are mixed. I am excited. Back at the University of Cape Town, I will not even stop in at my office; I will go straight to the library and take out four or five of the most reputable books on Somalia, and I will bury myself in them. I also feel uneasy. He is a man in need. I am certain that he will say yes. True, I have extended him a lifeline. But I have also helped him open a cash business in a lawless place. His life is worth much less than it was two weeks ago. I find myself making a mental note: I must ask him where Cape Town's Somalis bury their dead.


I had thought that the seven thousand rand would free him to talk to me; one can hardly ask a man who scrounges daily for work to take off two days a week to sift through his memories. But his new shop brings to our meetings troubles of a different ilk. His wife can work the counter while he speaks to me, but she knows little English and no Xhosa or Afrikaans, and so Asad, increasingly adept at all three, must be on hand. Sometimes I accompany him to Mitchells Plain Town Centre or to Bellville, or to a chore he must do in the center of town. But, on the whole, we must conduct our interviews in shouting distance of his business.

At first, we meet in his shack. I sit on the edge of his bed, and he on a plastic chair. But he is uncomfortable with the arrangement. He fiddles incessantly with his hands. At the slightest sound outside, he cocks his head and listens. An hour into our second interview, he has had enough; he tells me briskly that we cannot meet in his shack any longer and insists that we move to my car.

And so, day after day, that is where we meet. I sit in the driver's seat, he sits in the passenger seat, my notebook passing between us as I record his testimony in shorthand and he draws pictures of the scenes he describes. I am parked parallel to his shack, no more than a meter or two from the mesh-covered hole through which his wife serves his customers. Each person who comes to buy from him brushes against my car door.

He tells me that he wants it this way because his shack is too small. But it isn't. It is a perfectly comfortable space in which to talk, far more convivial, in fact, than a car. I wonder what his real reasons are and why he wishes to keep them concealed.

It comes to me slowly, as our time together stretches into a rhythm, and as the rhythm begins to emit meaning. More bluntly, it comes to me once I imbibe the bizarreness and the perversity of our meetings.

I am a citizen of my country, and the many strangers around me are aware of this. One of them might choose to shoot a bullet into my head, but he knows that a machinery will kick into motion, and people will come looking for him. I and those around me are in an orbit together. We are all aware of the rules.

Asad does not move within this orbit. He stands outside of it, for the rules do not apply to him. His shop fills with cash every day, and he knows that his neighbors know that were somebody to shoot him in the head and take his money the machinery of state would stutter reflexively into motion and then grind to a halt. I come to see that this knowledge shapes his life. In his every decision, the imperative to be free tussles with the imperative to be safe. On his shoulders rests the incessant burden of dodging his own murder.

It is our third week together. We are sitting in my car, talking.

“Turn on the ignition,” he says.

I look at him. A moment ago he was deep in childhood memory, his head bowed, his hand running habitually over the dashboard. Now he is sitting bolt upright, and his eyes are fixed on my rearview mirror.

I turn around.

“Don't,” he says. “Just start the ignition.”

I obey. Then I adjust my side mirror to see what he sees. A couple of hundred meters back, three young men, their hoodies low over their eyebrows, are walking toward us.

I am not afraid. I am certain that they will soon turn left or right and head down another street. They are simply three Blikkiesdorp residents going about their business. After all, everyone under a certain age wears a hoodie. Asad's lies neatly folded among the clothes in his shack.

We wait.

I begin to feel Asad's fear.

As if it is a virus, as if it jumped off him and sank into my skin and is now coursing through my veins.

This moment is so very productive. While a part of him is in my blood, I can understand. I know why he insists on meeting in my car. More important, I know the calculations he made when he allowed me into his life.

“You get scared every time I visit,” I say.

“Yes,” he replies, his eyes still fixed on the men behind us.

“You worry that a white man in a good car attracts men with guns, that you and your family are much more unsafe when I am around.”

“I worry about that so much,” he says.

BOOK: A Man of Good Hope (Jonny Steinberg) (NF8)
4.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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