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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Man of Good Hope

In A Man of Good Hope, coming to the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House February 15–19, the Isango Ensemble takes up Jonny Steinberg’s riveting book about a young Somali refugee who fled his country’s civil war, only to find himself in a new violent reality in South Africa. A note from Steinberg follows.

Photo: Keith Pattison

By Jonny Steinberg

I had little idea that I would write a book about Asad Abdullahi when I met him. I had in mind a very different project, one that would take in many times, people, and places. I imagined that Asad would occupy 10, perhaps 20 pages of the work.

It was at our second meeting, I think, that the book I actually wrote was conceived. Asad and I were walking through the Company’s Garden, one of Cape Town’s oldest and loveliest public spaces, when Asad picked up a twig, snapped it open and smelt it. I will never forget the expression that came over him—the surprise, the wistfulness, the knowledge that what he was experiencing would soon disappear. The fragrance had transported him more than two decades back in time. He was six or seven years old in a madrassa in Mogadishu, Somalia copying out the Koran line by line. The smell of the twig had reminded him of the narcotic sap of the agreeg tree he had used to bind ink; he was reliving a forgotten high.

I felt a whim rising. A man who can break a twig and take me with him to another world, I thought, is a man about whom I ought to write a book.

Our collaboration was, if not a tawdry affair, certainly an awkward one. When I met him Asad was hustling for a living. He’d leave his shack on the outskirts of Cape Town in the early mornings, hang out in the Somali section of Mitchell’s Plain township and ask the traders and businessmen he met there if they needed a delivery to be made. A man living that sort of life hardly had the time a writer demanded. And so I bought his time. I capitalized the business he wanted to start: selling cigarettes, mobile phone airtime, and frozen chickens from his shack. It cost me less than £400. In exchange, I acquired a subject sufficiently sedentary to interview for weeks and months at a time.
I will not say that the book wrote itself. Nor would I be so presumptuous as to think that Asad had a hand in writing it. Nonetheless, something of his grace and his skill were transferred to me, making the writing of the book possible.

Zoleka Mpotsha, Ayanda Tikolo, Siphosethu Juta & Luvo Tamba. Photo: Keith Pattison
But under what strange conditions this transference took place. I was a white man in a good car and Asad was convinced that my presence in his shantytown home would attract men with guns. He refused to meet in his shack where he would have no forewarning of an attack. Instead he insisted that we talk in my car; there he had a 360-degree view and could see trouble coming. And so that is where we sat day in and day out for nearly a year.

When the first draft of the manuscript was written I asked him to read it. He refused. The story of his past was simply too sad, he said. I redoubled my efforts to get him to look at it, but he only dug in his heels. He simply would not. I was disconcerted. By the time I was done writing I had retraced most of his steps through the Horn of Africa, had found long-lost relatives of his in various parts of the world, and had discovered something of the lost genealogy of his family. Between my forensic interest in his history and his refusal to read about it was a chasm that made me immensely uneasy.

It took a long while for me to settle upon an explanation. Taking in his past as a narrative unspooling through time was simply unhelpful to him, I believe. More than that, it was destructive. To have this perennially rejected boy, forever kicked around like a stone, installed in his imagination, was to rob himself of the wherewithal to live in the present. Better to see his past in flashes, to keep in his mind particular moments: moments of mystical feeling, of love, of the desire for revenge, moments when he was the one who decided what would happen next.

Deep in our culture is the belief that unearthing memory is therapeutic. I think that Asad has taught me otherwise. He gave me the material to assemble a story about his personal history. But the story is not for him; it is for the edification of others.

Isango Ensemble / Young Vic’s production of A Man of Good Hope, by Jonny Steinberg, directed by Mark Dornford-May, is at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House from February 15–19.

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