Haji Jabir: رغوة سوداء، (Black Foam)
Our narrator, Dawoud, David, Adal, Dawit – he has several variations of his name during this book – is on the run. Initially we do not know what or whom he is running from but it is suggested early on that he was a soldier in the Eritrean army. It also seems he was in theEndabaguna camp.
He starts off by pretending to be an Ethiopian Jew (Dawit) and by very devious means, gains the trust and support of Saba, an influential hotel owner who helps him get into a camp and pretends, with Saba’s help, to be the long-lost relative (kidnapped) of a Jewish family. He is accepted as a former Jew who wished to reclaim his faith. He studies Hebrew and Jewish ritual and seems to belong to the Beta Israel, though he does get challenged on whether he reslly is a Jew. Life is not easy in the camp. The people here were all like him, seeking salvation with all their might, and they didn’t care who fell under the bus. They lowered their heads for the people above them while seizing any chance to humiliate others beneath them. However he has Saba to help him.
However there are two complicating issues here. Firstly, the story is not told in chronological order as we move about throughout his complicated life, backward and forward and it is not always clear where we are. Secondly, our hero is an unreliable narrator so that neither we nor the various people he speaks to know whether he is telling the truth or even a truth. Indeed, we sometimes doubt whether he knows if it is the truth or not.
What we seemingly know is that his parents named him Dawoud though he went by the name Adal. In 1993, when Eritrea gained independence, he meets Aisha in Asmara during the Independence Day celebrations and they start a relationship. However he has to go to Revolution School. He is allowed out now and then and visits Aisha, though ha has not told her about the School. However he has decided Aisha is more important and returns late. He is given ten days in solitary. On his release he sneaks out again but this time is arrested and sent to the dreaded Blue Valley punishment camp.
We follow his subsequent trials and tribulations, including his escape from Blue Valley, his various adventures en route first to Ehiopia and then to Israel, his meeting with Saba mentioned, above and his eventual transfer to Israel as an Ethiopian Jew. In all cases, he experiences hardships, which he occasionally tries to alleviate with female company. He lies, he cheats, he steals, he does whatever it takes to get away from his past and from Eritrea.
Israel does not solve his problems. He is in an interim camp which is difficult and unpleasant. He and other Ethiopian Jews are subject to frequent racial abuse as the light-skinned Ashkenazi bitterly resent them and attack them more than once in this book. Eventually, he and others are moved to a permanent settlement on the outskirts of Jerusalem where he has to share a room with two loud-mouthed men who abuse him but then get curious about what he does during the day . Some of their time is spent touring historical Jerusalem though he seems to be more fascinated with the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre than the Jewish sites.
He soon falls in with others Africans and leaves the settlement and his boisterous room-mates. But life there is difficult and complicated, not least because of the racism to those of African origin. One Ethiopian Jew who had become a soldier shows what it was like. He passed the time cursing the Eritrean motherfuckers who had followed him to Israel, wishing that the government would send them back to their miserable fucking country, while his blond fellow soldier laughed at his outrageous insults.
Dawoud, or whatever his name is, struggles with finding his place, if, indeed he has a place which seems increasingly unlikely as the book progresses. Wherever he goes he does not fit in, does not really know what he wants, except perhaps a woman (for sex rather than love, as he later admits. He later says I think about love all the time, looking for it in every pair of eyes I see. I’m often disappointed—I feel a bit broken; I curse my luck—but the weird thing is that I’ve never lost hope). He meets people and quarrels with them or he makes friends with them but then moves on or falls out with them. He can never said to be happy, except perhaps, briefly with Aisha, never sure what the next day will bring, never sure of where he is going or even what his name is. In short He felt it was too late to belong.
Given his irresponsible and often amoral behaviour, it is difficult to feel too much sympathy for him though, while some of his problems he has brought on himself, clearly his life and the life of other refugees from wars is often hard and we cannot totally condemn him.
First published in 2018 by Dar Al-Tanweer
First published in English by Amazon Crossing in 2023
Translated by Sawad Hussain and Marcia Lynx Qualey