Disclaimer – There was always going to be a house, a family on this street, in this portmanteau collection of short stories, somehow touched by Jihadism.
My thoughts are of course with all those affected by the dreadful events in Paris on 13th November 2015, but there are other families who also have to make sense of the world after such tragedies in quite different ways.
Number 67 -my son is a good boy, a good child.
She doesn’t say it out loud anymore because she knows how other people react, knows how they think, knows what they think and she cannot bear to read the derision, the confusion in their eyes. She does not want to have to defend the indefensible, understands that to most people, her son is as far from being a good boy as is possible.
She knows that trying to explain, to share stories from his childhood, to pull out the photographs, the family videos, his school and college reports are meaningless acts, particularly when these are put beside those other photographs, those other videos, those public images of her son.
But, he was a good boy, a good son, her youngest son, the baby growing up when Somalia had been left behind; when she wondered if they would ever settle again, ever have somewhere to call home.
He was her last link with home, the child created as Mogadishu fell apart and staying became impossible and then inconceivable and so they began the journey that brought them to here and maybe brought him to place he now calls home.
But, he was a good boy, a beautiful child, everyone said so, strong and graceful, eye lashes so long that they curled against his clear skin, always happy, always easy.
She remembers sitting in a pavement café in Amsterdam, older children all at school and the two of them stealing time together, eating ice cream and waffles, throwing the crumbs to the ducks at the canal side and both of them fascinated by the Dutch girls, so tall, so fair as they cycled past at top speed, too busy to notice the small dark-skinned child, his face covered in strawberry ice cream.
She remembers the cat the children rescued and brought back to their freezing apartment in Stockholm, her son, with the easy linguistic fluidity of child who are 6 years old has already lived in four countries, petted the animal and informed her that its name was Bella, Italian for beautiful.
She remembers the mother’s day card he made for her in his first year at school in this country, their final destination, their home now. She can still see the careful lettering and the time he took to teach her to read the unfamiliar swirl of shapes that eventually she could de-code into a message of love.
She remembers the bicycle he begged for as his Eid gift when he was 8, his disgust at the helmet and shin pads she insisted he wore whenever he rode the bike, but and when she remembers this, she has to sit down, bite on her own knuckles, the memory is so painful, but, he always wore them, ignored the taunts of the other children, understood that this country cared her and his free movement through it, scared her even more.
She wanted to fit in and both she and her husband worked hard at it. She went to language classes, pulled her tongue and mouth and lips into unfamiliar shapes, made noises that sounded too sibilant, too slippery to ever make meaning, but, she persevered, didn’t want to be like some of the other mothers, still unable to have the simplest conversation in this ugly, muttered language even after living here for years and years.
The children went to madrassa, of course they did and her husband walked the boys to Friday prayers, once they were both sure that each one was old enough, sensible enough to not embarrass him or call into question her parenting skills.
She wore hijab, but knew it wasn’t about religion or even culture, far more about habit and routine and seeing the reflection she expected when she caught sight of herself in a mirror or a shop window.
She tried to explain it once to Tracey, lovely Tracey, the first mother to talk to her at the school gates and Tracey nodded, got it at once, said she couldn’t leave her house without a full face of makeup, said she just didn’t feel right and they smiled at each other, went back to towelling dry children as they erupted from the swimming pool.
But, religion wasn’t a burden in their lives, yes, something they believed in, even found comfort in, but it didn’t weigh them down, didn’t set them apart, not then anyway, from their neighbours, her husband’s colleagues.
And her son, her son just wasn’t that bothered by Islam, more worried by global warming, racism, unfairness at school, bullying of weaker kids, a good boy, a good son.
At 15, he stopped going to madrassa, wanted to concentrate on his studies, wanted to get good GCSEs. She understood and he still sent to mosque, although she knew, that really he went for his father and their good name in the Somalia community.
She doesn’t know, not exactly, not for sure, when he discovered his version of Islam, but she does know that it doesn’t make him happy, doesn’t give him the quiet joy that she experienced over the years in her careful reading of the Quran, her observation of fasts and feasts.
His Islam, his Allah – praised be his holy name – is the religion of anger, the vengeful god and it makes him, her good son, the good boy, angry and vengeful himself.
Salford, she thinks, that’s where it started, when after good GCSEs and good A levels, he went off to become an engineer.
She worried and she can almost laugh at those worries now, she worried about him becoming too westernised, perhaps even meeting the wrong sort of girl, pale skinned, properly English, uncomfortable around his family.
But, he became inward looking, angry, his texts became briefer and briefer, phone calls were one sided, terse and she felt him slipping away from her.
When he came home, he was changed, prayed 5 times a day but with an intensity that frightened her, began to wear traditional clothes, grew a beard that seemed too rough against his soft skin, she could believe that it chaffed him on the outside and the inside.
There were bitter family rows, he criticised his sisters, tried to force them to wear hijab and bourkas and when they laughed at him, he became incandescent with rage and refused to speak to them again.
Finally, he told his parents that he was leaving university, was going to Pakistan to study his religion and at that point she was grateful for the lie.
She hasn’t seen him since the day that she stood with her husband watching his plane become smaller and smaller and further away.
She hasn’t seen him in the flesh since them but, Her other sons comb through YouTube, she has watched one and refused to look at any others. Last year, her own sister in Washington swears that she saw him in the background on a story on CNN from some dusty town in Syria. she doesn’t want this to be true and so, has decided that it isn’t.
Men in suits and very short hair visit the house sometimes, they ask her if she has heard from him, if she will tell them if she does, they remind her of the law, of her moral duty and she offers them good Somalia coffee and home cooked biscuits.
She is waiting for him to die, waiting for this to be over, but she prays, actually prays for a non-heroic death. His life is already over, but she clings onto this one, wants to still be able to nod to her neighbours, stand in the queue at the bus stop, and shop in local shops without being spat at, her headscarf pulled from her head, terrible thing being pushed through her letter box.
She knows that these and other dreadful things have happened to other mothers, other families and she doesn’t know if she is strong enough to bear it.
So, she prays for a pointless, stupid death for her good son, her good boy.
A car crash on a rutted road on the way to Mogadishu.
Untreated malaria with complications in some backwater in Syria.
A falling out amongst men with too many automatic weapons in a town no-one has ever heard of on the Pakistani border.
Most of all, she prays that his death will cause no harm to anyone else.