Silence is My Mother Tongue (Review) – Abubakar Adam Ibrahim

For a country perched on the horn of a continent, it is easy for Eritrea to slip into the ocean of forgetting. But through the sheer force of prose, Sulaiman Addonia’s sophomore novel, Silence is My Mother Tongue (Indigo Press, London), drags Eritrea from the literary precipice into the spotlight. Even if the Eritrea he writes about is not the geographical expression on the map but the Eritrea of the hearts of its people forced to settle in a Sudanese refugee camp where the story unfolds.

In breaking out of these boundaries from the very beginning, Addonia sets the tone for the novel, as one that will not be limited by lines on a map, as a fluid novel—fluidity of language, characters and gender roles—and interestingly, fluidity in the sexuality of his characters.

The novel centres around Saba, a young Eritrean woman navigating life in the camp, where she, alongside her deaf and mute brother, Hagos, her mother and hundreds of others flee to following the outbreak of the Eritrean War of Independence. When we first meet her, in a cloud of mystery, she is standing trial for allegedly committing incest with her mute brother.

At this trial, we learn a lot about how little of Saba her accusers know. Her prosecutors, despite having lived with her for a while, could not establish her age, if she is Eritrean or Ethiopian, or if she is Muslim or Christian. This cleverly sets the tone for the randomness of life in refugee camps, where people are reduced to a mass of indiscernible faces living in nondescript shelter.

What Addonia tries to do with this, I suspect, is to convey the drudgery of life in a refugee camp. Because after the initial excitement of Saba’s trial, there is a lull, an extensive period of detailed observations of life in the camp—something Addonia is quite familiar with having lived as a refugee in Sudan, just like Saba—mirroring the lives of his characters. There is a beauty to Addonia’s prose, a luxuriant, sometimes indulgent, quality, detailed and with a poise reminiscent of the famous Edgar Degas Ballerinas or maybe even his paintings, (apparently, Addonia is a huge fan of the French artist).

Things kick off in the camp and in the novel with the coming of the “businessman,” who brings a whole new dynamism to the camp and the plot and with him, through him, Addonia allows himself and his characters to explore new relationships that bring much needed urgency to the story.

Through adorable little portraits of people and incidents, often seen through Saba’s keen eyes, Addonia skillfully leads us through life in this camp, until we come to know how fiercely Saba loves her brother and the sacrifices she is willing to make for him, and how this love, and everything else for that matter, is curtailed by the bounds of tradition.

Tradition is a strong antagonist in this story, a massive unseen force, sometimes manifesting through some of the characters, casting shadows over everything and everyone. Something Saba herself acknowledges when she tells one of the witnesses testifying against her that, “Traditions go with us where we go.”

It is also conveniently dispensed with by the fluidity Addonia gifts his characters, the power he has given them to push the boundaries of what is acceptable or not. Hence, Saba’s sexuality is fluid, as are gender roles, where the beautiful Hagos, Saba’s brother, is scorned for performing traditional female roles, which he enjoys doing. He cooks, cleans and devotes time to looking in the mirror. The female characters are not pliant, bending under the firm hands of patriarchy, like Zarah’s mother, who had gone off to fight in the war, or even Zarah’s grandmother, who though a peripheral character, delivers some of the most empowering lines in the novel.

For instance, she recounts to some young women how one of her lovers had once proposed to make love to her and she had countered by saying, “You do not fuck me, we fuck each other.”

It is her role in the background, as that of an idea whisperer, which one finds most interesting.

Through her, most especially, Addonia makes it clear that this is a feminist novel. When a man says to her, “In our time, we treated women like goddesses,” her witty response is, “Just treat us like human beings…that will solve the world’s problems.”

What the novel concerns itself with, right from its opening where Saba’s sexual life is subjected, quite literally, to a trial, is the attempt, in the virgin territory of the camp, to impose the old laws that have stifled women and the pushback by the women against this imposition.

One of the enforcers of this law is the old midwife, who birthed Saba and preoccupies herself with ascertaining Saba’s virginity—subjecting the young woman to intrusive physical tests, once at the behest of the camp’s court, to establish the state of Saba’s sexual ‘purity.’

But in Tedros, also obsessed with Saba’s virginity, or lack thereof, the interrogation of Saba’s sexuality takes a disturbing dimension. In his going about with a white handkerchief, determined to establish with it Saba’s “impurity”, we encounter the extremism of the patriarchy Addonia confronts in his novel.

Addonia also tries to contextualize this fixation when he has the character of Azyeb, in response to the question of men’s obsession with a woman’s blood, saying, “It shows how much violence there is against women, if even love has to be equated with drawing blood from a woman.”

Addonia did not stop at giving context to these issues, or attempting to, he empowers the women to resist, to dream and to have the courage to attempt flight.

There are parallels to be drawn with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies where characters are put in a previously uninhabited space, where the chance exists to create something new. Instead, both groups seek to re-establish the old order—in Golding’s classic, the stranded children resort to the most primitive expression of human dominance— violence, while in Addonia’s novel, it is the attempt to impose cultural shackles, through which one group enforces dominance over the other.

The context of these similarities exist in how Golding’s little heroes find themselves on an island where they eventually give expression to their inner demons and Addonia’s refugees find themselves in a camp so far removed from anywhere else and from anything they’ve known that it might as well have been an uninhabited island. In both cases, these inherent yearnings to, somehow impose dominance, through violence or restrictive ideas, are met with the quiet desire to rebel.

Yet both novels are very distinct from each other. Addonia’s prose is lush, the imageries are something only someone with the mind of an artist would conjure.

Walking through the gem-field of delectable expressions Addonia scatters like blooms in a garden, one finds broken characters trying to pick up fragments of their dreams and hopes shattered by the war in their country. It is through these characters that we find reflections of ourselves and our desires to hold on to things that have always defined us, the same things that sometimes hold us back. Dangerous notions such as those of the dark-skinned parents of the midwife celebrating the birth of a fair-skinned daughter as a sign of God forgiving them for whatever sin they believed had made them dark skinned.

There is no doubt Addonia, as a writer, is an artist and by casting his bedraggled refugees in the light and colour of the Renaissance masters, complete with grand poses and whatnot, all swaddled in luxuriant prose, he has managed to give them the dignity and courage they have mostly lacked in contemporary literature. He also gave them a grand aspiration—to take back their lives and their country in whatever small ways they can.

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim is the author of the novel,  Season of Crimson Blossoms. 

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