A Dhow Crosses the Sea

Ubah Cristina Ali Farah

Illustration by Naï Zakharia

When my grandma died it'd been many years since I'd seen her, so I didn't cry when she died in Eyl, where she'd always lived. Rather, I was surprised, because the same night, that of her death, I'd dreamed of her. It was the first time since I moved to Europe that my grandma had appeared in my dreams. Actually you could say that she hadn't appeared to me at all; I had conjured her up the very night of her death.

In my dream my grandma was washing pieces of fabric in the sea and she was serious, as she'd been all her life. When I woke up, I'd remembered her upright and tough as a tree trunk, her guntiino tight around her waist, a red handkerchief at the nape of her neck. The memory was similar to a posed photograph, my grandma perched on a post, completely still; the sea swirled around her even though she hated the sea.

I had a friend at the time and I told her about the dream and about my grandma, I didn't say it in a way that was special, or ceremonious, or dramatic, I only told her what had happened. My friend was silent for a bit and then said, in a special and ceremonious and dramatic way, that a strong bond must have existed between us for me to have had that dream.

I thought about our bond and thought that maybe it was unfortunate to not have a bond, just as it was unfortunate that my grandma had only appeared in my dreams after such a long time.

So I called to her and saw the ocean I'd seen as a child and heard again the demons hidden among the rocks hissing my name. I ran far away without turning back, with my name in my mouth, to where the incense was lit and the jinni couldn't grab me.


I'd called to her, my grandma who had distanced herself from the sea because she didn't love it. She showed me the road to climb to Eyl Dawaad, hidden in the valleys, a short distance from the Eyl Badey coast from which pirates sail nowadays. She pointed out the village where my father had been born, the one where he'd always promised to bring me, she pointed out all of it, and a river crossed it, and there was an abundance of animals and milk.

Her village, upriver, had nothing to do with the sea.

My grandma distanced herself from the sea and appeared to still have her firstborn held tight to her chest, while she told me about her young husband and the shipwrecked dhow. She swung her arms and sang a song that everyone knows: doon bad mareysa, badda doon baa mareysa, mayddi bay sittaa, mayddi iyo malmal bay sittaa, a dhow crosses the sea, a dhow crosses the sea, carrying incense and myrrh, carrying incense and myrrh. Vessels loaded with skins and animals set off from Eyl Badey, only to return filled with dates and rice. Her husband was a young merchant who perished at sea when my grandma was expecting her firstborn daughter.

And in that same Eyl, hidden in the hills, my father had been born. His name is af dabeyl, mouth of wind, for his flowing voice and prodigious memory.

He hadn't been born in my Mogadishu of white houses, as white as bones picked clean, like wrecks on the coast. My grandma only went to Mogadishu to visit, because she would never leave Eyl, she would never leave her house, she would never leave the village of fresh air in the hills, rich with water and animals. I'd never been to that village, seen her house, or swum in the creek. I'd only cried one morning, for my father's broken promise—he'd left for the North when I wasn't looking.

In Eyl, which was just a village, they say that luxurious cars are driven around these days and that men show gold coins between their teeth. My father no longer dreams of old age in the hills, rich with dates and milk. His mother left an empty space in the valley. They also say the coastline is infected and that children are born without mouths.


The coast’s ecology had been distressed for some time. Its natural wealth destroyed, its equilibrium broken. You could get stained with tar walking across the sand, or get cut by an aluminum sheet.

They told us about kids who ran into the sea for a ball, and were absorbed into the waves in the blink of an eye. This time, those responsible weren't the jinni, nor the man-eating sirens among the rocks, but sharks, most terrible and voracious, sometimes captured, dragged onto the beach, and then crushed by the enraged crowd.

At the start of the eighties, the Mogadishu shoreline was hit by a two-fold tragedy. Aid money gave us a new port and a very modern automatic slaughterhouse, where beasts were decapitated and blood spilled in the direction of Mecca.

To make space for the bigger ships much of the barrier reef was destroyed, while poisons from the slaughterhouse leached into the sea.

From the broken barrier, attracted by the smell of blood, the sharks entered, crazed, and pressed towards shore. The ocean, once filled with sponges and shells from multicolored pools of butterflyfish, now only delivered amputated bodies and the smell of death. The country was dismembering itself.


The sound of the ocean, its roar, is the leitmotif of my childhood.

The ocean seethed like molten lead. It could disfigure your heart. In the sand, your feet became roots of water and of iodine, your bones accretions of silicon and salt.

My ocean was a pool of red shells and saturated sponges, a secret cavity of jellyfish and sand dollars.

Since the war and exile of 1991, Mogadishu, a city of dazzling lights and excavated walls, is a city whose streets I no longer remember. I didn't see the sea for many years. When I saw it again, it was in Sabaudia, south of Rome. Some laughed because I thought that the tide would swell within hours. Don't put your towel near the water—the sea will take it away. The waves in Italy, they told me, don't eat everything.

The sea in Italy, it doesn't even recede.

You have to cross it to get to the stronghold, you have to cross the sea in between, the Mediterranean Sea, the White Sea to the Arabs.

Many face the White Sea. But from my coasts, on the horn of Africa, before reaching the White Sea some brave the Ocean on a dhow. They want to know if it's really necessary to go so far.


If you go to the waterfront many women will want to tell you their story. Some entered the sea and arrived at the other side. Some want to enter it. Others wait for a son, who left a few days earlier, a brother, or even a beloved. They look at the horizon and point out the sails or the passing motorboats to the swimmers. They want to know how big it could be, how many the holds and decks will contain, of their children, their beloveds, their siblings.

One of them twirls her arms, she lifts them to the wind and laughs. Her name is Dahabo and she has a friend next to her, they say they're inseparable. They were shipwrecked together and they will never enter the sea again.

The dhow was so full and there were people, dressed up, carrying all their riches. Dahabo knew them all and had told them to dress lightly. The boat capsized very close to the coast, and everyone yelled everyone else's name, grabbing hold of anything they could find to stay afloat. She'd distanced herself in the dark, because she knew how to swim, she was born in Baidoa, and had learned to swim in the river. She'd distanced herself because when someone is drowning they drag everything they find down with them, anything for another breath. It was night and she heard voices calling her name. Then one of the others got closer, and it was the friend whom she wasn't very close to yet but she was calling out her name, help, don't let me die. Dahabo, who was holding on to a rock, had said, I'll help you, but promise you won't drag me down under, then she threw herself back into the sea to show the way. The friend swam after her and together they waited for the perfect wave to push them onto the rocks. After they'd been lying there for a while, stretched out and chilled, the ships arrived, shining their bright lights. Those on board, seeing the women wet and shivering, asked them to take off their clothes.

So, Dahabo says, cupping her hands over her chest, she was embarrassed because she'd forgotten to put on a bra before leaving. Her breasts are no longer those of a young woman and Dahabo found herself topless, without a bra, in front of the guard ships. So, she repeats, still holding her hands over her chest, she always tells all the women they must not forget to put on their bras before leaving.

translated from the Italian by Hope Campbell Gustafson