DECEMBER 27, 2019
IT’S LATE ON the first night of a literary festival in Kampala, Uganda, and I use my phone to order an Uber. Pickup location: Kampala National Theatre. I drop the pin on the street entrance nearest my location’s the pulsing blue dot: Siad Barre Avenue.
I’d glimpsed the street name when I arrived, but on the simple black-and-white street map, it registers a second time, deeper. As a literary scholar, I associate Siad Barre with his 1969–1991 tenure as president of Somalia and the persecution and exile of his critics, including writers like Nuruddin Farah. In Igiaba Scego’s novel Beyond Babylon, which I was reading in Kampala, a character articulates the feeling of many diasporic Somalis who fled Barre’s regime: “What a horrible man, that Siyad Barre! He killed, molested, tortured! He gathered the fruit of other people’s labors […] he appropriated other people’s things.”
Among Ugandans, Barre’s memory is complicated, even fond. In September 1972, when Milton Obote and Yoweri Museveni’s 72-hour assault on Idi Amin’s government from Tanzania was pushed back, Barre sent a peacekeeping force from Somalia (Muammar Gaddafi, for his part, sent Libyan fighters). A month later, Barre negotiated the Mogadishu Accord between Uganda and Tanzania, earning him the honor of the Kampala street name. Eventually, both Obote and Museveni returned: Obote, to overthrow Amin and serve a second term as Uganda’s president, Museveni to succeed him and rule into the present day.
Siad Barre Avenue is a short strip of pavement connecting Nile Road to Kampala Avenue, but its physical location represents a constellation of political and personal relationships that haunt a 33-year status quo. So too with the places in Scego’s Beyond Babylon, where cemeteries, train stations, schools, and the ocean are knots in the thread of five individual journeys. The novel is a family epic told through itineraries across three continents: half-sisters Mar and Zuhra travel from Italy to Tunisia. Their mothers, Miranda and Maryam, recollect their respective flights from authoritarian regimes of the past — Argentina and Somalia. And there’s Elias, the elusive father figure around whom the novel circles, whose departure from Somalia for “the real Africa” maps the Pan-African solidarity politics of the 1960s.
Scego was born in Rome, where her Somali parents fled after her father, a prominent politician, was exiled in the 1969 coup d’état. In Italy, she’s developed a body of work across academic, literary, performance, and journalistic mediums exploring the afterlives of Italian colonialism and the tensions of Somali-Italian identity. Her writing is often tinged with autobiographical references, as in her short story “Salsiccia,” which won the 2003 Eks & Tra prize. The protagonist, a black Muslim woman in Italy who buys sausages on a whim, exclaims: “I am not 100% anything. I never have been, and I don’t think I can be now. I think I am a woman with no identity. Better yet, a woman with several identities.”
Scego is part of a cohort of female authors writing from the intersection of Italian and African identities, including Erminia Dell’Oro (Eritrea), Cristina Ali Farah (Somalia), and Gabriella Ghermandi (Ethiopia), whose work she studied for her doctoral dissertation. According to Simone Brioni, these writers insist that hyphenated identities like Somali-Italian do not link two comparable entities but rather define a specific cultural encounter shaped by uneven power relations brought about colonialism. They center the condition of those typically resigned to the margins —in terms of race, class, religion, gender — and insert words from Somali, Arabic, and Amharic into their Italian texts, troubling the relationship of power between languages and the fiction of borders between nations and their literatures.
In Beyond Babylon, Mar and Zuhra’s grandparents’ generation fought on the Italian side of World War II and married Italian colonial officers and soldiers. Italian presence in the Horn of Africa began in the 1880s, when Italy, reimagining itself as the modern-day successor to the Roman Empire, revived the notion of the Mediterranean Sea as mare nostrum and sent explorers scouting for imperial expansion. In Mar and Zuhra’s time, mare nostrum was revived, albeit momentarily, as the name of Italy’s maritime rescue operation. Since the program’s suspension in 2014, over 19,000 deaths have been recorded in the Mediterranean according to the Missing Migrants Project. The phrase was also activated as an aggressive call for territorial expansion and reclamation of former lands under Mussolini. Following the war, fascist officials were resettled in Somalia for the United Nations–sponsored transition to democracy. (Historians have also noted the similar ideological motivations of 20th-century Argentinian military regimes and the Italian fascists who imported them there.)
The Somali-Italian relationship, then, has always been uneven and always mediated by the sea. Describing arrival in Italy, Cristina Ali Farah writes, “When you’ve crossed the sea, all you will find / is biscuits & fruit […] a scar, gashed open in the concrete.” Sitting in a cemetery on the southern shore of Borj Erras strait in Tunisia where it juts like a finger into the sea, Zuhra recalls the funeral of Somali teenagers:
Rome wanted to salute the bodies that didn’t make it over to walk its ancient streets. Thirteen coffins in the middle of the piazza. Thirteen anonymous Somali corpses shut inside. All of them adventurous boys who had tried reaching the dream of a better life in a shabby dinghy. All of them dead without seeing that much yearned-for Lampedusa up close.
In contrast, the cemetery at Madhia Marin is a material marker of absence. Chalky headstones look toward a red-topped lighthouse, and beyond it, Mecca and the sea. At their feet, long shallow troughs are lined with white pebbles. Zuhra senses the pebbles are left by people who loved the departed, that the tomb “belonged to someone who left a mark.”
Traveling to Tunisia to attend Arabic language school, Mar’s, Zuhra’s, and Miranda’s journeys from Italy trace the path of migrants in reverse. They learn that there are one hundred ways to express love in Arabic: wasab, passionate love; hiam, limitless love; and lahf, painful love. The grave is a different kind of lesson — that love can be communicated without language, that it leaves material traces.
Because the novel is steeped in the sea, and because it is voiced by wandering characters who seem to float like flotsam within global forces, it’s tempting to regard Beyond Babylon as a narrative of fractured and fluid identity. And while it’s true that characters float transoceanic and transnational flows, often appearing unmoored from the ways genealogy has structured mobility in the Somali diaspora, Scego is also interested in material histories, in the ways transit is impeded, slowed, redirected, or accompanied by objects. These objects are encoded with memories, and often those memories tie people to places.
“Fragments frame memory,” Veruska Cantelli writes in her commentary on Mario Badagliacca’s Frammenti, a series of photos of the objects left behind by migrants and refugees, in Warscapes’s Mediterranean: Migrant Crossings. The objects include mismatched shoes, a compass, the removable keyboards of mobile phones, and plastic packets of pasta. Maryam, Zuhra’s mother, begins her narration with a catalog of luggage, including a small bag of sand collected from the beach at dawn. “I don’t know why I’m starting from the middle,” she says. But “from the middle, everything seems permissible,” even, it seems, trading the blood-and-bones origin story that so often defines Somali conceptions of home and diaspora — a collection of objects, portable memories of place. Objects carrying a sense of place with them may be uprooted and replanted elsewhere to create a new, different, and contingent sense of emplacement that is never quite home, but something like it.
Of course, this contingent practice of emplacement is not without pain. For the characters in Beyond Babylon, the circumstances that necessitate movement and emplacement are always those of violence and loss. Zuhra’s sexual assault as a child at the hands of a white school employee causes her to lose her sense of color. When the novel opens she’s recollected all but red, storing them as objects in a sack. As Jhumpa Lahiri notes in the introduction, sensual and bloody hues run like thread through Beyond Babylon as Zuhra searches for the right shade — in auburn facial and pubic hair, menstrual blood, notebooks, even Mogadiscio, the “red city.” Scego is unflinching in her portrayal of these raw moments as the afterlives of Italian imperialism. Years earlier, Elias’s parents witness each other’s humiliating rape at the hands of colonial officers. His father’s sexuality becomes a wayward ghost finally coming home to itself through an object, a gold batik dress.
In many ways, Beyond Babylon is a ghost story, a story of loss and lost connections, of the marks left by those who are no longer present. Aaron Robertson, who won a 2018 PEN/Heim award for his translation into English, says that reading Oltre Babilonia reminded him of Toni Morrison: Scego’s scope is similarly ambitious, international yet intimate, a delicate interweaving of individual and collective traumas. Both understand water to be bound up with narratives of the arrival of black people and the experiences of abduction, enslavement, and genocide that brought them there. While Morrison, Dionne Brand, Edwidge Danticat, Derek Walcott, and other writers of the Americas have developed the literary Black Atlantic, Scego’s project is specific to the Mediterranean, and particularly, the ways the legacy of Italian colonialism inflects contemporary processes of racialization.
In the 1930s in Somalia, Italy experimented with apartheid-like prohibitions, denying Italian citizenship, education, and cultural formation to persons of mixed race (“meticci”). While Morrison’s Beloved is haunted by the ghost of a slave child, Beyond Babylon is haunted by the specter of whiteness that constructs the ideal of Italian citizenship. An Italian boy tells school-age Mar:
“If I was your mom I would put you in the washing machine. I’d use the bleach from that old lady in the commercials who’s always saying ‘Without Straappp.’ That way even your irises would be white.”
“But white eyes aren’t pretty. I don’t want white eyes. I’d scare people.”
“You still scare people. I know you’re a girl, but everyone else doesn’t. When people see you they’ll scream. No one likes black. It’s like the dark. I’m afraid of the dark.”
“I like it.”
“I know, you’re like the dark. Isn’t your mom upset you came out black? Didn’t she ask the stork to take you back? Or at least to bleach you?”
Later, after Mar has gotten pregnant and aborted a baby for her white girlfriend, then mourned her suicide, the girlfriend appears like a ghostly apparition: “Pati’s whiteness blinded me,” Mar admits. “I’m rediscovering colors now.”
Part of this discovery is her own blackness, or how that blackness is coded differently in Italy and on the continent of her father’s birth. Scego complicates the ways racialization is mapped onto geography: the sisters are hyper-aware of their positionality as black Italians who have voluntarily left a country many aspire to enter. They are anxious over having the correct documentation to return (“Will the passport be enough to prove it? Should I bring my license, too?”). But they also feel out of place on the continent: “I’m not familiar with Africa,” Zuhra says. “And to think that black blood courses through my veins, that I was born there. It’s not like knowing it, fundamentally. It really isn’t the same thing.”
On one level, what Zuhra vocalizes is a ubiquitous feeling among diaspora communities, that one’s relation to place is different if one was born there or has only heard its stories. On another, Scego is probing the complex perception of Somalis, on the continent and among themselves. Elias leaves Mogadiscio for the “real Africa” as a young man, only to have friends from Mali to Guinea to Liberia tell him, “You’re not African … you have a white person’s nose.” “I never agreed,” he says. “I said that we were the Horn and that Africa was plural, that there was diversity in everything, but also convergence.”
Elias symbolizes this diversity and convergence, and becomes reconciled to his place in it through the creation of fabric, textiles, clothes, material objects. Miranda, because she loves him, teaches herself about the continent through music and traveling radio programs:
From Oran and its nightclubs to the dusty streets of Cairo […] Mombasa, Nairobi, and down to Johannesburg, which was still divided between white and black neighborhoods[.] […] We came up the coast to glimpse new ways of living on the continent. […] We filled our arms with Melian wax paintings and sauntered between Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and the hectic rhythms of Congolese rumba. We sat down, drank spiced tea, and waited for the griot to tell us of our deaths. Finally, we slept in Cape Verde.
In the conclusion, Zuhra dreams of pregnancy in technicolor: “I didn’t give birth. I expelled […] I felt so light! I went beyond Babylon, do you understand? Beyond everything.” In 1978, Bob Marley and the Wailers released the live album Babylon by Bus. There, Babylon signifies the forced exile and enslavement of the Middle Passage, as well as the systems it used and strengthened: racial capitalism and the global market. Zuhra says similarly that Babylon signals “everything bad that could exist in the world.” Rather than suggesting that “beyond Babylon” is a destination, the novel expresses the material and relational afterlives of resilience, anti-colonization, and collective racial solidarity in the present. Scego’s genius is to scale from the international to the intimate, from memory and materiality to music, mothers, and menstruation, the “rhythm that transports me into a cosmic chaos that appears to be my own.”