Rachel Pieh Jones | Longreads | December 2017 | 15 minutes (3,733 words)
“And sometimes it’s the very otherness of a stranger, someone who doesn’t belong to our ethnic or ideological or religious group, an otherness that can repel us initially, but which can jerk us out of our habitual selfishness, and give us intonations of that sacred otherness, which is God.” — Karen Armstrong, author of several books on comparative religion.
When God and his mother were released from the maternity ward they came directly to my house to use the air conditioner. It was early May and the summer heat that melted lollipops and caused car tires to burst enveloped Djibouti like a wet blanket. Power outages could exceed ten hours a day. Temperatures hadn’t peaked yet, 120 degrees would come in August, but the spring humidity without functioning fans during power outages turned everyone into hapless puddles. I prepared a mattress for Amaal* and her newborn and prayed the electricity would stay on so she could use the air conditioner and rest, recover.
In 2004 when my family arrived in Djibouti, I needed help minimizing the constant layer of dust; Amaal needed a job. I needed a friend and Amaal, with her quick laugh and cultural insights became my lifeline. My husband worked at the University of Djibouti and was gone most mornings and afternoons, plus some evenings. We had 4-year-old twins and without Amaal I might have packed our bags and returned to Minnesota out of loneliness and culture shock.
I hired Amaal before she had any children. She wasn’t married yet and her phone often rang while she worked, boys calling to see what she was doing on Thursday evening. To see if she wanted to go for a walk down the streets without street lights where young people could clandestinely hold hands or drink beer from glass Coca-Cola bottles. She rarely said yes until Abdi Fatah* started calling. He didn’t drink alcohol and didn’t pressure her into more physical contact than she was comfortable with in this Muslim country. She felt respected. She said yes.
Djibouti is one of the hottest countries in the world, best known to Americans, if at all, as the host of the only US military base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier. Djibouti is also a former French colony, a bastion of peace in a tumultuous region with Yemen across the narrow strait, Eritrea to the west, and Somalia to the east. Djibouti is the main conduit for landlocked Ethiopia’s goods, which are hauled by hundreds of trucks snaking every day from the port in Djibouti to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. And, Djibouti is a Muslim country with a Catholic cathedral, a French Protestant church, and an Ethiopian Orthodox church. From one vantage point near the port, between two dukaans selling fresh-squeezed orange juice and rapidly melting ice cream, you can see the white minaret and green-tinted windows of a mosque, the cross on top of the cathedral, and the golden dome of the Orthodox church.
The Quran says, “There is no compulsion in religion,” and in Djibouti, this appears to be true. In Djibouti there is also little crossover or intermingling in religion. Djiboutians are Muslims, Ethiopian Orthodox are their specific brand of Orthodox. Other Ethiopians and European, American, and other African expatriates are Catholic or Protestant, or whatever they were when they arrived. And for the most part, they tend to remain in the religious traditions and communities of their forefathers. Each maintains their orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and each calls God by a different name.
This raises questions about the nature of God and the practice of our worship. Is God’s name God? Dieu? Allah? Ebbe? Waq? How do we approach this entity? On our knees with our foreheads pressed to the ground, years of praying the Islamic salat branding us with bruises? Through making the sign of the cross with our right hand, crossing over heart and chest? Through singing songs and raising our hands toward the heavens? Through ritual incense and the mediation of an Orthodox priest? Does our practice make us perfect in the pursuit of knowing and honoring God? Or can God be found outside of ritual and structure and tradition? Can God be found outside the walls of our separate buildings?
I knew Muslims before moving to Djibouti but Amaal became my first close Muslim friend. We laughed at each other’s strange habits, like how she slathered her face in green paste made from crushed leaves to dye it whiter and how I brushed my teeth with a green minty paste that frothed and then spit it out. We examined each other’s faith, she a Muslim and me a Christian, and how we incorporated it into our daily lives. Amaal told me I had the patience of Job while we waited for our shipped container of supplies to arrive from Dubai and spent months eating from paper plates while sitting on the floor. She told me the Islamic story of this prophet. Job, plagued by the loss of his children and livelihood and suffering from boils. He would pick the maggots that fell out of his boils to the ground and gently replace them on his skin so they wouldn’t die, praising Allah for giving him life, even this life of suffering. Amaal had a conflict with a friend and I told her the story of the prophet Joseph from the Bible, how he forgave his eleven brothers who, overcome by jealousy, sold him into slavery.
In 2004 when my family arrived in Djibouti, I needed help minimizing the constant layer of dust; Amaal needed a job. I needed a friend and Amaal, with her quick laugh and cultural insights became my lifeline.
Amaal taught me how to fold and fry samboosas — dough stuffed with ground beef and onions, folded into a triangle, and fried — and that it was okay to dress like a slob inside the house, but that I needed to put on perfume, makeup, and jewelry to go out in Djibouti, in what Somalis liked to call “the Paris of Somali fashion.” No matter that the perfume would soon be overpowered by the sickly sweet stench of constant sweat. No matter that the makeup would melt and clump or that the jewelry would stick to my skin, cheap necklaces leaving green streaks around my neck. Amaal was patient with my languishing language skills and understood me when no one else could. She sometimes translated between me and her elderly relatives, all of us speaking Somali. Amaal had kept me in Djibouti and her friendship helped me stay sane while in Djibouti, so when she asked if she and her newborn could stay with us after the birth, I didn’t hesitate.
Water was scarcer than electricity and after giving birth, Amaal wouldn’t be able to push a wheelbarrow loaded with 20-liter yellow water jugs from the neighborhood water hose to her house. She could pay a neighbor to do it, she could wait for her husband to come home from work. But she didn’t have cash to spare and Abdi Fatah might arrive from work at a time when the water was off, and they would miss their turn at the communal faucet. My house, with a generator and water tank, seemed like a refuge.
Her house was the second-to-last at the bottom of a steep and rocky slope. Some expatriates referred to her neighborhood of Balbala as a slum but Amaal would take offense at this term. According to UN-Habitat, a slum is a run-down part of a city with substandard housing, squalor, and lacking in tenure security — inhabitants are transient, rarely staying in one location for long.
Amaal’s husband had a good, secure job in the military. She refused to acquiesce to squalor and painted swooping vines and flowers and red curtains on the cement walls of her home. Amaal and her neighbors worked tirelessly against the desert dust to maintain cleanliness. She and Abdi Fatah had their own toilet, though not yet running water. They had electricity, when the electricity was on. They had two rooms and a kitchen. This was not a slum dwelling, it was Djiboutian lower-middle class. It just didn’t look like what foreigners expected.
Beyond the front door that Amaal would later paint a bright blue was the cemetery. The unevenly spaced body-sized mounds with no headstones divided her quarter from Cité Barwaaqo, another section of Balbala. She only crossed the cemetery to get to her best friend’s house, past goats and kids playing with cars made from milk carton boxes and tin can covers, in the middle of the day, after praying and while whispering “bismillah al-rahman al-rahiim,” (In the name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful.) If she returned alive and if no jinn had possessed her, then Allah had answered the prayers made in his name, yet again proving to be gracious and merciful.
Beyond the cemetery, the lights visible on clear days, Djibouti’s port towered over the Gulf of Tadjoura. Container ships to be unloaded and refueled waited further out at sea, their hulking mass a constant reminder of the world beyond Djibouti. I told Amaal the view from her house was beautiful. She said it was horrifying. I saw water and ships, commerce and travel and development. She saw the cemetery and the aluminum-sided houses, perhaps what UN-Habitat looked at when they labeled her neighborhood a slum.
The Quran says, ‘There is no compulsion in religion,’ and in Djibouti, this appears to be true. In Djibouti there is also little crossover or intermingling in religion.
Amaal’s friend in Cité Barwaaqo, Waris, had given birth to a baby girl a few months earlier. Amaal and I paced the hallway of the Dar -Al Hanan maternity hospital while Waris’ mother stayed by her laboring daughter. Waris asked for Amaal to come hold her hand but Amaal started to cry from the intensity and terror of labor and retreated to the hallway. She took Waris’ phone when it rang and wiped away tears while she answered Waris’ husband’s inquiries.
Yes, Waris was fine. Yes, it hurt like hell. No, there was no baby yet. No, she didn’t want to talk to him.
Later Waris described the pain in vivid detail. Nurses attempting to help laboring mothers pinched their inner thighs, slapped, insulted, and sometimes sat on their bellies while they pushed and women were discouraged from crying out in pain, from revealing weakness. Amaal’s takeaway was to stop taking prenatal vitamins.
“They will make the baby too big.” She didn’t want to push out a big baby and she didn’t want to cause a C-section.
“They won’t make the baby big,” I said. “They will make it healthy.”
“My mother-in-law won’t allow it.”
I convinced Amaal to take the vitamins but she kept them in the refrigerator at my house so her mother-in-law wouldn’t discover them and toss the contraband down their hole-in-the-ground toilet. Amaal came to work every day with fresh questions. One day she called me into the bedroom and lifted her dress to show me a rash spreading over her breasts. Another day she asked which sexual positions were least cumbersome during the third trimester. She asked how to help a baby sleep through the night, how to change a diaper, whether or not to give water alongside breast milk. Her mother had died years ago and Amaal started to call me hooyo even though I was less than ten years older. Mother.
Three times Amaal called me after midnight and said, breathless, that labor had begun. I drove her and her husband to the French hospital, Bouffard. Because Abdi Fatah was in the military, they were allowed to use this facility. Three times the Djiboutian midwife looked at us with an unspoken question in her eyes. The nervous husband, the concerned foreign friend, and the maybe-laboring mother. Three times she sent us home and told us to come back when Amaal was unable to speak.
When Amaal’s labor began in earnest, I was on an airplane returning from a conference in Kenya. My husband picked me up at the airport and drove me directly to the hospital. Soccer games raged in the parking lot over the giant white X of the helicopter landing pad. Security guards checked my passport and recognized me from my previous visits with Amaal. I knew my way to the maternity ward; I had paced outside it for hours trying to encourage my own labor a few years earlier.
There was one delivery room and if needed, the cramped exam room could be commandeered, or the floor in the hallway outside the labor room. Amaal shared the room with several other women and they all hoped they would deliver at alternating times so no one would end up on the floor. Despite the frigid air conditioning, Amaal was sweating and instead of breathing through contractions, she cried in a low voice the Djiboutian mourning cry, the sound of both grief and physical pain, “Waaaaywaaaywaaay,” and clenched her teeth. Abdi Fatah looked scared and uncomfortable, the only man in the room. His eyes darted from Amaal’s face to her stomach and he steadfastly refused to glance at the other women. He asked if he could wait in the hall while I stayed. We prayed for mercy, for miracles, and I wiped Amaal’s forehead, whispered that she was beautiful.
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Midwives said things like, If you can’t handle the pain then why did you get pregnant in the first place? They said things like, This is what you get for messing around. They said things like, If you don’t hurry up you will have a C-section and then what husband will want you? I wanted to counter these words, to speak a different reality over Amaal the same way I had needed my husband to tell me I was strong during labor. We could grasp that word, strong, and squeeze it dry while our babies turned us inside out.
Abdi Fatah returned with a damp towel to cool Amaal’s face and kissed her. Her labor progressed slowly and I had to go home to my three children, the youngest, 3-years old, the one born in Djibouti, recovering from chicken pox.
And so I missed the birth of God, hours later and by Cesarean section. In the morning I returned to the hospital to hold the baby and to assuage Amaal’s guilt and anger about the vitamins, nervous that she would blame them, or me, for the C-section. Abdi Fatah met me at the gate and took me to her room. He said he didn’t care about scars and surgery. He had wanted a girl but now he said he didn’t care about girls either. I gave Amaal sliced watermelon and a bag of Coca-Colas and chocolate crème cookies and scooped God into my arms.
Amaal had kept me in Djibouti and kept me sane while in Djibouti, so when she asked if she and her newborn could stay with us after the birth, I didn’t hesitate.
“Tell me about his name,” I said. Even after five years in Somalia and Djibouti I had never heard this name before.
“God,” Amaal said. She pronounced it almost like ‘goad’ with a long o sound and a brisk d, half-way between a t and a d. “It means poisonous snake.”
“Do you really spell it G-o-d?”
“Do you know what that sounds like in English?”
She nodded. “The French doctor checked on us and read his name off the chart and started laughing. He explained.” She said every nurse who came to check on her and saw the chart, laughed. Some bent to kiss God.
Two-and-a-half years earlier I had given birth to the one with chicken pox, at this same hospital. She was born on 9/11 but in 2005, a baby born to a Christian family in a Muslim country with a Somali midwife on an infamous day. I named her Lucy Deeqsan. Deeqsan is a Somali name that means “gift from Allah.” In its full meaning, a gift from Allah that is so sufficient I could never ask for anything else.
A few American Christians told me their opinions about this name, which boiled down into, Anyone who would name their daughter in reference to a pagan god is a heretic. But Arab Christians used the word Allah for God even before the prophet Mohamed was born. Arab Bibles are filled with the word Allah. If “Dios” can be translated to mean God, if “Dieu” can be translated to mean God, if “Ebbe” can be translated to mean God, these words are simply different jumbles of letters and sounds forced together in an attempt to explain the unexplainable. If “God” is who many people believe God is, neither the concept nor the word, can be owned. No religious system, no language can lay claim.
Names can have multiple meanings, multiple narratives. The middle name we chose for our youngest, Deeqsan, could also euphemistically mean “that’s enough.” And after twins, after giving birth in Djibouti, this baby was our last. Way noo deeqday, she was enough for us. So sufficient I could never ask for anything else.
Amaal asked if she and God could stay at my house for the first week or two. Abdi Fatah had to work, he might even be called to Forêt du Day on the other side of Djibouti, in the mountainous Afar region. I had a generator that sometimes functioned, when my husband was home to pull the cord like a lawn mower, and though it never summoned enough power for an air conditioner, in theory it could motivate a ceiling fan. I also had running water.
“Of course.” I promised to visit the hospital every day and on the fourth day, bundled God in a pink baby blanket my mother had shipped from Minnesota as a gift and drove them home.
Amaal and God slept on a thin foam mattress in Lucy Deeqsan’s bedroom and Lucy slept with her older sister. The power cut out the first night and the generator didn’t work. We lay awake in pools of sweat. In the morning I ate cereal for breakfast and Amaal sent the neighbor boy out for a baguette she could dip in her tea. Amaal invited friends and relatives and in a Djiboutian home after a baby is born, guests flood the rooms. They bring gifts and food and clean the floors and hold the baby. Her friends were shy about coming to an American’s house and only Waris visited. I had to teach English at a local women’s organization and no one was home to massage Amaal’s shoulders or help change God’s diapers.
At night, so Amaal could sleep, I rocked God in the wooden Iranian rocking chair I bought at a bazaar while pregnant with Deeqsan. I thought about God and poisonous snakes and the words that divided worlds. Strings of phonetics, scratchings of script, the human desperation to communicate, to name. Words shape the way we see the world. Or does the way we see our world shape the words we use to describe it? Somali has more words related to camels than I will ever be able to learn. English has more nuanced color vocabulary than Somalis deem reasonable. I see the world in rainbows, my Somali friends see the world in relation to camels.
When a Djiboutian asks me whether or not I worship Allah, I don’t think about the spelling or the sounds or the centuries-ago and still-to-this-day conflicts and crusades. I fill that word up with what I know of our common understanding. We don’t agree on all the characteristics of God but we do agree on many. Allah the creator, the ultimate, the most gracious, the giver and taker of life. Yes, when I speak Somali and answer the question, yes, Allah baan cabuudaa. When I speak English and the answer the question, yes, I worship God.
When people press and want to know if I am a Muslim or if I have prayed the salat, the five-times daily Islamic prayer, I say no. When they press deeper and ask if I would like to become a Muslim, I say no, I love Jesus. We are not the same, this isn’t universalism and I’m not afraid or ashamed of my beliefs that run counter to many of the people I live around. This is acknowledging that while we disagree on concepts of God and in our convictions about things like sin, forgiveness, and the process of redemption, we are people of faith. We can still communicate.
Names tell stories, they hold histories, they convey character and belief and can be unpacked. In the unpacking of Allah or of God, different stories emerge and those stories differ depending upon who is doing the unpacking. As I rock baby God, I think of the stories of the names of my children. One named after her great-grandmother. One named, loosely, after Indiana Jones — or a long-dead Christian preacher, depending on who tells the story of that naming. One named for the country in which she was born. The baby in my arms, named for a snake. Yet none of these names conveys the fullness of that person. Each of these named children must be encountered on their own terms, in relationship, over time.
We are not the same but that doesn’t mean that we should join either the jihad or the drones. The differences should not be obstacles but opportunities to engage and discuss and to enter a reconciliation that doesn’t insist on uniformity.
While living in a Muslim country, I have not changed in my deep convictions about God and about faith but I have witnessed the deep convictions of others about God and faith. We are not the same but that doesn’t mean, in an increasingly violent and divided world, that we should join either the jihad or the drones. The differences should not be obstacles but opportunities to engage and discuss and to enter a reconciliation that doesn’t insist on uniformity. When a baby is born and his name is God, I fill that word up with the shape of his eyes and the gentle curve of his cheek.
In The Case for God, theologian Karen Armstrong writes that God is not the exclusive property of any one tradition. Hard as I tried to make them comfortable, I could not even keep baby God exclusively in my house. I gave Amaal my battery-operated fan. After English class I made sugo, a greasy spaghetti sauce, and filled bowls with apple slices and chunks of banana and carried them to her room so she wouldn’t have to get up. I held God and washed his white onesie with pink and blue butterflies and bounced him and sang songs.
But eventually Amaal announced that she and God could not recuperate at my home. My isolated, American-culture house was too quiet, too lonely, not any cooler than her own since our generator stubbornly refused to work, and she was taking the baby. If I wanted to hold God, I could find him in Balbala. And so, unable to rest, on the seventh day Amaal and God moved out.
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Rachel Jones‘s work has been published in the Modern Love column of The New York Times (recently her essay was reproduced on their podcast), Runner’s World, The Big Round Table, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Huffington Post, among others.
Editor: Sari Botton