Old Ibren


Bashir Adan

By Abdul Adan

Abdul Adan is a Somali writer based in the United States. His work has appeared in Kwani?, Storytime, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a collection of stories.




First published in African-writing online
Read Arabic translation



Ibren Issak, an elderly resident of El-Adawa, sat at a table at Hassanow’s - a cheap restaurant on the main road that relies on travellers for its business. Since the tribal war had broken out, there were very few travellers, and the management expected no customers for at least three hours. The sun was nearly sinking and sent its usual yellow rays across the whole town. A waiter sprinkled water outside by the door. The old man placed his walking stick across his lap and stared ahead in meditation. His lips were dry and tight against each other. He wore a white, short sleeved shirt and a stripped sarong.

“Yusuf!” he called the cashier, “come here with a pen and a paper.”

The cashier, a young man of about twenty was counting money at his desk. He pushed in the cash drawer, locked it and obeyed the old man’s request. He recognised Ibren as his grandfather’s second cousin.

“Of what use are you to your people? So foolish are those who took you to school, come, put your schooling to use and write a letter for me to my son, Rashid?” The old man laughed. Yusuf took his position opposite old Ibren and unfolded a white blank paper.

“Write what I say, the way I say it, you understand?”

“Okay,” said Yusuf.

The old man began:

“Assalam Aleikum. How are you my beloved? As for myself, I am doing well; I pray you are doing equally well. Your mother sends you her greetings; she says she has missed you a great deal. It has been four years my son. I don’t think you worry about us as we worry about you. Our people say ‘Someone you had begotten has not begotten you’. My beloved son, such is the case with you and us: we worry more.

"You have so many blessings. No father has ever had a better son. May Allah reward you for the money you sent us this last Eid. I used it to buy a goat and we had a great feast. Your brother, Samow, will be writing his final exams in a few weeks. He has been staying at home for five days since his teachers suspended him. His school uniform is too old, the shirt especially has lost its light blue colour, it is white now. The teachers will not allow him to return until he has the right colour of uniform. I don’t understand why it has to be so; as long as the child is learning, why do they have to make a case about the colour of his shirt? Your mother is hopeful that she will raise enough money for a new shirt by the examination day. In the meantime, he is staying home. We can’t allow him to return to school in that shirt. They whipped him so badly the last time, so much so that his buttocks were still bleeding when he came home.

“My dear one, be informed that we are doing alright but your mother went to the hospital yesterday and was told she does not have enough blood. It must be the mosquitoes. Besides that there are no complaints. We thank Allah.

“I don’t know if you have been told, but we lost seven of our twelve camels to the other clan; you know who they are, son, I don’t have to name them. I was alone with the camels that evening when three armed young men appeared in the distance. They shot in the air to check if the attendants of the camels were armed too. Outnumbered, I felt unable to defend myself against them, so I hid in a bush nearby. Their shot scared away some of the camels; that’s how five of them were spared.. Perhaps you also heard how the army came to confiscate my gun. I had buried it at first, but they beat me until I dug it up. It was so difficult giving up on that gun. I guess you still remember how much it cost me.

“I have used it only once, just days after they took the camels. I fired into a group of them. I told the chief they were gunmen son, but they were not. It was a family caravan. I don’t know how many of them I killed. I am certain I killed some though. They don’t spare our wealth and families son, how can we spare theirs? Don’t tell this to anyone.

“Things are still tough my son. I have just been informed that a bus coming from your direction was shot at last night. They said a young man from our clan was killed on it and two other people were injured. The relief car will be on its way from here in a short while, driven by the driver of the bus that was shot at yesterday. He is the one who brought the news to El-Adawa. I was told the wounded are getting treatment at your district’s hospital if you care to visit them. My feeling is that you will be alright. Two weeks ago I had a recurring dream on two consecutive nights; I saw you coming to visit us on a flying horse.

"Beloved son, please be careful. Don’t wander without purpose; the times are very dangerous.”

The old man paused. Deep in thought, he pictured Rashid clearly in his mind. Four years previously, his son, a skinny fellow at the time, had completed high school with a poor grade. He became quite hopeless at one time and was severely depressed. However, just when he was beginning to smoke, chew qat and use other drugs, luck smiled on him. An Aid organization opened a new base at Eldana. Rashid was the only person from his sub-clan who could even hope for that job as he had at least finished high school. There was quite a competition among other clans and sub-clans. Rashid, thank God, was the only representative of his clan and he was hired.

“The girl I suggested for you in my last letter has been married.” Ibren resumed, “She is such a nice girl; I was positive you would have enjoyed life with her. Anyway, it looks like she wasn’t meant for you. You said I should respect your freedom; I will do so but, please and please, do not marry a girl from another clan, you know how bad times are. Last year, our neighbour Ismail’s son married a girl from that clan; he had one child with her. A few months ago, around the beginning of the current conflict, she paid a visit to her people, taking her baby with her. That night, her brother sneaked away with the baby and killed it, all because the baby was one of us. So my beloved son, it is wise that you stick to your own people.

“I almost forgot to mention to you that your mother doesn’t eat much. She vomits just about every night. She needs to eat liver, that’s what the doctor said, but we can’t afford liver. The last goat we owned was bought with the money you sent us several months ago. Please, my humble son, if you do have money to spare, send it this way. Don’t leave your mother to die on me. I am sorry son but I have to tell you this truth, at least this one. This morning I left her sleeping on the mat, pale, withered and....” The old man broke off. He choked back a sob, shook his head and continued, “Son, she wants milk, but we don’t have milk. What am I to do? This reminds me of the last time death paid us a visit. I remember when your grandmother died, she asked for milk every day. We could not find any and she died on us. I am afraid now. Please do something and I will pray for you. You’ve always had my blessings. You are naturally blessed.

“I have stopped digging latrines; I am now a broker at the animal market. There aren’t many healthy goats to trade. As you have probably heard, it hasn’t rained for more than a year. If you don’t have much to send, do not strain yourself. Allah is with us, he is always here. He never left us.” He paused again and looked outside through the restaurant door where a cat was struggling to free its head from a water can. He thought about Rashid.

When Rashid was a teenager, he had been afflicted with cerebral malaria - the type that drove people insane. Thanks to the rains that year, milk was cheap. Rashid got just about everything he asked for and recovered in just months. During the year that followed Rashid became an active participant in the local politics, rallying young men around certain causes that he argued would be beneficial in a few decades. Many of the youth were opposed to his plans. Undaunted, Rashid broadened his ambitions and grew more active. And then one day, without explanation, he mentioned nothing of his plans and grew quiet and withdrawn.

“Go on writing my dear one,” Ibren said to Yusuf.

“There’s something I have concealed from you. I have thought about it and now I must tell you. Bear the news with strength and do not fall down to its effect. An ugly thing befell us. On the day that I lost my firearm under the army’s torture, your step-mother suffered badly too. I did not want to tell you this because you were not aware that I had married a second wife. The wedding was only possible because of the money you sent last year. The goat I thanked you for was slaughtered for the wedding. My second wife is a young woman; I married her because I needed someone to take care of me when I can no longer walk. I hope you will understand this beloved one.

“Anyway, your stepmother was badly hurt by the savages, the military. I had produced the gun; I don’t know why she had to go through that. Four of them ravaged her,” The old man hastily drew off his head turban and covered his face in it. “Allah! Allah!” He wept.

“She was carried on a camel to the local hospital here in El-Adawa where they treated her wounds. She cannot sleep and has had nightmares since. It kept us all awake. She is pregnant now; I don’t even know whose child it is. I have no way of knowing until maybe we see the child. If it’s theirs, we would certainly know. Besides all that, how can I make her forget what she had experienced? I had to send her to her parents where she has been staying for some time now. There was nothing I could do to heal her; what could I do? Allah will help for sure. May he help all of us. May the winged horse I saw in the dream turn out to be an aeroplane of your own.

“Lastly, you mentioned that you were coming this week; that was what you said in your last message. What happened? We thought you would be here already. So much love to you my son. Please do come and see us as soon as possible.

Your father,

Ibren Issak.”

The old man produced a small, creased envelope from his pocket. Yusuf handed him the letter. Ibren folded it, put it in the envelope, sealed it and gave it back to Yusuf.

“Address it to Rashid Ibren Issak,” he said. Yusuf did as he was told.

“Be blessed,” said the old man and walked away holding the envelope.

He crossed the road to where the relief car was loading up medicine for the injured people. He went to the driver’s window.

“Eldana?” He asked. The driver nodded and Ibren handed over the letter and a twenty shillings coin.

"Please give it to my son. He works for the relief agency too."

The driver looked at the envelope and squinted, then he looked back at the old man with enquiry.

“What’s the matter?” The old man said.

“This name looks too familiar,” said the driver. “You see, as you know I was driving the bus that was fired at yesterday. Nobody in Eldana knew the young man who was killed, but his identification document says he is from here. I brought it with me and gave it to the local police. I am not sure if his last name was Issak but I am pretty sure about the Rashid Ibren part.”

“If it’s my Rashid,” thought Ibren as he walked home that night, “I should have known it from the dream I dreamt.”