And another season goes by. Friends come and friends go, and that’s the way it is in our line of work. People come for a short mission of a couple of months, or three or six, and others stay. Some come for a visit, and some who have been here for years, pack up and get ready to move on while you still remain. That’s how it is, in the humanitarian world, in the military world, and in the expat world. It’s good, it’s rich, you meet people from countries you’ve ever only heard of when they announce them in the Parade of Nations at the Olympics, or at world beauty pageants we used to watch when we were growing up. You meet people from various organisations and agencies you used to read about, thinking, dreaming, hoping, aspiring to work with them at some point. But you also go through endless farewell dinners and parties and speeches and get-togethers for one last time. December is an especially difficult farewell time. So is June/July. In September we always welcome new people, in August the country is a ghost town, each season has its peculiarities, its significance.
Gibran talks of time in The Prophet. He says: But if in your thought you must measure time into seasons, let each season encircle all the other seasons, And let today embrace the past with remembrance and the future with longing.
Indeed this is what one must do. You hear of friends who are about to leave and you prepare for that, though one never really prepares for it. But when you have a moment to yourself amidst the demands of work and the busy farewells and coffees and colleagues from the field who come and go, you sit quietly and reflect on the times you spent together.. you remember an exceptional day at the pool, or a dinner that was out of the ordinary. You remember the day you stole out for lunch on a weekday and observed the birds along a narrow strip of sand in the middle of the sea when the tide was low. You remember the sky full of twinkling stars, an exquisite sunset, the moon’s reflection on the sea. You look back upon an afternoon of playing tennis, secretly promising yourself to take up tennis, knowing deep inside that you never would. You remember an evening at the Sky Bar thinking this is the dodgiest place in town, or a dinner at the refugee fish restaurant in the field. Parties, receptions, formal, informal, film festivals and walks down town. And then little things.. always the little things. Small gestures like, I’ll pass by to pick you up, I made a cake for your birthday, a phone-call to check how you are because you may need some tender-loving-care at that moment, a ride to the airport and a text once you return from a trip abroad, a sweetly wrapped packet of chocolate carefully placed on your desk, a friend offering to cook for you, texts and inquiries and the “family” you have, your ‘ozwa, the need to look out for each other, and random gestures of kindness when you would least expect them. You remember little things, a sentence from a movie, a joke that was said, a song that describes a feeling you’re going through at a particular moment, a word or two. And you remember the warmth of a new experience that transforms you.
The comings and goings, the time, the seasons, looking this life in the face and knowing it for what it is. As ‘Virginia Woolf’ says in the film The Hours, “To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face and to know it for what it is. At last to know it, to love it for what it is, and then, to put it away. .. Always the years between us, always the years. Always the love, Always the hours”. Things are not that dramatic, but sometimes it hits you that there are so many welcomes and farewells, so much travelling, so many beginnings and a few endings. And sometimes it doesn’t really hit you, because you know that the beginning was the beginning of a time together that will not end with a flight back home. There are memories that have developed. There are smiles and gestures and hugs and jokes and words exchanged. My recent trip to India and reuniting with friends I hadn’t seen in 17 years and picking up from there, as naturally as if we had been together a few months ago, is in itself worthy of wonder.
My friend Anna Rohleder says she travels to get lost. I do too, and in India, I felt I was losing myself in the continent. I didn’t travel too long nor too far, but between the different groups, I tried to lose myself in the vastness of the country, and in the crowds of participants of the reunion. On the last days especially, I lost myself because it was exhausting to be surrounded by friends and exploring a country of wonders without having the time to reflect and to observe. I usually get lost when it is my birthday because I don’t want too much fuss, because then too I want to reflect and see where I stand and where I will soon stand. I get lost at times here.. the Kempinski pool and gym are expensive. Everyone says so. For me it is where I can get lost for a few moments, where I can walk aimlessly on a treadmill while listening to music without interruptions and where I can swim monotonously for some time, without having to engage in conversations or eat or be constantly on the move. I need the time to get lost. Last year I did a lot of travelling, I did a lot of working too and both the travelling and the working were good for me. Now I am here and it is my friends who seem to be travelling, one after the other. I always said it was harder for those who stay, and I’ve always been happy that I’m the one who picks my suitcases up and leaves.. most of the time. I’m the one to explore the new territory, or return temporarily before coming back again. Now it is different. As I stay longer in Djibouti, I see more and more people leaving. And I feel more and more the need to “get lost” to process this leaving.
There will have to be another account of India, with photos even. All this time, I have not been able to sit and write about it. I think the nature of the experience required some reflection, and though the details risk being forgotten, the time it takes to process a reunion of friends I hadn’t seen in 17 years, and the magnificence of the country I was visiting with all its temples, and palaces and adventures and road trips, requires a little more than an immediate write-up and a display of pictures.
Apart from that, Djibouti goes through waves of emergencies and crises unique to its location. It played a central role because of its proximity to Yemen during its crisis. It’s been on standby since Kenya announced the closure of Dadaab refugee camp. And yet again because of what is going on in neighbouring Ethiopia, it has begun to receive hundreds, even thousands of asylum seekers of the Oromo ethnic group choosing to leave Ethiopia to find refuge in Djibouti, where even this small number may cause strain on a country where scarce resources are available to the host community. Scarce to the people, but not scarce to a small minority where, some sources assume that if money coming into the country was equally divided among the population for just a few years, this country – which is witnessing one of the highest development growths in the world, at an annual rate of 6%, would actually boom and provide equity to all its population in 5-10 years. But what do you say to the tiny minority that enjoys the privileges it receives. And what do you say to a population that values khaat more than it values producing food for its family. It is said that the government once prohibited khaat for a few years and the crime rate grew so significantly in the country, that they had to permit it again. It is also said that agricultural development projects allocated plots of land to some farmers and taught them how to cultivate certain crops which could grow in this harsh climate. The farmers only used part of the land which was enough to grow their daily intake of khaat and left the rest to deteriorate. Likewise, fishermen only fish what is necessary for their daily intake with a little extra to sell, but not much more. No entrepreneurial skills or ideas. Education is one of the lowest rates of the world, and the businesses are all monopolized by the powerful few who reap all the benefits available in the country and make things really expensive for those living in it. It is a sad state.
And yet the country itself has its advantages to those who can afford them. It has lovely beaches, a world of wonder underwater, a rare season of whale sharks, mangroves, and a salty lake second to the Dead Sea in Jordan, and magnificent volcanic hot springs. You have breathtaking sunrises and sunsets. It has a variety of restaurants serving international cuisine, and you have supermarkets that import French products and you occasionally even have Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream! It has stability and security. You have a small expat community where you can form bonds and friendships, and you have the opportunity to excel at work if you really want to. There are sacrifices involved, but it is possible. You also have minimal traffic and the opportunity to exercise and to read and to unwind if you want to.
I’ve been reading Pamuk lately. His latest book, A Strangeness in my Mind. Yet another 700 page novel about Istanbul and the life of the people of Istanbul. And yet again, I never tire from his style and his descriptions of a city I would dream to live in and be a part of. This novel is about a boza/yoghurt seller and his extended family. Each member of his family has a story, a history, and a struggle. I am also re-reading The God of Small Things. Once again as I read it, I realise and appreciate the beauty of the language that Arundhati Roy uses as she writes. Almost magical. Expressions flowing like a stream. Now she is about to publish another novel, and you read that piece of news and you wonder how someone with such a style could have gotten away with writing just one novel in 20 years.
I listen to music too. I’ve been listening to more music lately and re-listening to old music, and once again I wonder why one tends to disregard something that lifts one’s spirit up so much. Why do we forget to listen to music? For the past few days I have been listening to music in my room in the morning as I get ready to go to work. And since then I have had a little bird come and visit me, coming in between the shutter laps of my window. It’s the most beautiful thing. On Friday, the day we learnt of Leonard Cohen’s passing, I had two little birds come and visit me.
I have been listening to a lot of Cohen lately, even before he left us. His voice and his latest album have touched something in me and I listen to him, as I do Joan Baez and Joni Mitchel and a few others of their generations. Today I learnt that he joined the folk scene a little later than the others and he was and felt at least 10 years older than them, so thought he never really fit in. Today I had some time in the morning, and I listened to song after song after song.. the more spiritual ones. The less known ones. There is much to discover in this singer/songwriter/poet/mystic if you will, and there is more music to be heard.
It is Saturday and tomorrow we start a new week, a new emergency and a new season of hard work. Tomorrow, a series of Japanese films will be shown at the Institute Francais and starting next week on Mondays, a series of films of Catherine Deneuve. So there are little perks about Djibouti that we come to enjoy because they make a big difference in the routine of our life. It is Saturday and life will go back to normal. No more farewell dinners for now. For now, just a focus on the present, a need to embrace the past with remembrance and the future with longing.