They say that your first memory is usually not with your mother and that childhood amnesia makes it hard for most adults to recollect even the happiest moments under the age of 4. The few lucky ones that can actually remember a real event will usually recall one that does not include their mother. My first memory is of being around 2, maybe 2 and a-half years old outdoors in Mogadishu (or as we call it, Xamar) with my two aunts. I’m sucking on a round sweet, almost the size of a lollipop, it may be much smaller but I remember how it feels large in my mouth. I’m wearing a yellow dress. It’s hot outside. I’m happy. All of a sudden I swallow the sweet by accident (maybe I meant to do it) and begin to choke. My aunts are frantic, running towards me, voices are raised, people talking simultaneously and then it goes black. I remember the panic of choking and the realisation that I had done something bad. The first time I told this to one of my aunts (the older one), we were sitting in her apartment in Cairo in 2005. We were finally reunited since the war and she was showing me things that she had managed to take from our house in Xamar. My grandfather's gold clock, pictures and my tiny jeans skirt from when I was just a baby. At first she went quiet as if she felt guilty that she wasn’t able to immediately validate my memory. Then her eyes widen and she laughs that wild laughter, the one that always feels like it resonates from the pit of her belly: “how could I forget! We had just taken you for a ride in your uncle’s new Jeep and you were crying but sweets always made you happy...” and then I get that familiar look again, the one where she tilts her head to the side in disbelief and says “how could you have remembered that?”
Until that moment, I was convinced that it wasn’t a real memory; perhaps something I had conjured up in a dream or willed myself to believe had happened because it felt so real. After that day, I felt as though a door had been opened, someone who raised me had validated a memory and I was now free to explore the vivid scenarios in my mind with people who were there and whose own memory was far more developed and intact. Our brain is such a magnificent and complex entity that protects us when we need it (without knowing that we need it) and helps us shine brightly when we try so it’s not a surprise to me that I can remember events, places and people, scents and sounds from the age of 2 onwards more than I can remember details from when I was 8 or 9. It’s as though the process of growing up and old is a contious filing and organising of memories; pushing irrelevant ones deeper in cabinets and polishing the best ones for retrieval at any given time. In a way, we are all storytellers.
Stepping off that plane in Somalia with my uncomfortable abaya and converse shoes was a stark contrast from walking across to the Kenyan border with a broken sandal 20 years earlier. In front of the sun and sky, in the middle of the day, I was now calmly entering a land that I was rushed out of at night. I’m not sure what I was expecting - the sky to open up and great me with a thousand sunrays or to step back in time, find myself in my four year old body and realise that everything else had just been a dream; a twenty year long nap that now was awakened. My mother, who sees me standing frozen at the bottom of the plane’s steps, drags me inside to the airport as we wait for our bags. It’s business as usual for her (who came once before me a few months earlier) and the others rushing around, shuffling to grab their belongings. I suppose I thought we would all fall to our knees, kneeling at the same time and grabbing the earth until our fingernails are full of familiar dirt.
I wish that I could have shared that feeling with every restless refugee in the world - the soothing breeze that flows through even the toughest of hearts when you reach the place where understanding and being understood meet. Home. Home like faces decorated to look just like yours. Home like canjeero flavoured kisses, hugs of goat milk and fresh fish. Home like the air thick with oud and myrrh, clouding tales of near-deaths and broken hearts. Someone is finally coming back after years of exile; someone else is meeting their grandparent for the first time. I, with my new shoes and choked tears, am creating room to house new memories.more photos by Hanna Ali (opens in a new window)