I wanted to buy a bilaawe, a traditional Somali knife. The shopkeeper wanted me to buy a bowl with two figures carved into ebony. The woman leaned over the edge of the bowl, her back arched, her breasts high and pointed and firm. The man also leaned back and his penis arced up and over, into the woman.
“Buy this, my sister,” the vendor insisted. He cupped the bowl in his hands and shoved it into my face so I could no longer see the man with whom I’d been bargaining for the bilaawe. I blinked, uncertain at first of what was in front of me. Slowly it came into focus. The breasts, the penis, the Djiboutian man holding it. His cheek bulged with khat, green leaves lodged between his teeth.
My long, loose, modest black dress was sweat-plastered to my stomach and back and I puffed at a bead of sweat gathering on the tip of my nose. Stalls of Qurans and tusbahs (Islamic prayer beads) and stiff-topped prayer caps bumped up to this tourist section of the market. Across the road and at the edge of the Hamoudi Mosque, people crowded around a bright red store. Over the roar of buses and the rattle of donkey carts I heard coins ping onto the metal countertop. Men shouted for water and passed a plastic, one-handled cup around the group, each gulping their share. When the cup emptied, more coins hit the counter and the shopkeeper refilled the cup, passed it around again.
The heat, the noise, the shared water cup and the proximity of the vendor’s face, the artistic and out-of-place-in-a-conservative-Muslim-country nude sculpture cocooned me and I felt dizzy.
“Ceeb!” I said and pointed at the naked couple. Shame. I knew that between the Islamic bookstalls, the water store, and the jewelry shops further down I would stumble upon this type of souvenir. I also knew the men would show them to me, offer astronomical prices, pretend to be surprised when I spoke Somali. We had been through this for more than ten years, every time a guest visited me in Djibouti. This time, my guest wanted to purchase a knife.
The bowl was actually an ashtray. I didn’t smoke and didn’t decorate my home with copulating figures. In an effort to be respectful of Islam, I didn’t even decorate with photos of people I loved and instead hung handcrafted, colorful, and sequined Arab tapestries.
I pushed the souvenir away. The man held the ashtray close to his eyes and squinted. He touched the body parts and his expression slowly changed. He waved the bowl over his head. “Ceeb! The foreign lady shamed me for selling naked people.” He spit green khat juice and clapped, cheerful, all the way back to his booth a few doors down.
“How much for the knife?” I asked the knife-seller. I knew the price of a bilaawe but also knew that you always ask, always work the relationship, always try to out-clever the other. This is for laughs, to give a good show to a passersby, and to make the shopping experience interesting and unpredictable. If I was bold enough, I could rub his chin between my right-hand fingers, tweak his nose, or pull his beard. But these were typically gestures used by single women with attractive shopkeepers. I was timid and married. He was unattractive.
The knife vendor slid the blade from the leather pouch. Blue and green beads wrapped around the handle of the rustic knife. He ran a finger along the sharp, curved edge.
“Eight thousand Djibouti francs,” he said.
I laughed, loud to be heard over the steady market rumble, and walked away.
The man followed me down the street, in and out of rickety wooden shops and I continued to laugh at him. Each vendor flashed knives and ashtrays and shouted prices. News of my Somali language ability spread faster than I could walk and small crowds of shoppers, university students, teashop owners, and goat herders met me at each stall to listen. The original vendor shadowed me, so close we kept bumping shoulders.
I didn’t look at the other knives or ashtrays, I simply roamed at a slow pace and feigned interest in chessboards, nomadic wooden headrests, Kenyan masks, amber beads. I was waiting for him to drop his price and as we walked I told him about the last bilaawe I purchased.
I had given it to my daughter for Christmas. Every Thursday was “Bring a Big Knife to School” day. She said she wouldn’t have a chance bring a big knife to school if, or when, we moved back to Minnesota. She said she wanted her knife to be a Somali knife, since she used to live in Somalia. She said only boys brought knives on Thursdays.
No one was certain when the tradition started but her twin brother had a theory. He said everyday, boys brought Leatherman knives and Swiss Army Knives and small blades to class. He speculated that the boys wanted a chance to bring out their larger weapons — maybe to share some of their unique history, like my daughter wanted to do, maybe just to show off. Teachers didn’t want the distraction of big knives on a daily basis and somehow Thursday became the designated day. But still, only boys participated.
“I want to be the first girl to bring a big knife to school,” she said.
On Christmas she unwrapped the knife. She checked the handle, the sheath, the blade, and smiled. The first Thursday back at school, this would be in her backpack. At the end of the story to the shopkeeper, I slipped in a sentence about how much I had paid.
The vendor laughed at the story, harder than I had laughed at him. Not only had I proven I knew the price of a bilaawe but I had done it in front of a crowd, at the end of a long bargaining period, and with a story.
I walked away from the market that day with the bilaawe in a pink plastic bag and without the ashtray. I had paid a fair price, far less than half the original asking price. I walked away with my own, personal, bottle of water from the corner store, not quite ready to share the pass-around-cup.
Some days in Djibouti, I feel clueless and confused, like I will never figure out how to live here. My foreignness seems to glow and be the most fundamental aspect of my identity. But that day I walked away with a fresh realization of how 11 years in the Horn of Africa: Somalia and Kenya and Djibouti, has changed me, and I felt decidedly un-foreign.
I could laugh at a scam attempt and refuse to pay tourist prices. I could shove orgasmic ashtrays and shout teasing shame on the vendor. I could give my daughter a big knife for Christmas and be proud of her for bringing it to school on Thursdays. That day in the market I sensed the slow march of progress toward cultural integration. • 31 July 2013